Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I Forgot How Good It Was

Recently something possessed me to pull out Tracy Chapman's eponymous 1988 debut album. I used to play some of those songs in one of my bands in college and I remembered liking the album throughout high school and college. I listened to it this week and it was absolutely amazing. Why?

-Unlike some 95 percent of albums recorded in the 1980s it hasn't aged a day. The instrumentation, the production, the lyrics, the style - all of it could have been done at any time in the last forty years. It sounds great.

-The words are clear and have not become trite or meaningless. If anything, the words are even more relevant and meaningful now than when they were written in Reagan's '80s. The very first time we listened to it the kids were asking questions about what the singer was saying and we had some good conversations about it. (Child: "Why did he say it would do no good to call the police?" Yes, I remember not being sure if the singer was a man or a woman the first time I heard Fast Car on the radio. So right there it's expanding their consciousness and possibilities by introducing a woman who doesn't look or sound like a Disney princess. And we learn that different people have different experiences with government services.)

-Like the other contemporary Elektra label albums by Billy Bragg (Worker's Playtime) and They Might Be Giants (Flood) I hear and notice new things revealed every time I listen to it. (Good gracious, was Elektra on a super hot streak from 1988-1990 or what?)

-It has never been remastered for modern radio so it is not horribly compressed. There are truly quiet and loud parts, but not to the extent that you have to keep turning it up and down.

-The songs are catchy and I literally dreamed about them last night. Chapman is a brilliant writer of words and music and the production focuses perfectly on the hooks and the meanings and the melodies. It's basically just one of those rare, perfect albums like Ziggy Stardust or Abbey Road where everyone involved got everything just right.

Seeing as how it sold six million in the US alone, several used copies of it are available at amazon for under a dollar. What's stopping you? Be inspired.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Great GUH Show

The first Great Uncle Helmer show of the 2010 Toys For Tots drive was a big success. Thanks to everyone who came out and enjoyed it. I certainly did. (Complete set list) Highlights?

Like most songwriters and musicians in general, I most love playing new stuff that I'm really excited about. Karl's new song "Great Big Decisions" is really terrific to the extent that I'm going to set up a whole new page of greatunclehlemer.com just to give you the demo he sent me here for free. It was a bit sloppy but it WAS the first time we'd tried it.

Pete and Carrie Rivard were there and played on opposite sides of the room toward the back, something I'd discussed with Pete on the phone. The small room made the surround sound a very appealing option, with instruments not really requiring amplification. It was a pretty cool effect, even from where I was standing. They played Kansas City, Nebraska, Katherine's Wasteland, and Total Peace with us.

We did the prequest Ron Cey, in which I succumbed to my traditional stumble over my favorite line, the most crucial of the entire song: "Took this long to learn it's okay that the seasons turn".

Another new song was "The Wicklund Rose", one of two songs I've written recently about stuff in my backyard. I really got into it and was glad the room became quiet and seemed to pay attention. (I say seemed only because I don't know for sure. I had my eyes shut.) Karl played a great harmonica solo and some nice answer phrases on the final verse.

The official, colon-heavy "Great Uncle Helmer: Toys For Tots 2010: New Song Showcase: Memphis: I Am The Devil" featuring the debut of that song felt really great to me. I just wrote that song this week about the lies the devil tells us and it still feels immensely powerful to me.

That was one of three fairly new Memphis songs (Wicklund Rose, I Am The Devil, and Hey, Where Mah Shed Done Gone) that were influenced heavily by the Sandy Denny album Where The Time Goes and its pure, beautiful, acoustic, English folk music. Man, that is a beautiful album. I think the last album that inspired me to write three whole songs so quickly and easily was way back in 1999 with Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. They just make it seem so easy and meaningful. (Those were One More Day, Swqeatshirt, and Please Applaud, incidentally.)

In addition to the new songs, we also resurrected The Road Goes Ever On and Palindromes. It was fun to reconnect with these songs we hadn't played in a while. Julio made its live debut as a two verse song. That was satisfying to me. And I loved having the room stomp and clap along on Car of Jonas (where the only instrument was Karl's ukelele) and Total Peace, with Bill there bootlegging it.

Was the haiku joke too subtle? We'll try it again Wednesday.

Karl pulled out his notebook and threw something out that might be called "They Were Talkin' Eva Braun" and I really enjoyed that. His official "Great Uncle Helmer: Toys For Tots 2010: New Song Showcase: Karl: I Ran My Car For President" had a lot of potential as well.

We closed with Powerful Statement, Behind the Curtain, and Illusions of Banjeur and headed out into the night. GUH enjoyed talking to $2 Bill in the freezing cold and I particularly loved the opportunity to tell the self-deprecating story of the time I called the police on a mysterious beeping. It was a great night. Thanks to everyone who came and to Fireroast Mountain Coffee. We hope to see you again Wednesday at the Grand Avenue Dunn Bros. Facebook event.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Parallel Lives

On August 4, 1982, Major League Baseball player Joel Youngblood became the only player in history to get hits for two different teams in two different cities on the same day. He got a single for the Mets at Shea Stadium then was taken out of the game and traded to the Cubs. The Cubs were playing the Phillies in Philadelphia and Youngblood raced to Philly and got a single there as well. (Thanks, vague childhood memory of a commemorative baseball card and modern day Wikipedia!)

On October 22, I made a similar kind of history. It had been a while since I had taken the clipper to my head and my hair was (for me) somewhat wild. In the morning when I went out in public I used the Totally Transparent Vain Hair Dodge For Men of wearing a baseball cap because I had not taken a shower.

Later that day, as I prepared for a show with Skittish, I got around to shaving my hair down to as close to nothing as I can get with an electric trimmer. (I've tried shaving my head once with a blade and it's...bad.) That night, when I again went out in public, I used the Totally Transparent Vain Hair Dodge For Men of going as bald as possible to disguise male pattern baldness and gray.

I'm just a busy guy trying to live his life with only the slightest nod in the direction of societal mores regarding hair care. I don't care to make time for it anymore like I used to when I had a long, luxurious ponytail. Does that make me a hero? I don't know. You decide.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Well Done, Library

When there is something I want to read, I look for it at the library because I am cheap and I don't want to fill my house up with books any more than it is already so. When a book is not at the library I get the necessary information from amazon and fill out the "suggest a title" form from hclib.org. Then, back on amazon, I add the book to my private "recommended to library" wish list.

Periodically, especially when I am between books with nothing in mind to read next, as I was recently, I check on whether any of my recommendations have been purchased. I'd say this whole system works less than 10% of the time.

However!

The library recently purchased no fewer than thirteen Star Wars novels from the '90s chronicling the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, etc. and their kids. Thirteen! Several of these were books in trilogies of which they had a maddening one or two. With a sense of a job well done, I moved them to my "purchased by library" list. Fellow nerds of Hennepin County, you're welcome. Enjoy. (Please note the "On Order" status of most of these books.)

Tales From The Mos Eisley Cantina


Tales from Jabba's Palace


Shadows of the Empire


Star Wars: The Hand of Thrawn: Specter of the Past (Book 1)


Star Wars: The Corellian Trilogy: Assault at Selonia (Book 2)


Star Wars: The Corellian Trilogy: Showdown at Centerpoint (Book 3)


Star Wars: The Han Solo Trilogy: The Paradise Snare (Book 1)


The New Rebellion


Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Before the Storm (Book 1)


Star Wars: The Black Fleet Crisis: Shield of Lies (Book 2)


The Crystal Star


Children of the Jedi


Star Wars: Republic Commando: True Colors (Book 3)


In the wake of this week's elections, this qualifies as activism. It's what I can do for our community.

Still waiting for them to get "The Lando Calrissian Adventures" Omnibus...

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Electorate With A Pearl Earring

My last detour into the political in this blog turned out well, with thoughtful, encouraging comments. Here is another.

A lot of Democrats or even just intelligent people are concerned about this upcoming election. Those of us with long enough memories might realize that 2010 is just 1994 all over again, only a touch crazier. Let's remember together. (Please wave your hands in front of your face Wayne's World style and say "doodle-oodle-oo, doodle-oodle-oo!")

A charismatic Democrat has taken over for an inarticulate guy named Bush who ruined the economy, tried unsuccessfully to make Iraq the 51st state, and made that middle ten percent of voters swing solidly Democrat. The Democrat won a decisive presidential election victory. Young people especially loved him.

In his first two years in office the Democrat has not completely fixed everything and voters are angry. The Democrat has even had to compromise on some of his campaign initiatives, for example those involving the health care system and allowing gay people to serve openly into the military. Republicans are capitalizing on this voter anger with their traditionally effective appeals to ignorance, fear, greed, racism, etc.

Newt Gingrich appears on the scene. The Democrats lose their majorities in Congress. Eventually the battles between the legislature and the executive become so pronounced that the government has to shut down for a few days. In the election two years later voters realize it wasn't all the Democratic president's fault. The Republican candidate implodes under pressure and the Democrat wins a second term in office. The Democrat basically does a good job, the economy recovers, and America doesn't start any protracted, misguided wars.

Now back to now. It's 2010 again (Why am I suddenly 20 pounds heavier? Dammit!) and we can all hope that 2010-2016 will go so well as 1994-2000, even if I do not run the Twin Cities Marathon again.

Which memory leads to two personal memories regarding that 1994 election:

I remember playing a Great Uncle Helmer show at the old location of Hogan Brothers in Northfield a day or two after the 1994 election and we played our original song "Richard Nixon" as a protest. Democrats, including both members of GUH, were disappointed and worried. Gingrich's Contract On America seemed to be a death knell for the beloved country we had known. But the system of checks and balances and the constant swaying back and forth of that fickle, easily angered, middle ten percent of voters with short memories did its magical work.

As I remember it, the biggest thing that happened as a result of the battles between the Republican legislature and the Democratic executive was that they had to shut down the government entirely for a few days because they couldn't agree on how to spend our money. I happened to be in D.C. at the time and the only thing that was open on The (rather glorious, highly recommended) Mall downtown was an exhibit by the artist Vermeer. A friend and I put on our thickest winter coats and waited in an incredibly long (outdoor) line of remarkably good spirited fellow Americans. We saw the legendary, beautiful "Girl With A Pearl Earring" and, I think, one where a woman is sitting looking out a bright window to the left of the viewer.

So if, in a year or so, the only thing of which the government is capable for a few days is putting on an exhibit of luminous, elevating paintings, so be it.

Finally, remember to go see the band for which I am playing bass tonight at Station Four in St. Paul. It's the Skittish CD release party! How does that tie in? Hmmm. I think most of my bandmates in Skittish were still young children in 1994. Does that work?

Monday, October 04, 2010

Helden

You could swim do gives can win are us you like dolphins dolphins it no one a chance yet we for always and
always and we then heros for a day

I I am unbeatably seem are then king and you you queen although it becoming we heros for a day we then we this
day

I I believe was tear kiss to dream that the wall in the back coldly the shots the air yet we as if does
nothing happen and that shamed fell on its side oh, we can it strike for all times then are we heros only this
day then are we heros then are we heros then are we heros only this day

Then we are heros

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Political Nonsense

Billy Bragg is a hero of mine and at least half his facebook posts are enlightening comments on issues of the day. I've enjoyed some spirited political conversations with people whose views are on either side of mine lately. So, you know, this occurred to me:

I am beginning to think that a person who has the following characteristics:

1. Doesn't spend more money than he has and has largely avoided credit card debt and overdraft fees
2. Has obtained health insurance and makes some effort to stay well
3. Cares for his children and likes to see them more in summer and take them on vacations
4. Believes gay marriage is a basic civil right
5. Is not a major corporation and/or bank that the free market has left an abject failure
6. Favors lower taxes, including property taxes and estate taxes
7. Is against more death in unwinnable wars

has no further reason to support Barack Obama. Longer school years? RUFing kidding me? More Afghanistan? Throw another bad idea out there. Forget it. I am unsubscribing from your twitter feed and facebook page. I am barfing up the kool-aid.

The longer school years was just the last straw:
"That (extra) month makes a difference," the president said. "It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It's especially severe for poorer kids who may not see as many books in the house during the summers, aren't getting as many educational opportunities." (full article)

Is there not already summer school for the kids to whom this applies? Schools and teachers are already under enough stress. I am young enough to remember school in June and how pointless and empty it seemed by then. I can't imagine what it would be like in July. What useless facts I lost over the summer I more than gained in relaxation, social interaction, and vacations. I can't believe I'm siding with Kansans:

"It's been tried," (Kansas state education commissioner Diane DeBacker) said, describing one instance of a Topeka-area elementary school that scrapped year-round schooling after just one year. "The community was just not ready for kids to be in school all summer long. Kids wanted to go swimming. Their families wanted to go on vacation." (ibid.)

Duh! I thought I was too cynical to be bitterly disappointed. Turns out I was wrong. FAIL! DISAPPROVE!

Still, I'll probably vote for Obama in 2012 just because the Republican option will be so incredibly much more totally repulsive. Palin? As if. Pawlenty? Ick. Minnesotans know firsthand the damage he would do to cops, schools, homeowners, cities, bridges, etc.

The sad thing is, I think Obama is trying and I share many of his goals. However, as with any ideologue, there are too many unintended consequences to everything he's trying to legislate.

If you limit the fees banks can charge to delinquent customers, banks do not just say, "Aw, shucks. I guess we'll make less money now." They start charging fees and higher interest rates to responsible customers. News flash: I worked at a bank. Banks are not your rich friend who loves you and wants to help you out. Banks are an entirely profit-driven business who encourage their employees to project the illusion of caring. Especially when it means getting more of your money. If this were a speech I would say, "Let me repeat that" and repeat the sentence before that last one, so read it again.

Like banks, health insurers will also not simply shrug their shoulders and accept their new, more charitable and less profitable role as envisioned by Obama. I have paid thousands for (mostly) private health insurance over the years and have barely broken even on the gamble and then only because my appendix burst. Correct me if I'm wrong, but when Obama's ideological health care bill kicks in I'm betting my premiums will eventually go up without any corresponding increase in coverage. I get the sense from reading the articles that I will be financing the care of those less fortunate and those who do not take particularly good care of themselves to an even larger degree than I already have been.

I hate the hundreds of trillions of dollars in bailouts for failing companies and their overpaid CEOs. Like the wars, they began with Bush and I had hoped Obama would end them. Fuck! How cynical do I have to become about government and politicians before I am never again disappointed? Answer: Extremely. No. Extremely was not enough. Answer: Completely. Tell me why I'm wrong. Please. Someone. Anyone.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Onion: News Before It Happens, part 2

About two years ago I spotlighted the ability of The Onion, America's Finest Source for being Number One in News, to publish stories that at the time seem fictional, but later come true. (Old post).

It has happened again. Here are the links:

August 18: The Onion

Almost two weeks later, August 31: Yahoo! News Story

Seriously, The Onion IS the best newspaper to read if you really want to understand what is happening in the world.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Reconstructing Country Proud

So there was this cassette we had when I was a kid. I didn't know there were thousands upon thousands of albums and artists and K-Tel made budget priced compilations and so on. I just knew there was the Beatles and Jesus Christ Superstar on records and there was this tape that we played incessantly in the car on family road trips and I liked it most of the time.

It is available at amazon in its original cassette form, but only used, and only from people who are interested in gouging you for your memories. Minimum price for a 26 year old cassette is currently $24.95. Yeah, ouch. Plus it only has 12 songs where ours had 16. Mysterious.

So anyway, I thought I would reconstruct it from iTunes. As you can see, this plan only really fell at the final hurdle.

Country Proud at the iTunes store:

Gary Morris: Wind Beneath My Wings (Rhino Hi-Five)
Crystal Gayle: The Sound of Goodbye (Crystal Gayle: The Hits)
Alabama: Lady Down On Love (several options)
John Conlee: Common Man (only a live version is available)
Deborah Allen: I've Been Wrong Before (several options)
Lee Greenwood: I.O.U. (several options)

Janie Fricke: It Ain't Easy Bein' Easy (several options)
Gary Morris & Lynn Anderson: You're Welcome To Tonight (Greatest Hits, Vol. 2)
Willie Nelson: Angel Flyin' Too Close To The Ground (live?) (several options)
Ricky Skaggs: Heartbroke (several options)

Sylvia: I Never Quite Got Back (From Loving You) (RCA Country Legends: Sylvia)
Ronnie Milsap: Show Her (The Essential...)
George Strait: You Look So Good In Love (several options)
Don Williams: Stay Young (several options)
Earl Thomas Conley: Don't Make It Easy For Me (several options)
Jim Glaser: If I Could Only Dance With You (not available. Rats!)

Good thing we still have the original tape plus a copy of the tape from when it stopped working quite right. I hope it works.

Oh, and by the way I don't recommend searching for the phrase Country Proud. The contrast between what that meant in 1983 and what it seems to mean in 2010 is disappointing. Naidr find: An album called God & Guns by a ripoff band that has appropriated the once proud name of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Nostradamic Twins Prediction

Relax, fellow Twins fans. The Twins will win the American League Central in 2010. The Tigers put on a run there, but they mainly did that because they had 6 consecutive home serieses against last place teams. That has to be some kind of a record for ease of schedule and yet all they could do was pull roughly even with the Twins. Now the Tigers have lost six straight (which the Twins will not do this year) and the Twins will play Detroit a bunch of times in the remainder of the season, winning the season series handily.

What of the White Sox? Well, they were 8 games back once. They have played their best baseball of the season and are only 2 and a half up, even though the Twins just suffered through the worst month they will have all year. Peavy is injured and the Sox will fall away. It might be close, but the Twins won't even need game 163. Also, Duensing, Roy Oswalt, or Dan Haren will be in the rotation by the end of the season.

Sadly, they will go to New York, sneak in a single win at Yankeeish Stadium behind a revitalized Kevin Slowey, then blow it at "home" at Target Field, losing the ALDS 3-1.

Incidentally, my baseball predictions are never wrong.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Long and Winding Road

Today, we answer the question "How many sites do you have songs posted at?"

Many years ago I put up some songs at mp3.com. That site was cool then, and at different times I had "hit" songs on their download chart. "New Christmas Song" was among the leaders in the admittedly small category "traditional holiday song" and "Wave 61" was the #1 "surf instrumental" for a while. Then that site started using a different business model and it was all Eminem and Pink. It doesn't look especially appealing to me now either.

One of the cooler things about mp3.com was hearing C2, a one-man band from Italy that I really like.

Scot was nice enough to put up some of the songs after mp3.com stopped being free and that page is still up, which I've always appreciated. Six Songs at Scot's.

I tried just putting them at my geocities (now Yahoo! Small Business) site, but then a person had to right-click and choose "download linked file" because I don't know how to program that to happen in html. Not a super option.

I used a site called band-mates.com for a while that did free hosting and tried to make money selling reviews. It was pretty cool but short-lived. That is totally gone.

garageband.com is really cool, but sadly it ends Thursday. I heard a lot of great music that way - stuff I still listen to a lot. I reviewed tons of songs by other people, many of which were very inspiring.

Something called iLike is apparently associated with garageband.com, and that has the most Memphis available for free at the moment. That's where Amanda Cey heard my song about her dad Ron, so that's cool. I'll leave it there, but I never really do anything with it.

If this reverbnation.com thing is as cool as two other guys say it is (Cody Weathers and Kevin Higdon, similarly independent guys to whom music is very important) I will put a lot of stuff there. I twittered William Shatner to tell him to record "The End of the Skies" on his new album he's making. Wouldn't he be the ultimate person to sing that? So the new, definitive, actively managed place to get my music online is reverbnation.com.

Someday I should just make a CD like other, more motivated bands do.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Congratulations Jim Thome!

Heartiest memphisevans.com congratulations to Jim Thome, who passed Harmon Killebrew on the all time home run list today, taking over sole posession of sixth place. Also to Harmon Killebrew, whose secondary message was perfectly clear when he spoke in his congratulatory video of Thome being a credit to major league baseball. For anyone paying attention, the list now looks like this:

1. Henry Aaron 755
2. Babe Ruth 714
3. Willie Mays 660
4. Ken Griffey, Jr. 630
5. Frank Robinson 586
6. Jim Thome 574
7. Harmon Killebrew 573
8. Reggie Jackson 563
9. Mike Schmidt 548
10. Mickey Mantle 536

Major league baseball, with its long and noble history of not paying attention, still includes the following notable cheaters: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodrguez, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez. memphisevans.com does not include these men's numbers, so I am now your superior source for actual major league baseball information. Also, I do not use flash and will not cause your web browser to "unexpectedly shut down".

Congratulations, Jim Thome!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

David Bowie Ruuuuuulez and Other Less Important Things

I know I've mentioned it before but I just must say again how very, very much I have been enjoying the work of David Bowie in the last year or so. With the purchase of this remarkably inexpensive (used) and fairly comprehensive box set of his five most recent studio albums I now have all of his currently available studio and live albums.

The cover is not immediately appealing and it's not the place to start if you've never really heard anything by him, but man it is just so good. Very inspiring. I don't know why I never got into him when I was a kid.

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Do you have World Cup Fever? No, neither do I. If America was going to enjoy soccer as a spectator sport it would have happened by now. Yahoo should give it up and its headlines should remind us exclusively that there has been an oil spill.

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So the oil spill was bad enough and everything no doubt, but another bad thing about it was it was the final nail in the coffin of any Americans giving a darn about Haiti. Remember when Haiti was all over the Super Bowl? Remember when Haiti got $10 just by having Americans text? It worked because we didn't even have to get up off our couches. Remember...wait, what was I talking about? Sorry. Nevermind. OIL SPIIIIILLLLLLL!

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Remember the '80s? We were all watching The A-Team and Karate Kid and the Celtics were playing the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Those sure were the good old...hey, wait a minute. Our mass culture is a vomiting dog. Nostalgia is the dog going back and eating it.

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David Bowie played Andy Warhol in the interesting movie Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat is listed as a Haitian artist on Haiti's wikipedia page. This is not just one of those totally random things. It all ties together. With soccer. 'Night.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Or Am I Just Too Old?

You know how sometimes you watch a movie or tv show you used to really love and you're just like, "Why did I like this? This is crap!" I recently invested four and a half hours of my time in watching Dances With Wolves. And guess what? That is still a great freaking movie. And it made me realize something I like about old movies.

In the past, if creators of films wanted something to be in a movie, they had to create that thing or a very near facsimile of that thing in real life, then point a camera at it. Movies that are made this way are fundamentally different than movies now. Even movies that could have been made this way in the past are given superfluous special effects, usually by Industrial Light & Magic and a staff of hundreds, all of whom get their names in the overlong credits.

I remember watching the otherwise excellent movie Primary Colors about the election of a pseudonymous Bill Clinton. There's one scene where a character is driving in a car. The reflections on the car window jumped off the screen, took me out of the story, and screamed, "Look! I'm a computer! We added scenery reflections after we shot this scene. We did it for the same reason dogs lick their butts - BECAUSE WE CAN! I'm a computer! This is a movie! These are actors! La la la la la!"

I'm so used to this happening now that I was dreading the moment in Dances With Wolves when I'd see the special effect and go, "Oh yeah, it's that part of the movie where something totally obviously fake intrudes." Never happened. I watched the making of feature (also old-school, btw) and when the script called for a buffalo hunt they actually got real-world buffalo sculptures, covered them in real-looking fur, smashed them into the ground using various ramps and ropes, and pointed cameras at them while they were smashing into the ground. They got real Native Americans who rode horses in a herd of stampeding buffalo and pointed cameras at them while they did that. They trained a real wolf and pointed a camera at it. Sure it was hard. But it's so very much more effective at drawing me into the world of the movie and making it feel real.

It seems like no one will ever make a movie like this again. I liked Up, which was fully a cartoon, and I liked Moon, which was modern sci-fi with seriously batty, mind-blowing special effects. But I would love to see a new movie that creates its reality by making things in the real world and pointing cameras at them as they do their thing. What is the most recent great movie that has no intrusive special effects? It can't possibly be Dances With Wolves, can it?

There's this whole era of late 1990s/early 2000s movies where they used computer effects when they wouldn't have had to. And the effects weren't that good yet and so the worlds of the movies are kind of emotionally uninhabitable. Unfortunately the Star Wars prequels fall right in the middle and serve as cautionary tales of this era.

There's an interesting, contemporaneous parallel in the world of baseball, with a whole era of superstars who will never be taken seriously as Hall of Fame candidates. Would Rafael Palmero have hit 500 homers without the drugs? We'll never know and he'll always live under a cloud of shame and he'll never be in the Hall.

So please, someone make a movie by creating real things and pointing cameras at them. And if you're going to play baseball, stay off the drugs and high on life.

Oh, and don't even talk to me about the 1980 Yoda puppet or 1983 Jabba puppet versus their fake incarnations in the prequels. Blech.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Internet Flotsam

This is what happens when I pay attention to the news...

Gordon Brown. A politician in trouble for speaking his mind and probably being right. Everyone knows someone who parrots bigoted garbage about immigrants. Sounds like that's what GB had just been forced to endure with a straight face. Nothing makes people angry like being told the truth, so this actually costs him votes in England's PM race. The story.

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If, like me, you love to observe the contrast between a person with a truly unique talent for communicating through the arts and a run-of-the-mill technician, you simply must watch this. Shatner!.

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While you're there you should watch this unreal, terrifying mascot dunk. Where are Bango's parents? Where is OHSA?

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As one of the billions of victims of the 2000 elections, I admit to a grudge against Florida. I was heartened to learn that Florida may lose some or at least not gain as many congressional seats based on current census results. Ohio, maybe you could lose a few censi as well. Y Floriduh cant reed. If they trickle down to Minnesota, as the article suggests they might, so much the better.

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"This is Alabama. We speak English. If you wanna live here, learn it." May I introduce to you Alabama's next governor, Tim James? A master of the zeitgeist. Still, why does he keep stopping the tape, moving away from the camera and then walking towards it?

And...I'm done paying attention to the news for the day.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Pulling Out All The Stops

Fellow musicians,

Are you certain your album is done? Have you considered any of the following enhancements, used so successfully by the artists noted? Consider using the following "stops" as in "pulling out all the". They are not mutually exclusive and I have begun creating a song on which I intend to use all fourteen. Use all fourteen on every song on your album and I will refund your recording costs if you don't win a grammy*.

1. Children's Choir. Nothing says sincerity like the innocent voices of little ones. If you really, really mean what you are saying in your song, you simply have no other alternative. (Tina Turner's We Don't Need Another Hero, Bob Dylan's They Killed Him)

2. Modulate up a whole step. It's like writing a whole new song. There is an entire website dedicated the study and promotion of this practice. I have written two songs (Powerful Statement, We'll Go On Forever) that each do this two times or more. Make sure the kids really nail the first few notes of the new key - that can be tough. (Barry Manilow's Mandy, Looks Like We Made It, and every other Barry Manilow song)

3. Instruments drop completely out then blast back in after a big vocal line or total silence. Our ears need a break and then they need to be hit harder than ever right away. (Semisonic's Closing Time)

4. Rap break. Allows use of the very hip "feat." tag and will attract a whole new demographic to your music. (R.E.M.'s Radio Song and more recently The Outsiders)

5. Spoken section. Again just proving the sincerity. There is no reason you can't use all five of these so far in the same song: after a rap break, have your music track blast back in a whole step up with children speaking the words. This will not ruin anyone's life. (Elvis' Are You Lonesome Tonight)

6. Operatic chords and melody. This is harder to quantify, but I know it when I hear it. I think in C it would go something like this: d minor-G dominant 7-C Major 7-F Major 7-Bflat-E dominant 7-a minor-A dominant 7. (Elvis' My Boy or The Sound of Your Cry, possibly Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive)

7. Tension between scale degrees 3 and 4. Mi and Fa yield some real greatness when they're the main part of your melody. I noticed this when I really studied the wonderful chorus of Elton John's Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters and elsewhere I can't think of right this second.

8. Pick scrapes. Why would you only use the tip of your guitar pick when you can use the side as well? You paid good money for that pick - make the most of it. Studying Mick Ronson's (at 1:57, 2:10, and 2:38) brilliant guitar work with David Bowie can help you master this crucial technique.

9. Synthy answering phrases to the vocal. Your singing will never seem so human until it is contrasted with the eerie strains of a DX7 or one of its descendants. (Tina Turner's What's Love Got To Do With It at :41)

10. Special guest vocalist. The Beatles didn't expect people to listen to a single singer for a whole album - what chance do you have? Extra points if the song, tantalizingly, might actually be written about the special guest. (Carly Simon's You're So Vain)

11. Speeding up the tempo at the end. You hardly ever hear this anymore when everything is recorded to a metronomic click track, so you'll stand out from the crowd. (The Beatles' All Together Now)

12. Flanger on everything. Why add that eerie, windy sound to a single instrument when you can make the whole song sound like it was recorded on Mars? Caution: do not use on the entire song. (Doobie Brothers' Listen To The Music)

13. Muted guitar strums as percussion. You may not know it, but some of your favorite sounds are those with no pitch at all. Sure, everyone knows Smells Like Teen Spirit is F-Bflat-Aflat-Dflat, but it wouldn't be the same without the atonal strums in between the fingered chords. Go even further and don't play any chords (Paul McCartney's Maybe I'm Amazed - listen closely at 2:08) Go double super even further and add a wah pedal to the non-chord strums! (Isaac Hayes' Theme From Shaft)

14. Answering/counterpoint vocals. The main vocal can be open to all kinds of misinterpretation, so make your point even clearer by restating it another way in the background. They Might Be Giants are the foremost masters of this technique, most obviously on the song Dead.

Fellow musicians, you're welcome and I look forward to hearing your vastly improved works.

*offer is not legally enforceable.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Flash! A-aaaah! (Flash Gordon part three)

Did you miss part 1 or part 2?

The next day, Monday, I did the vocals in the afternoon. The evolving rough, literally caffeine-fueled, punk feel of the recording was too fast for me to get all the words in. Also, the notes of the melody are way out of what I might conservatively think of as "my vocal range." As I am sometimes able to do, I put all these limitations out of my mind and just did it and it's fine. It was super fun.

I have been thinking about Alex Chilton's death. When I heard about it, I immediately had the idea to record one of his songs and maybe even make a video of myself playing it and post it online. Then I thought about how very, very many people very much like myself will do that very thing. Alex Chilton was a master at confounding expectations, mixing genres, and doing exactly what he wanted to do in music without any consideration for commercial success or even, you know, logic.

I began to think of my Beatles/Punk version of Queen's "Flash (A.K.A. Flash's Theme)" as a spiritual tribute to Alex Chilton and so it is.

Finally, has anyone listened to "Chimes of Freedom" from Another Side of Bob Dylan lately? I mean really listened, not just let the recording you've heard a hundred times wash through your ears. I actually listened to that the other day and it was shocking how compassionate, wise, and moving it was. How many songs anywhere near the rock genre actually celebrate "the gentle" and "the kind"? I just sat on the couch and cried and loved everything and everyone. Okay, that's where I'm at with the whole thing.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Flash! A-aaaah! (Flash Gordon part two)

Did you miss part 1?

So now we are in 2010. As part of my anthologizing project of putting everything I ever recorded on my cassette four track onto my computer for potential remixing, I recently came across "Marriage of Dale and Ming (And Flash Approaching)". It was every bit as hilarious as I'd remembered and also strangely moving. I'd still only ever recorded the two songs, and that was in 1996 and 1997. At this pace, two songs in fourteen years, I would finish the 18 song album in 2066, at 94 years of age, three years after Zefram Cochrane invents warp drive and the Vulcans make contact with Earth. To pick up the pace, I decided to record a third song from the soundtrack, using a fun, simple beat that had been going on in my mind on and off for a few weeks.

At first I could not find the music. I had to give the original book back about thirteen years ago but I had the good sense to make copies of all the Flash Gordon songs. I had put them in a pristine white folder I found in a dumpster (not that I was looking there, you understand. It practically jumped out at me. Originally it contained information about a hospital's taxes or some such thing.) along the river in Northfield behind Division Street. Can you believe the things people just throw out? Anyway, I searched my archives but it still took me a few days to find it, and I only found it while I was looking for something else.

I have been listening to a ton of Beatles lately and have had this cheerful beat going through my mind a lot. I thought it was the beat to "She Loves You" but a quick look at my Beatles Complete Scores revealed that it's not quite. Nevertheless, I used the half measure intro to "She Loves You" and the beat I had in my mind as a starting point for my new recording, which I decided would be "Flash (A.K.A. Flash's Theme)" That was the song that most intimidated me in terms of actually finishing the album, so I decided to tackle it head on. I had it in mind to use a typical Beatles/Ringo tom-heavy "bridge section" beat for the bridge section but couldn't really find one in Complete Scores, so I just used a dramatically slowed down version of the lopsided "Ticket To Ride" beat for the bridge.

I set up my drum kit last Sunday. That in itself was an adventure, as I haven't had it set up for a while. I had to take the heads off, clean it, remove the sponges the previous owner had put in for no reason I can discern and I never got around to removing all of until now, reassemble, and tune it. I recorded the drums first and they were a little too fast. Take four was good enough that I thought I would continue with it. Next was acoustic guitar, then bass, then electric guitar.

For the electric, I used a Chandler mother-of-pearl "Serious About Tone" pick because I've heard Brian May is nuts about picks and sometimes uses English coins to get the most powerful sound. They don't make those picks anymore but I have a stash. I knew I wouldn't get the Queen guitar sound, so I went for The Carpenters instead. On "Goodbye To Love" Richard C. plugged his electric directly into the recording sound board and turned it up until the VU meters were deep in the red. It's awesome. I did a similar thing and it sounded very raucous and inspiring. I ended up taking an impromptu solo during one of the spoken sections. It ended up sounding like a surf instrumental.

If you really want to know the kind of thing that is almost always going on in my actual mind, sometimes even while I am talking to people in person, you will continue bravely on and

Go to part 3.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Flash! A-aaaah! (Flash Gordon part one)

I guess "This is a big f***in' deal" beats "As of now, I am in charge here." Joe Biden lives up perfectly to the wonderful way the Onion portrays him. Thanks, JB! Love it. I really do. That's not sarcasm. It's like a faint glimmer of the glory that was President Bill Clinton. That is also not sarcasm. It's so hard to tell on the electronic web, where almost everything is sarcasm but I remain endlessly, undetectably sincere. Anyway, what I was going to say before I got distracted by the internet, was...

--------------------------

So here is one thing I am doing. Many years ago a sister of a friend was a huge Queen fan. I am a Queen fan only to the extent that I really, really love their original Greatest Hits album from 1981. This friend's sister had a spiral bound book with the entire oeuvre, dramatically reduced to chords, words and melody, and maybe a few bass notes or instrumental lines here and there. When I saw the transcriptions of the music to the 1980 film Flash Gordon I laughed and laughed. Why?

I have only ever heard the title song, but I am pretty sure the soundtrack music has more to it than is conveyed in the book. Curious, I recorded "The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)" adhering strictly to the written music. Some of you reading may have on some old CD or even tape I gave you. It's the one with delicate nylon string guitar, a soaring Casio keyboard melody, no words, and long, inexplicable pauses. I mean I recorded it EXACTLY in accordance with the music as written in this strange little book. According to the book, there are several measures with absolutely nothing, which is only part of what made me laugh. The recording ended up being very beautiful and poignant if I may say so.

I put up an mp3 of the song to explain what I mean here.

I put up a scan of the music I'm working from so you can look at it while you listen to the recording. View scan.

I resolved to record the entire soundtrack without ever listening to Queen's version. I felt that listening to Queen's version would pollute my feelings and my vision and the relationship I was developing with this strange little book. About a year after I recorded "The Kiss (Aura Resurrects Flash)" I recorded "Marriage of Dale and Ming (And Flash Approaching)". So that was two songs in two years. I thought that was an appropriate pace for the project and figured it would be sort of an overview of my recording process as it evolved over the years. Like a greatest hits album can be for a normal band, only it would be a solo, cover version of Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack. Good grief. You could not make this shit up. You have to live it.

Go on to part 2.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

So You Want Some Big Star

Here's the thing. They really only made two albums and sort of three. Those are essential, but even so you have some choices.

1. #1 Record/Radio City (best edition)

Their main two albums are #1 Record and Radio City and those are both included on a great CD that was originally released in 1992. This has Ballad of El Goodo, Thirteen, Way Out West, etc. If you only buy one CD, I think this is the best place to start. Maybe. Or maybe Third.

The thing is, in 2009 the album was remastered and reissued with two bonus tracks. These bonus tracks are inessential and, to me, disruptive of the overall listening experience. I read the amazon reviews and gave it a miss. I still love my old CD from 1992, which sounds perfectly great to me. The old CD without bonus tracks is now technically out of print and, as you can see from the link above, expensive. You could just buy the mp3s and cut the bonus tracks out of your iTunes playlist. Of course, you don't get the artwork and booklet, but you could get this book for all the reading matter you could want:

Rob Jovanovic's excellent Big Star bio

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2. Third/Sister Lovers (best edition - Rykodisc, of course)

The "Third/Sister Lovers" album is different and sort of bipolar but also essential. It's easier to get the best edition because there is really only one on CD.

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All of the songs from these albums are also included on the 2009 box set, but some are in alternate mixes and so forth so I think of the box set as being more for people already familiar with the band.

So those two CDs (three albums) are really the place to start. Enjoy. Be sure and let me know if you need more because there is a lot to enjoy and I can certainly advise. If I had to select one other album that is radically different from Big Star but equally indicative of what a shockingly amazing musician Alex Chilton was, I would throw this out there:

Cliches

Have fun!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's Wild To Be Young (Alex Chilton, part 3)

Did you miss part 1 or part 2?

It's wild to be young, isn't it? You can actually fall fully in love with stuff without thinking about it. Someday, if I keep borrowing their albums from the library and listening to them once in a while, I might like Yo La Tengo a lot, or any of these other bands that smart people recommend to me. But I can't remember the last time I really fell in love with a band the way I did with Big Star or Trip Shakespeare or...that's it really. Oh, and They Might Be Giants. And kind of Ben Folds Five, but I was still only like 26 when I heard Whatever And Ever, Amen. And I still haven't bought every single thing he's done and seen him live every chance I could since then like with Alex Chilton or Matt Wilson.

Which reminds me. I can stop looking at the bar/band/show schedules in the back of City Pages now. Matt Wilson has an online presence and an active band and notification of upcoming shows again (finally!) and Alex Chilton, the only other name I was ever really searching for, is gone.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Shows (Alex Chilton, part 2)

Did you miss part 1?

I saw Alex Chilton in concert three times, all in the 1990s, each time with a different group. I saw him at Mill City Music Festival in Minneapolis. It was the big REV105 stage out on 1st avenue and he was playing before Soul Asylum. There were these crappy little punks two or three deep standing at the stage with their backs to it, squatting for Soul Asylum. Alex was constantly trying to get the sound men to turn down the volume on his own guitar, which was ear-bleedingly loud, a characteristic shared with every other band I saw that day. (Including a mutilated version of The Lovin' Spoonful (without John Sebastian for fuck's sake) and Etta James (who did some nasty things with the microphone if I remember correctly.) It did not surprise or terribly sadden me when this festival disappeared.)

I think Chilton played "In The Street" and maybe some other songs from his then most recent albums High Priest and Black List. Honestly, it was a disappointing show. He did not seem engaged and I couldn't really blame him and I've always held it against Soul Aylum for no good reason.

I later saw him at First Avenue with the 1990s version of Big Star with original drummer and singer Jody Stephens and Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. This was a better show, although the first thing I think of was his awkward, speaking-to-each-other-but-into-the-microphones fight with Jody before they played the song Jesus Christ.
Alex: We're gonna do this next song, but I don't want you to actually think we believe any of this crap.
(Some in crowd cheer)
Jody: I think it takes more courage to admit that you do believe.
(Others in crowd cheer or laugh nervously)
Alex sort of groaned and rolled his eyes and they went ahead and did the song. So I guess maybe Alex wasn't a Christian and Jody was/is? You think? Did we need to know that?

The other problem with that show was that the big pauses in the song Big Black Car were filled in with hi-hat quarter notes. Yes, the band all knew when to come back in but all the tension and despair that builds up between sections of that song was popped like a balloon.

The best show I ever saw him give was, strangely enough, a free show with the Box Tops at Taste Of Minnesota in St. Paul. In the Box Tops he didn't really write or play any instruments and as I understand it he quit way back in 1969 because he felt like a tool of the producers, who wrote all the songs, oversaw the recordings and record releases, and kept most of the money.

I guess the Box Tops got control of the name and at least some share of the money because the band I saw (with all the original members) was totally great and enthusiastic. Alex was singing his heart out and climbing the scaffolding at the side of the stage. His voice was energized and powerful, a truly soulful synthesis of the gruff voice he used on those original Box Tops recordings and the calmer, nuanced voice he had discovered and used in Big Star and his wonderfully varied solo work.

After the show he was actually standing behind a table in a tent signing autographs and talking to fans. I desperately wished I had brought one of my many CDs of him. I wanted to talk to him but didn't know what to say. How could I have put it that wouldn't have seemed totally weird?

I watched him sign a few CD booklets then someone tried to hand him a cassette, undoubtedly of their own music for Alex to listen to. He laughed and said he had stacks and stacks of tapes and he'd never get to listen to it. He was laughing and nice about it but he just left the tape on the table. Now that I'm older I totally get both sides of that.

When I was young I wanted to send my music to him and to Matt Wilson of Trip Shakespeare for no real particular reason except that I saw myself as part of the same line that led from The Beatles to those guys to me. Hearing Alex say that he had stacks and stacks of tapes that he'd never get to listening to made me realize I was not alone in that feeling (which I never actually acted on).

There's an interesting parallel here. Hearing Alex talk about all the tapes people sent him made me realize that I was not alone in wanting my idols to hear my music. When I first heard Alex' music it had made me feel that I was not alone in the way I felt back in 1993.

Go to part 3

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thanks, Andy (Alex Chilton, part 1)

The fall of 1993 was a good time to become a Big Star fan for a few reasons. Logistically, Rykodisc had just issued the first complete, good sounding CD editions of the Third album, a live radio show, and Chris Bell's complete solo work. The previous year had seen the band's other two albums, #1 Record and Radio City, released on a single disc.

Personally, I was not doing so well. I may or may not have been suffering from what scientists today call clinical depression. Also, there was a girl. I thought about death a lot. I needed something to make me feel like I wasn't alone. Big Star music was that something.

Like most people who love the band, I did not hear about them from the media. I heard about them from other people who loved them. Trip Shakespeare, a band equally deserving of greater acclaim but which has received even less, covered "The Ballad of El Goodo" on their final album, Volt, which I loved. I did not know anything about the listed authors Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. If you can, try to imagine a world in which information about these mysterious people was not immediately available to me. There was nothing about them at the college libraries. If there was such a thing as searching the internet I was not aware of it. I had to actually ask people!

I asked the most knowledgeable music guy I knew, Andy Honigman. He provided me with a tape of a record of Third and his CD of #1 Record/Radio City, which, oddly, was signed by the drummer from Walt Mink. (Oh, by the way, which one's Mink?)

The Third/Sister Lovers album spoke to my emotional state like no other music ever had. I shortly thereafter bought the CD myself, along with all the rest of the band's music. I listened to it a lot. Along with Trip Shakespeare and R.E.M.'s then-new Automatic for the People album, this music and my own emerging writing and playing gave me a reason to get up in the morning. The music gave me a sense that other people had felt the way I felt. All this music was important to me, but Big Star was the most.

I learned the Big Star songs The Ballad of El Goodo, Thirteen, Give Me Another Chance, I'm In Love With A Girl, Blue Moon, Way Out West, In The Street, and the Chris Bell songs You And Your Sister and I Am The Cosmos. Except for the Beatles there is no other band whose songs I've put more effort into and had in my playing repertoire for longer. I'm being intentionally dramatic and overstating the case just a little when I say slightly (but only slightly) disingenuously that Big Star's music saved my life. Certainly it strengthened my friendships as I played those songs with people I loved and began to get the idea to name myself after the band's home town.

Go to part two.