Friday, February 27, 2015

Blur and The Magic Whip

Blur on Chinese New Year 2015, with a big announcement...

February 19th, which also happened to be the Chinese New Year, was a big day for music fans. Blur, second only to the Beatles as my favorite band of all time and one of the bands that has meant so much to me in my life, announced the upcoming release of their new album The Magic Whip on April 27th. To say this was unexpected would be an understatement as it was widely assumed by most of the band's diehard fans, as well as yours truly, that they had called it a day. Despite reuniting in 2009, they had only released three new songs since then and had consistently toured their greatest hits through the beginning of 2014. Some recording sessions they had announced in Hong Kong in 2013 came to naught (we'll get back to this) and with Damon's never-ending list of projects, including his excellent solo album Everyday Robots in 2014, it seemed that Blur were in the rearview mirror and getting smaller by the day. So when they dropped this bombshell on us fans, my initial response was shock followed by excitement followed by euphoria. They even gave us one of the album tracks to tide us over until April...

Now, I'm not going to get into a long and detailed post here as I've written about Blur in quite a lot of detail before, not to mention the two books on them that I've published in 2009 and 2012.  In addition to the band profile and the article lamenting the end of the band in 2014 (hah!), I also posted a screed in which I was highly critical of their refusal to record new music and their seeming contentment to flog the hits around the world year after year since their reunion.  This article blew up in the online Blur fan community, especially on the Blur message boards on which I am a moderator.  Even the excellent RW/FF Music blog mentioned this rant of mine in their recent article on The Magic Whip.  Well, I'm man enough to stand by what I wrote; I meant it at the time and I still do. That being said, I am beyond glad that they proved me wrong and that they came back with this new album.  What happened is that Graham and longtime Blur producer Stephen Street went through the demos from Hong Kong and started to a put an album together. When they played the tracks to the other three guys, they all decided to make an album of it. The rest is, as they say, history.  Blur will be headlining a(nother) massive show in London's Hyde Park in June and will play warm-up dates beforehand. I'm holding my breath that some American club shows will also be in the offing; it's been twelve years since I last saw Blur live and I refuse to go see them at a huge festival so if they are playing anywhere near me for what looks to be their final tour, I will be there.

I've mentioned it in other posts related to the band (which are linked above), but Blur are the Beatles of my generation that I was lucky enough to live through firsthand. While the Beatles will always be #1 to me, I grew up with Blur soundtracking my life (something which they still do). From 1994 when I was 14 and first heard a couple of songs of theirs to 1997 when I was 17 and became a full-blown fan, and now all the way to the present, I've hung on every note, every song, every everything this band has done. I was a wide-eyed college freshman when I became a true fan and now I'm a mid-30s working stiff, husband, and father of four. Through it all, the band has grown and matured along with me and has been there every step of the way. Because of this, the new album means much more to me than just new music.  It's the reminder of who I was then and who I am now and everything in between. It's an old friend coming to brighten my life once again when I thought they were gone for good.  Speaking of friends, I've made so many good friends through my love of this band, both in real life and online, and to be able to share in the experience of new Blur yet again with so many of these people around the world is such a joy. Even if this is the last time (and I really do think it seems too perfect, and Graham has hinted as much in recent interviews), I can't think of a better way for them to go out on top.  With that being said, this is going to be the longest two month wait I've had in a while, but I know it will be worth it. Despite all of their ups and downs, Blur have never let me down. They're the familiar voice that has grown up with me over the last twenty years and I know their music, which has always been there for me, will continue to thrill me for the rest of my life.

Is it April yet? 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Rock and Roll Chemist is on Facebook

I finally bit the bullet and decided to create an official Facebook page for the Rock and Roll Chemist. The idea is certainly not to replace this blog; rather, it's to offer another platform for exposure and news updates while directing people to my latest and greatest (he says modestly) writing which will continue to be on this site. Additionally, it will be a good place for news updates on my various book projects, which include my two Blur books as well as what I have in the pipeline: my Mansun book, another book on Blur, and my first novel (in progress since 2010). I hope you will "like" the Facebook page in addition to continuing to read my stuff here on the blog. Thanks, and please spread the word!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Jimmy Page on Jimmy Page

For someone who was as flamboyant and creative on the stage and brilliantly talented in the studio as the driving force behind one of the biggest rock bands of all time, Jimmy Page remains one of the most mysterious and least understood giants of music.   Part of it is just in his personality to be quiet and let his work do the talking. Some of it is probably down to the deliberately cultivated aura of mystery that Page and his Led Zeppelin bandmates developed that has kept interest in them strong beyond the band's demise in 1980, and some of it is almost certainly the result of the endless speculation and misunderstanding by fans, journalists, and critics over the ensuing years. In any event, the story of Jimmy's life has never been told in a true memoir. There are of course really good books about Led Zeppelin, good unauthorized biographies, and a wonderful collection of interviews with Jimmy over many years that is probably the closest we will ever get to an autobiography.  However, there hasn't been a true book about Page by Page until recently.  With the publication of Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page in 2013, the man himself has finally compiled his life story, albeit in his own unique way: through photographs.

***special thanks to Rhianna at Genesis Publications for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

For his first true autobiography, Jimmy Page decided to tell his life story visually, starting with his childhood and running all the way to the present. In addition, this was to be a story about his lifelong marriage to music and the guitar and as such wouldn't focus on his personal life.

Starting with his early teenage years, Jimmy uses photographs from various sources, including many from his own private collection, to tell the story of his life with the guitar. Starting out playing in local bands with his school friends in Surrey, where he grew up, in his late teens Jimmy gave up the rigors of gigging in order to eventually become the top session guitarist in London.

Page on BBC TV as a teenager playing some skiffle

He played on innumerable sessions ranging from rock records to commercial jingles, soundtracks, pop, jazz, classical, and everything in between.  While this varied musical apprenticeship would serve him very well in terms of his playing, songwriting, and production in his later career, he began yearning to play in a band again.

 Live on French TV w/the Yardbirds in 1968

Having turned down an opportunity to join the Yardbirds when Eric Clapton left the band in 1965 (and recommending his schoolfriend Jeff Beck in the meantime), when an opportunity came to join the band again in 1966, Jimmy jumped at the chance. Replacing bassist Paul Samwell-Smith, Page originally joined on bass guitar before rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja switched to bass. This short-lived Yardbirds line-up, with Beck and Page on dual lead guitars, only produced a handful of songs and gigs, but the excitement they generated was palpable. Beck left in 1967, leaving Page as the sole guitarist to ride out the remainder of the band's career.  Stifled by the Yardbirds' need to produce pop singles while they were simultaneously getting experimental and more psychedelic on stage, the band disintegrated in the summer of 1968, leaving Page with the band name, the manager (Peter Grant), and not much else. He set about putting a new band together, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

 Live with Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden, NYC in July 1973

Led Zeppelin would go on to be one of the greatest bands of all time and would establish Page as a guitar wizard, master producer, and genius songwriter.  As such, the bulk of this book focuses on his career in Led Zeppelin. However, he made a lot of music before and after the band, and what's great about his book is that Jimmy chronicles it all. In addition to the aforementioned photos of Page that have been seen before, there are loads of rare and new photos in the book. The tour dates for each year are also listed, along with photos of his passport stamps (and his various passport photos over the years). Along with being another nice little personal touch, it hammers home the point just how hard he worked for so many years.  The best photographs, in my opinion, are those that show Page off stage and in more normal (at least to us non-rock star folks!) circumstances. Backstage, at home, in the studio, on vacation...all of these photos really serve to humanize Jimmy and show that he wasn't the dark wizard he's been made out to be for so many years.  Whether they are from his pre-session days, his session and Yardbirds days, the Led Zeppelin years, or the various projects he undertook after Led Zeppelin (including the 2007 one-off reunion concert they played at the O2), all of the photographs are wonderful and capture moments and moods in a way that words cannot.  They also show a nice progression of a very bright, handsome, and energetic young man growing and maturing throughout his life and aging gracefully into the elder statesman of music that he is now.  It should be noted that there are also paragraphs accompanying most pages where Jimmy explains what was going on in his life and career during that period while giving some context to the photos, so the book isn't entirely devoid of words. However, the beauty is that Jimmy lets the images do the bulk of the talking.

Live with Led Zeppelin at the O2 Arena, London in December 2007

If I have one criticism of the book, it would be only that Jimmy stays away from anything personal. I understand that he is putting all of the focus on his life and his music and emphasizing how intertwined they are.  It's just that, beyond photos of him in the various houses he's lived in throughout the years, it would have been nice to see some more intimate personal shots, like of him with his parents as a child, the house he grew up in, his wives and lovers, children, etc. However, I'm nitpicking at this point and the lack of these sorts of photos certainly doesn't take anything away from how enjoyable this book is.  While Light and Shade offered the closest Jimmy will ever give us to a written memoir, Jimmy Page by Jimmy Page gives us his life in photographs and is an essential guide to understanding this true musical genius.

 A nice, long interview where Jimmy discusses guitars and music


Thursday, February 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre: A Biography of the Doors

Mick Wall has written several rock biographies over the years, including one that I've reviewed previously (on Led Zeppelin).  While that book was unusual in its structure and the imagined sequences sandwiched between chapters, it was also a solid overall portrait of the band's career. Thus, when I heard that he had written a new biography on The Doors, I was intrigued.  While I hoped he wouldn't repeat the format to his Zeppelin book (it worked once but I don't think it would work again), I wanted to read a comprehensive overview of the Doors' career with some new takes on the band, their music, and especially the Jim Morrison enigma.  Let me assure you off the bat that this book is not set up like Wall's Zeppelin book: no fantasy sequences, so to speak, in between chapters. That doesn't, however, preclude it from being any less interesting or polarizing (if reviews elsewhere on the Internet are anything to go by), but then again, just about everything pertaining to the Doors is controversial...why should a book about them be any different?

***special thanks to Margot at Orion Books for sending me a copy of this to review!***

Right off the bat, the book gets off to a sudden start by taking us to the supposed moment that Jim died, and Wall shows he isn't afraid of stirring up controversy in doing so (we'll come back to this later). After this jarring introductory chapter, he begins telling the story of the Doors with the childhoods and upbringings of the four members, focusing first on Jim, then Ray, their meeting at UCLA, and eventually Robby and John when they enter the picture. Much of the source material for these biographical sketches are previous Doors books, although Wall also conducted numerous interviews with members of the Doors and their entourage over the years; these nuggets of information are vital and very welcome in fleshing out and extrapolating so many of the events over their career that are brought up throughout the book. From the initial meeting of the four Doors through their early formative days, Wall details their career in great detail.  While struggling in the beginning to get steady gigs and the attention of any record label, the band continued to develop and hone their sound, writing material and rehearsing in order to solidify their truly unique guitar/organ/drums/vocals line-up. Indeed, the bulk of their first two albums (and some songs that would spill onto their third, fourth, and even fifth LPs!) were written and worked out during these early years of 1965 and 1966. Eventually becoming the house band first at the London Fog and then the famous Whisky A Go Go, the Doors caught the attention of Elektra Records owner Jac Holzmann, who signed them to his label and would prove instrumental in breaking them. In fact, it was a mutually beneficial relationship as the Doors' massive success led to Elektra going from being a boutique label into one of the major rock record labels in the industry. Their great debut album, 1967's The Doors, served notice that this wasn't your ordinary West Coast rock band, and "Light My Fire" became the #1 single that broke the floodgates open for them. 

Their following two albums, 1967's Strange Days and 1968's Waiting For the Sun would cement their place as the biggest and best band in America, as would another smash single, "Hello, I Love You." Their unpredictable and powerful live performances only bolstered their reputation, as did their image and sound. The Doors were unlike any band in rock music at the time, dressing all in black and with an ethos that was dark, moody, enigmatic, and almost Gothic in presentation.  The fans and critics couldn't get enough of it.  However, all was not well in the band, as internal pressures and Jim Morrison's unstable personality began to tear at the fabric of the brotherhood which had made them so successful. Indeed, Jim began to almost willfully give in to his addictions and demons around this time while their producer, Paul Rothchild, drove the band mad with endless retakes and his quest for new sounds during the recording of their fourth album. The resulting record, 1969's The Soft Parade, was their weakest and most uneven. Even the presence of another hit single, "Touch Me," couldn't save it. The final straw was at the first gig on what was to be their massive 1969 American tour, in Miami. In an uncontrollable situation through no fault of their own (you can readily find the details of this concert elsewhere), the band had to play in front of a wild crowd with a Jim who was drunk and belligerent. What happened during this show is the stuff of legend: accusations that Jim incited a riot (he did, sort of) and that he exposed his genitals (he did not) led to the rest of the tour being cancelled outright while the authorities in Florida decided to blow everything out of proportion and make an example out of Jim and the Doors by trying him for public indecency .  The shadow of this lawsuit would hang over Jim and the Doors for the rest of their career. Two excellent final albums, 1970's Morrison Hotel and 1971's LA Woman, finished off their recording career, while an uneven final tour in 1970 concluded with their somber gig at 1970's Isle of Wight Festival and a disastrous final show in New Orleans in December. Fed up with Jim's out of control behavior, his alcoholism, and the press and authorities dogging them at every turn, the Doors were at a crossroads when Jim decided to move to Paris with his longtime companion Pamela Courson. Leaving in the spring of 1971, he wouldn't survive the year, passing away under mysterious circumstances in July. 

Unlike most Doors books, Wall doesn't end the story here, giving a nice overview of the three post-Morrison Doors albums the band released, as well as their various solo projects. He brings their story up to the present, including the tragic death of Ray Manzarek in 2013. And of course, he delves into the mystery surrounding Jim's death. Before I get to this, I do want to say that Wall makes it clear throughout the book that while he likes and respects Ray as a member of the Doors, he also has no use for Ray's far-out and endless mythologizing of Jim and the Doors. Granted, I agree that Ray could always be quite irritating with how he would go on and on (and on and on...) about the pseudo-mystical aspects of Jim and the Doors, but Wall never conveys this feeling in a mean way and he does concede that Ray was as important as anyone in helping the Doors stay relevant and popular through to the present. He also does show that, deep down, Ray cared deeply for Jim as a human being (as also did Robby, John, Holzmann, manager Bill Siddons, road manager Vince Treanor, and others).  He paints Pamela Courson in a less than stellar light, but again, by most accounts she was very bad for Jim even though they were indeed soulmates; neither could ever be with anyone else, but they were the worst thing for each other (if that makes sense). What's a bit more puzzling is how nice a picture Wall paints of Patricia Kennealy, who by all accounts was despised by everyone in the Doors camp, from Ray (in his own book, even), John, and Robby as well as everyone else who came into contact with her. Obviously, none of us were there and there are two sides to every story, so at the very least it is good of Wall to give us Patricia's side.  However, he seems to give her an unusual amount of credence. This, as well as his citing of notoriously controversial rock biographer Stephen Davis's Doors book and his touching on plausible questions about Morrison's sexuality, among other things, has led to Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre being a hotly contested and debated entry into the Doors bibliography by fans. However, nothing about this band is ever without controversy and it certainly didn't take away from my enjoyment of the book.  While Wall spends the bulk of the book discussing Morrison (which is only natural), it never feels like the other three Doors get short shrift and it is to his credit that their entire story is presented in a very readable, enjoyable, and informative way. This book is a difficult one to put down once you get started and get past the first 75 pages or so of background material.

Now, getting back to Jim's death...(***SPOILER ALERT!***), the accepted story is that he and Pam snorted some heroin, he felt unwell, took a bath, and died in the tub while she was asleep. There have been conspiracy theories that he faked his death, but no one really believes these. The dead-in-the-bathtub-of-an-OD story is the one that has been accepted as fact since 1971. However, over the years bits of info have surfaced that shed a bit more light on Jim's state of mind and body leading up to his death during his time in Paris.  It's generally accepted and confirmed by his friends in Paris (and even in America before he left) that in later years Jim had been suffering from asthma. Also in Paris, he occasionally coughed up blood and would have violent, controllable bouts of hiccups that would last for days. These are not surprising symptoms of a long time alcoholic and drug user. However, there have also been some claims by his Parisian friends and cohorts that Jim did not actually die in his apartment in the bathtub, but that he died in the bathroom, of a heroin overdose, at a Paris nightclub that he was known to have frequented. He was then (supposedly) taken from the club to his apartment, undressed, put in the bathtub, and left there by a friend of his and two drug-dealing henchman of Pam's lover, the Count Jean de Breiteul. They and the club owners threatened everyone in the club that night, as well as Pam, to not say anything about it.  The fact that no one ever saw Jim's body after it was in the casket and that no autopsy was every performed make either theory hard to prove or disprove. What does lend this new theory some credence is the fact that de Breiteul was well known to be a heroin "dealer to the stars" at the time, ensnaring not only Pam Courson but also Talitha Getty and Marianne Faithful in his trap. He promptly hightailed it to Marrakesh after Jim died, and the fact that Getty died days later and that the count himself died later that year give weight to the claims that he was dispensing abnormally strong heroin to his clients. He also supposedly supplied Janis Joplin with the fatal dose of heroin that killed her in October 1970...heroin stronger than any of them were used to.  Marianne Faithful and Sam Bernett (who worked at the club) have both spoken out in recent years with this claim. While I don't know what to fully believe, it certainly seems plausible and both stories make sense. All it really does is add to the mystery surrounding Jim's death and show us that the absolute truth about his demise is unlikely to ever be known.  However, Wall presents the second theory as fact and dismisses the first outright. Whether one agrees with one or the other, or neither, will lead to whether one believes this claim and the book itself are controversial. For me, it just gives me something else to mull over and increases interest in the cryptic nature of his death. With Courson's death from an OD in 1974, the only other person who was there who probably knew the actual truth left us with an enduring mystery.

As for the book itself, it is very well written and is engaging and engrossing. There are several typos scattered throughout the book but these are easy enough to get past (although the editor needs to do a better job next time!). Mick Wall's writing style is enjoyable and his forays into vernacular and "far-out" language are humorous and totally in keeping with the vibe of the band and their times.  My biggest criticisms are with his giving disproportionate and perhaps undeserved weight to the claims made by the aforementioned Davis and Kennealy, but at the same time it's only fair to give both sides of a story and let the reader make up their mind. It seems that even with the conviction Wall writes about many of these matters, especially Morrison's death, he has done just that. I'm not sure there has been a definitive and comprehensive full-band biography of the Doors that has been written; rather, there are several excellent books focusing on various parts of the band, from memoirs (Ray's, and John's, which I plan to review soon) and essays on Jim to various other biographies of Jim and the band.  Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre is a worthy additional to any Doors fan's library, and it just may be the best biography about them yet.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Blogging Advice and Tips from the Rock and Roll Chemist (PART 5)

In the first four parts of this series, we discussed the nuts and bolts of effective blogging based on my experiences. These included how to get your blog off of the ground, how to produce great content, and how to network and promote yourself. Those were very specific, process-based suggestions and are very important. However, the final part of this series, which you're reading now, has an equally vital piece of guidance for your blog and it's one that has very little, if anything, to do with your actual blog. Rather, it has to do with your motivations and reasons for doing what you do.  My final takeaway message and bit of advice for your blogging is...

PART 5: Make Sure You're Blogging for the Right Reasons...and HAVE FUN!

I feel that the WHY you blog is as important as the HOW, WHERE, and WHEN. Allow me to explain...

Those of us who blog on a regular basis do so for a variety of reasons. These include, but are not limited to, the following (all of which I personally cite as my own): an outlet for creativity, a love of writing, a desire to share knowledge and expertise, and a way to gain exposure for our content.  The advent of the Internet and of blogs for all has led to countless people being able to blog for whichever of these reasons, and any others, while giving them the freedom to do as they please.  This can be nothing but a good thing, but there are some who are into the whole blogging scene for the wrong reasons, at least my opinion. While it's just that, my opinion, I do believe from many discussions I've had with other bloggers as well as reading the views of numerous bloggers and writers, that these reasons for blogging are indeed at best disingenuous and at worst, flat out wrong.  What are these reasons I'm speaking of?

The vast majority of them involve people getting into blogging for the sole purpose of making money. Now, the debate in the blogging community with regards to monetizing blogs and trying to earn money from them is as old as blogging itself. I also want to stress that there's nothing wrong with trying to earn money from blogging; I'd be lying if I said I didn't do it myself (we'll get to this in a bit). But I and most other bloggers are under no illusions about earning big bucks from blogging...while it would of course be fantastic to earn a living as a blogger, the success stories out there (and there are many) are still by far the exception and not the rule. That being said, there are many things bloggers do to earn a bit, some of which I myself do: ads, affiliate links, and selling products are all acceptable and effective (to varying degrees) ways of trying to earn small amounts of revenue for your blog. These small bits of revenue generated are incidental to the reasons why we blog, though. If I was for whatever reason unable to monetize my blog, I'd still continue blogging because I do it for the passion I have for writing about the things I love and wanting to share that excitement and expertise with others.

It's not that money is's not! But it shouldn't be your motivation for blogging.

Where I and many others take issue, however, is when the sole motivation behind a blog is for trying to earn money. Even worse, it's usually done to try and earn fast money which makes it more crass and obvious.  It's perfectly fine to try and sell your product(s) on your blog(s)...I do the same thing with my books both here and on my blog dedicated to my books' subject matter. However, as I've mentioned elsewhere, it needs to be done in a way that doesn't seem hucksterish (I made that word it?) and overt.  Folks that blog for the sole purpose of clickbaiting for ad revenue or trying to sell products online are usually easy to spot a mile away. No one likes going to these blogs and spending any time on them; my advice to you is to not ever be one of these blogs. If these are the reasons you are thinking of blogging, I'd advise you to find something else to do. Blogging not about making money. Can you earn some cash from blogging? Yes, but your likelihood of earning more than some gas money from month to month is slim to none unless you hit it big.  Just relax and blog for the right reasons instead!  The same goes for trying to get famous from blogging. While increased recognition will come when you've earned it (and this is something I've definitely reaped the benefits of through a lot of hard work and patience), if you make it painfully obvious that you're only blogging in order to get discovered and "make it big, fast" you will turn away visitors as mentioned above.

The main takeaway message I offer to you in this final part, and in actuality my overriding piece of advice for every part in this series, is that if you're not blogging for the right reasons, whatever they may be for you as an individual, that you should think twice about whether blogging is right for you. If you *are* blogging for the right reasons, that's great and I and every other blogger welcome you into the community. The biggest piece of advice I have, first and foremost over everything else then, is this:


Above all else, blogging should be fun! While we all worry about number of pageviews, comments (or lack thereof), exposure, blogging's ability to open up new opportunities for us, and acceptance by our blogging peers and competition, I urge you to not sweat these details too much. I know this is easier said and done, and even the most seasoned and experienced bloggers (including yours truly!) will admit that this is hard to do. However, like anything else in life, all of the good things will follow if you keep a positive attitude and maintain a joy and excitement for what you do. It will become contagious to your readers and peers and lead to success, which can come in many forms.  Intertwined with generating great content, networking, and building up your reputation, a fun-loving and positive attitude can make all the difference in the blogging world, so keep at it and enjoy what you're doing! Because if you enjoy what you blog about, the chances are everyone else eventually will, too.

***I hope this series has been informative, interesting, and fun! As I've stated repeatedly throughout, everything you've read is my opinion and my opinion alone. While I base it all on experience and information gathered over the years, I maintain that I am no expert. My sole purpose for this series was to have fun, impart my knowledge and advice, and try to help as many other bloggers, old and new, as I could. I hope I've succeeded in some small manner in any one of these areas; if I have, I'll consider this series a success. With that said, one of the things that makes any blogger successful is the feedback of their peers, so I'd more than welcome any comments, criticisms, and pearls of your own wisdom in the comments section below. Thanks again for reading and keep blogging...I know I will!***

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Some Fun Tonight! The Backstage Story of How the Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966

Volume 1: 1964
Volume 2: 1965 & 1966

The Beatles as a live band have always gotten a bit of short shrift when the history of rock music and the band itself are both discussed. The myth (and it is just that, a myth) is that they were a lousy live band who couldn't hear themselves or be heard. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle. The fact of the matter is that, as anyone who has heard their BBC sessions or the best sounding live recordings from their touring years of 1962-1966 will tell you, they were a great live band who generated some incredibly exciting live performances. Their problem was that they were hampered not only by the mania that followed them everywhere, but also by the primitive limitations of the amplifier and PA technology of their day. Indeed, it was right after they stopped touring in August 1966 that bands like The Who, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience helped pioneer louder, clearer, and better amps and PA systems that we've all taken for granted since 1967. However, the Beatles' touring years overall were years of fun and innocence, and that feeling of wonder and excitement comes across loud and clear in Chuck Gunderson's wonderful 2-volume set, Some Fun Tonight.

As he states in the introduction to the book, Gunderson decided to focus on the three North American tours the Beatles undertook in the summers of 1964, 1965, and 1966, both as a collector of memorabilia and as an author. While there are two excellent books on concerts from these tours by author Dave Schwensen, who focused on Shea Stadium in 1965 and Cleveland in 1964 & 1966, Some Fun Tonight takes you through the entirety of those tours, from the planning of each show, the support acts, travel and hotel arrangements, and press conferences all the way through to the concerts. The book is split into two volumes: Volume 1 covers the groundbreaking 1964 tour, while Volume 2 covers the massive 1965 tour and the final tour of 1966. Each touring year is prefaced by an introduction giving a broad overview of the concerts played and the organization of the tour, followed by brief biographies of the supporting acts. Then, we get to the meat of each entry, which is the actual concert. Each chapter focuses on one show, running in chronological order from the beginning of each tour to the end. Along with the date, venue, and showtimes, each chapter has wonderful photos of the Beatles traveling, hanging out backstage, speaking at press conferences, and onstage in each city. There are also numerous photos of memorabilia for each show within the chapters: tickets, posters, handbills, contracts, correspondence, hotel bills, and more. The author has done a painstaking job researching each and every concert in order to present an immersive visual and reading experience. It really does transport you back in time to that moment and into the eye of the hurricane,  when the Beatles were storming through each city and whipping everyone into a frenzy with not only their music, but also their mere presence.

It is perhaps this last point that is most striking when reading through the books. The fans were really and truly insane during the peak Beatlemania years. It's one thing for massive groups of fans to be rabid in their devotion and to cheer, shout, clap, holler, cry, and burst forth with excitement. But the Beatles had to put up with so much more than all of that.  They were constantly besieged, physically manhandled, and aurally assaulted by screams and shouts by fans whenever the got into or out of a car, plane, bus, hotel, etc. They were trapped in their hotels and dressing rooms for these very reasons, and they often couldn't get a good night's sleep because of the fans who kept all night vigils outside their hotel windows. Sightseeing wherever they were was out of the question. The concerts were excuses for the fans to shout, scream, climb over barriers, run away from chasing police, and jump onstage and grab the Beatles.  In a couple of cases, there were full-on riots during concerts that caused the shows to be stopped and had the Beatles literally running for their lives. Fans used increasingly creative (and oftentimes bizarre!) methods to sneak into the bands' hotel suites, press conferences, and dressing rooms.  There were even several incidents when the band's safety was seriously in jeopardy when their cars would be surrounded by fans, who would climb on top and bang on the windows to try and get at them. Most shockingly, there were instances where the fans themselves were in danger, such as the time fans broke through a barricade and rushed the Beatles plane on the tarmac when it had just landed and the propellers were still spinning! One thing that struck me is that is was an absolute miracle that the Beatles and their entourage weren't seriously hurt and that none of the fans were hurt or killed.  It's even more striking when you consider how new and uncharted the territory was for large scale rock concerts. The Beatles were the first to go through all of this and were the industry's pioneers in the truest sense of the word. Given the laughable scale of the security and logistical planning of those times when compared to the massive crowds at each concert, it is a testament to everyone involved that for the vast majority of the tours, everything went off without a hitch. It's also no surprise that the Beatles grew increasingly tired of all of this. In all honesty, it can be said that as much as the valid artistic reasons the band has given over the years as to why they quit the live stage, the cumulative effect of the mania surrounding them is just as much to blame. In essence, it was largely the fans' fault that the Beatles stopped touring after August 29, 1966.

The book also does a great job putting into perspective what rock and roll touring was really like in its infancy. For every nice hotel the Beatles stayed in (mainly in the major cities they played), they also put up with a lot of subpar, rundown motels and motor inns in some of the more rural backwaters they played (New Orleans, LA instantly springs to mind).  There was nothing really fancy about their transportation other than the fact that they had a private chartered plane to fly them from concert to concert. Yet even here, it should be noted that the planes were far from luxurious and, in a few case, suffered mechanical issues severe enough that the Beatles had more than a few terrifying close calls.  Limousines were increasingly a luxury, and a rare one at that since, by the time the mania became too much (and the numerous death threats they received needed to be taken more seriously), they spent most of their time driving between venues in armored vans, laundry trucks, ambulances, box trucks, and school buses. Their tour rider was almost primitive in its simplicity: the band simply wanted cots, clean towels, a case of Coca-Cola, a TV set, and a stereo backstage. Their only other stipulation was that they would never play before a segregated audience. Compared to the pampered existence rock stars have had on tour since the early 1970s, it's shocking how simply and spartanly the Beatles existed on those grueling tours.  The photographs really help bring all of this to life, showing some of the venues and hotels the band were booked into as less than stellar.  Speaking of the photographs, there are loads of never-before-seen images in this book, including Bob Dylan arriving at the band's hotel in New York City in 1964 on the fateful night he introduced them to marijuana. Along with the rare documents, ticket stubs, and more than accompany each concert, these books are a veritable museum of memorabilia and information from all three of the band's American tours.

So many books have been written on the Beatles that it is a full-time exercise trying to sift through all of the shoddy ones just to find the worthwhile books: the truly good books are the ones that bring something new to the table and do it in a fun, interesting, engaging, and informative way. Some Fun Tonight is definitely in that category and the books are pure joy to explore from beginning to end. The only negatives, and I'm being incredibly nitpicky here, are a few minor typos and a couple of mis-captioned pictures (for instance, one photo shows Paul and George singing into a mic but the caption says John and Paul. The other states John playing his 12-string Rickenbacker when a look at the tailpiece reveals it's his 6-string). Otherwise, there isn't anything I can knock this book for. In fact, the enjoyment I derived from reading this book extended beyond the pages, as it made me go through all of my live Beatles bootlegs and listen to the various shows I have between 1962-1966. It gave me an even greater appreciation than I already had for their live years (I was already a huge fan of their live stuff) because I was able to listen to the individual shows knowing the background about each one; the venue, the size of the crowd, how it was booked, and how the Beatles received and were received by each city. Beyond being an information-packed tome, the greatest thing about Some Fun Tonight is the magic and innocence of a bygone time it manages to capture on every page...that and the way it breathes new life and interest into the most overlooked aspect of the Beatles' remarkable career, which took place on the concert stage.

MY RATING: 10/10

Sunday, February 8, 2015

To PhD or Not to PhD? (PART 3)

I've spent the first two parts of this series discussing the pros and cons of getting a PhD in chemistry/science and choosing this field as a career. However, when looking back at what I've written, I find the overall focus tended to be more on the negative and/or detrimental aspects. While there certainly is good reason to feel this way and though I tried to also include some positive aspects, it feels to me that the overall tenor was pretty dour. Now, my intention on writing this series wasn't to actively dissuade anyone from doing this for a living, but rather to discuss it in an honest manner, warts and all. However, as the old saying goes, the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes, and I feel that this is the case with being a scientist as well. Thus, for this final part of the series, I thought I would focus on some positive experiences I've had in my journey from student to professional. There are also some negative experiences thrown in, but I've tried to be as pragmatic and honest as possible. It's my hope that at the end of this post, those of you reading this who have gone through the same grad school/job mill can relate and will share some of your own stories in the comments section. With that out of the way, let's get on with it!

The good parts of being a scientist

- Seeing your name on a paper or patent.  As any chemist or scientist will tell you, "publish or perish" isn't just a dictum that young faculty live by.  Fair or not, a huge amount of your future success in landing a good postdoc and eventually, a job, hinges on how many papers you publish and the impact factor of those journals.  Whether it was during my time in school or in industry, it was always a thrill (and still is) when your manuscript gets accepted and you finally get to see your name in print.  Knowing all of the hard work that went into the paper and knowing that all of your peers worldwide will be reading it is a great feeling. I've been very lucky in my career to have published a lot of papers: a couple as an undergrad, a few as a graduate student, and over a dozen as a postdoc. I've also published a few papers as an industrial chemist (where publishing is not as common), as well as been named on some patents.  It's quite a thrill every time, and I know that the list of my publications on my resume indeed helped me out.  While papers don't mean quite as much when applying for industrial positions as they do for academic ones, they do still matter...this is something I have been told to my face during nearly every interview I've ever had.  I don't take it for granted one bit.

- Overcoming a hurdle on a research problem. Intellectually, this is probably the best thing about being a chemist, at least for me.  We all know how absolutely, infuriatingly frustrating it can be to bang your head against the wall for days, weeks, months, or in extreme cases, years trying to get past a challenge in whatever research you're working on.  It can oftentimes feel like it's never going to happen and that you should just give up. Sometimes, giving up is the final (and correct) option before moving on. But those times when you persevere and finally do succeed in overcoming what was tripping you up? Those moments are amongst the sweetest bits of satisfaction you can get as a scientist.  There have been many times (including one this past week) where I've even thrown out an audible "yes!" accompanied by a fist pump upon clearing a hurdle. It puts a little extra spring in your step and, if I'm being honest, puffs up your ego a little bit. It's like "yeah, I was smart and I figured it out!" It's also a nice little bit of self-validation to remind you not only why you went into this in the first place, but that there's a reason why you've been successful at it.

- Absolutely nailing a presentation.  A lot of people hate getting up in front of an audience and speaking.  I've had a lot of colleagues in grad school and postdoc, as well as in the professional world, who have been absolutely terrified of doing this; they freeze up and have a hard time functioning in front of a crowd. For me, it's never really been a bother. I have been getting in front of people to sing and play music since I was 10 years old and I've had to give loads of presentations all the way through school to the present. I've long passed the point where it worries me, having given literally hundreds of presentations to crowds both small and large. In front of colleagues, bosses, prospective customers or employers, I've done it all. Sure, I get nervous before I get started, but as soon I get up there in front of everyone and start speaking, I get very comfortable. Almost all of my talks have gone well, but there are a handful that I can still vividly remember to this day that I absolutely nailed in every way. My delivery, how I answered tough questions, and how people responded to me during and after my talk...knowing that you know your stuff cold and that you've absolutely nailed a scientific talk feels great.  Think of it as the geeky equivalent to delivering the musical performance of a lifetime (which I've also done a few times in my life).

- Working on lots of different projects and interacting with lots of different people.  This is one of the reasons I'm so glad I chose a career in industry instead of academia. The sheer number of different projects I've worked on just in my 7 years and counting of being a professional chemist is quite large and always expanding.  For one thing, it keeps the work interesting and exciting since I'm not always locked into one particular set of experiments or research projects.  Another thing that I like, and this is probably my favorite aspect, is that the exposure to different projects and research problems has deepened my knowledge as a chemist. There are things I am experienced in now that I couldn't have and wouldn't have dreamed of knowing anything about had you asked me ten years ago. Being at a large, industry-leading company also means that I'm always working on the cutting edge of the science, which really appeals to my curiosity. As an added bonus, I get to use some really cool instrumentation. There's something pretty exciting about using a sophisticated piece of scientific equipment that costs over $1 million and marveling at the data it gives you. Boys don't outgrow their toys, the toys just get bigger and more expensive (and yes, I know there are many talented women chemists...I work with several! I just wanted to use that saying!).

- Traveling. Part of my job involves traveling around the country (and eventually, it will take me outside of the country) in order to meet with colleagues, customers, potential customers, vendors, and to attend scientific conferences and continuing education courses. It's a nice way to see different parts of the world and meet even more interesting people (all on the company's dime), absorb new ideas and perspectives on science, and network with fellow scientists. However, traveling is also one of...

The not-so-good parts of being a scientist

- Yes, the travel can also be a bit of a drag. I've got a wife and four kids, so being away from home for days or weeks at a time makes them (and me) a bit unhappy. Luckily, Skype has made staying in touch and seeing each others' faces easier when I'm away from home. However, airplanes, rental cars, hotel can wear you down after several days. While eating every meal in a restaurant may sound good in theory (and it does allow me to try a lot of different types of food), it also gets old after a while.  It's tough to eat light and healthy on the road...even when I order salads for most meals, they just don't sit in your stomach the same way a home-prepared one does. And for someone who is an exercise nut and a real creature of habit, traveling tends to throw me completely off with the constantly changing schedule from day to day. I do my best to eat right and work out in hotel gyms, but it often find it takes me days, or even a week, to get back to normal once I get home. I don't even travel as much as many of my friends and family members, so I shouldn't complain too much.

- The instability of industry these days. It's been mentioned a bunch by me, ChemJobber, and others, but science is a pretty volatile industry these days.  Whether it's companies downsizing, shipping jobs overseas, shutting their doors altogether, or something else, it is very rare to stay at the same job for more than a few years. Unlike my parents' generation where one could stay in a job until retirement, these days that is the exception to the rule, and it's not even close. I feel like I'm finally in a situation where I can stay and grow as a scientist for many years to come, and I'd love to think that I'll be able to stay here until I am ready to retire from science, but only time will tell...

- Starting at the bottom of the career ladder at 30 and playing catch-up with your peers.  Again, I've touched on this previously, but it can be (never mind "can be," it just flat out is) disheartening to finally begin starting to climb the career ladder when you get your first job and are pushing 30. I was 28 and lucky to be that young for a few reasons, but the majority of my friends and peers were 30 or older by the time they finished school and started working. In the meantime, your friends and peers in other fields have been working for the past decade while you were in school.  By the time you join them in the workforce, they have years of salary, raises, bonuses, and stock options on you. They have houses, spouses, kids, newer cars, and can take vacations. You still rent, drive a jalopy, and don't even take paid days off for fear of angering your boss. I'm generalizing here, but you catch my drift.  Life isn't about material possessions or keeping up with the Joneses, but it takes a LONG time before it all levels out. I'm 35 and only now starting to feel like I'm almost (but not quite) there.

There you have it! While there are many more things I both like and dislike about being a chemist, on balance I am happy in my career.  I've been very blessed, fortunate, lucky, whatever you want to call it, in that my entire experience to this point has been relatively smooth. Sure, there have been some bumps along the way; that's normal in life and I wouldn't expect different. But compared to so many of the horror stories I've witnessed firsthand or heard of anecdotally, I feel blessed to have had things go the way they have for me. I'm happy doing what I'm doing and where I'm doing it. For me, being a chemist jibes perfectly with my endlessly and restlessly creative mind.  I've found that nearly every scientist I've ever met is very creative and talented in other areas beyond science and usually has outlets for this in which they passionately excel. For me, it's music and writing, for others it's something else, but short of being a musician or writer as my actual career, it's hard for me to think of something that matches better with the way my mind works than chemistry.  I hope those of you who are also in this field feel the same way about it, and for those of you who have only recently begun the journey, I hope it goes as smoothly as possible for you and that this series of posts has helped you out in some small way. I believe in paying it forward and passing on whatever wisdom and knowledge I have in order to help people out, and it's my sincerest wish that this is what I've done that with these articles.

I hope this series of articles has been both helpful and informative, and if they were also entertaining, then I'll consider them a true success.  I'd love to hear your positive and negative experiences about getting your PhD in science and your subsequent career, so please comment away down below...let's discuss!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Longest Cocktail Party

Apple Corps. Perhaps no other record label is as legendary in rock history, and much of this is down to whose label it was. However, a huge part of it is also the chaos that ensued when the Beatles tried to establish a multimedia empire in the idealistic swirl of the late 1960s, only to run into very serious real-world business issues.  Apple was also the pivot point in the band's eventual breakup and acrimony heading into the 1970s. One of the best books on this topic, which I have read several times and will be reviewing soon, is Peter Doggett's You Never Give Me Your Money. That book focuses on the entirety of the Apple Corps. saga, from its inception in 1967 to the present day. However, another book that has been well known to Beatles fans for a long time is Richard DiLello's The Longest Cocktail Party. First published in the early 1970s and finally back in print after many years, I've at last been able to read this book.

***special thanks to Danielle at Alfred Music for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Richard DiLello, or "The House Hippie" as he dubs himself in this book, was a young American from Queens, New York whose life was forever changed after he saw the Beatles for the first time on the Ed Sullivan show in February 1964. Making his way to California, he spent a few years in and around LA and San Francisco, crossing paths with former Beatles press officer Derek Taylor, who at that point was doing publicity for American artists and was instrumental in launching the career of The Byrds. Taylor was summoned back to London in 1967 when the Beatles launched Apple and he told DiLello to look him up if he was ever in London. In 1968, Richard spent some time in Europe before making his way to London and taking Derek up on his promise. Within weeks of arriving, he had a British work visa and was hired as Derek Taylor's right hand man at Apple.  His book chronicles the years 1968 to 1970, when he worked at Apple and was involved in the Beatles' quest for a company that would be like no other, but which ended up collapsing due to the same problems every other company faces.  The book is set up as a series of vignettes rather than traditional chapters, all of which are told in different ways: sometimes straight narrative, other times the author speaks in the third person and presents dialogue back and forth.  Some chapters consist of press releases or newspaper articles, and others are random snippets of conversation overheard within the halls of 3 Saville Row.  Humorous, enlightening, shocking, confusing...the book sets the reader up as a fly on the wall and gives an eyewitness account into the behind-the-scenes madness of Apple.

A great interview from May 1968 discussing Apple, music, drugs, current events, and more

Along with telling some crazy stories, DiLello does a nice job confirming or clarifying many events at Apple that have been touched upon elsewhere. For instance, the infamous 1968 company Christmas party that was ruined by the visiting Hell's Angels is described in great detail, as are other events such as the Mary Hopkin reception at the Post Office Tower, the arrival of Allen Klein on the scene, and the eventual dissolution of the Beatles. From inside Apple, it seems that the break-up of the band was more a gradual thing, while Klein slowly cleaned house and fired superfluous staff. Those that weren't fired stuck it out as long as they could bear until they finally quit. While the ridiculous excess and spending of company money by the staff and their hangers-on was absolutely ludicrous, Klein's measures to rein in in did seem, on the whole, a bit draconian. It's one thing to crack down on a mailroom clerk spending three hours and a small fortune on a fancy lunch and charging it back to the company, but it's another to require staff to fill out requisition forms just to get a sandwich from the cafeteria!  The overall madness at Apple is painted in vivid picture by the author, from hippies and freaks who constantly hang around and do nothing (including a huge communal family who lived on the top floor for months!), to certain staff members with sticky fingers who stole everything from typewriters and office supplies to the lead sheeting on the roof!  Gradually, over time, it dawned on DiLello and others at Apple that things wouldn't and couldn't be the way the Beatles had initially intended, not if they wanted the business to be a success.  Additionally, despite the Fab Four's good intentions to have a legitimate record company with a varied stable of artists, everyone knew that the Beatles' needs and interests came far before anyone else. This view was eventually picked up on by the artists who were signed to the label, many of whom grew dissatisfied with the lack of attention and promotion they were given and who left the label; the most notable case in this regard was James Taylor, who was discovered by Peter Asher at Apple and who recorded his first album for the label before leaving and going on to international stardom.  The only band who stayed with Apple and achieved any modicum of success were Badfinger, discovered by Beatles road manager Mal Evans and given real hands-on attention by Paul McCartney.

The famous Tonight Show appearance announcing Apple in May 1968...mostly audio with a few minutes of the only video known to exist

The Longest Cocktail Party is a true insider's account of the mad experiment that was Apple; it's a time capsule of a time gone by that was in equal parts more innocent, idealistic, and completely insane. Richard DiLello does a nice job of capturing all of the goings-on in a nontraditional but enjoyable and effective manner, pulling no punches in describing all of the drink, drugs, and crazy ideas that swirled around the building.  The Beatles themselves feature very little in this book beyond when they are talked about or the times where they literally and figuratively pop their heads into the story for a moment. However, while this is a Beatles book, it's not really about the Beatles. It's about the Utopian fantasy world they tried to create as a tax shelter for their earnings, the business that would eventually drag them down and split them apart, and the young man who found himself right in the middle of it.  I'm very thankful that The Longest Cocktail Party is back in print and available, and I think all serious Beatles fans will be, too.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

Monday, February 2, 2015

The New England Patriots: Super Bowl Champions Again!

Incredible. Absolutely incredible. That was, hands down, one of the best football games I've EVER seen in a lifetime of watching football, and I've seen a lot of games. When Seattle's Jermaine Kearse made that crazy bobbling catch on his back late in the game, I went white as a ghost and said out to loud to my wife and kids "Oh, my God...we're going to lose a third straight Super Bowl on a freak catch." It brought back nightmarish visions of those two losses to the Giants in 2007 and 2011, both of which happened due to fluke catches with less than a minute left.  My wife was telling me it wasn't over yet, but I kept fearing for the worst having seen those two heartbreakers before (as well as various Celtics, Bruins, and Red Sox gut-punch losses over the years). But then, a miracle: an interception in the end zone with twenty seconds left by Malcolm Butler, a rookie who had made a great play on the previous Kearse play that still ended up being caught. Euphoria. Screaming and yelling and jumping up and down and pounding on the floor. Victory. The elusive fourth championship for this team, all of them coming since 2001. The continuation of their dynasty and their decade-and-a-half (and counting) of dominance. It was doubly sweet to silence the brash, loudmouthed (and, admittedly, supremely talented) Seahawks and spoil their quest to be the first back-to-back Super Bowl winners since the Patriots themselves in 2003 and 2004.

It's Monday morning, I'm exhausted from staying up until two in the morning to watch all of the postgame television (thankfully, I can get my Boston sports channels on DirecTV) and I have a long and busy day at work ahead of me. It's alright with me, though...last night was a fantastic time spent watching the game with family and friends and it ended in the best way possible.  

My fellow Boston sports fans, please don't fail in appreciating just how incredible this run of success by the Patriots has been. Think of all of the big games we've seen, win or lose, and the great players that we've been fortunate enough to watch, none more so than Tom Brady, who cemented his place as one of the top two or three quarterbacks to ever play the game. And Bill Belichick, one of the greatest coaches in the history of sports, has been steering the ship (along with Robert Kraft, an owner any fan would love to have for their team) with a steady hand the entire time. He's loathed outside of New England for his gruff demeanor with the press and his endless gamesmanship, but they hated Red Auerbach for the same reasons, too, and all he did was win nine titles as Celtics coach and seven more as their GM.  We Boston fans don't care what anyone else thinks of us or our teams. For the ninth time in fourteen years and the THIRTY-FIFTH time in sports history across all four of our teams (17 for the Celtics, 8 for the Red Sox, 6 for the Bruins, and 4 for the Patriots), we are the City of Champions and we keep our crown as the best sports city in America.

Cue the Duckboats!

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