Archive for category Music

Made Me Listen! (Transformative Covers)

I’m not surprised that some oppressive cultures have attempted to outlaw some or all forms of music. Music is a drug. It alters mood and brain. Music cannot be controlled.

The cover–a redo of a song made famous by someone else–is a tricky proposition. Many are good, some are a waste of time. The transformative cover–when something brand new is brought to a song–can be a very happy thing indeed. Here are eight of my favorites, listed in alphabetical order by artist.

1. “Ruby Tuesday” — Franco Battiato

Battiato is apparently well-known in Europe, perhaps not as well known in the U.S., certainly not by me. He sings in a standard pop style in the general direction of Andy Williams or Tony Bennett. This style should not work on this Rolling Stones hit, or any other iconic rock and roll tune. I’m no fan, for instance, of Frank Sinatra’s covers of “Yesterday” or “Something.” They’re pretty, but they aren’t right. What makes Battiato’s cover right is that he picked a song that isn’t quite so sweet. “Ruby Tuesday” has itself a bit of grit. A bit of poingancy. Battiato’s sweet, heartfelt rendition, made me listen–in a fresh way–to the lyrics, and to realize just what a good song this is.

2. “Twist and Shout” — The Beatles

The Twist was a dance craze that emerged in 1960, lasted into 1961, and gave us such songs as “The Twist,” “Peppermint Twist,” and “Let’s Twist Again, Like We Did Last Summer.” Then, in 1964, in one of the great rock and roll singing performances of all time, John Lennon took this three-year-old, dead-as-a-doornail dance craze song, and blew the lid off it. He didn’t sing from nostalgia, or to do it again like we did before, he did it Now and Forever More, and There Can Never Be Another. I still get goosebumps when I hear this.

3. “Bad Moon Rising” — Thea Gilmore

Like many listeners, I misheard the lyrics in this Creedence Clearwater Revival hit from 1969. It was played extensively, a huge hit, has been covered numerous times since, but I never truly heard the lyrics until Thea Gilmore covered it on her Loft album, in 2004. John Fogerty (according to Wikipedia) was supposedly inspired by a hurricane when he wrote this, but in Gilmore’s version, it seems unmistakably about the Vietnam. I hear a resigned lament from a soldier about to go out on patrol, and not expecting to return.

4. “All Along the Watchtower” — The Jimi Hendrix Experience

One of the most famous covers, and for good reason. It isn’t that easy to cover a Bob Dylan song, in my humble opinion. The temptation, I think, is to make it sound too pretty. Jimi Hendrix keeps the apocalyptic drive going, and the result is beautiful, but not at all pretty. Perhaps it should be considered cheating for Hendrix to have played guitar as he did, and to be allowed to cover songs, but last I looked, it was not.

5. “That’ll Be the Day” — Modest Mouse

Lots of people have done lots of fine covers of Buddy Holly’s work, but none has whipped my head around like this. This song, as done by Buddy Holly, sounds jaunty, upbeat, and very pop. The jaunty pop sits in direct opposition to the lyrics, and jaunty wins. Modest Mouse has slowed it down, and added marvelous buzzy guitar, which bring the music in alignment with the words, and reveals the song for the tortured and ominous piece that it is.

6. “The Rains of Castamere” — The National

Hey, Game of Thrones fans!!! Does this really count as a cover? I don’t care. The lyrics are by George R. R. Martin, a fictional song if you will, sung repeatedly and mentioned often in the book, where it serves as a theme and warning to all non-Lannisters. It never had an original version, exactly, but with music by Ramin Djawadi, the song has moved to the TV series, where it has been used often and well. This version was played over the credits in an episode in season two, and what a delightful surprise it was. Because, while the melody is reminiscent of medieval tunes, The National’s performance is contemporary. It is not trying to be rock ‘n’ roll, but it’s not trying to be “period,” either. It isn’t trying to be anything; it just is, and it’s perfect.

7. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — Cat Power

The original 1965 version of this song is my ring tone. I loved the song as a teenager because the adults were appalled by it. Eventually, I got all the lyrics, and said, wow that’s actually a good song. I never liked any of the covers of it, though, until I heard this one. The song is slowed way, way down, and as with “That’ll Be the Day,” above, the technique delivers. I not only hear the lyrics, I am forced to think about them. This song was written half a century ago, and yet it sounds like today. In the heyday of Lennon/McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, etc., Jagger/Richards were overlooked as songwriters. I’m looking at them now.

8. “Real Love” — Regina Spektor

I was in Trader Joe’s parking lot when I first heard Spektor’s version of this song. It was before I had Shazam, and so I had to sit there and wait until the the KCRW deejay back-announced the track. I then had to wait months before it became available for download. This is perhaps the most transformative cover of all. The song is a John Lennon “leftover,” a track he never released. Sometime in the eighties, the three surviving Beatles got hold of it, went into the studio, and made a final Beatles record, using Lennon’s recording. The product made many of us very, very sad. Many of us wished the track had never been released. I felt that way, until I heard this cover. Regina Spektor takes this song, and lifts it above the mediocrity I took it to be. Her performance strengthens my faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe, that things really do come right in the end.

So that’s my list. To repeat, I’ve listed my favorites IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER (sorry to shout) in order not to imply that one choice is more fave than the others. Because, in truth, I cannot decide.

Creating links is boring. I trust all you kids out there are Internet capable enough to hunt all these guys down if you so choose, and in fact, you’re probably so hip, you’ve already got them on your own playlist.

This is a fuzzy picture of Jakob Dylan taken in 2009. His version of John Lennon's "Give Me Some Truth" made my long list of favorite covers.

This is a fuzzy picture of Jakob Dylan taken at The House of Blues in Anaheim, in 2009. His version of John Lennon’s “Give Me Some Truth” made my long list of favorite covers.


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What I Have Learned This Week

One of the pleasures of one’s life work, be it writing, parenting, domestic engineering, or that eight-to-five job, is what a person is forced to learn, and how that forced education enhances one’s life. Parenting has given me a lot–how to be a line ref in soccer, how to treat the feather plume in a shako (marching band hat), and how to care for cockatiels. From domestic engineering, I learned (and am learning still) about plumbing, TV cabling, termites, how to cook, and so forth. From the old job, I learned how to read an insurance policy.

From being a writer, I’ve learned how to use a computer. The word processor was the first “killer app” for me, and led me to be a relatively early adopter of the technology. Writing has led me to be an enthusiastic consumer of non-fiction, and of documentaries, and of educational programming.

This past week, as every week, I learned a lot.

Last Sunday, I learned my 20-something daughter did not know who Arlo Guthrie was. Nor had she heard of Woody Guthrie. She had heard of Bob Dylan, and she did know the song, “This Land Is Your Land,” but thought it was older than it is. I realized how much cultural lore is lost from each generation–a name known by everyone in my generation becomes obscure in subsequent ones. I might not know who Woody Guthrie was, but for Bob Dylan, and the folk revival of the early 60s.

On Monday, I learned what a marcona almond tastes like. The ingredient had popped up in a couple recipes I wanted to try. They are expensive, and not sold everywhere. I found them, bought some, and used them in a recipe. They’re good, more like macadamia nuts in both texture and flavor, than they are like regular almonds. The recipe, by the way, was Moroccan Chicken with Carrots.

On Tuesday, I learned that a significant theme in my novel is Information Uncertainty. No matter how much information we have, it is never enough, and as for the information we do have, we can’t trust it, not really. And yet, there are still a ton of people walking around, acting as if they have all the answers, telling the rest of us what to do. How can they believe their own voices?

Wednesday was busy. I’m sure I learned a lot, but I haven’t had time to isolate any particular lesson.

Yesterday, I learned that everyone, of all ages, knows who Roger Ebert was: 20-somthings, 40-somethings, and 60-somethings all liked and respected him. What a life, well and gracefully lived.

Today is too new to know what I will learn, but I will keep my eyes and ears open.

They don't taste like almonds, but they look like them.

They don’t taste like almonds, but they look like them.


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Words, Pictures, and Music, Part 1

In the Arts & Books section of Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, Pop Music Critic Randall Roberts writes of his sprawling collection of LPs and 45s, numbering in the thousands. He has CDs–he says 3,000–that he’s “…reasonably ambivalent about but haven’t figured out what to do with.” He has tapes he “…once tried to throw away but retrieved from the dumpster a few hours later.” He has MP3s he has “…no emotional attachment to whatsoever.” He has trouble getting rid of this stuff; it obviously represents a huge chunk of his life, and it appears he has emotional attachments even where he doesn’t think he has.

Our old vinyls and CDs number in the low hundreds, and none of them are historical treasures. We have perhaps a dozen cassette tapes somewhere. I have about 3000 songs in my digital music library, many of them ripped from our vinyl and CD collection. We have way less reason than a pop music critic to keep ninety percent of our non-digital library; nonetheless, we do.

We don’t own this, but if we did, we would have trouble getting rid of it.

Why? Memories, of course. Even our bad music choices has a story. Why we bought it, when, and who we listened to it with. Anecdote: Back when I was dating my husband, we reached a turning point, that moment in which I knew our relationship was for real, and would lead to marriage. It was the moment I decided not to buy any record albums I knew he already had. His records and mine would, I knew, become ours in short order. And so it happened. We had quite a few duplicates to give away.

Our CDs never had quite the emotional pull as that teen-to-twenties vinyl collection; nonetheless they are difficult to get rid of as well. The artists we listened to in the eighties fall along a kind of cusp, spanning vinyl to disc. The decade began for  us with the murder of John Lennon, and it ended with the birth of our daughter. I believe our first CD was Graceland. We had purchased the vinyl already, but wanted this great album in the new format. Then we watched as, in the space of months, CDs replaced vinyl completely. Discs began to pile up in our house, outgrowing CD tower after CD tower.

Our collection continued to grow in the 90s, but often through reissues to replace our vinyl. We bought new material too, but mostly from artists we already knew. Bob Dylan’s World Gone Wrong was an early nineties favorite for me. It was a difficult time to find new music, though. An Alt Rock station would be born; an alt rock station would turn into an all-news Spanish language station. Our friends didn’t seem to be interested in new stuff; we had little help from word-of-mouth. Yet, every Sunday morning, we would put on CDs and listen to music while we read the paper. For a while, the Calendar section had phone numbers you could call to sample music they’d reviewed. Nice idea, but the sound quality? Bad, bad.

The century turned, and our music world exploded. Figuratively, but truly. ITunes, MP3, podcasts, satellite and internet radio, and our daughter’s developing musical taste. We lack the need to save anything we buy now, but we still collect CDs of a sort–we burn each other discs for birthdays, Mothers’ Day, etc. We know very well we can share files without the disc, but we make it anyway. Music doesn’t bring us together like it used to, in the sense that we but on a disk and turn up the volume for all to hear. I remember, for instance, going over to friends’ apartments to listen to a new record. No. We all walk around with our individual earbuds and individual playlist/soundtracks. It may be that burning those discs is what we need to do to share. And no, we can’t seem to get rid of those either.

Next: Part II of Words, Pictures, and Music

Barry Manilow:

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When Browsing Becomes A Waste of Time

I’ve touched on this before in a post on the loss of the brick and mortar bookstore.

I’m forgetting how to browse, forgetting I need to browse, and I’m feeling guilty when I do. It seems a waste of time (and sometimes money) because most of the time, I find nothing. Of course, when I browse, I’m not looking for anything in particular anyway, so I should not feel disappointed, should I?

When shopping, whether for books, music, or clothes, I have two possible frames of mind. Frame number one: I know what I want, and just need to find it. For instance, a book. I may have a choice between pb, hc, or ebook, but that’s all the thinking I need to do. Type on the title; click when it comes up. Ditto with music. If I absolutely need something specific in the way of clothes, I’ll hunt for it at a large chain like Nordstrom, either online or in person. (Sometimes I’ll look online, then go pick it up in person.)

The second frame of mind is the browse, and that’s when I just want to see what’s out there. I will browse for clothes at a cut-price place like Stein Mart. I don’t go there for something specific, like a basic dressy tee shirt in taupe, because 90% of their stuff is actually kind of weird. There’s a reason it’s 50% or 80% off. It’s a weird color, or has an annoying ruffle detail, or is cut oddly in such a way as to flatter no living human. They aren’t going to have what you’re looking for, in other words, but they might have something in the 10% not-weird stash that you like, and that fits, and that is a great buy. Just as often however, I leave empty-handed.

Browsing music is easier than it has ever been. With iTunes, Apple nailed this one. Genius it isn’t; maybe they should call it Above Average, but still, I can easily spend forty-five minutes (my optimal browsing time) clicking around from here to there. Whether I buy anything or not, I’ve had fun, and I’ve learned something. And, unlike in my youth, I no longer have radio stations or record companies choking off my choices. On the contrary, public radio, of all things, is a tremendous source for finding new music–KCRW in Santa Monica, California, and NPR’s All Songs Considered are two of my favorites.

I’ve already gone over the loss of bookstores, and how that’s choked off my book browsing activity. iBooks chokes me in a way that iTunes does not. Their “browse” section leaves off most of what they have. They seem only to feature bestsellers, most of which don’t interest me and anyway, I already know about them. Their treatment of speculative fiction is abysmal, though no worse, I suppose, than my local Barnes and Noble. I discovered a “Sci-Fi and Fantasy under $6.99” button though, and that is actually a good place to find the mid-list titles, including interesting self-published selections.

Nonetheless, technology is driving me toward the non-browsing mode of shopping, and instead to go to the reviews, the recommended reading lists, and the like. I have read that most books are sold by word-of-mouth; my trouble is that few of my friends and loved ones read what I like to read. I need to expand my word-of-mouth to word-of-screen. I just haven’t gotten quite into the swing of things yet.

This post feels like a ramble (like a browse of thoughts?) and I feel the need to move on.

I hope I don’t lose the ability to browse, as I’ve had some great discoveries in the process. It’s a wonderful state of being–passive, yet alert. Meditative, humbly open the Universe’s offerings. I emerged calmer and somehow wiser, and sometimes with a fabulous prize of something new and unexpected.

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Banging the Drum All Day (Not)

The details are clear, but everything else–exactly where or when this happened–is fuzzy.

My husband, daughter, and I were on some sort of road trip, perhaps taking her to college (?) or on a ski trip (?). We were leaving a large sporting goods store (?). They had a blaring loudspeaker system, which was playing the 1983 Todd Rudgren song, “Bang the Drum All Day.” You know the one:

I don’t want to work

I want to bang on the drum all day

I don’t want to play

I just want to bang on the drum all day

My daughter said, “That’s a stupid song.”

My husband said, “It is a stupid song.”

I said, “I’ve always liked it.”

I was hit with a barrage of incredulity. “Why?!!?” they asked/shouted in unison. “It’s stupid!”

I explained it to them, as I will now explain it to you.

This song is played as an anti-work song, even played, I understand as a taunt by conservative pundits against unions and others they consider to be lazy. But the song is not celebrating sloth. Look at the third line. Not only does he not want to work, he does not want to play either! He only wants to practice his art, which happens to be playing the drum.

I don’t have to approve of his lifestyle or even agree that drumming is an art form, you understand, but the narrator of this song certainly does, and that is the basis upon which I approach it. This is a song about art, not about goofing off.

When it first came out, I was still working a job in a field that bored me. I wanted only to be a full-time writer. A famous writer. A rich and famous writer. This song, widely played in those days, ran through my head. I hummed it off and on all day long. I no longer wanted to work at my boring job of course, but I noticed something else: that when I reached a sweet spot in the writing of a story, I didn’t want to play either. I didn’t want to go hang out with friends, shop, or party. I only wanted to bang on my drum. I only wanted to keep writing, like the song says.

I go through several phases in the process of creating a story. I begin with an idea, usually just a situation, a short scene perhaps lasting only a few seconds. A “what if?”. This is giddy stuff, as several related ideas spring up as well, and I anxiously scribble them down. This is a Bang The Drum All Day phase.

The giddy beginning is followed by the task of actually putting the story on paper. By this time, I have a solid beginning, and possibly know the ending. Not always. The middle is still total mush. This part is hard to get through, as I have shared in the previous post. At this point, I am infinitely distractible, and am more than willing to go hang out, go do laundry, solve your family crisis, and even take a paying job in order to escape the creative mess I’ve made. It is not “banging the drum all day.” It is horrifying, because at this point, the work is so bad.

Then, working patiently, sometimes interminably slowly, I resolve the mess. This part is about as much fun as prepping for a colonoscopy. This goes on and on, but suddenly, I reach a point. Suddenly, I see how it can all make sense. It’s time to bang on the drum all day. Except, of course, I don’t get to. No one does. We’ve all our other stuff to do.

That’s where I’m at now with my novel, happily anticipating my writing time each day. I don’t always wait for writing time. Characters pop up throughout my day to talk to me and advise me on details of plot and setting. And yeah, some of my ability to concentrate on ordinary activities is compromised. I’m kind of a space cadet, losing my sunglasses, my keys, my shoes, and not sure where I left my car.

On the plus side, I’m way more pleasant and fun to be around.

I always wanted to write, and I still do. The rich and famous part has faded for me, though, in more ways than one. The odds of winning that kind of lottery fade with passing time–my personal time as well as the world’s. Even many award-winning, critically acclaimed writers can’t make a living these days. And fame…particularly the sort where people on the street recognize you…seems like no fun at all for an introvert like me anyway.

What I’m left with is the writing, and the relatively small group of people who will read it and enjoy it. I do want to get my novel published; I do want to be out there. I do want some money for my effort, as much as I can get. I can work toward the fame and money, but I can’t control that end of it. All I can control is the work itself, and for now, that is pure joy.


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The Meaning of Being a Nerd. Or a Geek.

Definitions of the terms “nerd” and “geek” show them to be close enough to be synonyms. Both imply a lack of social finesse, the sort of stereotype we’re familiar with in pop culture. The other parts of the respective definitions are as follows (taken from a Google): Nerd–an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession.  Geek–A person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest.

I guess, if you’re a nerd, you have to be good at whatever it is, but if you are a geek, you only have to be enthusiastic. I’ll use them that way for our purpose here. Nerd will denote ability, and Geek, enthusiastic devotion.

Both definitions bring to mind the usual suspects, the computer nerd, the gamer, the science fiction fan.  I would suggest, however, that nerdism and geekism casts a far wider net than that.

Keith Richards is a nerd and a geek. Read his biography, and how he talks about sound, how it changes according to the room, how technology ran amok in the 80’s, with a million microphones and people laying down tracks in separate rooms, and how it detracted from the sound. He says, “You don’t…need a studio, you need a room.” He says elsewhere (could’t find the exact quote) that a musician not only plays an instrument, but plays a space, a room. Never mind the drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, this is a guy who has spent his entire life playing and listening. He is a sound geek and a room acoustics nerd. He is always looking for a new space to make a different sound in.

Turn on Holmes on Homes on HGTV. Mike Holmes neck is as big around as his forehead, and with his Canadian contractor drawl, he may not seem like a nerd. Watch him go through a house, though, and listen to him take the inventory of the previous contractors and inspectors who’ve worked there. Watch him rip apart the wiring, the plumbing, the carpentry. Listen to him insist that it should be done perfectly. Mike Holmes is a construction nerd and a do-it-right geek. How refreshing.

Geeks have passion beyond the ordinary, enough to set them apart. They surprise, annoy, and threaten those who don’t care so much.

I love ’em. I’ve always been drawn to people who are extremely good at something, and who value that something greatly. In the early heyday of public television, in the days before cable, I gravitated to  the televised community college courses shown on our local station. I never took any of the courses, but I watched and admired.

Once upon a time, a writing instructor, the same one who asked me what I wanted most in a novel (see “To Be Transported,” my post from a few weeks ago), asked on another occasion, this time at a post-class get-together, what I wanted from an author. I’d not thought of that question before, but my answer came easily.

I want, above all, for the author to be sincere. Even if I’m not a fan of what is written, and even if it isn’t very good, I can respect the effort and the author if I believe the work came from a sincere place, if I believe the author was a geek for the story. If the story is formulaic, pot-boiler junk cranked out to make a buck, I don’t care. If you have writing skill plus sincerity, then I’m in heaven.

Show me you care. Not about me, but about the thing you are a geek for. Show me your hard-won nerd expertise. And then I’ll think you’re fabulous.



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How Will We Do Our Hair in the Future?

Hair is a problem. We’ve been grooming, preening, and adorning it since before we were human. And when I think of hair in science fiction movies, I can’t help but note that whatever the century being depicted, the actresses’ hairstyles usually reflect the decade in which the movie was made.

In the wonderful Forbidden Planet, Anne Francis, as Altaira, lives in the 23rd century on the planet Altair-4, and sports a lovely mid-50s chin-length coif. This type of do was historically created and maintained with weekly shampoo-and-set sessions at the local beauty parlor, which makes us (if we bother to think about it) wonder how on Altair-4 this girl, who was raised without a mother, ever managed to attain such a style. Oh well, it’s still a great movie.

In Star Trek, (1966-69), Uhura sported a series of iconic sixties styles, including the bouffant shown below. I don’t find this style as jarring, as by the sixties, hairstyles had become more do-it-yourself. Could the bouffant, recur in the 23rd Century? I don’t think so, although Nichelle Nichols wears it well. All in all, though, the hair of the original Star Trek is way less strange than the female crew’s wearing ice skating costumes for uniforms.

By Alien, the female crew had ditched the skating costume for way more believable jumpsuits. Nonetheless, Ripley’s long perm was planted firmly in 1979. I had the same style myself ca. 1983. I don’t think this one is coming back in 2122. The strength of this style was its ease–totally wash ‘n’ wear. We’ve come a long way since then.

Hair arouses all sorts of emotions in us, in a way that make-up, clothing, and jewelry don’t. The musical question asked way back in 1986 by the group Timbuk 3, “Hairstyles and attitudes/Are they connected?/Are the styles we embrace a matter of taste/Or of values rejected?” must be answered with a resounding Yes. Hardly anything about a person’s attire is more likely to offend another than his or her choice of hairstyle. It is said that the Vietnam protesters of the sixties met a negative, sometimes violent, response from authority, because–unlike the civil rights protesters a few years previously–they had unseemly hair. The musical, Hair, rest on this premise. and it keeps getting revived. So that must be true.

So how will we wear our hair in the future? I put the question to a hairsylist.

Ron Matranga of Ronald Edward Salon told me, “Everything old is new again, and the Egyptians started it all.” He told me that Vidal Sassoon went to Egypt to come up with his architectural, asymmetric cuts, which changed everything as far as Ron is concerned. Before then, he says, you would never “cut out the ears,” or cut one side shorter than the other.

In other words, it was the beginning of the end of rigid rules for hair. The mullet, shag, and Mohawk would be along shortly. So how will we wear our hair in the future? However we want, I suppose.

It seems probable that we will be able to have hair wherever we want it, not not have it wherever we don’t want it, and we will notice who has hair in the wrong place, and look upon them with disdain. Strategic hair removal was important to the Egyptians as well. Maybe that was Cleopatra’s secret. I further predict that voluntary total baldness–for those with nicely-shaped heads and balanced features–will remain a valid style choice. If involuntary, hereditary male-pattern baldness is cured, it will then become an option.

I also predict long life and prosperity to all short, natural cuts, whether curly or straight, to ponytails, and to various sorts of braids, whether Heidi-style or cornrow. Ron votes for the bob–I presume he means chin or shoulder length–because it never goes out of style.

For the story set in the future, however, there is no way to get it right. The problem is that we are stuck in the moment with our hair. We will have our moments when we look awful and not know it. We will foist our bad and dated hair on future generations, not only through old yearbooks, but through our entertainment.

A little big, but not the worst future hair by a long shot.

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