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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

 

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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

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

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