Monday, January 16, 2017

Should Music Of The Revolution Be "Fuck You" Or "We Shall Overcome"?

This morning in church, the remarks covered a lot of territory.  A couple of things spoke out to me (change happens when you nurture community and speak to your "enemy's" humanity), but the comments about music's role to sustain and foment revolutionary fervor has me feeling confused about what I'm feeling.  Let me see if I can explain.

The minister  told a story from his days as a seminarian when he rode a roller coaster with some seminarian friends of his.  He was terrified beyond reason and found himself singing the words from a spiritual hymn (can't remember the words or the song, sadly) to help him through the first drop of the ride.  His fellow seminarians teased him henceforth, and it became a running gag to sing these lines before even the most common trials, such as an exam.  I found myself amused by the story, but the point was driven home:  music can sustain us in tough times.  Indeed, I often tell people that the Who's "Behind Blue Eyes" was my life in the tumultuous times of junior high.  It was important for me to hear my thoughts and feelings so vividly expressed; it was important for me to know I wasn't alone.

Music, the minster posited, can acknowledge our pain and/or bolster revolutionary action.  Citing Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, the minister (rightly) pointed out that music can be the soundtrack for change.  Another minister talked about her time crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.  In talking to folks who had been there in 1965, one the things that the movie Selma got wrong was music.  There was music everywhere, carrying the group forward, helping them through dark times.

I felt like music was being pitched as something that can simultaneously be an instrument of sustenance, change AND reconciliation.  Music can meet you where you're at.  I agree; there's nothing objectionable about that, right?  It's true, I believe, especially with the examples cited during that service:  "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace".  So why did I feel uneasy about these sentiments?

I mean, hell:  I knew these songs in particular quite well.  My music teachers at St. Mary's in Anderson, Indiana might as well have been Wobblies, for it is there I learned not only of lefty politics, but these radical thoughts were put to music.  I can remember standing on a riser with my class singing "De Colores", "We Shall Overcome", "Abraham, Martin, and John" and "Ship Of Democracy" for people in nursing homes, for Christ's sake.  I took written tests on the likes of Woody Guthrie.  I can still remember the LP that Sister Melanie (or was it Mrs. Smith?) played of "Little Boxes" and "Rock Candy Mountain" - I fucking hated those songs, hated singing them in class.  It took me years to see them as brilliant masterpieces of social criticism. Given my intimacy with songs that inspired the movements of the past, why was I squirming in my seat?

I sorta alluded to it in a previous post.

I guess it was because what I was listening to at the time I was learning these songs:  the Minutemen, Black Flag, MDC, the Dead Kennedys - songs that gave voice to the anger I was feeling; if not in the lyrics (can't say I was harassed too much by the cops), definitely in the abrasive tone and energy.  These songs were ANGRY, these songs acknowledged futility and embraced uncertainty.  That's where I'm at - angry, unsure if my way of life is futile, but knowing no other way.  "Police Story" should be the anthem of the Trump Era.  (Fuck, it pains me to even capitalize that.)

This is where I'm at:  the U.S. is fucked.  It will be fucked long after Trump is gone.  It's time to channel my inner cockroach and scavenge to survive if it comes to that.  I am ready to take what comes next and embrace chaos as a tool, not a problem.  Disruption and discomfort will help to right the ship.  I do not believe violence will ever bring about long term, meaningful change; but I do not believe writing my congressman and singing "We Shall Overcome" will get any traction with those who write laws.  In 2017 I will seek to ally myself with the dispossessed, as any student of history knows that is where true change happens - from the bottom, not the top.  I have fantasies about destroying everything (a very punk sentiment) and rebuilding from there.  Reconciliation feels like something you do after you win the war; let reconciliation happen for me and mine in my life time.  Not to diminish its meaning, but "We Shall Overcome" is for generations before mine; it is not mine.

The question I'm left with today is this:  What, if any, is the role of anger and discontent in change?  I have this energy, this anger.  It doesn't feel like a liability to me.  Is it wrong?  Many folks who have the same values as me like that quote that goes "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."  I hate that fucking quote because it makes justice sound like a foregone conclusion.  You have to fight for justice even after it is achieved.  Do you agree?  If so, what is your soundtrack?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year: Let's Love Everybody

From the man himself, it's Woody Guthrie's New Year's Resolutions.  There's some good ones in here - pick one or two to live for yourself in the new year.  Happy and safe New Year's Eve, y'all.  See you in '17.

Hallelujah, 2016's Gone

2016 - a year that found numerous, unique, and exquisitely sadistic ways to make us feel like shit about ourselves, the people we know and the world in which we live - is now dead.  St. Augustine or some other really smart person (or people) wrote about how time is an abstraction and an invention of humans; but in this instance, it serves a critical function of giving us a tangible break from a year that took almost everything from us but our will to live.

2017 promises to deliver a metric ton of bad news too, but I'm ready.  It's time to hunker down, work twice as hard, and win the battles, one by one.  Let's do this.  Let's kick some ass.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Story Of The Christmas Truce Of 1914

One of my favorite Christmas stories - right up there with Dickens' "Christmas Carol" and Seuss's "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" - is the story from World War I of the German and British troops who stopped fighting long enough to celebrate Christmas.  We all know and love that story, but details are generally sketchy.  The Futility Closet has you covered.  This is a great story and never has there been a more perfect time to listen to it.  Take some time to listen to this inspirational story.

There was also a (not great, inaccurate) movie interpretation of this amazing story; I've included the trailer below.  It's really all you need to see of that movie - listen to the podcast above above instead.
There is also a commercial based on the incident; which, frankly is more moving.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Great Gift Giving For Bass Players

We all have bass players in our lives that we love dearly and want to keep happy.  Bass players are great, reliable, humble people.  Let's face it - we need the stability that bass players bring not only to music, but to life.  Therefore, we must spare no expense in keeping them happy.  Here are some gift ideas for bass players that suit all budgets.  Show your favorite bass player how much they mean to you - and if  you don't know any bassists, I'm happy to be the recipient of anything from this list you want to share with me.

1.  The Holy Trinity: The Fender Jazz Bass, Precision Bass, & The Rickenbacker 4003
There are so many great basses out there; and it's a myth that you have to spend a ton of money for a great bass, particularly if you're just starting out.  That said, it can be hard to figure out what to purchase for your bassist companion, so why not just go for the best?  There is a high probability that a disproportionate amount of the songs you love were recorded on a Fender Precision Bass, a Fender Jazz Bass, or a Rickenbacker 4003 (or a variation of the 4003).  Think about how much those songs mean to you, then think of how blown away your beloved bassist will be when you give them one, or better still, ALL THREE of the greatest basses of all time!
Pro tip:  While all Rickenbackers are still made in America, not all Fenders are.  Buy 'murican!  On the Fender basses, skip the bells and whistles and buy the "standard" models.  If it's good enough for James Jamerson and Jaco Pastorius, it's good enough for you.  If purchasing the 4003, keep it classic:  buy the JetGlo (that's black to most folks) finish.  It's instantly recognizable to anyone who pays attention to music.

2.  Simple Insurance:  Dunlop Strap Locks
I've experienced the heartbreak of watching my 1977 Musicman Sting Ray slip out of my strap, fly away from me in slow motion, and break in two on the stage after executing a totally rad jump during a performance.  Two expert repairs later, the Sting Ray sings on, thank heavens.  You can be damn sure after that day I never purchased another bass without putting strap locks on them.  There are lots of great options for strap locks; I like the looks, simplicity and ease of installation of the Dunlop strap locks in nickel.
Pro tip:  Make sure you know what color the hardware is on the bass for which your purchasing the locks.  You'll want to match the color of the strap locks to the hardware on the bass.
Dunlop Straplok Original Strap Retainer System:  $10

3.  Tone Factor:  Pirastro Obligato Double Bass Strings, Rotosound Nexus Strings, And LaBella Old School Flats
Let's start with the Pirastro Obligatos.  It's hard for me to tell you how great these sounded on my upright bass; I think my head would have blown apart if my upright was of higher quality.  That would've really brought out the greatness of these strings.  I loved the the volume, the warmth, the sustain, the pleasant "thump" of the initial attack of the notes when playing pizzicato, and the nice "mwah" sound when sliding into another note. (The first note of this tune is a great example of what I mean when I say "mwah" sound.)   Like most metal strings for upright, these aren't great for rockabilly slapping (but these are), but you won't miss it so much when they make your playing sound so refined.  Rotosound strings are legendary among bas players.  I've only ever used a couple of sets for my electrics, but I found them to be loud, lively, and tight as hell.  For those who like to wrestle with their bass, the size and string tension on Rotosounds  are perfect.  Couple that with the coating on the Nexus line of strings, and you have a vibrant string that will sound great even when that great enemy of string tone (sweaty hands) shows up to ruin the sound.  Finally, if you're looking for a mellow, warm, old school soul sound, try out the LaBella Old School Flats.  If you've never strung your bass with flat wounds, I highly recommend it, especially if your bass has passive electronics.  They are comfortable and it will change the direction of your bass playing - the pocket will become more important than a clever riff.
Pro Tip:  Before buying strings for the beloved bass player on your shopping list, make sure you know the scale of their bass as well as what kind of string tension they like to play with.  If all else fails, ask them what's currently on the bass.  Look it up online and you'll know both scale and gauge (gauge = string tension) you should be shopping for.
Pirastro Obligato Double Bass Strings:  $227
Rotosound Nexus Electric Bass Strings:  $32 
LaBella Old School Flats:  $35

4.  Bass Porn:  A Subscription To Bass Player Magazine
There was a time when I would've told you subscribing to "Bass Player" magazine was a terrible idea. Looking at all the gear in there would create in me the same unfulfilled desire that gives young men blue balls.  What's the point, right?  I can't afford any of that stuff.  But the truth is, there is a lot of great stuff in there besides gear - transcriptions, interviews with bassists of all genres, stories of legendary recordings and players - there's a lot to digest besides the latest gear.  And even though the cover boys (almost never cover girls) seem to be a rotation of only Jaco Pastorius,  Geddy Lee, Flea, Chris Squire and John Patitucci there's a surprising amount of diversity in the players covered inside.  They won me over the minute I saw Mike Watt profiled.  Plus, the subscription often allows subscribers access to online content not available to anyone else. Bonus!
Pro tip:  Double check your address info before subscribing to ensure the magazine goes to the right place. 
Bass Player Magazine Subscription:  $19/year 

5.  In Tune:  The Fishman FT-2 Clip On Tuner
There are many fantastic clip on tuners on the market.  Clip on tuners are nice because unlike other types of tuners, you don't have to use a patch cord to connect, play into a silly onboard mic, or try to suss out what an analog tuner's needle is trying to tell you.  The Fishman FT-2 is small and easy to use, and it's low profile make it easy to stow away or hide.  But don't let me catch you gigging with that thing clipped to your headstock.   
Pro tip:  Whatever tuner  you buy for the bassist in your life, make sure it is a chromatic tuner.  This allows the tuner to be used for non-standard tunings.
Fishman FT-2 Clip On Tuner :  $20

6.  Take The Edge Off:  Glenfiddich 12 Year Single Malt Scotch, Weed
Going to a gig or into the studio with players you respect can be a pretty nerve racking experience:  you don't want to let your bandmates down.  While intoxication before either a gig or studio session is never a good idea, taking the edge off is.  Free up bassist you love with some Glenfiddich 12 year to sip on. Glenfiddich is an amazing bargain considering the price and the taste.  If the $33 price tag gives you sticker shock, you've clearly never priced out single malt scotches before.  Plus, Glenfiddich can easily be purchased at most supermarkets.  As for weed, well, you can't beat Mother Nature when it comes to highs.  Consult a trusted friend/dispensary on this.  Try to score weed that is a nice counterpoint to your bassist friend's personality.  If he's hyper, get something that will mellow him.  If he's pretty chill, get something that will make him focus/be more aware.
Pro tip:  This gift is not suggested for those who struggle with addiction.  For rill.
Glenfiddich 12 Year Single Malt Scotch:  $33
Marijuana:  (prices and participation vary, see dealer for details)

7.  That's Entertainment:  "Rising Low" DVD
When Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule bassist Allen Woody passed away, friend and Phish bassist Mike Gordon gathered all of Woody's favorite bassists to record an album with the remaining members of Gov't Mule.  "Rising Low" documents this adventure.  The diversity of bassists gathered for this project is a tribute to Woody's love of music generally and bass specifically.  Chris Squire, John Entwhistle, Mike Watt, Jack Bruce, Les Claypool, Meshell Ndgeocello and many, many more gifted players and all around engaging personalities make appearances in this movie.  It is an absolutely entertaining movie that your bassist will watch over and over again.
Pro tip:  This movie is a who's who of the bass world.  Watch it with your favorite bassist and you'll you'll leave with a pretty good handle of some of the best bassists around.
"Rising Low" DVD/download:  $17

8.  Poor Man's Upright:  The Bogdon Bass
The Bogdon Bass is the bass world's answer to the rise in popularity of the cigar box guitar.  You can purchase the kit and build a serviceable 3-string upright bass that will sound decent and look awesome when you're busking on a sunny Saturday at the farmer's market.  If it gets trashed, just strip the parts off the box, find a new box, and build a new one!
Pro tip:  Don't want to pay for a kit?  Use these instructions to build your own bass from scratch.
Bogdon Box Bass:  $119

9.  Dialing Up Some Bass:  "Bass Tab White Pages"
Surely there will be something in the "Bass Tab White Pages" that your bassist friend wants to learn.  It's in standard notation, and free of the interpretive guesswork usually involved with deciphering music tabs found online.
Pro tip:  Don't say I never gave you anything.
Bass Tab White Pages:  $23

10.  Practice Makes Perfect:  The Cafe Walter HA-1A Headphone Practice Amplifier
I use a Korg Pandora's Box to practice when I'm learning songs by ear, or if I don't want to disturb anyone by playing through an amp.  It works, but the wide array of settings means I spend more time trying to dial in my sound that actually playing.  The Cafe Walter HA-1A Headphone Practice Amplifier gets rid of all distractions.  It has a volume knob for the bass, a volume knob for the mp3 player/device and an input for headphones - that's it.  When I was looking to purchase one for myself for vacation, not only I could I not find anything bad being said about this amplifier, I couldn't find a device with a comparable performance and price point.  It is touted as a vital tool for sharpening your technique.
Pro tip:  The dude that makes these - I think his name is Walter - informed me that the HA-1A is out of production, but stay tuned:  the next iteration of this practice amp will be coming out soon.  Until then, check eBay and other second hand sources.
The Cafe Walter HA-1A Headphone Practice Amplifier:  (stay tuned)

I have many other great gift ideas for bassists, so stay tuned:  If I have the time, I'll post a sequel to this post.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Tryna Make Sense Out Of A Wire Song

The first time I heard Wire was on a mix tape my brother had made.  It was the live version of "12XU" which, in my mind, is one of the strongest live songs ever recorded.  (I can't find the specific version to which I'm referring, but the studio version is also great.)  Wire is great for many reasons - that's a different blog entry for a different time - but as a general rule, I can't make heads or tails of their lyrics.  Granted, I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but what the hell do the following lines mean?
Maybe the meaning of the words is irrelevant, kind of like any given Cocteau Twins song.  I'm not sure with Wire - something seems too put together about their lyrics.  They seem to serve a purpose though I have no clue what it might be.  Generally, I'm happy to ignore lyrics anyway if the rest of the song is hitting me just right.  But something compels me to try and figure out Wire lyrics, at least from time to time.  

My first - and most adventurous - attempt happened around my freshman year of high school.  I had forgotten all about this until about three summers ago.  I was snooping around in the attic of our cottage in Michigan when I found, hidden in a drawer of a dresser up there, some sheets of folded up legal paper.  They were slightly crispy with age, and it looked like they had been singed by a flame.  I opened it up, and there it was:  a story I had written years ago.  As I read what I had written, it all rushed back to me what I was trying to do: I thought it would be fun to try and make sense of "A Serious Of Snakes".  Again - there was this thought that there was something quite deliberate in those words which seemed so randomly selected.  I treated it like a riddle.  I wanted to incorporate as much as I could, creating the story by searching and slaving over each line of the lyrics, trying to extract some sort of meaning.  

The story I came up with is pretty twisted for a high school freshman.  It's something like this:  it's World War II in a parallel universe.  On a rainy night, a couple (named Mary and Joseph) who are performers in a travelling circus meet with a mysterious man to arrange to sell their child to him.  They're desperate for money and cannot have a child in their lives at this moment. They are tired and resentful, and they abuse their infant.

The mysterious man, it turns out, is a gifted American scientist of German heritage (volksdeutchse) who heeds Hitler's call to return to Germany to assist in the war effort. Deciding that the child would be a good candidate for his research, he proceeds to experiment on the child, using surgeries, electric shock, and relentless physical training. The child is not allowed to attend school, though he learns to read and write at a very basic level.  The goal is to create a super soldier, adept at killing in large numbers and unable to feel remorse or regret.

He is sent to war for the Nazis in his early teens. The child proves to be a relentless killer, following orders without fail.  In battle after battle, he leaves a trail of corpses and smoking, ruined machinery.  But the attempts to shock  out emotion and memory are incomplete.  During a debriefing after a mission, the boy super soldier tells his handler he has something personal he wants to take care of.  The handler/scientist agrees to let the boy indulge in his hatred, and they boy finds Mary and Joseph (who are still travelling with the circus) and kills them slowly with his bare hands.  Unknown to the boy, another boy witnesses the carnage from a boxcar on the circus train.  The boy hiding in the box car is an avid journaller who spends time creating puzzles and codes.  Stunned and scared by what he sees, he begins to compose a letter asking for help (from who, I don't know because I hadn't figured out that detail yet) in a code of his devising.

. . . and in classic Matt Zink fashion, that's all the further I got on the story.  I never made it any further.  It's pretty dark for sure, but it also reflects (for better or worse) that I was an overly serious child with interests in things like true crime stories, history, and comics.  Let's face it: for most adolescent boys steeped in comic and crime lore, dystopian, alternate history stories are easy to write. (I actually still have one or two other "dystopian future" stories from my junior high days.)  I remember seeing the 1984 adaptation of, uh, "1984" and I thought it was brilliant.  I'm sure that influenced the story pretty heavily as well.  I must admit it was fun to indulge my darker nature in this story - it seems like one of the healthier ways to explore such feelings.  I don't think there's any permanent damage, I'll put it that way.

At this point I know what you're thinking:  how the hell did he get that story from those lyrics?  Well, you take a crack at 'em and let's see what you come up with.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Musical Guests Of "Fridays", [UPDATED]

For some reason, I found myself this morning trying to remember the sketch comedy show "Fridays".  This was ABC's attempt to steal Saturday Night Live's thunder (SNL was on NBC).  Turns out, I don't remember it too well - I turned to Google to refresh my memory.  In retrospect, "Fridays" boasted some serious comedy muscle, including Rich Hall, Larry David and Michael Richards.  I remember the show being pretty funny, but I don't remember any actual sketches (and I don't want to shatter that impression by looking for sketches online for some reason).  [UPDATE:  Here's one dude's take.  Sounds like a decent show.]  But man - take a look at the musical guests they've had.  Granted, I'm a little biased since I really started to pay attention to music long about 1980, but I think their selections show a nice balance of mainstream acts and edgier acts like the Clash and Devo.  Below are some of the better performances, but there's tons more online should you wish to find them.  Enjoy the beautiful imperfections of actual live TV, folks.  Enjoy lots of 80s awesomeness (satin jackets, yo) as well.

The Jam performing "Private Hell".  For my money, they're probably the best live band there was (though I never actually got to see them live).

The Stray Cats doing "Stray Cat Strut" and "Rock This Town".

The Pretenders doing "Message of Love".  Note that they are ever so slightly out of tune.  They ain't lip syncing this stuff, folks.

The David Grisman Quintet doing "Dawg's Bull":

The Blasters playing "Maria, Maria" and "American Music".  This looks to be ripped from a VHS tape, so the quality is really bad.  But this was too cool to not include - LA punk was at it's height when the Blasters broke off into the fledgling rockabilly/Americana scene.  So to me, this feels almost like an important historical document.

The Clash doing "London Calling" and "Train In Vain" - listen to how primed the crowd is!

And probably one of my favorite performances anywhere online - Devo.  Seriously - Google them.  I think they were on Fridays more than once.  They're all worth a look.  But I'll include "Uncontrollable Urge" below.  Freaking great energy - definitely another band I wish I would've got to see live.