Monday, November 13, 2017

A review about reviews

Jo Walton's WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT (2014) is like sitting around with an old friend, talking about what great books you've read lately. It's 130 posts compiled from a blog she wrote for Tor.com, about re-reading various old science-fiction classics and guilty pleasures.
Walton doesn't pretend to be a "critic" -- she just writes about what struck her upon reading (or re-reading) some books. But she does what all the best book critics do -- enlightens you about what makes a book worth reading. Those flashes of insight are what make her reviews a lot of fun to read.
She hasn't convinced me (yet) to try reading C.J. Cherryh or Lois McMaster Bujold or Steven Brust, but I like and agree with her reviews of Samuel R. Delany's NOVA (a helluva lot going on in that book, it's crammed full of action, thought and detail) and BABEL-17 (flashes of brilliance); and her comments on Roger Zelazny's LORD OF LIGHT and DOORWAYS IN THE SAND.
Maybe even better are her "theme" columns -- Do you skim? What about novel series(es?) that go downhill? (On Frank Herbert's DUNE series: Read the first one. Then stop.)
There are a couple of reviews about books you've never read -- because they never got finished: Robert A. Heinlein's THE STONE PILLOW and Harlan Ellison's THE LAST DANGEROUS VISIONS -- this review (for April Fool's Day) wasn't as funny as it could have been, but if Walton's point was that Real Life is way weirder than fiction, she nailed it.
I also back Walton's idea of re-reading books to see if they're better or different than you remember. Every few years I re-read Peter Straub's IF YOU COULD SEE ME NOW, and every time I get something else out of it, almost like it's a new book. The last time, it was like the story was completely new to me. I've also done this with Roger Zelazny's THIS IMMORTAL and ISLE OF THE DEAD, the two Delany novels mentioned above, and some others. Oh, and Robert M. Persig's ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE. I may not be able to read anything NEW, but there are some old friends in the house that I know I won't be wasting my time with.
Walton's book won't waste your time, either.

However, this one might: Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (2017) is the third of Romano's books about progressive rock, and the first to disappoint me. His MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best prog-rock history, and his PROG ROCK FAQ was almost like a sequel, and was nearly as solid.
CLOSE TO THE EDGE recycles a lot of stuff Yes fans likely already know, adds a lot of (to me) unnecessary, extraneous material, adds a list of tour dates, discography, bibliography, a weak index, and ends up almost 300 pages long. You can read the good stuff in an hour.
I was annoyed with this book from the start, with Romano's first-the-earth-cooled history of prog. I know he was trying to set up a context for his story, but. His history of Yes is more solid, and includes some info you may not have read before. But in this book supposedly about one album you get Yes's full career up to CTTE (which was the band's fifth album), plus much about the three albums that followed.
My biggest gripe is that except for a couple of stories, this book doesn't put you into the studio with Yes while they were recording CTTE -- in two- and three-minute segments, with leader Jon Anderson telling the band "If you don't like this tune, YOU come up with something better." There's a book there, about how that band worked ... for awhile.
Romano also takes all this stuff VERY seriously, referring to the title track of CTTE as "a symphony," or at least a sonata. There's a whole chapter on "water imagery" in '70s prog, for chrissakes. It's too much, if you've heard a lot of this stuff.
Romano and Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard could have used a better proofreader. There are words dropped, odd sentence constructions, words misspelled -- it looks like the book was a rush job. The first time Strawbs leader Dave Cousins is mentioned, he is listed with no first name. (The Strawbs is where Yes keyboard-player Rick Wakeman came from.) One more read-through would have helped immeasurably with smoothness, would have avoided jolting me out of the book.
And I'd say Pink Floyd's DARK SIDE OF THE MOON defined in the public's mind what prog was. But there's been enough written about DARK SIDE, right?
Yes drummer Bill Bruford has some less exalted views about working on CTTE. Judging by his AUTOBIOGRAPHY, he could have written an interesting, funny, acid-tinged book about what Yes and those sessions were like. But he wouldn't have bothered.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Tedeschi Trucks 2!

The Tedeschi Trucks Band can apparently play anything. And they do. Which has maybe become a problem when it comes to live shows.
I saw them for the second time on Sunday night at Seattle's beautiful Paramount theater. And I thought they were WAY better when they played a year ago at Seattle's McCaw Hall as part of their LET ME GET BY tour.
Don't get me wrong, here. They sounded great. They played great. Some of the songs -- especially the half-dozen I didn't recognize, which I assume were tryouts of new material -- came across as pretty strong.
But with 12 people on stage, I assume there must be a lot of egos to keep happy in this band. And there was a lot of showing off.
But here's the thing: There was MORE showing off a year ago. But the songs were stronger.
In the review I posted last September, though I thought that McCaw Hall concert was one of the best I'd ever seen, I was already uneasy with some parts of TTB's show. I don't think every song should be an excuse for Derek Trucks to show how loud and high and long he can play that guitar. And he CAN play, no question.
But that was still happening on Sunday night. In almost every song, at some point everybody backed off and opened up space to let Derek take over. Three or four times is OK. But after that it's too much. One of his best solos was on a long, angry piece called either "It Makes You Wonder" or "Shame." In fact, some of TTB's best moments were when they were clearly angry, as on one of their earlier songs, "Get What You Deserve."
Other solos made attendees wonder if TTB were trying to become some sort of blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion band. I enjoyed some of this -- a drum duel just before intermission finally caught hold of a nice pounding groove (there was actually a lot of pounding in this show), and keyboardist Kofi Burbidge got some wild squawking, bubbling sounds out of the organ later in the show. I liked this -- I thought it was funny.
Their sax player also did a jittery, twitchy, Ornette Coleman-like meltdown early in the show that I thought was hilarious ... but he'd done the same bit a year ago. It's OK to do one clearly overdone meltdown -- that's funny. But one in every song is too much.
There were other spots that I thought were just dead -- where it seemed something was supposed to happen but didn't. This might have been technical -- during intermission, a tech worked on a couple of amps, and the second half of the show had fewer gaps. But some spots seemed to leave members of the band lost or waiting for cues. If things had been right on cue, it would never have occurred to me that there were dead spots.
And then there's the song choices. I still have a fairly long list of stuff I'd like to hear TTB do live -- they did nothing I'd hoped for. They did two songs from LET ME GET BY -- but not the best one, "Anyhow," which they opened powerfully with a year ago. They did B.B. King's "How Blue Can You Get?" and Ray Charles's "Let's Go Get Stoned," both of which came across with passion and power. Susan Tedeschi did a solo spot on Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," but she messed up the first line of the lyric ... and I'm sorry, but her version doesn't beat Peter, Paul and Mary's.
But Susan has a great voice that was strong on the rockers and cut through the big sound. And there's a couple of TTB's backing singers who can keep up with her. Former lead singer Mike Mattison took a few leads and still has a powerful voice. They should use him more often for contrast. He was especially good duetting with Susan on "Get What You Deserve."
TTB didn't talk much. Susan lightened up a bit toward the end and talked more, introduced the band, etc. She and Derek had hardly any interaction on stage.
At least they gave value for the money. The show ran almost three hours (not counting the half-hour intermission), and TTB came back on stage for an encore while we were in the lobby buttoning up coats for the 35-degree night outside. But we were done by then.
I was still disappointed. Maybe they were tired. They've been on the road a LOT the last year or so. The songs I thought were new sounded VERY good, and I'll still look for their next album.
Maybe I wish they would have settled down a bit -- actually been a blues band rather than a blues-pop-jazz-rock-fusion orchestra. Just because you CAN play everything doesn't mean you HAVE TO play everything. Stick with what you do best.

Friday, November 3, 2017

More bad behavior

Want to read 500 pages of selfishness and egomania?
No? Not interested? What if it's really well-written?
Joe Hagan's STICKY FINGERS (2017) updates Robert Draper's excellent ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE: THE UNCENSORED HISTORY (1990), by hooking a biography of RS editor/publisher/founder Jann Wenner around his coming out as a gay man in 1995.
Along with re-telling all of Draper's best stories (some with a little more depth and context), STICKY FINGERS then chronicles who Wenner slept with, how often, how this affected his magazine, etc. Everyone close to Wenner gets the same treatment. His ex-wife Jane, for example. A fascinating psychological study, in a way.
Much of this is riveting reading -- because the stories of RS's early days (Hunter Thompson, Altamont, etc.) are great stories. But it all becomes too much, because the star of this story never for a second drops his selfishness and greed. He forgives himself for everything, and throws everyone else under the bus.
Brilliantly, vividly written. Lots of cameos by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, etc. But do you really want 500 pages of it?

By the way, if you read Peter Biskind's DOWN AND DIRTY MOVIES (reviewed here awhile back), about the founding of Miramax Pictures back in the 1990's, the recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein should have come as a very small surprise. After reading how he abused and terrorized his employees at Miramax, it should be no surprise that he abused and harassed actresses, too. The surprise is it took so long for him to take a beating for it.

COMING SOON: Reviews of Will Romano's CLOSE TO THE EDGE: HOW YES'S MASTERPIECE DEFINED PROG ROCK (disappointing so far, but I'm only 70 pages in) and I AM BRIAN WILSON. And maybe some other stuff, too....
ALSO PLANNED: More live-blogging about Strange Music I've never heard before. Next test-listening session coming soon. Already have the intended victims piled-up and waiting....

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Leftovers

I read a lot more stuff than I usually review here. Some of it doesn't seem worth writing a whole post about. A few examples:
* Barry N. Malzberg -- BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS. The first half of this book is Malzberg's brilliant, anguished THE ENGINES OF THE NIGHT, a 1982 history/critique of the science fiction field that I raved about way back in the early days of this blog. It's still one-of-a-kind. And every one of Malzberg's pessimistic predictions for SF in the '80s came true.
Throughout that earlier book, Malzberg kept threatening to write "The True, Terrible History of Science Fiction." BREAKFAST IN THE RUINS isn't it. There are some great things in it -- "Tripping With the Alchemist" is all about what it was like to work at the twisted Scott Meredith Literary Agency, an SF fan's revenge on the Real World. "Rage, Pain and Alienation" was Malzberg's angry farewell to SF back in 1976, and it's still angry -- not the whiny self-indulgence he now thinks it is.
There are other good pieces on SF writer Robert Silverberg, SF editor John W. Campbell, and mystery writer Cornell Woolrich -- but overall the new stuff is less angry, less outraged. I'd rather read "The True, Terrible History of Science Fiction." Malzberg still has time to write it.
There's one great joke: One of the hot-shot SF writers of the '80s is quoted as saying "Boy, I sure hope I'm not still writing this stuff when I'm 50. That'd be pathetic." Wonder what he thinks now?
There are numerous typographical errors in the Kindle edition.
* John Clute -- STAY. Not enough book reviews from science fiction's best critic since 1993. Included is a long horror "lexicon," THE DARKENING GARDEN. It's interesting, though I'd rather read a Horror encyclopedia that's like Clute's amazing SF ENCYCLOPEDIA. Didn't read the short stories.
* Judith Merril -- THE MERRIL THEORY OF LIT'RY CRITICISM. This collects all of Judith Merril's old book review columns from THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION and her commentaries from the annual best-of collections she assembled back in the '60s. I thought this would be a great read. But apart from columns I'd already read on Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, and the English New Wave scene, I haven't found the great stuff yet. Disappointing.
* 20TH CENTURY SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS. 1,000 pages of biographies and bibliographies on well-known SF writers up through 1990. I'm sure there are later versions, but they've gotta be expensive. I like the critical essays, but there are many typos.
* Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg -- THE BUSINESS OF SCIENCE FICTION WRITING. A series of business-related columns for newer writers, first published in the SFWA Bulletin. Resnick and Malzberg assume the writer can get published repeatedly, regularly, and talk about what happens AFTER that. This came out almost 10 years ago, so discussion about on-line publications is skimped. For me, the best parts were various atrocity stories about publishing -- publishers taking forever to pay writers, writers who took cash advances and never wrote the books, etc.
* D. Scot Appel -- SCIENCE FICTION: AN ORAL HISTORY. Not really a history at all. Instead, a collection of interviews with SF writers. One long, excellent interview with Philip K. Dick. Other interviewees are from an earlier generation -- Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore, etc.
* Damien Broderick and Paul DiFillipo -- SF: THE 100 BEST BOOKS. This recommended-reading list picks up from where David Pringle's SCIENCE FICTION: THE 100 BEST NOVELS (1985) left off, so it opens with Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- which Atwood continues to proclaim is nothing as low-culture as science fiction. So I'm an old stick in the mud -- I'm not impressed with the list of novels and writers, and there's very little in here that I've read. So take me back to 1977....
* Jonathan Coe -- THE ROTTER'S CLUB (2001). I was sucked into this early-'70s English family saga because some of the teenage boys in it form a progressive-rock band. But the band only lasts for a 15-minute rehearsal, and then they become punk rockers! Also, the book's named after Hatfield and the North's second album -- and one of the characters tells another (who was injured in a terrorist bomb blast) that the Hatfields' album was recorded "for us, somehow." There is a funny, moving story that unwinds through this book, but somehow it wasn't charming enough to carry me along and I started skimming. It could work for you -- I may just be going through another one of my "I can't read fiction anymore" phases....

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bow down to Nabiru

So, how 'bout that End Of The World, huh? Pretty impressive, right?
Oh, you missed it?
Well, to recap -- earlier this week The Media briefly carried a story outlining how the huge and mysterious planet Nabiru (or Planet X, if you prefer) had been predicted to slam into Earth and destroy all known life TODAY, Sept. 23, 2017 -- leaving room for an interstellar by-pass route, I assume.
One of our local all-news radio stations even ran a sound-bite of some pseudo-para-archeologist who allegedly calculated "Bible equations" mixed with "something from the Pyramids" and determined that NOW was The Time. They even quoted him saying "Everything I've heard, everything I've read, everything I've learned says that now is the time, that 2017 is a slam-dunk."
So, feel all relieved when you woke up OK this morning? Convinced we're all Past It?
Nemesis will not be mocked.
Of course, The End has been predicted at least twice since 2000 -- and many times before that. Last time I checked, we're all still here. If you're reading this, I think it's safe to assume that you are, too.
Here's the thing -- If Planet X were approaching on its doomsday course, we would, by Ghod, be able to SEE it. Rogue planets move rather slowly on the universal scale, and something allegedly that HUGE would be clearly visible in the daytime -- and block out a helluva lot of stars at night.
Also -- if Nabiru were really approaching, the gravity effects would be incredible -- the huge tides would drown coastal cities, the continents would crack, mountains would be tumbling all over each other....
None of this has happened. Though we HAVE had WAY TOO MANY earthquakes and hurricanes lately. For the folks at the center of those disasters, it really HAS been the end of the world.
But some people will believe ANYTHING. And others seem to WANT us all to panic. What would they gain by that? (I'm not talking about The Big Media here.)
I'll be looking forward to one of my favorite radio programs tonight. They're about half good sense and half pure BS, most of the time. Wonder what they'll say? "Hey, end of the world! It didn't happen, right? Wonder why not? Maybe the calculations were off...? Oh well, maybe next time. On tonight's show, we've got...."
Course we're not out of the woods yet. That joker Kim Jong Un could still lob a nuke at us. His most recent threat is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. Been about 60 years since anybody's done that. Don't believe me? Look it up.
And of course Kim can't test too many more nukes under his Special Test Mountain in North Korea. Because he's already radiating his own people. You can look that one up, too.
And it would probably take the end of the world or the malign influence of Planet X to put a single new or coherent thought inside Donald Trump's head.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The latest snooze

I pretty much avoided keeping up with the news over the weekend, and I feel ... pretty good. There's nothing like listening to hours of old R&B hits or a couple of football games over the radio to restore your faith in Mankind ... or at least the future.
A couple of news items did get my attention earlier in the week, however.
Apparently Trump had Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi over to the White House, and over a Chinese-food dinner they all (reportedly) agreed to avoid a government shutdown, work on immigration reform, and put off that silly and expensive Border Wall for awhile.
Of course, the results of the meeting depend on who you ask. Maybe it was the MSG in the food. The White House's press-spokespeople insist that the Border Wall plan was NOT dropped, never will be, etc. etc.
And of course the rank-and-file Republicans are furious. How DARE Trump have sweet and sour chicken with the Democrats! How DARE he try to work out any of the nation's problems without the GOP! Obama tried to work out troubles by inviting the GOP over to the White House for a few beers and some informal chat -- well, by Ghod, it didn't work then and it's not gonna work now, gosh darn it!
Oh, and Kim Jong Un lobbed another missile over Japan earlier in the week. That Kim, whatta joker! And the Japanese get such a kick out of it!
While agreeing to stiffen sanctions against North Korea -- how much tougher can they get? The only person in North Korea with an electric lightbulb and a flush toilet is Kim Jong Un; the common folks have been eating grass and rocks for years now -- the United Nations still refuses to use the one bit of diplomacy that might actually work: Basketball diplomacy!
Send Dennis Rodman back to North Korea! He and KJU are LIKE THIS! Dennis would have things fixed in two shakes: "Kim, dude -- you don't wanna blow up the whole world, right? Cool. Now let's play some ball!" The Rod-man would make it happen. Kim won't listen to anyone else.
And there's no down-side. If KJU decides not to let Rodman come back home -- if he wants to hang onto his playmate forever, so the Supreme Ruler can have impromptu basketball games in a freezing-cold gym at 4 a.m. -- not that many people here will get upset. Everybody wins.
If Hunter S. Thompson were still alive, he'd be eating this stuff up with a spoon.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

RIP Brian W. Aldiss/Eclipse play-list

OK, this isn't going to be an epic. Science fiction writer Brian Aldiss died a couple of days ago. He was 92. Every time I visit Locus, I expect to see obituaries for my heroes Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg -- they're getting up there, but they're both hanging in.
I haven't read that much Aldiss -- only one short story, I think, the surprisingly adult for its time "Poor Little Warrior" -- and a novel, the not-quite-successful but still striking (and definitely involved with current concerns) HARM. But I've read several of his memoirs, and I think his histories of science fiction, BILLION YEAR SPREE (1973) and the updated TRILLION YEAR SPREE (1986), are still the best at tracking the history of the field. Somebody should write the history of the SF field's past 30 years.
But here's why Aldiss's death means a lot to me. His memoirs are often pretty amazing. THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE has some great behind-the-scenes stories about what it was like to be one of the top British SF writers back at the dawn of the "New Wave" in the early 1960's. And it also talks about some emotional problems Aldiss had that he didn't get fixed for YEARS. BURY MY HEART AT W.H. SMITH'S is sort of a first-draft of TWINKLING OF AN EYE. The later book is much longer, and MUCH more personal.
His first book, way back in 1955, was a fictionalized memoir, THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES, about his experiences working in an Oxford bookstore after World War II. I read it in the summer of 2013 -- I'd always wondered what working in a bookstore was like. And after I finished it -- even though not much happened, it wasn't very dramatic, and it certainly wasn't the charming English novel I'd expected -- suddenly a lightbulb went on over my head.
"Hey, even I can write a novel in which nothing happens," I said to myself. And six weeks later I had written a rough draft for my first e-book, GUARANTEED GREAT MUSIC!, about the three years I spent working in a record store. It was like reading Aldiss's book showed me how to do it.
So there's that. So now I need to read some more of Aldiss's many writings. I've been told he wrote some pretty great science fiction, back in the day....

Here's what I was listening to during the eclipse yesterday, my 58th birthday. We enjoyed the change in the color of the sky, the temperature dropping, and the birds and traffic going all quiet, from the safety of home, rather than traveling along with half a million others to the path of totality down in central Oregon:
* Vangelis -- Alpha.
* Happy the Man -- On Time as a Helix of Precious Laughs, Wind-Up Doll Day Wind.
* Mark Knopfler -- Going Home (Theme from LOCAL HERO).
* Pink Floyd -- High Hopes, Bike.
* Steve Tibbetts -- Ur.
* Lyle Mays -- Ascent.
* Deodato -- Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001).
...There was probably a little more, but I can't remember what else. (Alzheimer's, ya know.) And we did NOT play DARK SIDE OF THE MOON....
Was nice to have such a huge astronomical event on my birthday -- I planned it that way, of course. And it wasn't even the end of the world or anything. No major fireworks. Thank goodness.
Later on in the day, The Girlfriend and I went to Tacoma's HI-VOLTAGE RECORDS (free plug) and heard some nice jazz from Art Pepper, rather good though morose early-'60s broken-hearted love ballads by Willie Nelson, and some killer rock and roll from (good Ghod!) Nazareth! RAZAMANAZ, it was. But EVERYthing sounds great on HI-VOLTAGE's sound system....

Friday, August 18, 2017

Welcome back, my friends....

David Weigel's THE SHOW THAT NEVER ENDS (2017) is a fast, easy-to-read, mostly-well-written history of the rise and fall of progressive rock. I read its almost-300 pages in three days -- pretty fast, for me.
But it's thin. It reads as if it was edited rather tightly from a longer manuscript -- as if the order from the publisher was to get all the story told in less than 300 pages. This is too bad, because the book could have been twice as long. It's cut too tightly -- a sentence here and there gets mangled. It isn't always clear who's being quoted.
The best part of the book recounts prog's early days, when the form and the players were just coming together. There's some excitement and freshness here, and Weigel interviews some folks you don't usually see quoted in histories of this sort -- Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine, Daevid Allen of Soft Machine and Gong, Kevin Ayers of Soft Machine, Pye Hastings and Richard Sinclair of Caravan, Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator, Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues, Peter Banks of Yes....
But unfortunately, this section is too short. The next thing you know, Yes is dropping members, King Crimson is falling apart during their first U.S. tour, and ELP is arguing about what to do after their first album. And the prog-rock story has barely gotten started.
Not long after that, Weigel starts to skim the surface and skirt the edges. It's a "highlights" history, sort of. As happy as I was to see Van der Graaf Generator, Gentle Giant, Egg and Magma mentioned in some detail -- and even the Canadian band FM gets mentioned -- there is so much more Weigel could have done.
Pink Floyd is in here just for DARK SIDE OF THE MOON. Though Floyd's WISH YOU WERE HERE, ANIMALS and THE WALL also sold millions, they're not mentioned. The Moody Blues are in here just for DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED. There's rather too much about Mike Oldfield, though the story about making TUBULAR BELLS is pretty neat. Caravan is mentioned in the early-days section, but that's all. Their career isn't followed. Camel is mentioned in passing, but that's it. There's a lot about Daevid Allen before and after Gong, but nothing about when he led that band/hippy commune....
There's almost too much about Genesis, Yes and ELP, but don't get me started. I think it's helpful if you know a lot about prog history before you read this book.
I was pleased to find a section on Italian prog, and I was happy with the mentions of Caravan, Hatfield and the North, FM and Egg. I just wished there had been more. There's a bit on American prog bands -- Kansas is in here. But not Happy the Man. Or even Styx, though they're pictured. The section on neo-prog and later prog bands (Porcupine Tree, Coheed and Cambria, etc.) will probably mean more to younger fans than it does to me.
The book opens with a trip on a modern-day "Prog Rock Cruise," backtracks to the early days of the genre, and ends with the death of Keith Emerson. There is no discography, or even a "Where are they now?" update of what the acts did after being mentioned in the book. It's also saddening how many of the folks Weigel interviewed have since died. Since the book was published, Greg Lake has passed away. There is a long list of notes and sources, which includes lots of books and websites to track down if you're interested in learning more.
So, a great idea, smoothly written (mostly), but not long or detailed enough. Any chance Weigel might have a sequel in mind, in more depth? Until that happens, Will Romano's MOUNTAINS COME OUT OF THE SKY is still the best place to start for a prog history.

Monday, August 14, 2017

An annoying autobiographical pause

I used to be obsessed with fiction. Now most of the time I'm hung up on what goes on behind the scenes: Who are the people who write this stuff? What did they think they were doing? What are their lives like?
Been reading a lot of old science fiction fanzines lately, thanks to the nice folks at eBay. (This was before I found out you can read a lot of old SF fanzines for free at efanzines.com.) These privately-produced, small magazines -- often published by someone cranking a mysterious printing machine made out of bubble gum, Scotch tape and dead frogs, usually located in someone's dimly-lit basement -- have been part of science fiction since its earliest days. SF fans felt strongly enough about the stuff they were reading that they created their own "magazines," printed them, traded them with other fans, communicated.
I stumbled over fanzines in high school. The first issue I ever read was SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW 15, edited by Richard E. Geis. (More about him in a bit.) I thought his mag was OK -- but on the back-cover was an ad for Bill Bowers' OUTWORLDS. I sent away for some samples -- the first of which turned out to be a hilarious 40-page letter-column ... and then I was hooked!
OUTWORLDS had great, funny writing, gorgeous artwork and graphics, and everybody seemed so friendly ... if not crazy. In a good way. Though SFR had stronger content and harder-hitting opinions, OUTWORLDS was a flashier package.
Found a few more copies of SFR over the years and enjoyed it -- especially the behind-the-scenes peeks into the minds of SF writers, the arguments, the feuds, the horror stories about publishing that most readers never hear.
Thanks to eBay, I've recently piled up a pretty good stack of '70s and '80s fanzines. Along with taking a 40-years-ago look back with LOCUS -- "The newspaper of the science fiction field" -- I've gotten mildly acquainted with "fannish" fanzines, which are more like walking into the middle of a conversation and trying to figure out what the current comments in an issue were commenting ON in the first place....
Some of these little mags are charming, some are just silly. And you never know when a piece of great writing is going to slap you upside the head. In that stack from eBay are articles like one fan describing how she overdosed on anti-depressants FOUR TIMES before her doctors finally got her meds right (from the zine BANANA WINGS); Bruce Gillespie admitting in his METAPHYSICAL REVIEW that he'll have to do a low-budget no-art zine until he can AFFORD to print another issue of his epic zine SF COMMENTARY; former AMAZING/FANTASTIC and HEAVY METAL magazine editor Ted White writing about the months he spent in jail after being arrested for (I assume) pot-possession with intent to sell, and admitting to embezzling money from a well-known SF writer when he got into personal cash-flow problems; Dick Geis on the death of his father; Bruce Gillespie on the unexpected death of a close friend, and a LONG write-up on Philip K. Dick's half-dozen mainstream non-SF novels....
Several of these came from Dick Geis's long-running fanzine SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW/THE ALIEN CRITIC. I think Geis, who died in 2013 at age 85, could star in a book of his own. How this cranky recluse single-handedly put out a small magazine every three months for YEARS and even managed to live on the proceeds is a heckuva story. (It also helped pay the bills that he wrote more than 100 soft-core porn novels -- some of them even got published under his real name.) Maybe this isn't a story everybody would want to read, but still....
Back in the mid-'70s, Geis predicted a massive computer network on which you'd be able to read your daily newspaper -- or his monthly outpourings. He even eventually moved to posting on the Internet, after his accumulating health problems wouldn't let him work 50 hours a week on his magazines anymore.
Geis predicted at least as far back as 1974 that the U.S. economy was going to collapse due to massive debt and over-use of credit. Despite his health problems, Geis kept writing through 2011, but I haven't yet read how he felt about seeing his predictions of massive financial ruin come true....

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

This is more like it....

My assault on the novels of Philip K. Dick continues. A SCANNER DARKLY (1977) was Dick's anti-drug novel, his turnabout on the drug scene after he'd spent years using amphetamines to help him crank out more work faster -- more than 40 novels and 120 short stories in a 30-year career. Despite the subtext (explained in an author's note/dedication at the end), SCANNER DARKLY is my pick for PKD's best novel of those I've read so far. It's even better than my previous pick, THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) -- because even with Dick's usual plots-within-plots, wheels-within-wheels, nobody-is-who-they-seem-to-be setup, you can clearly follow what's happening all the way to the end and it's well worth the trip. There's even a happy ending. Or at least a hopeful one.
Every character in the book is a drug addict. After a few weird scenes to set the stage, the story turns out to be fairly simple: Narcotics officer and drug addict Bob Arctor is given the impossible job of spying on himself 24/7 for his superiors at the police department -- to determine if Arctor's a bigtime drug-pusher. How he gets forced into this corner is hard to explain -- you'll have to read the book.
Arctor first disassociates himself from the situation, looking at his friends through his role as drug-narc "Agent Fred." Then Arctor starts going schizophrenic, as the stress between his drug intake and having to perform surveillance on himself and all his drug-addict friends is too much for him to deal with.
In one 20-page chapter towards the end, Arctor falls apart -- and the writing is brilliant, some of Dick's best writing ever.
But that's not the end. Remember, this is a PKD novel -- nobody is what they appear to be.
Though the life of every character in the book centers around drugs, there is very little drug TAKING shown. Most of the characters -- including Arctor/Fred -- are addicted to the evil Substance D, which appears to be available everywhere, rots the mind in a ridiculously short time, and seems to be organic. It can be grown by anyone who can set up the right conditions to grow it.
This "secret" leads to an ending that is hopeful, uplifting -- it hints at a way out of the nightmare for all the characters.
Of course, Bob/Fred has had Issues from the start. In one early scene during an anti-drug speech to the ridiculously straight-laced Anaheim Lions Club, Fred catches a look at himself in a mirror while dressed in his police-narc-disguise "scramble suit," and all he can see is "a vague blur." Here's a guy who's already having trouble with Reality, and nothing that happens from that point on helps him much. Things just get weirder.
Because everyone in the book is a druggie, you have to sit through a lot of pretty meaningless dialogue. Watching hours of this on surveillance video is one of the things that drives Bob crazy. But not all of it's meaningless -- and it all works for the story.
Some of the writing and dialogue is pretty crude. And some of it's very clever -- very funny -- even moving, in the end. PKD grows on you, I think. The novels of his that I've read recently have each been progressively better, and they seem to work with each other -- some of the things that happen to Bob here are also mentioned in PKD's later VALIS.
Though PKD does clearly get his anti-drug message through here, the book is anything but a lecture. PKD climbs on the soapbox for just a bit in the afterword -- where he dedicates the book to a dozen friends who died or had their lives ruined from drugs. "These were my comrades," he writes. "There were no better. ... I'm not any of the characters in this novel. I am this novel."
It's the most passionate, most convincing PKD book I've read so far, keeping in mind that it starts -- as all of his do -- in some pretty gritty, down-and-dirty surroundings. The first character we meet spends the whole first chapter pulling aphids out of his hair, off of his body, and out of the carpet in his grungy apartment. If you can get through that, you'll be ready for the rest of the story.
Next up: THE DIVINE INVASION (1981).

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Almost....

My assault on the novels of science-fiction writer and cult hero Philip K. Dick continues. For its first 220 pages, Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? (1968) is a standout sf novel. Though it starts slowly, once rolling it builds steadily in character and incident, it complicates entertainingly, and the story becomes gripping all the way up to a high point of drama near the end.
All through the book, as I was hooked and got more involved and the reality of Dick's imagined world got more complex, I started saying "THIS is more like it! NOW I see what people were talking about with this guy!"
I got so involved that I read almost the whole book in just a couple of days, staying interested and enjoying it all the way. It wasn't work. SHEEP is much easier to read and get caught up in than PKD's VALIS (reviewed last post). It seems to have a lot more depth.
But as I closed in on the end, I had to take a break and go to work.
I should never have gone to work.
Because when I came back home and picked the story back up, PKD had somehow let the last 25 pages of his novel go pffff....
In the future, a massive nuclear war has virtually finished off Earth. A dark radioactive dust coats most of the planet. Fallout is an ongoing problem. The remaining cities are mostly abandoned, like ghost towns. Though San Francisco has somehow survived, western Oregon has become a desert. Most folks have left Earth for Mars. A few people crawl through life here -- those whose jobs won't let them leave, and those who aren't smart enough to pass the IQ tests to emigrate. Rumor has it the colony planets are in worse shape.
The remaining humans are plagued with guilt over the millions of animal species that have died due to man's stupid wars. Companies manufacture mechanical animals to placate this guilt. A few REAL animals survive, but they are only available at astronomical prices -- the bigger the animal, the higher the price. Real animals have become status symbols like cars or houses.
A sinister talk-show host named Buster Friendly has a 24/7 program on the only TV channel, where his guests are celebrities who are "famous for being famous." A religion called Mercerism seems to unite believers in a sacred shared ordeal similar to Sisyphus rolling his giant boulder up a mountain. And people use various mood-inhancing devices so they won't have to face too much reality.
Against this background, a police bounty-hunter named Rick Deckard tracks down a group of (supposedly evil) androids who've immigrated to Earth from Mars illegally. Deckard is told these androids are smarter and more brutal than humans ... but the androids are mainly just less empathic. Maybe conditions on Mars are even worse than on the dusty, depopulated Earth? We never find out.
Helping Deckard track down the androids is a mysterious woman named Rachel Rosen -- herself apparently an android, or at least a human with little empathy. It turns out one of the androids Deckard must locate and "retire" (kill) is a duplicate of Rachel.
The plot works from here. Much is promised. Much ominous darkness and threat surround Deckard as he proceeds in his mission -- he'll be paid $1,000 for each android he "retires." Then maybe he'll be able to afford a REAL sheep instead of the mechanical one currently pretending to munch grass on the roof of his decrepit old apartment building. Then won't his neighbor be jealous! Then maybe his wife will love him again and not consider him a failure anymore.
Much of the rest becomes a game of who's-real-and-who-isn't, as Deckard tries to take out the androids before they can get him. Which actually becomes fairly exciting. Until Deckard closes in on the last three androids hiding in an abandoned apartment building -- including the Rachel-duplicate and a supposedly evil and powerful android-leader named Roy Baty.
It may sound here like I didn't enjoy the book. Wrong. I liked it a lot. But PKD took the heavily dramatic ending that was staring him in the face and threw it out the window in the last 25 pages. The big expected fight with Roy Baty turns out to be nothing much, and Deckard's confrontation with the Rachel-duplicate is a wasted opportunity for much more ... because by then Deckard has fallen in love with the "real" Rachel.
I was also expecting more to be done with J.R. Isadore, the low-IQ pet-repair messenger who in many ways is the nicest and most genuine person in the whole book. But PKD just lets him slip away.
The last 25 pages are digressions and avoidances of drama. Rachel does sort of get her "revenge" after Deckard murders all of her friends, but even in the context of the book it comes across as a very small thing. After her function in the plot is made clear, she is also dropped.
How could PKD do this? Maybe because to round out this story in a way that seems dramatically obvious, he might have needed 50 more pages -- and maybe that room wasn't available in a Doubleday mid-'60s mid-list sf novel. Just a guess.
I've never seen the movie BLADE RUNNER made from this book, though I will say that the giant Japanese-style (or Times Square-style) neon advertising signs that allegedly made such a big visual impact in that film are NOT from this future. I've read that the movie does at least make the point this book doesn't -- that at the finale Deckard does recognize Roy Baty's humanity in a way that never comes close to happening in this book. About the only real humans here are J.R. Isadore and Deckard's wife, Iran. And we recognize Iran because she's as depressed as any normal person would be in a future world like this. Deckard comes across as just tired.
This is all too bad, because for the first 220 pages this is an excellent novel with action and vivid characters and some philosophical depth, and it deserved the Nebula Award it was nominated for. But PKD never answers any of the questions he brings up. If he had finished the job, this book could maybe have WON that award....

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Another round for The Vague Blur!

Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick is a phenomenon. Though he's been dead since 1982, his books keep selling, his cult keeps growing, Hollywood keeps making movies of his short stories and novels.
And I'm still trying to figure out why this is so.
True, Dick's novel THE THREE STIGMATA OF PALMER ELDRITCH (1964) is absolutely one of a kind and will turn your mind into a pretzel. A MAZE OF DEATH (1970) has a twisted grimness that is all its own.
PKD has a really good feel for the gritty down-to-earth realities of life. He's also good on those little moments that suddenly become overpoweringly Significant.
But the people he writes about are so average, so dull, that they can be boring to read a whole book about.
Even when Dick's writing about himself.
I've bogged down in half a dozen of his other novels, and there's a couple I've forgotten completely.
VALIS (1981) is one of those where I bogged down after a couple chapters and then forgot about it. I got through it this time in a few days, with no problem. It's definitely different and often interesting, but not exactly stunning. Except maybe in the amount of work PKD had to do to get it written.
It was Dick's attempt to explain the vision (or breakdown) he had in early 1974, when he thought he was contacted by God. Or at least by a Vast Active Living Intelligence System.
Over the next five years, Dick reportedly wrote some 5,000 pages trying to explain what happened to him, what it meant, what he thought it revealed. Among other things, this supposedly alien intelligence identified a life-threatening health problem with PKD's son.
More than 1,100 pages of these writings were published a few years back as PKD's EXEGESIS. It's an amazing pile of work. But awfully tough to get through.
VALIS tries to novelize some of PKD's experience. One problem is, he doesn't show what happened to him until he's 50 pages into the book. And even when he gets to it, he just barely describes it. He finds other, more human ways to lay out his story. But this central experience is underneath everything else. If you don't know about it before starting the book, the story's kind of a mess.
First PKD comes to a personal crisis: His wife leaves him and takes their young son, then two close women friends die even though he tried to help them. First PKD tries to commit suicide. Then the blinding pink light of VALIS touches him and starts pouring vast amounts of information into his brain.
The rest of the book is a search for God, or at least for what VALIS is or means.
PKD, his alter-ego, and a small group of friends eventually find A New Savior living in northern California. She turns out to be a stunningly intelligent, frightfully verbal 2-year-old girl.
The first thing she does is immediately cure PKD's schizophrenia. His alter-ego -- who has been the star of the book and whom PKD has had long conversations with alone and when surrounded by his friends -- immediately disappears.
Then the girl tells them in absolutely Biblical cadences some of what they want to know. She is by far the sharpest person in the book.
Naturally, this divine creature can not be permitted to live -- and she dies in a stupid off-stage accident.
The rest of the book is a search for another Savior. PKD's alter-ego reappears and starts traveling the world searching for the next Messiah -- first in Europe, then Russia, Asia, finally into the Pacific islands. The new Messiah who will heal the world is out there somewhere -- VALIS has told them so.
Twenty pages of PKD's EXEGESIS is tacked onto the end of the book, to lay out the basic thought structure beneath the novel's heavy religious theory.
Most of the people in the novel are nuts. They even discuss this. PKD himself can barely handle the stress of walking out of his own yard. He blacks out during plane flights. Too stressful.
The book will hold your attention, parts of it are kind of drily funny, and it's unlike any other novel you've ever read. It's as direct and basic as PKD could make a complex subject. It's better than staring at the TV for a few hours, I guess, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a pleasant experience. I'll be reading more by PKD, but I'm hoping for a little more entertainment along with his message.
Just make sure you don't pay too much for it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second childhood

Been buying old science-fiction magazines cheap on eBay recently, trying to recapture my childhood, get back to the days when I thought being a science fiction writer would be the best job in the world.
Maybe not the best PAYING job. But somehow I wasn't worried about that back then -- ask any of my old girlfriends and the ex-wife who watched me many times buy books and music before I bought food: "It's OK, honey -- we'll live on love...."
I think mainly what I missed from the magazines was the great artwork, but I re-read a few of the stories, the ones I remember best. They're still great. It makes me feel good to re-read them, and just to read those old magazines again, years after I sold half my collection off because I was short on cash....
I still wish I could have pulled it together 40 years earlier and made a more serious run at being a real writer. I mean, I was pretty serious, but I don't think I knew what I was doing. There was a whole lot of living and learning I hadn't done yet. And now that I've done it, I don't really have the energy to obsess about my own fiction writing anymore, most of the time. I was a reporter for too long, and the "just the facts" approach maybe buried my imagination.
A year ago, just for fun, I started writing a music-fantasy set in an after-the-bomb future, starring my usual lineup of old friends. I got about 6,000 words into it without worrying about where it was going or what I was going to do with it.
This was shortly after I met The Girlfriend -- and then spending time with her became much more important than anything else I was doing. It still is. She hasn't kept me from writing creatively -- I haven't really felt like it. Plus I didn't know where this story was going anyway.
I re-read some of it a couple weeks back. To me, it seems pretty good. Might have some potential. Kinda visionary for me, funny in places, I like the setting and I know the characters.
But I don't know where it goes -- unless it starts repeating some of the shocks of real life as my friends lived it, and I'm not sure I want to write about most of that stuff. Or unless I want to dive into pure fantasy. But when you've been a full-time reporter for 20 years, imagination was the first thing you tossed out.
I may post the story here in pieces, but I need to look back through it again, make sure I'm happy with it as it is. I'm hoping maybe it will develop as I post the parts, and maybe I'll figure out where to go with it. Sort of a novel in progress.
A note to my old friends who are out there -- don't worry. I don't think you'll recognize yourselves, though you'll recognize your names. And I think you'll be happy with how I've depicted you. The story's intended as a tribute to those old days 40 years ago, anyway. Certainly those were happy times for me (as I look back) and I want to keep them that way.
You have been warned.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Tilting at windmills?

I'm not a Frank Zappa fan, though I agree he was an interesting personality. If you ARE a fan, you'll probably enjoy Neil Slaven's biography of FZ, ELECTRIC DON QUIXOTE (1996), which is the first book on music that's held my interest all the way through in quite awhile.
There've been other books on Zappa. FZ wrote one himself, THE FRANK ZAPPA BOOK, which I thought was a little silly and scattered, along with skipping whole sections of his life. Barry Miles's ZAPPA, which I read and reviewed here a couple of years ago, wasn't bad -- but it soon bogged down into recapping album-tour-album-tour-album-tour until Frank died. It could have used more detail, more interviews.
But Miles was great at catching Good Stories -- one leads off his book, a story from Frank's early years that maybe explained the direction FZ went for the rest of his life. It's such a great story that Miles repeats it again almost word-for-word a few chapters later.
Slaven -- a producer at Decca/Deram in the early '70s -- maybe doesn't have such a nose for great stories, but he compiles a ton of period quotes from newspaper and magazine articles, and adds a ton more info from interviews he did with Zappa. Slaven also comments in some depth on the music itself, something Miles never did. Slaven gets across some of the obsessiveness that would push a man to record and release more than 60 albums in a nearly-30-year career.
Slaven also picks up some of the sarcasm of his subject. He clearly has his own opinions on how Zappa was treated, which of FZ's albums are worth re-hearing, and how much of Frank's work will continue to be heard.
There's also detailed coverage of FZ's later trips to DC to argue against rock censorship. This section made me think it's too bad FZ and Hunter S. Thompson aren't around today to call "Bullshit!" on so much of what's coming out of DC. Actually, I think FZ and HST woulda made a great ticket for Prez and VP.
But hypocrisy, fascism and greed never die. Musicians do. There's a long chapter on all the work FZ got done while his health was declining.
There's also detail on the many fine musicians who performed as FZ's backing bands -- among them Terry Bozzio, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, George Duke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Ian and Ruth Underwood, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, Eddie Jobson, Patrick O'Hearn, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Captain Beefheart, the Original Mothers, and many more. Their opinions -- usually very favorable about FZ -- come across strongly.
None of this changes my opinion of FZ's music -- for most of which, I've never been able to get past the stupid, silly, grade-school-level lyrics. They seem too close to the things FZ was trying to make fun of. But maybe I've just heard the wrong stuff. I heard a chunk of HOT RATS while in a Tacoma record store awhile back, and it sounded pretty good. Maybe I need to hear more of that and the WAKA/JAWAKA-GRAND WAZOO period....

I've also been eating up parts of the annual BEST MUSIC WRITING series from DaCapo Books. Each volume I've found so far has something in it worth holding on to -- a long piece about a guy who discovered "numbers stations" on short-wave radio and ended up compiling a four-CD set of what they broadcast, which turned out to be code-messages to spies -- some of this stuff was later used on a Wilco album; a hilarious/disgusting piece on how Warner Brothers Records treats artists who never earn back their advance; a long piece on how Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" still works today, 50 years later; looks back at Phil Ochs, Bettye LaVette, Nina Simone, Anita O'Day and others; meeting The Shaggs; the importance of Big Country; an obituary for great English DJ John Peel; and much more.
Well worth your time if you find a copy at Goodwill.
More eventually....

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Art for art's sake

Here's a sort of out-take from that new book I maybe started writing a few days ago....

OK, now here's a surprise. Was thinking recently about all those old science fiction stories and novels I read back when I was growing up, and realized that half of the stuff I read I got sucked into because of the great artwork. Like the artists were working their asses off trying to get me (and other readers) to notice or read something we might normally have passed by.
This was especially true in science fiction magazines in the '70s and '80s, where the quality of the stories varied, but the artwork was usually of pretty high quality. And back in the '60s, the artwork was almost always top notch, even if some of the magazines were sometimes kinda shoddy. No matter how far to the Right the old '60s ANALOG went, the art was always amazing -- there was a feeling of freedom and exploration (and even comedy) there that even iron-handed old editor John W. Campbell couldn't spoil.
Though I sold a ton of old SF magazines a few years ago when I was short on cash, I still have a cabinet-full left. So I went to that cabinet last night to maybe get nostalgic about the old days through some great art, and discovered ... most of that art disappeared out of my house a long time ago.
I think when it became clear to me that I was A Words Guy -- because I was never going to be An Artist -- I think I started hanging onto the words that meant the most to me, and let most of the artwork go. And now I miss it.
Exploring the net earlier today, I found a couple websites that do a pretty good job of preserving some of this stuff. They maybe short-change some great black-and-white interior illustrations for the more dazzling color cover stuff, but at least they know who the artists were -- eye-opening artists like Kelly Freas (who could go from cartoon-like comedy to gorgeous stuff that would take your breath away), Rick Sternbach, Mike Hinge, Vincent DiFate, Steve Fabian, John Schoenherr, Jack Gaughan, James Odbert, Val Lakey Lindahn, Janet Aulisio, Broeck Steadman, Roger Dean, Rodney Matthews, Angus McKie, David Hardy, Ian Miller, Patrick Woodroffe, Virgil Finlay, Paul Lehr, Richard Powers, Ed Emshwiller, Ames, and so many others.
Only a couple of these guys are well-known names. Most of them never broke through to the mainstream like Frank Frazetta or Jack Kirby did. They didn't get paid very well, most of them, especially back in the old magazine days. Some of them died broke. But their gorgeous work is really timeless. And I'm sorry now that I don't have more of it around.
About the only art book I still have in the house is Hipgnosis's gorgeous and hilarious book of album covers they did for Pink Floyd and other rockers back in the '70s, WALK AWAY RENE. And it's a classic that you'll never get away from me. Once I had a copy of Roger Dean's gorgeous VIEWS portfolio -- but I never figured out what the lengthy text was raving on about, and I already had most of the album covers, so....
Here's the weird thing -- science-fiction/fantasy/horror has never been bigger on movie screens and TV. But for most of the artists listed above, their work seems to have almost vanished, and I think something unique has disappeared. It's not quite "retro" yet -- in some ways it's the world all around us today -- only BETTER.
Meanwhile, science fiction magazines are just barely holding on. The most recent issues of ANALOG and ASIMOV'S I've seen over the last couple years are WAY thinner than the old days, and they hardly run any artwork beyond the cover. FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION never did run interior art. INTERZONE is pretty flashy and art-filled, very current -- but the fiction doesn't grab me much.
The good old stuff is pretty-much gone.
What all this babbling means is the next time I go to Half-Price Books or Goodwill, I'll probably be grabbing all those old science-fiction magazines up on the CLEARANCE section's top shelf that I can hardly reach. And I'll pay a buck apiece for them. Just to have the art around again....

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hacked?

Greetings. It looks like my three-month-old laptop may have been "killed" as part of the ongoing worldwide cyberattack. I keep getting what my son used to call "the blue screen of death" as the machine tries to start and load-up. This started happening after five minutes on Facebook early this morning. Ghod knows if I've been infected, but I don't like the timing.
Luckily, I still have this eight-year-old laptop as backup. No complaints from me, at least I'm still "connected," except now this machine seems incredibly SLOW....
Will be working to see what the hell's wrong, but in the meantime it looks like any Silly or Political stuff will be posted at my old TADs-Back-Up-Plan page on Facebook. Will of course announce there if I have any new reviews to post here.
Haven't been doing much lately -- may even have started ANOTHER new book a couple days ago, sort of by accident. More about that eventually.
More here soon, and be careful with your computers out there....

...After giving it 12 hours to recover, the new laptop FINALLY came back to life and -- after cleaning up and defragmenting the hard drive -- it SEEMS to be working normally again, for now. I'll keep you posted. Thought I was a goner for sure. Back to normal status, apparently. Safe Computing, everyone....

UPDATE -- It happened again on May 19th, while I was trying to write a post here. Since then I've "restored" the system to its condition before May 13th, cleaned-up and defragged the hard drive again, and as of this morning it seems to be working normally. Whatever that means.
But what's with this fragile new technology? Already I've had more "fun" with this machine than I ever had with the old laptop. The old machine's been dropped at least twice and been knocked off of desks a couple times, and it still works. More or less. Maybe they made them tougher eight years ago. Or maybe the viruses out there now are just meaner. Anyway, onward.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Break

Thanks for checking in here, but I won't be reviewing any Strange Music for awhile.
I've been posting pretty steadily here since last June, but it's time for a break.
I have another book project I should finish that I keep putting off, because I don't want to face it -- even though it would only take a couple weeks to finish. And I've been trying to get the book written since 1977.
It's also been awhile since I've listened to any music FOR PLEASURE, rather than concentrating on whether it's WORKING or if I can make any snarky comments about it.
Lately Sunday album-review-days have been coming around too fast, and what's always been fun before has started to seem like work -- self-imposed, but still work. I still have a lot of new-to-me music piled up to listen to here, but nothing I'm too excited about, to be honest.
I've been pretty dissatisfied with almost all music and books lately. I think I'm getting stale.
I've also noticed -- especially since getting this new laptop in February -- that the Internet and especially Facebook are great time-wasters. And I continue to put projects off.
So I'm gonna try to unplug and do some other stuff. If I can't resist commenting about something, I'll post it here, and I'll probably still post Political and Silly stuff on Facebook, but I'm gonna try not to spend ALL DAY doing it. (That's been happening to me a lot, lately.)
I'll clear my head out, and then hopefully come back here fresher and more enthusiastic. And maybe I'll be able to pile up more new stuff while I'm gone.
I don't plan to be gone too long. I'll probably be back before you even realize....

Sunday, April 16, 2017

All the way 3!

Once again, complete album reviews. Because it's Easter, and I'm a glutton for punishment.

Some folks think Genesis's SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND (1973) is one of the best, most consistent progressive-rock albums ever. We'll see.
It's certainly one of the LONGEST single albums -- two crammed-full sides totaling more than 50 minutes, tho this may just be due to Peter Gabriel's notorious wordiness. Let's find out.
* Dancing With the Moonlit Knight -- Opens with a-capella PG vocals and delicate guitar, gentle keyboards. PG sounds a bit like Peter Hammill here. The lyrics are the usual hazy, poetic stuff these guys did. Musical support gains in force as it goes, leading into a guitar-keyboards duel.... Do I catch a brief riff stolen from Renaissance here...? Lyrics seem to be a critique of British consumer society.... Wish Tony Banks would lay off the Mellotron, but the production is clearer than on their earlier albums, you can actually HEAR stuff.... Devolves into keyboard and guitar atmospherics at the end.
* I Know What I Like -- Yeah, I think we've all heard this before. This is nice and pleasant enuf, and it deserved to be a hit in England, but I'm used to hearing the version Phil Collins sings on the live SECONDS OUT double-album....
* Firth of Fifth -- Used to the SECONDS OUT version, where Tony Banks's opening piano solo is moved to the middle, where (to me) it works much better. But this version should have led-off this album. After the piano solo, it's rather hazy and pastoral, despite the story being told. The musicianship is quite something, and unlike on NURSERY CRYME you can HEAR everything clearly. This is very nice -- nice quick-stepping mid-section. Tony's keybs give way to Steve Hackett's ghostly guitar solo. These guys had talent. Tony's end-solo is actually faded out because this track's already gone on over 9 minutes....
* More Fool Me -- What's this? The drummer sings? Yes, Phil Collins on lead vocals -- and it's a very delicate, quiet lead vocal. This is a nice contrast from "Firth of Fifth." Hushed, modest. ...Oh, then it opens out ... a little.... Nice side-closer -- acoustic, brief.
* The Battle of Epping Forest -- Opens with martial drumming and piping. Then it's Punks versus Mods in London! Too bad Pete mumbles and rushes the vocals. Nice keyboard breaks, as always. Considering this song is about a rumble between two street gangs, it's pretty delicate. And it runs almost 12 minutes. Is that because PG's lyrics for this take up most of the second side of the lyric sheet? Nice stuck-up vocal by PG as he imitates a reverend.... Then he sounds like Dave Cousins from the Strawbs.... Long journey for not much. Least impressive track so far.
* After the Ordeal -- Opens with extensive keybs and guitar.... Pretty, kind of aimless. This could have been a shorter album with some editing. LOTS of guitar -- a pretty instrumental, but....
* The Cinema Show/Aisle of Plenty -- Hypnotic guitar work by Steve Hackett. PG's grumbling vocal is nothing much. Seems like a romance story at first, but then -- where the heck is this going? Nice atmospherics.... Then multi-part wordless vocals, very pretty.... Moves into more ghostly Hackett guitar, then a tasty keyboard theme that starts out pretty dinky and gains in power -- 'til Banks starts showing off.... There's a lot of messing around on this album, as if they HAD to get every tasty instrumental lick in, or thot they weren't giving their fans enuf value for the money. This would have more impact if they skipped the pretty-but-aimless spots.
...The "Aisle of Plenty" section continues the consumer-society critique that started the album. It's brief.
And that's all. Overall? Nice instrumentals, guitar and keyboards the strongest point. If they were more direct, they could become a big success. It's obvious they've got talent.... Above average, but this album is not going to change your life.

OK, The Turtles PRESENT THE BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968): On this album, a late-'60s pop band well-known as consummate singers, players, etc., impersonate 11 different OTHER bands, and POSE as those bands inside the cover. These guys were real professionals and wrote almost all the songs, so this should be a lot of fun, and a pretty high-concept package for the late '60s. Supposed to be a forgotten classic. Includes 2 actual chart hits! Onward.
* The Battle of the Bands -- Introduction is sorta-garage-rock with horns. Written by Harry Nilsson and producer Chip Douglas (who produced the Monkees and others). Big production. Over fast.
* The Last Thing I Remember -- Dreamy, spacey late-'60s psych, obviously composed under the influence of evil Drugz.... The vocals almost spiral out of control. Nice harpsichord! probably shoulda saved this for later on the album.
* Elenore -- Ha ha. Always loved this. It's just freakin' perfect, even tho the lyrics are a joke. These guys were geniuses.
* Too Much Heartsick Feeling -- Uh oh, it's Country. Badly sung, off-key Country. And it works. Funny. This could be Roy Clark or somebody like that. Big production, for a country weeper.
* Oh, Daddy! -- Narrated cheerfully by a guy stuck in prison for doing something bad. Then turns into a sorta Dixieland singalong. Nice, and ... uh ... disturbing.
* Buzzsaw -- This seems to be a surf instrumental.... Lotsa fuzz-bass and heavy organ. OK, not an instrumental. But definitely Surf. The Beach Boys wish they coulda done something this demented in 1968. Fades out too soon.... Quick side.
* Surfer Dan -- Now THIS is Surf. With more undercurrents of Drugz: "He's so ripped he can't see you go by." This could be straight out of 1963, except for the lyrics....
* I'm Chief Kamanawanalea (We're the Royal Macadamia Nuts) -- Ha. Nice drumming.... A little early in history for tribal chanting. But it's over with quick....
* You Showed Me -- I've always hated this. Thot it was gloppy and not rock and roll. Tho it IS beautifully sung. This is an old Byrds song, written by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark. Nice subtle use of synthesizer.
* Food -- An ode to some of their favorite foods, followed by an Alka-Seltzer commercial. Pretty silly.
* Chicken Little Was Right -- Pickin' and grinnin'.
* Earth Anthem -- Opens with gorgeous acoustic guitar and horn, and breathy vocals. Gets better and more moving on repeated listenings. Nice closer.
Overall: Lotsa talent. Maybe if they coulda recorded something longer than 2 or 3 minutes they woulda outlasted the '60s. They said they were frustrated that nobody noticed their more adventurous work, but this album has some nice, silly, adventurous stuff on it. Not a bad comedy record.

BONUS TRACKS:
* Manfred Mann's Earth Band -- Joybringer, from SOLAR FIRE (1973). Was a Top 10 hit in England. Supposedly based on Gustav Holst's "Mars" theme from THE PLANETS, if anybody cares. Nice keyboards from Manfred. Pretty lively -- livelier than anything I heard on MM/EB's GET YOUR ROCKS OFF (1973). Nice guitar and vocals from Mick Rogers. Ends too soon. Wonder why radio never plays this? It's easy enuf to get into.... Possibly because the title isn't even listed on the album cover....
* Manfred Mann's Earth Band -- Father of Day Father of Night, from SOLAR FIRE. Bob Dylan allegedly wrote this? But it runs 9 minutes.... This is a way bigger, grander production than "Joybringer." The lyrics are pretty simple. After the verses it takes off into lengthy guitar and keyboard variations. The later guitar riff is VERY familiar from somewhere else, but I can't place it. Later, Manfred brings in some of that nice icy-cold keyboard sound he sometimes gets, as on the much-later "Stranded" (on CHANCE, 1980). Quite a show-offy piece here, in several different ... movements. Prog fans will like.
* U.K. -- Thirty Years, from U.K.'s first album (1978). For guitarist Allan Holdsworth, who died earlier this morning. I don't think I've heard this in MORE than 30 years. Overlooked at the end of Side 1 of this band's first album. Opens with exquisite acoustic picking, followed by a sorta strained John Wetton vocal. Moody, dark, atmospheric, long opening section. Then opens out into louder and more adventurous work, with herky-jerky rhythms, superb Bill Bruford drumming, and more excellent Holdsworth guitar work.
...OK folks, I'm done for today. More full albums next Sunday. Or maybe ALL ALAN PARSONS! ALL INCREDIBLE STRING BAND! ALL ELO! We'll see what I'm up for....

Friday, April 14, 2017

The story so far

Here's a quick overview of the best new-to-me music I've heard during my continuing re-investigation of progressive-rock/Strange Music over the last six months. Unfortunately, there isn't much of it. And you don't want to see the list of the worst stuff....
* Argent -- Dance in the Smoke, from their first album (1970). Excellent mantra-like piece, builds in intensity as it goes. Their later "Lothlorien" is also good -- nice light touch on these tracks. Guess they got heavier and more obvious later....
* Camel -- Go West, DUST AND DREAMS (1991). The album is a gorgeous soundtrack to Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH. "Go West" is beautiful, moving, great guitar -- maybe better than "Mother Road," the next track on the disc and the only thing off this that I'd heard previously.
* Be-Bop Deluxe -- Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape, from LIVE! IN THE AIR AGE (1977). To be honest, the lyrics go right past me, but Bill Nelson's guitar solo and Andy Clark's keyboards light this song up. Very nice stuff.
* Starcastle -- Shine on Brightly, from CITADEL (1977). Not too Yes-ish. Nice and sparkly.
* Gordon Giltrap -- VISIONARY, PERILOUS JOURNEY. Excellent instrumental progressive-guitar-and-group work, supported by the duo Edwards-Hand. Nice mood music. (Edwards-Hand weren't worth hearing on their own....)
* John Martyn -- May You Never, Solid Air. Smokey British electric-folk from Nick Drake's friend and neighbor.
* Renaissance -- Island, from their first album (1969). Gorgeous vocals from Jane Relf, an edited version could have been a hit. The rest of the album, eh.
* Osibisa -- first album (1970). Nice tribal drumming and upbeat happy tunes, they sounded like no one else.
* Byrds -- The World Turns All Around Her, from TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965). Another overlooked great from Gene Clark ("I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better").
* Linda and Richard Thompson -- The Great Valerio (live), from Linda's best-of DREAMS FLY AWAY (1996). Stark, dramatic live solo-vocal-and-guitar piece, even MORE intense than the studio version on R&L's I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT (1974).
* Stackridge -- No One's More Important Than the Earthworm, from EXTRAVAGANZA (1975). Silly lyrics get a big Pink-Floyd-style treatment. Impressive. Written by former King Crimson singer Gordon Haskell.
* Jade Warrior -- WAVES (1975). Very ... uh ... discreet ambient instrumentals, sort of an Environments mood-music album. Still not sure about the fake-whale-songs at the end of Side 2. So quiet and pleasant it almost fades into the background.... Betcha Brian Eno heard this at some point.
* Jethro Tull -- Slow Marching Band, from THE BROADSWORD AND THE BEAST (1982). Excellent miniature, builds nicely, ends at just the right spot, doesn't overstay its welcome.
* Stomu Yamashta, Steve Winwood, Michael Shreve -- GO (1976), Side One. As spacey as WAVES, only more upbeat, with Winwood adding occasional funky vocals and keybs. Good synth work. A nice surprise. Need to get back to Side 2 someday....
* Synergy -- CORDS (1978), Side 1. Distant, icy, spacey, ominous synth work. Quite a contrast to Larry Fast's earlier, warmer albums SEQUENCER and ELECTRONIC REALIZATIONS FOR ROCK ORCHESTRA.
* Van der Graaf Generator -- REFLECTIONS early-best-of. Haven't gotten all the way through this. Knew VdGG was different and intense from hearing all of PAWN HEARTS (1971), which is a spooky record. This is also spooky, dark, gothic, grim, intense. Well worth hearing, but you probably won't be singing along with it....
* Gentle Giant -- I'm Turning Around, from THE MISSING PIECE (1977). Nice gentle love song, sort of a follow-up to their excellent "On Reflection" (on FREE HAND, 1975).

Planned for Sunday morning: Complete listening and off-the-top-of-my-head reviews of Genesis's SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND (1973) and the Turtles' BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968). Bonus tracks may follow, time permitting....
Also planned for the future:
* ALL ALAN PARSONS! Got half a dozen albums piled up to listen to and review previously-unheard parts of....
* STILL MORE REALLY BAD PROG! I promise. The things I go through for you people....
* ALL KEYBOARDS! Ghod knows how I'm gonna describe this....
* ALL RICK WAKEMAN! Ditto....
* ALL JAZZ-ROCK!
* ALL MOODIES' SOLO ALBUMS!
* ALL INCREDIBLE STRING BAND!
* ALL ELO!
* ALL GENESIS!
...and Ghod Knows what else....

Sunday, April 9, 2017

All the way 2!

Once again, reviews of complete albums -- because it's Sunday, I'm a dummy, and I haven't had enuf coffee yet.
First up, Renaissance's ILLUSION (1970).
ILLUSION shows Renaissance in transition from their original lineup to the one that became moderately famous in progressive-rock circles in the mid-'70s. Headed by ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, this classical-rock-folk band recorded their first album in 1969 (reviewed last Sunday in "All the way"), and then started this follow-up. But the band was already falling apart.
Keyboardist John Hawken is replaced by Don Shin on one track here, and on another piece there's an almost-entirely-new lineup. This album also marks the first appearance of acoustic guitarist Michael Dunford and Cornwall poet Betty Thatcher -- who would both be part of Ren over the long haul.
So this album is sorta a patchwork. It's copyrighted 1970, but one rock-and-roll reference book claims the album was only released in West Germany that year, and not issued in England until much later. Plus one track included here ("Face of Yesterday") was re-recorded later on Illusion's pretty-great OUT OF THE MIST (1977). And Illusion was basically the first version of this band, minus Keith Relf. You can see how confusing this all gets....
Enuf background. What does it SOUND like?
* Love Goes On -- This is already lighter than the first album. Airy la-la-la group vocals and strummed guitar, then picks up a bit as Jane Relf sings the lyric. Not rock and roll, way closer to what they used to call adult-contemporary back in the '70s. Pleasant, harmless -- and really short.
* Golden Thread -- Opens with long show-offy piano. If the first album had a flaw, it was mainly that the band had too much room to play -- and no idea how to fill the space. The shorter, more structured stuff was better -- like "Island." This drifts into airy piano-and-wordless-vocals stuff, sounding like the NEXT Renaissance album, PROLOGUE (1972), which includes none of these people. Three or four minutes in, Keith Relf starts singing. He's OK, but they're so much better with Jane singing. ...Pleasant, harmless, a little long.
* Love is All -- More light, airy pop-song stuff. The lyrics are hippy mush. Not much of a debut for lyricist Thatcher.
* Mr. Pine -- This is the track with the mostly-new lineup. Sounds unfinished. The opening is hippy blather, under-produced, almost laughable. The keyboard-led mid-section was recycled note-for-note in Renaissance's later "Running Hard"! ... Develops into a four-part suite. Doesn't seem like it was worth the trouble. These folks had talent, the question was how to channel it.
* Face of Yesterday -- The version on their later OUT OF THE MIST is a small masterpiece. This seems a little too delicate. Some extra added subtle electric guitar that mainly just calls attention to itself. Jane Relf's vocal is a little unsure. The later version is in a lower key and just seems more confident. This isn't terrible.... Maybe my problem is this just doesn't rock enough. It's pretty, tho.
* Past Orbits of Dust -- This closer runs 14 minutes. Keyboardist Don Shin takes the spotlight from the start. Vocals are rather low-key. This is looser and more relaxed than the rest of the album.... This riffs along in its nice, harmless, electric-piano-fueled way ... but then there's a Drum Solo. But at least it's brief. This has a little rock power behind it -- or at least as much power as you can get out of an electric piano, which ain't much -- but not TOO much, that would be rude. Uh oh, then there's a sorta spacey bass solo.... So a spacey riffer that stretches on for 14 minutes. Not bad, and they've got talent, but....
Is that all? Oh well, as Gentle Giant once said, "We didn't know what we were doing until our fourth album."

OK, next up, the Stories' first album (1972).
I picked this up because Stories later released a semi-classic English pop-rock album ABOUT US (1973) which had half an hour of pretty great stuff on it -- punchy, catchy, melodic, memorable pop songs. Best were the dramatic "Please Please" (which would still sound great on classic-rock radio), the sweet shoulda-been-hit "Love is in Motion,'" the mysterious "Words," and the wistful "What Comes After." But the group was breaking up at the time -- half the album is merely average, and some tracks are just filler. Oh, and the Number One 1973 hit "Brother Louie" is on there, too.
Keyboardist/songwriter Michael Brown started with The Left Banke back in the '60s. Singer/bassist Ian Lloyd had a spotty solo career and sang backing vocals for bands like Foreigner. Onward....
* Hello People -- Opens with sweet piano and Ian singing in a lower key than usual. This is a plea for brotherly love and peace -- still works today. Slowly gains in punch as it goes. Ian sounds pretty relaxed. ...OK, doesn't get that much better....
* I'm Coming Home -- Basic homecoming lovesong. Features Mike Brown's ragtime-ish piano that sometimes appears on ABOUT US. OK, not stunning.
* Winter Scenes -- Brown and Lloyd wrote all the songs. This is a lighter wintry mood-piece. More nice show-offy piano in the middle. So far this album seems much more modest and lower-key than ABOUT US.
* Step Back -- Little more of a rock punch here. Still nothing magic yet.
* You Told Me -- Basic breaking-up lovesong with added strings. Nice light touch here. Could grow on me.... That was a quick side.
* St. James -- Rockier. Some OK tho brief show-offy guitar from Steve Love in the middle. Ian sounds a bit off-key in places. Gains in catchiness as it goes.
* Kathleen -- This is lighter, moodier, more contemplative. They have a pretty good touch with the lighter stuff. Some nice harpsichord from Brown in the middle. Seems like ABOUT US played-up their strengths -- here they were still finding out what those strengths were....
* Take Cover -- This is heavier. Added guitar and keyboards and more vocal harmonies really make a difference. And then it's over, too soon.
* Nice to Have You Here -- OK, this is a little soupy. Too much mournful keyboard.
* High and Low -- Big finish? Not really. OK choruses, but not a total success. More grandiose piano. Brief attempt at a big coda.
Overall: Promising, but probably not worth the cash. Go get a copy of ABOUT US at Goodwill and pick out your favorite parts.

BONUS TRACKS:
* Turtles -- Earth Anthem, from BATTLE OF THE BANDS (1968). Wow, cosmic! Opens with gorgeous horns and strummed guitar, followed by nice breathy vocals. Builds with a choir and strings. They may not have been entirely serious, but it works. "This is not an island...." Still perfect for Earth Day. Ends a little anti-climactically....
* Dukes of Stratosphear -- You're My Drug, from PSONIC PSUNSPOT (1987). XTC in disguise. Not bad. Very 1968-ish psychedelic. An impressive reproduction, especially the phasey spaceship-"whooshing" sounds....
* Dukes of Stratosphear -- Shiny Cage. OK, the last one was good enough, we'll try this ... which isn't that different from other XTC I've heard....
* Byrds -- The World Turns All Around Her, from TURN! TURN! TURN! (1965). Oh yes. This is great. So nice you'll want to hear it twice. How about that Gene Clark?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Twofer

Today only -- two posts for the price of one....

THE DUMBEST SONGS THE RADIO STILL PLAYS
After a month of off-and-on listening (mostly off), here's more than a dozen of the dumbest songs I heard that Seattle-area radio still insists on playing. And Michael Jackson and the Eagles aren't mentioned once!
- Elton John and Kiki Dee -- Don't Go Breakin' My Heart. Yeccch. The worst thing Sir Elton's ever done. The moment when he officially started heading downhill. Kiki had a couple good songs -- this wasn't one of them.
- Pat Benatar -- Hit Me With Your Best Shot. Yeezus, haven't we gotten over this S&M fantasy yet?
- Madonna -- Like a Virgin, Material Girl. I'll bet Madonna barely remembers being a virgin. And "Material Girl" is unfortunately perfect for the money-grubbing society we live in today. Yes, I realize it's kind of a joke. It also kind of isn't. That's why it's ... uh ... post-modern. Whatever.
- Rick Springfield -- Jessie's Girl. God, 1980 is getting so tiresome.
- Toni Basil -- Mickey. Ugh. Weirdly, Weird Al Yankovic's "Ricky" is what I remember instead....
- Devo -- Whip It. Biggest penis metaphor to make the charts since Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." And so what?
- Hall and Oates -- Maneater. Yurg. These guys had talent, but not on this. This is a big S&M/domination fantasy, too.
- Soft Cell -- Tainted Love. 1982 has always confused me....
- Human League -- Don't You Want Me? Same thing here.... But they were way better when they were only "Human"....
- John Cougar Mellencamp -- Jack and Diane. Ugh. Who wants to be told it's all downhill after 16? A mean trick to play on teenagers.
- Wham! -- Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go. Still waiting for the George Michael nostalgia wave. You KNOW it's gonna happen....
- Kim Wilde -- You Keep Me Hangin' On. The Supremes and Vanilla Fudge got there first, so who needs this? Kim's "Kids in America" is an early-'80s classic, though. How come nobody ever plays THAT anymore....?
- Tiffany -- I Think We're Alone Now. Tommy James and the Shondells did some GREAT stuff. So there was no need for this. Or Billy Idol's "Mony Mony." Or Joan Jett's "Crimson in Clover." I can wait for a cover of "Mirage."
Sorry I couldn't find any more outrageous examples in a month of listening. I EXPECTED to. And Ghod knows I tried.... Seattle is still the worst-programmed radio-market I've ever lived in....

One thing leads to another....

THE RETURN OF CD'S AT WORK
I get sick of Seattle-area music-radio in less than 5 minutes. I got sick of listening to news-radio this week too, so a few days ago marked the reappearance of CD's at work for the first time in months. I use old-school soul and R&B as a soundtrack because it keeps me moving and keeps my energy up. Here's the playlist for the last few nights:
* Tower of Power -- Down to the Nightclub, You're Still a Young Man, What is Hip?, So Very Hard to Go.
* Al Green -- Tired of Being Alone, I Can't Get Next to You, Let's Stay Together, Love and Happiness, I'm Still in Love With You, You Oughta Be With Me, Call Me, Let's Get Married, Sha-La-La, Take Me to the River, Love Ritual, L-O-V-E, Full of Fire.
* Marvin Gaye -- What's Going On?, Inner City Blues, Trouble Man.
* Spinners -- I'll Be Around, I'm Coming Home.
* Dramatics -- Whatcha See is Whatcha Get.
* Timmy Thomas -- Why Can't We Live Together?
* Funkadelic -- Can You Get to That?
* Brothers Johnson -- Strawberry Letter 23.
* Sly and the Family Stone -- Thank You Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin, M'Lady, Sing a Simple Song.
* Bill Withers -- Lovely Day, Ain't No Sunshine, Grandma's Hands.
* Booker T and the MG's -- Time is Tight, Hang 'Em High.
* Gladys Knight and the Pips -- I Heard it Through the Grapevine, The End of Our Road, The Nitty Gritty.
* Earth, Wind and Fire -- Serpentine Fire, Fantasy, Getaway.
* Neville Brothers -- Hey Pocky Way, Bird on a Wire.
* Junior Walker and the All-Stars -- I'm a Road Runner, I Ain't Goin' Nowhere, Anyway You Wannta, Nothing But Soul, Shotgun, Shake and Fingerpop.
* Temptations -- Get Ready, Ain't Too Proud to Beg, I Know I'm Losing You, I Can't Get Next to You, Papa Was a Rolling Stone, My Girl (a capella).
...This will probably continue. It keeps my mood up, and customers seem to like it. One guy was thrilled to hear Tower of Power, even tho he mis-identified them as Chicago. Hey, they both had horns....
Only complaint: The Temptations' ULTIMATE COLLECTION has the studio version of "Get Ready," rather than the live hit version. The choruses still sound pretty great, tho....

PLANNED FOR TOMORROW starting around 10 a.m.:
"All the Way 2!" -- Renaissance's "transitional" 1970(?) album ILLUSION, and the first album (1972) by Stories, headed by Ian Lloyd and Michael Brown, who released the pop-rock semi-classic ABOUT US in 1973. Bonus Tracks may follow, time permitting....

Sunday, April 2, 2017

All the way

This is an experiment in which your clueless reviewer will attempt to play and review 2 or 3 entire albums ALL THE WAY THROUGH, which I'm told is a unique new way to listen to music -- a method I haven't thot of in years. Should also be a challenge in light of my short attention-span and tendency to stop listening to something as soon as I get bored.
First up:

Renaissance -- (first album) (1969).
But first, some background: This classical-folk-rock band was formed by former Yardbirds singer Keith Relf and drummer Jim McCarty. Their first album -- produced by another ex-Yardbird, Paul Samwell-Smith (who later produced Cat Stevens, America, Jethro Tull) -- wasn't a huge success, tho they issued a follow-up, ILLUSION, a year later. Then the band fell apart, and Relf was later electrocuted. By the time Renaissance's third album PROLOGUE came out in 1972, their line-up was completely different, tho McCarty kept writing songs for them, and these are included on PROLOGUE and 1973's ASHES ARE BURNING.
The original lineup (tho with McCarty now on acoustic guitar and vocals, John Knightsbridge on elec gtr, and Eddie McNeil on drums) reformed as Illusion for OUT OF THE MIST (1977), the best Renaissance-style studio-album that band never did. They followed-up in 1978 with ILLUSION, which was quieter, and the lyrics were forgettable.
Renaissance continued into the 1980's with a string of albums, the best and liveliest of which seems to be LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL (1976). Some of their studio work is rather stiff and self-conscious, tho "Rajah Khan" on PROLOGUE is great swirling psychedelic noise, and "Northern Lights" on A SONG FOR ALL SEASONS (1977) is a charming lovesong.
Whew. OK, onward....
* Kings and Queens -- Pretty gutsy, leading off your debut album with one of its longest songs. It needs to be a killer. Not sure this one is. It was included on that WONDEROUS STORIES 4-CD "history" of progressive-rock that I grabbed a few years back, in an edited version (I think), and I wasn't impressed then. And this runs almost 11 minutes....
Opens with some quick grand-piano moves and other attempts at drama, then moves into a more bass-heavy, driving approach. That's the first four minutes, and nothing's happened yet. Then Keith Relf starts singing, symbolic lyrics vaguely applicable to today's political situation. Some nice keyboards by John Hawken.
Then they slow it down a little. More drama, more show-offy piano. So far, Hawken's riffing piano is the best thing here, tho Relf's singing isn't bad. Nice riffing, and McCarty's a good, dramatic drummer. Getting better as it goes, gaining in drama just by the playing and singing, without the extra atmospheric messing around. But not a total success.
* Innocence -- The lyrics are kinda silly late-'60s hippy mush, and Relf isn't a strong-enough singer, but again Hawken's keyboards are strong. He's clearly the star here. This is quieter than the first track, tho not as memorable.
* Island -- At last, Jane Relf starts singing. She has a high, clear voice that's captured beautifully on OUT OF THE MIST. This song has some of that album's magic. Hawken breaks loose for a classically-inspired keyboard solo in the middle, which ain't really necessary. A little overdone, but OK. Edited, this could have been a hit. Nice, soft symphonic-rock. The best thing here.
* Wanderer -- More showing-off by Hawken. He's great, but was this group formed just to show him off? They get better every time Jane Relf sings, but this is actually over too fast.
* Bullet -- 11-1/2 minutes. More piano-based drama, followed by group chanting and silly lyrics. Keith picks up the harmonica, making this a classical-folk-blues jam. And he's OK on the harp. And there's still too much dramatic messing around. If these folks could have focused a bit, they might have been awesome. Long bass solo.... More atmospheric messing around at the end, no real ending.
Overall, eh. "Island"'s the best thing here, an edited version would be great.

Next:
Richard and Linda Thompson -- I WANT TO SEE THE BRIGHT LIGHTS TONIGHT (1974).
True Confessions: For the longest time I couldn't HEAR these folks. Bought their ISLAND YEARS best-of a few years back and couldn't get into a single song, not even the heavy-guitar outro on "Calvary Cross," not even the pretty-great "Dimming of the Day." Don't know what I was thinking. But they were SO DOWNBEAT! This surprised me, because I love Fairport Convention, where Richard's downbeat vocals and loud guitar were a key part. Even grabbed Richard and Linda's SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS a few years back and couldn't get into THAT, even with all the marriage-breaking-up drama included.
Then awhile back I heard Richard's LIVE (MORE OR LESS) while browsing at Tacoma's HI-VOLTAGE RECORDS and was knocked out. (Of course everything sounds better on THEIR sound system....) Course LIVE is rare and they didn't have a copy to sell me, but most of the songs I heard are on BRIGHT LIGHTS, so we'll see how it holds up....
* When I Get to the Border -- The usual great vocals and stinging guitar I expected, plus half of Fairport Convention is on this album! And Richard Harvey and Brian Gulland from Gryphon! Now that I have a decent turntable that plays albums at the right speed and a stereo with actual bass and decent speakers, it makes a big difference to the listening experience. Before, I thot this was kind of a lame song. Instead it's a decent bouncy-enough album-opener.
* Cavalry Cross -- The usual grim stuff, with nice stinging guitar. Too bad this is edited for vinyl, no big guitar-explosions finale.
* Withered and Died -- The title sounds just like Richard Thompson, only Linda sings it! And she sounds just like Sandy Denny! Pretty downbeat, tho not depressing.
* I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight -- This sure contrasts with "Withered and Died," and the horn-band adds charm. Richard's lyric is pretty twisted and funny, too. This is nice, tho it could maybe have been lighter and more fun....
* Down Where the Drunkards Roll -- More of Richard's low-life obsession, tho of course Linda sings it beautifully and the acoustic guitar's just fine. Ends too soon.
* We Sing Hallelujah -- Downbeat holiday song, with added recorders.
* Has He Got a Friend for Me? -- Lonely, downbeat dating song, with nice acoustic guitar and recorders. Linda sings it beautifully, tho she threatens to hang herself in the second verse....
* The Little Beggar Girl -- Cutesy, knowing, Cockney-sounding madrigal with great lyrics: "I love takin' money off a snob like you...."
* The End of the Rainbow -- Stark, depressing lullabye, beautifully sung by Richard.
* The Great Valerio -- Stark and dramatic, just Linda's vocal and Richard's acoustic. There is a stunning live version of this on Linda's best-of, DREAMS FLY AWAY.
Overall: Stark, dramatic, icily controlled. Impressive, but definitely not light listening.

Time to lighten up. Next up, Crack the Sky's LIVE SKY (1978).
Don't know much about these guys, except their live "Lighten Up McGraw" is a rockin' classic, and they do a loopy live "I Am the Walrus," too! Their only studio album I've heard bits of, SAFETY IN NUMBERS, seemed a little self-involved and seemed to strain for dramatic effects.
* Hold On -- Opens with flashy guitar, and a riff straight out of "Lighten Up McGraw." Clever lyrics.
* Maybe I Can Fool Everybody Tonight -- More flashy guitar, followed by dreamy verses. OK, not great. After a strong opening, the audience drifts off.... Then an upbeat ending, but it takes a long time to get there....
-- In the interest of time, I'm going to skip "Lighten Up McGraw," but trust me it's great. You should track it down. Great funny lyrics, nice choruses, great guitar, driving attack.
* She's a Dancer -- "McGraw" goes directly into this 9-minute track. The lyrics are ... slightly funny: "When I look into her eyes, I can see through his disguise, but am I surprised?" When there are no lyrics, these guys again seem to be relying heavily on their guitars to create the drama their songs seem to need. There's a long break with more show-offy guitar here. They are better at playing than at song-construction.
* Ice -- 11-minute guitar showcase. Nice, atmospheric, icy. These guys had some talent -- the key might have been channeling it into some more concise forms.
* Surf City -- No, not THAT "Surf City." Not when the second line is "Here come the sharks." Includes more flashy guitar and riffs from "God Save the Queen" and "The Lone Ranger Theme."
-- I'm gonna skip the encore, "I Am the Walrus," but it's a lot of loopy fun, and almost as weird as the original.
...OK, I'm done for today, folks. Thanx for sittin' in.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Anti-social media

I've mentioned before that our next-door neighbors are spies. But now its gotten worse.
Over the last couple weeks, they have allegedly started a "real-estate agency" in the duplex-apartment next door. In their garage/office, to be specific.
This wouldn't be so bad, but now we have five cars parked next door, crammed into a space for two cars in the U-shaped driveway. Which we also have to use.
So now we have to compete with being blocked in our own driveway while the young entrepreneurs next door meet and plot their future world real-estate domination.
This was so much easier to deal with when they were just spies.
The Girlfriend first thought these folks might be a challenge when out of nowhere they presented us with a fruit basket for Christmas.
We didn't know them that well. Said "Hi" to them a couple times -- that was about it. And suddenly they said they wanted to thank us for being "such nice neighbors."
Mm-hmmm.
We promptly re-gifted the fruit basket ... because that's what you do with gifts you don't really like, need, want, or plan to use. Right?
Besides, we'd already figured it was probably bugged.
I suggested we give them a couple gift-coffee-cups we had gathering dust here, but The Girlfriend suggested our still-new neighbors weren't "that kind of people."
Just because the cups had The Undertaker from WWE fame on them, I couldn't see why they were inappropriate. What kind of people WERE our neighbors, I wondered?
The woman claimed to be a real-estate agent, though she dressed rather severely -- more like a dominatrix. The guy claimed to be "in security." They were friendly enough for busy, ambitious folks in their mid-to-late 30s. And they did have real-estate signs in the back of their mini-van.
But. They kept very strange hours, always leaving in the middle of the night and showing back up two days later. And they were awfully quiet.
The Girlfriend was the first to suggest they were spies. They were so low-key. Evasive, almost.
When they suddenly started packing up the van and disappearing for a day and a half -- repeatedly, but never at any set time -- I started suggesting they had urgent meetings with Fearless Leader.
We started wondering if they had giant, sensitive electronic ears placed against the adjoining wall of the apartments, listening to my Strange Music-playing sessions on Sunday mornings, or overhearing our tasteless jokes about What Kind of Woman Would Actually Go to Bed With Donald Trump?
I wondered how long it would be before the black helicopters started circling the house....
But now is actually worse. And weirder. After one recent traffic jam in the driveway, The Girlfriend suggested gently to the spies (or whatever) that they might actually be able to fit their five vehicles into the available room if they all pulled straight in rather than just parking every-which-way.
They ignored her.
One of the spies (or whatever) showed during a recent downpour that she can't even back out of the driveway (which is on a hill) without spinning her tires, losing traction, and almost wrecking her van. They continue to park whichever way is quickest and best keeps them out of the rain.
It could be worse. At least they aren't drug dealers. There isn't an endless parade of vehicles swinging through at every hour of the day and night.
And they aren't religious fanatics. They aren't beating a drum and singing "Kum-Bye-Ya" over there.
And if it's a sex ring ... well, they're awfully quiet.
Have I noted that -- except for one -- all their cars are the same ominous dark-gray color?
I figure they're undercover Trump campaign workers, gathering information, trying to keep in touch with the street, seeing what The Common Man really thinks about the new regime.
Good luck with that. I don't think they'll get much feedback. Not with those thick Russian accents....