Saturday, February 27, 2010

Progressing again

As I discussed in an earlier post on this blog, in my late 20s I wrote and published a monthly newsletter about progressive rock. It was called On Reflection, named after a composition by my favorite progressive band, Gentle Giant. It never grew too big, or too successful, but it enabled me to write about and share my passion with people around the world, some of whom still remember me two decades later.

As review, what I refer to as progressive rock is a genre whose heyday was the late 1960s to the latter 1970s; another way to put it is that it was spawned by psychedelia and spurned by punk. The best known performers were bands such as Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Though all these bands, including Gentle Giant, were British, prog groups flourished in the United States, Japan, Italy, Sweden, France, and many other countries.

Progressive rock is hard to define because there were scant similarities between the linear bombast of a Yes or an ELP and the intricately interlocking musical puzzles of Gentle Giant, between the spacy soundscapes of Pink Floyd and the improvisatory darkness of King Crimson, between the epic sagas of Genesis and the instrumental eclecticism of Dutch proggers Focus. But just as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, "I know it when I see it," one can identify progressive rock fairly easily (as I borrow the structure of comedian Jeff Foxworthy's tiresome "You know you're a redneck if..." routine):

• If girls run screaming from the room when you play an album, chances are good that it's a prog rock album.
• If the cover art depicts a scene that could never exist in the known universe, chances are good that it's a prog rock album.
• If the shortest tune on the album is 8:57, chances are good that it's a prog rock album.
• If the guitarist plays electric and acoustic 6- and 12-string guitars, chances are good that it's a prog rock album.
• If you see the words "moog", "harpsichord", "cello", and "Taurus bass pedals", chances are good that it's a prog rock album.
• If the lyrics make more sense read backwards than forwards, chances are good that it's a prog rock album.
• If the band members are white and intensely ugly, chances are they're a prog rock band.

I could go on, but hopefully you're getting the picture.

Of course, I can say all these things because I'm one of the club, although like Groucho Marx, I'm at least a little wary about being part of a club that would have me as a member. I like to think that even I, within a crowd of fellow proggers, can look around and think "These guys are weird." And yet the music does move me.

On the other hand, a lot of other kinds of music move me as well, and because of that I got bored and burned out from doing the newsletter. I felt I always had to be in a prog mood and frankly I wasn't. I was getting more heavily into jazz, folk, and classical music and I was tired of listening to new CDs of new bands who were trying to sound like the old albums by old bands. So I stepped away from the scene, still listening to what I liked when I felt like it, but not delving any deeper into the genre.

In the meantime, as I explained in the original post, one of my subscribers, John Collinge, wanted to keep the newsletter going. He renamed it Progression, and I helped him with the first couple of issues. After a while, I lost touch with him but last year, curious to see if it was still in print, I Googled him and found that he had grown Progression into a massive quarterly magazine with glossy pages and lots of ads, photos, and interviews. It's quite impressive and a vast evolution from the original eight-page offset-printed newsletter I folded, sealed, labeled, stamped, and mailed on my own.

So I got back in touch with John and he asked me if I was interested in writing any CD reviews. I demurred, not wanting to get back in the scene. But then recently, when a friend helped me to discover that a writer today needs a platform and that mine was music, it occurred to me that I should be doing more music writing and getting my name back in music circles. A few years ago, I submitted a number of Gentle Giant CD reviews to the Gentle Giant website, where they are still posted; I might as well do the same thing and get my name in print. So I wrote him recently to say OK, I'm in. In my mail the other day were 14 progressive CDs, only one from a band I'd heard of before.

So here I go, back in the prog world with ears open and maybe a bit more objectivity than back in the day. And as I venture on, I think of the lyrics to a song by Yes with the mega-proggy title, "The Revealing Science of God":
What happened to this song we once knew so well
Signed promise for moments caught within the spell
I must have waited all my life for this moment

Thursday, February 18, 2010

I'm 40 years older than my older sister

Last Friday, February 12, I turned 47. Friday, February 19, would have been my sister Donna's 53rd birthday. But it's not really, because she was seven when she died of leukemia back in 1964, and so she never aged. She never grew to really taste life, explore her interests and talents, have a career, fall in love, become a mother. She's still seven. She'll always be seven. But she'll always be my older sister.

Oldest, in fact, since I have a sister four years my senior, and another one seven years my junior. Donna was the first born. As the old data processing acronym goes, FIFO: first in, first out.

I've written about Donna before, so I won't rehash the history here. There are a couple of reasons I wanted to post on her again. One is because of her birthday and the realization that I've lived four full decades longer than Donna; the other because leukemia still kills too many children and adults each year.

Here are some statistics from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website:
Every 4 minutes one person is diagnosed with a blood cancer.

An estimated 139,860 people in the United States will be diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma in 2009. New cases of leukemia, Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma and myeloma account for 9.5 percent of the 1,479,350 new cancer cases diagnosed in the United States this year*.

Leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma will cause the deaths of an estimated 53,240 people in the United States this year. These blood cancers will account for nearly 9.5 percent of the deaths from cancer in 2009 based on the 562,340 total cancer-related deaths.

Every ten minutes, someone dies from a blood cancer. This statistic represents nearly 146 people each day, or more than six people every hour. Leukemia causes more deaths than any other cancer among children and young adults under the age of 20.

*Facts and statistics from Leukemia, Lymphoma, Myeloma Facts 2009-2010, June 2009.

One of the more promising treatments for leukemia not available during Donna's short lifetime is transplantation of bone marrow. The National Marrow Donor Program keeps a registry of more than seven million potential donors of life-saving marrow. Yet still perfect matches are hard to find. On January 23, 1999, I joined the registry in response to a marrow drive looking for a match for a specific person. It didn't hurt, it didn't take long, and it didn't cost me anything. Eleven years later, I'm still waiting, hoping that I can be a match for someone.

Maybe you can be a match for someone. If so, there's a good chance you'd be that person's last, best hope for a longer life. I only wish I could have donated my marrow to Donna.

To learn how you can join the registry, or make a donation to support their vital efforts, visit the Be The Match Foundation website.

Monday, February 15, 2010

When President's Day meant stereo sales

President's Day always inspires in me a strong memory summed up in two words: Tech Hifi. This was a northeastern U.S. chain of now-defunct stereo shops that for a time were THE place for audiophiles to score their fix. I guess I was about 15 when I bought my first component stereo system there, that would put the year at 1978. You could still get reel-to-reel players then, that was considered pretty high end. They sold speakers as tall as I was and had a wall of turntable cartridges.

Anyway, every President's Day Tech Hifi had a big sale and while I would go window shopping there throughout the year, President's Day was when I threw down the Andrew Jacksons.

I remember feeling intimidated when I first walked in because I didn't know anything about stereos at that time. Up to that point, I had played my records, tapes, and 8-tracks on shitty all-in-one systems purchased at Lechmere (also defunct). Now I was ready for the big time.

The staff were known for being pretty knowledgeable and helpful, and I learned what to listen for in speakers and how it was important to get the receiver/speaker combo decided on first. I didn't have a ton of money to spend but for a starter system it was certainly a quantum leap over what I had before, and I immediately heard things in my records I had never heard before.

My favorite component was my turntable: a Technics SL-220. It looked beautiful and I was literally hypnotized by the orange-red strobe light that enabled you to fine-tune the platter speed. I always have liked to listen to music as I went to bed at night, and I used to lie awake just staring at the glow emanating from my turntable in the dark of my room.

The next year, I upgraded my tape deck, then my receiver. When I got to college, Tech Hifi was already gone, but I upgraded my speakers to a pair of Burhoe Acoustics Blues, custom made in Dark Green cabinets (custom fabrication made easier by virtue of the fact that Mr. Burhoe's son was a friend at said college). For a time, it seemed as though I would make buying stereo equipment an annual event. But then I realized that I finally had the best components I could afford, and there simply were other things I needed unrestricted funds for.

It was years before I bought stereo equipment again. When I got married, we merged our stereo components, and my precious SL-220, now quite old and out of style (straight arms had replaced S arms) was sold at a yard sale. More than a decade later, still missing the entrancing component, I bought another SL-220 off of eBay. I haven't yet reincorporated it into my stereo system, but I feel better just knowing I own it again.

Now, when I look around at how people listen to music, I see that the golden age of audiophile stereo equipment is probably long over. Most of the music people listen to today are compressed mp3s that they listen to over their computers or through ear buds on handheld devices. The idea that one would set up one's living room by first assessing the ideal speaker placement and then positioning the seating in relation to that, spouse/girlfriend's objections be damned, is a thing of the past. Just as I don't pore over CD booklets the way I did gatefold album covers, I don't sit and concentrate on music the way I did when I was younger. For me, listening to music was often an activity unto itself, not just a complement to some other activity.

It makes me sad because while I still demand, devour, and delight in music as much as I ever did, I feel like I'm coasting on the momentum generated by my youthful audiophile days, when I would go to Tech Hifi and learn about Frank Zappa by overhearing older guys talking about him, sit in the listening room and be assaulted by perfect stereophonic fidelity, gaze at the catalogs longingly and read the descriptions of the ultra-high-end systems as if they were Penthouse Forum letters, and, perhaps, walk out with a sweet Aiwa tape deck with LED meters that displayed in yellow, green, and red.

Those were the days.

(For a mini history of Tech Hifi, read the founder's obituary here.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Apparently, we're still the world

When my 13-year-old daughter was younger, she was a compliant Daddy's girl, happy to listen to whatever music Daddy liked. I fed her a specially selected diet of wholesome '60s pop (Beatles and Beach Boys, Monkees and Mamas & Papas) and she consumed them happily. And then she became a tween and suddenly wanted to think for herself. Now I am fed a steady stream of '00s pop, and I'm finding it hard to think at all.

But I work to keep the lines of communication open. I don't want to be like my father was, summarily dismissing the music that was meaningful to me simply because it wasn't what he grew up with. What my father didn't realize was that I had big ears and a great musical curiosity, and I would eventually come around to appreciate the operas and symphonies he listened to. I told my daughter that she can listen to whatever she wants, but that I want her to be able to tell me what she likes about it, what moves her about it. I don't want her to just listen to or like something simply because it's on the radio; I want her to be able to make critical and individual choices about what her music is.

In that spirit, she'll often play me songs or show me videos of songs she likes and why she likes them. Sometimes I can get into it, often times I can't, but I try not to disrespect her choices. Ian Hunter was once asked about the state of rock music and he said, "Same as it's always been, 5% is great and 95% is crap." I think that applies across the generations and is at least as true now as it ever was.

Which brings me to the point of this post. The other day, my daughter sent me a link to the following YouTube video, showing the remake of "We Are the World" for Haiti:

We watched it together and share our impressions. Overall, my daughter liked the tune and found the whole thing inspirational. For her to find anything inspirational is worth noting, and I appreciated that this was an event on a scale for her that the original "We Are the World" for Africa was 25 years ago.

The remake opens with Justin Bieber, who seems about 25 years away from reaching puberty. Neither she nor I knew many of the other artists (I hope it's not racist to say that with the hoods, knit caps, and sunglasses, all rappers look alike to me, and most of the female singers of today are indistinguishable to me, visually, vocally, and musically). I knew Josh Groban and identified to my daughter Tony Bennett, who apparently wandered into the wrong place as he's old enough to be most everyone else's grandfather. The splicing in of the clip of Michael Jackson from the original, and then bringing in Janet in the same screen was creepy and gross (but not as creepy and gross as seeing Randy and LaToya Jackson being completely useless in the original).

And then what's this? Barbra Streisand, with a surprising lack of gravitas. A few more generic singers and then some guy with a bizarre voice. Pink, whom I respect, comes on and then, OMG, another clip of Michael? Then Celine Dion appears and makes me want to rip my ears clean out of my head. I see Gladys Knight, one of my all-time favorite singers, in the crowd and wonder shy she doesn't get a spotlight.

Then at 4:32, in another crowd shot, I'm stunned to see, on the far right, Brian Wilson, the genius himself, and two to the left of him is his ex-Beach Boys bandmate Al Jardine, IN MATCHING SHIRTS NO LESS. Two of the greatest living practitioners of harmony singing don't get a spotlight. At least they get a fair amount of screen time.

Jamie Foxx reprises Ray Charles' line from the original in his voice at 5:42, then the rap segment comes in with the subtlety of the Haitian earthquake itself. Eventually, it ends, and I tell my daughter that I want her to see the original to compare. Mind you, I haven't seen the original in many years myself, and I was never much of a fan of it to begin with. I support the idea behind it, of course, but it was never anything I would buy because it was in the wheelhouse of my musical taste. But check it out we did:

So I see it starts with Lionel Richie, now best known as the father of a train wreck. I'm amused to see Kenny Rodgers. I'm amazed that Tina Turner and Billy Joel sound good together. Michael and Diana Ross share a screen - and, for a time, a face. Then Dionne Warwick, another of my all-time favorite singers, comes on with her buttery-rich voice. And joining her in harmony is...Willie Nelson? Was Quincy Jones on pot, too?

Al Jarreau also comes on smooth and then is assaulted by Bruce Springsteen, who sounds like he needs a couple of jars of Metamucil. Kenny Loggins gives way to Journey's Steve Perry who gives way to Darryl Hall, and you wonder why there isn't a law against something like that. Then the big surprise. Michael gives way to fist-clenching Huey Lewis, the very epitome of bland, and in comes the highlight vocal of both versions: by Cyndi Lauper? Hell yeah, she kicks some serious ass with her part.

I'm very impressed with the crowd background vocals, much more so than with the autotuned vocals of the remake. At 3:45, Bob Dylan, one of my heroes, whom my daughter despises, does his part and my daughter is amazed that he's actually sort of singing. Always amusing to see that Dan Aykroyd showed up. Then Stevie Wonder and Springsteen pair off, and again, I wonder why Bruce is screaming in the face of this poor blind man. Easy, Bruce, you don't have to hit it at 11 all the time.

James Ingram seems to have a spotlight much larger than his fame or talent would warrant, then one is reminded that he was a Quincy Jones protegee. It ends with Lionel Richie's thumb's up and the realization that you never see Michael during the crowd scenes. I guess he vanted to be alone. Smokey Robinson is also in the crowd but for some reason didn't rate a spotlight.

The viewing ended with a hung jury. I preferred the original, my daughter preferred the remake. But in a way, we were both liking the same thing, and the larger point is that we both have seen our country mobilize in response to devastation in a far-away land. Furthermore, music was a key means of sending the message and marshaling support. Music's ability to communicate, motivate, and unify is one of the things that makes music so manifestly important to me, and for this one time, my daughter and I felt the same way about it. Which made me a very happy Daddy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

End of the world?

Not yet, not for me anyway, but that was the theme of my latest piece of writing. A left-of-center theater troupe in New York City called End Times Productions had a contest recently looking for short, one-act plays to be featured in its annual "Vignettes of the Apocalypse" production. That title alone should make it clear what kinds of things they're looking for, but if you need more of a hint, they just closed a run of Manson: The Musical.

Anyway, as I am wont to do these days, I took on the challenge of writing a play to submit for consideration. I was attracted to the subject of the end of the world because several years ago I co-wrote an episode of the WGBH/PRI radio series Sound & Spirit with host/novelist Ellen Kushner called "The End of the World." (Follow the show's link and scroll through the program titles; I also wrote "Mourning" and a program on prayer that for some reason isn't on the list.) I learned that virtually all religions and cultures have end-times stories and beliefs; in fact, the Biblical story of Noah and the flood appears in various forms in many ancient texts (including The Epic of Gilgamesh) and belief systems. The Hopi believe that the world has ended three times before, and that three future worlds still await.

For that program, I had to do a lot of research; not so for the one-act play, which I titled Revelation 9 (the title does not have anything to do with the ninth chapter of the Book of Revelation, but rather is a play on the Beatles' "Revolution 9", which came to me only near the end of the script, when I decided to make John Lennon a character.

Here's the plot: The play opens with God standing in front of a laptop computer, which sits on a tall pedestal. He acknowledges the audience but continues to do the work he is engaged in, which is to take all the templates for humanity (which are computer files on his hard drive) and drag them into the trash. The computer asks God to confirm that the files should be deleted. This would have the effect of destroying humanity (an altogether more elegant method compared to fire, water, ice, or all-out destruction of the planet).

At this critical juncture, God steps out from behind the computer to explain to the audience why humanity's time has come. He is interrupted by Satan and they begin to argue over God's brilliant (according to God) or idiotic (according to Satan) idea to give human beings the freedom to choose between good and evil. To bolster his argument, Satan brings out the souls of three all-time baddies: Vlad the Impaler (the Romanian tyrant who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula), John Wilkes Booth, and Adolf Hitler. God counters with three examples of goodness: Mohandas Gandhi, Clara Barton, and John Lennon. The text supports the selection of all six characters, so I won't defend them here; suffice to say, they all make relevant points in this endless debate over whether humanity can be trusted to use such freedom responsibly.

I guess I won't tell you the ending, either, but suffice to say, since you're reading this right now, something must have happened to delay or derail the emptying of God's desktop trash. The point, however, remains: humanity's continued existence is at the mercy of two things: unknowable forces and events we can neither predict nor prevent, and our own stupidity. Maybe not the most uplifting evening of theater you can imagine, but then again, the client is called End Times Productions. I await word of whether or not my particular vignette of the apocalypse makes the grade. Hopefully, Manson: The Musical hasn't set the bar too high for me.