simplify

CHRIS

One of my constant non-life-threatening obsessions is making sure I’m reading enough books. I like to think I read more than the average person, although what I read isn’t always of the highest intellectual order. I delve into the classics, read biographies and history of many stripes, flirt with postmodernism and other unusual genres, but the fact of the matter is that I still have a hankering for a good mystery/thriller on a semi-regular basis. I’m through apologizing for that. And speaking of being unapologetic, I’m a diehard Stephen King fan, and I don’t care what Harold Bloom says, because you can be a great novelist and a zillionaire. So there.

Having said all that, I’m thoroughly disappointed at the flimsy amount of books I’ve read over the last couple of years. In 2012 , I read 15 books. Last year, I read 12. In 2014, well…it’s already December and I’m currently in the middle of my 12th book (I should add that when I say “read a book,” I mean, “read from start to finish.” Abandoned books don’t count). To what do I attribute this? If you look at conventional wisdom, well, my son was born in April 2011. A coincidence? Actually, yes. A lot of my reading takes place during home/work/home commutes, and I’m commuting just as much as I used to. I mean, I started a new job last month that has cut back my commute time slightly, but really. It’s not my son’s fault, honestly.

So I started thinking about it. What has been taking up so much of my time recently, besides my son? Then it hit me.

In April 2013, Liza and I purchased our first smartphones. I hate to be “that guy,” but man, I spend a lot of time on that thing. I mean, we all do. A lot of us. But I’m really into it. And I hate that. While it has, in some ways, helped sustain my reading habits (the Audible app is AMAZING, and has made my audiobook habit 100 times more enjoyable, and yes, unabridged audiobooks ARE the same as reading a book, I say), I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the subway, able to dive into a book (and/or audiobook), but bypassed it in favor of scanning my Facebook feed or checking out what my friends on Instagram ate for dinner last night. There’s a time and place for that, but, like most things, moderation is key.

Ferguson – among other things – has sparked a particularly toxic bout of ill will amongst Facebook friends, and with good reason. It’s basically the hottest of the hot button topics of 2014. I won’t spend any time here telling you my thoughts on the subject – you probably already know them – but Facebook comment threads that get progressively nastier make me ill, and it’s really the wrong forum for that kind of discussion. YouTube comment threads yield the same results, and are even less productive. The social media breaking point, for me, involved Adrian Belew’s Facebook page.

Belew is a guitarist/singer/composer of the highest order, a brilliantly skewed musician who’s played with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson, and many others, and has also enjoyed a delightful solo career for more than 30 years. And he’s a very nice guy. I had the pleasure of seeing him in concert at the Sinclair in Harvard Square back in October. Anyway, he recently plugged his daughter’s crowdfunding project on his Facebook page (she needs seed money to jumpstart her budding photography career). While many of the comments were positive and supportive, a good deal of his “fans” berated him for doing this, either complaining that he’s a millionaire (which he isn’t) and should fund it himself, or that this gentle show of fatherly support was overwhelmingly tacky (which it really isn’t at all).

Think for a minute about what’s happening here. Someone is being loudly and not-very-subtly shamed in a public forum for helping his daughter realize her dream. Real classy, internet.

That sealed the deal for me. Not only will I not spend an overwhelming amount of time glued to Facebook (despite the fact that I’m genuinely interested in what a lot of you are up to), the iPhone in general needs more rest. More is accomplished by just letting the thing charge, if you ask me.

Twitter (which I tend to abandon for long periods of time, probably because not enough of my friends have embraced it) and Instagram (which I genuinely enjoy) will probably get more overall screen time from me, because – the way I use them, anyway – they tend to be more nebulous and spark a great deal less debate. I can’t recall ever getting into an Instagram comment feud about the cuteness of my friends’ kids, or a beautiful tray of lasagna.

In the meantime, I’m going to stick my nose in a book, when I’m not enjoying the company of my wife and son.

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his first digital recording in over 200 years

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I still have my vinyl copy of this album. It’s in my basement, but it’s definitely frame-worthy, so it may eventually end up on a wall.

The album was released the same month as three other Zappa albums: Them or Us, Thing-Fish, and The Perfect Stranger: Boulez Conducts Zappa. At the time, I tended to gravitate towards Them or Us, mainly because Thing-Fish was (and still is) one of the more problematic items in the Zappa catalog (for various reasons), and I wasn’t yet a classical music fan, rendering the other two releases a lower priority for me.

Francesco Zappa is certainly a pleasant-sounding album, and the result of one of Frank’s more unusual ideas: take the works of an obscure Italian composer with a name quite similar to your own, program it into the Synclavier, and – poof! – out comes a new variation on Switched-On Bach. Unlike Frank’s own classical compositions, this is in more of a “baroque” style, hummable and harmless.

I remember listening to this one Saturday morning in 1985. My father had bought me a secondhand Toyota Celica that I hadn’t yet learned how to drive (I wouldn’t get my license for another year), and I really wanted to go for a drive with this music playing in the tape deck. But, yeah: I couldn’t drive. And my car didn’t have a tape deck.

Fortunately, it’s on my iPhone and I can listen to it whenever and wherever I want.

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the small year of books

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My dear friend Emily challenged herself to read 100 books in 2013, and wouldn’t you know it, she actually did it. I have no idea HOW she did it, but my hat is off to her.

Ten years ago (January 2004), I began keeping a list of every book I read (and finished) in addition to the dates the book was read. For example, the first entry reads as follows:

January 4-16, Noise Abatement, Carole Anne Davis (date, title, author)

And so on. I don’t know exactly why I started doing this (other than the fact that I can get pointlessly anal-retentive over pretty ridiculous things) especially since the list wasn’t posted in any public forum (although I began continuing the list on Goodreads about three years ago). I suppose it was to give myself a little incentive to read more. My part-time gig at Borders (which lasted from 1999 until the chain went out of business in 2011) certainly helped me step up my reading game, not just in terms of being literally surrounded by books, but also spending time with a more literary crowd. And while I firmly believe in quality over quantity, I really liked the fact that I went from reading a scant 15 books in 2004 to an impressive (for me) 32 in 2008. For the record, I’ve read 216 books in the past 10 years. Yay me?

My tastes aren’t necessarily exemplary, at least not all of the time. I still have a soft spot for mystery novels, but I tend to gravitate more towards the higher echelon of that genre (Michael Connelly, Raymond Chandler, Laura Lippman). I also have a deep fondness for the novels of Jonathan Kellerman, and I haven’t decided whether or not that’s something to brag about. At least it’s not James Patterson.  I still love rock star bios, as long as they’re well-written. I dip into the classics on a pretty regular basis, I began an obsession with Stephen King back in 2005 with the help of my friend (and King uber-fan) Kevin and have since read about 20 of his books (check out Kevin’s amazing unofficial Stephen King website right here). A few years ago I started to dive into the works of postmodernists like Pynchon and Delillo, and while I still don’t really get what they’re doing most of the time, I enjoy the ride.

And so on. The point is, I’m trying to keep my literary tastes – like my much-documented musical tastes – wide and varied. I’m also trying to “keep my numbers up,” trying to read as much as possible, but as priorities shift, children are born, houses are bought and moved into, etc, it gets more challenging to carve out time for a good book. But part of me doesn’t really buy that excuse. There’s plenty of times when Liza and Noah have gone to bed and I’m left alone in the living room and choose to watch some “Law & Order: SVU” episode on Hulu Plus that I’ve already seen before, instead of plowing through a few chapters of whatever’s currently on my nightstand.

Having said that, I really have no excuse for only reading 12 books in 2013. TWELVE! A book a month. Ridiculous. And since it’s the beginning of January, a new resolution is in the works. Hopefully this isn’t like those gym memberships that everyone talks about joining for about two weeks.

For the record, here’s a list of the books I read in 2013.

Favorite of the year? It’s a toss-up between “Waging Heavy Peace” and “Black Swan Green.”

Least-favorite? I didn’t read any really bad books in 2013, but “Alternadad” was wildly uneven, and “Moonlight Mile” was disappointing.

And if you’re still with me, here’s a quick recap of all 12 books:

“Who I Am,” Pete Townshend. The long-awaited autobiography of the Who’s mastermind is thoughtful, moving, and extremely well-written. Rock star debauchery, the songwriting process, Pete’s occasionally terrifying childhood, all the controversies (the 1979 Cincinnati concert stampede, the unfounded child pornography investigation, etc) is all documented here, in Pete’s typically erudite yet accessible style. As a fan, I loved it.

“Alternadad,” Neal Pollack. Pollack is a thirtysomething writer (at the time this was written) and writes here about his experiences raising a young son while still maintaining his life as a music fan, going to concerts, consuming cool music and maintaining his integrity. I like the idea of this book, and at times, I found it laugh-out-loud hilarious, quite moving and something I could periodically identify with. But often times it was whiney and complaining and full of “first-world white guy problems.” Wow, Neal, I’m really sorry that you can’t smoke pot in your house now that you have a son. It’s called adulthood. Recommended, but with reservations.

“Heart-Shaped Box,” Joe Hill. Aging rock star Judas Coyne has a taste for creepy memorabilia, so when he sees a men’s suit for sale online that is inhabited by the ghost of the man who used to own it, he orders it without hesitation. Then things get really scary. This is a fun read, and Hill, who is one of Stephen King’s sons, shares his father’s taste for the horror/pop culture combo. Sparse prose and a quick read, but overall, I liked Hill’s next book, “Horns,” a lot more.

“Waging Heavy Peace,” Neil Young. I got the Townshend book for Christmas from my daughter. In March, my wife got me this one for my birthday. While “Who I Am” is witty, cogent and erudite, Neil’s autobiography is a rambling, chaotic mess. And I loved it. The book reads like a typical Neil Young album. It veers off in strange tangents, spends inordinate amounts of time on random subject matter, but it’s all fascinating. Neil Young does things his way, and that applies to his music, his pet projects (the Pono digital music format and his LincVolt electric car, two projects that get a ton of lip service in this book), and his writing. Lots of great rock star stories, but a lot of fun surprises as well. This book led me to completely rediscover Neil’s music in 2013, making it not only one of my favorite books of the year, but probably the most important.

“American Gods,” Neil Gaiman. My first Gaiman book, and it most definitely won’t be my last. I loved the sprawling, epic feel of this book. It’s a fantasy book, a bit of a mystery, a roadtrip book, and it contains lots of interesting flashbacks and characters the likes of which I have yet to encounter through any other author. A terrific gateway book for what I hope will become one of my favorite authors. Believe the hype.

“The Black Box,” Michael Connelly. My favorite mystery writer. If he has a new book out, I read it. Period. Connelly’s style is a brilliant modern-day update to the typical Raymond Chandler style of mystery novel. Detective pounds the pavement for clues to a homicide. Connelly has branched out into legal thrillers with his Mickey Haller series, but “The Black Box” is another entry in the Harry Bosch detective series. Great contemporary mystery, never disappointing.

“Hostage,” Robert Crais. Never read a Crais novel until now. I guess I was just in the mood for a simple mystery. It’s a good “hostage situation” story, well-told, and apparently made into a mediocre Bruce Willis feature film that I have yet to see. This won’t necessarily stick with you for years to come, but it’s an entertaining read.

“Moonlight Mile,” Dennis Lehane. I think Lehane’s great, but he frustrates me. For some reason, I’ve never gotten the hang of his go-to series, the Kenzie/Gennaro detective team. I don’t care much for the main characters and the stories are of the cookie-cutter mystery variety. The fact that they’re usually set in the Boston area makes it interesting to me, but that’s about it. I prefer Lehane’s stand-alone novels, particularly “Mystic River” and the excellent period-piece novel “The Given Day.” “Moonlight Mile” is a Kenzie/Gennaro novel, and while it had its moments, it doesn’t exactly have me clamoring for another entry in the series.

“Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello,” Graeme Thomson. I’ve been an Elvis fan since the mid-80s, so it was fun to read about all this music in the context of a biography (despite the fact that I was familiar with a lot of the stories, especially the higher-profile ones). I don’t think Thomson is a particularly great writer, and it’s as if he can’t decide whether to write a strict biography or a critical analysis. The book tends to jump back and forth awkwardly between these two genres. Required reading for Elvis fans, but not one of the better rock bios out there.

“Sunstroke,” Jesse Kellerman. Jesse is the son of mystery writers Faye Kellerman and the aforementioned Jonathan Kellerman. His books can be easily categorized as mysteries, but he often writes them with a more interesting twist. The only other Kellerman book I’d read prior to 2013 was “The Genius,” a brilliant whodunit that also manages to be a nasty skewering of the New York City art world. “Sunstroke,” Kellerman’s debut novel, is a simpler, more sparse affair, a missing persons mystery that takes its protagonist from earthquake-shattered Los Angeles to the dusty, lawless streets of Mexico. It’s well-written, unique, and a bold first novel, but often moves a bit too slowly for its genre. Kellerman’s great, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a good place to start.

“The Blue Hammer,” Ross MacDonald. I heard that the late, great Warren Zevon, of all people, was a major Ross MacDonald fan. Being an avid fan of the classic L.A. noir mysteries of Raymond Chandler, I was curious about the simliar but lesser-known MacDonald. I picked up a copy of “The Blue Hammer” at the local library. I liked it. It’s a good story. But part of me felt that the reason Chandler is a better-known writer of this genre is because he’s just plain better at it. The book was good, but fell short of the mark. It was MacDonald’s last book, so maybe he peaked early. I intend to find out.

“Black Swan Green,” David Mitchell. Wow. I could not get enough of this book. It was a slow start for me, but eventually, I was flying through it and did not want it to end. My first David Mitchell book (he’s the guy who wrote “Cloud Atlas,” among others) and not my last. I love the fact that the book was about a 13-year-old boy in 1982, since I myself was a 13-year-old boy in 1982. But I spent that year in New Hampshire, and Mitchell’s protagonist (named Jason Taylor) lives in rural England. The book goes through an entire year and chronicles the usual 13-year old boy stuff: peer pressure, puberty, “fitting in,” music, trying cigarettes, trying to avoid getting the crap beaten out of you by schoolyard bullies…all delivered in a nearly incomprehensible (for us Yanks, anyway) British slang that almost sounds like characters from “A Clockwork Orange.” It’s like Judy Blume decided to write as a British kid with an “R” rating. There’s so much more I want to write about this book, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface, but I’m trying to keep all of these to “blurb length.”  A terrific coming-of-age story and the best novel I read all year.

Here’s to 2014 and more books! A lot more than 2013, anyway.

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bass and treble heal every hurt

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Do you ever hear a song that you used to listen to on a regular basis in a very specific time in your life? Naturally, it brings back memories of that time and place, and the strength of those memories is heightened depending on how often you listened to it back in that time.

 

For me, I cannot hear Maxine Nightingale’s cheesy disco hit “Right Back Where We Started From” without thinking of a road trip I took with my family from Boston to Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the summer of 1976. That song must have been in heavy rotation on the radio while we were in that Chevy Monte Carlo we were borrowing from my Uncle Bobby for that trip. I’m listening to the song right now on YouTube. It’s chilling – it’s like I’m seven years old again.

 

In October 1987 I graduated from Navy boot camp and reported to the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison, a now-closed Army base outside of Indianapolis, to study military journalism. I listened to a lot of music back then, and I purchased the Smiths’ final studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come, within the first few days I was there. I’m currently listening to the album’s opening track, “A Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours” and memories of that crazy, scary, hazy, idyllic autumn are rushing back. Music is an extremely powerful memory enhancer.

 

And so on. I could do this all day. But what I find interesting is that hearing these songs from another time in my life make me want to hop into a time machine and revisit those days, even for a brief moment. I want to go back to 18-year-old me as a 44-year-old. Maybe because I want to try and right some wrongs. Perhaps I have regrets about bad decisions I’ve made and want to see what would happen if I approached particular situations with a more mature head. Perhaps I have an urge to tell young Seaman Recruit Ingalls that he doesn’t have to guzzle that bottle of vodka just because it’s Friday night.

 

Music that brings back bad times in my life almost makes me feel a little better than the music that brings back the good times. I think I know why. But here’s two examples:

 

Whenever I hear XTC’s 1986 album Skylarking, I’m always – ALWAYS – reminded of when I first discovered that album in its entirety. From May 1994 to November 1995 I was living in Virginia Beach. It was not a great time in my life. I was a couple of years into my first marriage and things were scary. My ex and I were inexperienced in financial matters and were constantly dealing with creditors and late bills. We were living beyond our means. We were constantly fighting. We hated each other. I briefly grew a GOATEE, for crying out loud. We were raising our daughter in a less-than-loving home (fortunately, she turned out wonderfully).

 

Some of the better times took place during my solitary home/work commute. I was working a swing shift (I think it was 2 – 11 pm) as a videotape editor at a TV station in downtown Norfolk, about 22 miles from home. In the car, I used to listen to an “adult alternative” radio station called “The Coast” (93.7 on your FM dial), but I also listened to a ton of audiobooks, in addition to my own mixtapes and tapes I borrowed from the library. Skylarking was one of those. I fell in love with that album. I had been a big XTC fan for years prior to this discovery, but this album took my appreciation for them to a whole new level.

 

1999 was a very tough year for me. In February, I moved back to the States after spending three years in Naples, Italy. It’s a long story, but I was unable to keep my job in Italy (it had nothing to do with my performance – it was an obscure citizenship issue) and moved back to my original home state of Massachusetts. I didn’t want to leave Italy, but I had no choice. I lived with my sister for a couple of months, picked up a few temp jobs here and there, and eventually got my own apartment. Things were looking up. Then I broke up with my Italian girlfriend who moved back to the States with me. I got a full-time job at a law school that ended up being excruciatingly demeaning and soul-crushing. My financial situation was shaky. I wasn’t taking care of myself.

 

Towards the end of this personal hell, I got a part-time job at Borders that began changing things. An extra paycheck, a sweet employee discount on books, CDs and movies, and – perhaps most importantly – I made dozens of lifelong friends (including my wife). I always looked forward to the end of my law school shift so that I could walk a few short blocks to the bookstore where I belonged.

 

One of the first (if not THE first) thing I bought with my employee discount was Midnite Vultures, which was – at the time – Beck’s latest album. I loved that album, and still do. I loved the cheesy white boy funk, I loved the hooks, I loved sheer audacity of it. But most of all, I loved the fact that it was taking me away from all the crap I was dealing with throughout my dreary day job.

 

I’m listening to one of the album’s songs right now (specifically “Mixed Bizness”) and boy, it still feels weird. I want to jump through a wormhole and into 1999, where everyone’s freaking out about Y2K and I’m figuring out how to stretch my paycheck with enough pizza and beer to last the week while simultaneously not strangling my boss.

 

But what I think makes listening to music from a bad time almost better than the soundtrack of good times is that this music was a vital aspect of my survival. Midnite Vultures was a balm to cover up all the misery, and therefore its worth is raised. When I cranked up XTC’s “Another Satellite” in that 1994 Hyundai Excel on a Virginia freeway, I’m scrubbing away, at least temporarily, my emotional and financial ruin.

 

Like most people, I’ve made my share of bad decisions throughout my life, and I like to think that as I get older and more mature (and in my case, surround myself with better people), the good decisions begin to outweigh the bad. I don’t regret the bad decisions because they’re all part of the learning process. And if I do find myself in a situation that seems hopeless, I just keep trudging on until it’s over. And I will pay special attention to the music I’m listening to, because it will eventually be a very important part of my life’s soundtrack. 

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tapes’n’tapes

This post is about what’s left of my audio cassette collection. A lot of these photos came out too bright, and as a result, it’s hard to read the labels on a lot of the tapes, which I feel partially defeats the purpose. It’s late and touching up (or retaking) the photos is not an option for me right now, so I’m publishing this blog post “as is” and will probably fix the photos later this week. I wanted to get this post out there because I’m on a creative roll and don’t want to lose momentum. Thanks.
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I don’t consider myself a packrat, unless it applies to books, music or movies. There was a time when I had boxes and drawers full of audio cassettes, but as time has gone by, I’ve done a pretty good job of lightening the analog load to roughly two shoeboxes and a small cassette case. And like other forms of media, I never really throw away a fully functional cassette. They’ve either been passed on to friends who had a legitimate desire for the music, sold or given away at yard sales, or – in more recent years – given to a younger generation who hold audio cassettes in some sort of high, retro-ironic regard.
Every once in a while, those boxes of memories peer out from under their basement companions, imploring me to indulge in nostalgia. Let’s explore, shall we?
For the most part, my music collection shifted pretty seamlessly from vinyl (collecting since around 1979, if you don’t the records of my older siblings, which I listened to on a regular basis) to CD (collecting since the mid 1980s). My audio cassettes were primarily straight vinyl dubs or mixtapes. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a healthy batch of prerecorded cassettes.
A lot of my prerecorded cassettes are out of my hands now, but here’s a look at some of the store-bought stuff I still have, typical of what I was listening to during that awkward transitional phase: a little old-school R&B, a little new wave, a little Tom Waits, the obligatory Elvis Costello, and some other stuff:

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Mixtapes, mixtapes, mixtapes. I was basically Rob Gordon in junior high and high school. Some of my mixes had themes, some didn’t.

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I prided myself of imaginative mixtape titles, most of the time. The ones with Italian words in the titles were compiled during my three years in Italy. I had a lot of time on my hands back then, apparently.
Here’s a trio of terrific Zappa mixes made for me during my brother. In 1998, I was in Italy, going through a massive Zappa rediscovery phase (living overseas and having just discovered Amazon). Gary mailed me a cheat sheet in the form of these three beauties:

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Little Paws Stickin’ Up:  With an emphasis on Frank’s lyrical side. Not safe for work.
Frankie Zappo on Guitar: Frank as six-string hero
Watch Ruth: Frank’s full-band instrumental prowess
I would have tinkered with the song selection a bit, truth be told, but all Zappa fans have their own opinion, and this trio of mixtapes is a great introduction to Frank’s music.
And speaking of my brother, here’s a heap of non-Zappa-centric mixes he’s passed on to me over the years.

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Here we see a heap of recordings of radio shows I hosted during my stint as an overseas military broadcast journalist:

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In truth, I should have (and could have) recorded a lot more of these. I did a ton of radio work during both of my duty stations (Diego Garcia and Iceland), and it was easy to simply pop a blank cassette into the board once my show went live. But true to form, I was usually too lazy to do so. I have several recordings of “Sounds of the Seventies,” an hour-long show I inherited in the spring of 1990 when I began working the evening shift during the waning months of my two-year stint on Diego Garcia. The show aired weeknights from 9 to 10 pm and the format was pretty simple: music from the 1970s. Unfortunately, my predecessor – a classic rock nut and genuinely nice guy named Jeff Fraker – set a precedent by playing exclusively hard rock, so I got a few needlessly angry phone calls when I deigned to play the likes of Elvis Costello or Curtis Mayfield, despite the fact that it fit the format.

I also have recordings of another DG radio show called “Sunday Night Oldies.” I’ve been a 50s/60s R&B nut since high school, due to my obsession with the 1982 movie “Diner” and my brother’s first DJ gig at a cheesy oldies club in Orlando called Rickie Lee’s. As a result, my DG oldies show stuck pretty close to that particular format. As a result, the Chagos Archipelago’s lone airwaves were regularly subjected to my continuous assault of Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights,” Major Lance’s “Monkey Time,” and pretty much anything Sam Cooke recorded, among other things.
There are other radio recordings in here, too: a late-night show on the Iceland station, helpfully titled “After Midnight,” in addition to a couple of morning and drive-time shows. Oh, what a time that was.
Here we see mixtapes without cases. Sad:

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Audiobooks!

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I’m an audiobook nut. Websites like Audible.com make it frightfully easy nowadays. My introduction to the audiobook genre began when I was in high school and borrowed my father’s copy of Robert Ludlum’s “The Aquitaine Progression,” which I really don’t need to keep, since the last time I tried listening to it, it made an incessant squealing sound. Not surprising, since my father bought the cassettes back in 1986. I also have a recording of Frederick Forsyth’s “The Deceiver,” a terrific reading, despite the fact that it’s an abridged recording. I don’t do abridged anymore. When I was in Iceland, I dubbed a copy of my friend Gerard’s “fully dramatized” recording of Stephen King’s “The Mist” (recorded in “Kunskoff Binaural Sound,” whatever that means).
Some of these I may never get rid of. Some of them you will probably see at a yard sale one day. If so, take care of them.
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The Neil Young Review Project: Zuma

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I’m writing about every Neil Young solo album, in no particular order. I may or may not get through the entire discography. 

In 1975, Neil Young released Zuma. On this album, one gets the impression that Neil has let go of the baggage that pervaded his previous three albums. And that would be fairly accurate. Zuma comes on the heels of Neil’s infamous “Ditch Trilogy,” a trio of albums chronicling bitterness, dissonance, depression, and hard living: Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night. Regardless of the significance and artistic merit of the trilogy, Zuma seems like a breath of fresh air. 

Zuma is also about starting over. It’s the first Neil Young album since 1969 that features his lumbering backing band, Crazy Horse, whose previous Neil Young collaboration, 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, was notorious for a number of extended guitar jams. Here, the jams are back. And the Crazy Horse band, while as raw and vital as ever, has been altered due to unfortunate circumstances. Troubled Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who died of a drug overdose in 1972 on the day Neil fired him from the band (and was the primary inspiration behind the Ditch Trilogy), has been replaced by Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. 

If Sampedro felt daunted by standing in Whitten’s revered shadow, you can’t blame him. But he more than holds his own here, providing ample rhythm guitar backing to Neil’s stinging leads. The same can be said for Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina and bass player Billy Talbot, who accompany their leader through 36 minutes of solid rock and roll, with a few light touches along the way. Like most (if not all) Crazy Horse excursions, it’s a bumpy ride. These aren’t slick studio musicians. They came to rock. 

There’s a little bit of everything on Zuma. The album opens with the catchy, mid-tempo “Don’t Cry No Tears” (partially cribbed from Neil’s own “I Wonder,” a song he wrote in high school) and abruptly shifts gears with the epic minor-key downer, “Danger Bird.” Here, Neil reintroduces his fans to the unhurried soloing he perfected with earlier tracks like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Words (Between the Lines of Age),” underlining his status as the originator of the Beautiful Messy Guitar Solo. His strained, off-key singing is also reminiscent of Zuma’s predecessor, Tonight’s the Night. “Danger Bird” continues to break new ground while revisiting common Neil Young characteristics.

The “Neil Young Sampler” feel of the album is reinforced with the next track, the quiet, haunting “Pardon My Heart,” which features Neil on all instruments except for bass (performed by Tim Drummond, a veteran of several earlier Neil Young albums) and Talbot and Molina providing backing vocals (I like to think that Poncho was on a beer run when this was recorded). The acoustic setting is a nice palate cleanser, although an electric guitar solo creeps into the middle of the song like a campfire ghost story. 

And so on. The album continues to yank the fan back and forth through Neil’s different moods. “Lookin’ For a Love” is a harmless country rock number that drifts out of the speakers like a 1975 El Camino without a care in the world; “Barstool Blues” is typically strong, melodic Crazy Horse guitar crunch; “Stupid Girl” is a brittle number with wonderfully out-of-place Talbot/Molina vocal harmonies, odd tempo shifts, some of Neil’s most beautiful lead guitar and a bunch of really nonsensical lyrics (“I saw you in Mercedes Benz/practicing self-defense”). 

(I like to think of “Stupid Girl” as the cousin of “Borrowed Tune,” from Tonight’s the Night. The latter song was so named because it “borrows” the melody of the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane.” “Stupid Girl” [unintentionally?] borrows its title from a Stones song. Probably a complete coincidence, but I like the fact that I came up with this theory, even if it doesn’t really mean anything). 

Neil’s hyper-distorted lead guitar makes a comeback in the boneheaded but irresistible “Drive Back,” a song whose structure and overall feel seem to predict Neil’s infamous 1981 album, Re-ac-tor (I can’t wait to review that one. Stay tuned).  

It’s impossible to talk about Zuma without pointing out about the album’s unofficial centerpiece, “Cortez the Killer,” seven-and-a-half minutes of epic guitar soloing coupled with lyrics that are probably about Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, but knowing Neil’s penchant for obfuscation, it’s probably a love song or a metaphor for heroin or muscle cars or something. “Cortez” is vital not just in Neil’s body of work, or Crazy Horse’s, but in rock music in general. In many ways, it provides a blueprint for extended instrumental guitar-led rock music. It’s been covered by everyone from Matthew Sweet to Pearl Jam to Widespread Panic to Joe Satriani. The song is famously missing its final verse, sung by Neil after a blown circuit had caused the recording console to stop working (“I never liked that verse anyway,” a nonplussed Neil reportedly remarked when he was given the bad news). Regardless of its incomplete presence on Zuma, “Cortez” is where Neil probably earns his greatest respect as a lead guitarist and impenetrable lyricist.

Zuma closes with another seemingly out-of-place song, “Through My Sails,” a tender acoustic number which is actually from an aborted Hawaii recording session featuring Neil’s former bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. A throwback from one of Neil’s many musical identities, its presence on Zuma provides a gentle, fitting closer on this delightfully inconsistent album, but may also be an appropriate reminder that no matter how many guitar solos you can pile on an album, you can’t pigeonhole Neil Young. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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a zillion minutes, it seemed

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Mike Keneally recently announced that his 1997 album, Sluggo, which has been out of print for years, is about to be reissued in two different deluxe editions, in addition to a couple of download-only options. This is huge. I mean, I already own the album and I’m still excited.

Keneally received his huge professional break in 1987 when he – a die-hard Frank Zappa fan since around 1970 – auditioned for what would eventually be Zappa’s final tour (Frank passed away in 1993 after a long battle with prostate cancer). Mike, equally adept at guitar and keyboards, was selected to fill those musical roles in Frank’s band, in addition to providing background and occasional lead vocals. Due to his massive guitar-playing skills, he became the band’s “stunt guitarist,” a slot previously occupied by Steve Vai and Warren Cuccurullo. The stunt guitarist played a lot of very complicated written guitar parts while Frank – one of rock’s most underrated lead guitar players, if you want my opinion – concentrated on the improvised solos, of which there were many.

Hold on. This is way too much back story. Okay – the 1988 Zappa World Tour, which kicked off in February, imploded in June due to a lot of band infighting. Frank halted the tour and began writing his autobiography. Mike would eventually begin making solo albums – really weird, fun, brilliantly played stuff. I like to think of Mike’s solo work as “Frank Zappa, with about 95 percent of the cynicism removed.” And if you listen closely, you can hear echoes of XTC, Todd Rundgren, Steely Dan, the Beatles, Captain Beefheart, Pink Floyd, Mahivishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, and a ton of other influences in Mike’s music, depending on what album you’re listening to.

I should add that Mike’s musical life story is told more informatively and entertainingly by the man himself right here.

Sluggo, originally released in 1997, is Mike’s fourth or sixth album, depending on how you’re counting. The album was an enormous step forward in terms of both sonic and creative sophistication. While earlier albums had a fun, lo-fi home studio feel to them, Sluggo sounds BIG. It sounds like Mike was given access to a very nice studio, was paired up with a bunch of ridiculously talented musicians, upped his songwriting game about 200 percent and went nuts. And I suppose that’s what happened.

Sluggo is a really important album for me because it was my introduction to Mike’s solo work. I’ve been a Zappa fanatic since around 1982, after my brother Gary started buying his albums and we both began devouring this strange musical landscape. Gary and I saw Zappa in concert in 1984 but we both sadly missed the 1988 tour. Fortunately, the tour was copiously documented in the form of several live albums. Seeing Keneally’s name in the liner notes was my introduction to the man. Around 1998 I began poking around various Zappa-related websites. I found Mike’s official site and I was fascinated. Because this was pre-YouTube, pre-Vimeo, pre-Spotify (and due to the fact that whatever computer I was on at the time was not very audio sample-friendly), I was a fan of Mike’s music for about a year and a half before I heard a note of it. I pored over photos, blog entries, a terrific 1988 Zappa tour diary transcription from Mike himself…it was all fascinating to me. Finally, in 2000, I pulled the trigger and ordered Sluggo through the website.

As a result, this album became my soundtrack during the spring and summer of 2000. I don’t think a day went by from April to August of that year when I didn’t listen to at least one track from that album. Sluggo also has the distinction of being the album I was obsessing over when I began dating the woman who would become my wife. Needless to say, this was a wonderful time for my ears and my heart.

I would go on to buy more and more of Mike’s music (and I’ve already seen him in concert four times), but Sluggo is obviously a sentimental favorite. However, its appeal goes beyond its significance in my personal timeline. In many ways, it could be considered Mike’s “default” album. In other words, there’s a little bit of everything here. If you want an accurate sampling of Mike’s music in one album (despite the fact that you should really get them all), Sluggo fits the bill. It opens with a wonderful, maddeningly catchy bit of guitar-crunch power pop (“Potato”), continues into a miniature prog rock masterpiece (“I, Drum-Running, am Clapboard Bound”), followed by a musical assault that sounds like Foo Fighters after downing a case of Red Bull (“Why Am I Your Guy?”). And that’s just the first three tracks. The musical variety on this album is stunning. There’s a track that sounds like Joe Jackson on an LSD trip (“TRANQUILLADO” – apparently, it’s supposed to be in all caps). A beautiful Thelonious Monk-ish solo piano closer (the title track, which is a perfect way to remind the listener that Mike is equally adept and guitar and keyboards). A fragile ballad dedicated to Mike’s young daughter (“I’m Afraid”). Mini-tracks too weird to accurately describe (“What Happened Next,” “I Guess I’ll Peanut”). A mid-tempo slide guitar epic (“Chatfield Manor”). And so on.

It seems like I almost always have to add a caveat in everything I review that says “this isn’t for everyone.” And I suppose that applies here. Mike’s music is strange, sometimes dissonant, often inscrutable. But it’s also beautiful, occasionally tender, often cerebral, and a whole lot of fun. I feel perfectly comfortable recommending this album to the Keneally newbie. And now you have no excuse. Starting tomorrow, you can pre-order it here.

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