Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

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

The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Stories of Heroes, Despots, Killers, Musicians, and Things That Go Bump. . . .   Leave a comment

About Some Of My Favorite Books

October 1, 2016

For two decades I was a road warrior, traveling on company business around the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many of those road trips were the long-haul variety, to New York or Toronto, London or Tokyo. A constant traveling companion for me on those journeys was a book, sometimes two. Books were excellent companions for frequent flyers, all of us happily oblivious in those pre-smartphone days, with no hint of the on-board tech-driven in-flight annoyances to come. With the Lighthouse Peddler’s  regular book contributor Joel Crockett taking a well-deserved leave from writing for a few months, I decided try and fill his shoes by reconsidering some of those literary traveling companions of mine.

Crafting a story based on fact can sometimes be more difficult than it seems. Subsequently adapting that non-fiction story for film can be even more daunting. I recall seeing a preview for the soon-to-be-released film All The President’s Men (1976) and couldn’t wait to see it. A friend of mine was surprised that I had such anticipation for the film adaptation of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the fall of Richard Nixon. My friend said, “why would you want to see that film?  Everybody knows how it ends.” But that is what separates many/most of those aspiring to literary success from successful writers.

In the early 1980s I found myself on a Pan Am flight to London clutching The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. My copy of this classic, Wolfe’s 8th book, shows the wear and tear of all that travel. When I pulled it out of the bookshelf in our home this weekend, an Eastern Airlines “seat occupied” card fell out of the pages. Eastern was once one of the “Big Four” domestic airlines, and like Pan Am, it had a glorious history, only to be eclipsed by a dramatically changed travel industry. Coincidentally, the glory days of Eastern Airlines and Pan Am paralleled many of NASA’s as well.

The Right Stuff is an amazing book. Most people, these days, are at least familiar with NASA and know some history of the early space program, and the lives of those early pioneers. There was Chuck Yeager; not destined to be an astronaut but a legend nonetheless. Gus img_1782Grissom, Wally Schirra, John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and all of the other wannabe ‘spacemen’ are here. Wolfe’s recounting ranges from stool specimens to test flights, and then the final glory of being selected to sit on top of a rocket and be hurled into space and history. The Right Stuff was a ‘page-turner’ as they say. I recall a British Pan Am flight attendant, observing my reading material on that London flight. She simply looked at me and said, “powerful stuff, that!”. Understatement of the day. And Wolfe told this amazing story in just over 400 pages.

In 2001 I did some reading as part of my graduate research in New York for a class taught by Professor Robin Blackburn, a regular guest lecturer from London, on the subject of the slave trade. In addition to Blackburn’s own fine books—The Making of New World Slavery (1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (1988)—I selected img_1787Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost. The subtitle pretty much says it all: “A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa”. In just 318 pages, one gains a thorough understanding of the contemptible nature, the arrogance, and the greed of many of our European Ancestors, and the baggage left behind on three continents. I loved King Leopold’s Ghost. There is imagery in and between the lines to give you pause, but then perhaps the slave trade and colonial exploitation should continue to give pause to us all.

I rarely read fiction, but another college assignment back in 2000 was The Killer Angels, the gripping and historically accurate look at the Battle of Gettysburg. My copy of Michael Shaara’s book is a pocket-sized, inexpensive hard cover edition. But once again, a writer proves that using more words is not always a necessity. How those words are put together is the test. Like All The President’s Men, we all know (or should know) how the Gettysburg story ends, yet Shaara take’s the horror and the drama and refines it into an amazing literary work. The imagery is outstanding. As the days of fighting took their toll, the Battle of Gettysburg was nearing its conclusion. “[General Robert E.] Lee came out of the mists. He was tall and gray on that marvelous horse, riding majestically forward in the gray light of morning outlined against the sky.” Shaara writes so well that you’d swear he was sitting on a bluff overlooking the bloody fields. In July of 1863 the American Civil War was at its turning point. Many more lives would be lost, with sacrifices on both sides. Books like The Killer Angels speak to George Santayana’s mind: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The more casual we speak of war, the more likely we are to reaffirm Santayana’s words.

If Wolfe, Hochschild, and Shaara don’t interest you, there are plenty of other good books around, probably in stock at your local independent book seller. Here are a few more older titles that I recommend:

The Last Lion, William Manchester’s trilogy on the life of Winston Churchill. I found volume one fabulous, volume two a little slow at times but worth the read. I picked up a copy of the final volume at Four-Eyed Frog some months back and its nearing the top of my reading pile.

Lawrence In Arabia is Scott Anderson’s look at the great Thomas Edward “T.E.” Lawrence. Note the title emphasis: in, not of. This is about the complexities of the man and his img_1785adventures, and not simply the T.E. we saw in the grandeur of David Lean’s marvelous 1962 film. The pages are filled with the real dirt and grit that Lawrence lived. And Anderson knows how to tell the story.

Meet Me At Jim & Andy’s: Jazz Musician’s And Their World by Gene Lees. This book came out of a reading assignment some twenty years ago. Lees takes a look at some well known (and less well known) musicians from the world of Jazz. There’s Shorty Pederstein (. . . me either), Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Frank Rosolino, Bill Evans, Art Farmer, and others. You will absolutely learn something about Jazz, Jazz musicians, and the desire to express oneself through music. This book is a bit tougher to find, but it’s worth it.

My wife taught me years ago that there remains a tactile wonder when turning the pages of a book. Just browsing the aisles of the Four-Eyed Frog or other bookstores we’re aware that there isn’t really any such connection when reading with the glowing screen of a Kindle or an iPad. But however you choose to read, do it again. Even if it’s for the first time. And don’t wait for a long flight to London.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

Honey, It’s Always About The Sax   Leave a comment

Back on Baker Street

September 1, 2016

I’m a passable musician, which means I play just well enough these days to be acceptable, i.e. sufficiently proficient to pass myself off as a musician. This is not meant to be some self-deprecating, aw shucks sort of evaluation. As the character of SFPD detective ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan once stated, “a man’s just got to know his limitations”. Don’t get me wrong. My days of playing guitar, electric bass, and piano were thoroughly enjoyable, but surrounded by so many talented musicians over the last thirty-plus years I’ve chosen to spend more time listening to others, and less time applying my talents to any instrument.

Over the years I’ve picked up other’s instruments as often as my own, usually to help a friend move his stuff from apartment ‘a‘ to apartment ‘b’. Although having never taken a saxophone lesson or attempted to play the sax in some random moment, just picking up a friend’s alto sax provided a bit of an epiphany. The design, the aesthetics, the mechanical features ooze an obvious sensuality. One’s eye can unexpectedly travel from the mouthpiece, down the neck to the bow and up to the bell. Between the beginning and the end of that journey there exists a landscape with reeds, keys, screws, pins, tone holes, guards, and probably a myriad of other components I didn’t know were there. And when the saxophone is played by someone who knows what they’re doing, the sound that comes out of that bell hits you. It’s like a massage, where a qualified individual plays various parts of your back to make your senses come to life. Music can have that effect. It reaches into your being without coming in physical contact. And certain recordings or live performances can pass through the dermis and take up residence, even if just for five or ten minutes at a time.

The saxophone is certainly not the only instrument that can evoke feelings, including those of an erotic nature but it is, perhaps, more likely than other instruments to strike a nerve. With all due respect to my friends who are fabulous on the guitar, or the piano, or the bass, or the drums, or any other instrument, it ain’t about your musicianship. I was fortunate enough to see the late Clarence Clemons perform with the E Street Band on four occasions, and still appreciate hearing him wail on Springsteen’s catalog of recordings. But seeing him on stage you know this man and the saxophone were one complete

candy-dulfer

Candy Dulfer

expression of great music. The Dutch jazz musician Candy Dulfer is another player who can speak through her instrument, creating a perfect mood as exemplified in the title track from the film score for Lily Was Here (1989). Or Tim Cappello stepping out on “We Don’t Need Another Hero”, Tina Turner’s hit from the film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). These players may not be in the same stratosphere as John Coltrane, but Coltrane wasn’t like these players either. Clearly the artistry in A Love Supreme resides in another realm from tracks like “Born To Run” or “Lily Was Here” or “We Don’t Need Another Hero”. Yet music, happily, is not a zero-sum game. We’re allowed to like a variety of styles, multiple genres, many musicians, and so on.

As 1973 began, A&M Records looked like it was starting the year off right. One of the first A&M singles released that year was “Stuck In The Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, the UK duo of  Joe Egan and Gerry Rafferty. The track was a worldwide hit. Here in the States the single debuted at #86 in Billboard on March 3, 1973, peaking at #6 on May 12. The band never repeated that success, and reportedly spent the next three years fighting about records, royalties, creative differences—you know, just another day in the music business. But one-half of the band hit it big almost five years to the day later with the release of the single “Baker Street”. Gerry Rafferty’s solo recording peaked at #2 on June 24, 1978 and stayed there for six weeks. To be sure, #2 wasn’t bad, but still the single deserved better. Unfortunately it was the dawn of the dance/disco age, and Rafferty got stuck behind a #1 hit by Andy Gibb. Gibb’s brothers had a band you may have heard of: The Bee Gees, and the Bee Gees were on a hot streak due primarily to the success of the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever. Nevertheless brother Andy’s totally forgettable hit “Shadow Dancing” kept “Baker Street” from reaching number one for those six weeks, and Billboard Magazine and the American public should be forever embarrased by that bit of music history.

“Baker Street” was a moment in time. Rafferty (who died in 2011) had penned a terrific song. The message of the song included common themes many of us have experienced, as reflected in the lyrics (below). But the recording is memorable for more than the lyrics, the rich guitar, the

286249-gerry

Gerry Rafferty

synthesizer, and the other rhythmic elements. What got everyone to pay attention was the saxophone. As the track begins, the instrumentation is almost ethereal for 20 seconds or so, and then that alto sax lights up the experience for another 30-40 seconds. Rafferty doesn’t begin singing until we’re one minute into the track; after a minute of Rafferty, the alto once again opens up. And that’s the basic rotation of the six minutes of music:

Instrumental•vocal•instrumental•vocal•instrumental•instrumental •instrumental.

You get the drift. Rafferty is the recording artist and the songwriter, and the driving force behind the project. Yet the real star of “Baker Street” is Raphael Ravenscroft (1954-2014), the then 23-year old saxophonist, hired as a studio musician. During the recording

Ravenscroft530c5e568e184129630f6a706700eb04

Raphael Ravenscroft

session Ravenscroft “only” created the riff that almost 40 years later continues to instantly identify the recording as “Baker Street”. He earned union scale of about $50 (£27) for the session, and yet it is his sax solo that provides instant recognition when we hear “Baker Street”. The recording would be significantly less without Ravenscroft.

If the saxophone has been heretofore a bit under-appreciated in your world, expand your horizons. Consider what this instrument brings to the performance, to the recording. Whether it’s Clarence Clemons, Candy Dulfer, Tim Cappello, or Raphael Ravenscroft, without their contributions, these recordings—at the very least—would have been less than they are. Like chocolate ice cream or lobster tail, a Chevy Camaro or BMW, or a glass of Coca Cola or wine at sunset on the Mendocino Coast, we know the good stuff when we taste it, drink it, drive it, savor it or hear it. Enjoy it now. Go back and listen once again, or discover a recording you should know. There’s no time like the present and few recordings are as durable and as wonderful as “Baker Street”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen

He’s got this dream about buyin’ some land

He’s gonna give up the booze and the one night stands

And then he’ll settle down, it’s a quiet little town

And forget about everything

But you know he’ll always keep moving

You know he’s never gonna stop moving

‘Cause he’s rollin’, He’s the rolling stone

And when you wake up it’s a new morning

The sun is shining, it’s a new morning

And you’re going, you’re going home

Uber Vs Lyft: Competing For Customers Takes More Than Size and Arrogance.   1 comment

On The Value of Being Valued

July 25, 2015

Most of us are familiar with the word “uber” (with or without an umlaut.)  It may only have been wishful thinking to assume that Uber selected the company name as innocently as anyone might imagine. “Uber”. Cute. Playful. Says a lot or means nothing. Having read the fall 2014 BuzzFeed story about the posturing of Uber executives, my thoughts evolved from a benign warm and fuzzy reaction t the name (and, by extension, the company), and gravitated to images more closely associated with black & white movies from post-WW II Hollywood. I started seeing it less as a group of cheerful, folksy, responsible drivers operating vehicles in a point-to-point transport service, and instead envisioned a company bent on accumulating information and utilizing it much like the NSA. I’m no fan of Edward Snowden, but I momentarily longed-for a Snowden-like individual within Uber (the company) who would take a thumb-drive loaded with über-classified Uber documents and bare the company’s secrets to the world.

The story in BuzzFeed (and carried widely,) was less focused on a rising company, and more on a darker internal culture that might be developing within this burgeoning transportation mega-corporation. Was Uber flexing its tech-savviness into shaping its press through intimidation? Unhappy with an article written by Pando’s Sarah Lacy, Uber’s Senior Vice President of Business, Emil Michael, went public with his displeasure, as recounted by BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith:

Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.

Here we go. A pissed-off executive threatening the media. It’s an old story with a 21st-Century spin. You don’t like the press? Buy a media company. You’re unhappy with a story? Attack the journalist(s). While I won’t get between the executive (Mr. Michael) and the journalist (Ms. Lacy), I’m constantly surprised by corporate executives who, unhappy with a story about them or their business, appear more interested in polishing a turd than making certain the company is being a responsible corporate citizen.

I recall a conversation in the early 1980s which seems relevant. A very senior executive at a (then) major record label in the American music industry requested that his LP manufacturer (and distributor) send him samples of some recent releases. When the box arrived, it was obvious that these records had been sold and returned, or mishandled at the record pressing plant, or dropped, opened, resealed. The point is, they were anything but freshly-pressed, factory-sealed, pristine examples of the vinyl albums. The label executive mentioned the poor condition of the LPs during a subsequent conversation with the president of the larger corporation. His response was “you should have called me. They know how to handle my requests.” He didn’t care that the LPs, the product he was manufacturing and distributing, arrived in poor shape; after all, his LPs always arrived in perfect condition. The bottom line thirty years ago? Any daily shipments were subject to the importance of the person making the request. Fast forward to 2014 and Uber. Had Mr. Michael taken the time to investigate the unflattering story by journalist Sarah Lacy, he might have learned something about his company, his product, himself, and how to continue to shape the company into one which the employees, stockholders, drivers, everyone, would be proud to work for, invest in, become a part of, and support. He might have taken a different approach to Uber’s developing company culture.

People inside Uber were delighted that they could track passengers, follow their every Uber move, and potentially use the collected data as some form of marketing edge, or perhaps for retribution. When Uber launches their service in a new city they apparently throw a party for the local power geeks. At this “launch event” attendees get a look at what Uber calls God View. (No arrogance there….) According to Forbes Magazine writer Kashmir Hill, “Uber’s “God View,” which lets them see all of the Ubers in a city and the silhouettes of waiting Uber users who have flagged cars. When it’s anonymous, it’s a cool trick. But Julia Allison, an attendee at a launch party in Chicago in September 2011, says Uber treated guests to Creepy Stalker View, showing them the whereabouts and movements of 30 Uber users in New York in real time. She recognized half of the people listed and texted one of them, entrepreneur Peter Sims, revealing that she knew his current whereabouts. He was pissed when he found out, eventually quitting the service because he felt like he could no longer trust it.”

“Creepy Stalker View” remains an issue. As recently as June 22, 2015, Uber was once again being called out for its penchant to invade everyone’s privacy: “The Electronic Privacy Information Center wants the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Uber’s new privacy policy, which gives the company the right to track users even if they’re not currently using the Uber app.” Julia Allison was right: Creepy.

Until recently I had not yet tried Uber or any of these new-tech taxis, but already my thoughts were to find an Uber alternative. A few weeks ago I was in San Francisco visiting our daughter. We were going to take a car from the west end of the city to the Embarcadero (on the Bay), and my daughter had both the Uber App and the Lyft App on her iPhone. Having had a conversation about Uber, she went with Lyft. Our ride was the experience you’d hope for. Simple, easy, on time, pleasant drivers. The only thing missing was Uber and Mr. Michael. Thank goodness.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen

The Inevitable Personal Decision   Leave a comment

Six Years After “Death Panels” Iowans and other Conservatives Need A Reality Check

March 29, 2015

Years ago I looked on Iowa’s Senators as the best of both worlds. One Republican, one Democrat. One conservative and one progressive. But that was, indeed, many years ago. When Senator Tom Harkin chose to hang it up and retire from his senate seat, and the state of Iowa wouldn’t, or couldn’t find an electable replacement, it was a bit like reading Inferno. Joni Ernst would become “Grassley in Training”. If Dante Alighieri needed a character to expand senatorial idiocy, he would have written a part specifically for the likes of Ernst. Any day now I expect the United States Senate to add a sign so that everyone entering the chamber could have a gut check: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter”.

The GOP had been salivating to show the world how governing works. And since the new congress was sworn in, little has been done. Except, of course, talking about repealing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The fixation Republicans have on dismantling the law is remarkable, and the damage that will be done should a true non-believer like Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, or Donald Trump, etc., become president, is almost incalculable. You may recall that the demonization of the ACA got a real boost during the policy debate in 2009 and 2010 from none other than Senator Charles Grassley. But why the focus today, March 29, 2015? The New York Times  made me do it. Sort of.

In 2009, Grassley was senior enough, and respected enough, that he might have engaged his constituency in an honest debate about the ACA. With almost 30 years in the senate, and with the world’s largest ethanol lobbying group supporting him (the state of Iowa, in case you were wondering), Grassley has never been likely to lose an election in his home state. And with the debate for and against the ACA, Grassley couldn’t (or chose not to) find the good things in the bill and consider participating in the process. But what was most egregious was his cheap, Tea Party-esque jump onto the loony bandwagon, embracing of all people, the idiotic half-governor Sarah Palin. She helped begin the rhetorical cesspool-diving contest by suggesting that the ACA would have “death panels” to make end of life decisions for people, instead of with people. Grassley offered this:

“‘There is some fear because in the House bill, there is counseling for end-of-life,’ Grassley said. ‘And from that standpoint, you have every right to fear. You shouldn’t have counseling at the end of life. You ought to have counseling 20 years before you’re going to die. You ought to plan these things out. And I don’t have any problem with things like living wills. But they ought to be done within the family. We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.'”

You’ll note I didn’t simply print the last-line of Grassley’s little tirade, as I wanted to be fair, and have his remarks in context. Nevertheless, his remarks are still ludicrous for two reasons. First, his reading of the legislation is like conservative Christians (and other religious or just plain shy people) insisting that no outsider will talk to their children about sex. Recall the old joke(?), my kids will learn about sex the same way I did: in the backseat of my dad’s car. The Guttmacher Institute released evidence from a 2006-2008 study confirming the premise that Sex Education Delays Teen Sex. Believe it or not, like sex education, when the subject of end-of-life planning happens earlier—rather than later—outcomes can be changed. Second, the planning needs the option of outsiders being part of the conversation. It’s often easier to ask questions or talk about the “what-ifs” to a non-family member, rather than mom or dad, or sister or brother, or son or daughter. Which brings me to the New York Times.

The March 29, 2015 Times has an article that everyone should read. Titled “Teenagers Face Early Death, on Their Terms“, the article is a must-read, and a must read for Charles Grassley and those who are like-minded. Waiting for family members to have a conversation about death is often as successful as waiting for Godot. So the conversation should be initiated within the family or inner circle of friends, before anyone gets sick, and certainly before pain, drugs, and imminent death eviscerate any likelihood of a rational conversation. A friend of mine, Maggie Watson, got me thinking about this a few years ago with the publication of her book A Graceful Farewell: Putting Your Affairs in Order. Maggie (who is alive and well) was thinking about it and passed along a valuable guide and lesson that Grassley, Palin, and others should read instead of attacking the process. Today’s Times reminds us that if some raging-hormonal teenagers can comprehend and make rational decisions about sex, and other teenagers can make rational end-of-life decisions about death, something, as Sherlock Holmes might say, is afoot. If teenagers can be rational, maybe even Grassley and Palin—well Grassley anyway—can get on board. It is time to bring death and dying out of the closet. Let’s place it front and center on the dining room table. Talk about it. Deal with it. And then treat it like the red box on the walls of public spaces: Just know it’s there. Pull Alarm In Emergency. Open only when needed.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen

Lavender Fog’s new Album “Landscape Of A Dream”   Leave a comment

Landscape of a Dream 

A review of the new album by Lavender Fog.

November 29, 2012

Jazz is almost always a transformative experience for both the performer and the observer. It’s a subjective art form, inherently making an emotional outreach to each listener. Landscape of a Dream fits easily into accepted descriptions of jazz types including avant garde and free-form, while adding in electronica for good measure. However, those new to the genres should discard the notion that they’re going to find one or two standout tracks, new favorite songs, or in the pop vernacular, singles. Better to leave your expectations at the door and spend your time listening since part of the challenge of Lavender Fog’s Landscape of a Dream is that its pure free-form creativity means cursory listening will be insufficient.

As with most recordings, Landscape of a Dream can be heard in the foreground as a dynamic listening experience, or in the background as a passive exploration. Heard in the background one is likely to take note of the more emphatic musical accents offered by co-authors and co-artists Harrison Goldberg and Simon Burnett; the foreground, however, is where the listener is compelled to pay attention as visceral feelings, cerebral discernment, and emotional responses emerge.

The sequencing of the 14 tracks seems to be less as a conceptual mandate, i.e., listen to track 1 before you listen to track 2, and more as a notional choice by Goldberg and Burnett. The first track, “Pythagorus Plays His Mighty Wurlitzer ver. 2”, has enough drama in the opening bars to make you want to hear more. Simon Burnett’s computer creates a choir worthy of the mystery one expects in the opening scene of a feature film; Harrison Goldberg’s sax creates a siren call to the listener; and then there’s an almost imperceptible moment when your consciousness realizes that Burnett’s computer-generated “Wurlitzer” is a co-equal instrument in the ensemble.

Other tracks include “Cathedral Cave ver. 2” which is more atmospheric than terrestrial. Like sci-fi movies of old, “Galaxie Radio” moves beyond the terrestrial and atmospheric, and lifts us well into the final frontier, although some of the passages seem a little trite when compared with other more well-crafted parts of Landscape.  “Sacred Music” has multiple elements performed with obvious dissonance; yet the track simultaneously has continuity with what came before and then adds something new, in this case Ursula Hamilton’s vocal accents. “Urbanscape” evokes a lower Manhattan side street where music escapes from open windows and echoes off brick walls, all in sync with urban surroundings created in the mind’s eye. The album’s second last track (and 13th overall), “The Legend of Lavender Fog”, sets the mood for departure, an exit ramp from the musical journey as it rolls into the final track, “Landscape of a Dream ver. 2”. Unfortunately this 14th and last track is a fragment, leaving the listener wishing Burnett and Goldberg had taken one more exploration and expanded this last offering.

There are 7 other tracks to explore on Landscape of a Dream, and each in its own way fulfills what Goldberg and Burnett sought to do, i.e., rationalize a new musical experience that explores and creates during their grand recorded experiment, and for that they should be applauded. There are precious few moments in these two discs where I found myself thinking I can’t wait to play that track for (fill in the blank). But I never lost sight of the complete album; as a listening experience at times seemingly unfinished, yet always evolving and stimulating as more elements rise to the surface with each listening. It’s an album where the strength of the audio helps create visual perceptions for each listener. And that’s not a bad rationale for a recording.

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2012

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