Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Guitar Heroes

My guitar heroes, pencil on paper ca. 1995/1996

We've been steadily unpacking our belongings since our recent move to Pennsylvania and as I was going through one of my boxes the other day, I found the above drawing. I drew this when I was 15 or 16 years old, so it dates from 1995/1996. It was done only with a bunch of pencils and a blank piece of paper (approximate size is 24" x 36").  I drew all of my favorite guitarists from photos I had clipped out of magazines or from album artwork. As a teenager who was obsessed with music and playing guitar (and here I am at nearly 35 and nothing has changed!), it seemed a fun thing to do. I distinctly remember sitting at the dining room table with the pictures all laid out in front of me as I worked diligently on this for several days. The end result is above, which I hung in my bedroom until I went off to college in 1997. It's been stored away ever since until I found it again.  

I'm sure you can guess most, if not all, of the guitarists shown, but just in case there are some you don't know, I've decided not to tag them in this post until I see if anyone can guess all of them. So have at it!

Can you name all of the guitarists I drew in this picture nearly 20 years ago? Answer in the comments section below!

Friday, September 26, 2014

New England

I was born and raised in New England and have always been fiercely proud to call the region home.  My family came from Greece to America almost 100 years ago...my father's side settled on the New Hampshire seacoast by the end of WWII and my mother's side arrived in the same place by the mid-1950s via Boston and New York City.  My parents, aunts, and uncles were all born and raised in NH (and all except for my parents still live there). I was born in Massachusetts, lived there for the first two years of my life, and after a year in Pennsylvania from the age of two to three, moved back to New Hampshire where I lived until I was twenty-six. My wife was born and raised in New Hampshire and lived her whole life there as well. In 2006, I completed my PhD and, at the ages of 26 (for me) and 28 (for my wife), we made a big move down to South Carolina so that I could spend two years as a postdoctoral fellow. However, when I completed my fellowship, I got a job in Boston and we moved back to New Hampshire.  Six years of a grueling commute caused us to move down into the Boston Metro West area to make it easier for me to get to work.  Apart from the two years we spent down south (which we loved!), we're New England lifers. All four of our kids were born in NH and it's all they've ever known.  I, my wife, our kids...we've lived here our whole lives and I thought we would never live anywhere else. Well, I was wrong! The six of headed off on a new adventure earlier this month when I accepted a new position at a company in central Pennsylvania and, for the first time in my life, made a permanent move out of New England.

Now, I know it's not that far away...it's not like we moved to California or Alaska! It's an easy day's drive from where we're from to where we've moved to. However, it's a very different place and will take some for me to adjust to, the same way it was in South Carolina when we first arrived. For as united an identity as we Americans have, this is also a huge country and each region has its own unique heritage, culture, identity, accent, cuisine, and traditions. All of these changes, which are exciting but also have my head spinning at how fast they all happened, got me thinking about what makes New England such a special place, why I love it so much, why I'm sad to have left it, and why no matter where I live, it will always be home to me and my family.

I *NEED* this shirt!

For those of you reading this who are outside of the United States (or for those of you within who don't...shame on you!), New England is the northeasternmost region of the country and is made up of six states: Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Connecticut. It is the site of the earliest English settlements and by the 18th century, the region initiated the resistance to the British Empire that eventually resulted in American independence. Nicknamed "The Cradle of Liberty," the area was where the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's midnight ride, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Boston Massacre, and numerous other pivotal events which helped shape the eventual push for freedom by the colonists and birthed the USA.  New England is steeped in history and tradition relating to the Revolutionary War of Independence and the very beginning of the USA. It's also the only geographical region in the country that has clearly defined borders and a name that doesn't have any reference to its geographical area.  Each of the six states has a unique identity and variations on New England traditions that are specific to them.  Boston is not only one of the major cities in the country, but is the unofficial "capital of New England" due to its size and status as a city world renowned for its universities, hospitals and medical research centers, history, and culture (art, music, literature).

As I mentioned above, each state in New England has its own identity and, as is typical, there are stereotypes that are generally accepted by all who live here regarding each state. For instance, Maine is the land of beaches, seafood, and wilderness, while New Hampshire is the no-tax, freedom-loving, gun-toting land of Live Free or Die.  Massachusetts is a mini Soviet state filled with terrible drivers, funny accents, and high taxes, while Vermont is full of farmland and hippies. And lastly, Rhode Island is a wannabe Massachusetts on the water while half of Connecticut roots for New York teams and isn't even really a part of New England, anyway (that last part is true, actually!).  Now, I mean no offense to anyone who is from any of those states who might get upset...it was meant to be lighthearted and in good fun...in fact, if you're from New England, you probably agree with some or all of them!  There's a germ of truth to them, too, as there is with nearly all stereotypes.  What a lot of people who aren't from the region don't understand is how provincial and proud we are. Most of us love living here and cannot and will not consider living anywhere else.  I certainly didn't think I ever would, and yet here I am 400 miles away in Pennsylvania!  That got me thinking as to what it is that makes New England so special to me. Many of these things will be the same for anyone else who lives here or is from here, while others will be of a more personal nature and unique to me. In any event, I thought it would be fun to list them all, so here goes!

1. Geography

One of the best things about living in New England is how close you are to just about every type of terrain you could want.  The seacoast, lakes and rivers, mountains, forests...there's everything except deserts, and let's face it...who wants to go hang out in the desert? (No offense to any of my desert-loving readers).  You also have access to towns and cities of all sizes, as well as major cities, most notable of which is Boston.  And of course, people I speak to always marvel at how all of the town and city names here are either from Native American or British descent.

2. Climate

Typical to see between December and March

I realize this one won't be popular with everyone, and there will be many native New Englanders who will be aghast at what I'm about to write, but the weather in New England just might be one of its strongest selling points. And like we always say here, if you don't like the weather in New England, wait half an hour.  For starters, we get all four seasons without fail, every year (although depending on the year, Spring is sometimes called "Mud Season," while other years it's little more than either an extension of winter right up until summer starts, or an extension of summer right after winter ends). Autumn in New England just may be the best season anywhere the country, period. The crisp, cool yet comfortable weather still has a fair amount of daylight, the air smells fresh and earthy once the leaves have fallen, and the foliage when the trees turn color is absolutely gorgeous. There's a reason leaf-peepers from all over the country descend on the region in September and October.

Just look at that foliage!

The summers are typically nice, with temperature rarely exceeding 90 oF, although we do often get stretches of oppressive humidity that can make it uncomfortable. Even so, the summers are so short, lasting only from June through August, that it's rarely unbearable. Which leaves us with winter...yes, the winters are loooooooong, they're bitterly cold, we get a LOT of snow, with barely 10 hours of daylight at its peak. Some winters, like the past two from 2013 and 2014, have started earlier than usual (early November) and dragged on well into mid-April.

Even hardened lifers such as yours truly can get sick of them. But there is something beautiful about being outside on a cold, clear day when the temperatures are well below freezing, there's not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is shining down on the snow-covered landscape. And let's not forget that skiers from all over flock to our mountains for some of the best skiing on the East Coast.

3. Sports

Our teams have won titles for decades, the most recent stretch coming since 2001

I've written about our sports heritage and teams before, so I won't belabor the point too much, other than to say that we have old, storied, championship-winning franchises in all four of the major sports, and we are routinely listed as one of, if not THE, best sports towns in the country year after year. Our loyalty, devotion, and fervent support for our teams is well-known, often-mocked, and rarely equalled. The region is not a hotbed for college sports at all...unless you support your alma mater (for instance, I am still an avid fan of UNH Hockey), the only college teams with a sizable following are Boston College's basketball and football teams, and even then it's only when they're doing well. In New England, it's all about pro sports and in that regard, we're nearly without equal, especially given our championship success, both history and in recent years.

4.  Food

New England clambake, anyone?

Every region of the country has specific cuisine it's known for, and New England is no exception. Given our proximity to the ocean, we have some of the best seafood in the country, from Maine lobster to shrimp, steamers, fried clams, mussels, scallops, and a whole host of delicious fish (cod, haddock, flounder, etc).  Everyone knows about New England clam chowder. There are also regional dishes within New England, like whoopie pies, clam cakes, grilled bagels, bar pizza, and more.  We've also got the love-it-or-hate-it soda Moxie, Necco Wafers, and a bunch of other things that make us different from other parts of the country.

5. History

Nicknamed "The Cradle of Liberty," there's a ton of history in New England. It was one of the oldest settlements in the country, the pilgrims having landed at Plymouth Rock, and the region gave birth to the men and the movement that eventually launched the American War of Independence. From Paul Revere's midnight ride and the Boston Tea Party, to the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Bunker Hill (which actually took place on nearby Breed's Hill), so much of our nation's early history took place in the region. You can still visit the Old North Church, Fanueil Hall, Paul Revere's grave, and walk the Freedom Trail, among many other things you can do in Boston, which brings me to...

6. Boston

"I love that dirty water..."

Boston is the unofficial capital of New England and one of the major American cities. It's one of the oldest cities in the country and is rich in tradition, history, character, and charm (as is the rest of the region).  It's the closest you can get to a European feel in an American city and has quirks all its own. It also happens to be a very modern city, with many of the country's most respected and cutting edge hospitals and medical centers, as well as being a hub of technology. Much of this is due to the city having the most colleges and universities of any city in the nation, including top-notch research institutions like Harvard University, MIT, Tufts, and Northeastern.  There's also a rich cultural tradition here, from art museums like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to Boston Symphony Hall and the Boston Pops. There's an active and vibrant live music scene, with local, up-and-coming, and established major touring acts passing through playing concerts all over the area.  Basically, Boston is similar to every other major American city in many ways, but unique enough to make it special in its own right.

8. We're Provincial and Proud

Of course, our regional magazine is called "Yankee!"

Again, I've written about this before, but we are very provincial and initially wary of outsiders here in New England. It's a place we're all fiercely proud of...we're proud of being from here, proud of our traditions and way of life, and proud to live here.  It's somewhere where outsiders just can't understand the appeal and draw to those of us who hail from here. I remember when we were living in South Carolina and I'd told a friend I'd made there how I couldn't wait to find a job and move back. He gave me a puzzled look, scrunched up his noise, and asked "WHY?" As in, "why on Earth would you want to move back there?" Like I said, if you're from here, you'll understand; if you're not, you never will.

7. Accents and Slang

Finally, I can't finish writing about New England without touching on one of the major things we always get made fun of for: our accents and slang! Let me say right off the bat that I and my family don't have the typical accents...in fact, we come from a region in New Hampshire that has NO accent. But I've been around everyone else who does for so many years that it's natural for me to hear. The most famous is the thick Boston accent that gets made fun of in movies, TV shows, and more.

But there is also a thick Rhode Island accent that sounds like a cross between a Boston and a New York accent, where a word like "source" is pronounced like "sauce" and "crayon" is pronounced "cran." And don't forget the Downeast Maine accent, where "yes" is "ayuh," and the phrase "you can't get theah from heah" was made famous.

I also grew up hearing people pronounce "drawer" as "draw" and "draw" as "drar." In fact, that's another funny New England accent, mainly in northern New Hampshire: where an "r" is added to every word that shouldn't have one (ironically, since the Boston accents DROPS "r" from the end of words). So for instance, someone with a Boston accent says "cah" instead of "car" or "yahd" instead of "yard," but someone from northern NH will say "idear" instead of "idea" or "raw" as "rar."  And let's not forget our most famous slang, the use of the word "wicked" to mean "really," as in "this ice cream is WICKED good!" I'm guilty of this and have been my whole life...if you're from here, it's just how you talk. I had an English teacher in high school complain that it made no sense, because how can something be "wicked" and "good" at the same time? The thing is, she wasn't originally from here, so she didn't get it and she never would.

So there you have it! I certainly could have gone on and on even more about how much I love New England, but I don't want to belabor the point. If you're a native like me, you'll get everything I've written, and if you're not, you're either tired of reading about it (I hope not!) or not convinced it's anywhere special. That's absolutely fine and I respect the opinions of everyone reading this. The impetus for writing this was my homesickness at having moved out of the area for the first real time in my life, which made me really step back and take a look at why I was so sad to leave. It made me reassess the place that is such a part of me; it's an irreducible and integral and part of who I am. No matter where I live until the day I die, I'll always be a New Englander.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Who Before the Who

Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, and Starr.  Davies, Davies, Quaife, and Avory.  Jagger, Richards, Jones, Wyman, and Watts.  Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle, and Moon. Some bands have line-ups that are instantly recognizable by simply the surnames of their members, and these bands are forever cemented with these particular line-ups. However, one thing all of the above bands have in common is that earlier incarnations included a different member who was replaced (for whatever reason) on the cusp of achieving success and fame.  In every case, it was the drummer who was the last to join and solidify the classic line-up, which in the Who's case meant the arrival of Keith Moon in early 1964 and the departure of Doug Sandom.  These members who get left behind before fame and fortune often end up as mere footnotes in the history of rock, but they usually have very interesting stories to tell. The Who Before the Who is Doug Sandom's take on his two years with the Detours, who renamed themselves The Who just months before he left the band.

Doug Sandom was a bricklayer and drummer in London when he joined up with teenagers Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, and John Entwistle who, along with a vocalist named Colin Dawson, started playing gigs as the Detours in 1962.  Eventually jettisoning Dawson and changing their line-up to the classic vocals, guitar, bass, and drums format, the band began regularly playing gigs and building up a loyal fan following.  Things in the band were tense between Roger and Pete, which would continue until well into the band's career, but another little known source of conflict was between Pete and Doug. According to Sandom, Pete was moody, introverted, and arrogant and was surly and verbally cutting to everyone around, including Doug, who concurrently founding himself mediating the disputes between Daltrey and Townshend.  All the while, there was an internal power struggle between Roger, who favored the band playing the pop hits of the day, and Pete, who wanted the band to move into a harder-edged R&B and blues direction, not to mention the new songs he was now writing.  Eventually, they caught the eyes and ears of several A&R men, as well as a short-lived manager named Helmut Gordon, which spelled the beginning of the end for Doug. Being a solid decade older than the other three, married with a son and a day-job, Doug was the odd-man out. The consensus from Pete and the producers who auditioned the band at the time was also that Doug's drumming, while solid, wasn't good enough for the band (shades of Pete Best here!).  Pete and Gordon made Doug feel uncomfortable and suspicious that plans were afoot to replace him, and after a spat during a rehearsal, Doug quit the band (but was kind enough to finish off the engagements he was obligated to before they found a replacement). It was a decision he made out of anger and which he has always regretted, although to his credit Sandom acknowledges that Moon was what the band needed and that he most likely wouldn't have been able to handle all of the craziness that was to follow.  He eventually met his replacement, Keith Moon, and stayed close to the band over the years, where he is still their VIP guest to the present day.

The Who pre-Moon: L-R Pete, Roger, Doug, John
Along with the drama surrounding the band's interpersonal dynamics,  Doug also had his fair share of drama at home. His wife, Lily, disliked his spending all of his nights out playing with the band and she grew suspicious of the female fans the group started to attract.  Sandom does admit that he got a bit too friendly with a couple of girls who were fans of his, but that while he grew uncomfortable with the situation he found himself, he never stepped out on his wife and stayed true to her. He also describes some of the more memorable gigs the Detours played, playing on the same bills as other legendary bands like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Hollies.  There are several passages shared from Doug's diaries at the time which give a bit more of an inside look into the band during those early, formative years.  Finally, the end of the book contains a tour date itinerary of all of the gigs Doug played with the Detours/Who between 1962 and 1964, as well as several pages of photographs.

Doug Sandom today, still drumming!
This book is a short, enjoyable read although I do have a few minor complaints with it. On the whole, it's a bit superficial in the sense that it doesn't scratch too far below the surface to give a real in-depth insiders' account of the band and Doug's time in it.  Several of the anecdotes and quotes were familiar to me from other sources, and while it's understandable that the really interesting stuff happened to the band after Moon's arrival and their fame started to grow, I'm sure there is still a lot of fascinating information from Sandom's time in the band which I would have liked to have had more of.  The pictures are all in black and white and while most look fine, some are reproduced so dark and grainy that it's a bit difficult to discern them. Many of the photos are from the author's personal scrapbook which are really nice to see, but several are common pictures of the Who that have been seen multiple times over the year and seemed out of place amongst the rest.  Lastly, Pete Townshend wrote a ver nice introduction to the book, mentioning just how important Doug was to his development during that time and acknowledging that he (Pete) was difficult to get along with in those years!  Overall, while this book would probably not be of interest to the casual Who fan, for any hardcore Who fan, it's well worth reading to learn a bit more about Doug and what the Who were like before they were THE WHO.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Blogging Advice and Tips from the Rock and Roll Chemist (PART 3)

Parts 1 & 2 of this series on blogging advice and tips have both been received with positive reaction from readers and followers who have contacted me, which makes me very happy! I know I'm nothing special in the world of blogging, but at the same time I've seen some real results and had some real successes over the past year doing what I've been doing. The goal of this series is to share what I've learned from my experiences in order to help out other bloggers who might benefit from some or all of what I've been through.  Part 1 dealt with creating great content and Part 2 dealt with seizing your opportunities (or going out and creating them yourself). For this third part, I'm going to touch on one of the most critical components to building up any blog into a successful one...

PART 3: Build Interest, Trust, and Eventually a Brand

Like any endeavor in life, you're not going to get anyone to pay attention to you unless you're interesting, and they're not going to keep paying attention to you unless they trust you.  In order to build interest, you first need to find your niche (or niches) and try not to stray too far from it. If you try to be all things to all people, most likely you'll spread yourself too thin and won't come across as an expert in any one field. Think of the old expression "a mile wide and an inch deep." It's better to be "a yard wide and a mile deep," instead, don't you think?  This doesn't mean you have to focus only on one topic, but make sure you're not focusing on too many. For instance, my blog is mainly focused on music, but I also write a lot of posts about books, fitness, and sports.  That breadth and number of topics seems to work for me, and there's a lot of overlap between some of them; for instance, most of the books I write about have to do with music.  In this way, I've concentrated my focus on a select number of subjects that can allow me to show that I have a high degree of mastery and expertise. (The use of the word "expert" isn't to imply that one has to be a complete and total authority on a subject, but rather that one has a deeper and more fundamental understanding of a topic beyond what the average or casual fan would have).  If you show that you have knowledge of a subject beyond the average person, it will give your readers confidence in what you've written and it will enhance your reputation as a blogger and writer. Also, combine this with the generation of a sufficient amount of quality content and you will establish yourself as an authority worthy of repeat visits; this will then lead to your readers being much more likely to refer others to your blog and to recommend it within their circle of friends which will help grow your readership base.  Once you've created a fair amount of quality content that demonstrates your knowledge (and you do it on a regular basis), the level of trust that readers have in you and your blog will grow and your readers should remain loyal, interested, and engaged for a long time to come.

To this end, what I have found over the past year (and what I hope you will find, too) is that as you build up a catalog of quality posts on your blog and gradually build up a loyal reader base, you'll in turn build regular traffic. Initially, and for the first several months or more, you'll notice (if you pay attention to your analytics and stats) that you will have some posts that will give a solid spike in traffic, while other days you will have little or no traffic. However, if you persevere, eventually your catalog of quality posts will be there for readers to keep coming back to and (re)discover.  There will then come a time when you will have a blog that is self-perpetuating in terms of popularity, viewership, and growth...those days of little to no traffic will be gone (or at least, greatly reduced). From personal experience, I used to get excited when I would break 50 visitors in a day, then 100, and so on. On the flipside, I would also get disappointed on the days where I would only have 15 visitors.  I kept at it, however, and what I eventually ended up with is a blog that routinely gets hundreds of visitors a day, with some days being better (and in some cases, MUCH better!) than others. This can depend on a few factors...sometimes, a certain post is interesting enough that it attracts a lot of attention. Other times, an older post of mine is rediscovered and results in a huge upsurge in traffic. And of course, you never know which posts will go viral, or why, but when it happens it's very exciting!  Of course, blogging isn't all about page hits, but it is a good feeling to know that what you're writing is of interest to people and is being looked at. The Rock and Roll Chemist is now at the steady state where a slow traffic day still results in at least 100 unique visitors each day, but every week brings more growth...this is what keeps me excited: knowing that people are still interested in what I'm writing and that they want more of it.  I want each and every one of you reading this to achieve this as well!  However, once you've reached this stage, it's not time to rest on your laurels; like anything, if you want to maintain something at a high level and if you want to improve upon it, you've got to continue to work at it. In the end, both you and your readers will be rewarded: you'll become a better writer and blogger, and your readers will get even better content. Everyone wins!

Once your reputation has been built up and you've given your readers a reason to trust you, you will have created a new brand: YOU!  As someone who has shown themselves to have expertise in a specific area (or a few specific areas), your readers will keep coming back for more; however, they will also expect you to maintain the same high level of quality and fairly regular schedule for new content. As such, it's important that you don't squander this trust and interest by failing to live up to it!  The minute you start blogging, you start building up your brand. Whether this means your brand is you yourself or whether it's your blog as its own entity, the choice is entirely yours. In either case, though, it's important to respect and honor the trust your readers place in you in every way. This means not only in what content you post and how good it is, but how you interact and engage with your audience and how you promote and expose your blog (both of these topics will be covered in later parts of this series). Make sure that you build your own brand and reputation in a way that you will be proud of; it also helps to think of what kind of blogs and bloggers you like to follow and interact with yourself.  Think about what you like (or dislike) about them and whether you would like your readers to think of you in the same way, and then model your brand on that.  As anyone who has ever used the Internet knows, especially in 2014, once an online brand and reputation is established, it's very hard to change people's minds after the fact. Make sure you do it the right way from the very beginning: start slowly, build from the ground up, and do it carefully and thoughtfully so that as your blog and brand grows, it's only in a positive direction.  Not only will this feel rewarding and satisfying to you, but it just might help you start to attract some of the opportunities that were discussed in Part 2, and who would complain about that?


Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Rock and Roll Chemist is On the Move!

To my loyal readers and newcomers alike, this is just a little announcement to let you know that it's going to take a little longer than usual for me to publish my next post here. That's because a few weeks ago, I accepted an exciting new job opportunity! I start this new position next week, but it necessitates moving a few hundred miles away from my beloved native New England. That is an entire topic for a dedicated blog post which I am currently working on and will publish at a later date.  What this means, however, is that I am in flux right now...my wife and kids have already moved to the new house so that the kids could start school, while I've been here wrapping up work at my old job and getting ready for the movers to come pack up the old house and load it into a truck before I head out to join them. Then there will be time spent waiting to get the Internet set up at the new place, unpacking, and so on.  Have no fear because I will be back blogging as soon as the dust has settled...The Rock and Roll Chemist isn't going anywhere! I just wanted to let all of you know that the whole operation will be in transit, so please just bear with me while my family and I make this big change in our lives and before you and I both know it, things will be back to normal here.  Thanks!

Monday, September 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Light My Fire: My Life with the Doors

The Doors had one of the most unique band lineups of any rock band, with only guitar, drums, keyboards, and vocals to create their sound. With this blend of instrumentation and the talented men writing and playing this music, they managed to carve out a one-of-a-kind sound and career in only five and a half short years in order to become one of the most legendary and famous American rock bands of all time. While Jim Morrison is a household name and one of the most famous icons of his era (and beyond), the other three Doors, while well known, have always taken a back seat to Morrison's persona. However, it's always valuable and interesting to get the perspective of as many people in a band as possible, and to get it from someone as talented and outspoken as Ray Manzarek is not to be missed.

Ray Manzarek formed the Doors with his UCLA Film School friend and classmate Jim Morrison in the summer of 1965 and recruited Robby Krieger and John Densmore, whom he met at a meditation lecture, solidifying the lineup that would go on to achieve massive success during the band's lifetime and beyond. A classically trained pianist with a love of jazz, blues, and R&B, Ray pulled double duty in the Doors, as he was not only the keyboard player but his left hand was their bass player.  As supremely talented as Krieger and Densmore were, it was Manzarek that gave the band their unique sound with not only his haunting organ playing, but his insistent and dexterous keyboard bass playing.  Light My Fire, published in 1998, is the late Ray's autobiography about his life in the Doors, and he's as good as his word when it comes to what's in the book.

Ray was born in 1939 and spent his entire childhood in Chicago.  As third generation Polish-American, he lived with his parents and two younger brothers in what is portrayed as a very happy and warm, comfortably working/middle-class family. Indeed, the many chapters describing his childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood in Chicago (where he graduated from DePaul University with an economic degree in 1960) sound idyllic and the warmth and affection Ray has for his family and those years really comes across to the reader. During these years, he became classically trained on the piano before being smitten by the blues and jazz, laying the groundwork for the skills that would serve him in good stead later on in his life.  Moving out to the west coast to attend UCLA Film School, Ray meets the love of his life, Dorothy, whom he married in 1967 and remained married to until his death in 2013. He also became friends with fellow film student Jim Morrison, and when their paths crossed after graduation in 1965, it seemed as though fate brought them together and they decided to form a band based around Jim's lyrics and some melodies he had in his head. Meeting Robby and John at a meditation lecture, Ray recruited them into the band and it's the story of the Doors' career that makes up the bulk of the remainder of the book. It's also where things really get interesting, as there is a lot of information that was new to me, as well as some controversial bits.  Ray discusses the initial band rehearsals and his impressions of his bandmates. It's clear throughout the book that he had, and continues to have, a lot of affection and respect for Jim, and he has nothing but kind words to say about Robby Krieger.  It's when he discusses John Densmore that sparks begin to fly.  It's been no secret over the years that the relationship between Ray and John has been strained (to put it mildly), but throughout the book Ray always seems to take a passive-aggressive swipe at Densmore when he can. He does temper this by offering a lot of praise, not only for John's drumming (calling him "the best drummer I ever played with") but highlighting how his personality fit perfectly within the band dynamic.  However, every time a band conversation is relayed in the book, Ray always includes comments John made that are labelled as being "whiny" or casting Densmore as a "worry-wart." There are also several exchanges described where John tried to make jokes or snide comments about Robby's comfortable upbringing or Jim's parents' money, which were answered with a lot of verbal abuse from the other three back.  In fact, there is one discussion with Jim that Ray shares where, in between sets at the Whiskey Au-Go-Go in the summer of 1966, Jim pulled him outside and asked if they could fire Densmore!  Densmore seems to be the recipient of a lot of criticism in this book, from Ray as well as Morrison...I'm planning on reading John's memoir and reviewing it at a later date to get his side of the story.

From here, Ray gives the reader a firsthand account of the Doors' career, from topping the charts with "Light My Fire" and their debut album through the making of all of their hugely successful albums. It's interesting to get his insiders perspective on many of the recording sessions and concerts, as well as the interband dynamics between the four of them. For the most part, it seems to have been a harmonious brotherhood, at least according to Ray. This is in contrast to the picture painted by Jim's friends in the excellent new book that I recently reviewed, Friends Gathered Together, where it was stated that Jim tolerated his bandmates and that, apart from making music with them, he had no real affection for them.  It's difficult to know who to believe, but as in most cases the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.  I would certainly believe Ray's account as far as his friendship with Jim goes, since he knew Jim the longest, by far, of anyone in the band, having first met him at UCLA in the early 1960s.  Throughout the book, it's obvious he had (and still has) a real love and affection for his friend Jim Morrison. He spends the bulk of the book lamenting Jim's alcoholism and the emergence of Jim's drunken persona, whom he labels "Jimbo."  It is quite sad to read of Ray's heartbreak and despair as he tried to help save Jim from himself, attempts which as everyone now knows were ultimately unsuccessful. I did like how critical he was of Oliver Stone and his movie "The Doors," which none of the surviving members liked, and Ray's attempts to set the record straight were both enlightening and humorous.  The other major thread running throughout the book was Ray's relationship with the love of his life, Dorothy, and it was quite heartwarming to read of his adoration of her...theirs was truly one of the rare showbiz marriages that stood the test of time.

Overall, this is an enjoyable book to read, but there are times where Ray lapses into a lot of hippie-dippie spiritual and mystical speak that tends to grate after a while.  He also seems not to have lost any of the misty-eyed idealism of the 1960s, which is fine for the most part, but he does seem a bit hypocritical when he talks of his dreams for a more utopian future and then describes how excited he was by all of the money he made in the Doors. A house, cars, clothes, musical equipment, all things he spent his well-deserved and well-earned money on, but in stark contrast to his constant talk of equality and his de-emphasis on material possessions and wealth.  It does show that Ray was human like the rest of us, and he does point out that he was only ever in the Doors to make music, stating that earning a living from it was simply a fortuitous byproduct. His writing style is very engaging and there is a lot of humor in the book, both intentional and subtle, with several laugh-out-loud moments attesting to this. It's easy to see how he can (and does) rub many Doors fans the wrong way with his enthusiasm and predilection to have an opinion on just about everything, but this is also one of the qualities that made him an enjoyable interview and the world is definitely a sadder place for his absence, not only as an interesting interviewee, but also for his musicianship.  I just wish the book didn't feel so rushed, as he spends the bulk of the book discussing his life and the early part of the Doors' career and then crams the final four albums and all that happened around them, including the infamous Miami incident and Jim's death, into the last fifty pages. It definitely makes for a somewhat unsatisfying finish to the book.  I also would have liked him to have written more about the Doors' brief post-Morrison career in the early 1970s as well as what he was up to since the band ended in 1973, but I suppose he was only staying true to the subtitle of the book and just writing about his life in the Doors.  One more minor annoyance is his constant reference to video footage of the band, which is followed by a tagline as to how the reader can rent or purchase it. I realize he was probably just trying to be helpful, but after a while it started to come off as though he was shilling for sales.  However, this is a relatively minor complaint, and either way, this is a book well worth reading for any Doors fan; a memoir from a unique man about his time in one of rock music's most unique bands.

MY RATING: 7.5/10

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Bluetones

The Bluetones

The 1990s as a decade produced some of the greatest rock music of the 20th century, and while there have been great bands in all decades from the 1950s through 2000, only the 1990s can rival the 1960s in terms of the scope, breadth, and sheer number of seminal bands which emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the fertile and competitive scene of the 1990s is eclipsed only by the 1960s in both quality and impact, and as of 2014 it remains the last truly important scene in rock music.  In both America and the UK, there were bands emerging that reacted against the slick, AOR dominance of hair metal and synth-pop.  In the USA, it spawned grunge and alternative rock, while the UK gave rise to baggy, shoegaze, and ultimately indie rock. Both alternative and indie, which became the dominant genres of the decade, spawned some of the greatest bands and albums since the 1960s' golden age: in America, you had Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Pavement, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Pixies, and more, while in the UK you had Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp, The Stone Roses, Elastica, Mansun, Radiohead, and the Bluetones, amongst others.

The subject of this latest band profile are, as you've gathered from the title, the Bluetones. They were a band from Hounslow, London, England and had a career that spanned the years 1994 until 2011. In that time, they released six albums (three of them Top 10 albums in the UK), countless singles and B-sides, and carved out a career as one of the greatest and most overlooked indie bands of the decade. They were, in the photo above; top row L-R: Eds Chesters (drums), Scott Morriss (bass guitar, backing vocals), bottom row L-R: Adam Devlin (guitars), Mark Morriss (lead vocals).  The band were initially called the Bottlegarden before changing their name to the Bluetones, and they developed a rabidly loyal fanbase called "the Blue Army" that remained loyal to them until the end of the band.

Combining the sound of 1960s jangly psychedelia and 1990s Britpop, upon the success of their single "Slight Return" hitting #2 in the UK singles chart and their debut album Expecting to Fly hitting #1 in the UK album charts (both in 1996), they were lumped in with the rest of the Britpop movement that was then at the peak of its popularity in Great Britain. However, while they remained successful throughout their career, they never again equalled this initial surge of success, partly due to being labeled as "Britpop."  Indeed, when their career is looked at in its entirety, they were more a traditional indie rock band.  In this way, they suffered a similar fate to another great UK band of outsiders, Mansun, who were the antithesis of Britpop yet continued to be saddled with the label by the media and public perception.  The 'Tones' debut album is a perfect blend of heavy psychedelic rock, as in the epic opening track "Talking to Clarry" and the caustic "Carn't Be Trusted," switchy then to the folksy "Vampire," the quietly intense "The Fountainhead" which explodes into a majestic finale, the sludgy rock of "Cut Some Rug," and the jangle-pop of "Slight Return" and "Bluetonic."  Their second album, 1998's Return to the Last Chance Saloon, was a much heavier and darker affair, with an overall sound that echoed the sense of desperation and gloom that was shown in the old American west/southwest-themed album art.  While Expecting to Fly showed the band to be fantastic musicians, their instrumental chops really came to the fore on the second album, with the guitars lines even more sinewy and complicated, the bass lines more melodic and rumbling, and the drumming more thunderous, dexterous, and driving.  It's my favorite album of theirs, from the joyous "If..." to the dark humor of "Solomon Bites the Worm," the harrowing despair of "4-Day Weekend," "Ames," and "The Jub-Jub Bird," and the epically sweeping finale of "Broken Starr."   2000's follow-up album, Science and Nature, was a quieter but no less interesting affair, with a more acoustic based sound similar to how Led Zeppelin III sounded after Led Zeppelin II's bombast. Still, the unmistakably lush and beautiful songs and arrangements that were always a hallmark of the Bluetones were there: cheeky opening track "Zorrro" gives way to the intense beauty of "Tiger Lily" and "The Last of the Great Navigators." There were still some harrowing cuts, notably "The Basement Song" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning," culminating with the wistful "Slack Jaw" (about a love that got away) and the something-is-not-quite-right eeriness of "Emily's Pine." 

From here until the end, it was a strange ride for the band, who continued to release excellent albums and play gigs for their loyal fanbase while their chart and sales numbers declined. In a way, these years are a textbook example of the "critically acclaimed/commercially failed" trap too many talented musicians fall into. 2003's Luxembourg was a stripped down, back-to-basics affair, from the stark cream-colored album art to the songs that were a bit more jagged and angular, slashing guitars and thumping drums augmented by driving bass guitar and harsh (in a good sense) synthesizer punctuations. In a way, it is their new-wave/80s pop album, and standout cuts include "Fast Boy," "Never Going Nowhere," "Liquid Lips," and "Here it Comes Again." 2005's self-titled album was a true return-to-ground-zero album and their best performing album since the debut. It was the perfect update of their trademark lush, jangly 90s sound with a more contemporary 2000s sound, and the range of styles on the album were impressive.  The pure power pop of "My Neighbour's House," "Baby, Back Up," and "Head On a Spike" sat alongside the lilting "Surrendered," beautiful ballads like "The Last Song But One" and "Fade In/Fade Out," and sly humor like "Wasn't I Right About You?"  Their final album, 2010's A New Athens, showed the band as strong as ever, with the absolutely gorgeous "Firefly" sharing space on the record with standout tracks like "Half the Size of Nothing," "Haunted By You," "Pranchestonelle," and darker tunes like "The Notes Between the Notes Between the Notes" and "Into the Red."  However, despite strong critical reviews, the album failed to chart and rather than risk becoming a nostalgia act, the band decided to bow out gracefully with a farewell tour in 2011 that saw them playing in front of their devoted fans, who continue to lament the demise of the Bluetones to the present. Since the band split, Mark Morriss has embarked upon a successful solo career, Adam Devlin (I believe) continues to work as a musician, Scott Morriss is an illustrator and graphic designer, and Eds Chesters works as an osteopath.

In addition to their albums, the Bluetones were another in a tradition of 1990s British indie rock bands who had excellent singles, many of them standalone (ie non-album tracks) and with some great B-sides. Apart from those stemming from their final two albums, these are all collected on the triple-CD compilation A Rough Outline. An excellent standalone EP, the Serenity Now EP, was also released in 2005, as was a great live album Once Upon a Time in West Twelve (recorded in 2005), and a BBC Sessions compilation (both released in 2007).  Overall, the band left a body of work of excellent quality that still sounds fresh and vital after their split.  As for how and why I became such a huge fan of this band, who are virtually unknown in America (and as far as I know, only ever played one small tour here in their entire career), I first heard the Bluetones around 2000. I had signed up for one of the first online streaming radio services, the now-defunct LaunchCast by Yahoo, where bands and songs could be rated so that the service would recommend you new music based on your preference.  Songs by the Bluetones (as well as Mansun...this is also how I fully discovered them) kept playing and the more I heard, the more I liked. This led me to explore their albums and the rest, as they say, is history.

There are several reasons why the band has resonated so deeply with me. First and foremost is that, simply put, the music is great. It's well written, catchy, interesting, melodically and harmonically lush, and encompasses the best of what I love of British rock music, which is the amalgamation of numerous influences and styles into a wholly unique sound.  In addition, they are excellent musicians. Adam Devlin is, in my opinion, one of the finest British guitarists of his generation, on the same level of other titans such as Graham Coxon, Bernard Butler, Dominic Chad, Steve Craddock, John Squire, and Johnny Marr. Scott Morriss plays melodically inventive counterpoint melodies on bass in the vein of other excellent bass guitarists of his era such as Alex James, while Eds Chesters is a rock solid and powerful drummer who always plays for the song but has the chops to stretch out when it's necessary. Mark Morriss has a very melodic and pleasant voice with a tenor range, and the contrast of the musical backdrop, whether it's a pretty ballad or a bombastic harder rock song, and his vocals is one of the unique and wonderful things about the Bluetones' sound.  For me, they hearken back to the jangly 1960s psychedelia of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and meld it with the best of 1960s British rock into something akin to what the Smiths started in the 1980s, fitting right in with their contemporaries in the 1990s Britpop scene. However, they rejected the Britpop label and I do, too...Britpop came to mean something derivative and commercial as pertaining to that specific scene, whereas the best bands of that era, of which the Bluetones were one, transcended that stifling label in order to survive and thrive beyond it. They may not have been the most commercially successful or critically acclaimed band of their era but they were certainly one of the best, and in the end it's the quality of the music and its impact on the listener that is most important.  A back and forth on Twitter with a follower of mine resulted in the discussion that if Blur were the Beatles of the 1990s, Oasis were the Rolling Stones, and Supergrass were the Who, then the Bluetones were the Kinks...that is to say, the band that was quirky, popular (but not as much as the others) yet equally as valuable for their contribution to the music, and a band that was and still is held near to the hearts of their ever-loyal and passionate fanbase.  I can certainly think of worse comparisons to be made, and in this case I think this one is completely accurate.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Blogging Advice and Tips from the Rock and Roll Chemist (PART 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of this series of articles about blogging. With the huge growth of the Rock and Roll Chemist blog over the past year and the numerous opportunities it's opened up for me, I thought it would be fun and beneficial to both readers and myself to share what I've learned from the whole experience. I also thought it would be fun to engage with fellow bloggers so that we could exchange advice and knowledge with each other as we all work to make our blogs as successful as possible going forward. Part 1 dealt with the foundation of blogging, the classic (and still relevant, in my view) maxim which states that content is king. This second part is going to have the overarching theme of "DO IT" which will then be split into two subsections. Let's get going with Part 2!


"Do it." It sounds simple enough, and in reality it's as easy as what those two short words command. If you want your blog to become more successful and you want to produce great content, you need to buckle down and do it. That means you need to write a lot, and whether you're good at it or not, practicing is the only way to continually get better. I touched on this as one of the major parts of my series of articles on How to Write a Book, and it also applies here. Thus, the first subsection of DO IT is to practice your writing, and then practice it some more. It's the only way to get better, and by continuing to write for your blog, you'll be killing two birds with one stone: a) you'll be getting better at writing, and b) you'll be creating content for your blog.

With luck, as you get better at writing, the content you'll be producing for your blog will also improve...it's a win-win proposition! When I started writing books and blogging in earnest in 2009, I was already a very good writer. It's something I'd always done as a hobby and was always really good at throughout school. During my graduate school and postdoctoral studies, I had to write a ridiculous number of journal articles, research proposals and papers, and my PhD degree culminated with a massive dissertation. It was a lot of writing and all of it was invaluable practice which was definitely a huge benefit.

 If you want to be a Paperback Writer, you've got to work at it!

Like anything in life, there is never a point where someone decides they're as good as they're going to get and says "I've maxed out...no more practice for me!" Whether it's an athlete, musician, writer, painter, sculptor...you name it, there isn't a single person on this planet who will ever be good enough at their craft that additional practice won't improve their skills. At the very least it will allow those skills to remain sharp and keep them from diminishing. Blogging is no different...if you're not constantly writing and writing for your blog, you'll never get better and neither will your blog.  Even if many of the pieces you write for your blog end up falling by the wayside and never get posted, that's okay! I've written countless pieces that, for one reason or another, I decided I didn't like and didn't post. Even so, I'm glad I wrote them because it not only gave me practice writing and the ability to continue honing my craft, but many of the ideas from these discarded pieces ended up making their way into subsequently published posts where I was able to finally convey them in a manner I was proud of because of the experience I'd gained earlier.  The best artists, writers, and musicians don't create their masterpieces with the first draft, and blogging is no different. PRACTICE!

As for the second subsection of DO IT, while it may seem unrelated to the first, if you'll bear with me, I think you'll see that they're intimately related. That second subsection is to take advantage of any blogging opportunities you're offered (within reason, of course). SEIZE YOUR OPPORTUNITIES! 

Here's a great (and long) song with the message of Carpe Diem (Seize the Day) 

What is meant by this is, at some point in your blogging career, you are (hopefully) going to attract the attention of someone somewhere who might be interested in having you do some blog writing for them. In this current online climate where blogging has become an important component of journalism, marketing, branding, promotion, and client/customer engagement, if you have a quality blog, an expanding audience, and broad exposure, chances are you'll get noticed for it. If that's the case and you receive some interesting offers, unless you object for some reason, why not go for it? It will only give you more practice, exposure, and experience and who knows? It just might lead to something bigger down the road.  I've been fortunate over the past year to have gotten several chances to do just this. I've had posts sponsored by other companies, I was invited to write a piece about the Beatles in celebration of the 50th anniversary of their arrival in America, I was invited to write a piece about sports and family for a social media campaign run by a major sports apparel retailer, and I have other opportunities in the pipeline. In each case, my blog was recognized and its impact and influence valued enough that I was approached, and the resulting pieces not only gave me more practice writing but also brought even greater exposure to my blog. Besides all of that, they were fun to do and they allowed me to write about subjects that I'm passionate about and which are near and dear to me.  I hope that, if and when any of you out there are presented with similar chances, you seize upon them and take advantage of the opportunity to get better as a blogger, get some more exposure for your blog, and have fun to boot! 

Even though I've been at it for several years, it's only been since I started putting real, dedicated, and focused effort into my blog that I've started to reap the rewards from it. Launching a side career as a book reviewer, getting new blogging opportunities, and engaging with brands, musicians, and others in a way I never could have dreamed of a year ago have been amazing experiences.  Who knows what the future may hold as far as opportunities? I sure don't, but I can't wait to find out! I wish this for each and every one of you, my fellow bloggers.  With that in mind, the only way to get there is to sit down and DO IT!