The best song of the BOSTON band of all the times

John Scalzi’s blog passes along the story that Boston’s lead singer died on Friday.

He also passes along some damn lies, saying that the band’s “moment is over.” Spoken like a guy who never played Guitar Hero.

Or, for that matter, never heard Boston. There are very few “perfect” pop/rock albums, and Boston is one of them. Even if it didn’t have the spaceship on the cover, it starts out with five songs that knock it out of the park, only letting up with “Something About You” at the end. And it doesn’t hurt that “More Than a Feeling” works both as a single and as the intro to a classic album; I thought that’s what album-oriented rock was all about.

I’m listening to “Foreplay/Long Time” right now, which starts with the trippy prog-rock organ opening and transitions to yet another of the album’s 10,000 unforgettable hooks. “The moment is over?” Are you high?

So here’s Boston living their moment:

And proof that the moment’s not over yet. Playing this song in Guitar Hero (note: this isn’t me, of course; I can’t get to “Expert” yet) is nothing short of transcendent:

Me gusta la música

Merry ClaytonThe best performance in pop music is Merry Clayton’s solo in “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones. The part where her voice cracks may be the best moment in pop music history.

And there you go. I don’t know from writing about music. You want Lester Bangs, go to a different blog.

Tonto! Jump on it!

My God, it's full of cardigans!Sometimes I’m forced to look into the very heart of my whiteness, and it’s astounding.

It’s like walking down a long, white tunnel inexorably towards a blinding vanilla light. As I get closer I hear echoes of the Hellman’s Mayonnaise jingle and the white granny shouting “Where you at?” from cell phone commercials. Finally I reach the precipice and am forced to stare down into the abysshizzle.

Today I was reading an entry on the “Making Light” blog, which is about 30% sci-fi writers’ lounge, 95% repetition of leftist mantras and liberal outrage. They link to this video of 70s Danish pop star Tommy Seebach’s cover of “Apache.”

That sounds familiar, I thought, and not just because I’d already seen the video several months ago. The hook sounds a lot like “We Run This” by Missy Elliot, another song I got into about eight months after it was already old news. Apparently, it was used in the soundtrack of a movie about white high school gymnasts, and I probably heard it in a commercial.

And that blog post leads to “All Roads Lead to Apache”, a fascinating (seriously!) run-down of the evolutionary chart of the original song and how it stretched from surf music to disco onto the earliest hip hop and then dance, electronic, and back to rap and hip hop. James Burke would be proud.

Turns out Missy Elliot’s version is heavily sampled from the version by The Sugarhill Gang. Which is itself about four levels deep into the cover chain.

So the fact that I’d never heard the Sugarhill Gang’s version of the song before is a good indicator of my whiteness, but it’s also an account of how circuitous a route pop culture takes before it hits any kind of saturation. I’d heard of the band before, and “Rapper’s Delight,” but probably because of a soundtrack or a commercial. Same with Grandmaster Flash and Fab 5 Freddy, who I only know because they’re referenced in “Rapture” by Blondie. Which leads me to conclude: Deborah Harry was a hero to most, but she don’t mean shit to me.

Actually, I see it as a sign of just how extensively hyper-linked we are, and how it’s not a new phenomenon. We like to think that samples and mash-ups and remixes are relatively recent innovations, but people have been making covers and references and allusions and homages and outright intellectual property theft for centuries.

We’ve also been conditioned to think of it in terms of theft and culture rape, usually described as I do above — white people taking black people’s art and robbing it, watering the soul out of it, and making a fortune off it while the real artists toil away in obscurity. There’s plenty of that going on, and there always has been. But in the longer term, and if some measure of creativity is inserted along the way, it’s the way culture works and has always worked.

And we’re at the best point in history to be able to track how these things come about and see every step of the evolution and all the connections between the individual parts. Don’t like a remix? There’s easy access to the original, and to the tracks it samples from, and the track that inspired the original, and the four other covers of that track. Looking up the Ventures’ cover of “Apache” on iTunes, I found a bunch of other songs and artists I’d never heard of before, including some tracks that I’d never realized were themselves covers of earlier songs.

Before stumbling on this article, I’d been getting into a pretty jaded impression of our segment of the Information Age. The “If you like The Pixies, you’ll love Nelly Furtado” “features” on internet recommendation sites never work, because they just keep recommending crap or stuff you’ve already heard. And remixes are hardly ever as good as the original, and blog articles generally repeat the same stuff, are shallow, or just eventually lead to a Wikipedia entry. Occasionally you’ll stumble on some blogger’s all-time favorite obscure band, and you’ll listen and realize that they were obscure for a reason.

Back when I first saw HyperCard and then later, Mosaic, I got the sense that links and aggregating information were a novel concept, even if I couldn’t foresee exactly how they’d be revolutionary. Now, though, I’m back to feeling that there’s a ton of stuff out there left to see. More than even the most dedicated hipster could see in a lifetime.

I feel great! You can too.

One of my all-time top 5 favorite albums ever recorded is Telecommunication Breakdown by Emergency Broadcast Network. EBN’s schtick was remixing video sources to techno beats, basically popularizing the mash-up a decade before it got popular.

Their video releases were pure capital-G Genius but could get tedious quickly. The best example of that is the original version of “Get Down”, which combined Harrison Ford from Patriot Games, a Mariah Carey screech, and a Dan Rather clip to the beat of “Jungle Boogie,” a brilliant concept which becomes annoying after about 20 seconds. What made Telecommunication Breakdown a highlight is that they had the guy from Meat Beat Manifesto remix a lot of the tracks, to make them work as satire and music.

They got a burst of popularity in the early 90s after their version of “We Will Rock You” was used in one of U2’s concert tours. As is usual for me, I got into them right as they were breaking up, so for years I’ve been stuck with a video, one amazing album, and three QuickTime clips that were included on the CD, hinting at something much greater but that I would never ever see. You can’t really appreciate how clever the music is until you see it with the video sources.

So today it finally dawned on me to check YouTube, and you won’t believe how excited I was to find more videos. This one is the Telecommunication Breakdown track called “You Have Five Seconds To Complete This Section,” and I nearly wet myself when I saw it’d finally been made available online.

It’s just awesome. (And I have to agree with one of the commenters; that does look an awful lot like Jane Lynch.)

More quicktime videos are available from Joshua Pearson’s website, under EBN Archives. You can also do a search on YouTube for “Emergency Broadcast Network” to see lower-quality versions. My favorites: Syncopated Ordinance Demonstration, 3:7:8, Psychoactive Drugs, and eMediatainment (a new one!)

EBN’s finest moment, though, and what made me a lifelong fan, is “Electronic Behavior Control System.” The version up on YouTube & Pearson’s site is edited from a live performance, so it’s not quite as cool as the one that was included on the CD. Still, it’s probably the most brilliant music video ever made:

EDIT: The semi-live version I linked to has been removed since I first wrote this post. The original is up on YouTube at the moment, though, and it’s as brilliant as it was 15 years ago.

Stop winding it up so much please thank you.

All shall love me AND DESPAIR!I was watching “Saturday Night Live” this week (eyes over here, Mrs. Beatty) and the first musical guest was Gwen Stefani doing “Wind it Up” with an over-enthusiastic drum line and a throng of badly-dressed dancers.

It’s difficult for me to describe my reaction to seeing this, but in short: I became firmly convinced that the World is coming to An End. It started as an unfocused sense of unease from deep within my soul. Each yodel and every sample made it more concrete, more defined, until it became a concentrated pit of despair lodged in the center of my heart.

Imagine you’re a simple country villager in the outskirts of ancient Rome, and you’re asked to cater at one of Caligula’s parties. As you stand dumb-struck behind the buffet table, watching the proceedings, the servants wheel in another horse and some more lubricant, and you think, “Well, they’ve finally done it. They’ve destroyed civilization.” That’s the sense I got.

Now, I still like to think of myself as being on the fringes of hipness — not really genuinely cool, but at least at the VH-1 level of social awareness. But seeing this thing rocked my whole perception of what’s going on in American pop culture. It wasn’t just that I didn’t like it; I didn’t understand it. At all. I hated “Hollaback Girl” and “My Humps” like any right-thinking person should, but at least I had a sense of what they were trying to accomplish with them.

“Wind it Up,” with its video and album and fashion line and interviews and promotions and YouTube and MySpace appearances, is such an engineered consumer product package that it’s as far removed from actual music as Lunchables are from actual wheat. Video didn’t just kill the radio star, it’s on Fox News promoting its new fictionalized account of the murder titled If I Did It.

I’ve heard and read a lot of people — usually well into their 40s by the time they say it — say they remember the exact moment they realized they were “old.” Usually it’s when a clerk calls them “sir” or “ma’am,” or when they meet a co-worker who was born the year they graduated high school/graduated college/were released from rehab.

For me, it was watching a woman (who’s two years older than me!) doing a performance on “Saturday Night Live” and me feeling like I just saw a series of mushroom clouds over the horizon.

A Bunch of Noise

What started out innocently enough as a search for “I Want Candy” by MC Pee Pants (second page) somehow ended up with me on the iTunes Signature Maker.

It’s a java app that digs through your iTunes library and generates a file that contains snippets of your favorite tracks mixed together. It’s not exactly pleasurable listening; the author’s sounds okay (kind of like what I imagine an alien SETI program would hear), but it seems like most of them come out pretty atonal.

I imagine the only way to get something that flows well is if you’re one of those people who claims “I have a very eclectic taste in music” but it turns out you listen to a bunch of bands that sound exactly the same, but you have the soundtracks to Manhattan and O Brother, Where Art Thou? to show how diverse you are. Or something.

On the other hand, this is pretty much what it sounds like in my head all the time, so maybe the computer don’t lie.

And speaking of noise, I just realized that I’ve got to be in Florida all next week for work. I’ve known about the trip for a couple of weeks, but I’ve been thinking it was further away. If it’s anything like the last trip, it’ll be that infuriating feeling of knowing I’m at Disney World but being unable to get out and enjoy it because I’m working. And even when I get free time afterwards, it’s no fun going to the parks by myself. Plus, during the week the parks close a lot earlier, leaving only a couple of hours between the end of a work day and closing time. Since I’m contracting, I can’t get into the parks for free unless I’m working there — which means I have to pay full price just to go a couple of hours.

And I’m not really fooling anybody, I realize. Even on a business trip it’s pretty damn cool. At the risk of sounding like I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid: the Disney hotels really just get everything right, and they’re a blast to stay at even independent of the parks. And as for the parks, I’m still hoping I get a chance to check out the new Expedition Everest ride at Animal Kingdom. It’s not supposed to open until next month, but supposedly it’s in “soft opening preview” mode now.

Update: Calendars are hard. Apparently I’m not leaving next week, but the week after. I just wanted to make sure that the Internet was aware of my travel plans. Go on about your business.

Lousy Runs Both Ways

They mock me with their bluegrassEvery time I’ve tried to see Alison Krauss and Union Station in concert, the tickets have been sold out long before I even heard they were going to be in town. One time I even considered driving down to some God-forsaken town in central CA to see them because the Bay Area shows were sold out.

So (duh) I signed up for their online mailing list. I got my first mailing in my inbox today, and they’re coming to the Nob Hill Masonic Center on March 11th! I immediately tried to get tickets online, and all that’s available are two seats way in the back of the far side of the balcony, which, including tickets.com’s bend-over fee, would come to $120! Single seats are easier to get; if I went stag I could sit way back at floor level for just under 70 bucks.

I’m convinced there’s something unsavory going on here. There’s got to be some consortium somewhere buying up tickets in bulk to scalp them. Or some secret concert-announcement service that I’m not aware of. Or the band has a huge fan following and they just won a bunch of Grammy awards and they’re playing in a big city and I missed out because I didn’t get up until 10 and didn’t log in until 11 this morning.

Anyway, the mailing list also linked to this mash-up of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” with “Hollaback Girl.” I can’t say I like it, but I’m baffled and intrigued by it. Something Awful got it right when they said that in a better world, “Hollaback Girl” would’ve been the stupidest song of last year if not for the tragedy that was “My Humps”. And the beat doesn’t quite match up, either. But still, I can’t stop listening to it.

Who’s Peeking Out From Under a Stairway?

When we went to Disneyland last year, Rain played a CD where every track was a person’s name, from A to Z. The entry for W was “Windy” by The Association. And so began my two-month-long nightmare.

I’ve always been susceptible to getting songs stuck in my head, but this one is the worst since “Tom’s Diner.” I hear it before I go to sleep, I hear it just as I wake up, I hear it when I’m tripping down the streets of the city, smiling at everybody I see. When I had my La Tortura episode in the Sony store, I could hear it in the background. “Make Your Own Kind of Music” from “Lost” wasn’t able to drive it out. “We Used to Be Friends” from “Veronica Mars” didn’t work either.

I finally just gave up and bought the album, hoping I could listen to it enough to get sick of it. It almost worked, but that album also has “Cherish”, which is of course the song that was the worst at getting stuck in my head when I was little, before I’d ever even heard of Suzanne Vega. So now they’re both running together constantly, like some infernal medley. (“Infernal Medley” would be a decent band name, now that I think of it.)

Speaking of Disneyland, they’re keeping up with this whole closing-at-8 bullshit. What’s the point of spending three days in LA if you can’t at least go to D-town? I’m starting to think buying an annual pass wasn’t such a great idea.

Fat Drum

I was in Japan Town for dinner tonight and was reminded of the International Taiko Festival this weekend at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. I’m not going this year because I’m headed to Disneyland for Jessica’s birthday, but everybody else should go. Seriously. The shows are really spectacular on every level, breaking out everything short of pyrotechnics and lasers. In San Francisco, you’re lucky enough to have the top taiko dojo in North America right here, and you don’t even have to go to Berkeley to see them this year.

I’d forgotten the show was this weekend until I saw the book The Way of Taiko by Heidi Varian. It’s got some great photos of performances, as well as a history of taiko in Japan and the US, and an explanation of the different parts of the performances. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve been a perfect gift for me had I not already bought it myself.

The best line I’ve encountered so far is a quote that’s left unattributed:

It has been said of taiko that “rhythm and joy ride together on the end of a drumstick. Its closest cousin may be gospel singing.”

The introduction in the book goes on about “The Way of Taiko” and “The Spirit of Taiko,” and it’s hard for the cynical-minded (like me) not to roll our eyes at the suggestion that there’s as much a zen component of banging on a drum as there is to more obviously spiritual activities, such as serving tea or punching someone.

But even I can recognize that there’s something else going on at a taiko performance that’s more than just a drum corps. And the gospel analogy helps explain what it is — the taiko performers get so caught up in the spirit of it, and are encouraged by the vocalizations of the other performers (which I see in the book are called kiai and are the vocalization of chi energy), that you can see and feel it spread, and you can’t help but be caught up in it. The expression on the performers’ faces at the beginning of a show is one of concentration and discipline, and by the end when they’re doing the free-form piece called Tsunami, you can see it’s turned to one of power and joy. It’s not difficult to see the comparison to a gospel soloist belting out the end of a song with a huge chorus of happy, clapping people behind her.

The other reason I like the gospel analogy is because it suggests the multiculturalism that the SF Taiko Dojo seems to emphasize. And it’s not the weakened, meaningless concept that goes by “multiculturalism” these days — the kind of simple-minded, self-serving reverse-chauvinism borne from White Liberal Guilt. It’s true multiculturalism, a product of a Japanese folk art form growing inside San Francisco, forced to cohabitate along with dozens of other cultures fighting for dominance.

In his foreward to the book, Seiichi Tanaka says that one of the reasons he fought to bring taiko to the US is because he’s disappointed to see more of traditional Japanese culture being lost as that country becomes westernized. It’d be easy to interpret that as stereotypical Japanese xenophobia, at least it would if you’d never been to an SF Taiko Dojo performance. They are big on tradition, and always emphasize the clothing, music, theater, and folk legends of Japan, but are careful to present it along with reinventions and analogs in other cultures. One show began with a Native American drummer performing a blessing of the stage. Others have taiko groups that incorporate jazz, or electric guitars.

It’s not just some reactionary assertion that Japanese heritage must be preserved to the exclusion of all else, like the French insist that English words be expelled from their language. It’s an acknowledgement that true culture is a living thing (if you’ll excuse the Berkeley-speak). You can’t preserve the traditional culture of Japan, or anywhere, by treating it as something that’s in a museum that you have to pay attention to because it’s History and it’s Important. You can only preserve culture by showing people how it’s cool, how it’s relevant to them, and how it still exists; that’s how it spreads.

And as a result, you get situations like a painfully white southern boy who goes to Japanese restaurants to get comfort food (because katsu curry rice is closer to what I think of as southern food than anything else I’ve been able to find). And people who go to festivals where Asian drummers carrying on a tradition to honor bring forth animist spirits, are reminiscent of formerly African singers in Christian churches in America.

Switch (jimmy smits)

Apparently I’m turning into a woman.

The only question is whether I’m becoming a middle-aged housewife, or a disaffected angry young soulful woman tryin’ to make it in a man’s world.

Evidence for the housewife: I’ve been listening to “Con te Partiro” by Andrea Bocelli non-stop for the past couple of days. Often — and here’s the embarrassing part — with my eyes closed, like some tweed-wearing New Yorker-reading cultural elitist sitting in an armchair enraptured, letting the music wash over him; and sometimes tearing up like Robert de Niro at the opera in The Untouchables. This is not how grown men are supposed to behave, dammit. It’s not real opera, it’s pop-era. It’s the Bellagio music! That ain’t art, it’s Vegas. And not cool swingin’ Vegas, but taking a break from the kids to fly out from Ohio and play the nickel slots and try the buffets because they’re so reasonable Vegas.

Evidence for the chick-lit reader: I’ve also been listening to Fiona Apple. And liking it. A lot. Maybe it’s just karma for making fun of her before, and hopefully buying two of her records and “Criminal” will pay it off. I guess I’d always dismissed her as just Alanis Morisette gone R&B, or Tori Amos shifted down a few octaves, but now I don’t know what to compare her music to. It’s not just that she can sing and that her songs are well-constructed, it’s that all the arrangements are really, really well done — Extraordinary Machine has a lot of the Abbey Road thing going on.

She’s still got a little of the Wednesday Addams vibe, but after Wednesday moved to France and worked in a cabaret for a few years and had a bad relationship with a bisexual German existentialist filmmaker who would tie her to a wooden chair with flaking paint under a single bare lightbulb and make her watch as he over-tightened the strings of her piano — the only thing she had tying her to her past life in the States — until they snapped and she’d flinch with each one and swear that she’d make her way back home and use this rage and pour it into her music. Or maybe just stayed in the US and dated the moron who made Boogie Nights.

And I don’t know what to think about all this Norah Jones and Neko Case music I’ve got. And the four different versions of “Possession” by Sarah McLachlan. Not to mention the fact that I own every Indigo Girls album. Jeez, am I going to have to get tickets for Lilith Fair now?

One thing I will say: the Bellagio fountain show for Con Te Partiro is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life, ever. Yeah, I said it.

Can you smell what The Rock is cutting up with a chainsaw?

What was almost as good as Serenity was seeing the trailer for the new DOOM movie which is going to be out at the end of the month. Hot damn, I can’t wait.

As much as I love the Resident Evil movies (no, really), they still cling to this idea that they’re somehow real movies. They think that deep down, they’re still horror movies using a videogame franchise as the basis for their stories. This is a mistake. And if the trailer is any indication, the braintrust behind DOOM has escaped that trap and made the first true videogame movie that is going to kick so much ass. They’ve got The Rock, who’s awesome; they’ve got the chainsaw, which is awesome; and they sure as hell better have the first-person sequences in the movie, and not make that just a gimmick for the trailer. Because that’s what’ll make this not just another cheesy sci-fi action flick, but a truly transcendently cheesy sci-fi videogame movie.

I didn’t even like Doom 3 that much and lost interest after about a half hour. Looking back on it, they had the reverse problem — it’s a mindless videogame that thought that deep down, it was a sci-fi horror movie. Some games — Half-Life 2 for one — can pull that off, but the Doom guys couldn’t. So the whole thing came across as bland and uninspired. And really, really dark.

In other Martian news, The Pixies Sell Out is coming out on DVD tomorrow. It’s a DVD of last year’s tour with, I’m assuming and hoping, brief interviews and such. There’s a clip from the DVD on ifilm.com which rates a big “meh.” But it was still a good show.