Thursday, August 28, 2014

Is Being Both a Music Fan and a Musician a Blessing or a Curse?

It will be obvious to anyone who regularly reads this blog, let alone my family and friends, that music is a HUGE part of my life.  It's been a running joke for as long as I can remember that, whenever I can, I have to be listening to music. Whether it's at home, in the car, or at my desk at work with earphones, I like to listen to music as often and as much as possible. Besides being a massive music fan, which entails listening to it, collecting it, going to concerts, and reading and writing about it (hence this very blog), I'm also a musician myself. It's this duality of creator and consumer of music that has shaped who I am and planted the seed in my mind for the following article.

I'd always had an interest in playing music, and when I was ten years old I began playing both guitar and trumpet. The trumpet had been my dad's from when he was in high school and I started playing in the school band and taking lessons. At the same time, I had been mucking about with an old Yamaha classical guitar my mum had and I took a handful of lessons at the local music store. However, while I learned to read music and took serious and structured lessons on the trumpet, I stopped guitar lessons after a few months and instead bought a chord book and started teaching myself how to play by listening to my favorite records, learning by playing along to them. These were great years because I was able to play trumpet from the age of ten until I was in my early twenties, playing in the school concert and jazz bands all the way to the end of high school; I also auditioned for and was accepted into the local university symphonic band, which I played in for my last two years of high school.  I played a bit more until my college studies became too time consuming for me to continue, although I still have my trumpet and pull it out of its case every now and then to play a tune.  As for guitar, I literally could not put it down once I started progressing in my playing.  I saved up money to buy a cheap electric guitar and amp, and eventually managed to buy a better guitar (Gibson SG) and legitimate amp (Marshall). By the time I finished college, I had amassed several guitars (the SG, a Fender USA Stratocaster, a Fender 1952 Reissue Telecaster, a Gibson Les Paul Standard, an Epiphone Sheraton), and a gorgeous sounding Marshall 1962 Bluesbreaker tube amp. I also had a huge array of effects pedals, from my prized Vox wah-wah to an Ibanez tube screamer and various flangers, phasers, compressors, chorus, and Uni-Vibe boxes. I started to write songs and played in a few bands, my most serious one being the final line-up (with my brother Alex on bass guitar and our friend Theo on drums). We recorded a bunch of stuff in our makeshift basement studio and played a bunch of gigs until we had to stop due to lack of free time (college again!) around 2001.  Since then, I've pared down my gear due to lack of space (although I do regret parting with all that gear now!) and I've focused solely on writing and recording albums of my songs by myself, playing all of the instruments and doing all of the production myself. It's been very fun, although I haven't had a chance to make an album since 2011, but I hope to rectify that soon. Eventually, as my kids get older and some time frees up in my life, I hope to get into a band again and play with other musicians and even get back on stage as I always loved playing in front of an audience.

I realize that was a long lead-in! The whole point of it all was to set the stage for the crux of this article which follows.  As you can see, music is probably, other than my faith and my family, the biggest thing in my life, even bigger than my beloved Boston sports teams.  Taking all of this into account, I was inspired by a recent thread conversation on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums that I frequent.  I was involved in a discussion about how being a musician affects how you listen to music as a fan. Someone had posed the question "do you listen to music differently if you're also a musician?" and there were responses by both musicians and non-musicians. It stuck in my head for weeks after and got me thinking enough about it that I decided to write about it and make it the focal point of the article you're now reading; instead of telling you how I answered this question in the thread, I've expanded upon it below.

So is being a music fan and a musician both good and bad? Is it a blessing or a curse?  I think it's both, and I'll try to explain why I think so...first, why might it be blessing?  I think that any serious fan of music who listens to it and appreciates will develop a deep understanding of why they enjoy it and what makes it good, both in terms of the structure and the musicianship. This will happen regardless of whether they have the talent and ability to play a musical instrument.  And clearly just about everyone who is a musician has a deep love of music...otherwise, there would be no reason for them to dedicate long hours to the mastery of their talent!  However, it is my belief, based on personal experience as well as discussions with others who are in the same situation, that being a musician enables one to have a deeper and more fundamental understanding of the music, leading to a greater understanding and appreciation of it. It's certainly not meant to imply that one cannot have a deep understanding or appreciation if they don't play music themselves, but rather that it's more difficult to do so.  Beyond the pure enjoyment derived from listening to good music, I find that I'm able to understand and appreciate it on a more profound level because within it I can hear what went into creating it, from the songwriting and arranging, to the musicianship (including the skill and different techniques involved), the equipment used (guitars, drums, amps, effects, etc) and production.  Having many years of experience in all of these areas myself, I liken it to an painter standing in front of an artwork and mentally dissecting all of the different techniques, shades, colors, and materials that went into its painting it.  In this way, and at the risk of sounding overly pretentious or haughty, I find that I appreciate it not only on a technical level in terms of how it was created, but also the layers underneath what is actually heard upon first listen. Things like the chord changes, harmonies, interesting variations in timing and time signature, and more are all examples of things that my brain processes as I'm listening to a song (unless I have it on merely as background music). There are many things like this that are completely obvious to me, yet when I listen to and discuss music with someone who isn't a musician, even if they've listened to it as much as I have, they usually tell me that they have no idea of what I'm describing; usually, they say that until I pointed it out, they never noticed it, which shows me that the training of being a musician really does make a difference in how one listens to and processes music in the brain.

That all sounds well and good, so you may be asking why could it also be considered a curse? On balance, and this is only speaking from personal experience, I find it to be a blessing for all of the reasons I listed above. Still, there are times when music could be approached with an open mind, open ears, and nothing else. No preconceived notions, no inclination to dissect everything I listen to and strip away the parts, and no need to always focus on the production or other minutiae...basically a cessation of how much I tend to overthink it.  There are many times when I wish I could just LISTEN to music and take it just for what it is.  Before I get too carried away here, I should say that there are many times where I do simply "turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream" as a great man once sang...

...but these tend to be during times when music is either on in the background or I'm doing something else at the same time. It does depend on what I'm doing when listening to music...if I'm writing and listening (such as this very moment), my engagement with the music is still high, but if I'm exercising while listening, then it's not.  When I truly pay attention and listen to music, I find it impossible to just approach it as a tune and nothing more. The vast majority of the time, it's fine and, as stated above, it honestly makes me appreciate the ability to mentally process it from that perspective. However, there are times when it can be a hindrance; this is usually when I'm listening to or discussing music with friends or family members who aren't musically inclined. I tend to be quite snobby and judgmental anyway when it comes to music, and while I'll acknowledge that a large part of the reason why has more to do with how important it all is to me, I do also know that a lot of it is due to my background as a musician. I don't always have to listen to technically complicated or extremely sophisticated music (for instance, I'm a huge fan of Husker Du and the Pixies, noisy and lo-fi bands who still wrote catchy songs swathed in layers of noise), but I do like there to be some discernible talent and melody underneath everything.  Anything that sounds too cliched, specifically commercial, or flat-out derivative and boring will bear the brunt of my scorn. Usually, I'm fine with this, but I do have a hard time just enjoying a piece of harmless fluff for what it is (with exceptions, of course).

None of this takes any of the joy out of music for me, and on the contrary it's one of the reasons why I feel that I have a pretty eclectic aural palette of tastes. I enjoy old school blues and jazz (mainly big band and bebop jazz, but also some more modern jazz).  Of course, I'm a massive rock music fan, with tastes from the Beatles, Who, Hendrix, etc to Frank Zappa, R.E.M., the Smiths, Blur, and everything in between. I enjoy classical music, some bits of rap and hip-hop (mainly from the 1980s and early 1990s), and there are many guilty pleasure one-hit wonder singles (that I'm embarrassed to admit I like!) from every decade.  While I'm not as heavily into folk, country, the massively popular country-pop music of today, or electronic/trance music, I can appreciate elements of them all, and it's quite enjoyable to listen to all of these different types of music, hear the commonalities between them all, and pick out elements of each when they're woven into something new and different by the countless artists that I enjoy listening to. On balance, being a musician and having a deep understanding of music, being able to read, write, and play music, has enhanced my appreciation and enjoyment of this incredible art form.  While there may be some minor drawbacks to it, overall I wouldn't change any of it.  So, in answering the question "is being both a music fan and a musician a blessing or a curse?" my answer is that, overwhelmingly, it's a blessing!

I know there are many more hardcore music fans who are also musicians...what do you think? What are the positives and negatives of it in your own appreciation and enjoyment of music?   

Monday, August 25, 2014

ANNOUNCEMENT: My Upcoming Book on Mansun

After a long gestation period and a bit of a delay (assuming you can consider three and a half years only a "bit" of a delay), I'm happy to announce that my next writing project will be a new book on one of my favorite bands of all time, Mansun. After I had published the first edition of my book on Blur's live history, Black Book,  in 2009, I began working on a similar book about Mansun. However, from late 2010 to the present I hadn't done any work on it. The few people I'd mentioned it to on the now defunct Mansun and Paul Draper message boards at the time didn't forget and I continued to be asked about its status the last few years. Fast forward to 2014 and there is a resurgence of interest in the band, a coalescence of those of us who have kept our passion for the band for many, many years and new fans who are only just discovering the brilliance of their music. There was a hugely sucessful fan convention in Chester, England only a couple of days ago where fans gathered, with band memorabilia on display, Mansun tribute bands, a souvenir programme, and the premiere of a new Paul Draper solo track, "Feeling My Heart Run Slow," for his (hopefully) forthcoming first solo album. The song was excellent and you can listen to it below.

The new book, provisionally titled "Rock and Roll Losers: Mansun 1995-2003" will be similar in format to my two Blur books (Black Book volumes 1 & 2) in that they were detail the live concert history of the band via available live recordings. Each concert will have an entry with the set list, sound quality, length, and description of the performances. In addition, there will be photographs from concerts as well as any live memorabilia I can get a hold of (ticket stubs, gig flyers, concert posters, etc). Finally, I have the backing of not only the organizers of the Mansun Convention, but of Paul Draper himself, who has offered his input and assistance and to whom I am most grateful.  I intend, if possible, to include a section at the beginning of the book with a biography of the band and more insight into their career as well as their concerts, hopefully using Paul and Andie Rathbone's own recollections. I'm tentatively scheduling the release date for Christmas 2014, although I do ask that you consider this date a bit fluid given that life can be unpredictable and no one knows what delays may pop up between now and then.

This is where you, my fellow Mansunites, come in and can get involved...similar to my Blur books, I am planning on including photos of Mansun ticket stubs as well as tour posters, gig flyers, and any other live memorabilia I can find visuals for.  In order to do this, I'm going to need your help. If you're willing, I'd love to have your scans of Mansun ticket stubs, flyers, posters, and anything relating to the experience of seeing them live in concert that you may have laying around. I'd also be grateful for any live recordings of Mansun you may be willing to send me a copy of that I don't already have. Not only will your contributions help improve the book, but it's a chance for you to be a part of the Mansun story, since anyone who contributes materials will be listed in an Honor Roll at the back of the book as a means of thanks from me to you.

So there you have it...I'm busily working on this in addition to everything else I've got on my plate, and I think/hope it will be well worth the wait. I am beyond excited to (hopefully!) have the input of Paul and Andie, the convention organizers, and to finally be able to share this work with the rest of the passionate and faithful Mansun fans all over the world.

Take it Easy!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney certainly needs no introduction...he's arguably one of, if not the most famous musician in the entire world.  As a Beatle and one half of the legendary Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, he and John Lennon wrote the songs that have soundtracked countless lives since the Beatles' first release in 1962. From the ashes of the Beatles' split in 1970, he has fashioned an immensely successful career as a solo artist, churning out hit records and songs continuously, starting with the eponymous McCartney album in mid-1970 all the way through 2013's excellent album, NEW. Almost universally loved by fans and media alike (although his native UK press has been a bit prickly with him in recent years), he's no stranger to most people. However, despite his engaging and friendly public manner and his willingness to engage with press and fans alike, he's also in many ways an intensely private person who walls off both his emotions and the parts of his life he wishes to keep private from public attention, most notably his cherished home life with his wife and children. Thus, there is still much to learn about one of the most famous men in the world who is the subject of Howard Sounes' in-depth biography, Fab.

***special thanks to Sean at Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Sounes is a noted author of biographies on Bob Dylan and Charles Bukowski, as well as a new book on the 27 Club that I've recently reviewed. His McCartney book weighs in at nearly 600 pages and begins, naturally, with Paul's birth in Liverpool in 1942 during the middle of WWII. From here it runs linearly throughout Paul's life and career, from his youth to the Beatles years in the 1960s, Wings in the 1970s, and his subsequent life and career to the time of publication (2010). No aspect of Paul's life is spared from examination, from his personal life and relationships with family and friends, to his musical career, other creative endeavors, even his fortune and how he earned it...all of it is discussed in this book.

As mentioned above, Sounes begins the book with some brief family background on the McCartney family and Paul's birth and childhood in Liverpool. Special attention should be paid to the word "brief" that I just used, as it takes all of sixteen pages for the author to get Paul's life to the point where he his mother has passed away and he first formally meets John Lennon in 1957. While the more interesting parts of his life are obviously from when he met Lennon onward, it would have been nice to have a bit more of an in-depth look into Paul's childhood and the experiences he had growing up during that time, especially as they had such a positive (for the most part) influence on the man he became later in life. It's probably a moot point since this aspect of Paul's early life was covered in excellent detail in volume one of Mark Lewisohn's recent Beatles biography, but for a book purporting to be "an intimate life" of McCartney and a definitive biography, I would have liked to have seen more. From here, however, Sounes does an excellent job, for the most part, telling Paul's story, with of course a healthy focus on the Beatles years of 1962-1970. Unfortunately, he does include several apocryphal facts, most of which have been completely debunked years ago (for example, the story of John throwing bricks through Paul's windows in the midst of the lawsuit to dissolve the Beatles' partnership in the early never happened), which knocks the book down a few notches, however slightly, in my eyes. Continuing on throughout the Beatles breakup and into the 1970s, the author does a nice job discussing the history of Wings and drawing on interviews with many of the non-McCartney band members, and this section is a nice complement to the excellent recent book on Paul's life and career during this decade. Something that has struck me as fascinating, and which is pointed out in both books, is how different the 1970s were to anything before or after in Paul's life. In the 1960s he was a Beatle, always sharply dressed and impeccably presented to the public, both in terms of fashion and how he interacted with the press, while in the 1980s he was an elder statesmen, universally respected and lauded as a musician, who again presented himself in a very polished manner. However, in the 1970s Paul and Linda were bohemian, unkempt, and lived a gypsy lifestyle with their band and family which Sounes delves into in this book, especially the effect it had on the couple's children. Indeed, there are many new bits of information regarding the family life Paul, Linda, and their four children had. Most of it is admirable and a testament to how down-to-earth and normal they were as a family, but some of the interpersonal dynamics, mainly with eldest daughter Heather and youngest son James, are quite interesting...not in a salacious way but simply in terms of what really happened versus what has been perceived by the public. As someone with four children myself, I could relate to a lot of the challenges they faced (minus the vast fortune and worldwide fame Paul and Linda enjoyed).  In general, Sounes does a good job approaching Paul's story with an objective eye, although you do know as you read through it that he is also a fan. However, he doesn't let this get in the way of the narrative and is not afraid to be critical of certain albums and projects when it is deserved. While I disagree with some of his assessments of certain albums and songs, in general it's done in such a way that it's unobtrusive.

Sounes deals with several touchy subjects of McCartney's life, including the infamous Tokyo drug bust in 1980, the various fraudulent paternity claims that dogged Paul during the Beatles years and into the mid-1990s, and the heartbreaking event of Linda's death in 1998. Overall, he discusses these in a respectful way, laying out all of the facts while also offering perspective on the aftermath. He's also no afraid to tackle how ruthless and overly ambitious Paul has been throughout his's something that is well known but is usually not talked about by the press or his fans. I do commend the author for bringing it up in the instances when it's appropriate, although it should also be mentioned that this is one of the reasons that Paul has been so successful. Also, in many instances, such as his work in getting the Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts (LIPA) off the ground, it was done for admirable purposes. Indeed, Sounes does take time to mention that, as a person, overall Paul McCartney has always been a kind and generous man.  I also give him points for treating Linda McCartney fairly, and again he points out that while the British press (and to a lesser extent, the American press) always painted her in a negative life, everyone who knew her personally is on record as to how nice, friendly, and giving she was. She truly was Paul's soulmate and to read about the state he was in after she passed away wasn't easy, especially when subsequently reading the section about his disastrous second marriage to Heather Mills. Again, Sounes treats Mills fairly, using the facts to paint the picture of her accurately. Unsurprisingly, it matches up with the low regard she's been held in since she first came into Paul's life and this is her own fault, not the author's.

One thing I did take issue with during certain sections, as well as throughout the whole book in general, was how much of the supposed dialog was attributed to people during specific events. It wasn't clear how much was actually on record and how much was just speculation on the part of the author. In some cases it was obvious which was which, but I would have liked some clarification in either direction as I'm never comfortable when authors do this. In cases such as Paul's high-profile second marriage to and subsequent divorce from Heather Mills, where much of it is on the record, I have no problem with it (and indeed he does a nice job showing just how dishonest she was not only about her marriage to Paul, but about her entire life), but much of the speculative dialogue is presented during the Beatles years, with a fair amount of it sourced from Peter Brown's 1983 book The Love You Make, a book notorious for its made up dialogue, where rumor and innuendo were presented as fact and where much of Beatles misinformation has stemmed from in the intervening years. Again, this diminishes the book every so slightly in my eyes, but as a hardcore fan and student of the Beatles, as well as of Paul McCartney, it's significant. There is, however, a section at the back of the book with all of his source notes although I'm still skeptical many of the supposed private conversations have concrete sources.

There have been numerous books written about Paul McCartney, ranging from unauthorized biographies such as this one and another by Peter Carlin that I hope to read and review soon, an officially sanctioned book titled Many Years From Now (which I will be reviewing in the future), and there is an upcoming semi-authorized biography from controversial Beatles and Lennon biographer Philip Norman due out in 2015. In addition to what has been covered in the seemingly infinite number of books about the Beatles, there certainly hasn't been a shortage of ink spilled over Paul's life, yet thus far there hasn't truly been a definitive book written about him; even his authorized memoir, Many Years From Now, was written with his longtime friend Barry Miles and only covered his life up to the end of the Beatles in 1970. Since Paul is one of my favorite musicians of all time and one of the most famous to boot, it only follows that I and countless others would greatly welcome a book that told the story of his life in a way that could be viewed as definitive...think something similar to the excellent biography of Keith Moon, for instance.  While Fab misses the mark, it's very close and until I find otherwise, it's the book I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn about McCartney's life and career.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Blogging Advice and Tips from the Rock and Roll Chemist (PART 1)

When I started the Rock and Roll Chemist back in 2011, I intended it to be a place where I could write about everything that interested me. At that time, I'd been running my blog dedicated to Blur and my books on them and so I figured "I need a personal blog, too!" I promptly set this blog up and wrote a few things for it, thinking that because I had a huge following for my Blur blog, people would naturally flock to the Rock and Roll Chemist and it would be more of the same. So I waited...

...and waited...

...and waited...

...and waited some more. I had very few visitors, no comments (apart from those by my brother or close personal friends), and very little interest in the site. I continued to dabble with this blog for a couple of years, but my posts were few and far between and came in short spurts. In 2011, I posted a total of thirty-six times for the year; 2012 saw me only write 11 posts. Even though some of them were quite long, detailed, and well-received (mainly my posts on my running and weight-loss journey and an article on the Beatles), I saw this blog as little more than a place to just dump something I'd written when I actually decided to write something. However, by the summer of 2013, I had a blogging epiphany. It came about when I had gotten tickets to see Peter Frampton and Paul McCartney in concert about two weeks apart. I wanted to share my excitement with like-minded fans and so I wrote blog posts about my experiences. They both proved to be quite popular and made me stop and think. Around the same time, I was able, through a bit of risk-taking and courage, to get a copy of the newly released (at the time) Blur biography sent to me so that I could review it for my Blur blog. I posted the review on both my Blur blog and here at the Rock and Roll Chemist, and again it proved to be very popular. In addition to setting me on the path to becoming a freelance book reviewer, which has taken on a life of its own with over fifty reviews and counting, it sparked the desire to continue to write. I've always loved writing and have done a lot of it over the years, but what opened my eyes was seeing that when I actually put work into my blog, I got feedback and results; this was the thing that set me on the path I've been on over the past year. I've gone from a smattering of hits each month to thousands and thousands, and interest in my site and my writing continues to grow at a huge rate with every passing week.

Since the summer of 2013, I've been writing on my blog on a regular basis, averaging a few new posts per actuality, I write a lot more than that, but I space the posts out so as not to bombard my readers and to allow each post its own room to breathe and be absorbed (more on this later).  I've gone from having never reviewed a book to doing it as a side career. I've built up a reputation sufficiently such that publishers, with whom I've built up relationships, readily send me their books for review while many authors now approach me asking for reviews.  I've had other websites and companies ask if they could sponsors posts of mine, I've been asked to write articles for various large websites and retailers based on my blog, and I continue to receive new unsolicited opportunities to expand my blog readership and writing opportunities. While I still struggle to monetize my blogging, that's a distant concern on my priority list as it's not why I write (although I certainly won't complain if/when the day I earn more than pocket change from blogging finally arrives). 

The impetus for this article and what follows stems from A) the humble sense of awe I feel at the opportunities that hard work has brought and will (hopefully) continue to bring with blogging, and B) a desire to pay it forward and give back to the blogging community. I get approached by a lot of new bloggers, as well as long-time bloggers who haven't been too successful, asking me for advice and help. I thought instead of continuing to respond to each individually with detailed replies, I would share what I've found to work (and not work) in this series of articles. I hesitate to call what I'm going to share "wisdom" only because I feel uncomfortable claiming to be anyone special in the world of writing or blogging; instead, I thought it would be helpful (and if I'm being honest, a little fun) to share what I've learned, experiences both good and bad that I've had, and whatever pointers I can offer to the best of my abilities.  This will be the first part in a series in which I hope to open up a discussion for fellow bloggers and writers to share their own insights so we can all help each other out. So without further ado, here we go...

PART 1: Content IS King

This trope is as old as time, at least in the blogging world, but as tired as you may be at hearing it, it is undeniably true. I'll even go so far as to say that not only is the QUALITY of your content of vital importance, but so is the QUANTITY. I know I'm not saying anything new that hasn't already been said by countless other expert bloggers in the past, but I want to offer my own take on it here. 

Let's discuss quality first...this should be a no-brainer. If you have lousy content, no one will be interested in your blog. It's important to find your niche in the blogging world and try to be the best you can be in that area, but it's also important to produce the best content you're capable of. I've visited loads of blogs over the years that discussed various interestin topics but were filled with lousy posts that were so bad that I never went back. What made them bad?  Poor writing style, grammatical and spelling mistakes, uninteresting opinions or ideas, posts that were too short or too long...there is a whole host of reasons why blog content can be terrible.  If you're simply regurgitating (or worse still, blatantly ripping off) other people's work and offering nothing new, and doing it with poor writing at that, I guarantee no one is going to read your blog. I've even read many blogs that do discuss interesting topics but are so poorly written that it's a real chore for me to keep going back because while the information provided is worthwhile, they're just not enjoyable to read because of the writing. Remember, just because you can physically write doesn't make you a writer, let alone a GOOD one. You're not a writer until you really ARE good at it, and not until you have enough people interested in reading what you have to offer on a REPEAT basis.

My advice is to really tighten up the content you offer on your blog, and really put in the time and effort to make sure it's as good as possible. Now, let's discuss the quantity piece I mentioned above. I've seen numerous blogs that post multiple times a day, while on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many that might only post once or twice in an entire month (or even longer). Neither is ideal in my opinion. If you are posting multiple times a day, you are going to overwhelm your readers and they're most likely either going to stop coming back or they're going to rapidly scan through all of your posts to pick out the one that they might find interesting (the latter is what I do when visiting these types of blogs). On the flipside, if you're only posting once in a while, people will eventually stop coming back to check if there's anything new you get lucky and they randomly remember to come back weeks later. There is a happy medium in between these two extremes which is where I like to reside as far as my own blogging goes, and it is here where I and many others more expert in blogging will also advise you to be.  For my own blogging habits, I tend to write whenever inspiration strikes me and also just whenever I feel like it. As such, I almost always have a backlog of articles written that are ready to publish; however, unless it's something that is time sensitive and/or topical (for example, relating to something currently in the news, a sporting event that just occurred, etc), I hold them back and stagger my posts. There are a few reasons for doing this, which I've touched on above but I think they're worth listing again and discussing in more detail:

a) I don't flood my site with too much at once and overwhelm my readers. Like anything else in life, and as the Who sang in 1971, "too much of anything is too much for me."

If you bombard readers with too much to take in, they're more likely to rapidly scan through it all, cherry-pick the tidbits here and there that they might be interested in, and quickly move on. I frequent many sites that post far too much every day or multiple times a week, and it's a real chore sifting through everything in order to find something I want to read. As in all of life, more isn't always better and it's my strong opinion that in the world of blogging, apart from rare exceptions this is the case.

b) I give each of my posts time to breathe and be absorbed before posting something new...this way, each post gets it's moment in the spotlight for people to read it, think about it, comment on it, and engage.  Obviously some posts will be more popular than others and will have lifetimes far beyond the initial days after posting. For example, my posts on Mark Lewisohn's epic Beatles biography, The Who live at Leeds, the death of rock music, how to write a book, and my ongoing fitness journey, to name just a few among the many long-lived posts I've written, remain hugely popular months after I originally posted them and continue to rack up pageviews, comments, and shares as people discover them. Still, I try to give every post I write a chance to be the focal point of my blog since at one point, each post was once brand new and at the very top of the homepage. I figure that since I only publish articles that I've put a lot of time, effort, and thought into, they each deserve to be digested and absorbed by my readers before I present them with a new one.

c) It establishes a somewhat regular posting schedule so that readers know roughly when to come back to see what's new.  The good thing, though, is that since it's not a rigid schedule, it keeps readers guessing as to when the next post will be up, so that if they come back and there's nothing new, they'll check the next day to see if that's when I've posted something new...get the idea? If you post too often, multiple times a day or even every day, your readers will expect it, but it will also get to be too much for them to keep up with. Beyond that, it will be too much for YOU to keep up with. It's hard enough coming up with quality content for two or three posts a week...unless you're independently wealthy and able to spend every waking moment writing for your blog, there is no way you'll be able to keep up with a pace like that and continue to churn out meaningful content. Conversely, if you post on a random schedule and compound that with keeping the length of time between posts too long, eventually visitors will get tired of checking back to see if there's anything new and they'll promptly forget about your blog and stop coming back. The key is to find a middle ground that works for you and your readers.  For some bloggers, this is every other day. For others, it's posting on certain days every week without fail (ie posting on every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or something like that). Personally, I take an approach that lies in between. I try to post anywhere from two to four times per week, and that depends on how much material I have stored in reserve and how much free time I've had to write. If I've been particularly busy with work, business travel, family life, etc it might only be one or two posts in a week, while if I've had a particularly prolific spate of writing or if I'm writing about something topical and time sensitive, I'll push those pieces out to keep them relevant and fresh. However, as these things usually do, it all evens out in the end and typically I'm good for two, three, or four posts in any given week. One of the best and most helpful things I use in order to make this easier is the scheduling tool that's built into the Blogger platform (I'm sure this exists for other platforms as well). Using the scheduler, I'm able to save up a backlog of material and schedule my posts to go live on specific days and at specific times in the future. In this way, I can map out and plan my posting schedule for the coming week, weeks, or sometimes even the entire month ahead!  Along with this, I like to mix it up a bit as far as which days I post. For example, instead of posting on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, I might post on Monday, Thursday, Saturday one week and then on Tuesday, Friday, Sunday the next week. I do this for three reasons: first, I honestly don't know too far ahead of time how much I'll have ready, second, as stated above I try to give each new post at least two days, if not longer, to be digested by my readers before presenting something new; and third, I like to keep my readers guessing! Because they know I'm regularly good for a few posts each week, if I post something on Monday they might come back on Wednesday to see what's new. If there's nothing new, they still know there's most likely something new coming soon, so they'll check back Thursday. Maybe it's there now, or maybe not, but they'll be back Friday to check again and THEN there it is, something new.  Even though my posting schedule is honestly more to do with convenience than anything else, the fact that it's rigid enough for readers to rely on but flexible enough that I can push things forward or back a day or two in either direction makes it a win-win for both writer and reader.

To wrap up Part 1, I'll explain the idea that Content is King in layman's terms: a blog is only as good as its content. Forget about fancy templates, widgets, flashy graphics, or appealing visuals. If you're blog has lousy material in terms of both topic and writing, no amount of eye-catching presentation will mask it for long. Think of your blog's content as the engine that drives your site, the same way an engine drives a car: even the fanciest looking sports car won't run for long if the engine under the hood is poorly made and keeps falling apart. Your blog is the same way. It takes a lot of hard work to build a quality engine, and the same is true of great blog content. One of the biggest misconceptions about blogging is the whole Field of Dreams "if you build it, they will come" mentality. This is unequivocally is not a given at all that any blog will deserve and get meaningful traffic and readership simply for existing. I found this out firsthand when I started the Rock and Roll Chemist, as I described at the very beginning of this post. Concentrate more on the engine under the hood of your blog and worry about the paint job, sound system, and heated seats later. If your blog doesn't go anywhere and do anything, what good are all of the bells and whistles?

(Whether you're new to blogging or a seasoned pro, let's discuss this in the comments section below! Do you agree or disagree with what I've laid out here in Part 1? What are some advice and tips you'd offer from your own experiences?)

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: When Stars Were in Reach: The Who Live at Union Catholic High School

Before achieving worldwide mega-stardom upon the release of their album Tommy in May 1969, The Who were successful only in their native UK and in Europe.  Even though they had burst onto the scene in early 1964 just after the emergence of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and at roughly the same time as the Kinks, they were the only of those four legendary bands to miss the initial British Invasion of America in 1964 and 1965. However, there were isolated pockets of Who fandom developing in America where their records were charting and being played regularly on the radio. Detroit, Boston, Chicago, and New York were all cities that took the Who to their hearts in the mid-1960s and remained loyal strongholds for the duration of their career.  By 1967, a second British Invasion was happening and this time, The Who (along with the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream) were part of it. The appearances of the Who and Hendrix at Monterey in June 1967 launched their careers in America and exposed them to the rest of the country; by the autumn of 1967, both bands began relentless touring of America that would take them into the next decade and beyond (Hendrix' sudden death in September 1970 of course halting his career). However, due to the young rock music industry at the time, bands still played in some rather unusual venues as rock music transitioned out of the music halls and theatres of previous decades and into the clubs and arenas that became common in the 1970s through to the present day. One type of venue that bands still played at this time was high school gymnasiums, and the story of one of the Who's concerts at such a place is the topic of Michael Rosenbloom's book When Stars Were In Reach.

***special thanks to the author for sending me a copy of his book to review!***

By late 1967, The Who had a reputation in the UK as one of the loudest, most explosive, and most exciting live acts around, in both the musical and visual senses, for several years and they had begun establishing this reputation in America as well.  On the back of their triumphant showing at Monterey, they were in the midst of an American tour in late 1967 when they rolled into Scotch Plains, New Jersey on the evening of November 29 to play at Union Catholic High School (UCHS).  Having played two high school gyms already on this tour, this wasn't unusual for the Who, but it was unusual for the students and faculty of UCHS, and the story of how this concert came to be is at the heart of Rosenbloom's book.

Established in 1962, Union Catholic High School is a religious high school run by the order of Marist brothers. Even though the school educated both boys and girls, the sexes were kept separate within the building, sharing common areas such as the gym.  As several of the alumni who attended the school in the mid-to-late 1960s recalled, the school was rather unremarkable and was looking for a way to put itself on the map. The idea of staging a concert there was stumbled upon because some students had attended rock concerts at other local high schools within the past year or so, with bands such as the Left Banke and the Lovin' Spoonful having recently played in the area.  The Who were still mainly a cult band in the US at this point, but there were several boys at UCHS who were big fans, with a couple in particular having already seen them at Asbury Park, New Jersey and in Chicago earlier in the year.  The decision was made to try and bring a rock band to the school for a concert, but letters sent the to management of several American rock bands went unanswered before it was decided upon to try for the Who. With the help of a fellow student who played in a local rock band and was well-connected, the school were able to book the Who to play at the school for only $1,800! With a total budget of $3,000 allocated by the school, this was a stroke of luck and the only stipulation was that the helpful student's band, the Decoys, were to be the only opening act for the Who.

From here, the author chronicles the various students and faculty members who all had a small part in bringing the Who to UCHS and how they pulled the whole thing off. The fact that he has managed to track so many of them down after all these years in order to get their memories is impressive, as is the way he tries to set the context of what it was like to be a Catholic high school student in New Jersey in the heady times of the late 1960s.  He was even able to track down and interview many of the faculty at the time, as well as the booking agent who is now in her early 90s and living in Florida. Throughout it all, what struck me is how impressive it was that these high school students were able to pull off the entire endeavor while staying under budget and getting everything to run smoothly. What really comes across is how much simpler and more innocent those times were; this is vividly brought home with the photographs of the Decoys and Who performing.  They are literally playing on a makeshift stage underneath the basketball hoop in what looks like an typical American high school gym. Seeing the legendary Who (who, as was mentioned before, were not as well known in the US in '67 as they would be from '69 onward) in all of their 1967 Edwardian glory playing on a tiny stage in a gymnasium is quite a trip! Cramming their massive amplifiers and PA stacks, not to mention Keith Moon's huge and resplendent drum kit, on such a small makeshift stage is something you couldn't even fathom in 2014, but in 1967 it was not only feasible but commonplace. The Who concert was such a success that the students managed to bring another legendary British rock band, Cream, for a concert on March 26, 1968, of which there are some great photos: these include Clapton and Baker jamming onstage under the basketball hoop, and the two of them relaxing "backstage," which was in reality just the teacher's lounge! The school even booked the Jimi Hendrix Experience, although the administration got cold feet based on his reputation and backed out of promoting the show, and they never played at UCHS. Eventually, however, rock concerts became big business, appearance fees skyrocketed, and the school became a victim of its own success. After bringing in acts such as the Lovin' Spoonful, Iron Butterfly, Vanilla Fudge, and Black Sabbath, UCHS began to lose money on the venture and by 1971 they were out of the rock concert business for good.

In addition to the story of how the Who were brought to play at UCHS, Rosenbloom also interjects several more personal vignettes into the book. These include his recent interviews with and updates on the members of the Decoys, describing what they've done since 1967 and what they're doing currently. He also includes some biographical anecdotes of his own life growing up in Brooklyn during that era.  As a teenager and young adult in those years, the author was extremely fortunate to have frequented the Fillmore East and to have seen legendary acts such as the Who, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and others in and around New York City.  He also even followed the Who on tour in 1971 and managed to meet Pete Townshend twice: once in London in 1973 and again in New York City in 1974.  However, by 1975, when he last saw the Who, Rosenbloom realized that the earlier innocence and excitement of rock concerts was beginning to rapidly disappear.  In a way, this perfectly mirrored what UCHS found out as they continued to stage bigger and bigger concerts. 

While some of the chapters interspersed throughout the main story that describe what the principal players at UCHS are doing at present tend to divert focus away a bit and are a little jarring, overall this is a very fun and interesting book to read. Similar to Dave Schwensen's books on the Beatles' concerts at Shea Stadium and in Cleveland, it transports the reader back in time to a specific moment when rock music was young and exciting, the world was changing, and possibilities seemed endless.  A very important thing that the author and former students point out is how open-minded and supportive the Marist brothers were in running UCHS and allowing the students to stage rock concerts, which certainly wouldn't have been expected in 1967 and probably wouldn't even be in 2014, for that matter! All of the former students, in their recollections, look back fondly on their time at the school and their little moment where they were able to put UCHS on the map.  Apart from the slight disruption of flow, I really enjoyed this book; one of the main reasons was the great photographs of the concert that were included throughout. It's hard to think of such a band as the Who's stature playing in a high school gym, but in that period in time it wasn't unusual and while seeing those photos is a bit surreal, it also hammers home the point of how much has changed between 1967 and 2014.  Overall, if you're a hardcore Who fan, this is an interesting and unique book that deserves a place on your shelf; even if you're not a huge Who fan, if you're a fan of rock music and 60s rock in particular, When Stars Were in Reach will transport you back in time to a moment when some high school kids and the teachers who trusted them pulled off something no one would have expected them to do.


Monday, August 11, 2014

The Rolling Stones

The Stones circa 1969

It's time for another band profile, and this time I'm completing the quartet of the four greatest rock bands of all time. Having already profiled The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, now it's time to discuss The Rolling Stones. They're the longest-lived of the four, having burst onto the scene in 1963 and continuing to record and tour, more or less intact, to the present day. By contrast, the Beatles' career lasted from 1962-1970, the Kinks' from 1964-1996, and the Who's from 1964-1978 (what the Who have done since Moon died in 1978 is a travesty, as far as I'm concerned). Over the course of that time, the Stones have regularly been called "the greatest rock and roll band in the world," and while I don't fully agree with that, they have definitely been one of the greatest and they absolutely deserve to be put on the same pedestal as the other three.

Even though the band has undergone a few lineup changes over the years, the core line-up of Jagger, Richards, Watts, and Wyman remained intact until the early 1990s when Wyman left the band; the other three still continue to the present.  The best line-up of the band is pictured above, left to right: Charlie Watts (drums), Mick Taylor (lead guitar), Mick Jagger (vocals), Keith Richards (guitars), and Bill Wyman (bass guitar). Brian Jones (guitar, sitar, instrumental dabbling) was a founding member who was sacked in 1969 and died in July of that year, while Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in 1975 and is still with the band. Throughout all these years, the band has remained true to their beloved blues, which lies at the core of all of their music. They spent most of the 1960s in the shadow of the Beatles, solidly in second place in the world's band rankings, racking up an impressive number of great singles as the songwriting team of Jagger/Richards gained in strength. Like all great bands, there was a stretch where they were in peak form and released fantastic album after fantastic album...the Beatles, Who, and Kinks all had winning streaks like this, and the Stones were no different. Starting with 1968's Beggar's Banquet, they began their run of classic albums that ran through Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1970), and Exile on Main St (1972)...some would even argue that Goats Head Soup (1973) belongs, and I would tend to agree although it's definitely the weakest of the lot. Once Mick Taylor left the band in 1974, my interest in the Stones drops precipitously and I think it's fair to say that most fans agree that with rare exception (1978's Some Girls album), it's been all downhill from there. However, from 1963-1974 the Stones were indeed one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and it's this period that I intend to discuss in this profile.

The Rolling Stones were formed when Brian Jones met up with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (who had met at school), all of whom had been playing in the burgeoning blues and R&B scene in and around London in the early 1960s. Indeed, the names of the young musicians who sat in with the various house bands at this time (of which Alexis Korner's Blues Inc. is the most famous) is a who's who of British rock elite: Jagger, Richards, Watts, Jones, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce, Ray and Dave Davies, Mick Avory, Mitch Mitchell, Jimmy Page, and Jeff Beck are just some of the names who all crossed paths with each other at this time, all of whom would go on to legendary careers in the coming years. Eventually, the trio of Jones, Jagger, and Richards poached Watts as drummer (after playing a gig or two with future Kinks' drummer Avory), and brought Bill Wyman in on bass. With their classic first line-up set, and under the management of the ambitious and young Andrew Loog-Oldham (who at the time was also working for Beatles' manager Brian Epstein), the Stones' blend of raw blues and R&B took the capital by storm and they began a stretch that would last throughout the 1960s as the only real rival to the Beatles' supremacy. However, at this time they were still a covers band; it wasn't until they had chart success with a Beatles cover ("I Wanna Be Your Man") and witnessed Lennon and McCartney finish writing the song in the studio that they were inspired to try their hand at writing their own material. Jagger and Richards hit the ground running and began a stretch of classic singles in the 1960s, including "Satisfaction," "Get Off of My Cloud," "Under My Thumb," "Paint It Black," and more.  Like the Kinks and Who, the Stones were mainly a singles band (who still put out quality albums) until the middle of the decade when the emphasis throughout rock music turned to the album as the artistic statement.

The Stones' first truly great album of this era was 1966's Aftermath...while it couldn't compete with the Beatles' Revolver, it was still a damn fine record that signalled where the band were headed. 1967's Between the Buttons was understated but solid, but the biggest misstep of this phase of their career was Their Satanic Majesties Request, released at the end of 1967. It was on the back end of the psychedelic boom in '67, created during a time of inner turmoil (mainly bad blood between Jones and Jagger/Richards) and overindulgence in drugs that resulted in an interesting (and in some places, excellent) but deeply flawed album. The fact that, in every way from the cover art to the music, it appeared to be trying to mimic the monumental achievement of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in June '67) didn't help. (Interestingly, while the two bands were friends, John Lennon was quoted several times about how the Stones tended to ape the Beatles, even saying "anything the Rolling Stones do, the Beatles had already done six months before"). With Jones becoming increasingly unstable and isolated from the rest of the band, Jagger and Richards assumed complete control and proceeded to lead the band into their greatest period.

The Stones in 1966, with Jones at center

Beggar's Banquet was a return to their blues and rock roots after the previous few album's forays into psychedelia and was chock full of classics like "Sympathy For the Devil," "Street Fighting Man," and "Stray Cat Blues," as well as some really gutsy blues like "Parachute Woman," "No Expectations," and "Dear Doctor." It was also the final full album to have a meaningful contribution from Brian Jones. He only played on two tracks on Let it Bleed, and on both he was reduced to dulcimer and slide guitar (his forte); he was sacked partway through recording and his replacement, Mick Taylor, played on the remainder of the album. The day after Jones' death in July 1969, the Stones played their massive show in London's Hyde Park and began a series of legendary tours that saw them playing the best shows of their was the years 1969-1973 that truly solidified the Stones as a great live rock band. Even the disastrous (and murderous!) appearance at the Altamont Festival in December 1969 couldn't slow the Stones down...Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., and Goats Head Soup, while fueled by ridiculous intakes of drug and alcohol, showed that the Stones' only peers at the top of the rock heap in the early 1970s were the Who, Led Zeppelin, and (perhaps) David Bowie. The sheer number of great songs, from "Gimme Shelter," "Brown Sugar," "Rocks Off," and "Tumbling Dice" to "Wild Horses," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and "Angie" is amazingly impressive.  By 1973, however, the band were showing signs of running out of steam, and while 1974's It's Only Rock and Roll was a very good album, it wasn't up to the standards of the previous five and it coincided with the departure of Mick Taylor, who left after the record was released but before the tour in support of it.

Ronnie Wood, former guitarist with Faces, was initially brought in solely as a fill-in touring guitarist on 1975's Tour of the Americas (which is the last tour of the Stones I enjoy listening to). However, despite auditioning numerous guitarists after the tour in order to permanently fill the role, the band eventually asked Wood to join the band, and he's been a member ever since. From here on, this is where I don't really care for what the Stones have done, although there is some good material. As mentioned before, Some Girls is a really good album, as are parts of Emotional Rescue (1980), Tattoo You (1981), and Voodoo Lounge (1994), but overall I think it's safe to say that the Stones went into a slow decline in terms of their recorded output; this pertains to both the quantity and quality. However, they've continued to tour into 2014 and remain and exciting live act. I've never seen the Stones live but I hope to before they call it quits for good!

The Stones in 1978...Ronnie Wood is 2nd from the right

So what made the Stones so great? Unlike the Beatles, Who, or Kinks, they weren't really innovators, either in terms of their writing or their production. They didn't push the envelope in terms of what could be done in a recording studio, didn't write song suites or concept albums, and didn't revolutionize rock music from the standpoint of breaking the rules and rewriting them. They didn't redefine what could be done with an instrument the way contemporary virtuosos like Hendrix, Page, and Clapton did with the guitar, Entwistle and Bruce did with the bass guitar, or Moon, Bonham, and Baker did with the drums. What they did do was take the heart and soul of their music (blues and R&B) and find new, interesting, and exciting variations on it in all of the great songs they wrote and recorded. Once they moved past the straight cover versions they peddled in the early 1960s, they brought their love of blues into everything they did but changed it up enough, and in so many different ways, that it sounded fresh, exciting, and ballsy. Indeed, the raw, gutsy, and raunchy (both sonically and lyrically) feel of so much of the Stones' best work is one of the reasons they packed such a punch during their peak years.  Musically, they were as tight a unit as you'll ever find, with Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman laying down a rock solid foundation that really swung and grooved. Over this, Keith Richards could play his endlessly inventive riffs and chords, all the while weaving (his favorite term) lead guitar licks in and out with Jones, Taylor, or Wood. While of the three lead axemen, Taylor was the best, it's also no coincidence that his tenure in the band was also their absolute peak. He brought a highly accomplished musicianship into the band, one they haven't had before or since, and the work they completed during those years stands with the best of any band before or after. The most iconic aspect of the band is Jagger addition to his unmistakable and unique voice, which isn't necessarily good in the purest sense but is absolutely perfect for the Stones, his stage persona and visual appeal is undeniable. He is, quite simply, one of the most captivating and engaging frontmen in rock history, rivaled only by the Who's Roger Daltrey and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in terms of both vocal and visual dynamism.

I've been listening to the Stones as long as I can remember, and I've always been amazed at the sheer number of great songs they've written, especially when looking at their 1960s singles. There's always been something sleazy and a bit dangerous about them, whether it's the smutty "Honky Tonk Women" with that incredibly sexy groove, the lewd and sassy "Brown Sugar," the shockingly vulgar and nasty "Star Star," or the sheer balls and savagery of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." They also have several excellent ballads, like "Wild Horses," "Angie," and "Lady Jane" to name but a few; they also have their fair share of misogynist lyrics, like "Under My Thumb," "Stupid Girl," "Back Street Girl," and "Mother's Little Helper." In a way, though, it's rather refreshing...unlike other bands at the time who were still singing love lyrics and pining for the girls they were singing about, the Stones sang from an aggressively male point of view. Similar to early Who songs (see their debut album My Generation for the clearest examples of this), they sang from an almost anti-love, pro-male perspective. Regardless of how you feel about the words, you can't deny that these are still great songs, and that is the crux of why the Stones are rightly considered one of the greatest bands of all time. They didn't innovate, but they've sure as hell influenced a huge number of musicians and the sheer volume of quality work they've put has more than made up for that one (and really, only) shortcoming of theirs.

Friday, August 8, 2014

How and Why Routines Are Important in Everyday Life

The subject of this post is something I've reflected on for many years and it was brought into relief yet again this past week, so here goes...

This cycle doesn't just pertain to exercise!

We humans are, in general, creatures of habit.  With rare exceptions, we've all got habits and routines ingrained in our brains for just about everything. Whether it's how you get ready to start your day in the mornings, how you pack your suitcase, or what you do before going to bed at night, you subconsciously have a routine for nearly every facet of life. They provide structure and comfort, and keep us tethered to a sense of normalcy in an increasingly chaotic world. At their core, a habit, whether it's good or bad (and we all have both good and bad habits), is something you do so often that it becomes second nature and eventually perform without thinking about it...almost like a reflex. Many related habits bundled together make up a routine. Our brains tend to reinforce the habits, good or bad, by whatever reward we get as a result. Eventually, the reward leads to a cycle of stimuli or cues, followed by the reflexive habitual behavior, and finally the eventual reward (reward in this sense not necessarily meaning only positive, but either positive or negative). Once the pattern becomes ingrained, it becomes routine and eventually the effort involved is no longer truly conscious as the brain has by that point been trained to react to cues.  However, get thrown off of your routine and it's almost as it your brain initially panics and doesn't know how to can feel a bit like a needle skipping across a record, at least to me!

I was reminded of this yet again when I was away on a business trip last week; I'm sharing it here with the assumption that many, if not most of you will be able to relate to what I'm describing.

I have a lot of routines in my life, from daily routines like how I eat my meals at roughly the same time every day, to when I wake up in the morning, how I get ready for work in the morning, when I exercise, how I relax at night, and what I do before going to sleep. In addition to these behavioral routines, my body itself is in a pretty consistent rhythm as far as when and how I sleep, eat, drink, exercise, and "stay regular" (euphemistically speaking).  I've been settled in this way for many, many years and apart from the rare occasional blip, I don't deviate from it.  I'm sure most of you have similar patterns that you follow throughout the course of everyday life.  However, last week I took one of my many business trips down to South Carolina and spent five days there. From the outset, I was completely thrown off my routine: first, I had to go bed much earlier than usual because I had to wake up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am in order to get to the airport in time to catch a 6am flight. Then, throughout the week, I was working long days and eating meals whenever I and my coworkers could fit them in.  Breakfast was usually between 7:30am and 8am so that wasn't too bad, but lunch was anywhere from noon to 2pm, and dinner any time from 6 to 9 pm. It's also very hard to eat healthy and feel good when you're on the road since every meal is eaten at a restaurant. Even ordering lighter dishes like salads or sushi only helps so much, because a salad at a restaurant still sits heavier in your stomach than one prepared at home.  Depending on when we ate dinner and then sat around the hotel lobby having a drink and planning the next day's work, it was anywhere from 10pm to midnight before I was finally able to get to sleep, only to wake up early and repeat it the following day. By the time I got home on Friday afternoon, I was exhausted, my stomach felt heavy and gross, my body rhythms were completely thrown off, and I hadn't exercised in a week.  I quite literally just did not feel right in the slightest. It took me until Monday morning to feel like myself again, and having finally gotten back into my routines, today I'm now back to normal (until the next time I get thrown off again)!

How many of you out there can relate? Do you ever get thrown off of your routines and how long does it take you to get back on track? Let's discuss in the comments section below!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: 27: A History of the 27 Club

The story of the dead rock star is almost a sad cliche at this point in time; certainly when a famous musician dies at a young age, most people aren't surprised and in many cases, it's almost expected to happen. Drink, drugs, reckless behavior, and unhealthy lifestyles are all some of the reasons many of the top musicians of their day end up passing away before their time at an age when most of us are just starting to come into our own as adults. However, there is a small subset of these deceased stars who all have a rather eerie thing in common; this is, of course, the fact that a disproportionate number of them died at the age of 27. Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain are the most famous and highest profile cases of this, but there have been numerous others, including Amy Winehouse, D. Boon, Pete Ham, Al Wilson, Robert Johnson, Pigpen McKernan, and so on. What is it about the age of 27 that seems to be so cursed? The exploration into this phenomenon is the thesis behind Howard Sounes' new book 27: A History of the 27 Club.

***special thanks to Sean and Da Capo Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

The term "27 Club" was coined by Kurt Cobain's mother after he died in 1994, when she said "now he's gone and joined that stupid club..." The idea behind the term has been around for decades, however, most notably after three of the highest profile rock stars of all time all died within ten months of each other: Jimi Hendrix in September 1970, Janis Joplin in October 1970, and Jim Morrison in July 1971. Their deaths brought to larger attention the fact that so many musicians before them had died at 27, and the pattern continuing to the present day has only strengthened the idea that there is something almost supernatural behind it. However, is this really the case? Author Howard Sounes takes a look at six of the highest profile deaths in order to examine this.

The book is set up as a multi-strand mini-biography of each of the subjects, starting with investigations into their births and childhoods, later going on to detail how they achieved fame, how they coped with it, and the series of events that ultimately led to their untimely and premature deaths at 27. In this way, the author hopes to see if there is any commonality between his subjects and whether the fact that they (and many others) all died at the same age is more than just mere coincidence. While the level of depth into the lives of the subjects (with the exception of Winehouse...more on this in a bit) isn't any deeper than what can be found in any potted synopsis of their lives, the author does a nice job weaving them all together, which is especially useful given how much the lives and careers of Jones, Joplin, Morrison, and Hendrix overlapped and interacted. 

While there is much that is different about them, one thing they all do have in common is their unhappy childhoods. In the cases of Morrison, Joplin, and Jones, they came from intact nuclear families that nevertheless had strained parental relationships that were not as emotionally nurturing or safe as they should have been.  Conversely, Hendrix, Cobain, and Winehouse all came from broken homes.  In all cases, all six had very strained, and sometimes nonexistent, relationships with one or both of their parents that persisted into adulthood. All found success at a relatively young ages after years of struggle, and all used drugs and alcohol in order to cope with their sudden fame and wealth, as well as to dull the pain of their unresolved traumas. In several cases (Cobain, Joplin, Hendrix) there were serious mental issues such as depression and bipolar disorder, while Brian Jones singularly seems to have simply been a nasty piece of work as a human being. Indeed, as the author points out by the end of the book, of all of the "Big Six 27s" (as he calls them), at their core they all seemed to be decent people who had serious issues, except for Jones, who seems to have just been an unlikeable character; nearly everyone he worked with or interacted with did not speak kindly of him.

The premise of the book is that there is something all of the Big Six 27s have in common may that explain their demises at the same age (as well as the others who have died at the same age) this really the case? I commend Sounes for debunking any supernatural connotations that many others have tried to ascribe to this tragic coincidence of age, because as he rightly points out, nearly all of them led lives of high risk.  Whether it was drugs, drink, reckless behavior, or in some cases simply bad luck, it was inevitable that unless they changed their lifestyles, that probability that it would catch up with them was inordinately high.  However, at the same time, this makes it less than surprising that any of them died, and because of this I was somewhat skeptical going into the book; is it really shocking when someone abuses their bodies with substances, lives on the edge, and as a result dies at a premature age? Obviously it's not, but regardless of that fact, it is still curious that, of all of the ages between, say 21 and 30, an unusually high proportion of these deaths occur at 27. Indeed, when plotting over 3,000 prominent musician deaths over the past 100+ years, Sounes' chart shows an prominent spike at 27. And while he doesn't offer an explanation as to why this is so surprising, he does show that given how the 27 Club members lived and the various mental and behavioral issues they struggled with, it's not unsurprising.

Getting back to the subject of the book's over-emphasis on Amy Winehouse, it does at times seem that this is a book about her with small amounts of material about the others sprinkled throughout in order to make it more broadly about the 27 Club; in the afterword Sounes admits as such when he admits that his intention going into the book was always to spend the most amount of time and detail on Amy. As someone who is not really a fan of hers, I did feel that while her story was interesting and tragic, she perhaps didn't deserve this level of emphasis nor to be put on the same level as the other five main subjects.  I will say that I am also of the opinion that her musical output (while pretty good) does not stand up to that of the other five and her iconic status seems to be based almost solely on her wild behavior and death, and not any profound cultural impact the way the other five had. It did feel as though her inclusion was either shoehorned in, or that, as I said above, this was to be a biography on her within the greater framework of the 27 Club. That being said, the book was still enjoyable and a quick, easy, and fun read. The writing style was a bit stilted and simplistic, and I'm not sure if that's simply because of the subject matter or if that's just Sounes' style (I'll know for sure when I read his biography on Paul McCartney).

Overall, this is a book that is enjoyable and thought-provoking. It doesn't really offer all that much new information apart from the sections on Amy Winehouse, although it does draw on new research the author conducted, as well as previously available information in order to debunk many of the conspiracy theories that have arisen over the years as pertaining to the deaths of Jones, Hendrix, Morrison, and Cobain (the author does not think foul play was involved in any of them).  This isn't a groundbreaking or revelatory book, but any rock music fan will enjoy it, and looking at his list of 27 Club members at the end of the book will open your eyes to the fact that if there isn't something supernatural going on behind the scenes, it's still a might strange coincidence how many of them all expired at 27.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Rock is Dead, Long Live Rock

I'll apologize in advance to The Who for cribbing the lyric from their 1972 single "Long Live Rock" as the title of this post, but I couldn't think of anything more appropriate to headline what I'm about to write. I'll also acknowledge upfront, as a disclaimer of sorts, that the following is going to be made up mainly of my own opinions and observations and as such, will contain a lot of generalizations; however, based on my experiences and deep knowledge of the subject, I'm confident that most of them are, on the whole, accurate enough that I'm not going to make any apologies for them, either now or later.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me get to the thesis of this entire post: that music, and rock music in particular, as an important and central force in peoples lives is for all intents and purposes dead and buried. Much of this is down to technological advances and economic factors, but in my opinion the most significant reason is cultural; however, there is a symbiotic relationship between the cultural, technological, and economic factors that is at play. They're all interlocked and have combined into a feedback-type loop that seems to perpetuate and expand this effect. You see, up until, let's say the year 2000 or so (for sake of a nice, round number), the lives of countless youth and adults had at their center a deep and almost reverential place for music, popular or otherwise. Let me clarify upfront that I realize I'm writing in somewhat hyperbolic terms and I don't mean to imply that music should in any way be the central or only force in anybody's life at the expense of family, friends, religion, etc. However, I'm not exaggerating when I say that music used to hold a spot alongside all of those guiding forces in the lives of millions of people.

As a devout Christian, I mean no disrespect with this picture, but it fits the theme of this post perfectly

It's beyond my intention or the scope of this piece to delve into the changes in society wrought during the 1960s; that information can be found elsewhere, and from a variety of differing perspectives, including from many who actually lived through it (unlike me). However, as a student of the era and of rock music from the 1960s to the present, I make the following arguments with the utmost conviction. In my opinion, starting with the first rock n' roll boom in the 1950s and continuing unabated until 2000, music was a central force in the lives of millions of people. Now, they started off as fans like we all do, but for so many of us, the music became more than just a diversion or background music. Instead, it became a vital part of our lives and something that couldn't be lived without. Every single and b-side, every EP and album became an event, something to look forward to. The thrill of the hunt in seeking out a rare record (or tape or CD, whatever your format happened to be), or of finally getting your hands on a new release after waiting so long for it to be released...that was a feeling of joy only eclipsed by the ecstasy of listening to it for the first time and immersing yourself in the entirety of the sounds emanating from your speakers. It was also more than that...there was always more to it than just the music. The songs (mostly) said something, the artwork was (usually) interesting, and even in the cases where it happened to be little more than aural fluff, it was an escape that had the power to transport you wherever you wanted to go for as long as it took the track time to go from 00:00:00 until it ended. The great thing, too, was that as the bands matured, grew, and changed so too did we fans, most of whom stuck with them for the ride. As the artists grew into adulthood and their focus and experiences (which were subsequently expressed in their music) changed, the fans who were still with them could relate because we'd gone through the same changes.  I can obviously only speak for myself, but I know it to be true for countless others as well myself: music became a part of our lives that was as essential as anything else, and there was no doubt about it. It doesn't take an effort for me to listen to music, think about it, read about it, write about, create it, whenever I just is and has been for as long as I can remember. I hesitate to call it a religion because it isn't, and as a Christian myself I think it's disrespectful to equate the two. However, they are awfully similar in terms of the space they occupy within my very being and, I suspect, that of anyone reading this who feels the same way.

All of this brings me to the main thrust of this entire article...somewhere within the past 10-15 years or so, a confluence of technological advances caught up to the economics of young music fans and this centrality of music withered away to the point that in 2014 I feel like it's all but dead. Now, before you accuse me of writing the diatribe of a cranky 34 year old man heaping scorn on the young Millennial whippersnappers all around him, please hear me out (and I'll concede upfront that my being a cranky young/old man does color this piece just a bit). In addition, please keep in mind that by admitting upfront that I am including a lot of generalizations, I also realize that they're not 100% applicable to everyone I'm painting with my broad brush. As you read this, I'm sure you'll come to the conclusion that I don't think there are any true music fans anymore, and you'd be wrong. I realize that there still are devoted young people for whom music means as much to them as it does to me and others.  My overarching point is that we are part of a dwindling breed that is now simply not as common in 2014 as we were in 1994, 1975, or 1968.  Perhaps the overriding theme of this article is that while there are still passionate music fans under 30, very few of them LIVE for the music the way many of us older fans did and continue to.  I fully expect the slagging off I'm sure to get for this piece, as well as the accusations of being an ageist musically pretentious snob (it wouldn't be the first time I've been accused as such).  What I'm trying to articulate is quite difficult to get across within the limitations of the written word; thus, I welcome any feedback and discussions, whether you agree or not, in the comments section at the end of this post.

Let me take you back to an ancient time before the internet was ubiquitous and various advances such as downloading music (whether legally or illegally) and streaming music (ie Spotify, Pandora, etc) became the norm. Back in these mythical times, if you wanted to own recorded music you had to buy a physical copy. This entailed actually traveling to wherever you were going to buy it (typically a local record store, department store, or in their earlier days, one of the big box retailers back when they actually had legitimately good music sections). Not only that, but you had to wait until it was released. There was no way an album was going to leak in its entirety weeks or months before its release date. Once you got there, you had to first hope there was a copy of whatever it was you wanted to buy and you had to actually pay money for it. Of course, for many music fans, including the ones whom I've described above, this part of the process became almost ritualistic in nature and something to look forward to...record stores became places to meet, hang out, listen to and discuss music, and discover new things to listen to while you browsed and shopped for what you were looking for. Clearly this was the norm in the earlier decades, but even as a kid in the 1980s and as a high school and college student in the 1990s, this was how it was done and I spent many fond hours  (and still do!) partaking in the whole experience as I amassed a huge collection of cassettes and (mainly) CDs. However, with the advent of downloading music, purchasing individual songs via iTunes and  Amazon, and now streaming, there is no need for most younger music fans to physically purchase their music. Also, because this new method of music consumption places emphasis on individual songs and playlists rather than albums (and let's face it, most of today's here-today-gone-tomorrow stars that have hit songs and zero staying power wouldn't be able to fill an album with quality material if their lives depended on it) and on non-physical formats, there is a de-emphasis put on albums. Just try to find an average twenty year old who cares about cover art and whatever statement a particular album makes. Go ahead, I'll wait...back so soon?

Compounding all of this, the elevation of the individual song, which is now available a mere mouse click away for $0.99, combined with CDs continuing to be overpriced at $12-20 a pop has led to a near collapse of physical music sales. Today's young music fan doesn't care about the statement an album makes, or if any of the songs besides the radio single are any good, or what the album art looks like. They want the song downloaded cheaply and quickly in order to add it to their digital playlist. Unlike in years past, where music was something that required an actual outlay of hard-earned money and the listening experience of which was an event to be savored and enjoyed either alone and/or with friends, in 2014 music is just another disposable commodity that's cheap, convenient, and little more than background music for driving, partying, or filling the silence in the background wherever you may be.  

Another aspect impacting the lack of importance of music in the lives of younger people is the fact that there are so many other distractions available to them now, such as video games, smartphones and tablets, movies, endless TV channels with on-demand programming, and so on.  With so much to choose from to fill in every bit of spare time they have, today's young people don't need music as something central in their lives. I realize this sounds like a case of "in my day, we had to watch grass grow for our entertainment" but I'm simply pointing out irrefutable fact. It's the same reason why kids today barely play outside anymore, whereas in my youth I spent more time outside than in.  Add in the fact that the last truly great decade for both music and a true music scene was the 1990s and that there hasn't been an album or band that has really shaken the industry out of whatever doldrums it's been stuck in, and it's a recipe for complacency and music no longer being an art form of expression, but instead embracing its current nature as  disposable commodity. The fact that instrument-based music (apart from country music, but that's a whole other can of worms I don't intend on opening here) is no longer the dominantly popular genre and it all makes sense. The vast majority of top-selling acts are those that don't write their own music and don't perform it themselves, and many of them can't even sing it without the help of autotune or pre-recorded vocal tracks. How else can they be note perfect when running and jumping non-stop during their concerts, which these days are more performance-as-spectacle as opposed to actual live performance?  Perhaps the biggest factor of all is that video games have replaced stereos as the electronic device of choice for young people and their friends; instead of listening to music and/or trying to learn instruments and form garage bands, it's now all about playing multiplayer online video games for hours on end and interacting with your friends, whether they're sitting on the couch next to you or you're talking to them hundreds of miles away via headset. I'm not saying one is better than the's all down to personal preference, but it can't be denied that the times they have a-changed.

 No, these are not pictures of me, but I agree with the statements!

It also seems as though there are few, if any, modern icons and leaders in today's music, at least those who are admired for both their creativity as well as their image/personality. There are scant modern examples currently producing quality music, with only Jack White and Alex Turner immediately springing to mind, whereas when one looks from 2000 backward, names like Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, Noel Gallagher, Damon Albarn, Michael Stipe, Morrissey, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Pete Townshend, Keith Richards, and more are legion. Part of it is because rock music isn't as relevant and all-consuming in the popular culture of 2014 as it was even twenty years ago, let alone in the 1960s and 1970s; another factor is that as mentioned above, since most of the biggest mainstream acts in recent years are not writing and performing their own music, there is less of a premium on creativity and the entire creative process and thus, the figures who are held up as icons are feted more for their fashion and outrageous behavior than their musical talent. I leave you with this final question before opening myself up to accusations of "ageist!" "rockist!" "old crank!" "snob!" and the like: Is everything I've detailed as it pertains to music a symptom or a signpost of a problem with 21st century society?  I leave that for the reader to decide, but personally, my answer to the question is "yes."

 "Rock is dead they say, long live rock!"