Monday, November 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles and the Avant Garde

Innovation in music and recording/audio production were part and parcel of the Beatles' groundbreaking approach to rock music in the 1960s; it was as much a part of their appeal as was their exceptional songwriting and musicianship. However, another aspect to the Beatles' success and the longevity of their music was their constantly changing sound; never content to recycle a successful formula, the Fab Four were always pushing forward for new sounds, new approaches, and new ways of communicating. This resulted in the Beatles going "a bit funny," as the Queen of England was supposedly quoted as saying to Brian Epstein in 1967 or so (whether this is apocryphal or not, it's plausible and quite humorous!).  But the Beatles "going funny" wasn't just a matter of the band expanding their consciousness with drugs the way everyone did back in the 1960s...rather, it was a very deliberate and conscious attempt at utilizing all of the outside influences that were exploding all over the arts scenes on both sides of the Atlantic. In particular, it was the avant garde artists, writers, and musicians of the era that influenced the music of the Beatles during their peak period of 1965-1968. In the new book The Beatles and the Avant Garde, author Aaron Krerowicz takes a scholarly look at the avant garde figures whose works crept into the Beatles music and how exactly they manifested themselves in their songs.

Aaron Krerowicz is the only full-time Beatles scholar in the USA and as such, has spent a fair amount of time researching the band from multiple angles. For this book, he has decided to investigate the avant garde influences that colored their music during the period spanning the middle to the end of their career (~1965-1969).  In the introduction, he lays out the format of the book in that it will have in-depth looks into the three figures whose avant garde leanings most impacted the Beatles' music: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono, to each of whom a major chapter is dedicated. Additionally, there are minor chapters on the two peripherally avant garde figures in the Beatles story, George Martin and George Harrison. It was nice to see that the author acknowledged that, contrary to forty-plus years of conventional wisdom amongst the public, it was Paul McCartney and not John Lennon who was not only the first of the Beatles to become interested in the avant garde, but was also the one who was most fully committed and knowledgeable about it. The chapter on Paul explores his earliest forays into the avant garde via the books he read, the lectures and concerts he attended in London, and the home experiments he conducted both with music and film. There's further discussion on how and when these influences showed themselves in Beatles music (most notably in the still-unreleased and Holy Grail early 1967 recording of "Carnival of Light") and how he has continued to flavor his music with these influences to this very day. The chapter on John is much the same, although as I mentioned above it was refreshing to see it stated, backed up with facts, that John was late to the avant garde party and followed in Paul's footsteps. Additionally, as with most things in his life, the (self-admitted) short attention span of Lennon's made for a full-on immersion into the avant garde with his various joint-vanity projects with Yoko Ono in 1968 before disappearing altogether by the time the Beatles split in 1970. Ono's chapter is quite interesting as, of the three, she was the most committed to the avant garde almost from the beginning of her career and continues to be to the present day...for her, it wasn't a way to shock or challenge people so much as it was simply her preferred way of communicating via her art.

Interspersed are two shorter chapters on the two Georges of the Beatles legend, Martin and Harrison. While the chapter on George Martin shows how he was interested in off-beat and somewhat avant garde comedy recordings even before he started working with the Beatles in 1962 and how, with this background, he was the perfect producer for them, the chapter on Harrison is a bit lighter in substance. George was always the most skeptical Beatle when it came to the avant garde (or, let's be honest, anything), famously quipping that he called it "avant garde a clue." Apart from his semi-plagiarized experimental album Electronic Sound from 1968, George was not avant garde at all, although I've always found it ironic how, on the two most avant garde Beatles songs ever recorded ("Revolution 9" and "What's the New Mary Jane") the only other Beatle to join John and Yoko on both was...George Harrison! There's no chapter on Ringo, and while I suppose it's understandable since, as the author mentions early on, he was the least involved Beatle in the songwriting process, I feel as though he could've been included in the chapter discussing George. While probably only known to hardcore Beatles fans, Ringo did dabble in some avant garde experimentation, most notably in the seven minute collage of tape loops and effects he created with John on the extended and unreleased version of "Flying," as well as the various effects and noises he peppered the famous (and personal favorite of mine) bootleg of early White Album mixes, the Peter Sellers Tape.  Including these would have beefed up the chapter on George Harrison a bit and covered all of the bases when it comes to avant garde Beatles, in my opinion.

Overall, this is a nice little book that is well written, easy to read, and quite informative. Anyone looking for in-depth discussion of Beatles music won't find it here, as the most detail is given to the various avant garde figures themselves and the works that influenced the Beatles' music. The book was well researched and has detailed footnotes to all references cited, although at times it felt more like reading a final university term paper than a book. While Beatles fans looking for florid discussions of their music will be disappointed, anyone who wants a scholarly look at the reasons for their music getting "weird" in the mid-1960s will enjoy this dig below the surface into how the avant garde tinged some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

MY RATING: 7/10 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Status Update

For anyone wondering why I haven't been writing much lately: I was laid off from my job last week when my position was eliminated and sent overseas. While I am passionate about music and writing, my day job is what pays the bills. As you can imagine, my days are now consumed with looking for a new opportunity and a new gig.

I'm still writing and there will still be much more from me here, but right now finding a new job is my top priority and writing for my site/any of my projects will be fit in only when possible. I'm sure you all understand as I know that I've got very intelligent readers!

Thanks for your patience and stay tuned because there WILL be more to come!

Monday, October 31, 2016

I'll Get On My Knees and Pray...We Don't Get Fooled Again

If you read this blog, you know that The Who are one of my all-time favorite bands...I put them just slightly behind the Beatles for both their music and the indelible impact it has had on my life, and in many ways I rate Pete Townshend slightly ahead of Lennon and McCartney as my absolute favorite songwriter. 

One of my favorite Who songs, if not THE favorite, is "Won't Get Fooled Again," the epic closing track from their classic 1971 album Who's Next. According to Pete Townshend, he wrote it as a song warning about revolutions, especially revolutions just for the sake of change, positing that in the end, nothing ever really changes: the people who clamored for change end up being just as flawed as those they replaced, dooming the cycle to repeat itself.

Before I continue on, I am going to state right now that I am NOT turning this into a political post in terms of taking sides or arguing one way is better than the other. This isn't because I don't have strongly held convictions (I do), but rather because A) I don't want it to devolve into that sort of argument, especially since in 2016 barely anyone seems able to have a coherent discussion with someone holding opposing viewpoints, and B) both sides are equally flawed and need to be torn down and replaced. That's neither here nor there, however, and will be the extent of how political I get. Rather, I intend to analyze the lyrics and show how they apply to our current situation. Since Pete wrote this in 1971, my initial reaction over the years has always been to marvel at how prescient he was, but as I've gotten older I've realized more and more that the same problems and cycles of voting in change only to get none in the aftermath have been around for decades and will continue to be for decades to come. Instead than predicting the future, Pete instead chronicled a fundamental flaw of the human condition and couched his warning in an absolutely kick-ass rock song.

(As an American, I'm obviously applying this solely to our current political climate, but I'm sure the parallels are equally valid in the UK, and any other number of democratic/free countries where frequent elections take place). 

The song seems to take on extra significance every four years when we have a presidential election in this country, and none more so than in 2016. For the last eight years, everyone on both sides has campaigned on "change" and "progress," but a quick look around will show that nothing has changed and most of us are exactly where we were eight, ten, fifteen years ago, if not worse off. While the verses are frighteningly accurate every election cycle, it's the chorus that really clinches it for me:

"I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again"

Granted, we don't undergo revolution when we elect a new president and congress, but we always seem to vote in sweeping change every ~20 years or so before realizing things didn't end up the way we wanted them to...we then overreact in the other direction and repeat the cycle again and again. It was George Santayana who said that "those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it," and even in the age of instant information at everyone's fingertips, we seem condemned to live this endless feedback loop.

First, here's the song in its entirety...please play at top volume in order to maximize the impact and enjoyment.

Listened to it? Great! Now, let's get down to brass tacks and look at these lyrics:

"Won't Get Fooled Again"
Written by Peter Townshend, recorded and performed by The Who
We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

(Revolution will be no-holds barred, yet the very people who stoked the flames at the beginning will position themselves to sit back, stay unaffected, and be the final arbiters of those who did the dirty work once the dust settles. This is exactly what politicians on both sides have done over the last twenty years or so whenever there's been a big disagreement between citizens over any number of social and economic issues)

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

(As stated the grand scheme of things, nothing is going to really change and the issues are going to still be there festering for the next upheaval. The only thing left to do is pray that cooler heads prevail next time and that society isn't duped again)

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that's all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

(The crux of this stanza is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Nothing has changed, the past is still the past, and the tin can (i.e. the issues that were the root causes of the revolution) is just kicked down the road to be dealt with again in the same fruitless way next time)

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
No, no

I'll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky
Though I know that the hypnotized never lie
Do ya?
(As is usual in these situations, it's everyone out for themselves...the narrator takes care of his family while making a wry observation that those blinded by the cause (i.e. "hypnotized") and their followers think they never lie and are on the side of truth, even if they obviously aren't)

There's nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

(Nothing has changed, new slogans and buzzwords replace the old ones [this is VERY prescient for how discourse in the 2000s goes], and the problems of one side are the same as the other. We've all gotten older but no one has gotten any wiser)

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

(Pretty self-explanatory...Nothing. Ever. Changes. The people who were thought of to be terrible and needed replacing have been replaced be equally loathsome people. Sounds a lot like the Republican and Democratic parties, doesn't it?)

So there it is, the theme song for every US Presidential election since the early 1970s, and none more so than the looming 2016 contest.

And just because the song is so great and Keith Moon was a drumming legend, here are his isolated drums for the song...


Friday, October 21, 2016

You Wish You Could Throw Like My Girls!

"You throw like a girl!"

I despise that expression with a passion. But I've said it. So have you, I'm sure, and loads of people you know, too. I've even heard women say it. It's supposed to mean that you throw weakly, awkwardly, wimpy, and not the right way.

It's a load of bollocks.

Before anyone wonders, I am not turning this into any sort of political or ideological post and I will not tolerate anyone who does the same in the comments, because that's not even my point. I'm writing this from personal experiences but also in the hope that I can get anyone who hasn't come around to at least look at it from another point of view even if it doesn't change anybody's mind.

In order to set the stage, let me back up a bit. As I said above, I was guilty of using the expression growing up, and as I've already pointed out, I have heard almost as many women as men use it in its intended derogatory/chiding manner. However, my thinking began to change a lot once I became a parent. My wife and I were blessed with four incredible kids, three of whom are our beautiful daughters. I swore from the day that they were born that my girls would play sports, not cheer others on (and no offense intended to anyone who was/is a cheerleader or has daughters who cheer. It's just not something I ever wanted for my girls). I didn't realize how much I disliked the phrase "you throw like a girl," though, until I was watching the Super Bowl a couple of years ago (which my Patriots won!) with a former friend and his kids. There was a commercial which examined how the phrase makes boys and girls feel, both those who say it and those who it's said to. It was the rare ad that actually made me stop and pay attention and really hit a nerve, especially since I was watching it with my two oldest daughters (my wife was upstairs putting our younger two kids to bed). What really made it hit home for me was when my former friend was sitting there next to me mocking the ad and the kids in it while his own daughter was right there in the room! I couldn't believe it, but I held my tongue and didn't say anything (and this situation isn't the reason we're not friends any more, but that's neither here nor there). By that time, both of my daughters had been playing softball and soccer and I supported them (and I still do) every step of the way, so to realize that this term was meant to imply that doing something poorly was equated to doing it the way my girls might...I didn't like that at all.

Fast forward to the present and my two oldest girls are 11 1/12 and 10. Both play softball and both are really good at it. I've taught them how to throw, catch, and hit a softball properly and they do it every bit as good, if not better in many cases, than any boy their age. They play hard, slide into bases, get dirty diving for grounders and fly balls, and are tough. One is a shortstop/first baseman and the other is a catcher (just like her dad!). I've taught them how to throw a football with a tight spiral, how to shoot a jump shot, how to read stat lines and box scores for baseball games, and the finer points of basketball and football. My youngest daughter is 5 1/2 and good at hitting and throwing a baseball, although she prefers soccer. She's fast, aggressive, and has a good strong kick. (My 7 year old son is really good at baseball and plays basketball, but he's a boy so he gets left out of this post!). My girls most certainly don't throw, hit, catch, kick, or run any differently than any boy, and in many ways they're better than many girls AND boys their own age who play sports. So nowadays, every time I hear someone mocks another person by saying they "throw like a girl," I tell them straight up what an insult that is to my girls!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Big Papi's Final Rodeo (or, the Red Sox Are Back in the Playoffs!)

Our view at Fenway Park, August 14, 2016

Another sports/baseball related post, but that's okay because it's one of my favorite times of year...MLB playoff time! My Boston Red Sox won their division (AL East) and open up their postseason tonight in the ALDS against the Cleveland Indians. Since winning the World Series in 2013, the Sox finished in last place the previous two seasons before finally fielding another winner this year, which happens to also be David "Big Papi" Ortiz' final season. It's been really exciting to see how well the team played with a mixture of veterans like Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Dustin Pedroia alongside exciting new homegrown stars like Jackie Bradley, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi. Even though there were some ups and downs along the way, the team was able to hold off the Orioles, Blue Jays, and Yankees and capture the division.  Here's hoping that the Sox can get Big Papi (and Red Sox Nation) one final parting gift ahead of his retirement at the season's end: a fourth World Series ring!

My prediction for this series is based on several factors: the Red Sox having the best offense in the American League, having nearly identical home and road records (Cleveland has homefield advantage for this series), the Sox having two great starters in Porcello and Price, and Cleveland's starting rotation being decimated by injuries. In their favor, the Indians have a much better home record than they do on the road, the second best offense in the AL (behind the Sox), a superior bullpen, and our former manager Terry Francona at the helm. The managerial advantage alone is a huge one for Cleveland, especially given Sox manager John Farrell's penchant for making poor in-game decisions. 

That being said, I predict that the Red Sox will win the series in four games and move on to the ALCS.

Whatever happens, it'll be interesting...that's why they play the games, and I'll be watching every pitch!

How about you? For all the baseball fans reading this, who's your favorite team and, if they're in the playoffs, how do you think they'll do?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (If You're a Sports Fan!)

Ah, September is almost over and the weather is finally starting to cool down as autumn approaches. This has always been my favorite time of year for a multitude of reasons, ranging from the weather to the beautiful fall foliage, my kids starting another school year, and of course SPORTS! At this time of year, football season is starting, baseball season is coming to an end and heading into the playoffs (and in my opinion, baseball playoffs are second only to hockey playoffs in greatness), and basketball and hockey seasons are starting.

For a Boston sports fan like me, in 2016 this means that the Patriots, even with Tom Brady out for the first four games, are already 3-0 and on their way to contend for another Super Bowl; the Red Sox are one game away from clinching their division, tied for the best record in the American League, and a contender for the World Series; the Celtics should be the second- or third-best team in the Eastern Conference this year with their successful season last year and the addition of Al Horford; and the Bruins...well, they're still rebuilding but they should at least be better than last year!

On top of all of that, all four of my kids are playing sports this fall: my two oldest daughters are playing softball, my son is playing baseball, and my youngest daughter is playing soccer. With at least one practice just about every night of the week and multiple games on the weekends (we had *FIVE* last weekend), it keeps us busy, but they're having fun and so are my wife and I. The improvement in all of their skills just from the spring is huge and more than that, they are all passionate about their sports.

Yep, I love fall!  Do you? If so, what are some reasons why?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies

The friendship and songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney has fascinated nearly everyone who has been captivated by the Beatles in the half century since they became the most successful musical group of all time. They met as teenagers in 1957 (John was not quite 17, Paul just 15) and for the next thirteen years were each other's best friends, songwriting partners, and in a very real way, brothers. However, due to the very public falling out the Beatles had when they split in 1970, as well as the numerous nasty swipes Lennon took at McCartney in the press during the early 1970s, the conventional wisdom for many years was that from 1970 onward, they hated each other. While more information has come out over the years showing that they did reconcile by 1974 and maintain a friendship until Lennon's tragic murder in 1980, there hasn't been an in-depth look at their relationship in the decade following the Beatles' demise until now. When I was approached with the opportunity to review the brand new book Come Together: Lennon and McCartney in the Seventies by Richard White, I was very excited. Not only did the premise seem interesting, but it purported to be newly and extensively researched. With all of that anticipation, I was eager to dive in to this book when I got it; however, the reality was far different. Read on to see what I mean...

***special thanks to Neil at Omnibus Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

From the beginning, author Richard White makes it clear that the premise of his book is that, contrary to what the general public believed during the decade following the Beatles' split in 1970, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were indeed still friends and had definite plans to work together again...plans that sadly never ended up coming to fruition for a variety of reasons. This information has been well known for a long time, but the promise of new interviews and evidence shedding more light on these tantalizing rumors initially made the book enticing. My trepidation was heightened a bit after reading the introduction and the first couple of chapters which dealt almost exclusively with John Lennon. "Uh oh," I thought..."another book focusing almost entirely on Lennon at the expense of McCartney." For the most part, that turned out to be the case with Come Together. While there was a lot of in-depth analysis and discussion of John's life and music in the immediate aftermath of the Beatles' break-up, any mention of McCartney was tossed in almost as an afterthought, or at best in a "oh yeah, Paul did something that year, too" fashion. This is just one of the many problems I had with the book, which I'll break down into content (this paragraph) and style (the following paragraph). As far as content goes, Come Together not only didn't really offer anything new in terms of information, but it didn't even present the existing information in an effective way. Almost all of the "new" material White researched for the book seems to be from new interviews with a few members of Lennon's one-time backing band Elephant's Memory, one of the engineers from the Record Plant who worked with John, and session drummer Jim Keltner (who played on loads of John's records, but none of Paul's...more on this later). These ended up being little more than anecdotes about how cool John was, how nice he was, how excited they were to work with a real live Beatle, and how talented and hard-working he was. There wasn't much insight into his life with Yoko, May Pang, or Paul (all of which has been described in greater depth elsewhere), and was actually quite contradictory: on one hand, Keltner and the others were quoted as saying John never spoke about Paul, while on the other hand Pang (who was closer to John than anyone else during the mid-1970s) says he did. There's some discussion on their meeting in Los Angeles in 1974 when they were photographed together for the only time post-1970, and their plans (partially thwarted by Yoko) to reconvene in New Orleans in 1975 to work on music together, but other than that, for a book that is supposed to be about their relationship in the seventies, it ended up being little more than a John Lennon-in-the-1970s biography with a little bit of McCartney, too much Harrison and Starr, and not much else sprinkled in throughout. There's also entirely too much space devoted to the history of the Beatles' career and music (including a whole chapter on Sgt. Pepper!) and their break-up and the subsequent lawsuits. Again, it's been done elsewhere, done better, and doesn't fit into the narrative of this least certainly not in terms of how many pages were devoted.

As for style, this book was a real slog to get through and I was very tempted to give up halfway through, although I stuck it out to the bitter end. The writing does not flow well at all and is not particularly sophisticated. There are numerous passages quoted from well-known sources, which make up large chunks of each chapter, and one incredibly annoying habit the author has throughout the book is the repetition of entire paragraphs and themes mere pages later. For example, a discussion on Lennon's work habits would finish and the chapter moved on, only for the EXACT SAME discussion on his work habits, word for word, be repeated completely a few pages later. It's the literary equivalent of this:

...and I'm not even exaggerating. This had the effect of stretching the chapters out far long than was necessary and comes across as though it was a high school student trying to hit the page limit for a term paper using this trick. Another thing I noticed that really irritated me was how certain passages were lifted from their sources out of context in order to imply something completely different from how they were originally intended. In one case, the author wanted to show how the individual Beatles all had differing musical tastes and how they combined them to create their music; he then proceeded to use a passage from Lennon's 1971 court statement where he was originally savaging and poking fun at McCartney by saying that he (Paul) had mainstream pop tastes while he (John) and George had more underground and avant garde tastes. By taking it out of its original setting and context, White set this passage up to sound more like John having a good-natured discussion on their different likes and dislikes when it was anything but! The description of the infamous bootleg "A Toot and a Snore in '74" is also poorly done. This recording of the only known time John and Paul jammed together after the Beatles is a fascinating document from a historical standpoint, but an absolutely unlistenable mess musically. However, from reading the write-up in this book, one would think that it was simply a slightly sloppy and loose but fun jam session when in reality it's little more than drugged-up studio banter and a handful of half-hearted and soon aborted stabs at some old 1950s & 60s rock classics that the assembled group of musicians can barely remember and get through.

Almost all of the books referenced, mentioned, or used as source material in Come Together are books I own and have read, so apart from the new interview with Keltner and the others mentioned above, there's little new in this disjointed book. Even the two sections of photographs add little, as most consist of photos either of the two during their Beatle years, or random shots from the 1970s. There isn't even a photo from their 1974 get-together which makes absolutely no sense given that their relationship in the 1970s is the entire premise of the book in the first place! I found this omission to be overall emblematic of this book's numerous problems. For me, it failed in all of the criteria I look for in a worthwhile book: it wasn't well constructed or well written, it wasn't enjoyable to read, and I didn't learn anything new from it. While the songwriting and lives of John Lennon and Paul McCartney will continue to fascinate people for years to come, this book won't.