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February 2004

tale of three musicians

Pete Davies, writing in an obscure soccer book a decade ago, explained why lowly soccer clubs such as Wrexham were important. Yes, the World Cup is the pinnacle of the soccer world, yes, Manchester United is what everyone apparently wants to see, but you need a base for all that greatness, and that base comes from the small clubs who become part of their communities. Without the small clubs, soccer wouldn't insinuate itself so deeply into the hearts and minds of fans. The daily matter of caring begins at home.

In the same vein, it's worth remembering that the Rolling Stone Top 500 wouldn't exist without a base of musicians making a difference every day in the lives of their fans. Not everyone is the Beatles; more importantly, music is better for the fact that not everyone is a star on the level of the Beatles. The music community needs the musicians who work on a different, more intimate scale.

Recently, I've had reason to think about three musicians, acquaintances of mine at varying levels, musicians who help create the community that makes a Beatles possible. These aren't artists you'll find in the RS 500, but they are every bit as vital.

I grew up in Antioch with Dub Debrie. We played in garage bands together, later made some nice music in a Hot-Tuna-Goes-Acoustic way. I went on to do whatever it is I've done, as did pretty much everyone else in all those various musical groups we formed back in the day. All of us, that is, except for Dub. More than 30 years later, Dub Debrie is still making music, nowadays with his beloved, Anne Debrie, and their musical partner Tony Conroy. You can buy their music using Paypal ... I recommend doing so ... and while you're visiting the CD page, check out the cover of Scattered Debrie, which features a photo taken by my brother David. They'll welcome your purchases, but they make their living via live performances. You probably know someone in your own area like Dub and friends, good musicians and good entertainers who do it for audiences day after day, year after year, helping people have a good time, committed to the best music they can provide. Musicians like Dub provide the base from which musical community is formed.

I first encountered Dr. Frank when he was a DJ at KALX, the UC Berkeley radio station he was attending. (This was a few years before I began my own long career at Cal ... I was still in the factory in those days.) Frank was the best DJ KALX ever had, a perfect blend of irony and love of music, known as much as anything for his "Green Eggs and Ham" rap, I suppose. I would call up the station late at night ... the nice thing about college radio is, you call them up, the DJ answers the phone ... and rant about what a great DJ I thought he was. At least he didn't hang up on me ... I'm sure he doesn't even remember it, although it was a big deal to me at the time. Frank went on to help form the Mr. T Experience, a band that is still going strong almost 20 years down the road. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Frank a few years ago for Punk Planet, and found him as funny and articulate as you might hope from someone whose songwriting suggests someone, well, funny and articulate. (His song titles all by themselves tell short stories: "I'm in Love With What's-Her-Name," "The Future Ain't What It Used to Be," "I Love You But You're Standing on My Foot.") And his blog is as smart as any you'll read. His solo album may have been called Show Business Is My Life, but reading his blog you see a human being behind the show business facade ... well, actually, the facade doesn't exist on the blog, which is one reason it's interesting (another reason is that Dr. Frank's take on current events is never what you'd expect, and when you think you've figured it out, he throws a curve ball and you're back where you started). The All Music Guide says MTX plays "Punk Revival" music, a genre perhaps made most famous by fellow Bay Area artists Green Day. But, as with Dub Debrie, there is no Green Day, no "Punk Revival" movement, without bands like the Mr. T Experience, and there are few artists at any level of popularity who have been so consistently smart, smart-assed, and fun/serious/seriously fun as Dr. Frank.

Then there's Dale Miller. Dale sits behind me at Giants games, which is how I became acquainted with him. Funny thing about ballgames, you can hear most of what the person behind you says, but none of what the person in front of you says, so Josh and Sarah, who sit in front of me, were mostly a mystery to me until I finally broke down and asked where they were from etc., while I knew very early on that Dale, who sits behind me, was some kind of musician. Some kind of musician, indeed ... he's been at it even longer than Dub Debrie. He's got quite a few albums ... I've enjoyed Fingerpicking Rags & Other Delights since I picked it up a coupla years ago, and just today I discovered Azzurro Verdi on Rhapsody ... this one is opera arias arranged for solo guitar, and it may just reflect my own musical taste, but I much prefer Miller's versions to whatever are the originals. (And what fun it was to hear the toreador song pop up in the midst of it all!)

Dale Miller, like Dr. Frank and Dub Debrie, has been making music for many, many years, pleasing listeners, creating art, and helping in the process to make the musical community a larger and better place. They aren't on the Rolling Stone list, but that's not because they aren't good enough ... more it's a case of the scale of their work being more appropriate for a smaller, dedicated audience. So when you see me offering up opinions of the Velvet Underground or the Clash or the Beatles, keep Dale and Dub and the Doctor in your mind, because artists like them are what makes music matter so much in our daily lives.

feng shui idiocy

Evidence that the stupidest people in the world work in the California State Assembly:

Yee calls for feng shui in building standards

Assemblyman Leland Yee wants to suggest feng shui standards on state government planners. His justification for wasting money that isn't there? "With this legislation, we say there are other issues, cultural issues supporting other people's lives and the appreciation of diversity."

So there you have it: "appreciating diversity" means spending public moneys on fakery so people with different cultural backgrounds won't feel left out.

Stan Nishimura, executive director of the California Building Standards Commission, states "We know earthquakes knock down buildings. We know fire burns down buildings. We don't know what feng shui does to buildings."

Well, yes, Stan, we do know what feng shui does to buildings: not a fucking thing. But we wouldn't want to let reality impose on the appreciation of diversity, would we?

Diversity is crucial to the success and well-being of our society. But one can be in favor of diversity and still reject bogus pseudo-scientific scam artists.

Additional reading:

The Skeptic's Dictionary

Look Before You Lease: Some Thoughts on Feng-Shui by George Nava True II

If you have Showtime, you can tune in to Showtime Showcase on February 12 for Penn and Teller: Bullshit's episode on feng shui.

oscar run iv: pirates of the caribbean

Let's make this quick. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is as bloated as its title. It's an hour longer than it needs to be, it substitutes explosions and endless stupid sword fights for actual entertainment, and without Johnny Depp is simply wouldn't be worth sitting through. (It was fun to see Gareth from The Office as a zombie pirate, though.) Depp treats the movie the way Laurence Olivier used to treat potboilers, as an excuse to have some fun with acting, and the fun is contagious ... Depp is a delight to watch, the only thing that keeps you from falling asleep. He deserves his Oscar nomination. The other four noms (makeup, sound, sound editing, and visual effects) are the kind of thing you give crap like this to reward the technicians who worked so hard. Five on a scale of ten.

karen sisco r.i.p.

Karen Sisco was my favorite new show on broadcast teevee this season. It got crap ratings, was put on hiatus, and has now officially been canceled by ABC. That leaves Joan of Arcadia as the only new broadcast show from this season that I am still watching. Being a cable snob, I'll console myself with watching tonight's rerun of The Wire, which happens to be one of the best episodes of Season Two.

rhapsody ain't perfect

I'm still loving Rhapsody, but it would seem my earlier excitement about how many songs are available needs to be tempered a bit. An anonymous friend just posted a list of 18 songs that we should all be listening to ... I tried to make a Rhapsody playlist out of the list, and could only get 7 songs, which isn't exactly 90%. Now, my anonymous friend has some obscure tastes, but 7 of 18? I'm disappointed.

On the other hand, when Jillian emailed me the setlist from the Bowie concert she and Doug attended earlier this week, I was able to put every song on a Rhapsody playlist. Bowie, at least, has signed on.

jimi hendrix

Taking a break from the Oscar run, we return to the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums list, with Jimi Hendrix taking center stage. Jimi's first three albums are all on the list: the debut Are You Experienced at #15, Axis: Bold As Love at #82, and Electric Ladyland between the two at #54.

Hendrix was and still is the greatest guitarist in rock and roll history, such a titanic figure on his instrument that his many other talents are unsurprisingly somewhat unsung (no pun intended). Hendrix was a fine songwriter and a v.underrated vocalist. He could seemingly play everything, from the gut-bucket R&B on which he learned his chops to psychedelia, from funk to Bob Dylan (his "All Along the Watchtower" being probably the best Dylan cover ever), from tender love songs to raunchy fuck fests to the blues. In this case, the RS poll has it right: while there is an awful lot of great Hendrix available outside of those three central albums, you need to hear the big three first, and everything else, no matter how great, is just gravy.

None of the above is original ... zillions of words have been spent on Hendrix, to the extent that there's not much else to do but go back to the music itself. I don't have any real quibbles with the RS rankings ... the debut and Ladyland are a cut above Axis, which still deserves its own high spot on the chart. Are You Experienced should be ranked the highest, since it seemed to come out of nowhere and changed the sound of rock music forever. And I don't really think any of the endless posthumous releases need to be on the list.

Having said that, I'll just add a plug for Hendrix in the West, a long out-of-print live album from the early 70s, the best songs of which are now to be found on the 2000 box set, The Jimi Hendrix Experience. "Little Wing" is a marvel here, with an understated vocal and one of Jimi's finest short solos. "Red House" is the best version of his best blues song.

In the end, some stuff is so good I'm left speechless. All three of these albums are great, they've all stood the test of time, Jimi Hendrix is one of the great figures of American popular culture. Listen to the music.

stephen colbert speaks

Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show did an online chat at the Washington Post the other day. His answer to an accusation of liberalism on The Daily Show was perfect:

First, we are not news. We are under no compunction to be fair or balanced or any other thing other than funny. Second, satire always attacks the status quo. The status quo is presently a Republican executive, legislative and judicial branch. There's hardly a liberal target left. Third, we throw hay makers at the Democratic candidates across the board. Fourth, I hope Bush loses.

oscar run iii: seabiscuit


Seabiscuit was nominated for seven Oscars, and I can't say that I understand most of them. It's a horse racing movie, and you can't go wrong with those ... even if all else fails, it's pretty hard not to make a horse race exciting. It has some of my favorite actors, although appropriately, none of them won Oscar nods. Jeff Bridges is adequate, but he's capable of so much more, and William H. Macy is wasted in a weird role. Chris Cooper comes off best; for some reason, he actually makes corn pone flowery dialogue sound right coming from a taciturn man's mouth.

Seabiscuit has grand ambitions, and I suppose that's why it got nominated for Best Picture, but it falls short of most of them. It purports to tell the Big Story of America, but it's at its best telling the smaller story of an unappreciated horse. It reaches for epic stature in telling the story of three very different men, but their stories are a fragmented botch, making the first 40 minutes or so of this 2 hours and 21 minute movie seem somehow unnecessary, as if they could have gotten to the same point with a 30-second scrolling screen of information. The film blends documentary and fiction, but the attempts at actual documentary, via old photos and a portentous narration, aren't worth the trouble. If this is one of the five best movies of the year, it's not much of a year.

The other nominations are for cinematography/art direction/costumes (there's nothing wrong with the film in any of those areas, nor was there anything that made me say "whoa"), editing (for me, the editing drew attention to itself to no purpose, especially in scenes that gave us elongated stories in a handful of seconds), sound (this was the one nomination that made sense, the pounding of the horses' hooves really gets the old subwoofer going), and screenplay (as big a joke as the Best Picture nod). This isn't a bad movie, but it's nothing special, and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up losing in all seven of its categories. Six on a scale of ten.

dad's tape

I met Carol Calhoun on CompuServe in 1987, and over time, she became the best friend I ever made online. She must have been in her 50s by then ... late-40s at least ... I was in my mid-30s. We'd talk about pretty much everything ... well, she'd tell me pretty much everything, I'd tell her everything within my usual personal rules of disclosure. We'd talk about music ... I recall that she took her kids to see Prince in concert, just as I did with Neal. Once in awhile one of us would make a mix tape for the other.

Well, Carol's dad, a man I never met but who must have been in his 70s at least, got inspired by those tapes, and he decided to make a tape for me from his old records ... I'm pretty sure at least some of them were 78s ... and so one day a tape arrived, lots of scratchy-sounding tunes.

I listened to that tape again this morning, and it would be a remarkable mix from anyone, but that this septuagenarian pulled it out of his old record collection strikes me as lovely and fascinating.

The tape has old blues on one side, old jazz on the other. The blues stuff is pretty hard to find ... when I tried to make a Rhapsody playlist from the tape, I could only hunt down half a dozen of the songs. Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Memphis Minnie, Oscar Woods, Georgia White, Scrapper Blackwood, Rosetta Crawford, Jimmy Witherspoon, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Jelly Roll Morton were the blues artists, and I find it delightful that some old white guy from the midwest had all this stuff on record.

In some ways, the jazz side is even odder. It starts as you might expect, with Count Basie, Lena Horne, Benny Goodman, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and Duke Ellington. Then he sneaks in a song by Diz and Bird, which was not quite swing music, but still perhaps understandable.

At which point, maybe he decided he was tired of making the tape, I don't know ... but the last song on the tape is all 27 minutes of Miles's "Bitches Brew." If you aren't familiar with this classic, All Music Guide says it is "Thought by many to be the most revolutionary album in jazz history."

I'm someone who worries, even obsesses, about growing old. I don't want my brain to quit working, and I don't want to lose touch with the popular world around me. So when I listen to a mix tape from some old grandpa I never met, and I hear "Bitches Brew," well, it gives me hope.