Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Disco's deeper meaning

I’ve biked a half dozen times to work in the new year not because it’s cold, but because it’s WET and cold. We’ve had absolutely terrible rain so when it’s pitch black at 7:30am and the rain is banging off the roof I’ve opted to jump on the bus. But it’s now light at 7:15 and I’m officially calling a start to the cycling year. I rode through a touch of snow this morning, but otherwise it’s great cycling weather and I heard a great show on disco. Let me bore you with a bit of nostalgia that I’d like to get recorded, then I’ll get to the show.

Our house growing up was not a “musical” house in the sense that our parents didn’t play instruments (my mother played flute in high school) and listened to mainstream radio stations, but didn’t having a Rolling Stone subscription or an extensive record collection. We had a record player and even to this day I remember dropping the needle and listening to incredibly good quality recordings that I don’t seem to pick up now on CDs. I remember every LP at our house in Canada: Elton John (Greatest Hits, Captain Fantastic, and Rock Of The Westies,) Gordon Lightfoot Gord’s Gold, Beach Boys Endless Summer, Neil Diamond Hot August Night, Captain and Tennille Love Will Keep Us Together, Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life, Nana Mouskouri, Judy Collins Judith, Olivia Newton John Greatest Hits, and Elvis Presley’s Greatest Hits. Then after the move to Wisconsin we picked up more: The Beatles Greatest Hits 1967-70, Eagles Greatest Hits 71-75, Fleetwood Mac Rumours, Saturday Night Fever, Doobie Brothers Minute By Minute, Marshall Tucker Band Carolina Dreams, Frampton Comes Alive, and Bruce Springsteen Born To Run. I’m assuming my dad bought all these, and for the life of me I can’t tell how we was influenced because I never heard him listen to any of these except for Judy Collins and Nana Mouskouri. He claimed to enjoy classical music and definitely didn’t participate in the whole 60s music scene. My mom listened to popular radio like most people and would definitely know everything from the 60s and 70s.

I was a child of the 70s in Wisconsin (“yes” That 70s Show got it right for the most part) and we were 100% about rock and roll. I distinctly remember being in the small variety store near our house (fellow Racinites, the one next to the Windpoint Pump, and not the big Woolworths) and musing over my first album purchase: Rolling Stones Miss You or Bee Gees Spirits Having Flown (what can I say, the whole Saturday Night Fever thing was still huge.) To this day I’m glad I bought Miss You, and if Scotty Miller happens to read this, I think you’ll distinctly recall seeing me with it in the store that day. I would be embarrassed to this day had I been holding a Bee Gees album when you came by and asked me what I was buying.

On to the disco show! The guest Alice Eschols is a professor of American Studies at Rutgers who was a deejay back in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the 70s. She’s written several popular books on feminism and has one out now on the influence and origins of disco, the first chapter of which is available online via the link to the show. I personally wasn’t a big dancer and truthfully only participated so that I could hang with the ladies, so I only liked disco as far as I liked the songs. SNF was and is a great album and the whole John Travolta thing with his good looks, moves and clothes was a huge influence for guys like me. The content of the show expanded on what we 13-year olds were oblivious to at the time, namely that disco helped usher in the current age of sexual and racial liberty and openness. When Donna Summer crooned “I love to love you baby” for seventeen minutes it was all about a woman’s right to get it on, which had previously been largely restricted to male performers. Gay men and women were closeted because society and law enforcement didn’t let them come out, and disco gave them the chance to publicly express themselves in ways they couldn’t before. And blacks were not part of the rock and roll scene (not completely--Jimi Hendrix for example) but mainstream disco brought black performers into the average white home far more strongly than Motown had.

An interesting comment is her belief that the anti-disco movement (“Disco sucks”, “Death to Disco” and the 1979 Chicago Disco Demolition rally by Steve Dahl) was because the bar was being set too high for traditional guys who now had to dance and groove in a non-masculine way to get the girl. I can see how an early 70s rocker in his mid twenties would be uncomfortable doing The Hustle with a smile in public.

I also didn’t realize that soul and R&B greats like James Brown thought the disco movement was awful because it replaced the spontaneity of R&B with repetitive, sugary music. Barry White in particular was criticized for his purring amidst the violin backing tracks on his 1973 solo album “I’ve Got So Much To Give.” Remember JB`s “Get Up Offa That Thing” with the “Barry who?” comment.

Disco morphed into contemporary dance music, but the name itself seems to be in resurgence now because kids don’t know disco and haven’t been exposed to the stigmas attached to the name. And while there may be a technical difference with the beat and sampling, dance music is dance music is dance music. Lady Gaga’s music production quality must be better than older music because of technology, but the music itself is not terribly different from Donna Summer’s. Speaking of Donna Summer, she spent about fifteen minutes on the show and it was great to hear about what was going on with her back in the 70s. She was asked if she knew she was liberating women sexually when recording “Love To Love You Baby” and she replied that all she was thinking about was what her father was going to say. Of course it’s impossible to categorize and put anything you do in the present into a larger framework until time has passed. So while Donna Summer can today discuss the big picture, back in the 70s it was all about making music that appealed to the young scene at the time.

I have only fond memories of disco in my high school years, learning The Hustle in gym class and then practicing it to SNF at home. Imagine my surprise when my 16-year old told me they are doing the exact same thing in gym class. I guess disco indeed is timeless (at least until the present time.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Uplifting story of charity during the Great Depression

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

So this writer Ted Gup was given an unopened briefcase with things owned by his grandfather who passed away some time ago in Canton, Ohio. He found 75 cancelled checks for around $5-$10 each, a great number of letters requesting money, and newspaper articles about the anonymous donor at Christmas, 1933 who made Christmas a little better for needy people in the Canton area. The writer encouraged people via a newspaper ad to send him letters requesting a small sum in order to have a happy holiday. It was done anonymously because of the stigma attached to asking for and receiving charity. The donor turned out to be his grandfather, Sam Stone, a local men’s clothing store owner in Canton who had done well enough to afford the largesse.

After digging into his history, Ted found his grandfather had falsified his origins and obtained U.S. citizenship illegally instead of being upfront about his Lithuanian birth and Jewish heritage. Gup believes that his grandfather found so much opportunity in America that he wanted to pay it back as best he could.

Five dollars in 1933 would be worth something like $100 today, but also consider that the Great Depression was in full swing and Canton had 50% unemployment so it was more like $200 today. People really, really needed it back then because there was no such thing as a social safety net and if you were cold and hungry, you could easily end up dead. Gup researched every letter writer and interviewed as many descendants as possible. Imagine his surprise to find Helen Palm, age 90, who is the sole surviving letter writer, aged 14 at the time. She was on the show and read her 77 year old letter:

"Dear Sir,

When we went over at the neighbors to borrow the paper I read your article. I am a girl of fourteen. I am writing this because I need clothing. And sometimes we run out of food.

My father does not want to ask for charity. But us children would like to have some clothing for Christmas. When he had a job us children used to have nice things.

I also have brothers and sisters.

If you should send me Te[n] Dollars I would buy clothing and buy the Christmas dinner and supper.

I thank you.


He’s written a book about the story and it sounds like a great Christmas 2010 read for those who want an uplifting, true story over the holidays.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Did school mortify you?

Just noticed I made it to 4,000 kms biked so far this year of a possible 8,500 had I biked to work every Monday through Friday.   So I've biked exactly the distance from Vancouver to Manhattan, how about that?

This show made laugh and evoked some old, fond memories. Also some old, bad memories, which I think is the point behind the "mortified" show itself.

Teen years can be mortifying at the time, and result in cringe-worthy moments that are best locked away in the vault. For some people, these moments are forgotten, and for some they remain alive, either in memory or on paper. A duo with deep rooted mortifying memories has developed a stage act that allows individuals the opportunity for public catharsis. They audition individuals who if selected read onstage, in public, in a formal show from diaries or recount horrible stories from their younger years. What was horrible is mainly now just humorous, and the act of getting it off one’s chest and laughing at it with others is a relief to most of the people it seems.

On Point is produced in Boston, and we heard many minutes of a recent local show there all of which are available at the On Point link. The poetry, the angst, and the dreams were all right there. One woman read her bucket list from the age of 15, which ranged from “Walk into a dinner party as if you belong” to “Be a prostitute for one night.” At that age you don’t discern terribly well between things and I think the line is drawn between “childish” and “adult.” All “adult” things are lumped together in a kind of netherworld of indistinguishable importance. In a single breath, kids might say they want to “learn to surfboard” and then “become President.”

I have few mortifying moments from my teen years. I can only think of two highly embarrassing moments, the first occurring in about 1975 when my parents insisted on getting a babysitter for me at the age of 11. The girl who showed up was none other than the mature Jackie Cowieson, who wore makeup, dated 14-year olds, smoked at recess and sat next to me in grade 6 at Greenbrier Elementary in Brantford, Ontario. Why do I remember her name? It was indelibly etched on my prepubescent brain in a truly mortifying way.

The other was in French class at Horlick High School, Racine, Wisconsin in 1979. Because I was from Canada I had been taking French since 1973, but unlike Canada I found that only girls in Wisconsin take French. The guys all take German because everyone’s grandparents seemed to come from there, or else they take Spanish because it’s easy. So I was in French class with 15 other high school girls for about three years. There was a poem or sentence that involved “bras” which means “arms” in French. The teacher explained something about the sentence and that it relates to “around or under the arms” which is incidentally where “brassiere” is derived from. Everyone giggled and looked at me, then someone said “Look, he’s blushing!” which of course I was, and it only got worse. Here I was, surrounded by nubile young women, speaking in French about breasts, and tell me why wouldn’t I get a hot flash? I ran into the same girl years later at a gas station checkout in Racine, and she didn’t recognize me because: a) I was in college and had grown up a lot; and b) She looked like a heroin addict.

Vist http://www.getmortified.com/ to see if one of the dozen shows are in your area.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

John Boehner, U.S./Indian relations and Quincy Jones

Several excellent shows have been featured, and I often wish I could take notes while biking, but that’s one thing I’ve determined is just plain impossible. Some interesting ones:

- A look into John Boehner and how he will behave as the new House leader;
- The U.S./India partnership, in light of Pres. Obama’s recent trip there;
- Why American marathoners are fewer, and slower;
- Quincy Jones’ latest book, CD and seemingly endless collaborations;
- The team producing “Mortified” shows across the country, in which mature people go on stage to read their teen diaries etc. for amusement and healing;
- The grandson of an Ohio man who discovered and wrote a book on his grandfather’s acts of charity during the Depression
- Advice for Pres. Obama on his next two years

All of them were interesting and rather than digging into one, I’ll comment on them ALL over the next days.

John Boehner

He came from humble beginnings, and laboured in his father’s Ohio tavern and other jobs to earn money to put himself through college. He was a Democrat who became a Republican after running a small business and being greatly influenced by the tax code and government bureaucracy. He’s been in the House for 19 years and has been the Republican minority leader since 1996. Freshly elected in 1991, he joined the Gingrich team that gave us the Contract with America, where he saw firsthand the negative effects to Republicans by Newt Gingrich taking politicking too far by refusing to compromise with Pres. Clinton. This resulted in the infamous 1995 U.S. Government shutdown when Gingrich refused to increase the country’s debt level and Clinton refused to sign off on the Republican Congress’s budget. Now that he’s undoubtedly going to be the House Majority Leader I’m anxious to see if he’s as good at governing and crafting workable legislation as he is at being in the minority.

I think no one more greatly represents current Republican ideology than John Boehner. One thing I now respect him for is his refusal to bring pork barrel spending projects back to Ohio, and for strongarming colleagues to do the same. He’s going to be difficult to deal with and has essentially said that he’s willing to compromise with Democrats as long as they agree with his position. For all the principled rhetoric he still has to govern along with the two other branches of government which happen to be Democrat-controlled. Let’s hope he realizes that his goal should be the successful operation of U.S. Government and not simply a Republican takeover of the Senate and White House. The latter will lead to gridlock and another two years of hell for a lot of people.

He doesn’t appear to be flexible at all, and poll results will guide his willingness to compromise, currently set to zero tolerance. If the country respects him for standing up to Obama and the Senate then expect a conservative agenda to be pushed hard at the expense of the economy and the carrot of a three branch win in 2012. Conversely, if Americans grumble about Republican stonewalling then expect a conciliatory approach so that he doesn’t repeat Gingrich’s mistakes and ensure an easy re-election for Obama in 2012.

India/U.S. relations

The gist of the show was how important U.S./Indian relations are to both countries. India looks to the U.S. for economic growth and for a military ally in a very dangerous place. The U.S. wants to ensure that a U.S.-friendly India thrives as a counterbalance to an increasingly strong China.

The big message is that there are now two other superpowers for the U.S. to contend with.  I highly doubt that we'll return to a cold war posture with either of these two countries, because history has proven that in global war there are no winners.  If anything the U.S., China and India have a strong scholarly influence and a lot of educated, intelligent people.  India doesn't seem to be able to get its act together enough to be able to project military and economic power, but with a billion people and its prominent geographic location and size it is a force.  I also can't believe China would dare get into a war with any country outside the usual suspects and about anything other than local territorial conflicts.  Yes, China is powerful, but will fall apart domestically if the government is forced to divert its military and cash outside the country.

I think the war (not a great term) will be about China's desire for economic influence and power globally.  China wants an exclusive,  bilateral relationship with the U.S. and doesn't like Obama's friendly overtures to India, making for a fascinating dance between the three.

Quincy Jones

He’s been nominated for 79 Grammies and seems to know everyone in the music industry through massive collaboration and production efforts over the past 50 years. He was live on the show from NYC and was gracious and entertaining with the host and callers. He’s just written new book “Q On Producing” and launched a new CD to rave reviews“Q: Soul Bossa Nostra”. The guy’s 77 years old?

Here’s something I didn’t know: It’s his 1962 song “Soul Bossa Nova” that features heavily in The Austin Powers movies, and was the theme for TV’s “Definition” game show. And I think everyone knows his daughter Rashida Jones from The Office and Parks and Recreation.

What can I say? Look at his Wikipedia page to get a flavour for what he’s done, and listen to the interview.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Elvis Costello and Frank Sinatra

I enjoy On Point because the producers bring in so much diverse content, which is split between current, mainstream events and niche topics have great appeal to the average person.  The most recent shows have focused on U.S. elections and the economy, but have still managed to include these really interesting shows on Elvis Costello (interviewed live) and the younger years of Frank Sinatra.  I've only linked the two because they're both about musicians, and while I liked the shows I can't offer an opinion on them because they're weren't issue-related.  So I'll just recap the two and encourage others to have a listen.

Elvis Costello is married to Diana Krall, and they live in our district of West Vancouver.  Krall is known for walking with their small children around the seawall on the Pacific, and probably because she's not as famous as Costello and feels more comfortable doing so.  She's also a Vanouver Island native and likely just wants the kids to enjoy the things she grew up with.  We think the same way, and my wife regularly takes our 4-year old down to Eagle Harbour beach to see what the ocean washed up and to look for wildlife like eagles and sea lions.  You can see my pics of us going crab fishing, which brings us right into contact with the same and lets our son actually hold and touch animals like Dungenness crabs and star fish that climb into our trap. 

I've never seen Costello hanging out in our village, but I've heard that when he does he's a little aloof.  I guess that when you've had people grabbing at you since the late 1970s you become conditioned to appreciate your independence. An Aussie friend of mine from Hong Kong spent the evening with Costello in a Wan Chai bar and didn't even know who he was at first. He said Costello was chatting to him around midnight, ordered up Champagne until morning, during which my friend clued in that he was with a huge star.  He was a great, regular guy and that's how I like to imagine him in real life.

Costello's new album (a "double LP" as he said) is targeted at Wall Street, its bankers and its misdeeds.  The show featured some clips, as well as Costello live with his guitar in the studio for an entire song.  They spoke of the current events which Costello is interested in, but it was mostly an hour with an unassuming rock/folk star who was happy to talk about a range of personal topics.  I'll buy the "double LP" now and fully expect that Costello's angst is holding up well.  I remember his famous SNL appearance from 1977 very well, for which he was banned by Lorne Michaels, who ultimately relented. I Googled this and found an interesting article on all celebrities banned from SNL.

The show on Sinatra was different in that it focused on his earliest years and not the later period of which we are all too familiar.  Author James Kaplan was interviewed to discuss his latest work entitled "Frank: The Voice" which details his boyhood in New Jersey up to his Oscar win in "From Here To Eternity." I'm a Sinatra fan, but not an enthusiast, because I grew up in Wisconsin and as a teen of the 1970s we were mainly fed a classic rock diet. I became aware of Sinatra as a university student in Madison and through the years have come into contact with his music.  He was already an icon when I was a kid and my knowledge is limited to the Vegas era and the stereotyped version of Sinatra most famously played on SNL by (Canadian from my and Gretzky's hometown of Brantford, Ontario) Phil Hartman

Many of us forget how insanely famous Sinatra was back in the late 1930s and 1940s prior to his crash and rebirth in the 1950s.  In his early days he was as ubiquitous as Mick Jagger, Elvis and Bono, and was about as controversial as a star could be back then.  I hadn't know any of this prior to the show, and it was a great 40 minutes as I pedalled in the dark along the Pacific on Marine Drive.  I'll check the local library for the book because it sounds to be a page turner.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

NPR: Censoring to support its partisan agenda?

(Note: The heading above hyperlinks to the show's website.)

I've never actually listened to Juan Williams on NPR, but I'm deeply interested in the story of his dismissal as a news analyst after making inflammatory comments on the Bill O'Reilly show. A whole host of questions come up:

- Freedom of speech: Can't he say what he wants without retribution?

- Professional vs. personal viewpoints: Is he required to abide by NPR's policies only at work, and not off the clock?

- Is NPR biased by not allowing its analysts to comment subjectively and with an opinion?

- NPR receives U.S. Government funding: Because NPR is acting in a partisan way, should funding be cut?

- Was his dismissal rash? A knee jerk reaction to a single incident?

I graduated in 1986 from the University of Wisconsin with a B.A. in Journalism. In addition to technical training on things like grammar we spent a large amount of time studying the role of the media in a range of societies and historical timelines. I'm not a professional journalist, but would consider myself well informed on the role of the media and am very passionate about the need for an unemcumbered and vocal press. Forming an opinion on the NPR/Juan Williams story is a challenge, and today's On Point show helped to inform me.

First, after considering the facts I do believe it is correct that Williams doesn't belong on NPR. The controversy relates to the suddenness and form of his dismissal, which was crude and insensitive. So they are both to blame, but regardless of how he was terminated the conclusion remains that Williams did not have a place within NPR. A media organization (and any organization really) states its goals and mission then develops policies that are derived from them. NPR clearly states that it reports the news in an unbiased, centrist fashion and it requests that its analysts refrain from offering a strong opinion, personal or otherwise, on events. Williams repeatedly went against NPR's policy and NPR discussed his commentary with him over many years. He consciously made the decision to behave that way and a separation was going to come eventually. When the time arrived it surely wasn't a surprise to Williams, but it was to most of America who didn't even know his name. The event got a huge amount of spin from all sides, and became even more intense because of the looming elections.

I believe NPR is labelled unfairly as a "liberal" media organization and I think this comes from the polarized state of politics in the U.S. and the emergence of self-selected media. The polarization creates an "us vs. them", "win or lose", "good vs. evil" lens for interpreting events and situations. This perception is further concentrated and strengthened by a range of media that supports the view held by each audience member, therefore a "dissenting opinion" and even the existence of another opinion, doesn't exist for a great number of Americans. The terms "centrist, impassionate and impartial" don't exist for people who are at polar opposites of each other.

If NPR doesn't reflect one's ideals, then it's subjectively labelled as the polar opposite of those ideals and not as "in between" or "objective." Liberals tend to process information more impassionately and would probably not call a centrist new organization "right wing" whereas conservatives tend to process information more emotionally and NPR would more likely be labelled as "liberal" because its viewpoint is "different." Because the conservative's "liberal" label is the only one being communicated, that's the one which sticks. The opposite is true for conservative news organizations like FOX. Conservatives don't label FOX as "right wing", and it's the liberal news organizations that do that. They're the ones communicating that label, and it's the one that sticks.

In the world of polarized media there is a role for Williams, and he signed up as a FOX analyst shortly after his dismissal. To be accepted by FOX, Williams was certainly identified by its management as representative of their audience's viewpoints, and this fact alone demonstrates that Williams should not have been on NPR. NPR critics should be focusing on the positive aspects of this new alignment, and the shortcomings of the previous misalignment. NPR is simply enacting its policies albeit in a crude way, FOX is taking advantage of a market opportunity, and Williams is profiting by a significant salary increase that he likely engineered in a systematic fashion.

It would appear to me that different factions are using Williams' dismissal to their own end, and spinning the story in their direction. As I see it, the fact is that Williams was in the wrong place, and he's now in a better place so we should all be satisfied with the new alignment between the three affected parties. Williams is free to opine as he likes and in no way has NPR censored itself or sent a message to its analysts.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross

Alex Ross is arguably the most celebrated active, American music critic and until this show, completely unknown to me.  I feel like I "should" read The New Yorker and am sure I can pick it up at the local library, but just never fell into it.  In fact, like many people I consume the vast majority of media content online because our house is not really set up for quiet reading and is instead organized around four teenage boys.  The most action is in the computer room where they do homework, surf the net and catch up with friends online.

Ross only listened to classical music until he was 20, but now his interests now go in all directions.  He's written a few best selling books on music, the latest of which is "Listen To This" a wide ranging work on music across the centuries, and that does a few deep dives into interesting topics. It's an edited compilation of his essays over the past 12 years, and looks for a common thread between musical genres, styles and time.  For example, he and Tom Ashbrook discussed the "descending bass line" found consistently in music through the centuries.  His examples focus on the chromatic scale, which is simply all the individual half note intervals without the normal whole step found in other scales. In simple terms, a chromatic scale can be played on a piano by pressing every black or white key in order, so A, A#, B, C, C# etc. A famous rock era descending bass line is on Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" in which Jimmie Page plays it over and over again.  Similar lines were heard in a delta blues song and operatic aria. Ross's hypothesis is that this line is intimately connected to "sad" human exhalation such as exclaiming "Awww" to convey a sense of dismay.  Authors take advantage of this human experience and intrinsically convey a well known emotion.

He thinks Bjork is the most gifted musician of our time, but the show didn't dig into this, and I'm fascinated enough to do some further digging.  I have a few Bjork CDs, but didn't find them gripping at first listen, so will try again.  He is most definitely not a music snob and had kind things to say about a wide variety of genres like death metal, and focused on a couple of bands who play not only good music, but are clearly gifted musicians who know exactly what they're doing with music theory. Radiohead, for example, employs guitar chord changes and formations that are often highly unusual, and must certainly not self-taught. In fact, he said that Radiohead was spurred on by a high school teacher who pushed the then boys in new directions. 

I'm absolutely going to check out the book from the library, and get my 13-year old son to try and listen to the podcast. He's the closest thing to a music enthusiast among the siblings and is intellectual in a way that would find resonance with Ross's points. If he enjoys the podcast then maybe we can read the book together and give hims some exposure to a world of music.  I thoroughly enjoy music and have a huge range of content, but excluding classical.  Ross made a great point on this, and claims he "hates classical music." Not the music itself, but the term, which labels the music as "old" and makes it unapproachable by the vast majority of people, particularly younger ones.  I think it's time that I add a few CDs to my collection and enjoy my forties in a quieter manner.