Perfectly Broken

I’ve been listening to Bowie CDs on my commute, and for some reason I remembered something today.

The first time I heard David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” album, I was in high school. My brother brought the CD back with him from college. Just the CD, no case or liner notes. That’s because he rescued it from some guys in his dorm who were using it as a frisbee. They, in turn, had come by it when one of them had bought a floor-model player and found that left in the tray.

I want to stop here for a moment to enjoy the thought of an appliance department playing “Diamond Dogs”, because that’s pretty cool right there.

Right, so we were at me listening to the album. I was floored. It was the glammiest, glitziest, post-apocalypse I’d discovered. So of course I had to tape it. I hooked my brother’s CD player into my system and put in a tape. Everything was fine until it got to the final track, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”, which is really the outro for both the album and the song “Big Brother”. It’s basically a disco breakdown that ends with a short loop that trails away to nothing, and it’s terrific. Unfortunately the disc got scratched during all of the tossing it around like philistines. Sometimes the player could work it out, but usually it would start skipping during the chant. Because it was part of the track before it, this meant that I had to keep re-recording both of them until it finally played through.

My brother wondered why I’d bothered. In his view it didn’t matter because the song skips anyway. I was 17, so all I could say was that I needed it to be right. Now I can explain it better.




Wholly Musical Night

I love Christmas music. Nearly a third of my iTunes library is Christmas related. I’ve got all kinds: classic, traditional, folk, pop, rock, jazz, rap, blues, country, reggae, disco, outsider… and others I’m sure I’m forgetting right now.

So when Erin Zindle, lead of The Ragbirds, announced that they would be putting on their 7th annual Christmas concert with friends — well, I made sure to get tickets.

The concert was last Saturday, and even though I’d worn myself out with being social and learning a new JavaScript package I felt restored just waiting in my seat.

The music was an eclectic mix, which suited me perfectly. There were new arrangements of traditional songs, faithful covers of rock classics like “Run, Run Rudolph” (with George Bedard delivering a blistering rendition of its signature riff) and “Father Christmas, a string quartet, original songs, soul classics, Irish reels, and a spectacular version of the Charlie Brown Christmas theme, featuring banjo. Not quite everything and the kitchen sink, but an enjoyable stew of great music.

Of course, they had me at “Christmas music”, but fiddles, a brass section, and a banjo sealed the deal. Plus, the bongo-fueled “Little Drummer Boy” is one of two arrangements of the song I’ve ever truly liked.

If only they’d had a surf version of “We Three Kings”, it would have been a perfect night. Maybe if I start getting famous for electric uke I’ll get an invite some year. 😉

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Listen to Cold War Recordings

A few weeks ago I picked up a collection of music called “Atomic Platters”, which contains 4 CDs packed with tracks from the height of the Cold War. Primarily from the 1950s (though ranging from the 40s to the 60s), these tracks are often explicit reactions to the threats of nuclear devastation.

Having grown up in the final, fatalistic stages of the Cold War (the 70s and 80s, for those just realizing how old I am), these songs and PSAs gave me nostalgia dissonance. On the one hand, I identify strongly with the persistent threat of atomic annihilation. Hell, popular media made it seem inevitable.

But all of these tracks were recorded (and most forgotten) long before my birth. The references, the musical styles — so much is unfamiliar to me. The one track that feels like part of my youth is “We Will All Go Together (When We Go)” by the great Tom Lehrer. My friends and I “discovered” the wry songster in high school, so his music is as integral to my makeup as that of Dead Kennedys, Oingo Boingo, or the many British Invasion bands my brother introduced me to.

As I listened to the set, driving to and from work, I noticed trends in themes, messages, and references. Being unable to simply enjoy anything, I decided to do a breakdown of all of this data. Being a lazy bastard, I did it from memory.

Here then is my woefully unscientific analysis of my impression of a bunch of audio tracks packaged by others using undisclosed methodologies. As they say on the psychic ads, “for entertainment purposes only.”

(There is a vague connection between order and occurrence. The higher an entry is, the more often I recall it coming up. So, “Religion” was the most frequent topic, with “You’d better pray” popping up more often than “God’s Nuclear Wrath”. In my recollection, at least…)

  1. Religion
    1. You’d better pray
      1. For your soul, because we’re all going to die
      2. For God to prevent nuclear holocaust
    2. God’s nuclear wrath
      1. Will be visited on the Communists
        1. In Russia
        2. On Stalin/Brezhnev
        3. Everywhere
      2. Will kill us all
        1. Judgement Day
        2. Flood of fire
      3. C. Atheism = Communism
  2. Romance
    1. Metaphors
      1. You are a bomb
      2. Our love is a bomb
      3. She is a bomb
      4. I am a bomb
      5. Love spins like a satellite
    2. We’ll die together
    3. I love you even though you’re radioactive/mutated
    4. I was duped by a sexy communist
    5. I’m sending you to Russia
  3. Humor
    1. Gallows
      1. We’re all going to die
    2. Communism
      1. Communists enjoy our freedoms while visiting
      2. Communists kill each other
      3. Stalin is a punk
    3. Uranium mining
      1. I/They haven’t found anything
  4. Sincere*
    1. Public Service Announcements
      1. Know the CONELRAD stations
      2. Stock food
      3. Prepare/locate shelter
    2. U!S!A!
      1. Communists don’t know our freedoms
      2. Communists seek to destroy
      3. We must defend our way of life
      4. Protesting helps the Communists
    3. Public figures
      1. Pro
        1. Senator McCarthy
        2. President Eisenhower
        3. General MacArthur
        4. Francis Gary Powers (U2 pilot shot down over Russia)
      2. Con
        1. Joseph Stalin
        2. Nikita Khrushchev
        3. Leonid Brezhnev
        4. Senator McCarthy
        5. President Truman
        6. President Kennedy
  5. Outliers
    1. Dancing
      1. Dance names with Cold War references
        1. Uranium
        2. Atomic, Atom Bomb, A-Bomb, etc.
        3. Sputnik
      2. Behind the Iron Curtain
      3. While the bombs fall
    2. War
      1. Korea must be crushed
      2. Washington needs to be invaded
    3. Equality
      1. We need equal rights to unite against communists
    4. Love Thine Enemy
      1. Calm down, Russia. We used to be friends.
    5. Instructional Song
      1. Duck and Cover

*The majority of the religious songs are sincere, but since religion is the predominant theme they were given their own top-level category. The Sincere category represents everything else once the religious songs are pulled out.

A Night At The Theatre

In her opening number last night Amanda Palmer sang “I would kill to make you feel”, and that’s what she and The Grand Theft Orchestra did. They killed, and we felt it.

The song list covered Palmer material from many phases of her career in music but understandably emphasized songs from her album with the GTO, “Theatre is Evil”. When the full band (and occasional extra help from locals) played, my insides felt like they were on a vibration belt set to maximum carnage, which was exhilarating and worrisome simultaneously.

Palmer performed “The Bed Song” on her own, providing a quieter moment only slightly marred by (presumably drunken) Philistines carrying on at the main bar. It’s a melancholic tune from the “Theatre is Evil” album that chronicles a lifetime of mutual longing, and while it’s rather obvious it is touching and effective.

A surprise came when she asked for requests. While most called out new songs or classic Dresden Dolls hits, one person requested “Map of Tasmania”, Palmer’s pro-pube anthem. Declaring it to be timely due to PETA’s new body-shaming ad equating fur to having a hairy crotch, she grabbed a uke and tore through a stirring rendition of the song before returning to the matter of requests again.

It’s worth noting that Palmer was very ill and fighting a fever. She came out before the show to inform us and beg forgiveness in advance for her lack of energy but also to assure us that the show would not be cancelled. She looked and sounded like death left forgotten in the microwave. But once she came out to perform, there was very little sign of her condition. She sang, danced, crowd-surfed, and generally gave a hell of a performance. She’s a pro, and I really hope she feels better soon. That could not have been as easy as she made it look.

She closed with the Dresden Dolls hit “Girl Anachronism”, which seemed appropriate. Nothing from Evelyn Evelyn or the Radiohead album, but you can’t have everything. We did get a stunning rendition of “Leeds United”, which may be my favorite song from “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”. It’s hard to tell; there are a lot of great songs to choose from there.

I had a lot of fun, and I’m glad I went. I just stood stiffly the entire time, so I probably creeped out a few people. Sorry about that. It was all I could do not to hide in a corner. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that I could stand in that crowd for the whole evening.

Passion for Music

Shortly after posting this, I should be attending a concert in Detroit. Phil and I are going to see Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra. I’m both excited and terrified by this. Terrified because of my usual anxiety about crowds and unfamiliar surroundings, and excited because Amanda Palmer makes me care about music.

I have a lot of musical influences. Talk music with me, and within five minutes I’ll find a way to work in a mention of The Kinks or just Ray Davies. Ten minutes brings out world-class talent like Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker. A few more minutes and I’ll tell you all about Wade Curtiss and Hasil Adkins. My point is that I love music and all of the corners and edges in which it resides.

My first exposure to Amanda Palmer — and exposure is often an accurate word with her — was the video for “Coin Operated Boy” by The Dresden Dolls, which a coworker showed me. The song was whimsical, sad, and drenched with emotion, and the video was a masterpiece of artifice. I immediately bought the album and listened to it raptly. The blend of craft and rawness awed me. Screams of agony mixed with carefully constructed musical chaos. At times I feared for Palmer’s fingers and the piano keys she punished with them.

This was passion. This was music that made me feel something beyond simple joy, sorrow, or anger. It made me understand it, and I cared about it.

Not everything that Palmer has done in her career since then has made me react this way, but neither should I expect it to. Because she is passionate about her music she is always exploring, always experimenting. To ask her to remain always the same for my sake is to seek to kill what makes her worth listening to in the first place.

I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign for her album with The Grand Theft Orchestra, “Theatre Is Evil”. It turned put to be a really good album with a few outstanding songs. Songs I care about, that I invested in with money and heart.

So yeah. Tonight I’m going to a crowded concert in an unfamiliar venue, despite my anxieties. They can flood my system with bad chemicals, but they can’t overcome my passion for music.

Do Bee Do Bee Do

I’ve been a busy Do Bee this week.

The weekend passed in a blur of editing and mixing so that I could release my latest song as soon as possible. It’s about the election, so I knew its shelf-life would be extremely limited. Housework piled up, the cats forgot who I was, and Wendi patiently waited for me to work the song out of my system.

It’s titled “Rochambeau”, and it’s a raucous lefty protest against some of the most inflammatory remarks made by politicians on the right this election season. As it’s based entirely on carefully selected statements and partisan hyperbole I have no delusions about its popular appeal, so consider yourself warned. 🙂

If you’d like to listen to it, read the lyrics, or find out why it’s called “Rochambeau”; all of this can be found on my Bandcamp site.

I felt relieved after releasing my political anthem and braced myself to catch up on chores. Then the week started, and it seemed pissed off. Two of my friends were checked into hospitals. Both were released, one with significantly better news than the other I fear. I don’t want to reveal any more than that, other than to say that I’ve not been happy with people I care about having medical surprises.

My emotional investment in following the health updates left me tired, so when A Very Bad Thing happened at work the late nights and early mornings spent analyzing and correcting left me — well, I got stupid tired. A fix has been designed and is currently being tested, and my involvement appears to be over now. The less said about it the better, really. I only mention it to emphasize that my household responsibilities have continued to back up.

Tonight is going to be my first chance to get back on top of things, and it feels like I’ve battled through monsters to reach the level boss. I’m going to need to find a save point, because I’m not sure I can finish this fight before the Veep debate tonight. No way am I missing that; I need the laughs.

The Spider Bombs – “Nudie Cutie”

Some of you may be aware that I have a band. Well, a one-nerd band. It’s called The Spider Bombs, and it’s your basic ukulele, mandolin, rockabilly act.

I’ll likely write more about it at some point. For now, I want to let you know about my new release.

“Nudie Cutie” is about finding love in an exceptionally unlikely place: the sex-kitten lab of Dr. Breedlove. It’s a space-a-riffic visit to the world of the nudie cutie classic “Kiss Me, Quick”.

Please give it a listen.

Our Oratorio

I met Wendi during my freshman year in college. She transferred to University of Michigan in the winter term and, seeking out like-minded people, joined the Champions game I was in.

For those unfamiliar, Champions is a Hero System RPG for playing comic book super heroes. If that doesn’t make sense to you, just understand that we were a merry band of geeks armed with bags of dice and 2-liters of caffeinated beverages.

I instantly took a shine to her, and not just because she happened to have estrogen. She was attractive, funny, and confident. Also, she was a junior. I figured she was out of my league. She didn’t agree, but I had no idea of that. I was busily having an odd sort of breakdown in which I started creating my own reality.

Fortunately a summer spent back home rooted me firmly in consensus reality again, and I’ve never lost my mind quite that severely since. Nope.

Um. This was meant to be a fun post. Forget all that stuff about my stupid brain, okay?

Fast forward to my sophomore year. As the fall term progressed Wendi and I started hanging out more, in part because I had switched to the dorm next to hers to be with the majority of our friends. I’d skip Russian class so we could share long lunches at my dorm’s cafeteria. I was failing anyway, so I figured that I might as well enjoy myself.

By the time November came around, I’d started working up the nerve to ask her out. On a date, not just another of our semi-regular trips to the hobby store.

Then Wendi got tired of waiting for me and started going out with Bruce. I call him that because he was fixated on an ex that who reportedly looked like Demi Moore, specifically as she appeared in “Ghost”. I wouldn’t know; I never met either of them — Bruce and Demi, I mean, although I’ve also never met Bruce or Demi.

Wendi and I were still having lunch together, as I nobly stayed beside her just in case Bruce died. The wisdom of this plan was confirmed for me when she bluntly said she’d have gone out with me if I had asked. It hurt to know for certain that I’d blown it, but now I could hope for another chance. All I had to do was never to give up on her. I’d stay at her side, believing that I’d just be happy enough if she were happy.

As it turned out my resolve was never tested, which is probably for the best. My intentions are good, but my attention span isn’t brief so much as it is deeply lazy. It can’t put forth the effort needed to focus on such a long-term commitment.

Less than a week after dropping truth on my lunch, Wendi called me. She had gotten tickets for a performance of Messiah but couldn’t reach Bruce. Would I like to go?

My instinctive reaction was to decline, as I knew that I was not fit for an evening of culture. Fortunately I quickly recast the event as an opportunity to spend time with her — under date-like conditions, no less! Sometimes my brain works perfectly well, thank you.

The night of the performance found us sitting somberly in the theater, trying to absorb culture while deciding whether or not this constituted a first date. By intermission we were worn out. We talked nervously, and out of desperation we scrutinized the program.

That’s when we finally realized that the lyrics were in English.

For the rest of the evening we giggled uncontrollably, under the resentful glower of those around us. I remain unashamed; you can’t expect the repetition of a sentence for five or six minutes to be met with gravitas — not from Gilbert and Sullivan fans. The line we were hearing rattled through my brain, transformed into the meter of “Modern Major General”.

     “He was rejected and despised
     And despised and rejected
     And despised and despised
     And rejected and rejected…”

After that we felt very much relaxed and ourselves. Over dessert at Stucchi’s we talked comfortably and decided that we were indeed dating. We’ve been best friends ever since. I have no idea what happened to Bruce, but his loss was my gain.

We’ve had ups and downs, like any couple, but every time we hear the “Hallelujah” chorus we look at each other and smile. We may not be cultured, but we’ll always have Handel’s Messiah.

Mitch Ryder & The Ann Arbor Heat

By noon today, it was so hot and humid outside that I was sweating in the shade. But outside I went, because an opportunity had been dropped right in my lap. The street outside my workplace was closed down for a free lunch concert by the legendary Detroit rocker Mitch Ryder, and my coworkers were just going to have to deal with the downside of a shared workspace.

Growing up, I listened to a lot of 60s rock. That’s what my brother listened to, and I always followed his lead. To this day I have no idea where he picked up the taste. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who — we devoured any British Invasion music we could find. Inevitably this lead us to “discover” their influences like B.B. King, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. We became hooked on music, and although our tastes have diverged we’re both continuing to venture into new musical territory.

Somewhere in our teenaged mutual explorations we stumbled on Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. It was my white-bread entry into the wonders of soul music. Ryder’s throaty wail soared over driving rhythms and opened up new pathways in my brain. By the time I could see “The Blues Brothers” I’d been fully prepared to appreciate Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, because recordings from this white kid from Detroit had made it to my white suburb of Bay City.

So yeah, today I got a chance to hear a singer who’d opened my ears to a purely American sound. And although his body can no longer display his energy, his voice can still blow out speakers. For an hour I was a teen again, letting the sound move me. Or at least move my toes; it was way too hot to move anything more.