Four for the Price of One

I’ve had an unusually busy couple of weeks, even without GT’s contributions* to the excitement.

* GT is, by the way, doing well. He had the drain removed from his cheek Sunday. He continues to remove the Cone o’ Shame, but is making no effort to evade the other medical necessities (mostly warm compresses twice a day).

Maybe it won’t seem all that busy to many of you, but keep in mind that I typically go to maybe two movies–and less than one concert–a year. Add a couple of ballgames, and that’s pretty much it for my outside entertainment. Somehow, however, I found myself going to two concerts and two movies in two weeks.

All that makes for a priceless opportunity–four ready-made blog posts!–that I’m going to shamelessly squander. One post, four mini-reviews. Ready? Let’s go.

Saturday, 7/9: The BFG

Let’s be honest. The BFG is not one of Roald Dahl’s best books. It’s certainly not in the same league as the Charlie books or James and the Giant Peach*. Not even Fantastic Mr. Fox (no, there really isn’t a “The” at the beginning of the title). The end isn’t really an end, it just sort of fades out. The climactic confrontation nearly slips by unnoticed. And later events happen without much reference to earlier happenings.

* My personal favorite.

So the movie didn’t have a high bar to clear. But Spielberg–or rather, he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison–didn’t settle for a simple transposition of book to film. A single example of the improvements they made: In the book, there’s a minor argument between Sophie and the BFG which neither wins, and the subject is immediately dropped. In the movie, the BFG wins the argument by doing an endrun around Sophie’s better judgement. As a result, we get bagpipes and jet-propelled corgis.

Mathison and Spielberg added a few other callbacks to events earlier in the film, and as a result, the ending became more satisfying, dramatically and emotionally.

It was never going to be a major smash, but it deserves better than the reception than it’s currently getting at the box office.

Thursday, 7/14: BABYMETAL

You know I’m not going to diss BABYMETAL.

But I do have a couple of complaints, so let me get those out of my system first. Standing in line outside the venue was cold. Twainian levels of cold. Nobody’s fault, but the group’s management missed an opportunity: if they had moved the merchandise sales outside before the doors opened, they would unquestionably have sold a huge number of hoodies.

Once they opened the doors, it still took a long time to get inside–they were funneling the entire audience through a pair of metal detectors. From what we overheard, it was the first time they had used them, and their inexperience showed. Given the ongoing controversy over whether BABYMETAL is really metal, I wondered if they were going to turn away anyone who didn’t set off the detectors: “Sorry, kid, you’re not metal enough to attend this show.” I didn’t see that happen, but I also didn’t see it not happen.

The Regency Ballroom was kind enough to open the balcony so those who wished to avoid the mosh pit that consumed the entire main floor could do so. The balcony even had seats! Not that the seats mattered, because as soon as the first notes sounded, everyone stood up. Including the six-footer in front of me. I’ve got some lovely photos of the back of his head and arms.
No, that shot really isn’t as perverted as his arm makes it look, but the rest of the shots he was in are so much more completely blocked that they don’t amount to much more than unintelligible blurs.

My apologies, by the way, to whoever was behind me. I hope you were taller than I am.

Still, I did get some good shots, especially when the lighting wasn’t so red it threw off the camera’s focus.
OK, “good” by my standards. Stop laughing, Beth.

And no number of bodies could block the music.

I was able to let go of my brain and get into the experience–my first metal concert!–and wound up exhausted and sore-throated in a good way. All in all, I had a fantastic time, and yes, next time I find myself in proximity to a BABYMETAL show, I’ll attend. I’ll just make sure I have a better line of sight to the stage.

Tuesday, 7/19: Ghostbusters

Unlike many of the people my age who have, shall we say, firm opinions about the wisdom of a Ghostbusters remake, I came into the theater with an open mind. I saw the original when it came out, but I doubt that I’ve seen it more than twice since. Certainly not at all in the last decade. So I remember a couple of key scenes clearly, and I remember the movie as a whole as being funny. But I don’t consider it a cherished part of my youth, and I’m definitely not in a position to do a point-by-point comparison between the films.

Taken on its own, then, I found the new movie more than worth the time and ticket price. I don’t expect it to match the original’s multiple Oscar, Hugo, and Grammy award nominations, but it’s far from embarrassing itself, its actors, or its creators.

Seeing it so soon after BABYMETAL, I probably found the scenes at the metal show funnier than I might have otherwise, but they worked well enough even without that help.

Kudos to the crew for moving the big dance scene to the end credits instead of interrupting the flow of the story; the little snippet they used during the film was much funnier for being so abbreviated.

And the dialog flowed well. Writing humor is hard, and making it look easy is even harder*. That there were so few places where the humor missed is a major tribute to the creative team.

* Yes, I know I’m far from the first person to point that out. But it bears repeating.

Count me as one white male of a certain age who doesn’t think Ghostbusters‘ 2016 incarnation destroyed his youth, but does think it enhanced his certain-age-itude.

However, having said that, I will admit that if I had to guess which of the past couple of weeks’ entertainments is the one I’ll be least likely to remember fondly a few decades from now, it would be Ghostbusters.

Friday, 7/22: They Might Be Giants

No, you’ve never heard me blathering about my enduring love of They Might Be Giants. There’s a reason for that: I don’t have a deep passion for them. But Maggie is something of a fan, and I appreciate their sense of humor, so we grabbed the chance to catch their show in Berkeley.

A slight diversion: the show was originally supposed to be in March, but there were technical problems with the venue. The show was at the newly remodeled UC Theatre, and was supposed to be the theater’s grand reopening after a fifteen-year hiatus. Didn’t quite work out. But now that they’re fully operational, I love what they’ve done with the place. The UC used to be a movie theater–Maggie and I used to go there in its repertory days–and the remodeling handles the steeply angled floor brilliantly: it’s been divided into three flat sections, each with a low wall at the front. The first section is actually lower than the stage, which puts the performers’ feet at the audience’s chin level. Odd, but very workable for dancing. The middle section is about ten feet higher, giving it a perfect view of the stage, and the back section is another couple feet up.

But I digress. So what else is new?

The audience for TMBG was somewhat more sedate than BABYMETAL’s crowd, and we were lucky enough to be near the front of the line. That meant we were able to snag a couple of the small complement of chairs at the front of the middle section. It wasn’t until we were seated that I realized I had forgotten my camera. Fortunately, my phone did an acceptable job.
An optical zoom would have been nice, but this is fine as a memory cue.

And, beyond the music, the show was memorable for one thing I’ve never seen before:
I thought at first the sign-language interpreters were with the group, but apparently not–John and John had to ask the interpreters’ names before thanking them. Regardless, a nice touch, though I’d love to get an appraisal of how well they did: it can’t be easy keeping up with TMBG’s rapid-fire lyrics.

Good view, good music. And if I wasn’t as tired and hoarse as the week before, I did come out of the theater with hands sore from clapping. An evening well spent.

So that’s been my mid-to-late July. I could probably get used to those levels of excitement but I’m hoping for a slightly quieter August–at the very least, one without medical emergencies.

Getting Back to Normal

Let’s start this assortment of short items with another vacation-followup bit.

Yes, I did come home with some CDs.

An aside here: it’s true that musicians get paid for performances. But it’s not a living wage for anyone but the most popular superstars–and it’s open to question whether they make a profit on their appearances. So if you want to support your favorite musicians, don’t just go to their shows. Buy merchandise. CDs, t-shirts, bumper stickers, whatever appeals to you.

Did I get CDs from everyone I liked at the festival? Nope. Even if I could have afforded to buy that many CDs, I would have had to buy another suitcase just to bring them home. That seemed a trifle excessive. On the other hand, it would have given me enough new music to keep me occupied for months. Hmm.

But I did get a few discs, and it seems like a friendly gesture to point you all at some of the performers who made the biggest impressions on me.

Brian Holland and Danny Coots are an awesome duo* (and Brian is pretty darn good on his own, for that matter.) Their discs cover a wide range–ragtime, swing, blues, and more etceteras than my fingers are willing to type–and not always in separate pieces. One particular highlight of the Two Man Job CD is “Solace in the Blue Bayou,” which successfully mixes Scott Joplin circa 1909 and Roy Orbison from half a century later.

* Brian was also the artistic director of this year’s festival. Remember those comments about it being the best ever? Much of the credit for that should go to Brian.

Then there’s Tom Brier. He’s made a minor splash on the Web for his sight-reading ability and flying fingers, but his original compositions are, IMNSHO, where he shines. Check out “Peril in Pantomime” on his 2008 CD Blue Sahara. Unfortunately, Tom doesn’t have a website to showcase his music and sell CDs, so you’ll have to hunt the discs down. Try the usual venues for starters.

Finally–at least for today–we come to Sébastien Troendlé, a French performer whose first American appearance was this year’s festival. His roots are firmly in boogie-woogie, but none of the ragtimers at the festival seemed to hold that against him. Check out the teaser video for his “Rag’n Boogie” CD and a live performance at the Festival international de Boogie-Woogie de Laroquebrou. Then go pick up copy of the disc.

Moving on to something music-related, but with absolutely no connection to ragtime. It is, however, silly.

According to Gizmodo, Mattel is releasing a set of Hot Wheels vehicles commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

The submarine…uh…car is unquestionably the best of the seven, although there’s much to be said for the four vehicles emblazoned with the faces of the Fab Four. On the other hand, the less said about the weird yellow tractor-like thing with the pink bumpers the better.

I have to question Mattel’s decision to put Blue Meanies on the VW Microbus. Sure, VW brought its current woes on itself, but I’m inclined to think that associating them with the villains of the movie smacks more than a bit of a gratuitous kick to sensitive tissue. After all, nobody ever expected a Microbus to be either fuel-efficient or non-polluting.

Even so, as a long-time Beatles fan, and an even-longer Hot Wheels fan*, I suspect I’ll be picking up a couple of the cars (or should that be “cars”?) when they’re released later this month.

* I’m sure my parents could tell many a story of the way my room was festooned with orange plastic race track in my tween years…

Moving on again, this time to something that has no relationship to music, but which is silly.

How about a cat brush. A very special cat brush.

It’s designed to let you lick your cat. After all, why should the felines be the only ones doing the licking in your relationship?

Relax, your actual tongue never makes contact with fur, nor does the group behind this Kickstarter expect you to get your cat’s attention by sticking your nose up his or her rear end.

I’m dubious about the psychological benefits both parties will supposedly receive by using this brush. I’ll admit that we’ve got a few, more conventional, brushes made of similar materials and that our cats seem to enjoy being brushed with them.

But all of our cats start shifting around nervously when our faces get close to their bodies. And the cats shown on the Kickstarter project seem to range from martyred acceptance to befuddled discomfort.

The project is fully funded, and there doesn’t seem to be any technical barrier to the construction of the LICKI Brush, so I expect them to show up in buyers’ hands early next year. Really, though, I hope most of the backers are considering them novelty items, rather than something they’ll use regularly.

I’m Back

I’m back. Rather than asking and risking an answer I’d rather not hear, I’ll just assume you missed me.

I managed to disconnect from the net, and didn’t look at any newspaper*, so it’s going to take me a couple of days to catch up on whatever happened while I was gone–and what’s happening now. That means I can’t bring you my usual timely (i.e. no more than 48 hours-delayed) posts quite yet.

* OK, so I looked at “USA TODAY” a couple of times. I stand by my original statement.

So today you have to suffer through my vacation photos. It’s traditional, right?

As usual, I’ll be making wild generalizations based on insufficient data (residents of Missouri–pardon me, “Missoura”–feel free to jump in and correct me).

07-1Sedalia, MO, where I spent most of the past week, is surrounded by fields of blurry corn. I’m willing to entertain the theory that the corn would be less blurry if it weren’t moving at a relative velocity of 70 MPH–no, don’t call the police: I assure you that’s the speed limit along that stretch of freeway*–but I don’t have any experimental data that would bear on the question. For those even less agriculturally-inclined than I am, the corn is the green stuff behind and to the right of the tree. The green and yellow plants in the foreground are something called “weeds”. Yes, with an “s” at the end.

* Disconcerting to those of us used to states where the maximum speed is 65, or even lower.

07-2There’s a downtown historic district, where many of the business occupy buildings that date back to the 1800s. For that matter, many of the homes are equally as old. Here in California, forty-year-old buildings are routinely considered “historic” and protected from change. That made seeing buildings a century older being remodeled and rebuilt, and in daily use with nary a historic marker in sight seem a little peculiar.

Which is not to say that Sedalia is locked in the eighteenth century. Outside of the historic part of town, you can find all the modern conveniences you want: chain stores, wi-fi, and murder.

Whoops, pardon me. That’s for a later post. And besides, the murder in question, and the ensuing events, happen in the older section. So, let me try that again: “…all the modern conveniences you want: chain stores, wi-fi, and BBQ joints.” Yes, much better. And, with apologies to my vegetarian readers, it’s damn good ‘que, too.

* One thing Sedalia doesn’t seem to have is the concept of recycling–indeed, Missoura as a whole seems extremely deficient in its attention to matters environmental. The only recycling bins I saw in the (admittedly small) part of the state I visited were in the Kansas City airport. And the signs advertising unlimited auto washings for twenty bucks a month made this drought-attuned California resident bang his head against the nearest wall.

07-3Anyway, aside from the murder-I’m-not-talking-about-yet, my main reason for going to Sedalia was the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival.

I’m not going to give a background briefing on ragtime or Scott Joplin. Not today, anyway. There’s some information on the festival site if you’re curious, but frankly, approaching the music by starting with the history is a backward approach. Start with the music!

For starters, several people have already posted videos from this year’s festival. These all seem to have been taken at one of the outdoor venues, and are a decent place to start your investigation. I expect the list to grow as more attendees get home, catch up on their e-mail, and start posting their vacation movies.

* Kudos to the festival organizers for including a full lineup of free concerts in addition to the scholarly presentations and non-free indoor concerts. There were quite a few times when I really wished I had the ability to be in two places at once.

Be aware that silliness does occasionally break out.07-4

I know how boring other peoples’ vacation photos are, so I’ll knock off with one final note.

I enjoyed the festival immensely, and I wasn’t the only one. This was my first time attending, so I don’t have a basis for comparison, but I heard several people say that it was the best one yet. Give some serious consideration to hitting the festival next June.


A trio of updates to ongoing stories today.

First, the backpedaling has begun at KFOG. They’ve announced that Rosalie Howarth, one of the fired DJs, has been re-hired and will return to the air this weekend.

According to the program director*, this move was planned all along. I’m dubious. Who lays someone off for six weeks? It seems even more improbable when you consider that at the time of the layoffs, Rosalie was only on-air six hours a week. Even allowing for the fact that she had the longest tenure of any of the staff who were let go, if the plan was really to bring her back, it wouldn’t have killed the station’s budget to put her on paid leave for those six weeks.

* A gentleman by the name of Brian Schlock. The petty-minded are welcome to make jokes about appropriate namings…

And let’s not forget that those six hours a week were hosting the popular “Acoustic Sunrise” and “Acoustic Sunset” shows on Sundays. Wouldn’t KFOG have wanted to counter some of the ill-will generated by their programming changes by announcing that the shows* would return?

* Actually, only “Acoustic Sunrise” is coming back–and it’ll be subject to the same anathematization of pre-nineties music as the rest of the station. On the other hand, “Acoustic Sunrise” will be an hour longer than it used to be.

KFOG clearly considers bringing back Rosalie as tossing loyal listeners a bone. Given the dubious spin, I suspect most of those listeners are going to consider it more of a chicken bone than a meaty T-bone.

Moving on, remember the Bay Bridge?

It looks like the Chron has a replacement for our old friend Jaxon on the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch Beat. Say hello to Melody Gutierrez. Since her main focus is politics, we can hope that she’ll spend some time looking into those apparently non-existent approvals we’ve been asking about.

Her first bridge report is a brief update on those improperly-grouted rods. You know: the ones that anchor the bridge to its pilings.

Steven Heminger and his colleagues on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission have approved a plan to re-grout the rods to prevent further corrosion. The cost is only $15 million–a drop in the bucket (sorry) compared to total bridge budget. The commission is satisfied that the rods don’t need to be replaced, which would have cost a hell of a lot more, so this seems like a reasonable expense. So does the additional million they approved for a corrosion survey of the bridge foundation.

But I’d still like to know why the grout wasn’t properly tested when the rods were installed. Melody, keep us posted, OK?

And finally, here’s the latest in our intermittent series of posts documenting the feline campaign to rule the world.

A group of cats in Britain has decided to wipe out the British economy by targeting the advertising industry. They plan to replace the usual subway advertisements urging commuters to buy, buy, buy, with photos of, well, cats. They’re only going to take over one station, but you can be sure that’s only the beginning–have you ever known a cat to be satisfied with only one toy?

The felines aren’t about to pay for their nefarious plan themselves. There’s a funding campaign running on Kickstarter. As I write this, the pledges are a bit short. With three days to go, they’re only 53% of the way to their goal.

Whether you want to help the cats’ plan for global domination is, naturally, a matter for you to settle with your own conscience.

Not So Guilty

I’ve been remiss.

A year ago Thursday, I let you in on one of my guilty pleasures, BABYMETAL.

This time last year, they were a cult phenomenon, little known outside Japan. Not unreasonable for an idol band, however genre-atypical their music might have been. Those of us who had stumbled over the group wondered if they would survive. As I said, “It’s rare for an idol to have a second CD; the labels that control their “career” would rather promote a ne face who can sell the same merchandise again.” I also noted the notorious interchangeability of idols: it’s not uncommon for a group to last years, or even decades, with members aging out and being replaced by younger faces.

Well, part of the question has been answered. On April 1, BABYMETAL released a new CD. On the second, they kicked off an international tour in London. They made their American TV debut on The Lat Show with Stephen Colbert on April 5.

The media blitz is working. The Colbert appearance is currently the fifteenth most popular video on Colbert’s YouTube channel. Many of the concerts are sold out* and the new album, Metal Resistance is selling well: it debuted at Number 39 on Billboard’s “Top 200 Albums” chart and has been Number 1 on their “World Albums” chart for the past three weeks.

* Yes, I’m going to the San Francisco show. Silly question. Maggie and I are stocking up on earplugs, and are looking forward to seeing how they scale down their stadium-level show for a smaller–and less fireproof–venue.

How is the new album? Pretty damn good, actually. The girls’ voices have matured, and they come across as more confident and comfortable in their roles. There’s a good mix of styles, even the track I hated on first listen, “Sis.Anger,” is starting to grow on me, and the closing track, “The One,” is not only a hell of an anthem, but also an impressive earworm.

So signs are good for BABYMETAL to hang around for a while yet. If Amuse Management can resist the temptation to tinker with the membership, I may even feel justified in dropping that word “guilty”.

Will they resist? It’s true that as the girls age, they lose a bit from the “cute” side of their “Cute Metal” branding. Musically, that’s not a bad thing, but from an idol perspective, it’s a potential problem. On the positive side, there must already have been some discussion of tinkering to maintain the group’s image before they went ahead with planning Metal Resistance and the current tour. That would have been the logical time to make the change: bring in a new slate of younger performers and release a “BABYMETAL II” album–more of the same instead of trying something new.

Hopefully that decision will stick. I’d love to see BABYMETAL make the jump from metal idols to metal musicians, making room for a new crop of idols to take up “cute metal” and fill that guilty pleasure niche.


Bear with me while I try to parse this.

With the reports out of Minneapolis confirmed, it’s official: he’s now “The Former Artist Formerly Known As The Artist Formerly Known As Prince.”

What, too soon? We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. I’m firmly in the “laughing so you don’t cry” camp whenever possible. It’s the same principle (no pun intended) that encourages wakes to emphasize music, jokes, and happy memories of the dead. If I’d had an equivalent line on tap for David Bowie back in January, I would have used it just as quickly.

I’ll freely admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Prince’s music; I enjoyed it when I heard it, but didn’t seek it out. But the loss of a unique voice can’t help but diminish the world, and Prince’s was, if you’ll forgive a misuse of the English language, more unique than most.

I just know we’re in for a rehash of “The Year of Death for Rock Stars”. Please, everyone, try to resist the temptation. Yes, we’ve had several more well-known musician deaths. Yes, I know Prince was only 57. But again, a certain number of deaths are statistically expected across any field of endeavor. And, probably more to the point, the media hype has sensitized our brains to deceased musicians. I’ll confidently assert that we’ll lose at least three more rock musicians who can legitimately be described as “famous” before the end of the year. I’d love to be wrong about that, naturally, but the odds don’t favor it–have you looked at last year’s list of deaths on Wikipedia?

But back to Prince.

He’ll be missed, just as we’re missing all of the creators–famous or otherwise–who’ve died, retired, or otherwise stopped creating. And, as always, the proper response is to step up and create something yourself.

And if you’re inspired to do something to memorialize Prince, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Me, I’d be tempted to go buy a Corvette–red, of course–but the $23.09 in my pocket isn’t going to cut it. On the other hand, I rock a pretty mean beret. Amazon’s got those starting at $0.99.

Nipper Would Be Ashamed

The Grammy Award Show was yesterday. Full disclosure: I didn’t watch any of it.

For the uninitiated, the Grammys are the music industry’s Super Bowl. Unlike the NFL, however, the powers behind the Grammys haven’t figured out how to squeeze in the maximum amount of annoyance to their customers. They’ve got the “no commoners” thing going. Even better than the NFL, even. At least Super Bowl tickets are available to the public, even if the average football fan can’t afford them; the Grammys, as is the case for most award shows, are invitation-only*. But in other respects, the music industry has a long way to go.

* You can, however, buy tickets to various after-show parties. A few years ago, for example, Diddy threw a benefit party with ticket prices ranging from $1,500 to $50,000. One “perk” at the high end: your own posse of booth babes–excuse me, “promotional models”. I’m not sure what you would do with fifteen decorative accessories, but I suppose if you could afford the ticket, you could afford to hire someone to come up with a plan.

The NFL not only screwed up traffic in San Francisco for more than a week and subjected random pedestrians who weren’t even going to Super Bowl-related events to pat-downs and metal detectors, but they convinced the city to pay for the security.

By contrast, the Grammys only interfered with traffic over a few blocks and a few hours, and the only security I’m aware of–paid for by the show–concentrated on the people at the venue.

Come on, guys. How will we know the music industry is successful if you don’t drive away thousands of potential customers?

Then there was the show itself.

The reviews are scathing. The best review I’ve seen suggested that the show occasionally reached adequacy.

Lady Gaga, fresh off wowing the Super Bowl audience with her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” reportedly underwhelmed Grammy viewers with her extended David Bowie medley. Several acts were spoiled by audio problems–remember, this is a show devoted to the best in music*. Shouldn’t the producers pay attention to the miking, mixing, and other technical matters first?

* Well, “best” according to those who run the show. Them what gots the gold makes the rules.

I hear Bonnie Raitt’s part of the B.B. King tribute was one of the rare high points. I imagine that’ll show up on YouTube–heck, it’s probably there already. My plan is to take a listen to that and ignore the remaining four hours of the show.

And there’s another way the Grammys fall short of the Super Bowl’s annoyance factor: by tomorrow, it will be possible to ignore the Grammys until next year. A week after the Super Bowl, the media is still blathering about it (yes, including me–sorry about that).

Look for the Grammys to step up their game next year. Until then, enjoy the peace and quiet. And go buy some music from an artist who wasn’t at the Grammys, just to say “thank you”.

Knock It Off

No, it’s not.

Yes, I heard that Glenn Frey died.

It’s still not “The Year of Death for Rock Stars” that some members of the media are hyping.

Two deaths, even a week, apart do not make a trend.

Some of the press are apparently so desperate to make this a story, that they’re stretching the concept totally out of shape. So far I’ve seen lists including Lemmy (died in December–hardly “this year”), Dallas Taylor (died last January), and Alan Rickman (hint for the clueless writer who came up with that one: he wasn’t a rock star).

Give it up, gang. Suggesting that the universe is out to get rock stars only makes you look stupid. As has been pointed out many times, humans’ brains are optimized to look for patterns, so much so that we find them where they don’t exist. Events cluster all the time–one might even say that’s the way time works (it’s a device to keep everything from happening at once, but nothing in the specifications says it has to space similar events at equal intervals).

Let’s face it: rock star is a risky profession. “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” is a cliché for a reason. Hell, professional entertainer is a risky profession for exactly the same reason: add a constant high-pressure environment on top of easy access to a variety of interesting chemical compounds, and you get a cornucopia of health hazards. It’s a wonder we don’t lose a well-known, much-beloved musician, actor, or sports star every day

Screaming about an epidemic of rock icon deaths is more than a bit ghoulish, too. Where’s the value* in cultivating a “Who’s going to be next mentality?

* Other than selling newspapers or the electronic equivalent, I mean.

Let’s get real. Nobody, not even the universe as a whole, is doing in rock gods. Just ask Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John, all of whom are still alive and singing, and planning to remain that way for the indefinite future. Or goddesses, for that matter. I’m sure Stevie Nicks, Tina Turner, and Grace Slick are planning to hang around at least as long as the guys do.

Keep On

We’ve lost another artist I admire. If you have any connection to popular culture–or really, if you have any connection to consensus reality–you’ve heard that David Bowie died Sunday.

I was never a rabid fan. Enthusiastic, perhaps, but not rabid. And, just to be upfront, my tastes might well be described as common: my favorite album is Diamond Dogs and my favorite song is “The Man Who Sold the World”. Don’t take that to mean I dislike what he’s done since 1974. Quite the contrary. But your first encounter with something often gets a point boost in the memory standings and Diamond Dogs was the first Bowie album I bought, back in those nearly-forgotten days when the LP was the pinnacle of audio technology.

I didn’t buy it when it was first released; I’m not quite that old, thanks. I didn’t get into Bowie until the early eighties. If my memory of those ancient days can be trusted, the first popular music concert I went to was his show at the Tacoma Dome on the Serious Moonlight tour*. That was 1983; you do the math. No, I still don’t go to a lot of concerts.

* The Tubes opened that show. I’m probably going to piss a few people off by saying this, but I hated their set, to the point where I didn’t enjoy Bowie’s set as much as I might otherwise. Given their towering reputation, what does it say about me that I thought the performance was so sloppy and self-indulgent that I’ve never been able to stomach the idea of exploring their music?

I digress, as usual.

Much has been said about Bowie’s musical flexibility; his ability to reinvent himself is astounding, especially in combination with his productivity: an album a year from 1969 through 1980.

That’s not what I most admire about him, however. My admiration is for his ability to say what he had to say and shut up when he didn’t have anything to say. No endless retreads of styles he was done with just to please the audience. Quite willing to let a year or two–or ten–go by without an album release.

Hmm. That makes it sound like I’m picturing him lounging around the house in his pajamas. Perhaps it’s better to call it his ability to choose the right way to say what he had to say. Acting–stage and screen–gave him an avenue to express things that didn’t come across musically. And Bowie was as flexible an actor as a musician, choosing widely disparate roles.

So once again, the world is diminished. I’m going to double-down on what I said when we lost Leonard Nimoy and Terry Pratchett: don’t let the world shrink. Do some creating of your own. Build something positive. That’s the best way to remember those we’ve lost. Sure, it may take several of us to do as much good, to bring as much joy, as one Bowie, Nimoy, or Pratchett–but there are a hell of a lot of “severals” in the world.

Under Cover, Part 2

Ready for that path to riches I promised? There’s something else we need to discuss before we get there, another factor besides familiarity that plays into a cover song’s popularity: the degree to which the cover differs from the original.

I often hear covers that are so similar to the original that I’m hard-pressed to tell them apart. I’m not going to embarrass anyone by naming names here–I’m sure you can think of your own examples–because the only explanation I can think of for recording a note-for-note cover is sheer greed: crank something out quickly and hope that the sheer familiarity of it encourages people to buy it. (Note that I’m talking specifically about covers on recordings and to a somewhat lesser extent, live performances. Doing this kind of literal cover is an excellent way to learn a piece or get familiar with a style, but one doesn’t normally sell rough drafts or setting-up exercises.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum from literal covers are ones so different they almost become new songs. The quick route to this category is by doing your cover in a very different musical style. Consider, for example, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s lounge interpretation of Soundgarden’s grunge icon “Black Hole Sun”.



The video of the lounge version is a fan-production, not an official release; the juxtaposition of the already-disturbing visuals with the hyper-relaxed lounge sound escalates the combined work to levels of brain melting previously only attained by the combination of Frank Zappa and massive doses of acid.

Another example, not so extreme, is the Austin Lounge Lizards’ bluegrass cover of Pink Floyd’s classic “Brain Damage”.



(My apologies for the useless video. I can’t find a live performance.)

(If you really want to mix and match, the Austin Lounge Lizards’ take on grunge can be found here. Yeah, OK, I’m getting a bit off-topic. How about a couple of covers of The Grunge Song to be vaguely relevant? I found a straight-up grunge version and ukulele solo version.)

I’d argue that most wildly deviant covers start out in late night/early morning drug and/or alcohol-infused jam sessions. Most of them are quickly buried when sunlight and sobriety strike; only a few pass the “why the hell not release this?” test a few days, weeks, or months later. As such, they’re something of an artistic quantum element, not truly susceptible to critical decomposition.

There is, by the way, a sub-genre of wildly variant covers that can probably be best characterized as “strictly commercial”. A prime example here would be the notorious “Pickin’ On” series, which renders a variety of popular artists’ music in bluegrass style, with results ranging from “predictable” to “incoherent”–or perhaps “incomprehensible”.

Whether you’re measuring deviation from the original or popularity, covers seem to fall into the familiar bell-shaped curve. There aren’t a lot of examples at either extreme; most of the action is in the middle. As we discussed earlier, popular covers draw on familiarity. They add something new and distinctive to attract attention but don’t go to the extreme of metaphorically slamming the listener in the head with a 2×4.

I have to speak anecdotally here, as there are far too many cover versions in the world for a strict statistical analysis. But it seems only logical that a cover’s best chance of eclipsing the original in the ears–and wallets–of the public is to shoot for the middle of the bell curve.

So there’s the path to fame and fortune I promised you. Find a popular piece and do your own cover. Make sure it’s clearly different, but not radically so. For example, change the mood, alter the instrumentation, or do a gender-swap on the performer and lyrics. Don’t go berserk, though. Stay in the same musical style, don’t change the song from a major key to a minor or vice versa, and definitely don’t change the chorus’ lyrics.

Release it when the original isn’t dominating the airwaves. Again, I’m working without a rigorous analysis, but I’d suggest you time your launch for four to six months after the person who originated the song dies. That way the radio tributes to the first performer will have given the original performance a familiarity bump, but they’ll have tailed off enough that your version will stand out.

Time it right, and presto! You’ll be forever identified with the song. At least until six months after you die, when someone covers your version.

One final note: None of the above absolves you from producing a good cover. Don’t rush it. In particular, and especially if you’re new to the cover game, don’t even try to cover The Thrill Has Gone. There’s going to be far too much competition to cover B.B. King, anyway.

Work on a few projects, build a portfolio, and have patience. Remember: Mick Jagger, Madonna, and–if you’re really patient–Marcus Mumford can’t last forever.