‘Sam’s book corner’ Archive


Saturday, May 14th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

Welcome to another installment of my occasional feature, Sam’s Book Corner, where I rise from my sofa and not actually review a book I’ve just finished. This time, we’re talking (or not talking) about “Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!”, a biography by Douglas Coupland, a writer primarily known for the novel “Generation X”. McLuhan, of course, is the Renaissance scholar turned media critic most famous for terse, gnomic pronouncements like “The medium is the message”. Coupland plays this biography relatively straight, although there’s nothing really straight about the genre-busting nature of McLuhan’s scholarship. He’s commonly regarded as the prophet of the Internet age – but as Coupland articulates pretty clearly, his prophecy is more Biblical than some would care to admit.

And with that, we turn to electronics repair.

I have this digital organ. A Korg CX-3, for you aficionados out there, an original one (which they no longer make), not the reissue (which they also no longer make). I bought this organ, used, in 1987 or so, around the time I joined my ska band, Agent 13. I love this instrument – it sounds exactly like a Hammond B-3, right down to the drawbars and the rotary effect. I don’t use it much anymore, but it deserves to be cared for (as much as I ever care for anything, but that’s another, slightly humiliating, story).

And at the moment, it’s a bit broken. The particular problem isn’t important; what’s important is that it’s not in the appropriate shape to help me record my next album. So I asked my pal Jason Benjamin where I should take it, and he recommended a particular guy at a particular shop, and I gave him a call, and after some negotiating and haggling, he volunteered to take a look at it for me. And when I brought it into the shop, he went into the back room, and when he returned, he said, “This is the only reason I agreed to try to fix this for you”, and handed me a 30-year-old repair manual for the CX-3.

Artifacts like this – well, for a certain subset of geeks, it doesn’t get any better. It was yellow, and a bit dog-eared, and the staples had fallen out, but this repairman had hung onto this manual because,  well, it’s invaluable. He used to repair a lot of these instruments,  and while he doesn’t see them much anymore, he kept it around, just in case. And it got me thinking.

We live in an age of pure information. Everything that can be reduced to digital data, pretty much has been. You can use CAD software and three-dimensional printers to create all sorts of wacky things. Music has slipped the bounds of physical media and escaped into the ether. Video is a click away – either to view your favorite band, or upload a video of your own performance. The barriers to information exchange – at least in democratic societies – have essentially vanished.

It’s important to realize that this is a change. It’s neither virtuous nor evil, neither good nor bad. It has its advantages and its disadvantages, depending on who you are and under what circumstances you’re interacting with it. And we tend to focus a lot on the advantages – but for some of us who lived before the revolution, there’s something missing.

Take that manual, for instance. Sure, nowadays I can download any damn PDF I want to, and get manuals for all sorts of obscure devices – I can review user manuals for devices I haven’t even bought yet, which is a boon, I can tell you. But they’re not artifacts anymore. The paper doesn’t yellow, the staples don’t fall out – there’s no rarity, there’s no sense of history in the object itself, there’s no story to how it got to be in this particular set of hands at this particular time. The physical history of the information is gone.

And the treasure hunter in me feels this loss pretty dramatically. Used record and CD stores aren’t interesting anymore when virtually every song ever recorded is on iTunes for 99 cents. I know where to find everything – it’s easy. There’s no challenge, there’s no hunt, there’s no joy of discovery, and there’s no physicality or history to the object itself. There’s no physical or social aspect to the act of browsing. It’s just me and a terminal and the universe of bytes.

Don’t get me wrong – the digital revolution has been very, very good to me. I’m in love with digital photography and digital audio recording. But while the frictionlessness of YouTube and Facebook make it possible to bypass the bloated and arbitrary corporate staircases to fame, they’ve just replaced it with a different sort of arbitrariness, a different set of skills to master (search engine optimization instead of cocktail party banter, for instance), and ultimately, the claws of capitalism find a way to seize hold of those channels as well. And while I can find just about any book I’ve ever wanted, online at Powell’s or Amazon, it’s not better than encountering it in a dusty, uncurated corner in a Harvard Square basement – it’s just different: a different set of actions, using different muscles, different senses, different notions of time. It changes the experience, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring the old experience.

Some of you might be tempted to remind me that some people miss the flicker of the gaslight flame, or the whir of the plane propellors, or the smell of horse manure from the carriages, or, less nobly, the invisibility of gays, the silence of women, the easy profit of slaves. But this is just cherry-picking; or, more accurately, feces-flinging. It trades on the trope that progress is positive, rather than engaging with the question in any honest way.

And this trope is dangerous. I encountered, the other day, someone selling, on eBay, a CD containing a scan of an original Gurian guitar catalog. Not the catalog itself, but a digital facsimile. Now, the only reason it’s a facsimile is because the original was a physical object; but it’s telling that the lifespan of this digital copy will likely be significantly shorter than the original (which our seller is keeping, by the way). File formats keep changing; disk formats keep changing. Part of me fears this dystopic moment when an electromagnetic pulse destroys the last digitized copy of the Gutenberg Bible, just a short time after we discard the original because “in digital form it will last forever”.

Which brings us back to McLuhan. McLuhan really was a Luddite – Coupland thinks that he hated the modern world, and the mistaken impression that he endorsed the new media society was a misinterpretation of his critical, value-free eye. McLuhan, for all his impenetrable aphorisms, saw through this trope, or, perhaps more accurately, discarded it as propaganda, as wrapping paper for the phenomena he was really interested in studying: the individual as she interacts with the changing media experience, for good or ill.

But while McLuhan could subjugate his disdain for the sake of scholarship, I can’t disengage in any comparable way. I love my digital recorder, but I hate the hard disk as jukebox; I love Craigslist and free commentary on the Intertubes, but I hate the decline of of the broadsheet newspaper. The world has changed – not improved, not deterioriated, just – changed.

Someday, the drawing of the capacitor that has strangled my CX-3 will be eaten by earthworms; and someday, that digital copy of the Gurian catalog will be struck by a camel-back-breaking cosmic particle, and descend into the realm of static. Something – something – will kill them both. And decades from now – hell, maybe even next year – my fondness for the broadsheet newspaper will be as transparently quaint as, oh, pining away for the days of the town crier. My experience – at this point in time, at this conjunction of media – will be gone, the tensions resolved, and history will be rewritten by the technological victors – but the lens of history is necessarily distorted, and it’s the moment that McLuhan was really interested in. There are billions of us living through this, just as there were millions of us living through the invention of movable type. And McLuhan was one of the first modern scholars to recognize that this experience – this engagement with ways we interact with the world – was worthy of study.

Music and the Renegade Tradition

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

Welcome to the second installment of my occasional feature, Sam’s Book Corner, where I rise from my sofa and not actually review a book I’ve just finished. I began back in October, with a not-actual-review of Steve Almond’s “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”.  This time, we’re talking about Thaddeus Russell’s “A Renegade History of the United States”, which is worth a read if only for the chapter which describes the Jewish domination of professional basketball in the first half of the 20th century. Yes, indeed, in case you’re not aware of this, we’re naturally gifted athletes – at least that’s what they were saying at the time…

Mr. Russell’s book is something of a provocation – at least, he’s not really intending that we take the thesis at face value. The idea is that what cemented American freedom was not the Founding Fathers, or the pioneers, but rather the parade of scofflaws, indolents and hedonists who challenged the ongoing Puritanism that this great country was founded on.  The drunkards during the Revolution, the gangsters in the 20′s, the drag queens at Stonewall – these are the ingredients, he writes, of American freedom.

Now, this isn’t completely nuts. It’s hard for me, perhaps as a child of the sixties (not really, but close enough for folk music), to appreciate how robust the tradition of moral scold is in American history. The title track to my pal Chris Pahud’s first album, “Morton’s Return”, is about one of the incidents Mr. Russell talks about: how a man named Thomas Morton founded a non-Puritan settlement north of Plymouth which featured intolerable levels of debauchery (read: any enjoyment of anything at all). So the Pilgrims marched up to Quincy, with guns, and shut it down, thereby establishing a long American tradition of legal and extralegal enforcement of the moral virtue of not enjoying things. From the Puritans to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to Prohibition to the Hays Code to Tipper Gore and her explicit warning labels, normative America has always been about hard work, bland food, uninspired sex, and the connection between leisure time and the Apocalypse.

But the thing that really jumps out at me, as a musician, is the extent to which music – allmusic – is part of this “renegade” tradition. It seems to have started with dancing – after all, dancing is a horrible, dirty activity which occasionally involves touching a member of the opposite sex (well, whatever sex you happen to be interested in), which will lead immediately to venereal disease and the collapse of the Republic. It also meant that you weren’t working, and of course our country is built on hard work – never mind the fact that our economy seems to be driven almost entirely by blockbuster movies, snack foods and Internet pornography. The sin of spending money on leisure, especially leisure that would lead to other sorts of enjoyment – and get your mind out of the gutter, there – see, that’s exactly what I mean, there’s nothing wrong with having your mind in the gutter – no, actually, it’s not even the gutter, the problem is thinking that it’s the gutter in the first place – and here we are, in 21st century America, where white people still have no idea what to do with their bodies, pretty much all the time.

It’s hard to imagine how what I do, as a songwriter, is subversive or a challenge to the status quo. But I benefit from years of folks who did exactly that – the slaves who refused to yield to their circumstances of toil; the ragtime composers who made their livings in the lobbies of whorehouses; the jazz musicians who played for gangsters in speakeasies; Elvis Presley, who died as a joke but started out as someone so shocking that he could only be shown on television from the chest up; the anti-war music of the sixties. Not a single one of these people aimed for mainstream America.

And it doesn’t matter whether I think my own material is subversive – there’s probably someone out there who’s thinking it for me. If Mr. Russell’s thesis is right, I don’t have to be a war protester or a free-love advocate; my very existence is a threat to American values.

After all, I haven’t worked full-time in almost thirty years, because I love my music and my peace of mind more than I love the idea of working. And just in this past year, I wrote a song called “I Ain’t In It For The Money”, which not only challenges the employment status quo but also features a grammatical bastard child right there in the title. I’ve written songs that refuse to pass judgment on divorce, sex outside marriage – you name it, I refuse to be a moral scold about it. In fact, now that you mention it, I can feel the fabric of society shredding around me even as I write this.

If there is a moral here – well, I suppose we should call it an “amoral”, given the circumstances, but you know what I mean – it’s that somewhere, somehow, there’s always going to be someone or something out to get you. It may be your own fear, or your own unwillingness to rattle the cage, or your concern about being ostracized or mocked, or even a very real concern about being jailed, or worse. Art isn’t innocent. It requires us to sacrifice a bit of ourselves, to expose our neck to the knife – in ways we may not even be aware of. You may cause an uproar without even knowing it; you may start a revolution without intending to; but it does no good to backtrack after the fact, or to hold yourself back beforehand. We are all artists, after all – enjoying music is as much a skill as creating it, after all, and I’ve known concertgoers that invest far more energy in, and are far more knowledgeable about, what I do than I am. And if Thaddeus Russell is right, art, either making it or enjoying it, is one of the things that challenges American Puritanism – and makes us more free.

Can Rock and Roll Save Your Life?

Monday, December 20th, 2010

(Originally appeared here. Check out http://www.we-support-local-music.com for other great local bloggers.)

“Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life”, by Steve Almond, may not be the funniest book I’ve ever read about being a music fan, but it’s close. In this entertaining memoir, Mr. Almond takes us on a tour of his adult life viewed through the lens of Drooling Fanaticism, his term for the pure, hopeless note-crush that the musically talentless have on the musically talented. I’m pleased to say that I laughed out loud several times, and subjected my wife, She Who Must Be Taunted, to the oral presentation of multiple passages, even though she is almost certain to read the book herself and I, regrettably, am a terrible out-loud reader, with the rhythm of a stalled subway car and the timing of an asthmatic whale.

Alas, although this essay begins as a review, it is about to veer off into navel-gazing, since you can easily obtain this book at your local bookstore or Kindletorium, but far less easily gaze into my navel. See, Steve’s experience is a pure one, and mine is not. I could have been him – it would have been easy. And the extent to which I disagree with him – insofar as he has any thesis at all in his book – is the extent to which I failed to be him, for which I am exceedingly grateful.

I recently wrote, in my newsletter, that my desire to be a rock’n’roll star came to me late at night, during a portentous midnight conversation in the dark, as I camped out on the floor of a friend’s bedroom. It really was that sudden, and it wasn’t any more realistic than the hero worship of Mr. Almond’s Drooling Fanatic. I don’t think I was in love, at the time, with anything different than the average music fan: the desperate need for life to mean something more than it actually does, the quest to tease some sort of operatic significance out of the pedestrian everypersonness of our lives: love, family, ecstacy, death. Unlike Mr. Almond’s Drooling Fanatic, I was a musician already, with a reasonable amount of talent; like the Drooling Fanatic, however, I was still on the outside looking in.

And I remained there, for a long time. I took out an ad in the Phoenix and attempted to join a band which featured a drummer with a kit larger than my bedroom, and got kicked out of that band, ostensibly, because I didn’t have a car – but I’m pretty sure it was because I was a wannabe dweeb. I met a doomed siren named Scott Mastro and miserably failed to even realize that I was a corner of a love triangle with a female musician who was almost as damaged. I presented my own derivative, sappy, overly obvious material on the stage of the Nameless Coffeehouse, to little or no effect. I failed to join a band that I had actually heard of, which was completely reconstituting itself around the original guitarist and a bass player who had “moved beyond the music into the image”. I joined, and managed to stay in, a joyful ska/pop band called Agent 13, which ultimately imploded after six years in a matter of a few hours. I hid in graduate school and wrote a ton of songs. And yet, still, I was on the outside looking in.

What finally kicked me in the ass – and this is a story I’ve probably told elsewhere – was a lunch I had with Peter Mulvey, right before he left town to become Peter Mulvey. I met Peter at a songwriting circle in Porter Square (one of the only two people I knew, on first listen, that they were going places, and I’ve been right both times), and I was fortunate enough to become an acquiantance – not quite a friend, since I was a bit too old and a bit too embarrassed about everything to meet Peter as an equal, but an acquaintance nonetheless. And on this day when we had lunch, he was telling me about his trials and tribulations in the music business and I looked at him and realized: as far as he knows – because I’d met him after my band broke up, after I’d started to hide – as far as he knows, I’m just this guy who’s always going to be bitching about not getting out of his own living room.

If Steve Almond were writing about this lunch, he’d have the good sense and talent to turn it into a whole book chapter. I don’t have that kind of space, or his patience for narration. But this was a seminal moment – when I realized that I could either be on the outside looking in, with a hero worship of the musician’s life, or I could do it. Unlike Mr. Almond, I had the choice – and almost fifteen years later, I’m almost, almost, happy with how it’s turned out.

No, I’m not a star. No, I don’t make my living at it. Yes, I’ve learned about the horror of the music business from the inside – from watching friends work their way through it, from watching the people above me on the ladder stand on that same damn rung of the ladder forever, even as the ladder grows taller and keeps trying to shake them off. I’ve been on the other side of those moments where the room is empty, and you’re playing, and that’s what you do, and maybe there’s someone in the room, one person, who sees your genius, and maybe there isn’t, but all that matters is that you get up there and do your act and eat your burger and pack your gear and go home and put your head on the pillow and think, yep, I was great tonight. Too bad nobody saw me.

Every day, a great musician falls in the forest. Sometimes there’s someone like Steve Almond to hear him; sometimes there’s not. But on this side of the Drooling Fanatic divide, the music burns differently – when it comes out of us, in a murmur or a torrent, in military rows or as a filthy rabble, it reminds us that we have the ability to be that hero to ourselves. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve played one of my old songs and thought to myself, “Damn, I’m good at this”; and that’s less than a step away from saying “Damn, I wish I’d written that”. The enormity of knowing what it’s like to make the Drooling Fanatics among us feel that way is something we can appreciate because we’re less than a step away from being Drooling Fanatics ourselves.

Being able to do it makes less of a difference than you might think.