Old Shoes: The Value of Things   Leave a comment

November 1, 2017

I have a pair of Cole-Haan loafers that I swear are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn. Dennis, our local shoe-repair expert appreciates the shoes far more than anyone in my family. He once asked how long I’ve had them. I quietly whispered “well I bought them in 1988.” I think he liked the idea that I was still wearing them, and I’m grateful he continues to bring them back from the dead every few years. What about you? How Shoes IMG_0341about that pair of comfortable (and tattered) slippers you continue to wear? Or that ratty shirt? Things that bring us some measure of personal comfort are not to be lightly dismissed. Which brings me to public radio. Sometimes it feels as if public radio is like those old shoes of mine. Eminently comfortable.

 

I met then KZYX GM Belinda Rawlins in 2007 and was surprised to find myself working for her a year later. Me, in public radio. But it was stimulating, since KZYX was not a mega station (like KQED in San Francisco) but a truly local idea. Some national content, yet the majority of the programs then and now created by people right here in Mendocino County. And like the county itself, the local programs seem born of the towns, roads, hills, valleys, and rivers; reflecting the wide breadth of taste, interests, and topicality.

 

As a listener, we’re comfortable that Morning Edition turns up every morning, or that Terry Gross brings us a bit of Fresh Air every day. And we take for granted a group of almost 100 dedicated (and unpaid) volunteers who create local programs of local interest; friends and neighbors talking about their vegetable gardens, or bringing us a local view on politics, or food, or the environment. There’s music for every taste, from almost every genre (well no barbershop quartets. . . .) They do this for the pride and love of what they’re doing, and for the audience.

 

It may be difficult to acknowledge but far too many of us take public radio for granted. After all, ‘it gets tons of money from the federal government’ (untrue), ‘it costs nothing to operate’ (also untrue), or ‘everyone else pays for it so I don’t need to.’ This last idea is interesting because in reality, only one-in-ten listeners contributes to public radio. Line up ten random public radio listeners from the Mendonoma coast and the odds are you’ll find that only one of them supports a public station with a financial contribution. There are some essential qualities required to work in public radio. For example, you must be self-motivated, willing to work long and weird hours (often at the same time), and believe in what your doing. You might accept that those traits apply to every job, and perhaps they do. But one of the realities of public radio is the fact that the wolf is regularly at the door. Not always, but he makes an appearance once or twice every year, so everyone understands that public radio is fragile, always a little on the edge.  But we love it and believe it’s worth the long hours, the modest pay, and the angst. We all learn to perform a myriad of jobs at a station like KZYX. I’m ostensibly working on the business side, but on any given day at any time I often find myself in the studio helping out on the air. Or answering the phones. Or cleaning the station’s bathroom; or picking up a volunteer who’s stranded on highway 253 halfway to Ukiah. You name the job, and every staffer has done it at one time or another, and continues to do so. And so it was on the evening of Sunday, October 8.

 

Our Sunday night volunteer programmer began receiving calls from listeners about a fire in or near Redwood Valley. Anyone and everyone who called in to the studio late that night spoke with Bob, who then passed along the anecdotal information to the rest of the listeners. I emphasize ‘anecdotal’ because there were few official reports available. By Fire XMTR 2 22310605_10154962401007967_7592346504480456810_nMonday morning many of us were at the Philo studios providing non-stop information to our listeners. Some time that morning Jeffrey Parker, the station’s General Manager, created a shared online document enabling all of us to add information as we received updates by email, internet, text, and calls from the sheriff, police, highway patrol, volunteer fire departments, Cal-Fire, officials throughout Mendocino, Lake, or Sonoma County, and our listeners. Our news people were shuttling between locations on either side of Highway 101, gathering information from Laytonville to Hopland. And we heard from local residents who wanted to share details gleaned from conversations with local authorities. At one point that shared document of information ran more than twenty pages, totaled almost 3000 words, and enabled us to get fresh information to our listeners quickly.

 

As the days passed we knew that, absent an unexpected rain shower, this fire was going to be with us for another week or more. Every volunteer programmer (and the paid staff) took time every hour (and sometimes more often) to get the information out. Fire XMTR 3 22366841_10154962401507967_8710817202782215739_nNumerous people contacted us on a borrowed phone or by email to tell us their stories. Some cell networks weren’t working, yet some landlines remained active. Internet access was beginning to disappear in many areas, whether it was via satellite dish or cable. Then it got real scary. We were receiving multiple reports of (and from) people who were in the midst of preparing to leave their homes for safer areas, who turned toward the edge of their property and realized they were now out of time. They jumped into their car or truck or bus and hightailed it toward what they hoped would be safer ground. This fire was devouring grasslands, woodlands, sheds, storage facilities, homes, farms, and commercial businesses. Everything and anything in the way was likely to be damaged or destroyed. Over almost two weeks, our staff and volunteers stayed at it. At this writing, the fires are now contained or completely extinguished, but the devastation and rebuilding of lives and property begins.

 

That two weeks of manic efforts on everyone’s part is exactly what public radio is about. Serving everyone in our listening area, not just our members. It’s worth keeping that in mind as we consider just how public radio can be supported. We were fortunate that there was no major damage to the station; the fire came oh so very close to one of the KZYX transmitters but fortunately there was very little apparent damage to the station’s equipment. That’s in stark contrast to the obvious devastation throughout northern California. Everyone affected will need help. And along the way, if you can consider throwing some money toward your local public radio station, that might be a good idea as well.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen
top: those shoes…..
middle: fires across Redwood Valley
bottom: transmitter site.
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The Farmers Market   Leave a comment

Fresh Food. Mmmmmmm.

October 1, 2017

     I don’t really recall my first visit to a farmers’ market. It was probably a local outdoor summer market when we lived in Wonder Lake, Illinois. (Yes, the town is actually called Wonder Lake, and there really is a lake.) In those days McHenry County was one of those postcard-esque pastoral places oozing with charm, farms, lakes, streams, and people (like us) who worked in Chicago but wanted to enjoy living in the country. Our home was an 800 square foot A-frame situated between the Lake and Nippersink Creek. We lived there for two years, and thought about whether we’d find something as charming in Los Angeles. (A&M Records was moving me to California to work out of the ‘home office’ in Hollywood. But that’s another story.)

In a way, we were hearing the distant voice of newspaperman Horace Greely who encouraged one and all to “Go west.” In part his thoughts were wrapped up in an idea of what to do with an abundance of veterans of the American Civil War, finding themselves all too often displaced. The publisher of the New York Tribune may have had another motivation for encouraging westward movement: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

With our own move west, we were ready to see what change would bring, but were nevertheless apprehensive. Once we began looking for a home, we learned that Greely was at least part right. Housing prices were high and headed higher still. The food wasn’t bad but there was plenty of dust in the Santa Clarita Valley, about an hour north of my office in Hollywood. As for the morals, most of my extended family who today live in the midwest would probably chime in that Hollywood’s morals are still deplorable.

Our home purchase budget was limited as we entered the red-hot southern California real estate market of the 1970s. It was not unusual to look at a $60-70,000 tract house on Actor-William-S.-Hart-as--007Saturday, think about it for a few days, and find out five days later that the price had gone up by $2000. So we jumped in. As lovely as it was, Wonder Lake had no real claim to fame. Our new hometown, Newhall, was probably best known as the home of the William S. Hart estate, now a park. Hart was an early silent film star, making many movies and making lots of money between 1915 and 1925.

While working in Hollywood, one of my good friends from Chicago was now also in Hollywood and also working for A&M. Jayne Neches (later Neches-Simon) and I were going to have lunch, and as to “where”, she had a suggestion to make.  We drove south from the A&M offices at Sunset and LaBrea to the general area of 3rd & Fairfax, the location of L.A.’s Farmers Market. Ignore Amish men and women selling produce in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, or any other example of an “original farmers market”. In Hollywood, history is created anew all of the time. And the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax was (and is still) touted as the “original”. When we got there, Jayne looked for a parking space on Fairfax and then opted to have the valet park her car. Yes. Although there was street parking in the area, Jayne found the one (?) lot that had valet parking. As Randy Newman sang, “I Love L. A.” Today that Farmers Market has somewhere close to 100 merchants, offering cell phones, stickers, and keys, and restaurants ranging from Moishe’s Restaurant to Mr. Marcel Pain Vin Et Fromage. It’s like the Galleria Mall from Sherman Oaks was picked up, moved, and re-branded as a farmers market.

Back on earth in Mendocino County, we have numerous farmers markets, and guess what? Almost every stand—produce, bread, coffee, meats, plants, jams, and more—is owned by a local person selling local food or local products. Go figure.

IMG_0313     Last week’s Saturday market was one of those fantastic coastal days. (By the way, we get a lot of those days here on the Mendocino coast, but don’t tell anyone.) The sun was shining, and all of the usual people had set up their tables. Donna had her jams, vegetables, and seaweed products; Allan was offering grapes, green apples, leafy goodies, and micro-greens while Astrid was selling tarts and waffles cooked fresh at the market. A young couple (sorry, didn’t get their names) were selling fresh bread, and I do mean fresh. The plant lady was there selling house and small garden plants perfect for our climate, which means they don’t require an excessive amount of water. Tom was selling his Little Green Bean coffee. A musician was playing his battery-powered electric keyboard, the handmade jewelry stand was open. Wing and Zoe of Westside Farm  had set up their tables (above, right), and Abby and Sammy from Oz Farm (left, below) were getting their IMG_0316goods ready. Both Westside and Oz displayed their beautiful food as if there was a competition to see who could make their produce for a photo shoot. On this Saturday, it was a tie.

The market officially opens at 9:30am, and we reluctantly recognize the official start time. That doesn’t hold back the ‘drool factor’  as the regular shoppers begin to gather near  the tables, all the while voicing varying levels of desire. “I want her heirloom tomatoes.” “I want those bell peppers.” “Did you see those raspberries?” “The apples look amazing.” At 9:15am the early shoppers—me included—hover like sharks waiting for the right moment to strike. Then all at once, at exactly 9:30am, there’s a mild frenzy, almost always good natured. Having spent my $40 budget for the week on large garlic, fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, green beans, rainbow chard, winesap apples, basil, and Russian kale (holy shit, I actually bought kale. My mother would be so proud and also probably dumbfounded). As always I get a cup of Tom’s coffee to go. By 10:30 the second wave of sleepier shoppers show up, but the early shoppers have already headed home. We got the good stuff.

The glitz of the stores at 3rd and Fairfax belie the reality of just what constitutes a farmers market. As corporate farms continue to pump out tons of red this, green that, and yellow somethin’ else, they’re often just selling ‘stuff’ that may look good as in, for example, tasteless rock-hard tomatoes from Florida. Here on the coast we continue to lament the last day of the farmers market around November 1, and start counting the days until our fresh local food returns in April or May. To Allan, and Astrid, and Donna, and Abby and Sammi, and Wing, and Zoe, Tom, and everyone else, thank you.

David Steffen

©2017 David Steffen

Of Butterflies And Being The Change   Leave a comment

Touchstones and Memories

September 1, 2017

   “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play,” and so begins one of the most storied albums of 20th century popular music. Many of us didn’t truly recognize it at the time but in less than a decade, the Beatles accomplished what no other musician or musical group had successfully done before. In short, the band (with help of producers George Martin and later, Phil Spector) amassed a body of work that between 1963 and 1970, was both prolific, and musically groundbreaking. The Beatles constantly reinvented their music with each album. And, of course, their changing looks 0002___the_beatles___sergeant_pepper_s_by_sunsetcolors-d8miece(appearance) and their politics, were mirrored in the evolution of those recordings. Their influence on generations of musicians and groups is obvious. Perhaps The Rolling Stones would have evolved the way they did without the Beatles, but then again . . . . Same for Brian Wilson and what he accomplished under the Beach Boys ‘brand’. The Beatles caused change. They were change. Although solo recordings continued, the Beatles as a group were done by 1970.

     Immortalized by Don McLean in 1971, “American Pie” rewrote a mini-history of popular music, with too many people focusing on the three who died in the tragic 1959 crash at Clear Lake, Iowa. But McLean also sang buddy_holly_crash_headlines_0_1454436853about the much more (then) recent tragic death of Janis Joplin (October 4, 1970): “I met a girl who sang the blues, I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.” In less than 12 months three meteoric pop stars died: Joplin, Jimi Hendrix (September 18, 1970), and Jim Morrison (July 3, 1971). We are reaching a point in time where “The Day The Music Died” has little meaning for the vast majority of music lovers because the lives of the generation that was, as McLean wrote, “lost in space’,  are nearing their inevitable conclusions.

     All of this came to mind last month when I was reminded that it had been forty years since what some might suggest was the last major “day the music died”. In August 1977, at 9:30am, I was in Tempe, Arizona, standing at Tower Records, talking with the store manager. I observed and couldn’t get over how many people were in the store so early, coming in, buying a few records or a stack of vinyl albums, and leaving the store at such a relatively early hour. One look at what they were buying solved the mystery. People were coming to Tower because they knew they would find lots of Elvis Presley records. Tower, after all, was known for the wide aisles filled with stacks and stacks of vinyl records, not to mention all of the records in the bins.

     Elvis died on August 16, 1977 and I was watching as shopper after shopper carried 5 or 10, or 20 Presley vinyl records to the cash register. Nothing but Elvis! I spoke with some of these early morning shoppers who were buying these vinyl albums, and found there were conflicting motivations. Some thought that once he was dead the label would stop pressing these albums. Really. Some believed that the albums purchased on the day Elvis died would be more valuable because they had a receipt that proved they were purchased on that infamous day. Others believed that the vinyl albums pressed (manufactured) months or years later would be of lesser quality because Elvis wasn’t going to be around to make certain RCA Records hadn’t let the quality slip. And still others had no profit motive or fear of crummy vinyl. They were crying or on the verge of tears because they felt so awful about the death of “The King”.

     I’ve written about my own memories of hearing records like “All Shook Up” and “Suspicious minds”—two recordings more than a decade apart—and so many others that remind me of the importance of Presley in America’s (and for that matter, the world’s) psyche. To be certain, not every Presley record is worthy of such veneration. Nor is every Beatles recording, or that of any other artist or songwriter. Ignoring the success—for the moment—does Barry Mann’s authorship of the 1961 hit “Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)” rise to the level of pride he (and co-writer/wife Cynthia Weill) have in their having written “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” for the Righteous Brothers? Not every song is a touchstone (although many songs are), and the same goes for recording artists.

     We may never observe or encounter another music figure who is recalled so emotionally ten, twenty, or forty years after their death. And that’s the way of things. In fact, as I was writing this the media reminded me that on this day (August 31) it would be twenty years since the death of Princess Diana.

     Let me state for the record: I was not alive for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. However, I know where I was when JFK was killed. And Martin. And Bobby.  Some dion-abraham-martin-and-john-laurie-2people probably connect those dots only through Dion’s recording of “Abraham, Martin, and John”. But every day we collect moments, many of which are lost somewhere in our gray matter; but some stay with us because they meant something to us, then or now. I saw Elvis in concert on June 16, 1972 at Chicago Stadium. (My wife came down with the flu and to this day, wished she had gone to the Elvis Presley concert and ralphed in the aisle instead of giving up her seat.) I’m happy I saw him but it wasn’t life-changing. What is life-changing is how we enjoy, observe, and address events within our time. We always need to keep a perspective and know that individually we cannot change the world. But we should change what we can. I believe change can be like the “butterfly effect”. Small efforts and causes can have a larger effect. In these somewhat (?) tumultuous times let’s all decide to be the change.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

Posted September 3, 2017 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

All Things Must Pass   Leave a comment

Darkness and Light
August 1, 2017

What child growing up in the dawn of television didn’t appreciate the wonder coming through that 8”, then 12”, then glory of glories, a 15” screen? All of that entertainment beaming into our living rooms in crisp (sort of crisp) black and white images. I had color all around me and more right outside our front door, so watching television programs in black & white was no hardship. I remember some of my friends—a few pegs above our home in family income—telling me about their COLOR televisions. Quite an investment for one or two programs per week.

NBC was the network that inaugurated color broadcasting—Colorcasting—November 22, 1953 with The Colgate Comedy Hour and six weeks later with the 1954 “Tournament of Roses Parade”. With the early 1960s arrival of Disney’s re-branded Wonderful World Of Color,  and the western-themed hit show Bonanza, black and white programs would the-wizard-of-oz-2continue but own a constantly diminishing share of network offerings. The world of television would soon be colorful.

     In a world of televised color, a staple of independent television stations for years was a seemingly endless catalog of black and white films. To be sure, color films began the inevitable migration to color television, but for independent stations, black and white movies continued to be a cornerstone of programming.  I’m always reminded of the moment I first watched the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz as it transformed itself from sepia tone to color. The drama of Dorothy opening the door of her black and white Kansas house into a Technicolor Oz was a brilliant idea. Ironically, some of my friends tell me that today Kansas feels more and more like the entire state is back in sepia tone. Never mind that. Like Dorothy in Oz, today we open our doors on the Mendocino coast and see the world in color, with that big blue Pacific Ocean by our side.

     Mark Twain needs no introduction. His original storytelling has transcended ideologies, generations, wars, depressions, and recessions. TwainBorn in 1835, he made it to age 74. No small feat considering early 19th century medicine, wars, superstitions, etc., pushed the average American life expectancy in 1835 to about 40 (today it’s 76.) Twain’s longevity provided ample time for him to create a body of literary works, successful in his life, and reimagined after his death through their film adaptation by Hollywood studios. One of those films was A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. The idea of being transported to an earlier time—whether the result of one’s magic or an anomaly of science—is intriguing, particularly when we wish to right some wrong, offer some help, or just stroll through a world totally at odds with our own.

     In Twain’s story the ‘yankee’ is accused of being a witch of some type. As he is prepared for execution he realizes he knows something his Arthurian hosts would not: There is to be an eclipse, and that little piece of information is how Sir Guy (our hero) confounds his accusers and forces them to cancel his death sentence. The king at one point had offered up “even to the halving of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the sun!”   Sir Guy continued the ruse. After all, he could not stop the eclipse.

“The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed. I now said: ‘I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good, or restore it, shall rest with you.’”

Having negotiated a fee for his services, the eclipse continued but the people of the kingdom had Sir Guy’s promise that the darkness would retreat. And so it did.
A_Connecticut_Yankee_in_King_Arthur_s_Court-696762606-largeI have always loved the film, and Twain’s imagination was hardly derivative. He was a wonderful writer. But you already knew that.

     On the 21st of August, many Americans too shall experience the power of the universe with an eclipse across our continent. We already know that this is a simple matter of science as one astral object gets in the way of another. In this case, Earth’s moon will travel between our planet and our sun. As I said, science.  But just the same, in these uncomfortable times, living in a country where more than half the population did not vote for its ‘leader’, many wonder daily just what the hell is going on with our government. And on August 21st, do we need a heavenly reminder that fate may be in the hands of others?

     “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves”. The first time I heard that phrase was not in a classic lit class. It was hearing Edward R. Murrow utter the phrase on CBS television as he was creating groundbreaking television journalism. Murrow, obviously, was quoting Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar, Act I Scene III. The phrase goes,

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  Cassius is, in fact, attempting to persuade Brutus to stop Caesar from becoming a monarch, and stopping Caesar is what Cassius believes is in the best interest of the country. He is arguing that it is not fate, but their weak position, which is exploiting them to act against their will.

These days most of us are unlikely to attempt to dissuade a powerful crazy person, say, some country’s leader, from continuing to appear irrational (or worse) or to continue to act, well, crazy. Even if a country’s leader already sees himself as a monarch, society must work together to keep us from entering days that are even darker. I believe it makes sense, at least this month, to use Twain’s story and this month’s August 21st total eclipse as a metaphor for our times. For many of us, it may be getting darker with each day’s headlines. But we will all emerge from the darkness. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote,

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle !
Be a hero in the strife !

eclipse-total-solar-11-13-2012-nasa.jpg

Wherever we can we must strive to build a world not destroy it. This month’s eclipse will be wondrous and memorable. But it is a fleeting moment (2 hours, more or less) of partial and (for a couple of minutes) total darkness. The sun will reappear. How do I know this? George Harrison’s words should give us some faith:

“All Things Must Pass”.

Posted August 6, 2017 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

Credible News. Seems Simple, But. . . .   Leave a comment

Challenging The False Narrative From #45

June 1, 2017

I’ve always been an early-riser. As a child my mother found that my body clock was set for 5:00am. She dealt with this reality as would any mother wishing to keep her sanity. Since she worked 3rd shift as a registered nurse (and didn’t return home until 7:30am,) I accepted her guidance. My mother taught me how to make my own breakfast, and provided me with an understanding of why I would live longer if I didn’t wake everyone else in the house at 5:00am. It was no surprise that years later when I delivered papers in Milwaukee, I worked for the morning paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel.

To my own surprise (based on my early years in school) I find that I read a lot these days. It’s a habit I developed in the 1970s while living in Chicago, where I became a regular reader of the Chicago Sun-Times. That choice—Sun-Times vs. Chicago Tribune—was based on two simple ideas: first, the story selection and the writing style of the Sun-Times connected with me; second, I preferred the physical size and shape of the the Sun-Times tabloid format vs. the Chicago Tribune’s broadsheet. It didn’t matter that the Tribune was larger (in number of pages and readers) and far more powerful than the Sun-Times. We all have our preferences.

The Chicago Sun-Times always seemed grittier to me, more blue-collar than white collar; more Main Street than Wall Street. Looking back to those days in Chicago my memory paints a picture of a Sun-Times that was something of a real-life version of The Sun in Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper, or The Day in Richard Brooks’ 1952 film Deadline U.S.A. In fact, as I recall the Sun-Times was the backdrop for the 1981 film Continental Divide Belushicd02starring John Belushi as a gritty reporter. Moving to Los Angeles in 1977 didn’t change my habits; just the names of the papers. As a resident I looked to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and The Los Angeles Times. Both were pale versions of the Chicago papers but for more than a decade I followed the world through the lens of the Los Angeles papers. And as I began working nationally and internationally, I also expanded my reading list to include the New York Times, which I continue to read today, along with the Washington Post and occasionally the Press Democrat here on the coast.

There’s a scene in the 1977 film Futureworld, where the film’s two lead characters—a TV reporter played by Blythe Danner and a print reporter played by Peter Fonda—talk about which is more important and more popular for getting news and information. After a brief exchange (and the question remaining unresolved) they turn to a stranger. The Fonda character asks the man if he gets his news from television or newspapers? His response went something like this: “Me? I’m a tube freak, man”.  The film may be 40 years old but looking at the media landscape today, it seems that the ‘tube freak’ was on to something. According to a recent Pew Research analysis, “. . . TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind.” The analysis goes on to confirm that “the greatest portion of U.S. adults, 46%, prefer to watch news rather than read it (35%) or listen to (17%).”

How we get news is less important, in my opinion, than the credibility of the news we get. There’s no question that our current president, number 45, likes to talk about ‘fake news’ as a way to explain his “stolen popular vote”, or the smaller crowds at his inaugural, or the popular resistance to his gutting of the social safety net and his denial of climate change. I don’t care if #45 believes Martians or Mexicans voted illegally to keep him from winning the popular vote. I just wish he’d either start governing or pack up his marbles and go home. Either is preferable to the continuing mistrust he sows in our society.

A couple of weeks ago I started watching 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in part perhaps, to help me believe that our government might start governing. Alas, I didn’t watch the entire movie because I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that there is even one strong and honorable “Jefferson Smith” residing in today’s U.S. Senate. I’d even settle for the film’s Senator “Joseph Paine” to come to mr_smith_goes_to_washington_61073-1920x1200our rescue, and tell him to keep some of the graft for his effort. Governing isn’t a lost cause, but fake news is pushing us in that direction.

Jacob Soll wrote in Politico last December that “fake news’ dates back almost 600 years, essentially since Gutenberg in 1439. As an example Soll offers this nugget: “To whip up revolutionary fervor, Ben Franklin himself concocted propaganda stories about murderous “scalping” Indians working in league with the British King George III.” With the consolidation of news outlets, local beat reporters are an endangered species, and regional and national reporters are at the very least a group under threat. Soll concludes that “Real news is not coming back in any tangible way on a competitive local level, or as a driver of opinion in a world where the majority of the population does not rely on professionally reported news sources and so much news is filtered via social media, and by governments. And as real news recedes, fake news will grow. We’ve seen the terrifying results this has had in the past—and our biggest challenge will be to find a new way to combat the rising tide.”

I’ll keep looking for real news and pass along what I find. I hope you’ll do the same.

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Haven’t I Heard That Before?   Leave a comment

A Chance Conversation On Creativity

May 1, 2017

Intellectuals around us may dwell on a long accepted conclusion that our perception in the world is driven by a cerebral battle: “left brain” vs. “right brain”. The left brain is thought to be our realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical side, while the right brain is our creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic side.

A million years ago—OK less than that but far more years than I’d care to recount—I traveled to New York on a high school class trip. Flying from Milwaukee to New York was in and of itself a stimulating experience. Of course there were a few must-see tourist stops including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. At Radio City Music Hall I witnessed a performance by the world-famous Rockettes. These were (and are) talented women who can probably out- dance most men. If that claim is surprising to some, remember Bob Thaves classic 1982 quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:
“Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards. . . and in high heels.”

Beyond talent, what hormonally-challenged high school senior boy or girl then (or even now) wouldn’t remember a chorus line made up of thirty beautiful long-legged women? Thinking about the Rockettes is not simply to revisit a teenage fantasy. The reality is that the beauty, talent, physical strength, and the choreography that embodied their routine then and now is not to be taken lightly.

The arts—dance, theater, graphic art, music, film, prose, poetry, etc—stimulate. Creativity is all around us, appealing to our individual and collective humanity, and penetrating that left-brain/right brain battle in a variety of aural, visual, and emotional layers. Within every human being there is a creative receptor—we take in external stimuli; creativity to simultaneously evaluate and appreciate. And we possess a creative generator which enables us to export our creativity. The receptor is that internal recognition of like, love, dislike, or antipathy. The generator is our ability to share our creativity with others. None of this is to suggest that everyone has a creative talent that can result in commercial success. We wish.

Herb Alpert (with his partner Jerry Moss) was the co-founder of A&M Records. I’ve known Herb and his wife Lani Hall for forty years. We’re not close friends or even social friends, but nevertheless, we are friends. After the sale of A&M Records in 1990 I moved to New York to work for another label. Quite unexpectedly in the mid-1990s I ran into Herb and Lani at London’s Heathrow Airport. It turned out we were all flying to New York on the same British Airways flight. Herb always strikes me as a shy person with a successful public persona wrapped around his outside. And to be certain, whether in private or in public his friendly manner and inherent integrity come through. I’d add that a conversation with Herb, even a chance encounter, offers an opportunity to renew the friendship, and to learn something from an old friend.

That evening at Heathrow we had a conversation that, duh, touched on the creative process. One of the topics was the 1976 copyright infringement lawsuit brought against the late George Harrison by the songwriter of the Chiffons’ 1960s hit single “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison lost the suit.) The question for Herb was “with millions of songs under copyright, just how much is distinctly (or distinctively) new in any new musical composition, in any new song? His response, as I recall, went something like this: “Listen. Think about a piano FULL SHARPS AND FLATSkeyboard. There may be 88 keys, but there are just 12 notes; that is, 12 in each octave, including sharps and flats. So almost all “new” music is derivative to some extent because songwriters have just 12 notes to work with.” Herb was not suggesting that all, many, or even some new songs may be ripping off songs that came before them. Just like the multitude of simple three and four-chord hits of the 1950s and 1960s, if one listens closely enough a connection can often be made between any number of songs, but that doesn’t lead to a conclusion that there was a theft of intellectual property.

When we think of art, we enter another realm of original thought and outside influence. If your taste is in oils, chalks, acrylics, and watercolors, you might consider the Campbell Soup can. Designed in 1902, it became iconic on the shelves of grocery stores and yet CampbellsCollage_0became new again sixty years later when Andy Warhol created a painting of the Campbell Soup can as art. To many, Warhol wasn’t being original, or cutting edge but was lazy, “copying” an instantly recognizable image. The blog Food Republic put it this way: “While Andy Warhol can be credited for establishing the classic Campbell’s soup can as an iconographic pop art emblem, he never would have appropriated its imagery had it not already been iconic in its own right.” Appropriating (borrowing, copying, taking, etc.) an idea and remaking it is old stuff.

We take in information all of those worldly influences and what comes out is our view of the world, or a tree, or a dog, or a pop song. But was it simply left brain vs right? An article in Scientific American took aim at the creativity:

. . . the entire creative process from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification con- sists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depend- ing on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task. Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.

So whether it’s the Rockettes, George Harrison, the Chiffons, or Andy Warhol, we might do well to remember T.S. Elliot reflecting on poetry: “One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

That’s my take on popular music in all genres and forms. If you are influenced by a composition and make something better, even wonderful, you’re borrowing and no harm, no foul. If you were influenced and “defaced” what you borrowed, well that’s another matter altogether. My only caveat is to always credit the source of the inspiration.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2017

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