Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Would You Do With An Extra $100?

See the C note? Wouldn't it be nice to have an extra one?

(WARNING: The following is a fun little post I was inspired to write...I had fun thinking about this and writing it and I hope you have fun reading it, too!)

Being the parents of four energetic and wonderful children, my wife and I are always looking for ways to save money. That's why we do things like buy our groceries in bulk at wholesale clubs, keep our kids' clothes clean and in good shape for hand-me-downs, and try to live slightly below our means.  When we do spend some money on nice things, we always make sure it's of high enough quality that it's going to last a long time so that we get our money's worth. It's also one of the reasons why I still drive a car that is twelve years old and has almost 300,000 miles on it.  Any money we can save can be spent on something more important, or saved in the bank for the future. In today's uncertain and dismal economy, every penny is important.

Being a man of Greek descent, I'm also always trying to save money and time on shaving. I should be shaving every day but my sensitive skin can't handle that, so I stretch it out to every other day. Even so, I have the literal shadow on my face after my morning shave that shows up well before five o'clock.  And any man who has to shave on a regular basis knows that razors are damn expensive! I try to get as many uses as I can out of each cartridge but this leads to dull razors and a shave that is decreasingly close each time and really chews up your skin. While there are many ways to save money on razors, one of the ways I've been considering doing this is by signing up for Dollar Shave Club, which delivers razors to you every month for half the price of the store brands.  In fact, if one were to do the math, this could leads to savings of $100 a year! So when I first heard about Dollar Shave Club via one of their humorous TV ads, I thought it was a great idea and it made me think about the money I could save. I thought it'd be a good idea to write a post describing what I would do if I had an extra $100 in my pocket, and during my last shave  this is what I came up with...

If I'm being responsibly practical, I'd spend it on...

- A few new pairs of dress pants or dress shirts to wear to work
- Some new clothes and shoes for my kids who are growing so fast!
- A nice piece of jewelry for my wife
- A day at the museum or aquarium with the family
- A place in my savings account so it can go toward something bigger

However,  if I'm being irresponsible and self-indulgent, I'd spend it on...

- That pair of the Beatle Boots I've always wanted
- A whole stack of CDs to add to my already massive music collection
- A bunch of new books
- Music gear
- A nice dinner out with my wife (without any kids!)

While saving money is important, it's also important to spend it since you can't take it with you. Even if you're responsible, you need to live a little and have some fun! I know I can come up with a bunch more ways to spend an extra $100 and I'm sure you can, too!

How about you? What would you do with an extra $100?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New England Patriots in the Super Bowl Yet Again!

(NOTICE: This is meant to be a fun sports post about my favorite football team...if you feel the need to make snarky comments about any of the media-trumped up stories like "DeflateGate" or "SpyGate," I won't tolerate it unless it's in good fun or within the realm of good discussion. I'm a homer, but I'm reasonable!)

If you read this site regularly and/or follow me on Twitter, you will know that I'm a passionate fan of all of the Boston sports teams.  We New Englanders are extremely passionate about our teams and are rabidly faithful to them whether they're at the top of their respective leagues or whether they're in the basement.  From birth, I've followed the Red Sox, Celtics, Patriots, and Bruins through thick and thin and I plan to continue doing so until I'm dead.  My wife and I have shared this passion for our teams throughout our whole relationships and our children are now carrying on the tradition as well, which is really fun to see! The impetus for writing about all of this is that, for the 8th time in franchise history, our football team, the New England Patriots, are in the Super Bowl again, playing for their 4th championship. 

The Boston teams have had an unprecedented run of success since 2000, with our teams appearing in a staggering THIRTEEN championship games/series (6 Super Bowls for the Patriots, 3 World Series for the Red Sox, 2 NBA Finals for the Celtics, and 2 Stanley Cup Finals for the Bruins), winning a whopping EIGHT of them (3 for the Patriots, 3 for the Red Sox, 1 each for the Celtics and Bruins).*** While all four franchises had a history of tradition and success prior to 2000 (apart from maybe the Patriots, who only started being successful in the early 1990s when the Krafts purchased the team, they drafted Drew Bledsoe, and they hired Bill Parcells as coach), we had gone a long time without a title (1986 Celtics) until the Patriots kicked off this run in 2001. I've written about all of this before, so I won't repeat myself any more than that, but I do want to spend the rest of this post focusing on the Patriots and their dynastic run of success.

I've been fortunate enough to have been alive during all of this and I've seen all 8 of the Pats' Super Bowl appearances:

1. Super Bowl XX in 1986, when they were a true Cinderella team, making it to the big game before getting demolished by one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, the Chicago Bears;

2. Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, led by Drew Bledsoe and the young nucleus of players who would eventually break through to success in the 2000s. They came close to beating the Green Bay Packers, but ultimately fell just a little bit short;

3. Super Bowl XXXVI in 2001, where the Patriots upset the heavily favored St. Louis Rams led by a young, unknown quarterback Tom Brady, who would go on to become one of the greatest QBs in NFL history;

4. Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003, where they defeated the Carolina Panthers in a thrilling shoot out of a game;

5. Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004, where they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, winning their third title in four years and establishing themselves as the NFL dynasty of the 2000s;

6. Super Bowl XLII in 2007, where they lost in the last minute to the inferior New York Giants on a once-in-a-lifetime play, spoiling their bid for a perfect 19-0 season. This one still rankles me because of how flukey the upset loss was, some blown calls by the refs (especially at the end of the game), and the coordinated media campaign against the Pats by ESPN, the NFL, and others who did all they could to distract the team leading up to the game (similar to what is happening with the current Super Bowl appearance);

7. Super Bowl XLVI in 2011, where again, a once-in-a-lifetime play led to another loss to the inferior Giants team (in both cases they Giants barely qualified for the playoffs), although in this case a huge drop on a critical 3rd down by Wes Welker would have won the game for the Pats;

8. Super Bowl XLIX in 2014, which is where we are now. The game is on Sunday, February 1st, and pits the Pats against the Seattle Seahawks in a battle of #1 seeds from the AFC and NFC. Seattle are the defending champs and looking to be the first team to win back-to-back titles since the Pats did so in '03/'04. The Pats are looking to finally win their 4th title and cement themselves as the greatest team of the last 20 years. Seattle coach Pete Carroll coached the Patriots immediately before Bill Belichick , and current Patriot Brandon Browner was on last season's Seattle title team. It should be a great match-up...especially if the Patriots win!

One thing I'll never do is take this run of success for granted. My kids, as well as the legions of younger/newer fans in the region, have no idea how bad things were pre-1994, when the Patriots almost moved to St. Louis and were so bad that TV broadcasts were blacked out and you could get game tickets for a song. The last 20 years have been a true blessing, and not just for the Patriots but for all of the Boston teams, each of whom variously had lean years from the 1990s until 2000. There are a couple of other titles the Pats gave away in the last decade (most notably, 2006 when they lost to a Colts team at the last minute whom they should've beaten...the resulting Super Bowl was against the putrid Chicago Bears. Even a lousy Peyton Manning beat them, and no one doubts the Patriots would have done the same). Still, you can't win them all and this run of success shows no sign of slowing down. That being said...


(*** I always try to avoid playing the shoulda/woulda/coulda game, but there are a few titles in there we absolutely should have won and didn't. I'm not including heartbreakers like the Red Sox losing in game 7 of both the 2003 and 2008 ALCS or the Bruins losing in game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals...the teams they lost to were equally as good and it all came down to one or two small plays here and there. The ones I still have a problem with are the Celtics losing to the Lakers in game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, when some horrible officiating and the Celtics' inability to grab just one more freaking rebound saw them blow a big lead in the final few minutes to our hated rival. And the two Patriots Super Bowl losses to the both cases, the Pats were the superior team who had no answer for the Giants' defensive pressure up front. But what still galls is that there are two plays the Patriots should have made that would have iced each win (Asante Samuel's interception-through-the-hands in 2007, Wes Welker's 3rd down drop in 2011) and two fluke plays by the Giants that would never happen 99 other times out of 100 (David Tyree's helmet catch in 2007, Mario Manningham's sideline catch in 2011). Add in the fact that Eli Manning literally closed his eyes, threw the ball up, and prayed on both of those plays, and the questionable officiating in both games (Giants' offensive line holding on that last drive in 2007, officials adding time back to the clock on Giants final drive in 2011), and those are two losses Patriots fans will never fully get over. The last one is the 2006 season, where the Patriots blew a large lead to the Colts in the AFC Championship game. Peyton Manning was absolutely horrible that postseason, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns...if not for his defense, which played horribly all season but decided to play great in that game, the Patriots would have gone on to defeat the Bears in the Super Bowl. That season's Bears team was one of the worst teams to ever make a Super Bowl. Manning and the Colts beat them easily playing a horrible game...there's no doubt Brady and the Patriots would have won it by even more. Ah well...such is sport).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Interview with Steve Boone, founding member of the Lovin' Spoonful and author of Hotter Than a Match Head

Steve Boone of the Lovin' Spoonful

It is my honor and privilege to bring to you this interview I recently conducted with Steve Boone, founding member, bass player, and co-songwriter with the legendary 1960s band The Lovin' Spoonful. Steve was gracious enough to answer a bunch of questions I had for him after I read and reviewed his excellent memoir, Hotter Than a Match Head. I hope you'll enjoy this conversation as much as I did!

As a bit of background from the man himself, Steve was born into the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, N.C. just as WWII was turning in the Allies' favor in the Pacific. His dad’s life in the hotel business took him from the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania to the Atlantic coasts of Florida and Long Island, N.Y.. Sailing and sports with a future in the Marine Corps was abruptly ended by a terrible auto crash in 1960, but the fortunate gift of a guitar from his mom while recovering led to a chance meeting with two similar travelers on life’s highway and the Lovin’ Spoonful was born.  Three intense years and ten top 20 hits later became all the life of a rock and roller he needed.  Buying a 56’ sailboat in the US Virgin Islands was his getaway and a return to what he hoped would be a sanity of sorts that the music business has nearly driven out of him. Life on the high seas had its ups and downs and Steve sailed on to fantastic adventure and excitement that met, if not exceeded, the level of his life as a rock star. When the allure of the rock world proved stronger than his sailing life, Steve moved to Baltimore, MD and began the Blue Sea Recording Studios where such artists as Lowell George and Little Feat recorded Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, and where Robert Palmer and Emmy Lou Harris, to name a few, came calling.  All of this happened while Baltimore’s Inner Harbor grew up around him.  40 some -odd years after the Lovin’ Spoonful’s demise, a fortuitous meeting with Tony Moss led to the writing of this book, which Steve feels finally tells all about what caused the Spoonful’s career to abruptly end and details Steve’s journey back to a life more easily managed and maintained!

RNRChemist: Steve, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me! It's a real treat. Let's start at the beginning...what was your upbringing and childhood like? What are your earliest memories of music?

SB: I had a fairly typical upbringing. My father worked in the hotel business after WWII for his father who was general manager of a large resort hotel in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Prior to my birth and my father’s joining the Marine Corps, he worked directly for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Summer White House in Warm Springs, GA.

My earliest memories are fond ones of living in the Pocono Mountains and  having as my playground the resorts infrastructure as well as learning to hunt and fish and pursue my interest in the US Marine Corps, which I hoped to someday be a member of.

In 1954 after my younger brother Charlie was severely burned in a kitchen accident the family moved to St. Augustine, Florida, the nation’s oldest city, where I really became the person I am today with outdoor activities such as sailing and water skiing and two newspaper routes. In the summer of 1958 I moved to East Hampton, NY where I also became interested in cars and bars and music while recovering from a serious auto accident after which I found out I was no longer eligible for military service….the Lovin’ Spoonful soon follows.

RNRChemist: As you mentioned, you had grown up wanting to follow in your father's footsteps and had your mind set on a military career until you were injured in a car accident in the early 1960s. Knowing what we now do regarding Vietnam, the explosion in rock music, and how everything played out in the 1960s and beyond, does that accident seem to be the pivotal moment in your early life?

SB: Without doubt the accident was the most pivotal moment in my life until May 26, 1966 when a decision I would make would forever change my life; to this day it's the decision that if I could go back and do again,  I would have made it differently.

RNRChemist: I was a little unclear how exactly you first met John and mention some of your friends in NYC telling you about those two guys, but how did that first meeting actually come about?

SB: In December 1964 I was in New York City picking up my motorcycle that I had shipped back from Europe where I had spent the previous 3 months riding around.  Once in New York my brother Skip and band mate Joe Butler suggested I go and meet John Sebastian and Zal Yanovsky at a music club in Greenwich Village. There they proposed that we start a band and get a record deal and so the story begins of the Lovin’ Spoonful.

RNRChemist: Once you started playing with those guys and brought Joe in, how fast did you click, musically?

SB: We clicked immediately. Joe and I had played together in a band out on Long Island for 3 years prior to this and we were already synced up as musicians. John and Zally were likewise easy to gel with and we had a winning sound almost immediately.

RNRChemist: Can you give us a little bit of a description as to what the Greenwich Village folk scene was like in the early to mid 1960s?

SB: The folk scene was very much alive and well in 1962 when I started to go into the city on a regular basis.  Stopping in the folk clubs and rock clubs up town was always on my agenda when visiting. Greenwich Village was to me like a small “village” in a big city, with neighborhood shops and stores and lots of night life.  This was also where most of the guys and gals my age would come to on the weekends from Long Island and New Jersey and upstate New York.  It was a very happening scene and there was always the feeling of “there’s something happening here.”

RNRChemist: Looking back, do you have any regrets not signing with Elektra or some of the other labels that courted you? Especially seeing how everything eventually played out with Kama Sutra Records...

SB: Well, hindsight always come with great clarity but the reality is that Kama Sutra was probably the most able to place our music on AM radio as that was their specialty. They had connections within the AM radio community. The major labels were only concerned with following the crowd and if you didn’t have a British accent in 1965, they probably would not have signed us. The downside is that when it came time to pay us our share of the royalties, they always were able to wiggle out of doing that. That's something the bigger labels like Elektra or Columbia or Warner Bros. would not have been able to do. So….the answer is with the big labels we would have been paid but they most likely would not have signed us….Kama Sutra did sign us, they just didn’t pay!

RNRChemist: You played on a Dylan session, hung out with the Beatles, had hit records...what are some of your fondest memories of those days in the 1960s?

SB: I have many fond memories of those days…I had a wonderful and beautiful girlfriend, an Austin Healy sports car, I lived in one of the hippest places in America right next to New York City and came of age during one of the most creative periods in American culture. I managed to stay gainfully employed and by playing in one of the top bands on Eastern Long Island I was able to do what I wanted to do. Playing with Bob Dylan, while it was a very rare and memorable experience, was really just another in a chain of fantastic adventures that I went on during that time frame.

RNRChemist: While John Sebastian was the dominant writer in the Lovin' Spoonful, not many people know you co-wrote some of the bands biggest hits, including "Summer in the City" and "You Didn't Have to Be So Nice." How did those songs come to be written?

SB: I would always noodle around on a piano whenever I was near one and the two songs that you mention were populated by my contributions.  In “Nice’s” case it consisted of meeting a wonderful friend of Zally’s from Toronto, Nurit Wilde, and being impressed enough to write down my impressions.  I tied it to a melody that I was playing constantly on piano which John and I would then hammered out the rest of the lyrics to. "Summer in the City" was a nearly completed song that John’s brother Mark brought in and during the recording of it we needed a middle 8 or instrumental section.  Another musical theme that I was always playing on the piano fit perfectly into the recoding and so I became a co-writer on that song as well.

RNRChemist: What did it feel like when the band's first 7 singles all went into the top 10? (Including #1 for "Summer in the City"). You must've felt on top of the world!

SB: We returned from England in April 1966 after having John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and many others of the London rock scene come and see us perform while we were there. We then followed up that by playing at the 21st birthday party for Tara Browne, the heir to the Guinness beer fortune in Luglow, Ireland with not only rock royalty but blood royalty of Europe in attendance.  Knowing that "Summer in the City" was recorded, mixed, and ready for release in June had me by May 1966 feeling with good reason that the Spoonful had reached the upper echelons of success in the world of rock music. Of course there was the business of May 26, 1966 that would change all of that to come...

RNRChemist: A well executed segue to my next question! Regarding that date, in May 1966, you are quite candid with the bust you and Zal had in May 1966 and the subsequent fall out amongst your peers in the rock music scene. Do you think that was the contributing factor that led to the Spoonful's breakup?

SB: Without a doubt in my mind, my recollection of the bust is that it began a slow but noticeable decline in the creative confidence that surrounds one who is in the middle of great success, and for me there was no exception. Once that feeling of inevitability starts to fad,e the projection of great confidence also begins to fade and the difference is noticeable to many if not all around them. In less than a year from May 1966, Zally would be fired from the band and I would lose all interest in writing new songs.  Although Jerry Yester’s (who replaced Zally) presence in the band was a positive one, the fire that had kindled our great success seemed to have been reduced to a spark that barely could keep the fire alive, and just a few months later the band suspended touring, bringing to a close what could have been described as America’s premier band.

RNRChemist: When Zal left the band it seems as though all of the fun and the soul of the band went with him, even though the very capable (and good guy) Jerry Yester ably stepped into Zal's spot. Fair assessment or am I off base?

SB: See above, but also know that without Jerry our last studio album may have never been completed. Everything Playing was the first rock album made on the then brand new Ampex MM1000 16-track recorder. The technology was too advanced for our then producer (Joe Wissert) who quit the project and Jerry had  to step in and mix, as well as overdub, much of the final product.
Jerry was not the onstage presence that Zalman was. Nobody was, and his absence did not go un-noticed. Jerry did bring to the band tremendous singing and vocal arranging skills that did make our live performance musically superior to what we had when Zally was onboard.

RNRChemist: After the Spoonful split, was there more animosity between you guys than what you let on in the book? I have to say that apart from the occasional squabbles you describe, it seemed to be quite civil!

SB: There really has never been a period of long term animosity between band members. Disagreements are a fact of life in a rock band and the Lovin’ Spoonful is no exception to that. The few times that we did reunite, such as for Paul Simon’s movie and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, were very pleasant affairs if we leave out the decision to try and perform "Do You Believe in Magic?" when we should have done "Night Owl Blues" instead. That performance forever put a stamp on the Spoonful that will never be overcome in my lifetime. Still, John was just caving in to the board of directors of the Hall, but he should have stood his ground.

RNRChemist: Once the band split, you had a series of incredible adventures over the next couple of decades, including a spell as a drug smuggler between the Caribbean and the U.S.  Did you feel guilty about breaking the law even though you believed marijuana should be legal?

SB: I told the judge at my sentencing that I apologized for breaking the law. I believed then and now that if you don’t like a law, vote to change it. However the law had turned it’s back on an agreement that they had made with me and Zally to never reveal nor make public our arrest in San Francisco. Once I discovered that they had not kept their word, all bets were off as far as I was concerned. Yes, I do believe that marijuana should be legal and all non-violent pot convictions be vacated. History will not be kind to a world that has criminalized an intoxicating drug no more, or even actually much less dangerous, than tobacco or alcohol, and that otherwise good productive citizens are rotting in jails for simple possession of this weed.

RNRChemist: Besides what you put in the book, what is the craziest/scariest thing that happened to you during that period?

SB: I really put most of the scariest things in the book. While in recovery from my addiction and living in Fort Lauderdale, I agreed to single handily rebuild a friend’s house that had been gutted by fire. This was a huge undertaking and the man whose house it was was a notorious cheapskate. Although it doesn’t sound scary for me coming off a few years of addiction, without much confidence it stressed me out quite a bit. All was well that ended well, though, and I made some money while doing the hard physical work that is necessary during recovery.

RNRChemist: I was really surprised to read about your endeavors as a studio owner and operator, especially your success with the first Little Feat albums. That was all new to me and new to most readers as well, I'm sure! How proud of that work are you when you think back to when you owned the studio?

SB: How I came to be the owner of a recording studio had its genesis in the time I spent in St. Thomas. The local sailmaker there, Manfred, was also a ship salvager and had salvaged a large freighter off the reefs near Puerto Rico.  He wanted to know if he could make a recording studio out of it. After considering this, I said that no, it would be impossible to get the necessary sound dampening for a high end studio but it planted a seed that when I arrived in Baltimore in 1973, one of the first places I went was to a recording studio in the suburbs that was for sale or lease. Of course, the whole story is in the book and once the studio became mine I called it Blue Seas, which was the name of the freighter Manfred had salvaged some years before. Once I discovered how state of the art this studio was, I discovered George Massenburg, who had built the studio and would help me when we moved it onto the houseboat in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. I am very proud of it and the small role that Blue Seas played in the early days of Baltimore’s renaissance.

RNRChemist: Despite all of your misgivings, it is clear from that book that you could never quit music and that it's too much a part of you to stop doing forever. What does music mean to you and why does it mean so much to you?

SB: Well, there is a saying in  drag racing that no matter what you might wish you had under the hood you “run what you brung,” which means to always be prepared to do whatever comes your way with what you have always counted on. Music is what I “brung.” I still love playing music before enthusiastic fans, and even just sitting down at the piano and playing whatever comes into my head is still manna for my ears. If I were just starting out and trying to make a career out of music, I would think that in addition to musical skills you also need to be fluent in the knowledge of digital information processing. At the end of the day, though, it still should be that what you get out of your “job” comes straight from the heart.

RNRChemist: In retrospect, do you wish the Spoonful had properly gotten back together beyond the 1980 film you performed in and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony?

SB: I have said to all who would listen that it is a shame that all 5 of the members of the original band did not get together every 3 or 4 years and cut an album and do a tour just to keep the music alive. Whenever I get the chance to go up to John’s house and spend a few days playing music, the old magic comes right back without even trying. Zally is gone now so really, that changes the equation but yes, it is a shame that when we could have we never did what nearly every other one of our peers did.

RNRChemist: What are your thoughts on that performance (at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and what was wrong with John's voice? I was discussing it on an Internet message board recently and a lot of people who had never seen it before couldn't believe what had happened to John's voice. You clearly don't look too pleased after the songs when I watched the video on YouTube!

SB: I mentioned earlier how I wanted to not do one or two of the hits for our induction as it was apparent to all that John’s voice was not up to par, and instead wanted to do "Night Owl Blues" which was a blues jam from our first album, and the set-ending song from our Night Owl (Greenwich Village nightclub - RNRChemist) days of 1965. With John on mouth harp and rhythm guitar and Zally on lead it would have brought the house down. I don’t to this day know why John wanted to push on with the vocal problems he had, but that would be for him to answer. Yes, I was very displeased with our performance. There we were in front of all of our peers and it sucked. I did not even go out to the after parties because in addition to that, I was also pissed that they would not let Jerry Yester up there to be inducted despite all that he had done for the band, and there I am with his daughter (and my future wife) at the induction ceremony.

RNRChemist: What does it mean to you now in 2015 to be able to play with the Spoonful guys again and to play that music to old and new fans alike?

SB: As I have said before, it means a lot to still be able to get out there and play our music for the fans we still have (and with the newly retiring baby boomers, that is a lot of fans). Since it is not possible for the original band to be together again, I am still energized to watch the fans react in the positive ways that they do.

RNRChemist: One of the things you really focus on in the book is how you (rightfully, I might add!) believe the Spoonful don't get the respect and recognition they deserve as one of the great American 1960s rock bands. Why do you think this is?

SB: If you look at the landscape of journalism in 1965-1967 you will see that rock music had to share the entertainment pages with the movies and plays as well as music from other eras. The only magazines at the time of the band’s beginnings were fan mags like “Teen Magazine” and “Tiger Beat.” It was not until 1967 that Rolling Stone began publication, which along with CrawDaddy and Spin Magazine would go on to speak exclusively for the rock and roll world. Unfortunately, the news of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s bust would end up appearing on the front page of Rolling Stone’s 2nd edition and that, along with the coverage of the bust in the counter-culture periodicals like Berkley Barb and the LA Free Press created an atmosphere where the Lovin’ Spoonful were finks who had sold out the movement and made deals with the police. Unfortunately, our record company and management did nothing to try and head off this bad press and as a result, 20 years later when the lists were being devised and written about the great bands of the 1960’s, the Lovin’ Spoonful were made out to be less than worthy of inclusion and in some cases not even mentioned.

RNRChemist: What is your favorite Spoonful single? Album?

SB: Favorite single: “Summer in the City,” for obvious reasons. Favorite album: “Hums of the Lovin’ Spoonful,” which of the first three was the only one we actually spent some quality time on.

RNRChemist: What was your gear of choice in the 1960s in terms of favorite bass guitar and amp? How about these days?

SB: Guild made a custom Starfire ll bass for me with supposedly custom electrics in it but I never liked it until 35 years later.   In the pre-induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame John had a friend of his, Eddy Deihl, rebuild it to wonderful tone and ease of playing.

My favorite bass would have been two: my first bass was an ice-box white Fender Precision from 1963, I believe, that I got when I traded in a Gold Top Les Paul Guild guitar for $75.  In early 1967 I bought, from a fan on the road, a 1962 Fender Dual Concentric Knob Jazz Bass that was then stolen from me in 1987. As for amps, it was not until the Acoustic 360 and 370 amps came out in the early 1970s that there was a production bass amp suitable for big concert use. In the 1960s we used whatever they would give us for amps; for me it was a Standel Twin Speaker, then a Magnavox 4x12 speaker. The best rig I ever had was in 1975: I built a rig with two Acoustic 370 heads and one Acoustic 370 18” bottom and 2 ElectraVoice Eliminators, with custom construction and JBL speakers.

Today I travel with an Ibanez BTB with active and passive settings in the electronics. I also have an Ibanez acoustic/electric dreadnought-size body

RNRChemist: What are your best memories of the Lovin' Spoonful in the 1960s? What about Zal? It's obvious you and he had a strong friendship and that you regarded him as a unique talent.

SB: These questions are in depth questions that I will take some time to answer...for today I will say that Zally was one of the most interesting musicians I have ever known. He was a stylist on the guitar and produced sounds that few others at the time could reproduce, His stage presence was without question completely uninhibited and wonderful. I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to have performed with him. John, as I have said to others, may be the most underrated rhythm guitarist in popular music. Back in the early days of rock, rhythm guitar was where the beginner went but it soon became apparent that rhythm guitar was, along with the bass guitar and bass drum, the most important instrument in a rock band, especially in the recording studio. John Sebastian is the best rhythm guitarist I have ever heard. He did not have so much personality on stage but that was part of his success as well. Joe Butler, the oldest of the Spoonful, was also the most experienced as a player and singer. He may have had the best pure voice in the band...John thought so. He also was very charismatic on stage and always a favorite with the girls.

RNRChemist: Worst part of being in the Spoonful in the 1960s?

SB: Without a doubt the bust and its fall out, as we discussed earlier and what's in my book.

RNRChemist: As a huge Beatles fan, I have to ask: what were they like to hang out with? Have you met up with any of them over the years?

SB: Without a doubt, John, George and Paul were as nice and pleasant as one could hope they could be. In our several encounters they treated us with the respect given to peers and even said the same when asked about us in the press. Ringo did not make much effort to hang out or fraternize. I think the only time I saw him was just before they were to perform at Shea Stadium and he may have wanted to be alone which is understandable. 

RNRChemist: What was the craziest situation you ever found yourself in with your rabid fans during the 1960s?

SB: There were several instances, but none were too serious. At our first big concert at the Rose Bowl in the summer of 1965 we were the lowest billed act out of 9 acts and as such did not get much security. As we were driving out in an open convertible from the stadium, the car slowed to move some of the fans out of the way but they managed to reach in and grab John’s T-shirt.  They pulled on it and as we tried to drive on, the shirt became twisted around John’s neck and nearly choked him unconscious. Fortunately we were able to release the girl’s grip on the shirt and drive on, but John was forever changed and did not like interacting with fans that close again.

RNRChemist: Even though I was too young to have experienced the music of the 1960s firsthand (I'm 34), I am a great fan and student of it via my parents (who grew up during the 1960s) as well as my sheer love of it. As someone who not only lived through it but contributed to it, what are your thoughts on its legacy?

SB: The 1960s began with folk music gaining in popularity and growing from largely protest music to general entertainment and popularity. Pop music was changing, too, as more and more bands and singing groups were writing their own music and in some cases, like the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Beatles, not only writing the music but playing it in the recording studio as well.  Couple that with the rapid advances in technology and recording studio equipment that, by 1967/68, gave multitrack studios that enabled multiple overdubs.  As the decade drew to a close, the live performances were becoming nearly as sonically perfect as the the 1970s, live music entered into a stratosphere that made concerts something we could barely have envisioned when the Spoonful began in 1965.

I think the legacy of that era will be that this was the time when pop music went from being a teenage thing to a form of lifelong entertainment that folks could take with them throughout their life and their children's lives.

RNRChemist: What are your thoughts on popular music these days?

SB:  I am saddened when I hear people today saying there is no longer any good music being made. “It all sounds the same” or “rap is not music,”  “it's all autotune and computers.”  It seems like no one wants to have to search out the music they like. We have all become spoiled to the demands of instant gratification and if it is not there immediately, it just is not there at all. There is a lot of great music being made. I do agree that a lot of the music is not to my taste and much of the creation IS being done by computers and electronic gimmickry, but neither was the great music we made in the 1960s pleasing to our parents and that story will go on for ever.

RNRChemist: Besides playing gigs with the new Lovin' Spoonful, what else are you up to these days?

SB: I just bought our house this past summer so there are always home improvement tasks at hand.  I also bought a 26’ fly bridge cruiser motor boat to enable my picture taking ventures, which I hope to turn into my next project.

And of course I am always thinking of ways to make more folks aware of my book. I think for the fans of music and culture out there my story is an amazing one and people just need to know that it is out there.

RNRChemist: You mentioned in the book that you could fill pages and pages with more stories of your sailing adventures and life experiences since the Spoonful broke up. Do you have any plans to write more books?

SB: As I mentioned in the last answer, I am planning on a book that will feature a picture or photo art and accompany that with short stories about the picture's subject, or perhaps not related stories.
I also am always working on new songs...I more or less stopped working on new music when the book project began, but now I have all of my gear set back up again and have begun  to work again on music projects.

RNRChemist: Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! And for all of my readers, I not only highly recommend Steve's book, but urge you to listen to the Lovin' Spoonful if you haven't already. Some of the best American pop and rock of the 1960s, and Steve was right in the middle of it.  Thanks again, Steve!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

To PhD or Not to PhD? (PART 2)

Here I am, back again to tackle the age-old question (well, the burning question of the past 15 years if you're a chemist, at least): to PhD or not to PhD? In the first part, I wrote about the pros and cons of getting a PhD in the sciences, using chemistry in particular because that is my field. My conclusion/opinion was that it was solely dependant on the individual to decide, but that you should go into graduate school knowing that your job prospects are grim (for the reasons discussed previously). But just how bad is the job market for new PhD scientists? That is the subject of Part 2.

First, I'm going to state upfront that this post isn't going to involve a discussion on statistics or have links to relevant studies, not because I haven't read them (I have) but because other people have already written about these, and done it well. In particular, I would point you towards Chemjobber's blog which regularly updates chemists on the job market's ups and (mostly, these days) downs. Also, keep in mind that these are just my observations and opinions, and that I've been lucky enough to have had steady employment as a chemist since I got out of school in 2008. With that out of the way, let's dive into the discussion and ask the question:

Just how bad is the job market?

The chemistry job market had already been slowing down considerably when I finished my postdoc in 2008 and got my first job. About a month after I started working, the housing bubble burst and with it, the economy, which had already been teetering for a while, absolutely cratered. Along with everything else, it deeply affected the job market, not just for scientists but for everyone. However, the science job market, which had already been sliding for several years due to a variety of factors (shipping of jobs over to Asia, stagnant/declining salaries, oppressive federal regulations, etc) was hit particularly hard by the economic downturn. While I was lucky to find employment, many of my former classmates and colleagues from graduate school and my postdoc weren't as lucky. They, along with others whom I would speak to at technical conferences and meetings during those years told me how they were using their postdocs not only as part of their training, but as a way of maintaining some semblance of steady employment while they looked for full-time positions that just weren't out there. Many of them stayed at their postdocs for longer than the usual 2-3 years, many of them were forced to leave earlier than they'd intended due to funding running out, and several jumped to additional postdocs. Unfortunately, these are all patterns that have become more and more common within the field. However, the consequences of this are quite negative, as postdoc salaries are only a step above the stipend one makes as a graduate student. Additionally, there are typically not health benefits associated (at least there weren't when I was a postdoc..maybe that's changed now? Please update me on this if you know differently). It forces many people to delay marriage, starting a family, buying a house, and settling down until they have a steady job, which can oftentimes last well into one's 30s. I elaborated on this in Part 1 so I won't rehash it here, but suffice to say it is still a grim time to be looking for a job in chemistry, especially for new graduates looking to make their first entrance into the workforce.

This leads me to the next part, which is that at least in industrial science (which is what I know), even an abundance of job postings relevant to your skills doesn't necessarily mean that things are looking up. Why is this, you ask?  There are a few reasons, including:

1) Companies are much less willing to train someone who can't hit the ground running from day one.  It used to be that if a company was hiring for a position and you fit ~70% of the criteria they were looking for, they would have no problem hiring you and training you to get you up to speed in order to perform the job. In many cases, you might not even have needed to fit the criteria that much...if you had skills they liked and a good work ethic (with good references), they would hire you and train you. Nowadays, because it's such a buyer's market, they're much less willing, it not willing at all, to do this. Because they don't have need them much more than they need you.

2) Many positions are only listed online to comply with federal law. Many companies have no intention of looking at resumes and bringing people in for interviews. They want to hire from within and often already have someone picked out for the role. Or, they have poached their desired candidate from another company and just have to go through the motions of posting a job online, again to comply with employment law. That's why job listings will often look like they were written for one person specifically...because often, they are. Or, they are written that way because...

3) ...It's such a buyer's market that companies are more than happy to sit back and take their time waiting for that one perfect candidate to fall into their lap. It's analogous to trawling a fishing line with no bait on the hook waiting for that one fish in the entire ocean to bite. This goes hand in hand with point #1 that I made above: because it's a buyer's marker and there are more people looking for jobs than there are open positions, companies don't have to fill them right away...they can wait until the person who fits their job description to a T applies. That's why you see such detailed and technical listings: rather than saying "we are looking for a synthetic chemist with experience in nitrogen-containing compounds," you'll see an ad that says "we are looking for a synthetic chemist who has experience preparing N-substituted hetereocycles that contain 5- to 7-membered rings that also happen to have ester groups in the 3-position and which are solids with melting points between 100 and 155 oC. Must have 7.5 years experience with these molecules." I may be exaggerating a bit, but not by much. Believe me, if you've ever seen the same job listed month after month (or in some cases, year after year), it's either because of point #2 above, or it's because of this.

As you see, there is a lot of overlap between the three reasons I've listed above, but having had experienced all of that firsthand over the years, I am confident that what I've written is true. The takeaway message is that those doing the hiring are firmly in the driver's seat at the moment. It's the age-old example of supply and demand, and in the case of science PhDs, the supply far outweighs the demand. It had been trending this way over the last decade and this has been the status quo since 2008 and shows no signs of abating, especially with groups like the ACS and the federal government pushing for more STEM graduates to flood the market for jobs that simply aren't there right now. Of course there are exceptions to all of this, but based on personal experience and observations, this seems to be the norm by far. I've personally experienced how hard it can be to find a new position, and I've been in the fortunate position of looking for a new job while I had a job. There is an old saying that it's easier to find a job when you have a job; conversely, it's said that it's much harder to find one when you're unemployed. Fair or not, this is the truth and with so many PhD scientists of varying experience levels either trying to enter the workforce with no experience or numerous PhD scientists out of work and looking to re-enter it, it doesn't show any signs of changing.

Obviously, it's hard for me to say that because the job market is bad that one shouldn't get a science PhD and try to get a job doing science, especially if that is what one's true passion is. However, the fact that the input/output ratio is not skewed in your favor during the best of times, and the fact that these are far from the best of times, makes it hard to say that it would be a good career path to head down for someone just starting out. Yes, things like this are cyclical and have a way of self-correcting, but not always, and the short-term prognosis is not good. Again, it's down to personal preference and I don't want to definitively say yes or no because it's not up to me to decide what is best for each individual...that's up to them to decide. I hope that I have at least given you food for thought, and I would welcome any discussions about your experiences in the science job market in the comments section below.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


Blur: L to R Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree, Damon Albarn, Alex James
The most surprising thing about this band profile you're about to read about Blur is that it's taken me as long as it has to finally write it. They are one of my most favorite bands in the world and probably the only band of the past twenty years that I hold in as high esteem as many of the legends from the 1960s. Let me rephrase that, actually: while many bands of the past twenty to thirty years can stand up to the legends of the 1960s and 1970s, in my opinion Blur are at the top of that heap. Better? My obsessive fandom of Blur is rivaled only by the way I feel about the Beatles, Who, and Kinks although I've spent more time and energy on channeling that love of Blur's music into something constructive than I have for any other band. I certainly didn't spend months and years of research on (insert shameless plug here) writing on two books for a band I don't care much about.

For those uninitiated in all things Blur, they are a band from London whose career spans 1988 to the present, although they've been in an on-again-off-again hiatus since 2003 (we'll get into this later on). Three of the band, Damon Albarn (vocals, songwriting, piano/keyboards/synthesizers, guitars, melodica), Graham Coxon (lead guitar, vocals), and Dave Rowntree (drums) grew up in Colchester while Alex James (bass guitar) is from Bournemouth. However, it wasn't until Alex and Graham met as classmates at Goldsmiths college that they decided to forma  band, bringing Graham's childhood friend Damon and another fellow he'd played in bands with as a teenager (Dave) into the fold. They initially called themselves Seymour and rehearsed in a studio Damon was managing as they built up a repertoire of original material and got to know one another as musicians. Even at this early stage, musically they were a very tight and powerful outfit: Graham would soon emerge as one of the premier guitarists of the 1990s, Alex would emerge as one of the great British bass players of the 1990s with his endlessly inventive and melodically basslines, and Dave as a powerhouse drummer with plenty of chops who always played for the song. The wild card at this early stage was Damon, who was ambitious to the point of overconfidence but struggled to find his voice as a singer and songwriter. 

Their early material was loud, discordant, dissonant, and played at breakneck speed: a cross between punk, ska, new wave, and noisy Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Graham brought influences like the Who, Beatles, and King Crimson to the table, while Damon was into British Two-Tone ska and new wave.  However, while Damon's lyrics at this stage were mostly rubbish, there was (usually) a strong melody lurking beneath the sonic assault. Eventually, via word of mouth from gigging in and around London, they caught the eyes and ears of Dave Balfe and Andy Ross, who owned and operated an indie label called Food Records that had the backing and distribution muscle of EMI Records behind it. Signed to the label in 1990 as Balfe's quest to find "the next Jesus Jones" (anyone my age or older will remember them), the first order of business was for the band, at Food's insistence, to change their name. They eventually settled on Blur and began recording their first single, which would be released later in the year. "She's So High" was a simple song with vague lyrics and a repetitive chord sequence, but it was saved by the band's high energy playing, sinewy guitar work from Graham, and the psychedelic and trippy atmosphere of both the song and the accompanying video. The song did respectably in the charts, but it wasn't until their second single, "There's No Other Way," released in 1991, that they had their first breakthrough into the mainstream. The song went top 10 and the band exploded onto the national scene. A debut album, Leisure, was recorded and released in 1991 as well. As far as debuts go it's not bad, but it's very uneven and not a true representation of what Blur would go on to sound like. It suffered on the one hand from too much record company interference (too many producers, Balfe's overbearing presence and personality clashes with Damon which I'll touch on in a bit) while on the other hand, the songs just weren't that good. For each gem like the aforementioned singles, the haunting "Sing," the bouncy and catchy "Bad Day," and the power pop of "Come Together" there was weaker fare like "Fool," the slight (but unfairly maligned) "Bang," and the vapidness of "I Know" and "High Cool." That's not to say I don't like the album...I do, and even the weaker songs have things to redeem them, usually a great bassline or a killer guitar lick. But the overall impact was a far cry from such powerful and fully realized debuts such as those by Blur's two biggest rivals and contemporaries in the 1990s British scene, Suede's self-titled debut from 1993 and Oasis' "Definitely Maybe" in 1994. However, one good thing to come out of this entire experience was the chance to work with former Smiths producer Stephen Street, who would go on to be the George Martin to Blur's Beatles for most of the decade.

Their initial success in 1991 began to erode as subsequent singles sold poorer than the last and the band's sound was seen as riding on the coattails of dying trends, in particular Madchester/baggy and shoegaze. Their 1992 one-off single "Popscene" was a abrupt musical about-face and is one of the great lost singles by any sank without a trace and baffled the public, being too far ahead of its time to gain mass appeal although in the years since, it's been rightly hailed as a call to arms that British rock music, too often brushed aside in favor of the hair metal and grunge music being imported from America in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was finally worth noticing again. Their subsequently miserable American tour of 1992 and a legendarily drunken and embarrassing London charity gig in 1992 led to Food threatening to drop them if they didn't get their act together and their prodigious drinking under control. This seemed to be the wake-up call that was needed, the proverbial hitting of rock-bottom before beginning the climb to the top. Blur would spend the rest of the decade as the premier British band, comparisons to the Beatles being not mere hyperbole but apposite and warranted. Beginning with their second album, 1993's Modern Life is Rubbish and continuing through with 1999's 13, Blur released a series of albums and singles that helped to define their decade and that stand alongside any great British rock albums of the 1960s, 70s, or 80s. Initially rejected by Balfe for "not having enough singles," Albarn wrote two of the best songs of his career that eventually ended up on Modern Life. Opening track "For Tomorrow" is a despairing and beautiful portrait of a London on the decline complete with singalong "la la la la la" chorus, while "Chemical World" looks at the superficiality of modern life with a shimmering and spidery guitar riff that would make George Harrison proud. The rest of the album, a look at the crass consumerism of 1990s Britain in contrast with its decaying traditions, is no less powerful, from the bludgeoning Ray Davies-esque character studies of "Colin Zeal" and "Pressure on Julian" to the psychedelic 1960s English music hall revival of "Sunday Sunday," the proto-metal of "Oily Water," the gorgeous Lennon and McCartney-flavored "Starshaped" and "Blue Jeans," and contempt that is both sneering ("Advert") and wearily accepted ("Resigned"). In between, there are German-inspired punk interludes, boozy ballads, and the kitchen sink. In short, it is the greatest 1960s British rock album of the 1990s. While it wasn't a smash hit, it sold respectably, hung around the middle-reaches of the charts, and built momentum for the band's new musical manifesto that was enhanced by their relentless schedule of live performances. All of this set the stage for their breakthrough...

1994's Parklife has rightfully been called one of the defining albums of the 1990s and it's easy to hear why even 20 years later. It's a collection of songs that just bristles with energy and defines its era in a way that very few albums manage to do. From the opening sleazy synth-pop blast of "Girls and Boys" to the dark, shadowy, and majestic closer "This is a Low," the album runs the gamut of styles from Kinks-style character sketches to Euro-thrash punk, Beatle-esque melodies, noisy Husker Du power pop and everything in between. Combined with an instantly memorable and eye-catching album cover and superb production from Stephen Street, it marked Blur's ascension to the top of the mountain in British rock and made them megastars.

So how do you follow a masterpiece?  Blur unleashed The Great Escape in 1995, another #1 album, and after winning a protracted and nasty singles chart battle against Oasis, they were the kings of British rock music. However, the mania surrounding the band nearly tore them apart and in particular led to some immense strain between Damon and Graham. Revisionist reviewing by the UK music press after the initially laudatory reviews of Blur's new album and their tepid reviews of Oasis' new album led to the former album being slated in subsequent years while the latter took on almost mythic status. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. While The Great Escape overall was strong, it took Damon's character sketches to a darker, sneering extreme. Realizing the band's music and cohesion couldn't last if they continued down this path, they spent 1996 reinventing themselves and released what is probably the best album of their career, 1997's self-titled masterpiece.

Similar to the White Album, it's a sprawling yet cohesive work that is at times dark, humorous, despairing, and affirming as it covers a range of styles from perfect Beatle-esque rock ("Beetlebum" and "Look Inside America"), Bowie-ish psychedelia ("Strange News From Another Star), noisy thrash ("Song 2," "Chinese Bombs"), trip-hop ("I'm Just a Killer For Your Love," "Death of a Party"), and everything in between. They continued further in this direction with 1999's 13, this time breaking from Stephen Street and working with William Orbit. It's a much dirtier, noisier, and more harrowing album inspired in part by Damon's split from Justine Frischmann after nearly a decade as the premier power couple of 1990s British rock. Pieced together from Damon's demos and long, weird jams the band played in the studio, the album is as emotionally draining to listen to (check out "Battle" or "Caramel") as it was for the band to make, although there are also moments of fun ("Coffee and TV") and beauty ("Tender," "No Distance Left to Run," "Optigan 1").  However, when working on the follow-up in 2002, Graham left the band under mysterious circumstances. The resulting album, Blur's final album which was recorded as a three-piece with Damon taking over guitar duties, was 2003's eclectic Think Tank. Often called a Gorillaz album masquerading as a Blur album and drenched in Damon's ongoing fascination with world music and hip-hop, it's every bit as dark and dense an album as 13, from the uplifting opening track "Ambulance" to the despair of "On the Way to the Club" and the heartache of "Battery In Your Leg" (which is the only album track to feature Graham on guitar). After the tour to promote the album, the band went on a hiatus that, apart from some rumored activity in 2005 that never came to fruition, lasted all the way through Damon's worldwide success as the creative force behind Gorillaz and other various side-projects, until the end of 2008 when Damon and Graham repaired their friendship and got the band back together.

From 2009 through 2014, Blur toured around the world (although they inexplicably only played a mere two shows in America, where they have a large and dedicated cult following, including yours truly!) and released three new songs: 2010's one-off single "Fool's Day" on Record Store Day, and 2012's "Under the Westway" backed with "The Puritan." They showed that their live shows were as powerful and that the band were as tight as they ever were (more on their live performances in a bit), and the setlists were a nice cross section of their entire career, including quite a few rarities thrown in on the 2012 and 2013 set lists. However, while there were a few attempts to record a new album (most famously, sessions with William Orbit in early 2012 that ended in a public row in the musical papers, as well as some demo sessions in Hong Kong later in 2013 that came to naught), their final show in Tokyo in early 2014 has been the last we've heard from Blur as a band.  Damon has been active, as usual, with an excellent debut solo album and a tour that started in 2014 that shows no signs of slowing down heading into 2015. However, for the foreseeable future (and in my gut feeling), Blur are finished.  Besides Damon's solo career, Graham continues to record and release a series of interesting solo albums that he begun in 1998, Dave is a solicitor and radio/club DJ, and Alex is a writer and farmer.

I don't make the following comparisons lightly, but there are MANY parallels between Blur and the Beatles. Taking the Beatles' huge impact on pretty much every aspect of Western culture out of the equation and focusing solely on music, the two bands are much more similar than you probably think.  As an obsessive fan of both bands, I've spent countless hours pondering these similarities, so here goes. First, both bands consist of four members and only those four members throughout their years of fame. Yes, the Beatles had Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best, as well as countless other transient members in their earlier years, while Blur had additional members who came and went before they settled on their classic line-up. But from the moment when both bands began their recording careers and started their career ascension, they both had stable line-ups that never changed. John, Paul, and George all grew up together and were best friends; Ringo, who they got to know years before he joined the band, fit right in and the band became known as a tight unit made up of four distinctive personalities. The same is true for Blur: Damon, Graham, and Dave were friends growing up and when Alex was brought into the fold later, the personalities meshed. Again, a band that looked like (and was) a gang of brothers, all with unique and instantly identifiable personalities.  In both bands, every member was integral to their sound and image and each was 100% irreplaceable. Both were led by two dominant creative individuals, although in the Beatles' case it was collaborative (Lennon/McCartney) whereas in Blur there is one songwriter (Albarn) and his lieutenant who helps with arrangements (Coxon).  Both bands have rock-solid rhythm sections led by incredibly melodic bass players (McCartney and James) and drummers who have the chops to stretch out when they need to but always play for the song (Starr and Rowntree). The Beatles were obviously more prolific, releasing 13 albums (one of which is a double album) and 14 non-album singles and b-sides over the course of their 8 year recording career, whereas Blur clock in with only 7 albums and 6 non-album singles over the course of their nearly 25 years of existence. However, what both have in common is that they always pushed forward and continually developed and evolved their sound, never releasing an album that sounded like anything before it.  While the Beatles' and Blur's closest peers, the Rolling Stones and Oasis, respectively, made many great records and stood neck-and-neck with them in the charts, both had a tendency to not deviate much from their signature sounds. Not so for the Beatles and Blur: while the Beatles obviously made much larger leaps, going from Please Please Me to Revolver/Sgt. Pepper to Abbey Road in a span of 7 years, Blur's jumps from Modern Life is Rubbish/Parklife to Blur to 13 were no less dramatic in the 1990s.

Where the two bands differ significantly, however, is when live performances enter the equation. I realize it isn't an entirely fair comparison because the Beatles gigged relentlessly in their pre-fame days and were hampered by being famous during the infancy of the rock concert era, when amplification and PA equipment was woefully inadequate for the enormous venues and audiences they were playing.  However, during their fame years, they only toured from 1962-1966 and by the end were only playing 20-30 minute sets that no one (including the band themselves) could hear anyway. By contrast, Blur undertook years of grueling, year-long world tours every year from 1990 to 1997 before scaling back, although their schedules in 1999, 2003, and 2012-13 were no less rigorous. And where the Beatles spent most of their touring years limited by their equipment as to what they could reproduce onstage, Blur were much more adventurous, throwing in a lot of deeper album cuts and b-sides into their set lists over the years. (You can, of course, read all about this in my two books on Blur's live performance history...sorry for the shameless plug but the segue was right there!).

As for what Blur's music means to me, they were the first band who were active during my lifetime that I followed absolutely religiously the way I obsessed over the Beatles, devouring every scrap of news and eagerly awaiting every new single and album. There were other bands I followed seriously during their careers while I was a teenager and into my 20s (notably R.E.M.) but I wasn't as fanatical about them the way I was with Blur.  I first heard Blur's music without really knowing it in the early to mid 1990s when "There's No Other Way" and "Girls and Boys" were minor hits on the alternative rock and college radio stations I used to listen to.  My first real exposure was  in late 1996/early 1997 when I heard tracks from their self-titled album (which was released in February 1997) on the radio. "Song 2" and in particular "Beetlebum" just blew me away and led me to buy the album and devour it. Later on that year, my roommate happened to have a copy of The Great Escape that he didn't particularly care for. With that, I was on my way and I've been a rabid fan ever since. My only lament about my fandom is that I wasn't able to somehow be in the UK during all of it, because while they are huge in the UK and also hugely popular in Europe, Asia, and South America, they've always been a cult band here in the USA, darlings of Anglophiles and indie rock lovers in the know and all but ignored by mainstream music and radio. For perspective, while in the UK Damon is first and foremost the lead singer of Blur and Gorillaz is known to be his side project, in America the script is flipped: he's guy behind Gorillaz who also used to be in "that band that did that woo-hoo song."  That being said, I am fortunate enough to have seen them in concert, once in 2003, and it was a fantastic show.  I had a chance to see Blur in 1999 as well but passed on it due to scheduling conflicts with my exams, a decision I've regretted ever since. I've also seen Gorillaz (2010) and Damon (2014) and in all cases, Damon has proven that he is one of the most talented and diverse musicians of the past 25 years.  Blur's music has not only soundtracked most of my life but has led me to write books on them and allowed me to connect with so many people around the world through the online fan community, some of whom I consider true friends (we will meet one day soon!). It's also been really gratifying when I've introduced my friends to their music over the years and converted them into big fans.

Blur now: Alex, Damon, Graham, Dave
While many bands have claimed to take up the mantle of the Beatles, I really do think that Blur are the closest anyone has gotten, checking off all of the relevant boxes: stable band membership, unique individual personalities, timeless music, and an ever-changing and developing sound. If you're still skeptical, I hope you'll dig a bit deeper than the overview I've presented here and discover their music for yourself. I bet you won't be disappointed!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year! (or sorry 2014, but we're through and now I'm moving on to 2015)

Another year is in the books and we turn the calendar to a new month and a new year. I hope 2014 was good for all of you and your families and that you can look back on it with some modicum of fondness and without too many regrets.  Personally, 2014 was a year of significant upheaval for me and my family but in the end everything worked out and we're in a really good space heading into 2015. I'm not big on New Year's resolutions because A) people never stick with them, and B) I am a big believer in living your resolutions every day and making them part of your life, not just part of your January. I'm just going to continue to do what I set out to do every year: be the best husband and father I can be, be the best chemist I can be and do as well at my job as possible, enjoy time with my family and friends, continue to take care of my health by maintaining my running and healthy habits, and continue to express myself creatively through my music and writing.  Apart from that, I plan to enjoy the new year as much as possible and make it the best it can be!

For you, my dear readers, I wish all of you a happy New Year and only hope that you celebrate it safely and responsibly. May your 2015 be even more blessed, successful, and filled with love and happiness than your 2014 was!