Friday, January 29, 2016

Identity, among other concerns

Late January, and the words that show up for work aren't the ones I requested -- somebody else got 'em.

How The Homeless Listen To Music -- Low-income, no-income and 12-Step subculture is its own music scene, and Chris Estey does a terrific job of fleshing it out.

Teller (the silent half of Penn & Teller) is always worth listening to. Here he is on the art of teaching.

Letters Bookshop, Toronto's go-to boutique for "nut-bar" titles, has relocated to Thunder Bay. Owner Nicky Drumbolis clearly resents the return to his home-town. Shame, that -- T-Bay is a pleasantly freaky city, to my way of thinking.

"There doesn't seem to be much weightiness in Facebook selves" -- Richard Sennett in a conversation about the public self. (Looks like Spiked is devoting some serious time to "self" -- I see Charles Taylor is also on-board.)

And speaking of public selves -- "Make me a real, live boy": an outed Pick-Up Artist and his former paramours -- are they on the road to recovery?

"Are any of us?"

Friday, January 22, 2016

Lost In The (Guitar) Supermarket

A conversation from a week ago.

Me: "This Christmas I had a chance to experiment a bit with my brother's digital effects pedal. And, I have to say, I was mighty impressed."

Guitar sales guy: "Which line we talking about?"


He nods. "We've got them."

"I guess my one kvetch is they're maybe too powerful, too huge. A little box like that, you've got -- what -- 100 preset effects? Plus all the different synthesized amp models, plus all the variations and combos you can dial in after that. I can't begin to do the math."

"Steep learning curve."

"Exactly. And knowing me I'd settle for three or four favourite tones, and leave the rest in the cupboard. Anyway, so now I'm thinking about getting one or two basic pedals to start with, something simple to build skills. Like a looper pedal, maybe. Preferably with a metronome to help with timing."

Sales guy winces. "I've tried a few looper pedals. Brought 'em all back. It's probably just me, but . . ."

"You don't recommend them?"

Shrugs. "Zoom's entry-level pedal has a looper. Also a drum machine -- your dressed-up version of a metronome, basically."

"Yeah, I saw that on the internet."

"There you go. Why don't you take one home, play around with it? You've got 30 days. Keep the receipt, the packaging. Don't be too rough. You don't like it, money back."

I left the store in a state of disbelief. I had that pedal under my arm, of course. But I couldn't get over how times have changed. I still can't.

It's humble, but it's home.

Midway through my high school years -- the winter of '80/'81, probably -- my musician buddy took me on a tour of Winnipeg's boutique guitar shops. Every neighborhood seemed to have its own, with its unique emphasis on certain brands of amplifiers, pedals and guitars. My friend was an astonishingly fast and thorough study. I watched as he took various guitars off the wall and plugged them in to different combinations of equipment, all in search of a particular tone he was after.

Tone, I came to understand, was a guitarist's second-most coveted quality, following technique. In today's vernacular, you'd say tone is an integral element to a given guitarist's "brand." If a guitarist didn't have his own tone, he risked the unforgivable sin of sounding like a wannabe. "Nice try, 'Eddie.'"

Young guitarists serious about their craft spent a lot of time in a lot of different shops, playing with combinations of equipment, before laying down large sums of money on the outfit they finally ran with.
Veneration optional. Foxy sales assistant improbable.

Last week I wasn't in the store for more than 15 minutes. I gave the nice man $100. In return he handed me a clean shiny box and encouraged me to play with it -- at home.

There are good reasons behind the sales guy's tactic. The pedal is a low-net item -- if he's on commission a $100 sale is chump change. I'd also sent him all sorts of signals I was a "Beginner Guitarist," and an aging one at that -- why subject me, and the store at large, to the embarrassing spectacle of my experimentation with a product that would further out me as a noob and likely overwhelm me with options?

So "take it home and try it" was one shocker. The other came when I did as suggested. Caveats first: I understand this is not a "gig-worthy" item. It's built for home-use -- I get that. But this fact is in no way related to the quality of sound it produces.

I've generally assumed the so-called "rock gods" of my youth have stuck with the tried-and-true gear that brought them their fame and fortune -- vintage Strats, tube amps and the like. This may be true for an eccentric aural fuss-pot like Neil Young. But after taking this pedal out of the box and giving it some time, I can't imagine that RUSH or Van Halen or the various iterations of Pink Floyd haven't gone all-digital. It gets me wondering who might be the hold-outs. The Rolling Stones? AC/DC? Park four little guys on a super-big stage at the far end of a massive stadium with crappy acoustics, and ask the sound-guy: do you really want to pamper a temperamental tube-amp to coax out that sound everybody knows so well? Or are you maybe willing to just . . . click a pedal and play?

The final surprise, after sound quality, was price point. I have a vague recollection of my high school buddy's kit, and estimate its value might have been somewhere between two- to four-thousand bucks, 1981 dollars -- even with the Japanese knock-offs he played. He's since gone pro, and probably couldn't be bothered with any Zoom product, per se. But what if he'd had access to something like this at the age of 13?

Now I'm looking at my noob's kit. I've spent about $500 on the entire package, and I'm drowning in a sea of aural possibilities. Pass a bundle like this along to a kid with genuine ability and insatiable curiosity, and you begin to understand why North America -- indeed, the World -- is already way beyond "Peak Music."

Not that I'm complaining. I'm just all lost in the guitar supermarket -- like everybody else.

Further Reading: if there's one guy who found a tone and stuck with it through thick and thin until it netted him an unfathomable fortune, it would be Keith Richards. And, sure, he gave it some tweaks and variations, but it's always been that identifiable sound, in the reliable open-tuning he prefers. So maybe you wonder: just how much equipment did he have to amass to come up with this sound? Well, there's a book devoted to that very subject -- and it's a big one.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Star Wars The Next Generation

I have come to realize, from unfortunate experience, that there is truly only one spoiler to this movie (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, should you need reminding).


It was Christmas, I was among a mixed group of parents and kids, and we were joking around, coming up with the worst thing a person could conceivably say to any group of people queuing up for a movie. I'd already had a glass (or two) of wine, and thinking everyone within earshot had already seen this movie, I crowed, (SPOILER) "Han Solo dies!" (END SPOILER).

When I registered the sea of aghast faces I quickly added, "Actually, in the grand sequence of events, I was surprised by how unsurprising this was. And by how unmoved I was."

And that, also, is the truth. Perhaps it's different for other viewers -- perhaps there are those who shed tears when it happened -- but at least one other person in my group admitted she'd felt similarly. Said she, "In Star Wars movies it's almost like it kind of doesn't matter when the big characters die. I mean, Ben Kenobi or Yoda die, and it's like, 'Oh well.'"

Which is not to say I (or my interlocutor) think the movie is a dud -- far from it. I've seen it twice, and anticipate giving it a closer look and greater consideration when it is released in Blu-Ray format. But I realized early into the film that I was considerably more invested in the fates of the newer, younger protagonists than I was in the fates of the characters I'd grown up with.

There were a number of reasons for this. For one thing, I never quite got over the genuine surprise at seeing the class of '77 collecting for the same movie again. In the 35 years since The Empire Strikes Back (the last of the entertaining Lucas movies) I'd seen plenty of the actors, whose own innate characters have come to vastly outshine that of their script-written personae. Consequently, when, one by one, they took their places on the big screen and did the jig I couldn't help but think, "Oooo, Harrison felt that in his knees!" or "I guess smoking really is the most tenacious addiction of them all, isn't it?" And if you think that's me being catty, it's not -- it's me being old.

So, yes, I registered actors getting older, and putting in a day's work for a day's pay.

Not so the new kids. I felt something for them -- not all that deeply, to begin with. But I could definitely relate. Otherwise, why the lump in my throat every time Finn hugged somebody?

Is that a hug, or is that a hug?

Sure, it's a recycled plot. But the attraction at the core of '77 -- the unexpected discovery of who you are, deep down inside -- is very much alive in this film. At the fore of this is abandoned Rey, carrying dutifully on in her unrewarding toil as she waits for someone to come along and rescue her. Finn shows up, and . . . he's a clod. Worse, he's a contemporary. He clearly couldn't rescue a marshmallow from a campfire. The two of them get to work on Plan B, and, wonder of wonders, things start to gel for them both.

No longer separate entities, they are now a team -- a part of something larger and more exciting than their earlier lives as cast-aways. The adult parental figures help out -- a bit -- but mostly look on with an admixture of amusement and regret.

Watching the film threw a huge spanner into the pool of my psyche. For several nights running I had dreams of . . . That Job. The first job that didn't just pay the bills, but also introduced me to friends -- new friends. People I watched out for, in my clumsy-needy way, because they were kinda-sorta watching out for me in theirs. As for the work -- we were young, we could do anything.

Just point us in the right direction.

Of course, the other benefit this movie shares with '77 is a cultural tabula rasa. We don't know squat about these characters -- it could well be that the more the gaps between the lines get coloured-in, the less we find to like about the big picture.

And yet that dwindling vestige of me which still cares about such things remains hopeful, for a couple of reasons. 1) J.J. Abrams is only taking the reins for this one movie -- besides his apparent compulsion to play Vishnu, the destroyer of worlds, in every single space opera he directs, we also face his incapacity to tie it all together. The man wouldn't know a successful third-act if it followed him home and bit him in the butt. 2) Continuity is still heralded as a big deal to the film-makers. And in contrast to Disney's other continuity franchise, the Marvel movies, we see characters ageing in step with the actors who play them.

And they die.

Who knows? A future writer/director just might figure out the key to successfully exploiting this franchise facet, unique to the SW universe.

Experiencing genuine grief at the death of a beloved character? Now there's a "New Hope" for ya!

Alright -- other better links:
  • LĂ©onicka Valcius explains why Finn is the best character in SW:TFA.
  • Nerds, mass shooters, Anonymous . . . and Kylo Ren. This guy says, "The presentation of Kylo Ren as a whiny, insecure little shit is brilliant because, frankly, whiny, insecure little shits are people who become evil in real life."
  • What's the optimal age for Star Wars fandom? Joel wonders. Is it five? Twelve? I fall into the latter group, and it could be argued I was too old -- I queued up for and watched Return Of The Jedi the day of its release. And I hated it almost as much as the actors evidently did (re-watching it decades later, I was struck by the bone-deep two-weeks-out-of-rehab weariness the principles all exhibited). But by then I was 18-years-old, and there's no way you can persuade a guy that age that teddy bears saving the galaxy equals compelling drama. Expose the kids at five, I say. And brace yourself for the late-night discussions.
  • When I was 12 I fervently prayed I would live, and the Lord would tarry, long enough to permit me to see the second Star Wars movie. Today, if everything goes according to planthere is no conceivable way I will live long enough to see the final Star Wars movie. This news bothers me not in the least -- but it has generated a curiosity to check in on the various expanded universe (now non-canonical, but never mind) stories. Nor am I alone -- Locke Peterseim admits to similar obsessive-compulsive reading.
  • Speaking of the expanded universe -- Star Wars continuity cop Leland Chee is someone I'd dearly love to hear interviewed right now. But of course Disney and Abrams have sequestered him behind iron-clad non-disclosure agreements. Even his Twitter feed is a muted affair. Best Leland Chee Tweet:

Monday, January 11, 2016


I'm not sure if this is the right time to admit it, but I was never a big Bowie fan. The older I get the more I appreciate what he brought to pop music and pop culture and the culture at large (much, much more than I have the wherewithal to ascertain). But when it comes to a guy like Bowie the beholder has to be hooked young, or he (or she -- or what-have-you) never really gets the bug.

Four years ago, for example, I could say I appreciated and even admired Lady Gaga (Bowie's most assured progeny, at the time). But when my 14-year-old daughter said the same thing, it meant something on a very different scale. She got Gaga.

Bowie was never that for me. I could appreciate the freakiness -- thanks to him, and a heap of others, my generation pretty much accepted freakiness as our birthright. But I never bought anything by Bowie. I was happy enough to hear him on the radio -- I never switched the station when he came on, but I never put down the money, either. He was too poppy, too focused on casting a broad, popular spell. I needed crunch, dammit -- something with a little more dissonance.

Then in 1989 he formed the distinctly metallic Tin Machine.

They faced some stiff competition -- Lou Reed and Jane's Addiction, for starters. Nevertheless I put down the money and took home my first David Bowie project. I was 24.

It hasn't aged well (and this isn't the most durable song on the album) but I still appreciate Bowie's game face. And any opportunity to bring Reeves Gabrels' guitar to the fore is always welcome.

RIP, Jones. And thank you for the indefatigable, lifelong performance -- "a supple text that can be endlessly reinterpreted."

Saturday, January 02, 2016

In Praise Of Letting Novels Collect A Little Dust

No novel read before its time.
A friend of mine, after hearing me enthuse over Denis Johnson's Tree Of Smoke, admitted to having the opposite reaction when he tried to read the book. He had picked it up back in the day, and thought part of the problem had been Michiko Kakutani's enthusiastic review for NYTBR -- reading the book Kakutani raved about proved to be, "Not quite all that, and a bag of chips."

Kakutani's review, at this point, hardly strikes me as a rave, but I think I understand where my friend is coming from. Tree Of Smoke was rolled out with great fanfare (much to B.R. Meyer's amusement and contempt) and had I bought and read it at the time I likely would have been underwhelmed, at the very least. Instead, I picked up a remaindered copy and let it collect dust for a few years before cracking it open and giving it a go.

This is a strategy that's worked well for me. Rick Moody's The Diviners was another such purchase. In '05 it was a Big Deal In Publishing, but I read it at least five years later, when reviewers and trend-seekers had moved on to celebrate other work (Super Sad True Love Story and A Visit From The Goon Squad, if memory serves). I enjoyed The Diviners, but I'd be careful with my recommendation -- to be honest, most days Moody's fun-with-words approach to novel writing leaves me cold. But I happened to pull this from my shelf on a day when that was exactly what I had a hankering for, and I wound up loving the book.

My attention to pro book reviewers is increasingly on the wane -- but this is a list of books enjoyed I can get behind, because it has some of that "I only just discovered this popular flavour" characteristic I can (obviously) relate to.

Donna Tartt's The Secret History (1992) is a good read -- who knew?

Personal note-to-self: Joshua Cohen's Book Of Numbers, once remaindered, is likely to find a spot on my bookshelf.