Archive for September 2008
Work is heating up (hence my presence in front of a computer on a Sunday afternoon) and one of the things that’s gotta give over the next month, until we get the new MIT Sloan Management Review website up and stable, is blogging. But don’t fear: I’m still going to deliver useless information to you. It’s just that for the next month I’ll be doing it in 140-character increments, i.e. via Twitter. In recent weeks I’ve found it to be a good vehicle for making one point quickly and then moving on. This is not one of those occasional hiatuses (hiati?) I pull here every few months. You’re welcome to follow me on Twitter. And I will be back here on a regular basis once work permits. And, face it, 140 characters at a time of me might be all you need most days.
(For those of you who follow my updates on Facebook, I use Ping.fm to update Facebook and Twitter simultaneously and identically. You don’t have to subscribe to both.)
In May 2003, I wrote an essay about a posthumously released John Fahey CD, Red Cross. I just came across a copy of that review. I’d forgotten I wrote it. In part because my blog entries from 2003 are long trashed, I have no idea whether I published this anywhere. But I know it’s online now.
The myth of John Fahey is a heady thing. The late guitarist, writer, painter, entrepreneur, heckler, rescue mission resident, and ornery comeback king, full of contradictions in every role, could easily be used as a vehicle to tell many good stories: The rise and fall of American independent labels (he founded Takoma and Revenant), the era of rediscovering blues giants (he found long-lost Skip James and Bukka White, among others), and the advent of New Age music, which happened on his watch at Takoma, to name but three. As for that last one, don’t judge Fahey too harshly; it would be like blaming the Beatles for the Knack.
Fahey’s life has a strong narrative arc. It begins with a Maryland kid buying old records and rebuilding the careers of some of the performers on them; it ends with Fahey’s own rediscovery after some down-and-out years in Portland and him casing used record stores full of his 40-plus LPs. And there’s something fascinating about someone so deeply, unstoppably verbal (read his collection of essays How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life) who doesn’t sing.
The myth isn’t nearly as complex or rewarding as Fahey’s music. His greatest critical success came from the first six records he released in the 1960s, most of them with the word “Death” in their titles, as he fused blues, ragtime, and bluegrass solo-guitar styles with methods of song structure that had more in common with classical composers than his fellow folkies. Those records seem austere and peaceful during an initial distracted listening, then you get pulled in, listen more and more, and realize how eccentric and ravaged they are. Sometimes listeners didn’t get past the surface: Fahey’s greatest commercial success was a solo-guitar Christmas record in which he pushed Yule standards through a peculiar Delta blues funnel.
Fahey’s music keeps showing up in record stores, again and again. Fahey is not as productive in the afterlife as Tupac Shakur or John Coltrane, at least not yet. Diehards welcomed last month’s reissue of Old Fashioned Love, an uncharacteristic 1975 set in which Fahey’s solo performances jostle alongside some wacky, full-band Dixieland exercises and three strong duets with fellow guitarist Woody Mann. Also out within the past year from Fantasy, which now owns the Takoma catalog, is an expanded version of The Best of John Fahey that covers the early Takoma recordings sensibly.
The most enticing piece of recent Faheyiana is a “new” record, Red Cross (Revenant), much of it recorded in the months before Fahey’s death in February 2001. The posthumous set pulls together most of the strands of Fahey’s restless career, makes some clever connections, and offers a pair of revelations.
A chunk of Fahey’s later work, some of it recorded with Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke, sought to replace his unerring sense of melody and calm with an almost-as-unerring sense of noise and terror, and the near-title cut “Red Cross, Disciple of Christ Today” builds a rickety but passable bridge between his more accessible and more experimental recent work. The guitar figures rise and fall in waves of echo and decay, creating an eerie, moaning late-night feel that’s equal parts Highway 61 and Twin Peaks. Similarly, “Untitled With Rain” is a spooky evocation hovering over organ, chimes, and sundry effects. On the more traditional side, a mow through “Summertime” starts straightahead and then we get to ride shotgun with Fahey as he shows how much he can mess around with well-worn melody and meter but still deliver the Gershwins’ composition in recognizable form.
Midway through Red Cross, Fahey fans are back in familiar territory. Extremely familiar, it turns out. The sly, percussive “Annanaias” is extremely reminiscent of Fahey’s classic “American primitive” style, and it’s a hissier recording (on headphones, anyway) than the songs that precede it on the CD. Those two clues led a Fahey discussion group on the Net to conclude, correctly, that despite the CD credits, “Annanaias” and another piece, “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues,” were in fact put on tape in 1977 around the height of Fahey’s performing career (if a bit past his compositional apex). In particular, the compact “Charley Bradley’s Ten-Sixty-Six Blues” is outstanding. You can hear Fahey use a lighter touch than later work, playing sprightly and deftly – and then he surprises you with an unexpected section, at first apparently unrelated to the previous sections of the song, that he reconnects to the main theme. That’s the key to Fahey’s greatest work – surprise – and that’s why the two quarter-century-old cuts rise so high and cast a shadow over the rest of Red Cross. Most of the collection is very good, but back in 1977 Fahey was far beyond very good.
In work and life, we put off things we have to do forever and ever until they are causing us so much stress that we have to DO THEM RIGHT NOW. After we do, we’re surprised how little time, effort, and imagination we needed to draw on to get everything done. I’m having this experience right now. As I wrote in Remember the Milk fails to serve its Outlook users — or does it understand its audience perfectly? and the followup post Remember the Milk forgets me … but is it my fault?, I wrote about how hard it was getting the online task service Remember the Milk to work with Microsoft Outlook and I realized — after promptings from two of my smarter Friends on the Internets — that the problem was my reliance on Outlook. At MIT, I was finally working in a technology-agnostic environment. I wrote, “I’m going to move my work life to the cloud slowly and carefully.” I’d been working in Outlook for many years, ever since a client forced me to leave my beloved Eudora. The plan was to move slowly and calmly, so I didn’t lose any data or screw up my workflow more than it’s usually screwed up.
It took about a day.
I am a bit embarrassed about how easy it was. I won’t bore you with the particulars (fortunately for you, this is not one of those blogs that talks about the intricacies and idiosyncracies of secure POP-to-IMAP transfers), but I can tell you that (a) I’m not the world’s most tech-savvy blogger and (b) after about an hour I didn’t miss Outlook. Sure, there are compromises in getting the new system to work my way, but there were compromises in getting the old one to work my way, too. (One compromise I didn’t have to make: the most essential of my Outlook add-ons, Anagram, is available in a more lightweight version for Gmail and Google Calendar.)
Until the past few weeks, I understood on an abstract level that the computing world was moving inexorably from desktop-based applications to cloud-based ones. When I was editing Release 2.0 I reported from the front lines of the transition. But I didn’t truly grok it until I uninstalled Microsoft Office and looked for myself. Web apps have nearly all the functionality of desktop apps, they’re infinitely lighter and more portable, and they’re a whole lot cheaper. It’s pretty clear up here in the cloud. And, as Brian pointed out, I never have to wait for Outlook to open ever again. Microsoft is going to have to do a lot more than get funnier jokes out of Jerry Seinfeld to beat this.