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

Glimpses Of Huxley?   Leave a comment

Employers: Our New Benevolent Overlords

April 2, 2017

When it comes to conversations, we understand the general boundaries of topicality with our good friends, family members and even some business acquaintances. In general, within those groups almost any topic is allowed with the exception of religion and politics. These two are almost always catalysts that raise the volume and the emotions. In my family, religion was outstripped by politics as a tension-raiser, although I’ve learned to avoid both topics in any of the family’s social get-togethers. Without getting into labels, let’s just say that most of my family lives in rural Wisconsin, Indiana, or Alabama.

Navigating family get-togethers has been good preparation for participation in any conversation. It’s a useful practice for conversing with your boss or employee, client or vendor, representative in local, state, or federal government, or almost any other situation when humans need to speak with one another. (It may also have some application to talking to your dog. But not your cat. Cat’s really don’t give a shit. You just learn to not take their blasé attitude too personally.)

I assume you know or understand a lot of this but for anyone in doubt consider the following. In addition to my admonition about politics and religion, the website The Spruce has a list of conversation topics to avoid unless, as they write “you are with long-time friends who will love you anyway”. Their list: [1] Political Opinions: unless you are at a political rally or convention. [2] Lifestyle pet peeves: unless you are at a function that promotes a specific lifestyle. [3] Age issues: unless you are at an event celebrating an age group. [4] Weight issues: unless you are with a group of people whose goals are to gain or lose weight. [5] Personal finance: unless the other person is your financial advisor or banker. [6] Nitty gritty details about a health problem: unless you are with a group of health professionals who don’t get grossed out from talking about blood and other body fluids. When it comes to personal health, our parents often reassured us by Argue3saying “now, now, let me fix that owie”, or to dismiss us with the warm and fuzzy phrase “oh just suck it up”. Of course there’s a wide variance between those two extremes.

As adults, most of us have a natural reluctance or inhibition to go public and share personal information with people we don’t know, particularly when it’s about our health. (If in doubt, see “Nitty Gritty” above). After all, many feel while it’s tough enough sharing deep thoughts with those for whom we have great affection, it can be much harder with casual acquaintances or with people we’ve just met. In the job market it can be an uncomfortable moment when you’re asked—by a stranger—for personal information. I’m pleased to say I have no felony arrests or convictions, but please don’t ask me about my weight.

Consider the HR (Human Resources) person getting to know you. Poker fans know that it’s best to hold our cards close to our vest, not wanting to prematurely reveal whether we’re holding three aces or a pair of twos. Life, like poker, requires a certain measure of caution and openness; probably more of either than we’d care to admit. Memories of a number of job interviews I’ve had in my life come to mind. On the one hand I have been fortunate to have peers in business and industry pass my name along for job opportunities, which helped open a door here and there. On the other hand, I’ve never been the ‘talented prospect’ sought out by a search firm to fill a vacancy. That being said, I don’t ever remember opening the conversation with “Oh, did I tell you I’m 20 pounds overweight and have a mild case of asthma?” What if our meal preference is a large juicy cheeseburger, a side of French fries and a Coke? When HR asks about our favorite restaurant, we may demur and “recommend” that lovely natural foods cafe on Main Street, while our private thoughts drift to the aroma of a nice greasy cheeseburger. Until we’re completely comfortable with our new friend or our new or prospective employer, discretion is a good watchword, which brings me to some of our republican friends.

To my credit I had at actually heard of GINA, the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act which clearly states that “it is illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information. . . . [And it] prohibits the use of genetic information in making employment decisions.” GINA applies to employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management training and apprenticeship programs, etc. Companies are not allowed to request, require or purchase genetic information, and GINA strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information. But many—if not most—employers don’t like the idea of not being allowed to snoop into a prospective employee’s health history.

Enter the GOP, which all too often sees itself as the self-appointed protector of all things personal, often shouting some outrage about government overreach. The outrage is always there but becomes less credible when they begin mixing their religious beliefs or ‘free-market’ philosophy with health care. The GOP House members’ recent (March 24) unsuccessful effort to repeal the A C A (Obamacare) comes to mind. I had the distinct feeling that they were hoping to replace my healthcare with something that looked less like insurance, and more like the first-aid kit that came with my 1980 Toyota. Their effort shows that some people just want to know and control every little thing we do. And here we are reading about the “Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act” (PEWPA).

As with many bills these days, Congress tends to name it one thing so that it can accomplish something else. This bill is an end-run around GINA. Their desire (with an assist from corporate America) is to protect corporations from hiring anyone who—regardless of the microscopic chance­—might somehow, some day, become ill with a disease they inherited or for which they have become susceptible. These, in many cases, can be found in our gene pool. The New York Times reported that “House Republicans are proposing legislation aimed at making it easier for companies to gather genetic data from workers and their families, including their children, when they collect it as part of a voluntary wellness program.”

PEWPA, was introduced by Representative Virginia Foxx who is—wait for it, a Republican—from, that great state, wait for it, again—North Carolina—who also happens to be the chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. This bill flies in the face of the protections afforded by the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The PEWPA legislation would enable companies to coerce employees into participating in wellness programs that could require them to undergo genetic testing and provide genetic information about themselves and Spytheir families. Although discriminating against workers with genetic abnormalities would be prohibited, it would be very difficult to prove that discrimination had taken place. Your boss might cite some other rationale for hiring or firing. In recent years many have simply dismissed the possibility of ever being forced to hand our DNA over to anyone. In the age of Trump, however, it brings to mind Aldous Huxley envisioning a new, genetically matched universe. Test-tube babies produce near-perfect humans (humans?), becoming employees who wouldn’t burden our corporate health care plans by harboring the potential of genetically-passed diseases. 80 years ago in Brave New World Huxley reminded us: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad.” Watching the GOP it’s possible Huxley‘s world may arrive sooner than we’d like. It may be time to get mad.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

Posted April 15, 2017 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

Van Gogh and Van Zandt: Art & Art   Leave a comment

The Personal and Lasting Nature of Art

March 1, 2017

I like art of all kinds. Music, films, graphic art, paintings (oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc), and I like to visit art museums. It’s not like I spend enormous amounts of time or money these days driving from one museum to the next. Rather it’s my long-held interest in exploring as I’ve traveled. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Louvre and Jeu de Paume, MOMA, Chicago’s Art Institute, and many others. Sometimes the attraction to the art and artist is by chance, and sometimes by design. I recall standing in front of Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and feeling drawn into that scene from three and a half centuries ago, like I am standing among the burghers. But Amsterdam is also home to the Van Gogh Museum, and there are few things to leave as lasting an impression on a visitor as being immersed into the works of Van Gogh. The artist was born 164 years ago this month (March 30, 1853).

593px-van_gogh_self-portrait_with_straw_hat_1887-detroitAmsterdam’s original Van Gogh Museum building had a mezzanine, where you could walk the long, somewhat narrow pathway, with the art hanging on the wall, and a railing
 behind you overlooking the main gallery. The exhibit space enabled one to see an abbreviated progression of the artist’s works. Regardless of the brilliance of his art, hanging and viewing an original or reprint of any number of Van Gogh’s images may be a bit disconcerting. There were many self portraits, and a few years before he died he painted Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887). The intensity of the eyes speaks volumes of the intensity of the artist. In spite of, or because of his artistic intensity, Van Gogh died July 27, 1890, three days after shooting himself with a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver. He was 37. Obviously his brilliant art has survived and thrived for more than a century since his passing.

Music, as regular readers of my column know, has been a passion for most of my life. I sometimes write about musicians I’ve seen, or heard, or met, or all three. One of those musicians was a somewhat soft-spoken troubadour named Townes van Zandt. Before I even met Townes, I knew he was something special. His songwriting was soulful, introspective and speculative. I just happened to ‘discover’ his music while working first, at a college radio station, then a commercial station, and later promoting releases from RCA Records, the big label which happened to distribute the independent Poppy Records label, whose creative owner Kevin Eggers signed a relatively unknown guy named Townes to a recording contract and began releasing new albums. Did you follow that?

It’s best to hear the melody that accompanies the lyrics he wrote, but even without the music, the lyrics alone will provide a little insight into what I’m talking about. Townes’ songs would often quietly break through almost any objective listener’s wall of suspicion and become embedded in their psyche. “Kathleen”, from Our Mother The Mountain, reflects the epitome of a song you could get in your head and have difficulty removing:

“It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.”

Regardless of whom she represented for the singer (girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, lover, prostitute) Kathleen was therapy of one kind or another. Recorded in a slightly more energetic delivery is “Come Tomorrow” from Delta Momma Blues. Some fans and critics dislike the recorder and the small string accompaniment to “Come Tomorrow”. Those same critics probably don’t like the accompaniment to “Kathleen” either. These are superficial critiques. As always the underlying song is the central element.

“Well, it’s strange how many tortured mornings, Fell upon us with no warning, Lookin’ for a smile to beg and borrow, It’s over now, there is no returning, A thousand bridges sadly burning, And light the way I have to walk alone, Come tomorrow.”

Many of van Zandt’s other songs were also in the tortured soul subset.

Each songwriter works within the confines of their own inherent or self-imposed comfort zone. Perhaps all of his boundaries were defined within the confines of soulful lament, regardless of tempo. Nevertheless, Townes was able to reach people with his music. Other musicians knew the value of his writing, as when Emmylou Harris included “If I Needed You” on her Duets album (in this case singing along with Don Williams.) The first verse is quintessential Townes:

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Clearly his best known song is the story of “Pancho & Lefty”. Perhaps Townes was knowingly or subliminally channeling the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or maybe this was just a wistful dream from his childhood in Texas. I loved Townes’ recording, but to be honest, I loved the version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard even more. The song is wonderful, colorful, daring and sad. And that, unfortunately, could also describe his too short life. Townes died at age 52, January 1, 1997. A year after his death, writer Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly:

late-great-tvz-0001Townes never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century.

I never met van Gogh, but I did meet van Zandt. These two artistic supernovae—creative minds, from two different times, and two different worlds—died a century apart. Yet art can transcend borders, languages, cultures, and time. We should not dwell on how they lived or how they died. Instead, focus on the fact that long after their passing, both continue to touch so many people with their passion, their art.

David Steffen

 

 

Note: In March 1970 Townes was passing through Milwaukee on a performance and promotion tour, arriving near his birthday (March 7). To help promote his new album and celebrate his 26th birthday I organized a dinner. Looking back on that evening I recognize that celebrating with Townes was more img-1serendipitous than a matter of brilliant planning. The dinner party, seen in this photograph included (l-r) Townes’ road manager Vin Scelsa, local radio host Bob Reitman, me, radio host John Houghton, Townes, radio programmer Steve Stevens, and RCA Records promotion manager John Hager.

© David Steffen 2017

Tears And Fears   1 comment

Coping In The Age of Goo
February 1, 2017

 

Do you recall the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail? A classic Monty Python comedy.  Loosely—very loosely—incorporating King Arthur, the Round Table, quests, and death. In 10th Century England there was a plague upon the land. (Note: not the 14th century as history records but the 10th as Monty Python records.) So many people were dying that “dead collectors” went through the streets telling good citizens to bring out their dead. One unfortunate citizen’s body was in the process of being collected by the dead collector when the citizen asserts “I’m not dead.” A debate proceeds but after being hit in the head with a club, the “citizen” is now, well, dead.

A few months ago I fully anticipated that by February I would, at the very least, be near the end of channeling Elisabeth Kübler Ross. Her classic model on how we deal with grief is well known: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Understanding these stages is supposed to help us get through the process of dying and death (in that order). Whether it’s our own mortality or that of a family member or friend, we all can relate to Ross’s conclusions. The good news from the stages is that ultimately we all hope to arrive at acceptance. The night of November 8th I went to bed in what I’d describe as something other than denial, but I was clearly aware of what news the Wednesday morning papers would bring. It’s been a little like that for some people since November 9th.

Acceptance arrived, and I spent a couple of months waiting for the pivot. You know, it was to be that moment when Trump, our recently elected Great Orange Overlord (GOO) would come down to earth and govern. Unfortunately, GOO turned out to be unable or unwilling to pivot, and he spent late January issuing edicts. While many of his executive orders got my attention, it was one in particular that struck a nerve: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”. Essentially GOO was following through on his promise to treat Muslims differently than everyone else. And amazingly by design or rank ignorance he managed to do this on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day in which GOO omitted mentioning the slaughter of Jews. One university professor, Daniel Drezner of Tufts, was so incensed by the order and the timing that he let fly an amazing Tweet:

 

“Dear @POTUS: on Holocaust Remembrance Day my synagogue told me the Syrian refugee family we’re sponsoring is not coming. Go fuck yourself.”

 

Drezner later apologized for the closing three-word expression of disfavor, but doubled down on his feelings about the policy. The New York Times offered this: “That [Trump’s executive] order, breathtaking in scope and inflammatory in tone, was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day spoke of the president’s callousness and indifference to history, to America’s deepest lessons about its own values.” From this side of America we are left to wonder if this latest order is GOO’s stalking horse for a laundry list of people, countries, groups, and religions with whom he and his administration disagree. After all, GOO has one prominent supporter suggesting the United States begin registering Muslims, while another thought the WWII Japanese internment camps were “a good precedent”. Think about it; zealous supporters offer Manzanar as a good idea, a good precedent.

In 1988 a seven-year effort to start a family became a reality for us. Our daughter has been amazing. She’s worked as hard as can be to carve a place in society and this month began a new chapter by changing careers, going to work for a tech-related company in San Francisco. I treasure every moment we’ve had and I hope we have many, many more. But it was the rhetoric of GOO and his close associates that made me wonder just what can be next? Our decision to start a family was not surprising—lots of other people have done it, really—but any journey that takes seven years to succeed, as ours did, sort of focuses the mind. Like Star Trek’s character Mr. Spock, a Vulcan who mates only once every seven years, anticipation and success can be a long process.

     Caitie was born on February 7, 1988, and it was an event that I was not able to attend. For that matter, neither was my wife. Caitie was born in Korea. After

chsb seven years of paperwork, interviews, and waiting, we were matched with this wonderful baby who happened to be born in Seoul. In short, my feeling to this day is that it was like winning the lottery. Only better. We flew to Korea, spent three days in Seoul, and returned with our baby on September 2, 1988. As I once said to friends of mine when their first child was born in 1976, ‘the three of you are now one.’ And now so were we.

In June 1989 we sat in the Los Angeles chambers of Judge C. Bernard Kaufman, and he made our adoption final. A year later we were once again in downtown Los Angeles. This time it was at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and where, along with a thousand or so of our closest friends, we were to participate in a ceremony making a lot of people in that hall citizens of the United States. The room was absolutely colorful. There were whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. Too many countries, and too many stories to list, but the common thread was someone in each group was about to receive American Citizenship. That morning there were plenty of flags, kind words, and a collective singing of the National Anthem (and it wasn’t even a ball game.) There were a thousand people saying the pledge of Allegiance, along with the recorded voice of Country star Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless The USA”. Not a dry eye in the house, including mine.

And here we are almost three decades later. It feels like recalling that convention-hall camaraderie today is more important than ever. In 1990 we were all as one at the Citizenship swearing-in ceremony. It was  a kind of tent revival meeting, with everyone hugging strangers, shaking hands, singing together, celebrating for ourselves and for all of those who came before us. So when our leaders begin to register, arrest, intern, and deport people based on family name, skin color, birth country, or religion, we must speak up. This is not what constitutes making America great again. When GOO attempts to turn the clock back a century or two, to some time in America’s past, we must all be aware and engaged. Forget the stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Save those for bad news from the doctor. What we need now is everyone to stand up for everyone else. No exceptions. This country has a constitution, and a history of tolerance. Last month 200-300 people were marching in downtown Gualala, California as part of the post-inaugural Womens March, and it was a genuinely beautiful sight. On that day millions of people reminded us that it is not the time stay in the house and hibernate. Now is the time to pay close attention and let our government hear why the policies of GOO have nothing to do with greatness.

 David Steffen
© 2017 David Steffen

Singing Out: A Little Redemption For Stephen Demetre Georgiou   Leave a comment

By Any Other Name. . .

January 1, 2017

Music is one of life’s universal experiences. Styles and genres may differ, but the idea of some type of music being a central ingredient in each of our lives is a reasonable assumption. Usually for better and occasionally for worse, something about a particular passage or verse connects and begins to echo within the chambers of our brain. Recently, for me, the “better” was a chance listening of a track from the 1980s, “Waiting For A Star To Fall”, a wonderful hit record performed by songwriters George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam (aka Boy Meets Girl). However we’ve all experienced the “worse”, that is some piece of music we’d prefer doesn’t echo or get stuck in our heads. Consider “Plop Plop Fizz Fizz” a tune written as an Alka Seltzer commercial a half-century ago. (My apologies if the plops are once again echoing through your brain.) Technically the phenomenon is referred to as an earworm, a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through your mind long after it has stopped playing. Advertising agencies love it when the song stays with you because, obviously, you remember the product, and that’s the whole point of advertising.

In 1991 the advertising agency Campbell Ewald selected a particular recording for an ongoing campaign for Chevy trucks. Many of us then (and certainly now) are familiar with Bob Seger’s classic recording “Like A Rock”. Rolling Stone tells the tale of Chevy and Seger’s 1991 connection to sports television:

. . . when you tuned in to watch any football game, from the middle of the country to the East and the West, you couldn’t escape Chevrolet’s “Like a Rock” commercial. . . . [To] an entire generation of sports fans who saw the commercial in their formative years while watching their home team on network TV long after the 1970s success of albums like Night Moves and Stranger in Town, [“Like A Rock”] became Seger’s defining song and also the one that evokes the strongest memories of a time in sports and America that feels so long ago.

With Seger providing the ‘soundtrack’, viewers saw slow-motion shots of Chevy trucks effortlessly getting through mud, snow, and water, towing a gigantic load, or climbing a steep hill; along with numerous American flags, good-looking men, strong women, and lovable children. The images became synonymous with Seger’s song. For more than a decade, while some listeners and viewers grew tired of “Like A Rock” many more loved it.

These days ad agencies look for hit records from any decade to make the case for the product they’re selling, yet they will evaluate every recording for any possible risk. That being said, I could not have been more pleasantly surprised to see the latest television commercial for Jeep’s Grand Cherokee Trailhawk and Summit models. As high-tech as these new vehicles are, the Jeep commercial opens with a phonograph. Viewers see a tonearm drop, and the needle settles into a groove on a vinyl record. Yet the juxtaposition of a 2017 Jeep and a 1970s phonograph provide a perfect connection for the music and the product.

Included in the Jeep commercial’s many visuals are two jeeps—one red, one silver, a variety of twenty and thirty-something young adults singing along with the radio, or backpacking; and women doing yoga or boxing for exercise. There’s a series of headshots—a well-dressed Black woman with a buzzcut, and a white male with shoulder-length hair and beard—followed by a split screen of both. Two Jeep SUVs: the male driver of one exits his car and heads for a BBQ diner; the other driver heads toward a vegetarian restaurant. There is (no surprise) an American flag, plus B&W footage of WWII-era jeeps. Numerous bumper stickers declare “I’m With America”, “I Love Animals”, “I’d Rather Be Hunting”, and “America: With Us Or Against Us”. Then a stylized representation of the word “Together” (with cross, crescent, and Star of David,) is followed by “Make Love Not War” and “Support Our Troops”. Finally there are two
together-sticker12stickers, one with a Republican elephant and the other with Democratic donkey. The commercial’s tagline is “What unites us is stronger than what divides us”.

All of this is memorable. But here’s the real interesting part. The music playing underneath all of this, that many of the participants are singing along to is “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”. This track from thirty years ago is perfect for the television commercial but is also a surprising choice. As many of my friends know, I spent almost 20 years at A&M Records. And although already a Cat Stevens fan going back to his 1967 single “Matthew & Son”, it wasn’t until about 1972 or ’73 that I met him in Chicago on one of his concert tour stops. I realized that there was something on every Cat Stevens album released between 1967 and 1990 for me to like. In fact I liked his music so much that two A&M senior staffers—me and Jeff Gold—convinced label president Gil Friesen to let us create a deluxe retrospective CD release covering Steven’s entire career. Great idea.

As we began to develop ideas on what music would be included, who would design the package, how we’d market it and so on, something completely unexpected changed our plans. The trajectory of Cat Stevens’ career changed, as did the worldview of the artist, born Stephen Demetre Georgiou, reborn as Cat Stevens, and reborn again as Yusuf Islam. Caught up in the emotion of the controversy erupting from the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses and the subsequent condemnation of Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini was Yusuf Islam’s reported support for Khomeini’s death threats against Rushdie. Radio stations all over the world opted to discard or destroy any copies of Cat Stevens’ music in their libraries, they condemned him on the air, and Stevens disappeared from much of the public media. The project Jeff and I had begun working on was never completed.

After the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center in New York, and then the September 11 attacks in 2001, this country saw the beginning of the demonization of a religion, instead of a focus on the perpetrators. Emblematic of the manufactured fear after 9/11, Georgiou/Stevens/Islam was not even allowed to travel to the United States (in 2004 he was detained after a flight from London and immediately img-cat-stevens_155554724126returned to the UK.) He has subsequently been allowed in to the United States to tour and perform, but it’s a far cry from the crowds of the 1970s who attended his SRO concerts. Yet today his original 1984 recording of “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” is the foundational backdrop for a television commercial selling two new 2017 Jeep models.

Redemption is a powerful thing, but the United States seems divided like nothing we’ve seen in 150 years. Like attempting to unring a bell, Cat Stevens will never outlive the venom spewed in the wake of the Rushdie mess. Like it or not he owns both his actual and fictional (manufactured) quotes. But even in a divided America, I am reminded that in 1972 Cat Stevens wrote and recorded “Morning Has Broken”, a much-loved gem of his glory years. Within that wonderful song is this passage:  “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning, God’s recreation of the new day.” Happily, every day is a new creation, a re-creation. And so may it be for all of us. It’s better if we sing out. Particularly in these troubling political times.

Posted January 1, 2017 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

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