Archive for February 2008
“PRESS RELEASE: MYSPACE GOES TO KUWAIT”
The lede was out there, too: “Today, MySpace officially announced Operation MySpace, a concert for troops stationed in Kuwait. Performances will include the Pussycat Dolls, Jessica Simpson, Disturbed, Filter, DJ Z-Trip and the comedic genius of Carlos Mencia.”
Wait: the Pussycat Dolls and Filter aren’t geniuses?
“does anyone have a machine for blowing up helium balloons?”
William F. Buckley, the conservative commentator, died today. I have no use for his ideas or his writings, but his death reminded me of some immature behavior I engaged in about 20 years ago.
At PC Week in 1987, we used an internal email system notable for its slowness and unreliability. To connect with the outside world, we had to use MCI Mail. We discovered that a celebrity, William F. Buckley, had an account on MCI Mail, so with our collective minimal maturity we decided to copy him on all our correspondence. For example:
Cc: William F. Buckley
Yes, noon is fine.
We did this several times a day for a few months until the boss yelled at me about it. I had another boss there who used to play Tetris with me every day in his office and erased the high scores after I starting earning them. But that’s another post, for another day.
* The hat Grace wore on Sunday
* This morning I got to talk about a topic I care about for an audience open to it — and I didn’t stink up the room.
* Junior Senior’s Hey Hey My My Yo Yo, which time may show to be as wonderful as Chic’s Greatest Hits
* Getting some good writing done before coffee and knowing how I learned that trick
* The names of the awful $5 snack boxes on the plane (smartpack, minimeal, quickpick, rightbite)
* I discovered a trove of new writing by Bill James. Hooray for the Internet!
* The solos during the Hammersmith Odeon ’75 version of “Kitty’s Back”
* Knowing that, somewhere, Alice Munro is writing
* Courtney Love, the choruses of “Doll Parts,” “Violet,” and “Malibu.” Forget the tabloid stuff: Kurt wasn’t the only genius in that marriage
* Next Thursday night
So I expect blogging will be lighter than usual this week and next while I’m on the road. You’re welcome.
If, dear readers, you’re going to be at either of these events, please let me know.
Carl Perkins’s gracious, quavering tenor carried some magnificent country ballads; among the most noteworthy are “Turn Around,” his first professional recording, and “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing,” the most understated expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis in post-Hank Williams country music. But Perkins’s meat is his rockabilly, “Blue Suede Shoes” and all that, in which he repeatedly drives full speed to the edge of his world, leans over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knows he must, pulls back and carefully heads home.
“Rockabilly sure takes me over the edge,” top Stray Cat Brian Setzer countered when I threw that idea at him a few decades ago. “It’s the most menacing music. Heavy metal is kid’s stuff compared to it.” Yes, but Setzer and the many legions who adopted pompadours in the late seventies discovered the music and the accoutrements, not the culture. It’s no accident that most of the rockabilly revivalists came from northern urban areas. To them, rockabilly was Gene Vincent’s leer and Eddie Cochran’s shake without regard for the honky-tonk imperatives behind them. Setzer’s Stray Cats, eventually reduced to beer commercials, could afford to shoot over the edge; Perkins and his contemporaries, who didn’t have the luxury of growing up in a society that had already been liberated by rock’n'roll, had no such romantic alternative.
Yet on “Dixie Fried,” his greatest uptempo composition, Perkins comes as close as any rockabilly performer to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashes like the barroom-fight switchblades his tale chronicles; his voice dances with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist. “Let’s all get Dixie fried!” he screams, shattering any pretensions to caution, or civilized behavior. The violence escalates and the song smashes to its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have the gleam of the honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye is fixed on home, where he prays his honky-tonk gal has returned.
Over the weekend, Nat posted “Artistic License 2.0 and … REM?!” which noted that the veteran rock’n'roll band was releasing its new video under an open license (if not in an open format). It’s good to see an old band learn a new trick, and it suggests what those in the music industry might do if they want to have a future in it.
In “A rare post about the music industry that isn’t completely depressing,” I looked at Jill Sobule’s attempt to fund her next record via online contributions. It’s a savvy attempt that seems to be succeeding: she’s more than two-thirds on her way to meeting her not-so-modest recording budget. A performer like Sobule (and, as we’ll see shortly, R.E.M.) comes to alternate ways of funding or promoting new music with baggage — unlike younger performers, like Yael Naim, who can get lucky thanks to novelty (see “Steve Jobs rules the recording industry. Now what?”) These performers are experimenting with new ways to get heard because the old ways weren’t working. Prince, to cite one high-profile example, wouldn’t have started distributing his records via concert add-ons or newspaper inserts if the old distribution methods were still working for him.
R.E.M. can still be a thrilling band live, but its commercial heyday was long ago — back when the U.S. president was Ronald Reagan, in fact — and even diehard fans acknowledge that the trio’s recorded work has limped since the band’s original drummer, Bill Berry, left 11 years ago. The band’s decision to distribute the “Supernatural Superserious” video is, at its heart, an attempt to create buzz for the record. That’s something the band has been trying for months, in particular its attempt to hype the relatively rocking nature of the new record, after a number of ballad-heavy snoozefests.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Commercial desperation can lead to innovation, both in terms of the art itself and the art with which you sell it. Everyone is eulogizing the death of the traditional rock’n'roll business, but the successful old rockers are still successful. Bruce Springsteen is selling out arenas and will move up to stadiums in the summer. Tom Petty’s Super Bowl halftime gig — timed right before his summer tour tickets went on sale — rejuvenated his record sales. And the hoary hard-rock band Aerosmith has turned to a new installment in a successful videogame franchise to keep up its profile. Even when radio and even video outlets have turned cool to these performers, there’s still an audience waiting to hear, see, or play with them. The lack of traditional intermediaries does not mean there’s a lack of audience.
Having emerged from the early-’80s Amerindie movement, an assemblage of rock’n'roll bands with a combination of optimism and hardheadedness that mirrored the very best of the open source movement, R.E.M. knows it can’t compete with what’s at the top of the charts. It’s unlikely that fans of the current flavors — Miley Cyrus, Flo Rida, or T-Pain — will be moved by R.E.M.’s music. But the band isn’t ready to rent its songs to Madison Avenue or diverge from the aesthetic that made them stars. If you can’t play on an even field, change the field. Just as open source projects reached critical mass by serving areas the proprietary vendors were ignoring or giving short shrift, the Amerindie bands — in love with punk’s sense of possibility — provided an alternative to the mainstream. Now, the thinking goes, we can’t get people to find out about our new record the usual ways, we have to find new ways. The future, as always, belongs to the clever.
I had to miss this, because I was at an O’Reilly event the same day, but I love the name of this conference and I hope to go next year.
Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure of hearing Lydia sing with a chorus and small orchestra at Sanders Theater. During the intermission, the harpist wrapped up her instrument and wheeled it away. Since Monday is supposed to be cooking day at Jimmy Guterman’s Jewels & Binoculars, I should note that her wrapped harp looked to me like a giant oven mitt.
I know it’s procrastination (like blogging isn’t?), but sometimes when I should be working on the novel, I read about working on novels. Raymond Carver once said “You have to decide whether you’re a reader or a writer.” I guess I’m still working on that.
Last night, when I should have been writing, I started James Wood’s How Fiction Works. I’m still early on, but since two of the first characters he quotes are Maisie Farange (from Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) and Mr. Mallard (from Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings), two characters I have come to love over the years, I suspect this will be a good read/distraction/whatever.
Swirling through my head today is the Henry James epigram with which Wood kicks off the book: “There is only one recipe — to care a great deal for the cookery.”
What a lovely observation. Without respect for our tools, the products of our tools won’t be worthwhile.
This dovetails nicely with a welcome non-fire-extinguisher-requiring cooking experience I had yesterday. I made Jane the North African cauliflower soup from one of the Moosewood cookbooks, a recipe with which I’ve had success in the past. I wanted to be careful to respect the instructions and I followed them much more closely than usual.
So I was disappointed when the soup turned out noticeably thinner than usual. I was nervous — did I put in two few potatoes? too much bouillon? — but Jane complemented me on it.
Jimmy: But it’s not thick enough.
Jane: Yes it is. You usually make it too thick.
Respect your tools. Sometimes it’s the Moosewood collective offering them up, sometimes it’s Henry James. And sometimes the person opposite from you at the kitchen table will be kind enough to let you know if, at last, you finally paid attention.
And they said we took liberties on The Sandinista Project.
Thanks to R.C. for the pointer. Sorry for taking so long to acknowledge it.
I’ve been blogging (or, as it was once called, “maintaining a personal web page”) on and off since 1994, but no one ever tagged me with the “eight things” blog meme until now. Jane has tagged me with it, so, dear readers, I present you with a post slightly more self-referential than usual.
1. I can tell when people who say they’ve read Proust are faking it.
2. My favorite mode of transportation ever was my orange Raleigh Chopper. As Wikipedia reports, “At higher, but still moderate, speeds, it suffered from speed wobbles, which could lead to wild uncontrollable oscillations (almost invariably ending up with a spill).”
3. When I was 14, I was in a terrible ninth-grade band. It lasted only from September to December but had three names in that span: Plastic Electricity, Electric Shock, and — despite our being a quartet — The Seven Riders of Pegasus. (I was 14. Shut up.) One afternoon after we broke up (after a terrifying one-and-a-half-song performance in front of a Catholic elementary school), I decided it was time to figure out if the problem in the band was me. I set up a portable cassette recorder in my bedroom, put Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” on the turntable, held the microphone, and sang along. I recorded over the cassette roughly 10 minutes after, but it was that day it became clear to me that I could do much less damage to society writing about music than performing it. You’re welcome.
4. I have never seen an episode of Who’s the Boss? But, thanks to my children, I have witnessed nearly every episode of Boy Meets World.
5. As a kid in Bayonne, we briefly lived in a single-family home. It was right on the bend of the Boulevard. At least four times that I remember, a car missed the turn and hit our house.
6. I have never played a videogame as immersive as Zork. You haven’t lived until you’ve been eaten by a grue.
7. I grew up on a dirty peninsula, which may explain why, for so many years, I fantasized about living within site of clean water.
8. I miss XyWrite. After I switched from XyWrite to Word, it took me 13 years to complete another publishable book.
Last night’s Grammy Awards ceremonies were even less relevant than usual, no small achievement. The TV broadcast began with a “performance” by that cutting-edge new artist Frank Sinatra and fell down from there. The only real emotional charge of an evening celebrating the most emotional of media came when we viewers were confronted with the disparity between the preternatural confidence of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and the shaky, shell-shocked manner in which Winehouse accepted her award for it. Alpha geeks had a moment to celebrate, too, when one of the winners behind Historical Album of the Year (Woody Guthrie’s Live Wire) turned out to be a mathematician.
But, those and few other brief moments notwithstanding, the action in the music industry is elsewhere.
One of those places is Apple’s iTunes online music store. For several days last week, the top-selling track on the store was Yael Naim’s “New Soul,” a song available, at least to U.S. audiences, exclusively via iTunes. The exclusivity isn’t a big deal — the store is powerful enough to offer plenty of high-profile exclusives — but the reason “New Soul” became a hit is a big deal. “New Soul” was a hit solely because it appeared in Apple’s commercial for the MacBook Air. Until the 1980s, record companies looked to radio to break new artists. Until five years ago, the place to launch new performers was music video. For most of this decade, the breakdown of traditional music channels has led to new songs being noticed via video games, television shows, and — most of all — commercials. Whoever is programming the music for Apple’s television commercials may be, right now, the most powerful talent scout in the record industry.
How did Apple gain all this power? The record companies, desperate, vain, and stupid, handed it over. As Michael Hirschorn wrote in the March Atlantic (I’d link to his terrific essay, but the venerable Atlantic tends to get around to uploading new articles to its website weeks after they appear in print), “Steve Jobs shanghaied and basically destroyed the CD business. The major record labels, in giving Apple’s iTunes the right to sell individual songs for 99 cents each, undermind their own business model — selling bundles of songs gathered together into something called an album for up to $20 a pop — because they didn’t see that people were about to consumer music in an entirely new way. The labels saw iTunes as free money; ‘ancillary,’ in the legal vernacular. Jobs took their cheap music and used it as a loss leader to sell his expensive iPods, and the traditional music business now lies in tatters.” The punch line, of course, is that the record industry is trying to shut out Apple by selling music online elsewhere such as Amazon — for a mere 89 cents per cut.
I’ve written before here about clever ways to sell music nowadays. Like the performers I celebrated in that post, record companies have to adopt new ways of packaging and selling if they want to stay in business. Just as twin geniuses Sam Phillips and Ahmet Ertegun reinvented the record industry in the 1950s, we need a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs who accept that recorded music consumed in $20 increments — except for that created by a small subset of veteran performers with large and reliable fan bases — is a dead notion for now. Music is everywhere, just as software is everywhere. We’ve seen an explosion of new models in recent years for selling software — web-based, software as a service, various levels of open source, and so on — some of which have been quite successful. Software may be useful, but for the most part it doesn’t satisfy the emotional need that music does. It should be easy to sell music, certainly easier than it is to sell software. The music industry has much to learn from the computer software industry about reinvention and staying in touch with the customer. (In future posts, I’ll probe what the music biz can learn from the software biz.) If what remains of the music industry doesn’t look to successful technology industries for ideas, it’ll be as lifeless as the Frank Sinatra half of last night’s Grammy “duet.”
This post was written for O’Reilly Radar
Last night was taco night. As of this week, 80 percent of my family eats poultry. And I forgot to cook the chicken. Which reminds me…
In college, I briefly held a job as a scooper at the local iced cream parlor. I endured four weeks of $2.15-per-hour training (because I was a trainee, they didn’t have to pay me minimum wage). All I remember from the condescending training (except for my pay rate — interesting what stays with you) was that the local chain’s trainer repeatedly screamed at us to “never touch your damn faces in front of a customer!” He gave us so many ways to avoid touching your face (one was, “think about the Eagles winning the Super Bowl”) that touching our faces was all we could think of, at work and elsewhere.
On a Saturday night in October, I went live. I closed the shop that night, so I didn’t have to start working until 6pm, when traffic was light. By 8pm, I was so flustered that I gave someone a banana split with one ingredient missing: the banana. Two weeks later, I had another job, one not involving food preparation.
I recently thought of the look on the customer’s face as I handed him a banana-free banana split, and I thought of how cooking is about preparation: not just preparation in the kitchen, but beforehand. If you don’t have the right ingredients on hand, you can’t do anything. No chicken, no complete meal.
I was not born to go to the supermarket. That’s why I’m grateful for grocerylists.org, a service (well it’s not quite a service, it’s a PDF download of the “ultimatest grocery list” that organizes food products into categories and reminds me what I’m supposed to buy. (It also provided the raw material for a Found-ish book of grocery lists.)
So I have help deciding what to buy.
Thanks to Bittman and Kokernak, I have help deciding what to do in the kitchen with what I buy.
So why do I still forget the chicken? And, more important, why am I still a chicken in the kitchen?
We knew he doesn’t believe in evolution. Turns out he doesn’t believe in mathematics either.
I’ve written about that before here. Now I learn of a web-based service that helps with that: stickK.com – Put a contract out on yourself!
Deciding where to start…
A bit more on the same topic:
When you’re deep into a project, so deep that objectivity was gone long ago (i.e., when you’re writing a novel), you have to find a way to look at it with a fresh and new mind (a “beginner’s mind,” as the Zen masters — and today’s productivity bloggers — put it). It’s hard to do that as a critic — the whole point of being a critic is making judgments informed by experience — and the jump from critic to novelist is high indeed, at least for this one. Critics can refer to anything; the best novelists create their own world and ignore anything that doesn’t fit into it. It’s rare that someone (I’m thinking John Updike) can do both with equal authority and style.
Since I first read it in The New Yorker more than a decade ago, I’ve never gone more than a few months without rereading Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” later collected in his The Night in Question. I read it again in January, and — while ruminating on the difference between interpretive writer and creative one — this line, regarding the critic about to meet his untimely end, jumped out at me: “He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.” That’s the blessing and curse of the critic: he can call on all he knows, but he’s limited by his knowledge. That knowledge is crucial to his calling, but it prevents him from creating with a “beginner’s mind.” I don’t want to sound like a parody of a Jedi master here, but I’m trying to call on everything I know — and then set it aside so I can do my job as a would-be novelist.
(See this post on Leaf-Stitch-Word for a more interesting take on the benefits of being a novice.)
I want to know everything.
If I want to be a competent novelist, I have to stop.
Here’s why. Sherlock Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet, let Dr. Watson know why he doesn’t care that he doesn’t know that the Earth revolves around the Sun: “What the deuce is it to me? You say that we go round the Sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work.”
I want to be up-to-date on all political, geopolitical, business, and technology news. But none of that will help me write a better novel. None of it. If I want to be truly creative, I have to put on blinders.
Back to it…
People sometimes ask me for rules about writing and I claim I have none. Well, I don’t. But someone in my house does.
Last year, when Lydia was in fifth grade, she came home with an index card she had filled out at school.
In 20 syllables, only three more than a haiku, she elegantly and authoritatively states what is to be done.
UPDATE: As Lydia notes in the comments below, the index card was a fourth grade project, not a fifth grade one. Senior moment?
Sometimes you learn more from songs you’ve heard 10,000 times already after you haven’t heard them in years. That old warhorse “Baba O’Riley,” for example, is pretty terrific after you’ve kept away from it for a good long time.
And that’s the way I felt when R.E.M.’s radio breakthrough, “The One I Love,” came over the radio the other day. There’s so much there: the nasty repetition of the lyrics, the combination of yearning and disgust, deep desire and no affect, in Michael Stipe’s voice, the bruising jangle of Peter Buck’s guitar, the otherworldly counterpoints of Mike Mills’s bass and harmonies, and the emphatic closure of Bill Berry’s drums. This is thrilling, impolite, dangerous stuff.
The Industry Standard ably chronicled — and, eventually, mirrored — the tech boom that began a decade ago and died a few years later. (Disclosure: Despite its occasional excesses, I am honored to have been associated with the magazine.) After years of noticing that thestandard.com was still receiving ample traffic and — with one brief exception a few years back — not doing much about it (I wonder if pointcast.com still gets lots of visitors), IDG, which was the Standard‘s lead investor and picked up the carcass in bankruptcy court, has relaunched the site this week.
The new site is, to these eyes, an unintentional parody of Web 2.0 features. Rather than mere advertising, it has a more high-end sponsorship model (i.e., one pay-for-it-all advertiser), it seeks to create a community (you have to sign in to enjoy the more interesting features), and it combines aggregation and a sliver of original material with a “wisdom of crowds” prediction market. To give you a sense of how well the prediction market is going so far, as I write this every prediction on the site was submitted by thestandard.com’s no-doubt bare-bone staff (that’s how Web 2.0 works, too). And, of course, to keep costs really low, this time the brand is online-only.
I’m not sure what’s being accomplished here, aside from the modest monetization of a dormant but still semipopular URL. It’s an attempt to revive a once-very-popular name, synonymous with original content, with as little original content as IDG can get away with. Maybe that will change.
Recently someone I hadn’t been in touch with for more than 20 years found me on Facebook and suggested we “reconnect.” But if we really wanted to “reconnect,” whatever that means, we might have done so at least once during the previous two decades. That’s how I feel about The Standard coming back: it’s too late, it’s pointless, its time has passed. The new site should rise or fall on the basis of its own achievement, not on those of an entirely different team a boom and a bust ago.
(later posted to Radar)
“I’d like a hamburger and an Alka Seltzer.” — Warren Oates, in Two Lane Blacktop (1971)