Monthly Archives: April 2012

Pens and Needles.

Record Store Day

In our lifetimes music has been played by computers, lasers and thin black tape. Information stored; Information relayed. But for many of us, our first dance started with the drop a needle. And though audio technology has long since passed the record player by, there’s still a magic in the crackle of vinyl. A story.

Is it the up and down curve of a warped disc spinning that mesmerizes us? Maybe the Doppler-like scratch that starts every play while the needle finds the groove.

Now we’re a technology company here at my company so we don’t only geek out about the audio. We could point out how over compression in modern mixing is limiting the dynamic range of a song’s composition. If you don’t believe us, download a remastered version of Van Morrison’s ‘Sweet Thing.’ Notice how you hear every note, beginning to end, and you never touch the volume. It’s a great mix for the car or the kitchen. It rises above the background noise. But, humor us. Slide an Astral Weeks 33 out of the sleeve and spin it.

Turn it up.

Hear the moments when the rhythm guitar whispers. Notice the recording room echo when the vocals swell at the chorus, and then drop to a distant holler as he turns his head from the mic.

Modern remixes condense that. There’s not a note missed, but it’s hard not to feel like maybe we’re missing something else.

We deal with science everyday here. So we could tell you how digital copies of music are flawless. They last longer. It’s just ones and zeros; information that can’t be affected by wear and tear.

There’s no skips. No scratches. Nothing to remind us of the time we bumped the record player. There’s no jumps to startle us during that first kiss. No imperfections to remind us of that perfect moment.

So, yes, digital music is wonderful. It’s audio science at work. But records are something else.

Whatever they are, we know that perfecting audio reproduction to its cleanest, studio-quality state can’t mean removing its soul.

And vinyl has soul.

Or course, internet music stores serve us well. For convenience and selection, they’re certainly unrivaled. But we miss, just a little, the search. The time when music wasn’t just an acoustic experience. It was tactile. It was olfactory. There’s a delicacy trained to fingers that softly roll records from their cardboard slip. An intimacy in undressing. There’s a scent inside the plastic. It’s molded with more than just the dips and dots of the analog signal; It’s molded with the heartbeat of the rhythm.

The exploration of sound was immersive. When you walked into a record store you were met with rows, of boxes, of envelopes, of tracks. You unwrapped music. It was Christmas morning. It was the joy of discovery. Music was revelation.

Now we filter “similar artists.” We slide our cursor across a 30 second sound bite and make a snap decision on its value.

“Eh… I like my tempo more upbeat.”

But what about tempos we haven’t heard?

Let’s try and remember what it meant to let the sound surprise us. To the music lovers like us, we invite you to celebrate Record Store Day on April 21st. Slide your fingers through the files of bands you’ve never heard of. Walk to the player with a stack of mysteries and give them a listen. For more than 30 seconds. Hear how the phonograph sings.

No matter how old you are.

Here’s a story. It’s about child of the 1980’s. It was the era of tape decks and boomboxes. His first record player was built by Playskool and the only thing it knew was the dialogue from E.T. on 45. Until the boy, 5 or so, found his parents box of records. He pulled out a big one, black and green with purple writing.

And for the first time, he heard Van Morrison.

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Finding your voice.

What Levon Helm has taught us.

We work in amplification. Here at my company, we make things heard. After all, doesn’t everybody have something to say? It can be a lifelong struggle, figuring out what it is you need to share. And it’s always a lifelong journey.

Today the world lost Levon Helms. A man who’s own musical journey started in 1954 when he saw Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Helm was 14 and opening the show was a young singer, not too much older, named Elvis Presley. Curiously, he performed without a drummer.

Helms would see more concerts, start his own bands and before he was through high school, be behind the drum-set himself for Conway Twitty. He gained experience, skill and direction. Within a couple years he was on American Bandstand and touring with The Hawks. The musicians he and his partner Ronnie Hawkins recruited would be the beginning of history. With Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson, Helm began experimenting in new forms of the Rock & Roll he’d seen as a child. They were mixing electric guitars with the gritty country he’d been raised on Arkansas. They were expanding instrumentals and letting the notes speak where his rugged singing did not. They were emulated and studied by the emerging artists of the time and when the father of the folk movement decided he wanted to change his sound he brought them on tour with him. In 1965 Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar and began playing with “Levon and the Hawks.”

The music that Helm was creating became the voice of a movement. He, Dylan and the rest of the band took the mid-60s to lock themselves in a house and practice their new sound. It’s no coincidence that it was in Woodstock, New York. The residents of the quiet farming community had no idea the noise their town would soon make. They referred to the musicians in the big pink house as, simply, “The Band.”

The name stuck.

Grammy’s were won, The Last Waltz came and went but the music never stopped. Helm brought his work to the big screen, lending the graveled honestly of his voice to films like The Coal Miner’s Daughter, this time as an actor.

His life became a timeline of definitive work: a living totem pole of the second half of the 20th Century.

In 1998 cancer tried to take Helm’s throat. The man that Rolling Stone listed as one of the “100 Greatest Singers of All Time” was silenced to a whisper. But he picked up his instruments. He began recording. And he raised his voice.

He taught us atmy company that when you have something to say it can take only your passion to amplify it.

We are so very sad to think he’s gone.

But we are happy to know that a 14 year-old boy, moved by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, became the artist that moved Bob Dylan. And truthfully, Levon Helm’s voice moved music.

Still, with its immortal sincerity, his voice continues to urge us all to find our own.

Take a load off.

I had to write another obituary today. It wasn’t as easy.

But it was interesting. Someone I was less familiar with. It’s ironic that I learned so much about Levon Helm’s life in his death. My boss was very sincerely moved by his passing and so it became my responsibility to honor that. I love that responsibility. I take it seriously.

And so here’s what I wrote. Before it get’s edited and cut up, or thrown out all together… after reading about this impressive man for a few hours today, above is what I was driven to produce.

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America’s oldest teenager.

I just had to write another obituary. I won’t say they’re fun. They’re not. There’s truth in everything you write, right? That’s why you do it. And the truth of someone dying is awful. But it is easy.

And maybe satisfying?

It’s not hard to honor someone with a few short words. In Dick Clark’s case, he’d done it already. For decades he signed off with “For now, Dick Clark… so long.” And by tweeting, blogging, posting his own six words, every mourning music lover remembers the sad 60 minute mark of their favorite episode of American Bandstand. For me, it’s James Taylor performing Fire & Rain. Won’t you look down on me, Jesus.

It’s also direct. I know how to write an obituary. I know what needs to be said. I know what I’m feeling and I know what I want you to feel. Even at this moment, the truthful end of a man I’ve never met has left a slight swell right behind the wall of my eyes. And I guess that’s what words were designed for. Verbalizing clear thoughts.

It’s a lot harder when you don’t know what you’re thinking. When someone dies, I hear people speak things like “I’m at a loss for words,” but are you? Maybe there’s just not that much to say. Maybe 140 characters is all you need. It’s an awful thing and you’re very sad. Say that and you’ve said it all. 

But on a day-to-day basis I have much more to say. Why else would I have started a blog that no one reads? To be acknowledged? In the hopes that one day someone will pull six words they read on a viral posting board and mark my own truthful end? 

I don’t know. The cyclical structure of essays says that I started with that thought, and so I have to bring it back. You can’t introduce something without it eventually effecting the crux of the story. The end is in the beginning. Chekov’s gun.

But the last line of The Seagull is “Konstantin has shot himself.”

I’m told the Russian text is slightly more ambiguous. “Konstantin has fired a gun at himself.” Which in the play he’s already done without much success. There’s no clear implication that Konstantin has died. 

Either way, I’m not going to shoot myself. I’m just trying to use a keyboard to let out all that junk inside my head without the use of a bullet. 

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Natural attraction.

Ah nature. This boy bird woos girl birds by pretending to be other birds. And when that doesn’t work he pretends to be other things all together. Like a camera. And a chainsaw.

That’s sad. That bird should be comfortable being his own bird, right? He should have a call all his own, that girl birds would hear and know as his specific call. They would be attracted to that boy bird for being the strong, confident boy bird that he is and not because he can sound like other birds, that they might also be attracted to.

But they wouldn’t be. The girl birds all want to be with whatever bird can pretend to be the most interesting thing. They want to be with whatever bird can trick them into thinking they’re a cooler bigger bird (or an angrier, more dangerous chainsaw.) They don’t want to be the sincere bird. Even if that sincere bird has a strong attractive call.

But under their feathers they’re all the same bird. They all taste like chicken.

All that sound means is that that bird has put more time into ignoring what it is that makes him special and instead become amazing at mimicking what makes every other bird special. And all those other birds were doing was mimicking the call that their parent birds taught them was the most attractive call. So no birds are special.

Because female birds don’t want a special bird. They want to be tricked.

Maybe every bird does.

It’s natural.

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Raw deal.

Freecell game 11982 is unwinnable. And now my world is upside down.

I, like many clear-thinking, normal, obsessive-compulsive people, trust that the inconsequential actions I take on a cyclical daily basis directly effect the consequential ones. It’s easier that way. And so when I’m confronted with a game of solitaire that I can’t solve, I panic. Because how many problems in my real life will now go unsolved? How many redraws and undos will I click on the effectual issues that I can’t overcome?

If I could just win, it’ll be fine. There will be order. Aces aligned. Queen of hearts, king of hearts, done.

And Microsoft promised me. They told me that every deal of Freecell is winnable. And there’s 52 factorial deals of Freecell, right?

Wrong. There’s 32,000 (way less than 52 x 51 x 50 … x 1). See Microsoft has already taken out the losing hands. Billionaire Bill Gates, because he can, has destroyed the walls of fruitless effort before we get there. To trick us? To plug us into our own Matrix of augmented reality where the all the cards literally fall our way? Or is it more sinister? Is it to pit our pride against our potential, so as we fail (and we’ll all fail) we’re left with the clawing belief that we could have done better.

The only deals I’m ever given are the few hand-selected winners, after all. They’ve stacked the deck.

But I can’t stack the deck. I can’t only have my car break down when I can afford it. Or decide which of my talents are marketable. Or, what I’m actually worried about, only fall for people who fall for me. Microsoft can’t break that wall down for me.

Except they can’t really break any walls down, because game 11,982 is unwinnable. Even with a computer stacked deck, the dealer wins.

I used to just brush my teeth when I got stressed out. 

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The 11th hour.

I walked to my truck at 11 pm. It was the only parking space that wasn’t empty on the metered run. From my cabin I saw, two spaces away, a hooded fellow. He was plugging a meter. He was plugging the meter on an empty space. And I’ve never seen that.

I’ve seen a lot of stuff.

When I was just a little guy canoeing with my dad I used to see stick bugs mating. Two breathing twigs, screwing each other mid-air. That’s natural. That’s God’s law. Makes sense, right? I’ve seen house dogs greet me with a cheerleading pyramid. One on top of the other. Their owner was an animal trainer and it was how they were taught to show excitement. They were just passing down the custom. It was cultural. I’ve seen air, spin and pick up houses. It’s science.

But there’s no science to feeding an empty meter. It’s not cultural. And there’s absolutely nothing natural in it. It’s an unexplainable phenomenon. The same enigmatic energies that cause Auraura Borrielles going hog wild in a concrete world, that’s what it is.

I think the most unsettling part for me was that I couldn’t make sense of it. It’s nuts.

First of all, a penny saved is a penny earned. And the best way to save 25 pennies is to not buy those next 30 minutes of space for a car you don’t have. If you’re plugging an empty meter you’re just being irresponsible with your finances. And during a recession no less. Think better.

Second: the meters stop at nine.

There’s no logical explanation for it. And I’m already terrified. I’m afraid my 30 year old life is like bangs on the pipes. The ones that come from the floor below and swear in your ear that they’re the footsteps of lost souls. My world has felt like plasma in the stratosphere. The stuff that discs and refracts the light until you’d swear you’re being watched by something more intelligent than you’ll ever be. That’s what I feel like. Confused and overwhelmed, but cradled by an out-clause of logic. At least this life can be explained. I can tolerate a sad reality over a terrifying surreal one.

But I could be wrong. That might not be me. My life, maybe, is just a lonely man.

Standing under a broken street light and plugging an empty meter. I can’t explain that. And I’ve called on everything I’ve known and seen. And I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen crazy things. I’ve seen Pee Wee Herman’s bedroom. I’ve seen Lane Frost bleed on the horns of a bull; I was there when Cheyenne died. And I’ve seen double rainbows, bald eagles, James Brown and flaming rocks falling from the clear night sky. But seeing a man plug an empty meter? That’s the craziest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.

But it was 11 o’clock. So I just drove home.

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