Friday, June 26, 2015

The Who: Tommy (A Depiction)

As you know, I've always been musically inclined and music and writing have long been my two creative outlets for all of my life.  However, only people who know me really well personally would also know that in my youth I was also quite a good artist. I used to love to draw and spent many hours during those years making pictures of all sorts of things, especially super heroes. I wasn't the greatest artist, but I was better than decent and even now, as out of practice as I am, my kids love it when I draw with them. For those of you who might remember, I found a drawing of some of my favorite guitarists that I did when I was sixteen which I posted last year...not too bad, right?

But enough of that...the whole thing that prompted this little post is what is shown above. While I was in high school, I took art classes for a year and learned all sorts of things about drawing and painting. We kept a portfolio of all of our work that was saved throughout the year and which we got to keep at the end of the class. I was going through it a few weeks ago as I moved it from a closet to another closet (of course) and remembered this painting I did of the album cover triptych from Tommy. I did it during a free period I had at school, just for art teacher allowed me to come in and use the materials for it.  It's not perfect but I think it came out pretty can compare for yourself with the real cover which is shown below. Mine doesn't have the proper depth on the edges of the sphere as the actual art by Mike McInnerney but otherwise it's fairly close. I did this at the end of senior year of high school, when I had just turned seventeen, so this would have been in the spring of 1997.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: John Lennon: The Collected Artwork

The first things that come to mind for almost anyone in the world when you ask them why John Lennon is famous are most likely the two words "Beatles" and "music." While these are certainly true and these two words describe his most meaningful and lasting contributions to our culture (the word "music" also encompassing his post-Beatles work), he always thought of himself first and foremost as an artist. Now, whether or not this was just his way of being the iconoclast he always was is open for debate: in his own words, music was just a way for him to make money, while "art always came first." Regardless, art was a hugely important part of his life from childhood to his dying day. We all know he published two books of his fantastical and unique wordplay and drawings, 1964's In His Own Write and 1965's A Spainard in the Works (two books which I've read several times and greatly enjoy), but from his youngest days John produced a large volume of drawings. Some of them were displayed in his infamous exhibit "Bag One" in the late 1960s and early 1970s (with the accompanying police raid on the grounds of obscenity occurring on the second day), but the majority were done mostly for his own peace of mind and enjoyment.

***special thanks to Samantha at Insight Editions for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

In John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, Scott Gutterman has organized and curated a collection of John's drawing and grouped them into distinct chapters which place them in their proper context during the various periods of John's life. These range from his early childhood and pre-music years to his Beatles years, as well as chapters breaking his art into sections pertaining to his relationship with Yoko, his home life during the 1970s, and the years he, Yoko, and Sean traveled to Japan where John learned the Japanese sumi ink drawing technique and tried to learn the Japanese language as well. One thing that is evident throughout the entire book is that John was a very talented artist whose range spread across a variety of styles and techniques. Included in this book are examples of his work ranging from rough sketches and doodles that are almost of stick-figure simplicity to very realistic, detailed drawings, with many other styles in between. While at first glance some people might look at the drawings and find many of them to be little more than scribbles and doodles, it becomes clearer upon really studying them that there was a method to his madness, so to speak.  One of the biggest criticisms levied at John and Yoko was that they self-importantly chronicled every bit of their lives on record and film in the narcissistic belief that the public wanted to know all about it. John did much the same with his drawings, the difference being that he kept almost all of them to himself.

Starting off with his childhood drawings, the book shows many examples of the highly detailed and imaginative drawings of John's youth. Done mainly in pencil, many of them colored in by John after drawing them, the subject matter ranges from typical young boy fare like football (soccer for my fellow Americans) to battles between knights and warriors (the clashes between the Normans and Saxons from Ivanhoe were a popular source for the young Lennon). Even at this early age it was evident he was quite talented. The drawings encompassing the 1960s and the Beatles years are mainly drawn from his two books, both of which I own and have read numerous times; thus, I'd seen them all before. However, when stripped of the accompanying writings of the original books, the pictures and their humor hold up surprisingly well on their own. Moving on to the art he made from when he first started dating Yoko in 1968 to the last days of his life in 1980, the subject matter is more broad. Many of the drawings focus on his marriage to Yoko with all of its ups and downs. There is the infatuation phase of 1968-70 where John draws numerous pictures of them hugging, kissing, their faces merging into one, and a series of logos where the letters of their names are intertwined in a crossword puzzle-like fashion. This last one in particular was interesting... it was quite a surprise to see that a 28-year old famous Beatle was drawing these logos the way lovesick high school kids used to draw them on their book covers like we did in my school days. There are also several pictures depicting the bad times, including when they were separated during John's 18-month "Lost Weekend" of 1973-75.  He drew many pictures throughout his life musing on his fame and what it all meant, as well as his enjoyment of the simple pleasures of city living in New York like walking down the street with Sean and Yoko, passing colorful characters, flying kites in the shows John's contentment with his life and that, at the same time, he was a keen observer of the hustle and bustle going on around him. Many of his drawings are quite realistic and detailed while others are a bit more abstract and consist of little more than scribbled lines, yet somehow when placed together, they work. Perhaps the most interesting section for me was the chapter devoted to the work inspired by his immersion in Japanese culture during the many trips he and Yoko made to visit her family in Japan. John was intrigued with the sumi style of Japanese drawing and created several pieces using this style. In addition, he was trying to learn Japanese and incorporated many of the language's characters and phrases into his work. Some of them were done in a humorous way while others are attempts at learning how to speak and write it properly that wouldn't be out of place in a schoolkid's textbook. For instance, there is a series of drawings he made of Japanese faces making different facial expressions, each labeled with the appropriate descriptor: sweet, salty, bitter, and so on. It's fascinating to think that this world-famous musician was struggling to learn a new language just like the rest of us a sense, his artwork humanizes him and plants his feet more solidly on the ground. I like to think that that's one of the main reasons John remained so dedicated to his craft, even as a hobby, throughout his life.

There are a few of things that are slightly lacking with the book which I'll go through one at a time. The first and most obvious one is that there is a lot of blank and/or wasted space. Each of John's drawings is reproduced quite beautifully on the high quality paper of the book, but there are far too many pages that are left blank opposite one of the drawings, or are filled with a portions of his handwritten song lyrics (many of which are to songs that have nothing to do with either the year or theme of the adjacent drawings). It seems a shame that so much page real estate was wasted in this way when it could have been utilized to include even more art. My second criticism concerns the accompanying text that precedes each chapter. Gutterman does a nice job explaining the themes and messages of each of John's drawings and placing them in the proper context as far as what was happening in his life at the time he created each of them. However, if you knew nothing of John Lennon or the Beatles before reading this book, you would think John was a single guy up until 1968 when he fell in love with Yoko before they got married in 1969, and you would think John had one and only one son, Sean, born in 1975. Obviously, as any Beatles and Lennon fan knows, this isn't the case as John was married to the late Cynthia (Powell) Lennon from 1962-68 and she is the mother of his oldest son Julian (born 1963). It's been a complaint of many Beatles fans, as well as Cynthia and Julian themselves, that they have been all but written out of John's life by Yoko and many Lennon fans and scholars, and this book is a prime example of that unfortunate phenomenon occurring yet again. There is but one mention of Julian, at the very end of the book, and no mention of Cynthia, which is glaring (at least to me) since many of his earlier drawings (including all of them coming from his two books) were done during his marriage to her. In fact, if one has also read the John Lennon Letters, you'd see that there wer many intricate or whimsical drawings he made during his early twenties that were done specifically for Cynthia. Really, my issue is just that this very real and vital part of John's life and creative process wasn't given the due it deserves. I realize this is par for the course with how Yoko has handled John's estate and his image since his death, but just because she engages in historical revisionism doesn't make it true. And before anyone says anything, I am not being "anti-Yoko" in saying this...more I'm being "pro-facts" than anything else!

Those complaints of mine aside, John Lennon: The Collected Artwork is a wonderful book that will be very enjoyable to anyone who is a serious Beatles and Lennon fan;.if you happen to be an art lover, all the better but I don't think that's necessary in order to get a real appreciation for the meaning of John's art. As the John Lennon Letters has done, in presenting his artwork this book helps to humanize and demystify John Lennon. Stripped of the protective shell that was his celebrity, the real man emerges and we get a chance to understand who he was and how he saw the world around him. I'd like to think that were he still alive, John would be very satisfied all these years later people are still as interested in his art as they are his music. For that reality, this book makes a significant contribution.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Max Gowan - Big People

Around the same time I came across Will Weston's excellent album Heart of the Order, I was also introduced to the music of Max Gowan. He's a recent high school graduate from Raleigh, North Carolina who will be attending American University in Washington, DC in the fall. He's been playing guitar and singing since he was eight years old and has spent time studying jazz and music theory. Initially playing in a heavy metal band in high school, Max switched gears and released his first solo acoustic EP in 2014 which earned positive reviews and some solo acoustic shows around Raleigh. For Big People, his first full-length album, Max played all of the instruments and sang all of the vocals himself. The overall sound is one which he feels is more representative of who he wants to be as an artist. His influences include Wilco, Elliot Smith, Alex G, Elvis Depressedly (love that name!), and Deerhunter. These songs will be played around the Raleigh area this summer by Max and his band, The Estates.

I've gone through a few listens of Max's album now will go through it track by track for this review. In addition to the reference points he mentioned above, I also hear a lot of Death Cab for Cutie and Pavement in his sound, as well as a smattering of Graham Coxon's middle-period work where he straddled American lo-fi and classic British pop/rock. As before, I'll do my best to convey the flavor of the music through mere words. As Frank Zappa once said, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." And yet those of us who love both music and writing feel compelled to continue on this fool's errand...

1. Rare Thing starts the album off with some moody piano and acoustic sounds a bit like Radiohead's "No Surprises" in terms of ambiance, or late 1990s Pavement.  Gowan's vocals sound a bit like Death Cab for Cutie, whose influence I detect running throughout the entire album (as you'll see). This is an excellent song and a great choice as an opening track.

2. Window, the second track, is very mellow and consists only of vocals and some shimmering electric guitar. It reminds me of early Semisonic, which is a good thing! This short tune leads right into...

3. Face This song is started off with some beautiful arpeggiated guitar and vocals. It sounds like late 1990s lo-fi,  Pavement influences mixed with a bit of Graham Coxon's more melodic late 1990s tendencies. I really like this one.

4. Another Lucy This one might just be my favorite track on the album. It has a jaunty acoustic guitar-driven rhythm and reminds me of a Bluetones song but at the same time is unique. Max's voice is really nice on this one and the maturity of his voice belies his young age. Great lyrics, too...wonderful song.

5. Bend This one starts off with an aggressively strummed acoustic intro that sounds a bit like Dave Matthews Band before the ethereal vocals come in. There are some really nice chord changes in chorus section that catch the ear upon first listen.

6. Big People The title track, which is usually the grand statement of any album, right? Bright guitar strums gently begin the song and it settles into a mellow 3/4ish tempo. There's a nice contrapuntal piano melody underneath the guitars...I get a definite Death Cab For Cutie vibe from this song in terms of both the music and the vocals. The middle section brings some delayed, psychedelic-sounding guitar to the fore that remain spacey as the as pinging guitars fade away with the song. A very strong song.

7. Here (Part 1) This one sounds like 1997-era Blur by way of Pavement or Death Cab For Cutie. There's a really nice chorus that contains an interesting chord thrown in that caught my ear the first time I heard it and still burrows its way in each time it comes around.

8. The Stumble A pretty instrumental consisting simply of melancholy acoustic guitar...a nice change of pace for the album, almost an aural palate cleanser before the last round of songs.

9. Snow A strong Death Cab For Cutie influence (at least to my ears), both in terms of the guitar sound and vocals, permeates "Snow," but it isn't simply derivative as there's something unique about it at the same time. There are some pretty chord changes and effective bits of dissonance playing off each other during the verse.

10. Open Letter to Heaven An acoustic-driven song that would not sound out of place at all on side two of Led Zeppelin III, at least musically. Fairly unique sounding track amongst the rest of the album and a nice way to show another aspect of Max's sound.

11. Here (Part 2) Continuing on from track 7, part 2 starts off with strummed dirty-toned electric guitar, a synthesizer, and glockenspiel. Perhaps more than anywhere else on the album, Gowan's vocals remind me of Death Cab as he's got some VERY Ben Gibbard-sounding vocals. In fact, when I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was listening to an unreleased Death Cab tune. I love the almost anthemic's one of those that you could imagine people singing along to when played live. Overall, this song is like a wave: it starts off slowly and gently before gaining in intensity in the middle where it peaks before it eases back down for a gentle ending. Another definitely highlight of the album for me.

12. Everything is Cool I like this's very fun! The beginning has a riff played in unison by an organ, an electric piano and bass guitar. The song reminds me of Pavement or other bands of that late 1990s era when I was in college, while the melodic synth riff that runs throughout gives it a bit of Blur touch.

After listening to Big People, the most striking thing to me was that this is a very, very good album made by someone who is still quite young. While there are a handful of songs I wrote in my teens that I'm still proud of and will still play in front of people, the majority of stuff I wrote at Max's age embarrasses me now. If I had written songs of the quality of Max's when I was 18, I'd be proud to play them twenty years later. His production is crisp and clean and while it doesn't sound like something that was recorded in a bedroom (which according to Max, is exactly where he made the recording), it has an intimate homemade charm that definitely comes across. If I have one criticism of the album, it would be mainly that all of the songs have a very similar mid-tempo feel. While the songs are interesting and varied enough so that they don't sound samey, the tempos do. In the future, mixing it up and changing the pace with some faster songs would make for even more effective pacing. However, given that Max Gowan is just entering adulthood and has already produced this solid, enjoyable record on his own, it bodes well for the future that there will be more good music in store.

***You can listen to and download Big People HERE and remember to please support independent musicians and their music. Buy it, listen to it, spread the word, go see them live! ***

Saturday, June 13, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Roger Daltrey: The Biography

He's one of the most iconic and legendary singers and front men in all of rock music and has been the face and voice of the Who for over fifty years. However, while his more wild and eccentric bandmates Keith Moon, John Entwistle, and Pete Townshend have been the subject of numerous books, articles, and awards over the years, both for their antics and their revolutionary approaches to their instruments (and in Pete's case, songwriting), Roger's life has gone largely unexplored. This has always seemed a shame to me since, as the most stable and down-to-earth member of the band and someone who has had an interesting career both in and out of music, I've always wanted to know more about him. Thus, it was with a healthy amount of excitement and anticipation that I finally got around to reading what, at least to my knowledge, is the only dedicated biography on Daltrey that has been published.

***special thanks to Clara at Piatkus Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Originally published in 2004, the book was reprinted in 2010 and it's this edition which is the subject of the present review. The two authors, Tim Ewbank and Stafford Hildred, have both known and interviewed Roger over the years and mention in their introduction that the book draws from numerous interviews and discussions with Roger and his family and friends, the other three members of the Who, and other sources. Reading this, I was very excited to see what new information would be brought to light regarding his life and career and after reading the first few chapters detailing his birth, childhood, and school years I wasn't disappointed. There were several new bits of information for even a diehard Who fanatic like me, such as the fact that Roger's mother wasn't even supposed to be able to have children due to a kidney disorder she'd suffered from. Roger was a surprise baby born in the middle of World War II and at one point, when his father Harry was off fighting in Europe, his mother Irene evacuated with him to Scotland where they lived in an isolated rural cabin and subsisted mainly on potatoes. Roger developed rickets and the distinctive bow legged walk he's had ever since due to this unvaried diet. After the war ended they moved back to Shepherds Bush, London, where he grew up and was joined several years later by two sisters. Roger was a very good student until he went to East Acton Grammar School, which was run by more posh, upper class teachers than his prior institute. Acutely feeling aware of his working class Cockney roots and accent, he had several run-ins with the authority figures at the school and, combined with his burgeoning love of rock and roll music, became the school tough guy and rebel. He eventually left school, built his own guitar, and started a band called the Detours. Shortly thereafter he recruited two of his former classmates at East Acton, John Entwistle and Pete Townshend, and the nucleus of what would become the Who was born. A teenage marriage to a young girlfriend whom he got pregnant didn't last long and for one stretch of six months Roger was homeless and living in the Who's van. Deciding to give up his spot as a guitarist in the band due to his hands being bloodied and bruised from metal working, Roger took over lead vocal duties and left Townshend as the sole guitarist. Bringing Keith Moon into the fold to be their drummer in early 1964 the rest, as they say, is history.

In fact, from this point on, the book is more a history of the Who than a biography on the life and times of Roger Daltrey. While it's a quite good little history of the Who, there wasn't too much new for a veteran Who fan such as myself, although there were two interesting bits I wasn't previously aware of: Roger going to a seance in late 1978 so that he could ask Keith if the band should continue after his death, and the fact that he and Pete had been concerned enough about John's health to ask him to see a doctor (which he refused to do) several years before Entwistle's sudden death in 2001.  However, there were a handful of inexcusable errors, such as claiming Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" was on Live at Leeds (it was his "Summertime Blues") and that their original farewell tour was in 1983 (it was in 1982). It did a good job of capturing the entirety of the Who's career although there were repeated instances of labeling Roger as a "wild man" when elsewhere in the book there were multiple instances where Roger, the other Who members, and various associates all mentioned how Roger was the least wild and most stable member of the band! Indeed, apart from early dalliances with pot, Roger eschewed drugs and alcohol and stuck to a strict fitness regime to preserve both his body and voice. There were also a couple of instances where the authors unbelievably claimed that Townshend was the rare rock star who wasn't very comfortable expounding on his work and the state of music around him, which as any Who or serious rock fan knows is the complete polar opposite of what Pete is like. The best parts of the book, which happen to be the only ones focusing solely on Roger (the main reason I was interested in reading this book in the first place) dealt with his early life (as previously described), the circumstances around how he met his longtime wife Heather and their home life, his side career as an actor, and his exemplary work raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT). Indeed, the circumstances of each of these was very interesting. He met Heather in the late 1960s while touring America, where she was raised; however, she was born in London only a few streets away from where Roger grew up and their marriage has proven to be the rare showbiz union that has lasted (forty-four years and counting). In concert with their wedding, Roger gave up city life for a rural existence on his farmland estate and is most happy working around the property with his bare hands. Regarding his acting career, what started out as an obvious role in the movie adaptation of Tommy in 1975 launched Roger into an interesting side career as an actor and television presenter. He's appeared in almost one hundred roles ranging from film to television, plays to musicals. Lastly, the personal experience of his sister dying from breast cancer at the age of thirty-two inspired Roger to get involved with the TCT and he's raised a huge amount of money for the charity and remains actively involved in it to this day.

While I did enjoy this book, I have to say that overall I was a bit disappointed with it. There was very little, if any, of what felt like direct input from Roger himself. For the level of access both authors claim to have had to the Who over the years, the book could have been so much better. They acknowledge all members of the Who at the beginning of the book and even mention times when one or both of them were present with the band at certain events (such as one of the authors being at the same party as Keith on the night he died). Yet so many of the quotes were quite recognizable, sourced directly from magazines, newspapers, documentaries, and in the case of the discussion about the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, CD liner notes. The book just had a faint feeling of a cut-and-paste job, taking numerous quotes from other sources and fleshing out the story around them. The only people who seemed to come across as if they were interviewed specifically for the book were Keith Altham (former publicist and music writer) and Kit Lambert (former Who manager) and in the case of Lambert this clearly wasn't the case as he died in 1981. It's a shame because the parts that focused solely on Roger and his life were quite interesting and I wanted more of them, which I don't think is an unreasonable expectation for a book that is supposed to be his biography. The history of the Who interwoven with the book was fine but I would have liked to have seen it told from Roger's perspective, spending more time on how Roger fit into it all. In any event, Who fans will enjoy this book and should come away learning a few new things about Daltrey, as I did, which makes it worth the read. His sense of humor, his essential character, and how he generally fit into the puzzle that was the Who definitely shine through and for those reasons alone, the book achieves its goal of helping readers get to know the him a bit better.

MY RATING: 6.5/10

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Concert Memories: The Who at Great Woods, Mansfield, MA July 31, 1997

My very faded ticket stub

In July of 1997 I was 17 years old, had graduated high school the month before, and was a few weeks away from starting college. I was also in the midst of my era of playing guitar during every waking moment (something I'd gladly do now if I had the time!), writing songs, practicing with the band I was in, and immersing myself in as much music as I could. I also finally had my own car and the freedom to drive wherever I wanted (within reason). As a bit of background, I'm the oldest of three kids and I was on the young side compared to my classmates at school by virtue of skipping the fifth grade. Because I was the oldest my parents were a bit stricter with me than with my brother and sister (in the interest of full disclosure, I was an absolute pain in the arse for most of my teenage years), and due to being a year or two younger than all of my friends I wasn't able to do many of the things that they could (like drive) until a year after. By the summer of 1997 I was heading off to college and was old enough to mostly go where I wanted so after missing out on several concerts I'd wanted to see in previous years, I was ready to finally start going to some shows. Indeed, one of the reasons this Who concert that I'm going to write about holds so much significance for me isn't simply because I saw the remnants of one of my favorite, most meaningful bands but because it was the first real concert I ever went to. 

It all started in 1996, actually. I'd been a Who fan since I was a little kid in the 1980s thanks to my dad's record collection. I heard several of their songs when he would listen to them and when I got a little older, I played the hell out of his copies of Tommy, Who's Next, Quadrophenia, and Who Are You. There were a couple of formative events that cemented my obsession with this band that I can still remember vividly even though they were so many years ago. The first was in 1994 when I purchased my own copy of Tommy on CD. There was a record store in Portsmouth that my dad and I used to frequent called Strawberries and in the summer of 1994 they were making a big deal of it being the 25th anniversary of Woodstock. They were selling albums by all of the bands that played the original festival at a discount and had even set up a special display where they were all gathered together. Knowing Tommy from my dad's records, I bought that CD and proceeded to listen to it almost non-stop all of that summer. I had also gotten one of the first Sony DiscMan portable CD players earlier in the year, so every day involved listening to it at full blast through headphones, and every night involved falling asleep to it. For me at the age of fourteen, hearing it in that improved sound quality and absorbing every nuance of the album over the course of those weeks and months deepened my appreciation of the Who. The other event, which pushed me completely over the top, was a year later in 1995. My brother and I had been hanging out in our dad's office listening to records when he arrived home from work with some new CDs in his briefcase. The Who had recently begun their remaster campaign, releasing their albums with improved sound (albeit with some bastardized mixes when compared to the original vinyl) and bonus tracks. That evening, Dad brought home the new versions of Tommy, Who's Next, and Live at Leeds. Now, these were all albums I was familiar with, especially Tommy; however, apart from my CD of that album I'd only ever listened to these on either vinyl or the cassette dubs I'd made of the records. In the case of Live at Leeds, the original album only had six tracks whereas this remaster had fifteen! You mean there was more stuff they played at the concert? I couldn't believe it (not realizing, in my youth, that most live albums were cherry picked from full concerts). Dad wanted to hear how some of the tracks he dug from the original Live at Leeds album sounded on the new CD. "How about 'Young Man Blues?'" he said. After putting the CD in the player, cranking up the volume, and pressing "play," my teenage ears and mind were about to be blown and my life changed forever. The absolute heavy-metal assault of that song was absolutely staggering.

Even songs from the album I'd heard a bunch of times before, like "Substitute" and "Summertime Blues" sounded new and fresh, and the newly included live cuts...well, they were just the icing on the cake. A few years later when I was in college I would get a bootleg of the ENTIRE Leeds concert and that's the way I choose to enjoy the album nowadays, but I can't stress enough how life-changing that listen to Live at Leeds in 1995 was. It not only heightened my obsession with the Who, it completely changed how I played guitar. I learned how to play the entire Live at Leeds album note-for-note, every riff and solo, and the band my brother and I had with our friend Theo played every song from that album every time we jammed for the next year or two. It was an absolute revelation, as were the other remastered albums and the bonus tracks...there were so many songs we'd never heard of, let alone heard before. I ended up buying my own copies of those CDs and snatched up every subsequent remastered Who album that came out on CD in the next few years.  But now that I've gone off far enough on this tangent (hey, I'm building toward something so bear with me!)... the time 1996 rolled around, all I wanted to do was listen to and make music. When I wasn't at school, at band or sports practice, or with hanging out with my friends, I was playing guitar. I wanted to be in The Who. When they announced a big Hyde Park show in London in 1996 to play the entire Quadrophenia album (my favorite of theirs), I was thrilled although it was from 3,000 miles away. A few months later, though, I found out that they were going to play shows in the US during the summer of 1997 and well, what else could I do? I absolutely had to go see them. One problem, though...I had only just turned seventeen at the beginning of 1997 and no way were my parents going to let me drive to Mansfield alone (it's about 40 minutes south of Boston but I grew up in central New Hampshire so it was a two-hour drive to get there). Even worse, neither of them wanted to go with me and my brother. The date of the concert, July 31, was a Thursday so my dad had to work and my mum couldn't leave my sister home alone (twelve years old at the time) in order to take us. There was no way my brother Alex and I were going to miss this show, but how were we going to get there?

Enter salvation in the form of our friend Pete's dad (also named Alex, a very nice man who sadly passed away in 2011).  Pete was my one of brother's best friends and lived down the street from us in our neighborhood. Alex used to hang out at Pete's house a lot and during one visit he mentioned that we were trying to get someone to take us to the concert.  Alex (the dad) overheard and told us he'd take us. He had been a Who fan back in his college days and was used to driving down that way since he was a Patriots season ticket holder (the Patriots play in Foxborough, the next town over from Mansfield). So now we had someone who would take us to the show...success! I promptly ordered five tickets over the phone (remember, kids, these were the old days when the internet didn't really exist...I didn't send my first email or browse my first webpage until a month later when I started college). Alex (the dad) was going to take me, Alex (my brother), Pete, and Pete's younger brother Eric. I could finally breathe a sigh of relief as we had tickets, someone to take us, and several months to go until the concert in July.

Finally, July 31st arrived...Who day! I remember that it was a typical New England summer day: hot and muggy, although not unbearably so...just enough to make you uncomfortable. We all piled into Alex-the-dad's minivan and set out for Great Woods (again, I refuse to call it the "Whatever-Corporate-Sponsored-Name-It-Is-Now was Great Woods my whole life growing up and that's what I'll always call it) in Mansfield. Along the way we discussed the upcoming Patriots season and listened to the radio (we may have had the Red Sox game on the radio...I can't remember). When we got a bit closer to Boston where we could pick up the radio stations, we tuned in to hear that all of them were playing nothing but the Who which got us even more psyched up for the concert. Eventually we arrived at the venue, parked, and walked through the gates. Thinking ahead, we'd brought along some blankets to spread out on the ground; for those of you who have never been to Great Woods, it's a large outdoor amphitheatre that is divided into three sections. The first is where the bulk of the seats are and is covered by a roof. There are then several rows of seats that are behind the first section and aren't under the roof; finally, the rear section is the general admission lawn area. I've sat in all three sections at various concerts and any time you're not under the roof you're praying for good weather. Luckily there wasn't a cloud in the sky that day so there were no worries. After getting a spot on the lawn right up against the final row of seats and spreading out our blankets, I set off to buy some Who t-shirts from the merchandise stall. I ended up buying two: one was white with banding around the collar and sleeves and the target and band logos on the front, and the other was black with their early 1970s logo on the front and the tour dates on the back. I still have both shirts, they both still fit, and I'll add photos of them once I find them. Now it was time to hang out on the lawn until the show started.

For this tour, the Who were presenting Quadrophenia as a true rock opera onstage, with special guests playing the parts of the Ace Face and the Godfather to augment to the band.  All these years since the show I've distinctly remembered Billy Idol as the Ace Face and Gary Glitter as the Godfather, but while doing some research on the show for this post I've found some information stating that PJ Proby was the Godfather and Ben Waters was the Ace Face. Maybe I'm being stubborn but I'm still pretty sure it was Glitter and Idol at the show I saw, but it was so long ago that I guess I've been wrong! Anyway, in addition to these two characters, the band was fleshed out by Pete's brother Simon on second guitar, John "Rabbit" Bundrick on keyboards, a small horn section, and for me the most impressive addition: Zak Starkey on drums. For anyone who knows anything about me, I consider the true end of the Who to have been September 7, 1978 when Keith Moon died...since then they've been a different band to me. However, Zak Starkey excited me for a number of reasons: he was Ringo's son, he was Keith Moon's godson, and "Uncle" Keith had bought him his first drum kit and inspired him to play the drums. I'd read good things about his work with the Who from the previous year and I wanted to see if he would pass muster in my eyes. After waiting for what seemed an eternity, the house lights went down, the crowd began to roar, and there they were: Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and John Entwistle. Three legends from one of my favorite bands onstage right in front of me! They began the show with the backing tape of "I Am the Sea" playing over the PA and the tension built up and the waves crashed around us until Roger's familiar voice sang out "can you see the real me? Can you? CAN YOU?" and they exploded into "The Real Me." The entire set list is below:

Set List:

I Am the Sea
The Real Me
Cut My Hair
The Punk and the Godfather
I'm One
The Dirty Jobs
Helpless Dancer
Is It in My Head?
I've Had Enough
Sea and Sand
Bell Boy
Doctor Jimmy
The Rock
Love, Reign O'er Me


Magic Bus
Won't Get Fooled Again
Behind Blue Eyes
I Can't Explain
Who Are You 

As you can see, they played the entire Quadrophenia album and then encored with some of their classic hits. It was very exciting to hear the entire album played live since, as any Who fan can tell you, they only played the full album live a few times in 1973 before dropping many of the songs. After 1974, they completely abandoned it apart from a handful of tracks ("Drowned," "5:15," "Doctor Jimmy," "The Real Me"). There are some great bootlegs from 1973 (in particular, the Philadelphia and Landover shows) where they played nearly the entire album, but because they were limited by the technology of the times they gave up on it far too quickly, in my opinion. So here we were in 1997 and they played through the whole thing. The band sounded great, but what of Zak Starkey? Answer: he absolutely blew me away! If you closed your eyes you would have sworn it was Keith playing drums, but Zak is incredibly talented in his own right and didn't simply ape Moon's parts...he brought a lot of himself to the music and fit in seamlessly. The additions of the Ace Face and Godfather were okay...I would have liked it to have been just the Who onstage, but they didn't detract from the quality of the performance. What I do remember is that it was just an excellent, excellent concert. By the time they finished playing Quadrophenia it was starting to get dark but we were all still hungry for more music. To start the encores, Pete, Roger, and John came onstage all by themselves, Pete with an acoustic guitar and John with his bass. They started playing "Magic Bus" and at one point after Pete sang the line "can I buy your Magic Bus?" and Roger sang back "you caaaaaaan't have it!" Pete stopped, looked at the crowd, and said "thirty years and he still won't sell it to me!" That got a hearty laugh from everyone before they picked up where they left off and finished the song. They followed it with an acoustic "Won't Get Fooled Again" that was really great, albeit not the full version (if I recall correctly, they only played a few minutes of it). They then did "Behind Blue Eyes" with those gorgeous three-part harmonies, playing acoustically as on the album before the rest of the band exploded to life behind them when they came to the hard rocking middle section of the song. The concert finished with full band versions of "Substitute," "I Can't Explain," and a great version of "Who Are You." After that, it was all over and my mind (and eardrums) had been blown. We made our way back to the car, sat in traffic for over an hour before we were able to leave, and hit a Wendy's drive-thru for some food to eat on the long drive back home.

Looking back on it (and listening to the recording of the concert which I've included as YouTube videos throughout this post), it was a fantastic way to lose my concert virginity. Seeing one of my all-time favorite bands, even without Keith Moon, was probably the best way I could have chosen to break into the world of attending concerts and the show was really great. I'm also very thankful that I got to see them with John as he died in 2001...I know my brother must feel the same way as The Ox is one of the greatest bass guitarists who ever played and has always been one of the biggest influences on Alex's own playing. When I think back on the show I don't remember too many specific details as it was almost twenty years ago. That's where the recording comes in handy as it helps to jump start my memories every time I listen to it. The summer of 1997 was just a special summer for me for all of the reasons I mentioned earlier, made even more so by the Who. To see my first proper concert in the month between high school and college and to have it be The Who...even if it was a lousy show it would hold a special place in my heart. The fact that it was great only makes it that much sweeter a concert memory for me.

Friday, June 5, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Keith Richards: Life

From the moment it was released in 2010, Keith Richards' memoir Life has been hailed as one of the greatest rock musician autobiographies ever published. I first read the book shortly after it came out and wholeheartedly agreed with the popular appraisal, but I ended up reading it pretty quickly and so there were huge chunks of it that, looking back, I didn't think I fully appreciated. Part of what made the book so great was Keith's down-to-earth nature and the sheer joy and love of life and music he's so well known to have, both of which leaped off the pages. As one of my favorite guitarists in one of my favorite bands, it seemed like the type of book I would read more than once, so when I decided to finally review it for this site, a thorough re-reading of it definitely seemed to be in order (not to mention long overdue).

In Life, Keith, with the help of his longtime friend and ghost writer James Fox, takes us through the story of exactly that: his entire life, from the very beginning all the way to the present. Starting with his birth and post-War upbringing as an only child in the London suburb of Dartford, it's clear that he had a hell of a lot of affection for his parents Bert and Doris. He also has fond memories of his numerous aunts as well as perhaps the most significant member of his family, both personally and musically: his grandfather Gus. It was Gus who ignited Keith's interest in music and nurtured it through by playing piano for the young boy and his eventual encouragement of Keith to take up guitar. In particular, the song "Malaguena" was a favorite of Gus' and would hold significance for Keith throughout his life after he learned how to play it...the song's significance literally runs through the book right to the very end. Taking us through the various adventures of his childhood, we see Mick Jagger briefly come into Keith's life as a classmate in primary school before they part ways. Jagger was from a more affluent family and had class climbing aspirations while Keith came from a more working-class background and was always down to earth. In fact, this is something Keith points out early on in the book and returns to several times throughout the book: Keith enjoyed the spoils of the Stones' success but remained, at heart, a normal guy without airs, while Mick aspired to climb the social ladder and became the rock and roll embodiment of the culture they initially rebelled against. Eventually Keith (now a student at art college) and Mick (a student at London School of Economics) encountered each other again in their teens while waiting for a train. Mick had an armful of records that caught Keith's eye and so began their mutual love affair with the blues, rock n' roll, and R&B music coming out of America in the 1950s and early 1960s. Finding out that Mick sang and played with a ragtag band called Little Boy Blue & the Blue Boys, Keith talked his way into the group and they began frequenting the numerous club nights on the nascent London blues and R&B scene. Eventually crossing paths with Ian Stewart and Brian Jones, they formed the nucleus of the band that became the Rollin' Stones. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, the latter of whom they had to court for a while before he accepted their offer, completed the classic line up. (It should be mentioned here that Keith persists in insisting that Kinks drummer Mick Avory was their drummer for their first ever gig, while Avory himself and all others involved insist he only played one rehearsal with them and never did a gig...the truth is most likely lost in the mists of time).

Keith does a wonderful job of describing the Stones' career from their humble, hardscrabble beginnings (including the pigsty flat he shared with Brian and later on, Mick, at Edith Grove) to meeting the Beatles and becoming part of the burgeoning London rock scene. The huge revelation was when Lennon and McCartney gave them a song, "I Wanna Be Your Man," which became the Stones' breakthrough single and inspired Mick and Keith (via manager Andrew Oldham) to begin writing their own songs. As Keith tells it, he's not so much the creator as he is the vessel for the music to come out of the ether. It's clear throughout the entire book that he absolutely loves music, all, jazz, classical, rock, blues, folk, it's all part of the magic of sound and something that is as essential to his life (and mine, too, honestly) as water, air, and food.  For him, the greatest joys in life are writing songs, recording music, and playing onstage. However, he's very open and honest about all aspects of his life as he tells his story through the tumultuous 1960s, detailing the problems the band had with Brian Jones which in particular are interesting to read again since I've just recently read a thoroughly researched account of this period from someone on Brian's side. He discusses how his long-term relationship with Brian's ex-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg began and how Brian ended up becoming so much dead weight that he was booted from the band, eventually dying in July 1969. The Mick Taylor years of 1969-1974, which produced the band's best run of albums, are mentioned as such by Keith although it's interesting to hear him describe how Taylor never fit in as a personality with the band. Despite all of this, his sudden departure from the band in 1974 on the eve of new recording sessions and an upcoming tour left the Stones in the lurch. Eventually they recruited Ronnie Wood in 1975 and embarked upon what is, for me, the least interesting and most unfulfilling era of their career, at least musically. However, Keith's life was no less interesting from 1975 onward...if anything, as he sank further down into heroin addiction and an increasingly chaotic relationship with Anita that now involved their two small children, it gets more fascinating. Making no bones of his heroin addition and how awful it was from his perspective, it's gratifying to read how Keith finally broke up with both Anita and "the junk," as he called it, in order to save himself. It's equally funny to read of how frustrated he gets at people who still think he's a wild-man junkie even though he's been clean and sober for over thirty years!

Bringing us up to the present day, including such high-profile incidents such as his falling off a tree limb in 2006 which required serious brain surgery to save his life, getting his "blood changed" in Switzerland, the "snorting" of his father's ashes (read the book for the true stories), and others, Keith never fails to make you smile and laugh out loud as you read passage after passage. It's nice to see that he's found love and contentment in his personal life, being married to his soul mate Patti Hansen since 1983 and adding two more daughters to his brood, but Keith never manages to sound content to drift into old age. Indeed, he states many times that music is what he does and who he is and that the only way he'll ever stop is "when I croak." He puts to bed many of the myths that have sprung up over the years about him while also revealing several new things that none but the most hardcore fans would ever have suspected, if even known. Years spent in a nomadic existence as a tax exile from the UK, living in Jamaica and forming a ragtag band (Wingless Angels) that he's recorded albums with, his various side- and tribute- projects, the various animals he's rescued and adopted, his love of bangers & mash and shepherd's pie (complete with recipes!)...nothing is off limits. Of everything, though, the most fascinating thread running throughout the entire book is his lifelong friendship with Mick. In fact, as Keith describes it, they're no longer friends; rather, they're brothers and despite their ups and downs, they'll always be there for each other. He laments the fact that he doesn't really know Mick anymore and hasn't since the mid-1970s and that they have two entirely different approaches to life, fame, and music. Clearly there's still something there as they continue to work with each other into their sixth decade together. (And for the record, the famous line about Mick's "tiny todger" that caused such an uproar when this book first came it in its proper context and it's little more than just the way all guys rib each other, although it's no less hilarious!). Yes, he takes several swipes at Mick, Bill Wyman, and Mick Taylor, but it's clear that he still has a lot of affection for them all (well, maybe not so much for Bill...).

I'm really glad I read Life again because it's only reaffirmed my opinion that Keith is one of the funniest, earthiest, coolest, and most talented musicians of our era who also happens to embody what being a "rock star" is all about. Reading this book is like sitting in the darkened corner of a pub with Keith and a couple of pints as he chain smokes cigarettes and tells you story after story. It may sound strange but after reading this book, you almost feel like you know Keef and that he's your pal. It's the mixture of honesty, candor, perspective, and humor that makes Life such an engaging read and one of the rare memoirs that's worth multiple revisits. It's certainly essential for any true Rolling Stones fan (although I'd have a hard time believing all Stones fans haven't already read this), any fan of 1960s rock, or really, any music fan in general. Just be prepared to have a hard time putting it down and to laugh out lout...a LOT.

MY RATING: 9.5/10

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Chemistry and the Dangers of Perception as Reality

(***DISCLAIMER: I've intentionally "dumbed down," for lack of a more politically correct term, this post so that I don't end up talking over the heads of my non-technical readers. It doesn't mean I think you're dumb, not at all! Rather, it means that I understand I can tend to get carried away when writing about science given my profession and I don't want to risk alienating those of my readers who won't know that the hell I'm going on about by using too much technical jargon.***)

Recently I've been seeing a lot of posts online discussing the perils of chemistry in our lives. Screaming headlines declaring that we're all being poisoned, unwittingly or otherwise, by toxic chemicals that are in everything from our food and water to our clothes, cosmetics, houses, and everything else. Whether it's been in the news or on social media, every day we're inundated with articles and posts going on about how toxic chemicals are, how unnatural they are, and how they're harming us and our children (invoking "the children" is always an effective way to grab someones attention no matter what issue you're trying to gin up support for). Now, I'm not trying to make light of the fact that some chemicals are indeed harmful and need to be used carefully and judiciously. What has gotten my hackles up lately is the fact that the discussion, if you can call it that, on chemistry has been incredibly one-sided. Obviously I've got more than a bit of bias being a chemist myself, but I want to state upfront that I don't feel passionately about the matter because I feel as though my livelihood is being threatened; rather it's the incredible amount of misinformation and taking advantage of the general public's ignorance when it comes to chemistry and science that really irritates me. The complaint from those in my field that the media continually misrepresents science and uses buzzwords and carefully crafted headlines to stoke fear and outrage in society is an old one, but not entirely without merit. However, the prevailing response always seems to be the declaration that we need to "have a discussion" and "educated the public" as to the numerous benefits of chemistry in our everyday lives. The problem is that these internal discussions within the chemistry community never result in any real action and so the problem persists...lather, rinse, repeat...

This post isn't supposed to be my attempt at rectifying that; I have neither the time, desire, or self-importance necessary for such an undertaking. Rather, I merely want to express my personal feelings on the matter. I've written several pieces about being a chemist, how much I enjoy it, and several of its challenges. Beyond the benefits I've experienced in my career, one of the biggest advantages I've found to being a chemist is in the way I now view the world around me. When discussing or thinking about anything in my life from a rusty nail to the GPS in our new car or anything in between or beyond, my experience and knowledge as a chemist has allowed me to understand what makes (most) everything around me work (or not work, in some cases) at a fundamental level. And if I don't know about something, the training I received while I was a PhD student has allowed me to either figure it out or find the answer so that I can understand it. My kids are always astounded that I am able to explain so many answers to them when they ask me about random things, and I tell them that's because of chemistry. I've written about chemistry's reputation as the central science before so I won't belabor the point, but it's true...everything can be traced back to it. However, the downside to all of this is that, as soon as people know I'm a chemist, they expect me to be able to answer any question they ask me in order to satisfy their own curiosity. Usually that's okay, but it gets frustrating when they don't understand that chemistry isn't a one-size-fits-all science. Just because I'm a chemist doesn't mean I can answer your question about why a certain medicine acts in a certain way with your body. I've specialized in organic materials chemistry, not medicinal chemistry! It's the same way a medicinal chemist won't be able to fully answer a question about why adding certain functional groups to a polycyclic aromatic compound can increase or decrease its electronic band gap the way I'm able. And no, not all of us are like Walter White in Breaking Bad, making illegal substances in our basements (that's another one I hear All. The. Time.). My point is, there's an awful lot of chemistry specifically and science in general that there is no all encompassing way to talk or think about it, which leads me to the crux of this post...

Misinformation and panic-induced hysteria about science in particular do no good to anyone and in many cases cause further harm, whether unintentionally or not. While it is true that many chemicals can be toxic, in many cases the lethal dosages are so far above what a person would ever realistically be exposed to over the entire course of their life that the danger is minimal to nonexistent. Likewise, there are chemicals that are toxic but in quantities that no normal person would ever ingest in the required time span such that they would suffer its effect. For instance, the chemical used for the artificial flavoring and aroma of microwave popcorn, butane-2,3-dione, is naturally occurring and has some negative health effects, but in order to be affected from it you either need to work in the factory where microwave popcorn is made over many years in order to be exposed to enough of it, or you'd need to ingest enough for it to harm you which would be some ridiculous quantity of it every day for many years. (See the case of Wayne Watson from 2012, who ate two bags of it a day, every day, for ten years to see what I mean). As a more high profile example, banning other chemicals, like DDT, has had disastrous consequences for malaria deaths in the developing world. My point here isn't to throw caution to the wind, damn the consequences to public health and environment, and use chemicals wherever and whenever we want. Rather, it's to make the point that when used responsibly and safely, many chemicals which are essential for improving our health, comfort, safety, and so on can be utilized in a safe and environmentally benign manner from which we all benefit.

Lastly, I get very tired hearing people decry "synthetic" chemicals vs. "naturally occurring" ones. As a clarification, just because something was synthesized in a laboratory doesn't mean it also isn't naturally occurring. Vanilla, aspirin, penicillin, and the aforementioned butane-2,3-dione, to name but four, are all naturally occurring chemicals that are now prepared in huge quantities synthetically in order for the quantities to be high (readily accessible) and the prices low (affordable). Many lifesaving medicines are entirely synthetic, and result from either modifications of naturally occurring molecules or being entirely synthetic analogues of natural medicines, imparting improved efficacy. Likewise, just because a chemical is "natural" doesn't mean it's safe: ricin, saxitoxin, and cyanides are all naturally occurring and are exceptionally toxic to humans. What I'd like to see in the future isn't the shutting down of the debate on chemistry, but rather a better educated media (with input and assistance from, gee I don't know, actual chemists?) without an agenda who can discuss the subject in a calm and rational manner so that there aren't scares that result in devastating unintended consequences like the malaria outbreaks that have killed millions since DDT was banned outright in 1972. Like everything in life, there needs to be a balance between information and responsible use. Certainly any entity, be it a company or individual, who needlessly harming the public or the environment with chemicals should be held accountable, but I wonder how many people would be willing to give up their life saving medicines or their modern conveniences? Because the fact is that most, if not all of those are synthetic, you know...

I'd love to hear thoughts from fellow scientists as well as non-scientists in the comments section below, so please chime in and let me know what you think. Am I off-base? Am I being too sensitive and/or paranoid? Or am I right to be concerned with this misinformation? Let's discuss!