Saturday, 27 December 2008

I’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo. I’ve been thinking about it for several years now, but that’s as far as it ever gets. It sounds like a good idea in my head, and I truly envy some of the great artwork that other people have, yet I never get it done.

The first one I’d get would be a very particular thing. There’s this band I like. I take vacation time and travel to see them several days in a row. They have a glyph, their logo, of sorts, that I’d have done just below the crook of my elbow. Now, the band isn’t instantly recognizable, so the glyph is somewhat obscure, but I’ve seen other fans with the same tattoo… in the same place. Do I want to risk turning into a super-fan?

Part of my desire, and my hesitation, is that I want to be unique. However, so many people have tattoos, how unique can it be? It seems like a silly thing to get permanently attached.

My Aunt has a couple tattoos. One cluster is a set of, I think, violets. One for her mom, one for her daughter, and one for her grand-daughter. It makes perfect sense and seems like the perfect reason to me. But to me, personally, I can’t imagine doing it. While I love my mother dearly, and she means a lot to me, I don’t know that I’d want her with me 100% of the time. I’m sure the feeling is mutual.

I think that’s the main reason I don’t get a tattoo. There isn’t anything in my life that I feel so strongly about that I want it with me forever.

Sure, I know they’re not totally permanent. Tattoos can be removed if you have the money and the pain threshold. But who goes into it thinking they’ll just wipe it away when it becomes inconvenient? You go into it thinking it will be with you forever.

It’s not fear, it’s not the expense either. I can deal with both of those. So does it really just come down to ambivalence? If it’s just for the right, the high, why not sky dive, drive fast, or even just stand on the edge of a cliff?

What does that say about my life? Is it good that I don’t go into anything until I’m sure? Or is it just sad? Sad that there’s nothing I’m so passionate about that I want it etched into my body so as to declare it unto the world?

Everybody has their reason: love, lust, loss, lunacy; I’ve yet to learn mine.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Other than my Aunt Cheryl (a Lutheran pastor) and my Dad’s folks, mine are not a particularly religious people. We don’t go to church or practice any religion – at least not formally. Yet we say grace at holiday gatherings, mainly Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

It’s as if begging alone will guarantee a good spot in the hereafter.

At Grandpa Armstrong’s it was usually up to either my brother or me to say grace. I was terrible at ad-libbing prayers since we didn’t get much practice at home, so I always stuck with an old, childhood favorite:

God is great, God is good Let us thank Him for this food, Amen.

One time I accidentally – ACCIDENTALLY – flipped the middle line “Let Him thank us for this food” and got away with it, but that was rare. Grandma Armstrong had a great sense of humor except when it came to The Almighty. Prayer was to be taken seriously. You played it straight and didn’t take chances if you knew what was good for you.

At Grandma Bertula’s it was a different matter entirely. Grandma herself was pretty dour, but the rest of us were a fun-loving bunch. Jocularity and good-natured ribbing were de rigeur and pretty much nothing was off limits.

That extended all the way to saying grace; a task normally reserved for “the kids.” My Mother and Brother were spared, which meant it was up to Uncle Ray, Aunt Mary, and me. Ray did the honors when he was in town, and I’d pick up the slack when he wasn’t.

We had two classics, I’m not sure where Ray came up with them, but they were like well-worn friends. The first beautiful in and almost artfully minimalist:

Grace.

That was it. After that he’d dig right in and you’d miss the stuffing if you weren’t paying attention. The other, extravagant by comparison, was probably my favorite:

Rub a dub dub Thanks for the grub Yay God!

Every year Grandma Bertula acted annoyed, but I think it was all an act. Truthfully, I think she secretly enjoyed it. She’d smile, kind of sheepishly, and exclaim “Oh, Ray!”

My Uncle Ray and Aunt Cindy were visiting her family one year, so I was asked to do the honors. I didn’t dare look at Grandma because, she had this face she’d make. The disapproval face. In spite of our family’s long-running, if irreverent, tradition, she expected something more traditional. Somehow I just knew. So I just bowed my head, took a slight pause for dramatic effect, and said:

Clap your hands and stamp your feet Praise the Lord! Good God, let’s eat!

I remember getting a “Michael!” from someone, possibly Mom. I couldn’t tell if Grandma was more shocked or amused, although I did catch her stifling a smile. Either way I just beamed; I hadn’t chickened out and had pulled it off.

After all, if you can’t have fun with your family, you’re taking life far too seriously.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I’ve been a long time fan of Tom Waits. Huge fan. When he comes out with a new album, I have to get it on release day. He’s got a stunning vision that gives each song a life of its own.

And, because I’m a guy, I have a certain appreciation for Scarlett Johansson too. She’s a beautiful, talented actress. And her voice! I could listen to her speak all day.

Combine the two: Johansson doing covers of Tom Waits songs, and it should be a winning combination. How could I resist?

I wish I would have, because mere words cannot convey how disturbing this album turned out to be. The hackish cover-art should have been a clue, but I failed to heed its warning.

First, I should give her a bit of credit – due anyone who appreciates Waits’ sometimes quirky and challenging work. But that’s where it ends.

I don’t know who should get most of the blame for this, Johansson or the producer. The whole album has this vocoder/harmonizer quality to it. Kind of an auto-chorus thing, but not very well done.

On every song.

I’m not sure if it’s because they thought her voice wouldn’t stand up on its own, or for some stylistic reason, but it turned out to be a distraction.

Anywhere I Lay My Head opens with an instrumental piece, “Fawn” from (Alice, 2002), which takes the simple, almost weepy original and turns it into something akin to a song from an old-time revival meeting crossed with a noise band.

The album also has one original track “Song for Jo,” in which I can see the inspiration. The song isn’t bad, aside from the auto-chorus, and it’s one of the only high-points on the album.

She does put her own touch on “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” (Small Change, 1976), and largely pulls it off. With sparse instrumentation, it has a certain lilting quality to it that actually works with the production style. In fact, it’s exactly what you would expect given her persona and the album concept. Unfortunately the song comes too late in the album (#8) to overcome the bad taste left by the songs leading up to it.

The next track, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (Bone Machine, 2002), takes on a Blondie-esque, almost disco quality, but not in a good way. Debbie Harry can pull off the sultry, sexy, husky thing, but Scarlett has a few years to go and needs some material that might lend itself to the task.

The title track, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” comes from 1985’s Rain Dogs, and the album contains a smattering of songs from all over Waits’ work. Alice (2002), Big Time (1988), Orphans (2006), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Small Change (1976), Real Gone (2004), and the previously mentioned Rain Dogs are all represented.

I wanted to like it. I really did. But in the end, this one goes on the list of albums I’m mildly ashamed to own. Scarlett Johansson fans will be disappointed; Tom Waits fans will be pissed off.

Tuesday, 09 December 2008

Vanessa and I originally met at a Mensa gathering. We got to talking and seemed to hit it off. I had a great time, and was intrigued, but still too shy to trade phone numbers. Lucky for me, Scott was more bold.

A week or so later Scott called to say that Vanessa was having a Hanukkah party. She had made a special point that I should stop by. Normally I would have avoided any party where I didn’t know most of the people there, but something about the tone of the invitation compelled me to go. And, boy, was I glad I did!

The party was a blast; hours went by in seconds. Vanessa and I talked occasionally throughout the afternoon and I was still there long after everyone else had gone. We talked easily, almost like old friends catching up after a long absence. I finally left around midnight, but not before we had arranged a dinner date.

The next few months were a bit of a whirlwind. We spent most evenings together, weekends too, and talked on the phone at least twice a day. I was smitten – there’s no other way to describe it.

We would talk about our hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments. On walks together we’d point out how ours would be different than the house we were walking past, and what our wedding would be like. It was during those conversations, on one of our walks, that talk about “the one” came up.

I believe that each of us has a someone out there, but you may not find them right away. Sure, there are the high-school sweethearts that stay together forever, but other couples take longer and my not even meet until later in life. If you love someone and you grow apart, no matter how much you adored them, they were not the one.

Vanessa, on the other hand, was convinced we each have only one true love, and that hers was in a former boyfriend. Since they couldn’t be together, she could never really be happy. She refused to believe anything else and would let it short circuit parts of her relationships with other guys. I think that’s part of what happened with us.

I’m not entirely blameless either. It’s not like I really knew what I wanted at the time. I was bored with my job, my consulting business wasn’t taking off, and I still had a piece of carry-on baggage left from my divorce. But those are just excuses.

We started off strong, but she just wasn’t into the relationship – not as much as I was – and I wasn’t strong enough to fight for it. We simply drifted apart.

For a while I thought that she might possibly have been right. What if my one true love had slipped by? And did that ever hurt. But the more I thought about it, the easier it was to accept the fact that she wasn’t my “one.” I remember her and the relationship fondly, but it was apparently not to be. I remain hopeful, and convinced, that my true love is out there somewhere. When I find her, she and I will both know it.

That’s what makes the love true.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

My First Art Show!

I’ve probably mentioned it once or twice before, but I have this photography site that I started last February. Well, with the help and encouragement of some very dear friends, I’m doing my first photo show! I’m so excited! Please click through, check out the details, and stop by!

Bring money. (grin)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

This started as a simple reply to a link (http://government.zdnet.com/?p=4152) my dad sent me. It’s about Constitutional questions surrounding the RIAA’s litigation against people accused of sharing music via P2P.

My reply:

I believe a lot of what the RIAA relies on is that copyright, although drawn from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, is in the Civil code, not the Criminal code. As part of civil code, they are not as tightly bound by the excessive fines and unusual punishment clauses of the 8th amendment. Besides, the constitution really only controls what the government can do, or not do (as it’s mostly prohibitions), to the people. It doesn’t so much control what one person can do to another.

There’s nothing to stop you from suing someone for $1-million because they stepped on your lawn. You’re just not likely to get it because the judge and the jury in a civil case aren’t bound to sympathize with you.

I’m not saying the RIAA is right. Quite the contrary. I think they’re hopelessly misguided in suing their customers in the manner they have. I think that copyright law, as it exists today, is hopelessly broken. I think the attempts to “fix” or “strengthen” copyright law (things like the DMCA) are hopelessly anti-consumer.

The entertainment industry routinely lobbies for trade agreements and treaties, which they then lobby other countries to sign onto, then come back to the US government cajoling (demanding?) they adjust existing laws and create new ones to support the newly ratified treaty that they essentially bought.

With that in mind, and as a creative artist, what do I think is reasonable? My photography is bound by copyright. Every creative work, whether writing, photos, video, music, software, etc. is. The creator, or artist, isn’t even required to register their copyright any more; although doing so provides extra protections under the law. So what do I want? What do I think is fair?

I think 25 years is fair. That should be plenty of time for me to realize any monetary benefit from selling or licensing my creative work. After that, it should fall to the public domain. If I can’t make money off it in those 25 years, then I’m obviously incorrect in my assessment of the value of a given work.

I don’t think that we should be able to perpetually renew a copyright, nor should it be able to pass down by inheritance to extend the 25 years to something beyond my passing.

25 years from date of creation, no matter who owns the rights. If my descendants want to make a living from my work, they will just have to hope I die early and leave it to them in my will — the clock is ticking.

Even after the 25 years, just having the older materials around doesn’t mean you’ll do something wonderful. I’m a photographer, so I’ll use Ansel Adams as part of my example. If all of his photos were in the public domain, I could assemble them into a book, but I’d still have to bring something to the table. I’d need to offer some kind of commentary or interpretation, or add color in some way. I’d need to do something to make my use interesting. Anything less and I’m just some guy with a fancy coloring book.

So, what about sampling and derivative works? 10% seems fair, with credit. That covers education and criticism too. It let’s everyone do something new and allows someone to be inspired by your work and hopefully create something new and interesting.

Sure, 10% doesn’t stop one band from using the bass-line or central riff from another band’s song. Sure they can build a song from that and still fall within the scope of what I’d allow. It’s a double-edged sword too. If your work isn’t interesting, you’ll only look like a schmuck.

10% won’t stop one film-maker from building their movie around a pivotal scene from that of another, but if their movie isn’t entertaining, then they’re just a hack. Remember, Hollywood has been doing this same basic thing for years.

The real problem comes in trying to figure out what to do when someone breaks the rules. What is an appropriate punishment?

The current laws provide for damages from $750 per use up to $15000 each. For some things that seems far too high (sharing a single song when the price is only $1 via iTunes) and other’s it’s far too low (that same song when it’s used in an advertisement). And what constitutes a single use? Each person that hears an ad, once for every time the ad runs, or just once total because it’s only one ad?

Any off-the-cuff thinking here quickly falls apart. At first 10 times the price of the original item seems like a good idea. A song on iTunes goes for 99 cents. Is 10 bucks enough to convince people behave themselves, especially when they may or may not get caught?

What if it was 10x original value with a $1000 minimum? While it would probably discourage the average consumer, what about commercial misuse? Even $1000 isn’t enough to prevent a radio or TV station from taking a chance on an infringing use. What would stop an advertiser from using any old song in their advertisement or a photograph as the background to a presentation for an internal meeting if all they’d have to pay is $1000, assuming they got caught?

Clearly I don’t have all the answers. Even as an artist I can only wrap my brain around maybe half of it before my head explodes.

Wednesday, 01 October 2008

As I suspect will happen every year through this project, 1967 saw some big milestones in music. It was an important year in psychedelic rock with releases by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and more.

Several bands formed in 1967, among them Ted Nugent, George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Chicago, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Genesis.

1967 was the year of one of the most important concerts in music history – The Monterey Pop Festival – with the first major performances by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, plus the first big American appearances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The concert was huge and became a template for future music festivals, including the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

As if those firsts weren’t enough, Monterey included performances by groups like Simon & Garfunkle, The Animals, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & the Papas, Ravi Shankar, and Grateful Dead. Truly a mix of international acts and a variety of music styles.

The Beatles didn’t do too bad in 1967, releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out as part of a double A-side single (“Penny Lane” was the other half) that year as well. The song raised the bar for what a pop record should be and it’s quite possibly the single-most influential songs they ever did.

Believe it or not the Bee Gees’, widely regarded as a Disco-era act, released their first album in 1967, called Bee Gees’ 1st, a decidedly psychedelic record.

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow came out in 1967, with the Top 40 hits “Sombody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” I’ll admit, I prefer a cover version of “White Rabbit” that Blue Man Group did many years later. It’s probably the most often cited band and album when San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury counterculture comes up in discussion.

Lest we forget genres other than rock, we’ve got a couple each by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, plus releases from Taj Majal, Willie Bobo, Howlin’ Wolf, and B. B. King.

1967 also brought us The Doors self-titled, debut album, with classic-rock staples “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and “Light My Fire.” This may be heresy, but I’ve never been a huge Doors fan. Still, I can’t argue with their influence on rock-n-roll and The Doors is an album every well-rounded collection should include.

It’s tempting to pick Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but it’s hard to know which version to choose. The US/Mexico release has several differences from the original UK version. “Red House” is on the UK release, but “Hey Joe” replaced it in the US. “Purple Haze” appears on the US version, as does “The Wind Cries Mary,” my favorite song from the album.

I’m going to have to go with The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album is a hallmark for its experimental performance sensibilities, but was largely ignored when it was released. That may have been due, in part, to it’s controversial subject matter. Open discussion of things like sexual deviancy, S&M, prostitution, and drug abuse are hard to take now, let alone in 1967.

Today it’s one of the most influential and critically lauded albums in history.

To me it’s the those very same controversial subjects that make the The Velvet Underground and Nico such an important album too. Lou Reed wrote most of the lyrics on the album, but didn’t pick the topics for shock value. Instead, they were just a logical marriage of gritty subject matter and music.

The Velvet Underground is one of the few bands that I have consciously gone back to find as my musical interests grew more varied. I’ve always thought of them as an early punk group, but no matter how you slice it the importance of this album and it’s influence on so many to come along later is cannot be denied.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

1966 is not a year that I remember in the least – not politically, not culturally, not musically – I was born late in the year. My only thoughts were napping, eating, and pooping.

Still, this was an interesting year for music. And since I was born in 1966, it serves as a place to start. Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Johnny Cash and a host of others released albums that year.

What surprised me most, however, was Booker T and the MG’s had an album that year. I always thought they started recently but, as it turns out, the band was formed in 1962. The were largely a group of studio musicians from Stax Records.

I shouldn’t be so surprised that they’re still playing; after all, Dylan and the Rolling Stones are still around. But for some reason they strike me as big names, where Booker T. and the MG’s comes off as a much smaller group that, for some untold reason, wouldn’t still be around.

The Beatles released two albums in 1966: Revolver, and Yesterday and Today. Both albums spawned spawned several remarkable, classic tunes: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Good Day Sunshine,” “Taxman,” and of course “Yellow Submarine” from Revolver and “Drive My Car,” “Nowhere Man,” “Yesterday,” and “Day Tripper” from Yesterday and Today. All great songs, but still neither is my favorite album from that year.

The Monkees put out their first album in 1966. Despite having its roots in a television show, it went #1 in the US and topped the UK charts. “Last Train to Clarksville” was a #1 single that I remember having as a scratchy 45 at one point. I played the heck out of that song and never missed the show when it was out in syndication.

Frank Sinatra and his daughter Nancy each had albums in 1966. Nancy, most notably Boots, which brought us the unmistakable, spectacular “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” I bought a Nancy Sinatra best-of CD a couple years ago just so I could have that song.

Still, with all that great music, and more from the likes of Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Buffalo Springfield, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, The Animals – too many to mention, there’s one more that clearly tops them all.

Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys.

Pet Sounds was their ninth studio album and it changed the face of pop music. It’s even credited with influencing The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!

The album has several seminal Beach Boys songs. Tunes that are instantly recognizable, that snap you back to a simpler time (if you’re of a certain age) or just make you feel good.

Right off the top Pet Sounds starts with one of my favorite Beach Boys songs: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” With its many layers of harmonies and upbeat sound, it expresses some of the impatience of youth and how you have to wait for what you truly want.

Even though it’s a cover of a traditional West Indies folk song, “Sloop John B.” will always be a Beach Boys tune to me. It is unmistakably summer. I play it during the winter as a sort of talisman to ward off the doldrums and hopefully bring the sunny days back more quickly. Also, I always wonder how many people have named their boats after this one song.

“Let’s Go Away for Awhile” is a brilliant instrumental song, almost orchestral in its nature. You can hear the strings, saxophone, piano, vibes, and I think an oboe in there.

Sophisticated for its time, “God Only Knows” is, in my mind, the best song off Pet Sounds. The depth of the harmonies and easy complexity of the melody make it stand out. It’s a gorgeous love song that basically says “You make me what I am.”

Although just a smattering, Pet Sounds is truly a classic. I come back to it often and it really did define pop music for many years. It’s truly a must for any music collection.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Most people come into their own, musically speaking, in their teens. It typically starts with a variation of what their parents listen to, then evolves based on what is popular among their friends. Sure, occasionally we’ll want to know more about the influences of our favorite bands, but that often just leads to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Clapton, and not much else.

How often do we really go back and consider what came before?

Although I turned 13 in 1979, it wasn’t until MTV was launched nearly two years later that music really hit me. Prior to that, it was mostly stuff my parents liked: Gordon Lightfoot, John Denver, Anne Murray, Crystal Gale… You get the idea. MTV and music videos brought new wave, funk, and ROCK to the table. It was an experience that forever changed the way I listened to the world.

What came before the 80’s? Who influenced the musicians I grew to love and even still listen to? Sure there have been forays into older music. A penchant for jazz and swing. The occasional dip into classical music. Even a late appreciation for the Beatles and Bob Dylan. But what came before?

So I decided to take a look back; starting with 1966, the year I was born, and possibly rediscover my musical roots. The intent is more than just a list of my favorite album from each year. Along the way I’ll offer thoughts on what makes each one my favorite and perhaps some commentary about other releases from the same year.

I’ll begin with 1966 tomorrow.

† Yes, the M in MTV stands for music. They did actually play music at one time.

Tuesday, 09 September 2008

I had been working on a minor redesign on the site since around the 1st of the year. About the same time Pantone announced it’s color of the year for 2008. It was a huge pile of minor changes: change the color (red #c00 -> blue #217), shrink the header area, give the “clickme” area some actual content, etc. Not a sweeping change, but dusting off the cobwebs.

Then a new version of Movable Type came along which changed the template scheme again. So I started revamping my templates to the new method, couldn’t make something work right, and lost the use of a plugin I depended upon.

Dejected, distracted, and disappointed, I gave up on the refresh for a while.

Some time over the summer I worked with a buddy of mine to crank together a couple Web sites. They were each part blog, part static pages, but the main goal was to have a usable template and let the blogging engine do the heavy lifting layout-wise. We chose WordPress as the engine because we were both tired of the difficulties with MovableType updates.

After doing those couple sites, I was re-energized about my own redesign. I completely trashed my prior work and started over on WordPress. It took several late night design sessions, rewiring the template, and completely rewriting my CD database, but it’s done.

I couldn’t decide whether to redo the templates for the photo gallery or just move that stuff to flickr. I was using FolderBlog previously, but the developer stopped updating the software so I didn’t really want to spend much time with dead software. Then I found a plugin for WordPress that would handle the gallery and use the blog engine for layout. Sweet. And it was easy to make things look similar to the old photo gallery. Cotton-candy sweet!

The last thing to do was make my CD database fit the new layout. I wasn’t looking forward to that at all. Then I found some pointers on how to use the WordPress engine to do the layout. Diabetic coma sweet! That part isn’t 100% done yet, but it’s most of the way there. It’s so easy once you get the first couple bumps out of the way.

I’m still going to copy all the photo gallery stuff to flickr — mostly as a way to drive traffic here and to mytwincities.net. There’s also a couple new stories, a new entry for the Taxonomy of Rock, and the start of a new series coming in the next few weeks.