Archive for December 2009
He sure wasn’t playing arenas now.
Have a great break, all. I’ll be back here after Jan. 4. If I have enough stamina, willpower, and luck, it’ll be the last year I have to inflict these novel-in-progress sentences on you.
The more you find out about someone, the more interesting that person turns out to be. Jim Duffy is a perfect example of that axiom. I met him when he was an ace copyeditor for The Industry Standard and begged him to join us on our quixotic post-Standard attempt at independent publishing.
But that’s only part of what he can do. He’s a smart, swinging, surprising pianist, bandleader, and songwriter. He’s recorded two records, the fine Side One and the new, even better Mood Lit. He was kind enough to contribute a smashing version of Mose Allison’s “Look Here” to The Sandinista Project, a great performance also included on Mood Lit if you’re one of the billions on the planet who has yet to buy or steal The Sandinista Project.
As you’d suspect from such a tasteful player and writer, he has great taste in other people’s music too. He was the first person to direct me to Dengue Fever, a band who longtime readers know I rave about, and he has another recommendation, The Black Hollies. Let’s let Jim make the case:
The Black Hollies, from Jersey City, may have a misleading name. They don’t sound like the Hollies, but they do sound like the Yardbirds, or the early Kinks, or the pre-Tommy Who. They stepped out of a time machine, from the era when bands had long hair but still wore suits — 1965 or ’66, but not ’67. They’re young-ish guys, too, playing vintage gear. My girlfriend Amy and I first saw them as an opening act, and they were way better than the headliner.
We’ve gone back to see them a couple of times, and they put on a tight, well-put-together show, one song right into another, and they have a lot of good tunes. In fact, on their first album, Casting Shadows, I like every single track.
So, first of all, check out the Black Hollies. Second, even in this era when so much music is available for free, if I like a band, I want to buy something, and I don’t think I’m alone.
A couple of weeks ago, we saw them play an early set, and the cover charge was very low. And they wailed. They played a set that gets you rocking and puts a smile on your face. When the set was over, I wanted to buy something. So I’m at the merch table, talking to the guitar player (I don’t know these guys at all), and he, very wisely, starts talking and talking about the band’s wares, how they make their records and so on. So I buy the band’s new album, Softly Towards the Light, on vinyl, for $10. And it’s a fine record.
What’s the point? In this day and age when music is given away for free, and when there’s so much of it that you can’t possibly get to it all, then when you find something you like, you don’t mind paying. Or at least I don’t. I’d rather pay for something, to feel like I’m supporting it or participating in making it happen, in some small way.
Not a very original observation, but a data point, at least.
Keep ‘em comin’, Jim.
A few weeks ago, I used this space to argue against the posthumous publication of pieces of the novel Vladimir Nabokov was working on before his death. Just today I was reading Nabokov’s introduction to his poetry-free translation of Eugene Onegin, in which the great man himself weighs in:
“An artist should ruthlessly destroy his manuscripts after publication, lest they mislead academic mediocrities into thinking that it is possible to unravel the mysteries of genius by studying cancelled readings. In art, purpose and plan are nothing; only the results count.”
The Internet is awesome. For example, the Internet is how Jim Allen found me. Jim is a terrific songwriter and singer (one example, another one) in NYC whose honky tonk version of “Lose This Skin” was one of the first covers I received for The Sandinista Project. It came at a time when I doubted whether the record would ever happen. His faith in the project helped me rekindle mine in it and I’m still grateful.
Jim also, I’m embarrassed to say for him, has been known to follow my Twitter blatherings. My tweets, like most everyone else’s, try to capture a moment, either in a physically or emotionally descriptive way. Several months ago, my status was merely “waiting for Lydia.” It was mundane, I tapped it on a device while I was sitting in the car waiting for child #2 to emerge from a choir rehearsal, and I promptly forgot the three words. Jim, however, is one of those writers who can turn nothing into something, and shortly after that night he wrote me to let me know he had composed a song called “Waiting for Lydia,” title inspired by the tweet. I can’t post the song yet (it’s not done, Jim says, although I’m not sure I agree), but I really enjoy it. Someday you will too.
I bring this up not merely to thank Jim, although I’m happy to do that here. I’ve got two other points: (1) Always pay attention. You might be able to develop good art out of the most mundane material, and (2) Something good can come out of the Internets, people!
Two nights before Christmas, I went to see Eli perform for his peers in a theater called The Black Box. (Yes, I had to ask one of his cronies, “Where is the Black Box?” I sounded like a David Lynch character.) Eli was wonderful, of course; he and a few dozen of his buddies played a pair of Arcade Fire covers that were as big and loud and over the top as you’d want from a big band of high school friends playing Arcade Fire covers. I went to The Black Box to hear Eli and I enjoyed his performance a great deal.
But it’s not his performance that’s still front of mind the better part of a week later. That dubious distinction belongs to the last band that played to those of us in the audience who lasted the full three-and-a-half hours. They were a trio who smashed big holes through a pair of Talking Heads songs, “Psycho Killer” …
… and “And She Was.”
In the spirit of being honest that I hear is important on the bloggernet, I must acknowledge: the band didn’t learn half the words or half the chords of those two songs, and they didn’t take the time to recruit a bass player. They were sloppy. They were, on the whole, not very good.
Yet I must also proclaim: I loved them.
I loved them for the attitude and excitement and affection for music that they brought with them to the performance in lieu of talent and rehearsal. They were smiling, laughing, playing hard (poorly but hard), unsure how to play the songs but absolutely certain that they were going to have a great time bashing these sturdy songs within millimeters of their lives. I’ve seen great bands seem to enjoy themselves onstage, I’ve seen great bands seem like they’d rather be getting prostate exams than performing, and I’ve seen thousands of bands in what I imagined was every possible permutation of engagement. But the other night was the first night since the early heydays of punk and rap that I saw a bunch of amateurs as free and in love with not only what they were doing, but the possibility of what they were doing. It was going to be over in a few minutes, they knew that. No one was ever going to ask them to do this again, they might have suspected. But while they were out there they were going to be as alive as any band could be, standing on chairs, falling to their knees, not caring whether the other members hit their cues. They were there to be loud. They were there to connect. And they were there to play music by Talking Heads, a band that broke up before these kids were born.
Talking Heads have been on my mind and my headphones lately. They’re my favorite person‘s favorite band, and early this year we were lucky enough to see David Byrne perform some wonderful new songs, like this one …
… some classics, like this one …
… and reanimate some more obscure songs I didn’t think enough of the first time around, like this one.
And now, to bring a few strands of my life closer together, here’s an amateur video of the lead singer of my wife’s favorite band playing with a band my son adores, singing a song that has made me fill up more than once:
Happy new year, everyone! May it be full of music and people who make you feel something.
What is Coffee for No Reason?
It’s an occasional gathering of people who work in tech, biotech, media, and the wider start-up world. The objective? To drink coffee together for absolutely no reason. Essentially, it’s a chance to take a break from work, meet some interesting people, and hear what they’re up to. (The other devious purpose is that my co-host, Jimmy Guterman, and I use the event as an excuse to give away free copies of all of the business/tech books we’ve accumulated in recent months.)
So here’s how it works: we’ll be in the front room of the Kendall Square Cosi on Wednesday, December 23rd from 9 to 11 AM. You stop by to say hello and drink some coffee (and perhaps grab a book. If you have goodies of your own to give away, that’s great, too.)
Depending on whom you meet and what you discuss, your productivity for the day will either be raised or lowered….we make no guarantees.
The Twitter hash tag for the event is #cfnr. If you’re coming, tweet about it to let others know…
Hope to see you there!
Good morning. For much of yesterday, the top two stories on business websites were the latest twists in antitrust cases against Microsoft (dropped) and Intel (doubled down). It sent me back to a time when I would wake up around 5 a.m. and one of the first things I had to think about was what was happening with various Microsoft and Intel legal actions. I had to think about that because of what I did for a living. For a few years I was editor of Media Grok, a daily email newsletter published by The Industry Standard; after The Standard went under, we secured independent funding and I was editor and publisher of Media Unspun. (We had to change the name because we were unwilling to pay the extortion fee IDG wanted to use the “Grok” name.)
The mission of Grok and Unspun was pretty specific: identify the two or three most important Internet economy stories of the day, summarize them, summarize the media coverage of them, present it to readers with both humor and context, do it briefly, and get it all to them by 9 a.m. Until the dot-com bubble popped, there were plenty of people who wanted their tech news served with attitude and there was a good business there. After 2001, it was hard to find anything funny in yet another layoff or bankruptcy story. Eventually, we went under as well. If you’d like to see what Media Unspun was about all those years ago, I just found our archive.
I loved the work, both for The Standard and on our own dime. Our year-and-change as a startup was particularly exciting and all-encompassing. Aside from writing and editing, I learned a great deal about selling advertising, getting paid for advertising (and not getting paid for advertising), circulation, spam filters, primitive search engine optimization, and, most of all, customer service. We were a rare early-in-the-decade non-porn-or-WSJ content play that people had to pay for, and when people sent us their credit card number many of them felt they were joining a club. When you join a club, you want to talk to the people in it. Those hundreds of conversations, sometimes about what we were doing wrong, improved the product on a daily basis and kept us connected.
I’m happy right now, but when I saw the headlines about Microsoft and Intel yesterday it hit me how I miss the project, the people I was lucky enough to work with on it, and the people we did it for. Microsoft and Intel are in court; someone has to crack a smart, telling joke about it.
(Your best bet nowadays for well-informed snark: John Paczkowski, ex of Good Morning Silicon Valley, who continues to illuminate and crack up the industry with his Digital Daily at All Things Digital.)
I’m a big Vladimir Nabokov fan. His novels are up there with those of Proust, Powell, Fox, and maybe Marquez as those from the last century that have given me the most pleasure. The Gift! Pale Fire! Ada! Lo-lee-ta! As with most writers or performers of whom I’m a big fan, I want to devour everything the artist created and everything interesting created about him: letters, outtakes, biographies, critical works, ephemera. I’ve even read novels based on albums I love and have been pleasantly surprised by one of them.
I bear no ill will against Dmitri Nabokov, Vladimir’s son. He’s been wrestling with a dilemma over the past 30 years: what to do with the unfinished draft of The Original of Laura that Vladimir left behind. Dad told him to destroy the manuscript; instead, Dmitri locked it in a box and thought hard for a long time, probably balancing loyalty to the father with loyalty to the work. There are strong arguments in both directions and I suspect Dmitri bounced pinball-like between the two positions for three decades.
Dmitri decided, in the end, to publish it. It came out last month; I bought it the day it came out. It’s no lost masterpiece. Indeed, it’s quite terrible, Nabokov’s worst book, void of the thrills hiding behind most phrases in even his minor novels. But, worse, than that, it’s not even a book (even in the post-modern sense). It’s not merely that there are 1.5 characters, 0 indications of a plot, and only a few hundred words scattered over a few hundred pages. To emphasize the collector value (and to distract from the lack of literary or story value), the publisher presents these work pages just as Nabokov left them: replicas of index cards, some of them written on, some of them in order, none of them intended for separate or combined publication. It’s the very definition of unpublishable, even in the current age of every damn thing being published. There’s a reason this book comes in shrink wrap: because anyone who opens it before reading it will never buy it. There’s nothing here for all but the most dedicated academic Nabokovians; I completed a first reading in barely half an hour and am unlikely to look at it again until I pack it up the next time I make a donation to the library.
The hype behind the belated release of this incomplete nonmasterpiece may lower Nabokov’s stock, which would be a shame. But, fortunately, there’s an upside to hype: Vintage is reissuing his ouevre with cool covers that may attract new readers. If great packaging can help draw attention to something as lousy as The Original of Laura, perhaps it can bring more than a dozen classics to a new generation of readers who will adore them.
For a long time, Neal used to wash Lenore’s Mercury Monarch every Saturday afternoon.
Two questions for the proprieter:
Where ya been?
As promised, I took off a month from this blog and the assorted Twittering and Facebooking. I wasn’t quite tanned, rested, and ready after the month, but I think I may have learned a few things.
Repeat: where ya been? You said you were going to be gone for November and it’s halfway through December.
Oh, that. Well, right after I came back I got a kidney stone attack: intense pain, multiple trips to the emergency room, bad reactions to narcotics. I’m me again, but I’d like the past few weeks back. I’ll write more about that in the days to come.
Lots to write about in the days to come. The main point: I’m back here, for a while at least.