Writers Can Do Research, You Know

You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.

The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.

But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”

That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.

It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”

It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.

So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!

Research

In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.

That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.

So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.

Research2

I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.

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Where the Magic Happens

Sometimes it’s interesting to see where creative types do their work, to get a feel for the environment that leads to their creativity. In the spirit of creative transparency, and the fact that it’s a new year and all, I thought I’d share mine.

This is where I work:

rcbcourthouse

Ha! That’s actually where I work, but it’s not really what I’m on about (my office is on the back side, anyway). Here’s where I get my creative juices flowing:

Studio2

If you’re thinking “that’s a lot of musical equipment for a writer’s room” you’re not wrong. It just so happens that the PC on the right is what I use both to do most of my writing and where I weave bits of music together to make a final product (like this).

Here’s another, more atmospheric pic, with everything turned on:

Studio3

For the gear curious out there – on the left there’s a Korg M50 (bottom, with a Kaosilator on the far end) and a Roland Gaia (top), then in the middle there’s a Nord Rack 2X and Alesis Micron, which controls the Nord (bottom), and a Novation Bass Station II and Moog Minitaur with Behringer controller (top). Everything runs into the Zoom R16 mixer/recorder in between.

The words, by contrast, go straight from my brain to the PC, via the keyboard, although I occasionally knock out some words in other locales. Who knew you could write so much on your phone?

I suppose that’s the real lesson – where does the magic happen? Everywhere.

Weekly Listen: Ones and Zeroes: Volume 0

At the end of my review of 3rDegree’s Ones and Zeroes: Volume 1, I wrote:

It’s a mess of awfully good music wrapped around an interesting idea. And the best thing? It’s only the first part!

Now that I’ve gotten familiar with the band’s follow up, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

The “first part” bit, I mean. The enthusiasm was completely warranted. But where does Volume 0 fit in to the chronology? It came second, after all, but it’s hardly a sequel. So it is a prequel? Not really. Is it better to listen to them in order of release or numerical order? I’m going to go out on a limb and say it doesn’t really matter, for a very unexpected reason – Volume 0 doesn’t really have anything to do with Volume 1. Conceptually, at least.

Hear me out.

Volume 1 tells, essentially, a single story about the impact of a fictional (gods, I hope) megacorp, Valhalla Biotech, that peddles various “life extension” technology. There was a through line running from stem to stern of the album, summed up by refrain “tell me what it means to be human.” This was helped along by the sometimes chilling asides from various Valhalla products and spokespersons.

Volume 0, by contrasts, covers a lot of different ground. “Olympia” deals with artificial beings who aren’t content to be submissive. “Perfect Babies” channels Brave New World and Gattaca and their (timely and relevant) fears of designer offspring. The epic “Click Away!” dives into the echo chamber of the Internet. Unlike Volume 1, there’s no connective tissue pulling these all together (the Valhalla announcements are absent, for example).

To put it another way, Volume 1 is a Black Mirror episode; Volume 0 is an entire season.

This isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, it’s probably a good idea not to just do a copy of Volume 1, since it’s hard to bottle lightning twice. Still, aside from the opening overture and a few riffs in the closing “Ones and Zeroes” there isn’t really a link between to the two albums. They’re separate things that stand on their own merits.

And Volume 0 has plenty of merits. Lyrically, the best tracks (“Olympia” and “Logical Conclusion,” in particular) create perfect little worlds, short stories of immediate impact and thougtfulness. The rest throw out interesting ideas and slip in some zingers for good measure (has a meaner chorus ever been sung other than “the future doesn’t need you at all?”).

Musically, 3rDegree continue to refine a sound that doesn’t really resemble anybody else. Bassist Robert James Pashman once told me that 3rDegree was (I’m seriously paraphrasing) “too straight forward for the prog crowd, but too weird for the mainstream.” That’s still true, although they’ve been embraced by the prog world in the past few years (and produced an epic in return!). But they’re at their best when the hooks and melodies come to the fore, to be supported by some interesting backing stuff and arrangements. That’s all backed up by playing that’s intricate and muscular, but rarely flashy. It takes a few listens to really get at what’s going on, which is always a good sign. I particularly dig that there’s lots of bass synth on this album.

One of the reasons I had to keep giving Volume 0 listens is because I had a hard time thinking about what to say about it. Here’s the thing – with each album since they got back together, 3rDegree have been stepping up their game in big ways. Volume 0, though, doesn’t feel like a big step forward. It feels like a consolidation, a restatement of what they’re about. That’s not in any way a bad thing.

What I’m saying is that Volume 0 is a great album. It’s musically and lyrically rich, filled with catchy tunes and great playing. But that’s what we’ve come to expect from 3rDegree at this point, right? They’re a band in top form and cranking out another excellent offering just isn’t a surprise at this point. So why don’t you have your copy yet?

Ones&Zeroes

Weekly Watch: Whiplash

Sometimes I come late to movies and the wait probably colors the experience. When Whiplash came out a few years ago it seemed like a movie I needed to see. It was critically praised, an Oscar winner, and about music. Sounded like it was right up my alley. But it slipped under my radar until, a few weeks ago, it popped up on TV (uncut) and I TiVoed it. After watching it, I kind of wish I’d just completely forgotten about it.

Whiplash, simply put, is one of the most overrated movies I think I’ve ever seen.

Since it’s been a while, there’s no need to avoid spoilers. The movie’s about a kid at a music conservatory, a drummer, who gets plucked from lower division drudgery by a famously abusive, prickly director to be part of his competition band. Lots of yelling and music occurs and our hero is broken down by his would be mentor. The ending is nicely ambiguous, as he either triumphs over this asshole or simply becomes just like him. It’s the best part of the film by far.

That’s because most of the other things that make up a movie – mainly the characters and the story itself – are lacking. Take the main character, who is so dull I can’t even remember his name. He has the charisma of a wet sponge, yet somehow manages a date with Supergirl (he dumps her later in the most on the nose “it’s not you, it’s me” speech ever put to film). His only goal appears to be getting famous, which he’s decided to do in 21st Century American by . . . becoming a jazz drummer. Sure, kid, whatever.

More formidable is his mentor, Fletcher, for which J.K. Simmons won an Oscar. Simmons gets to yell a lot, complete with vulgarities and insults that range from homophobic to anti-Semitic. There are no layers to this guy, no hint as to how he’s come to be the way he is. There’s a hint of a soul, when he finds out that a former student has hung himself, but it’s gone pretty quickly. Oh, and he’s nice to a little girl, but, you know, even Hitler liked dogs. Simmons’s performance at last has life to it.

What’s altogether not clear is why either character has anything to do with music. As one reviewer concluded:

What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory.

Wet sponge only wants to be famous. When challenged about his career choice there’s no mention of love of music or trying to connect with the mysteries of the universe. He has no music background at home, so it’s not as if he’s trying to fulfill someone else’s dream. Just why would he put up with all the shit Fletcher sends his way?

Likewise, it’s never clear why Fletcher went into teaching music rather than, say, being a football coach. Make no mistake, his tactics aren’t about making better musicians or better people, they’re about one thing – winning competitions. I know from my own musical life that winning such things often means cranking up flashy technique at the expense of, you know, the music and that’s certainly true for Fletcher. Again, he’s not into the music itself, only the end goal of winning. More than that, the anecdote that underlies his philosophy of life/teaching isn’t true.

Which is what makes the film’s pivotal point so fucking stupid. The band is set to play at a competition a couple of hours into the hinterlands outside New York City. Fletcher, perfectionist that he is about these shows, doesn’t bother to charter a bus to take the band there. No, it’s every man (and it’s all, or at least mostly, men) for himself, with a helpful hint to leave earlier to beat the traffic. Naturally, wet sponge can’t manage that and manages to walk away to a car wreck to take his place, bleeding on stage. Rather than have the stand in take his place (the band hauls around multiple drummers, but every other spot is just a single – for whatever reason), Fletcher lets him play, which of course he can’t. It’s horribly dumb.

As, really, the whole movie is. Some of the cinematography is nice (sweeps across the horn section, nice lighting, etc.), but it’s service of absolutely nothing. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, clearly has a thing for jazz (he went on to make La La Land), but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much (as this article argues, the movie gets its jazz mythology wrong). As such, Whiplash isn’t much more than a lovingly shot portrait of an abusive relationship where neither party has any real motivation. If there’s anything more pointless than a drum solo, maybe that’s it.

Whiplash

 

Another ROSFest Down, Many More to Go

This year marked the 15th anniversary of ROSFest – the annual Rites of Spring Festival of progressive rock. Born near Philadelphia, it’s called the Majestic Theater in Gettysburg home since I’ve been going in 2011. The fest this year was as smoothly run as ever, with a lineup that wound up being one of the best I’ve seen. So what about those bands?

First up on Friday night was District 97, a band from Chicago who, it happens, were also at ROSFest for the first time in 2011. They went over really well, but their brand of heavy modern prog didn’t connect with me very much. So my expectations for this set was low, but I was pleasantly surprised. I liked the new material (from a forthcoming album they’re currently crowd funding) better than the old, so I’ll keep an ear on them going forward.

Headlining Friday was legendary fusion band Brand X, complete with original members Percy Jones (bass) and John Goodsall (guitar), who were joined by a drummer, keyboard player, and percussionist. They were, to be blunt, blazing. Any thought that a band that’s been around since the mid 1970s might be mellowing in their old age was put to bed early. All their stuff started to sound a bit samey after two hours, but it was an impressive kind of consistency.

Saturday began with a semi-local band, Cell 15, which at least has the most interesting origin story for ROSFest this year. The lead guy/drummer/keyboard player explained that he got out of prison in 1992 and that the first Cell 15 album was largely written while he was incarcerated. Good on him for getting out and turning his life around (from someone who sees people try, and fail, to do the same thing every day). The music itself was fairly standard Americanized symphonic prog (think Kansas and Spock’s Beard), which I enjoyed. However, the band relied way too heavily on canned music, particularly for very important and obvious synth leads. The reliance on the canned stuff is all the weirder given that they had a second drummer join them for a few tunes and, based on their new CD that I got, the main guy isn’t even the drummer on the album! Frustrating.

Up next was another American band, LA’s Perfect Beings. They were invited to ROSFest a couple of years ago, but two band members leaving put the kibosh on that. However, in prepping for that year’s fest I got their second album, which was pretty good, but nothing special. Their set this year focused on their new album, Vier, and was exceptional. In a weekend that sometimes tends to the showy and ostentatious, they made great use of quiet passages and empty space (somewhat like Marillion does, although they don’t sound a thing like them). My favorite surprise set of the weekend.

Italy’s Barock Project was the first band announced for this year’s festival, to a lot of enthusiasm. It’s easy to see why. This group of young guys (after one particular catchy tune the band leader declared “sometimes we’re a boy band!”) belts out a brand of what I’m going to start calling “up tempo party prog.” It’s kind of the same vibe as Moon Safari, although the two bands sound nothing alike. The result was a fun show, with lots of energy, but the music didn’t really stick with me. The highlight was a brief instrumental workout where the keyboard player channeled the spirit of Keith Emerson. They, too, appeared to have some canned stuff, but at least it was mostly in the background.

Years ago I was pawing through CDs in my local borders and came across an album from a band called Threshold. Somewhere in my mind I associated he name with a Celtic-influence prog band from Ohio, so I snatched it up. It seemed like a rare find. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized Threshold was actually a British prog metal band. It was not at all what I was expecting, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. When they were announced as the Saturday headliner I was interested to see if that album (Critical Mass, if you’re scoring at home) was representative of their stuff. Turns out it was, although they didn’t play anything from that album at ROSFest. They play melody proggy metal that doesn’t dip into the “balls ‘n’ chunk” aspects of metal too much. I enjoyed it. Tip to the lead singer though – don’t demand the audience sing along unless you’re sure they know the words!

Sunday morning, the “Church of Prog” slot, brought not one but two bands, playing short sets with a quick turnover. First up was Valdez, the current project of British ex-pat Simon Godfrey (who was also at ROSFest 2011 with Tinyfish – maybe he came and never left?). I was pleasantly surprised to see the band also included Tom Hyatt (of echolyn fame) on bass. Being completely unfamiliar with their stuff I was pleased with the set – melodic, proggy in spots, anthemic in others. Plus, Godfrey is a great front man (when one person in the crowd responded to a song announcement, he waited just a sec, then deadpanned, “thanks, Mum”). A highlight.

The other Church of Prog band was Lines in the Sky from Tennessee. Unfortunately for them, my brain had reached music saturation at that point, and I left after a few tunes.

Have you ever heard prog from Peru? In the flesh? I have! Flor de Loto took the stage Sunday afternoon and put on another high energy set full of riffy (a little too riffy, in spots) heavy prog. The most notable aspects of their set for me were the Spanish vocals and the presence in the band of a dedicated flautist, who mostly used native Andean instruments (he was introduced both as “the last Inca” and the “Ian Anderson of the Andes”). Also, their keyboard player fired back at the guy from Barock Project with a solo that owed a serious debt to Rick Wakeman. Fun stuff.

The first note I wrote about Special Providence (from Hungary) was “holy shit that’s a lot of notes.” If jazz metal is a thing, this band is the gold standard. They played really dense, seriously complex instrumental music that got all weird with rhythms and such. Sometimes I wasn’t convinced that the band seemed to be on the same page, but it all tended to work out. I preferred the tunes that leaned more heavily on the fusion side of things than the metal. An impressive set that grew on me the further it went on (which rarely happens).

Wrapping up things this year was Premiata Forneria Marconi – PFM. If you read my post about 10 influential albums, you’ll know that PFM is an important band to me. I was stoked to see them live, even if there’s very little of the original band left. No matter. This wasn’t the same guys who did Storia di un Minuto or Per Un Amico, but they played that material with a lot of heart, soul, and magic. The newer stuff wasn’t bad, either, but it pales in comparison to the classics. To have heard them played live to their fullest extent (like Brand X, these guys aren’t slowing down) was awesome and a great way to end the weekend.

My one beef, which is really minor, involves encores. We’ve all grown used to the “obligatory” encore, where the band leaves the stage with everyone in the building knowing they’re coming back for more. It’s a dumb ritual, but at least it seems somewhat organic. For at least a couple of sets at ROSFest this year, somebody (organizer George, I think) off stage took to the mic to urge the crowd on to “bring them back” to the stage. That, to me, is a bridge too far. We’re already passed the point where the encores are really genuine; stage managing them just seems tacky.

Will that keep me from coming back in 2019, with already announced headliners Riverside? Not on your life.

rosfest2018

UPDATE: Or, it appears, probably not. Shortly after this post went live the organizer of ROSFest announced that the festival was moving to Sarasota, Florida. A pleasant drive of a few hours turned into an epic road trip, or (even worse) flying. So it looks like this was my last ROSFest, after all. Fuck.

My Ten Albums

There’s been a thing going around Facebook for the past few weeks where, for ten days, people posted cover from a different album that made an impact on them and they’re still listening to. The whole point was to not explain the choices – but there’s too much blog fodder here to pass up. So here are my ten, in the order they went up – which is to say, pretty much randomly as pulled from my brain. I should point out these aren’t necessarily favorites or “best” albums by these artists, although they’re all pretty great (your mileage may vary, of course).

Genesis – Selling England By the Pound (1973)

 SEbtP

 I can’t say that this is the first Gabriel-era Genesis album I heard (my brother, Todd, had most, if not all, of them), but it is the one I first fell in love with. It was, to use an analogy I’ll come back to later, my gateway drug for progressive rock. Swelling mellotrons, soaring guitars, lyrics that were completely beyond comprehension to a grade schooler living in 1980s West Virginia – how could I resist?

Yes – Yessongs (1973)

YesSongs

Growing up when I did my music delivery vehicle of choice was (and still is) the CD, but I was just old enough to catch the end of the (first) age of vinyl. I actually bought a few LPs, this being the one that stood out. Not only because it’s 3 albums full of Yes in its prime, but because of that amazing Roger Dean gatefold sleeve. Appreciating album art is one of the great lost joys of the modern streaming generation.

Rush – Grace Under Pressure (1984)

GUP

This definitely falls into the “not my favorite” category (although I like it just fine), but this album makes the list because it was the first “new” album by a favorite band I ever bought. On cassette, no less. Sitting down to digest any album that’s new to you is fun, but digging into a completely new one by a favorite artist is a real treat, particularly back in the pre-Internet days when you might have little idea of what it actually sounded like!

IQ – Tales From the Lush Attic (1983)

 Lush Attic

 It’s no shock to say that progressive rock is a niche genre, at least since the heydays of the mid 1970s. That means that finding albums for me has rarely been as simple as heading down to the record store and hunting for something interest. Mail order catalogs and web retailers are a must. This album makes the list because it was in the first order I ever made from a mail order catalog (along with Camel’s Mirage and Gentle Giant’s Octopus) – not even over the Internet! There are better IQ albums, but it’s a landmark for my exploration of prog. And the cover’s cool.

echolyn – as the world (1995)

AtW

Mail order aside, sometimes you stumble across something that seems interesting and you take a chance. When I found as the world in the bin at the mighty Discount Den in Morgantown back in my college days I knew, vaguely, that they were a prog band. And I saw that this album released on a major label and had a big suite in the middle of it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Took it home and was hooked on this band from the first track (which is all vocal harmonies and strings). Sometimes you get lucky, so it’s worth playing the game now and then.

Marillion – Afraid of Sunlight (1995)

AoS

You’re rarely lucky enough to discover a favorite band when their brand new. Usually, you come in somewhere in the middle of things, where a band’s heady back catalog can make the prospect of new music from them both tantalizing and a little worrying. Will the new stuff measure up to the old? Afraid of Sunlight was my first “new” Marillion album and, at the time, I didn’t care for much of it. It’s since gone on to be one of my favorite Marillion albums (favorites period, really), but the experience of being uneasy with it to begin with it something I’ve repeated many times over the years.

Radiohead – Kid A (2000)

KidA

I didn’t know I needed Kid A until I saw Radiohead perform “Idioteque” on Saturday Night Live. I’d come late to OK Computer and knew their new album wasn’t supposed to be anything like it, so I wasn’t all that interested. That performance changed my mind, in more ways than one. Not only did it cause me to buy the album, it caused me to open up an entirely different area of music to check out. Kid A was, for lack of a better word, my gateway drug to electronic music. I wouldn’t make the conscious choice to explore Kraftwerk or OMD or The Orb for another couple years, but this planted the seeds.

Spock’s Beard – The Light (1995)

TheLight

These days we take for granted the ability to sample music on the internet and buy with a press of a button. It was not always so. The Light was my first experience with internet commerce and it was a little rocky. I took an hour or so to download a few 30-second clips from songs (it was the guitar break in “Go the Way You Go” that sold me), then had to actually mail a check to California. It came back – twice – requiring a phone call from guitarist Alan Morse. When he found out I was at WVU he sang me a chorus of “Country Roads.” We got things straightened out and I became a Beard fan for life.

Sanguine Hum – Diving Bell (2010)

DivingBell

One of the great things about going to prog festivals is that I get exposed to lots of new bands. I’ve bought a lot of albums over the years because of that, but this one is special. Going into Sanguine Hum’s 2012 performance at ROSFest I knew nothing about them. I went in as cold as could be, completely ignorant. I didn’t just like what I heard – I was completely blown away. Ironically, I wound up getting this, the band’s only album at the time, from Amazon because the vendors had sold out and the band’s stash didn’t make it from the UK (I wound up snagging a couple EPs from the band’s prior incarnation, the wonderfully monikered Antique Seeking Nuns). Fresh, exciting, powerful new music is out there, even in the 2010s.

Premiata Forneria Marconi – Storia di un Minuto (1972)

Storia

Progressive rock is an outgrowth of a particular time in the UK, but it spread across the globe and resulted in some really rich regional scenes. Italy, in particular, was an early hotbed (Genesis and Van der Graff Generator both hit it big there first). This was the first album I got that was really “foreign,” without any English to be found, either in the lyrics or the liner notes (two times over – it’s a Japanese pressing!) and it convinced me that wasn’t going to be a stumbling block to discovering some wonderful music.

Lessons Learned from Swimming Blindly Through the Aural Seas

When I write I have some idea of where I’m going. As you can see from my experiment with trying to go free form, I need some structure when I write. Nonetheless, when I write I’m acting with intention and purpose – I see where I want to go and try to get there.

When I make music, it’s almost completely the opposite. Essentially, music comes about in one of two ways. First, I get a flash of inspiration when a riff or rhythm or something pops into my head (and, hopefully, onto the computer). Second, I take whatever winds up on “tape” and fiddle around with it, adding things, taking things away, and generally just figuring out what works. I very rarely come to a song idea with a clear conception of what the end product should be.

In other words, when I write, it’s like setting out to sea in a boat, with charts, a destination, and a plan on how to get there. When I make music, it’s more like diving in head first and seeing where the tide sees fit to deposit me. Swimming blindly, if you will.

That’s not to say that the drifting, searching musical creation doesn’t require making choices. Sometimes, those choices are relevant when it comes to thinking about writing, too.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after finishing a new song with the deviously serious title of “Dummy Tickle” (it’s embedded below). I have no idea where that title came from, because this song, all not-quite-four minutes of it, began five years ago.

Which brings me to lesson number one I’ve learned from making music – creativity takes time.

The DAW I use has a metadata field that lets you put just about anything you want in it. I always put (1) when I started the song; (2) when I finished “writing” it; and (3) when I got it in final form (mixed down, etc.). It’s a very rare thing when a song goes from idea to completion in a week or a month. Usually it takes a while, but not five years.

What was I doing with “Dummy Tickle” for five years? I’d like to say I tried out dozens of different things to try and bring the basic idea (that lazy, bouncy bass line and equally laid back melody) to bigger, better life. Nothing really clicked, nothing seemed right. I let it go for a while, but every time I went back and listened to unfinished tracks I thought “there’s something there” and marked it down as something to finish.

Finally, a few weeks ago, something clicked. I don’t know precisely what or why then – maybe a session of playing with the puppies trigger up some kind of endorphin rush or something. How couldn’t they?

Pups
Anyway, the damn burst and I started making progress. It just took some time to get there. Patience really is a virtue, especially when it comes to creative things.

Still, it wasn’t a matter of just banging out a few more notes and being done with things. I was in need of ideas for a transition, a middle section, and started playing around with a couple of chord progressions.

Then I hit on the second lesson I’ve learned from “Dummy Tickle” – sometimes, simpler is better.

I have a sign tacked to the wall in my studio:

Monphonist Pic

I put it up when I realized that a lot of the early electronic music I like – from ethereal Tangerine Dream to the synth-pop of The Human League and OMD – was done by people with access only to monophonic synthesizers (that is, ones that can make only one sound at a time). That is, they can only make one note at a time. By contrast, without even getting into the virtual synths in my arsenal, I can bring to bear 150 voices! At once! I only have 10 fingers, after all.

My point is I tend to think in chords, even thought single notes are often what’s called for. After struggling to find the right sequence for this song, I backed off and gave it a fresh look. And I looked at my sign. The heart of this song was that simple bass line, the simple melody. Don’t mess that up by building it up unnecessarily. Take the simple route. Thus, that middle section was composed entirely of monophonic lines weaving together – as was the rest of the song.

None of this is Earth shattering. Still, as creators sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the vision of more – more words, more notes, more colors – until you disappear up your own backside in search of your next complexity fix. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what works for the song, book, or whatever it is you’re making. Some of them are just simple little things that don’t have airs on being anything more.

“Dummy Tickle” is like that. A little goof of a tune, a good mood wrought by bouncy synths. Enjoy!

Yeah, OK, Now Tell Us Why

Sometimes science tells us things we already know. That’s good, because as “duh!” as those things sound, it’s good to have common experience backed up by rigorous study.

A similar thing popped up the other week. Most people, if their honest with themselves, will admit that their taste in music (popular music, at any rate) is inextricably linked to their youth. What you loved growing up is likely to stick with you. In other words, you eventually become your parents and think what the kids today listen to is noise and/or garbage (and possibly unAmerican!).

Seth Stevens-Davidowitz, writing in the New York Times (via), explains how he dove deep into the dataset that is Spotify. Using “data on how frequently every song is listened to by men and women of each particular age” he learned that:

The patterns were clear. Even though there is a recognized canon of rock music, there are big differences by birth year in how popular a song is.

Consider, for example, the song ‘Creep,’ by Radiohead. This is the 164th most popular song among men who are now 38 years old. But it is not in the top 300 for the cohort born 10 years earlier or 10 years later.

Note that they men who most like ‘Creep’ now were roughly 14 when the song came out in 1993. In fact, this is a consistent pattern.

He shows this over and over again with songs by artists as diverse as The Cure, Roy Orbison, and Van Morrison.

As I said, this isn’t much of a surprise. We all know people whose musical tastes calcified in 10th grade.

Even though I consider myself pretty open minded when it comes to music, I have to admit that my sweet spot, go to favorite kind of stuff, progressive rock, is what I first got hooked on when I was a kid. Sure, my horizons have expanded over the years (ironically, part of that includes rediscovering the pop music I shunned as a kid), but I most happily fall back into the arms of the Genesis, Yes, and Rush stuff I discovered when I was young.

Now that we have some deep data diving confirming this bit of common sense, the next hurdle is figuring out why this is the case. Stevens-Davidowitz’s survey doesn’t directly address that question, although he says in passing:

This also adds one more piece of evidence to the growing scientific consensus that we never really leave middle school and high school.

But why should that be the case? Peoples’ tastes change through their lives when it comes to other things. We eat different things, read different books, and watch different movies. What is it about music that ties it so tightly to adolescence? Maybe it’s because, for most people, that’s when music is most important to them and their identity. Music later in life tends to fade into the background (and not in an interesting way). Or maybe it’s pure nostalgia (although, again, not for other things?).

Either way, the answers lie beyond my range as a humble writer and lawyer. So get on it, science! Don’t just confirm what we know, tell us why!

The Right Timing for Forbidden Fruit

A little while back the AV Club had a Q&A based around the question:

What’s the funniest time your parents banned a piece of pop culture from you?

Some of the answers are pretty funny (Christian rocker Carman? Really?), but it made me think of a different angle on the question. That is, does being prohibited from consuming some piece of pop culture at a young age set you up to better appreciate it when you’re older? I think it might.

There wasn’t a lot that was off limits in my house growing up. Part of that is down to my parents not being stuck up moralists fighting a losing battle against the moral decay of the world around them (or whatever turns people into censors). Part of it, also, was down to the fact that I had older brothers – one 10 years, the other 13 – who were old enough to handle just about anything, so stuff inevitably found its way to me. There must have been some control exercised somewhere along the line, but with one exception, I can’t remember any.

That exception involved, of all things, Yes.

Let’s go back to the spring of 1974. After a lavish tour for the equally lavish double album Tales from Topographic Oceans, keyboard player Rick Wakeman has had enough and leaves Yes. His replacement turns out to be Swiss ace Patrick Moraz. Equally skillful, he deploys a sonic pallet that’s a little more edgy and brings in some influences of jazz fusion to the band. His one studio album with the band, Relayer, sounds like nothing else in their catalog and is, to some (me included) the last really great Yes album.

One of my brothers had it on vinyl and, one day in my misspent youth (I was either in late elementary or early junior high school), I was recording it onto cassette. Back in those days, kids, if you were recording something like that it took as long as the music lasted. In other words, you listened while you recorded. I was in the middle of side one when my mother showed up. Somehow she figured out (probably because I told her) that side one of Relayer is an epic called “The Gates of Delirium.”

That was all my mother needed to hear. It was about drugs and I wasn’t supposed to be listening to anything like that.

And that was that. Relayer was out of my reach, at least for the next decade or so. I returned to it in college, when I discovered the progressive underground online and really started exploring music. What struck me about Relayer – all of it, not just “Gates” – is how damned weird it is.

Yes, for as much as I love them and as big a part they played in the development of progressive rock, have never been one of the weirder outposts of the genre. Even of the Big 5 King Crimson and (arguably) Emerson, Lake, & Palmer went further out there than Yes did. What Yes did was traffic in classically-inspired epics of precise arrangement and performance. It was pushing some boundaries of rock, but not all of them.

Relayer is different. It’s wooly and wild in a way that Yes albums before or after were not. As I mentioned above, the sounds Moraz generates are fuzzier, spikier, and just more rude than Wakeman. Throw in the fusion influences and much of Relayer (3/4ths of it, at any rate) sound like it’s about to vibrate up off the planet at any time. Yes hit heights during their long career afterward, but not like this.

What’s clear to me is that had I really tried to get my head around Relayer when I was in junior high I probably couldn’t have. I would have written it off as “too weird” and moved on (I nearly did that with King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk,” which I heard somewhere and thought “what’s this shit?”). So my mother’s impulse to censor probably turned out well, in the end.

As for the motive? “The Gates of Delirium” isn’t about drugs at all:
“THE GATES OF DELIRIUM,” with Yes (RELAYER, 1974): Based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” this album-opening nearly 22-minute composition famously erupts into this lengthy all-instrumental battle scene only to finally settle into a quiet peace prayer called “Soon,” which was later edited out for a single. Recorded with keyboardist Patrick Moraz, after Rick Wakeman’s departure, Relayer has a harder, more guitar-oriented sound — something nowhere more obvious than during the cacophonous middle section. The tune, Anderson says, was constructed in tandem segments.

Anderson: I sort of wrote the thing on piano, very badly, then went in and played it for them – again, very badly – but they understood it. I told them how we would start it, then made the thundering sounds. I talked about this enormous energy, and then went into the battlefield section, then out of that we would all sing ‘Soon.’ We all worked on it together. They started working on the first section, then I would work in the second section and so on. We stayed ahead of the rehearsals. Steve and I wrote all the parts out on cassettes, and I would be listening and working on the next part so we would keep the structure. Thankfully, they got it.

Regardless – thanks, Mom! You probably helped me better appreciate a late-prog masterpiece!

Relayer

Weekly Read: The Show That Never Ends

If one knew nothing about progressive rock – “prog,” as it’s usually called these days – one could do worse than the new book by (of all people) political reporter Dave Weigel. Weigel is clearly a fan and that helps an awful lot with a book that is otherwise fairly shallow and doesn’t provide a great deal of insight into what makes prog (or prog fans) tick.

What Weigel provides is a brisk trip through prog’s history, starting with its roots in 1960s psychedelia. Actually, he goes back even further, to Franz Liszt and the superstar he was (some of the fan behavior from those days wouldn’t be out of place if it happened today). In a fun bit of synergy, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman would later provide the soundtrack for the bonkers Ken Russell film (is there any other kind?) Lisztomania (Liszt himself was played by Roger Daltrey, because why not?). This is good background and I’m glad Weigel devoted a chapter to it.

Most of the book focuses on prog’s commercial heyday, from about 1969 to 1974 – roughly the time during which King Crimson (in its many permutations) were around. Crim, and particularly Robert Fripp, is one of the touchstones to which Weigel returns again and again, along with David Allen of Gong and a few others. This starts out well enough, as a way to track the commercial and artistic development of the genre using specific examples, but things get awfully spread out by the late 1970s. By that point, as Weigel tries to keep track of the careers of everybody who passed through Crim or Yes the book becomes a collection of quick anecdotes that don’t really tie together. It might have worked better to tell the story of the genre through one person deeply embedded in it (Bill Bruford – with connections to Crim, Yes, Genesis, National Health and so many others – would be a good choice).

Prog is usually thought of as a distinctly English thing, and it’s true that most of the genre’s heavyweights come from (or are at least closely associated with) the UK. However there was a vibrant scene around the world that deserves attention. To my pleasant surprise, Weigel examines this, albeit briefly, through some usual suspects (Rush, Kansas) and some more esoteric ones (Italian bands like Premiata Forenria Marconi). Still, there are odd gaps, including the complete absence of discussion of Frank Zappa, aside from his influence on early proggers like Soft Machine.

I was also pleasantly surprised that Weigel continued the prog story past the 1970s. He quickly discusses Marillion and the rise of neo-prog in the 1980s as well as Dream Theater and the development of prog-metal in the 1990s. It’s not a deep dive, so he doesn’t capture the real breadth of the modern prog scene, but he at least recognizes that it’s here. The book is subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock,” which may rankle fans, but it’s the truth – the genre boomed for a few years in the 1970s then nosedived in terms of popularity. That it’s still kicking at all today is kind of a miracle.

Given all the ground that Weigel covers, it’s a shame that he falls into the trap of spending too much time trying to describe the music. Zappa famously said that writing about music is like “dancing about architecture” – it’s damned near impossible. Weigel’s descriptions fall flat and, in some instances, don’t even match what he’s talking about. I don’t know what he’s thinking of when he’s talking about the first track on Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans, but it sure as hell isn’t “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn).” The beginning of “Dance on a Volcano” gets attributed to the wrong guitar player and then he talks about synth chords being played when there are none about (Tony Banks didn’t go polyphonic with synths until Duke, I think).

There are some other Weigel just gets bizarrely wrong. He calls a nascent Keith Emerson project in the early 1980s the “rump of Yes” (presumably he was thinking of Chris Squire and Alan White’s foray with Jimmy Page?). In discussing what the King Crimson guys were up to before Fripp assembled the mighty “double trio” in the mid 1990s, he explains how Adrian Belew had toured the world with Peter Gabriel. That, of course, was Tony Levin (for all the people Belew’s played with I don’t think he’s every worked with Gabriel – something which needs to happen!). Along with the misdescribed music there’s enough here to wonder how much else Weigel gets wrong.

As usual, I didn’t actually read The Show That Never Ends, I listened to it via Audible. Normally even a less than stellar reader doesn’t get to me, but the reader for this book was particularly poor. For one thing, in some instances where Weigel is quoting someone, the reader tries to do accents. This is a bad move to begin with (he doesn’t sound anything like the actual people involved), but it’s compounded by not being consistent – sometimes he tries an accent, sometimes he doesn’t. For another, the reader has multiple issues pronouncing words. OK, so he doesn’t know a Moog synth from a toaster oven, but there’s plenty of video of and about Bob Moog where you can learn how to pronounce the man’s name! Given the amount of time Weigel devotes to Moog’s synths (mostly via Keith Emerson), that’s inexcusable. Then there’s things from song lyrics – “syrinx” (from Rush’s “2112”) and “Rael” (the main character in Genesis’s The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) come to mind – that he gets wrong. And I won’t even begin to speculate on how “fugue” comes out “fuh-guh.” It’s just awful.

As I said, if you’re a prog neophyte there’s a lot to recommend in The Show That Never Ends. It’s a story told by someone with affection for the music, which isn’t always the case. But you’ll probably get deeper and more interesting reflections on the music by going someplace like Progressive Ears or Progarchives and poking around. Whatever you do, stay the hell away from the audiobook.

ShowThatNeverEnds