Monday, September 4, 2017

Four Memories of Steely Dan/Walter Becker (1950-2017)

Genius musician Walter Becker, one of the two people who founded and made up the constant core of Steely Dan, died yesterday. I thought I'd share some memories of Walter and the Dan, since their music was impactful in my life.

1975
I am six years old. We've moved from Marblehead, MA to Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. I'm in second grade, and my favorite thing to do is to go through my parents' big vinyl record collection and listen to the music that sparks an emotional reaction within me. Sometimes it's Beethoven, sometimes the Beatles. But if I'm feeling really rambunctious, only one song does the trick: Steely Dan's "Reelin' in the Years" off Can't Buy a Thrill, an album that was always in heavy rotation in my home in the early/mid '70s. I don't know what it was about that song; perhaps it was the driving 6/8 shuffle, or the harmonized solo guitars. But every time the song comes on, I go into this insane combination of spastic dancing and a sort of early version of parkour, jumping over furniture, caroming off walls, and rolling around the entire living room. I get seriously fucking nuts each time the song came on, from the very first bent guitar note of the intro all through the fade. I'm six, and Steely Dan is my favorite band. And you wonder why I grew up weird. Case closed.

Also: there's a naked lady on the collage artwork of the album cover, and I sneak furtive glances at her when my mom isn't around.


1979
I'm a more mature guy now at age 10, about to start middle school, and I'm really into music. I've been playing piano since I was three, and took up violin and guitar early on. Now I'm ten, and my tastes in music have become more sophisticated as I begin to appreciate what goes into creating stuff beyond the 5-6 chords I can play well. Meanwhile, the Dan has released Aja, an album that my mom would put on and listen to start to finish, and why not? Track by track, it remains one of the best albums ever released, with many moods, many shades, many feelings between putting the needle down on "Black Cow" and taking the record off the turntable after "Josie" is over. It's a mystical journey through time and space. I listen to the album over and over, just trying to hear what these guys are doing. I've already got a terrific ear and can play many pop songs just by listening to them once, astounding my parents and teachers alike. But I can't play Steely Dan -- I can't even tell what those chords are, for God's sake -- and I find this both challenging and scary.

Unlike a lot of other bands, Steely Dan seems to shun the spotlight. The guys in the band seem to be reclusive, and when they do rare interviews, their answers are heavy in sarcasm, cynicism, and rarely answer the questions being asked. I find it intriguing, and I find them funny. I also find it weird that only two guys seem to make up this band, and they have super geeky names, and they look really geeky too. Definitely not like Peter Frampton. It takes awhile before I ingest the idea that Steely Dan is whoever Donald and Walter are working with at a particular time.


1985
It's summer, I'm 16, and I'm between my junior and senior years of high school. I'm a good musician for my age, already playing in little garage bands, and leaning toward difficult music that young musicians often find compelling, such as progressive rock and metal, and a little jazz here and there. I'm enrolled at Berklee College of Music for their summer semester, and I'm at least temporarily living in Boston, 3,000 miles away from my parents. During one of the first days, I meet with a counselor who asks what I'm interested in learning. I tell her that I want to expand the level of sophistication of my music for songwriting and performing, pushing beyond the simple standard barre chords of most pop and rock. I want to play more than boring pentatonic scales and blues motifs. I don't say it like that, though. I tell her I want to play chords like Steely Dan. She understands.

Around that time, and over the subsequent years, I dig deeper into the Dan's catalog, getting into the deeper cuts from Pretzel Logic, Katy Lied, The Royal Scam and the rest. I obsessively pore over the liner notes, seeing the names of the many studio musicians who add their skills to these magnificent recordings... names like Michael McDonald, Larry Carlton, Jeff Porcaro, Hal Blaine, Rick Marotta, Chuck Rainey, Bernard Purdie and many others. As I start getting into creating my own little multitrack recordings, I marvel at the quality of the records themselves, wondering how the sounds were captured with the degree of pristine clarity that is a hallmark of the band.

I attend Musicians Institute in 1988, and then enroll in college as a music major at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where I graduate in 1992. I get much deeper into the world of music history, theory, and composition. I start to better understand the music of Steely Dan, even though I still can't really play it or write any original stuff that's comparable. In 1993, I start working in the music/audio products industry, only to discover that at trade conventions, when manufacturers wanted to show off the quality of their high-end speakers, almost always do so by playing back Steely Dan. It all makes sense.


2013
I'm in my 40s, and have had a personal backlash to heavy musicianship. I tend to listen to music that is much more about the vibe than about perfection, and hence have put Steely Dan on a remote back burner while my interest lies in exploring new music by indie bands... kind of the opposite of the Dan. But in some ways, Steely Dan is the ultimate indie band. They never, at any point in their career, created music that was purely designed to fit in with other current popular music styles. Nevertheless, when my mom gives a birthday present to Christina and I and they are excellent seats to see Steely Dan perform Aja in its entirety at what was then the Nokia Theater (now the Microsoft Theater, probably soon to be the Uber Theater, or PornHub Theater or something) in downtown LA, we are excited. The show, held in August of that year, is spectacular. It might be the best-sounding, most well-performed live music I've ever experienced in person in my life.

At the show, the band has impeccably gone through the album being featured and is now playing a selection of other hits and misses. One of them is "Hey Nineteen", and in the midst of the tune, Walter Becker starts addressing the crowd, which is jarring since the Dan summarily ignores the audience on a general basis. Walter is giving a little speech. It's somewhere between a pep talk, a rant, and sage words of advice from someone who's been there and done that many times over. He's talking about psychedelic drugs, he's talking about where to go and what to do after the show ends, he's listing the names of communities around the LA area with which the Dan is, of course, intimately familiar.


I realize, while driving back to the South Bay after the show, that despite all the amazing music I'd experienced, the most memorable portion of the night was probably Walter's chat solo. Why? I don't know. But here in September 2017, the day after Walter passed away, I feel that that I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for something that probably transcends whatever words I might write next.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show (09.02.17)


For the first time since February 2016, I did one of my live-streamed video shows on Ustream that I call the Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show. I started doing the ZCHFS way back in early 2010, and for awhile, I was doing them pretty regularly, interspersed with other video-based live stream shows. But frankly, my time to be a musical fool has been limited in recent years, and it's as much as I can do to keep up with a regular schedule of shows in the virtual world of Second Life.

I currently only have scheduled shows for my bi-weekly Monday night events at Serenity Gardens, so on this Saturday in between my shows, it seemed like a good time to turn on the old camera and give the ZCHFS a refresh. I will say, I'm glad I did. We didn't have a huge crowd -- just a handful of folks, though I can never tell exactly who's watching unless they join the live chat -- but the people seemed to have fun, and it was a good showcase for the style of indie acoustic music on which I'm focusing these days. Interestingly, in the time frame between my last Ustream shows, apparently they are now called "IBM Cloud Video", but that doesn't sound very rock and roll to me.






Takamine Love
I should brag for a moment about the sound of my Takamine P5DC. For the record, Takamine is a client of mine for my RL marketing firm, but I'm speaking for the moment purely as an owner and player of this guitar. I have been nothing but incredibly impressed with this guitar since I got it about a year ago, and while I didn't think it would happen this way, I've barely touched my Martin D-18V since getting the Tak. This particular model, with its solid spruce top and solid rosewood back, is part of the Pro Series, so it's handmade in Japan. It's a seriously nice, professional-quality acoustic-electric. Especially for something like the ZCHFS, where I like to move around a bit, having high-end electronics in the guitar and not being confined to a mic made the show much more dynamic. And, perhaps most importantly, the guitar sounds like God.

ZCHFS 09.02.17 set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
All Lives, You Say? (Wilco)
Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Box By the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
Dusty Rhodes (Lotus Plaza)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
*Pedestrian at Best (Courtney Barnett)
It’s Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)

*Indicates my first performance of this song.

Thanks to all who tuned in to this ZCHFS episode. There will be more to come!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Serenity Gardens (08.28.17)

A happy crowd enjoys the Zak Show at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Immediately after each of my live music shows in Second Life, as soon as I thank my audience and depart the stage, the very first thing I do is copy/paste the log of local chat into a document that I save to check out later. A few of my Zakster fans are aware of this, but the rest of you might not be. Having that log comes in handy often. While I'm in the midst of performing, I do my best to focus on the music I'm creating, so I miss a good deal of the banter that goes on amongst my crowd, and that's fun to check out after the fact when I can relax and read at my leisure. Also, I can look back and see which songs caused good/bad/indifferent reactions among my various fans and friends.

There are other situations when the chat logs from my shows have come in handy. These logs go all the way back to 2006 when I first started performing live in SL, so a simple search on my computer can tell me every single show a person had attended. I can't remember why this came up, but a little while back, I let Eli Schlegal know that the first time he attended one of my shows was January 29, 2008. On a more sad note, when I hear that someone I've met in SL has passed away, I often check my chat logs to see if/when they'd seen me perform. It's a little record of their existence and some note that indeed, we'd had the opportunity to interact. I find it comforting in that aspect. Or then, there's the case of a super Zakster fan (and good friend) like Auerlie Chenaux, who's been to 156 Zak Shows over the years. It's fun to be able to pull stats like that, or at least it is for me. In case you're wondering, I just noted that the first time Aurelie saw me perform was June 9, 2008. See? These facts are fun, but are only possible if I have the data available.

Wake of the Flood
As long as we're talking about data, let's talk about the weather. Last weekend, Hurricane Harvey barreled into coastal Texas, rapidly gaining strength just before landfall. The results of the devastation are still being measured, and the storm system is still delivering more rain to the area. It's so bad that the National Weather Service had to adopt entirely new scales to show the vast amount of rainfall in the area. We humans have been measuring patterns in weather for many years, since it has such a drastic effect on our lives. With amazing scientific research, we can even determine things like rainfall and temperature going back millennia. Analyzing this data shows that indeed, the weather of planet Earth has had massive variations over the course of time, but the effect of humans over the last 200 or so years in which we've been an industrialized society has changed the natural variations in weather patterns. Something like 95% of scientists are in agreement that the rapid changes in global climate are directly correlated to the actions of man pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The level of rainfall brought by Hurricane Harvey exceeded all previous scales.

This kind of devastation is unprecedented, and perhaps could be avoided with better treatment of our planet... the only home we have. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Whether or not you believe in manmade climate change isn't important. What is important are the results. It's entirely possible that tragic weather events like Hurricane Katrina and now Hurricane Harvey, and their resulting devastation, could be the direct result of man's treatment of the planet. This really shouldn't be a controversial topic. If the worst thing that happens as a result of collecting, analyzing, and reacting to weather data is that we have a nicer planet that's more free of pollution, that's fine with me. As time goes on and technologies are birthed that allow us to a) have cleaner energy sources to stop the damage we're doing, and b) better predict and control the weather (and prevent disasters like Harvey), we'll all be better off as a result. The only way this is even a remote possibility is by supporting the work of scientists who devote their lives to try and figure out this world in which we live.

So How About That Show?
Before I started my series of bi-weekly Monday night shows there, I genuinely did not have any idea that Serenity Gardens was going to be as good as it has been for me. I've consistently had excellent crowds there, and for whatever reason, I seem to do really good performances when I play there. Some of it is likely due to the feeling that I am appreciated and well supported by the owner, Ilsa Flanagan, and her great staff. Regardless of the reasons, I have yet to do a single show there of which I didn't feel proud afterwards. As has been my pattern in recent times, I made it a point to do some songs I'd never before performed, and reached a little deeper into my repertoire to do some tunes I hadn't touched in a long time. I also wanted to acknowledge my Texan friends, some of whom were in the crowd despite dealing with flood waters, by doing a song by the great Texan songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

If people can feel like they get away from the challenges of life for a little while at my shows, I'm doing it right. Photo by Kat.

I know I've said it a lot, but Serenity Gardens really is a beautiful virtual environment for live music. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
*You Oughta Know (Alanis Morissette)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Black Peter (Grateful Dead)
Drive (Incubus)
Love Hurts (Everly Brothers)
*Dusty Rhodes (Lotus Plaza)
Games Without Frontiers (Peter Gabriel)
Lost Cause (Beck)

*Indicated the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Huge thanks to all who came out to the show, with special kudos to the following who helped support it.
Luis Lockjaw, Raspbury Rearwin, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Triana Caldera, Asimia Heron, go2smoky Resident, ErikKottzen Resident, Christine Haiku, PHINEAS Fride, Kat Claxton, Tyche Szondi, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and the great management team of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Islands of New England (08.21.17)

On a day that the moon ate the sun, I was happy to spend my evening rocking The Islands of New England in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

I've been feeling really good about my song choices for my live music shows in Second Life recently. I've found that the more thought I put into set lists and the more adventurous I'm willing to be with adding new songs and pushing myself a little harder, the more I personally enjoy each show, and the more compliments I get from people who are cool enough to attend them. I guess the idea to take away from this is that "phoning it in" is never the better solution.

I certainly don't, however, feel an obligation to put together a specific musical theme for each and every show. That kind of thing starts to get contrived after a short while, and I don't want my shows to become some kind of "guess the theme" trivia game. It's also a limiting factor in terms of what I might feel like playing for any given show. However, as I sat there last week pondering what I might play on Monday August 21 at The Islands of New England, it dawned on me that a certain large celestial event was happening that same day, and it became all too clear that a theme about the sun, the moon, and eclipses would be too good an opportunity to pass up. The majority of my songs contained references to those topics, and people seemed to dig it. I definitely did.

I don't think I've ever had a bad show at New England. It's all about the people who run it and the crowds who attend shows there. Photo by Kat.

When Politics and Music Collide
Let me chat a moment about something that isn't ordinarily an aspect of my performance: politics.

There are many reasons why I consciously avoid political content in my shows. It's very simple. First, people get inundated with it from all directions, and perhaps they'd like a break from it when they come see me play. Second, I really don't want to make people feel uncomfortable... they've taken time from their day to come see/hear me, and frankly I try my hardest to not allow differences in political opinion be a dividing point between people who otherwise seem good and decent. Despite my liberal/progressive stance, you'll see a good number of conservative folks on my list of friends, and I want it that way. I don't want to surround myself exclusively with people who think like me; that's the definition of "living in a bubble", and it does no one good.

In any case, that's why the grand majority of the songs I do, both originals and covers, are completely devoid of political outlook (with a few exceptions), and why I don't spend any time talking about political events between songs. However, the one topic I never shy away from tackling is racism. I have no patience or understanding toward racists and bigots, and frankly, if I have a member of my audience who is insulted by songs that speak out against racism, they should seriously consider finding another artist to enjoy.

You won't get slammed with political talk or tunes at my shows, but when I have the opportunity to use my stage to help in the fight against racism, I will always make my opinion clear no matter who is listening. Photo by Kat.

On Monday August 14, Wilco unexpectedly released a new song called "All Lives, You Say?" which you can hear and purchase below. The band's frontman and creative leader Jeff Tweedy is a musician who I've always admired on multiple levels. His dad, Robert L. Tweedy, passed away earlier this month, and the song is dedicated to his memory. Jeff said in the song's description, "My dad was named after a Civil War general, and he voted for Barack Obama twice. He used to say 'If you know better, you can do better.' America - we know better. We can do better." I have to assume that the song was a direct response to the violent clashes in Charlottesville, VA over the previous weekend, where the reprehensible actions of alt-right white nationalists resulted in the death of Heather Heyer, and marked a possible turning point in how this country views and deals with racists. The short and simple but vibey song is a slapback to the "all lives matter" response toward the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

As of this morning, in a week since it was released, it raised $26,879 for the Southern Poverty Law Center. It did so well that continuing purchases of the song are now going to another worthy cause, Life After Hate. For me, as a live musician who loves Wilco and is always on the lookout for new music to perform, it was a no-brainer to cover it at the next available opportunity, which was last night at New England. It's available via my favorite music platform Bandcamp, and costs a buck (though you're welcome to pay more if you want). Check it out.


The Islands of New England set list...
Hand In My Pocket (Alanis Morissette)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
You’re So Vain (Carly Simon)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
*Waiting for the Sun (The Doors)
Here Comes the Sun (Beatles)
Box by the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
Birds (Neil Young)
*All Lives, You Say? (Wilco)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Brain Damage/Eclipse (Pink Floyd)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

As always, huge thanks to each and every person who came to see me perform at The Islands of New England. Your presence is what counts. Extra special thanks to those who helped support my show.
Christopher135 Quan, Lorelai Bonetto, Aurelie Chenaux, RoxxyyRoller Resident, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, Tyche Szondi, Triana Caldera, Brookelyn Breen, Sommer Shepherd, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and New England's fantastic team of Christine Haiku and RansomTalmidge Resident.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Some Reality For You

A great shot of the total eclipse, taken at the Lowell Observatory Solar Eclipse Experience on August 21, 2017 in Madras, Oregon. Photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Today, we got to enjoy a little dose of reality, courtesy of a solar eclipse that spanned the breadth of the United States. Most of the things in your and my life are, like it or not, temporary. Even ourselves. We get a little while to be alive, and then at some point, we're not here anymore. Where do you go after you die? Well, where were you before you were born? I don't have all the answers, but I do know that most of the things in our lives that cause of considerable stress are actually very small blips on the radar, barely registering in the grand scheme of larger things. I'm not saying those things -- presidents, music, love, food, sex, cats, kids, cheese, and so on -- aren't important. I am saying that if you zoom the camera of existence out aways, the relative amount of importance you give them is perhaps smaller than if you view them from a different perspective.

We're On a Rock In a Bubble In Space
That's where we all live. Everyone who ever was, as far as we know for sure, has only lived on this rock. Very few people have left the rock, and even then, only for a short while. Despite all the great episodes of Star Trek and so on, we have zero proof that there is any life in the entire seemingly infinite universe other than the people and birds and trees and platypuses and mushrooms and so on that share space on this rock. We'd like to think we're not alone in the universe, but until we have direct evidence otherwise, that's how it is.

This rock in space, with its thin layer of atmosphere, is the only place where we know life exists. Seems like a nice place. Photo: NASA

Space Is Too Big For You To Understand
Let's say you have a fast car. It's a Bugatti Veyron. It's crazy fast; you can drive it 250 miles per hour. That seems insane. So, you get in your Bugatti, and you head to the moon (ignoring things like gravity, escape velocity, and other things that make my silly discussion impossible). Going full speed the whole way, it's going to take you 42 days to get to the moon. That's a long road trip. But let's look at some longer distances.

• To get to the sun, it will take 16,000 days (about 44 years)
• To get to Jupiter, it will take 167 years.
• To get to the nearest star other than our own - Alpha Centauri - it takes light itself 4.2 years. In your Space Bugatti going full speed, it's going to take almost 11,000,000 years.

11 million years, to get to a small and seemingly insignificant star. How long is that in terms that relate to you?

We live on a planet, the third one from the star in our solar system. That system has a bunch of neighbors in a galaxy called the Milky Way. That galaxy is part of a group of galaxies, and the group is part of a supercluster of galaxies, and that makes up one small chunk of the universe, which (by the way) is so big that some parts of it will be forever unknown to us because light and other information will simply never have the time to reach us. Feel small yet?

There's Lots of Time... Just Not for You
Humans now live longer than they ever have before. Worldwide, humans live for about 79 years now. That's amazing! Just a few hundred years ago, it was rare for someone to reach their 50th birthday. Good for us and our long lives!

But let's get back to that 11,000,000-year trip to the nearest star in our space car. 11 million years ago, do you know what we were doing? Not much; we didn't exist. Humans have only been in our current anatomical form as Homo sapiens for the last 200-250,000 years or so; less than a quarter of one million years. Hominids -- the family of great apes of which we are members -- only came into existence some 15 million years ago. It was only less than six million years ago that we split away from the group who are now chimpanzees, our closest living non-human relatives here on Earth.

But those are still tiny chunks of time in a grand scheme of things. The universe itself seems to be about 13.82 billion years old. Earth and our surrounding solar system have been around for 4.6 billion years. And yet, by current projections, the whole kit and caboodle has only just begun. The future of an expanding universe says that stars will stop forming 100 trillion years from now, and things go on from there for quite awhile. Wikipedia has a nice graphical timeline of the universe, if you're interested.

What it will tell you is that your life -- and in fact, the existence of our entire species, start to finish -- is barely discernible at such scales. You, and your existence, has almost zero level of relevance to the universe.

Why Bother Doing Anything, Then?
Everything is a matter of scale, from the tiniest particles of atoms that everything is made from, to the vast amount of space and time that make up the universe in which we live. The life you have is what it is, and it's all we have. That means that while you might not matter much to the universe, you matter a whole lot to you! You also matter to the people and things around you, who share this little chunk of time together.

In my opinion, you (and me and a cat and a tree) all have value of some kind. Make the most of the time you have, and make life better for those around you. You very well might only have this brief slide of time that we call life, so make it count.

How do you spend your brief time on this little space rock? Learning and teaching. Laughing and crying. Making life better for people and animals and plants around you, and continuing to grow as an individual and as a species. One way or the other, there's little reason not to enjoy yourself, so make sure you do.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Serenity Gardens (08.14.17)

A happy crowd at Serenity Gardens gets to hear me do some new tunes. Photo by Kat.

I've always been one of the very fortunate musicians who has what they call "good ears". Since I first picked up a guitar as a small child in 1976, I've had the gift of being able to quickly hear the melodies, chord progressions, and rhythms that make up songs, and then being able to reproduce them on my own. I find it likely that otherwise, I'd not have had the patience to climb to the level of musical proficiency I enjoy today... it would have taken way more work than I'd have likely been willing to put in.

When I was in my teens and playing in local bands, my friends and bandmates would be rather astounded by this ability. "When did you learn that song?" they'd ask after I played something new, and I'd have to honestly answer, "Just now." I have to assume this is some kind of innate ability; perhaps it can be taught, but no one taught that part of my musical training to me. Rather, I seem to have been born with it. It's a pretty strange genetic trait, if that's what it is. Most traits are passed on due to their being evolutionarily advantageous (i.e., having them helps you survive and reproduce). If you can run fast, you don't get eaten by the tiger. If you're taller, maybe you can jump into the tree to avoid being eaten by the tiger. And maybe, if you have particularly sensitive hearing, you can differentiate between the sound of your pal coming back to the cave versus the sound of the tiger coming to eat you. Maybe it's more simple than that; perhaps a distant relative of mine got the girl because he was the caveman who was the best at banging rocks together so she could dance. Stranger things have happened.

Why can I hear and replicate music so easily? No one knows, least of all me. Photo by Kat.

The reason I'm musing over this is that as I've mentioned a few times, I've recently been on a drive to add more songs to my repertoire that I hadn't performed previously. I have no idea if this is a difficult process for most musicians, but it really isn't that hard for me. In the case of most simple music - pop, rock, and folk - it doesn't require me more than a listen or two to be able to perform the song. Granted, there are nuances to each one that takes a little more time to internalize, if I expect to perform them well. In any case, due to whatever set of abilities I'm lucky enough to have, it was pretty easy to add four new songs to my repertoire that I performed at Serenity Gardens last night in Second Life. New material is something I feel a) keeps me interested and excited as a performer and b) gives my audience something unexpected and hopefully enjoyable, so it's almost always win-win.

Hitting the Limits (And the High Notes)
Are there limiting factors in terms of the music I choose to play as a solo acoustic artist? Oh, hell yes. Topping the list is the vocal range of the original performer. Look, the progressive rock band Yes is terrific, but I have as much chance of singing like Jon Anderson as I do of flapping my wings and flying. Second is the arrangement of the song. Many tunes just don't work as a solo performance on a single instrument. Sure, the performer can do totally new arrangements that are better accommodated by one person strumming a guitar, but frankly, there are too many songs out there that do work well. Finally, the genre can be a limiting factor as well. Who wants to hear EDM music done on solo acoustic guitar? No one, really, which is why I focus on styles of music that are more readily translatable to the sound of one person on one instrument.

Good Music or Good Times?
A lot of artists and bands you see perform seem very serious onstage. I have nothing against that. I understand that musicians can be artists who expect that people take their work seriously, and exhibit the gravitas they find necessary to impart that attitude. I'm obviously not like that. At the same time, I'm not some comedian or clown (nothing against those fine entertainers). When I play a song, I'm not doing it for the laughs. I think most people who come to see me play understand that I'm a guy who likes to have fun, but that the songs themselves are performed with the respect and sincerity that they deserve. It's asking a lot of people to accept this hybrid approach, and I appreciate the fact that people can come to my show and experience what are hopefully solid performances of songs they enjoy while also getting some giggles here and there.

Frankly, I actually don't care if people are smiling at my music or my antics, as long as they're smiling. Photo by Kat.

The New Stuff
As I said during my show, I love new music, and go out of my way to make sure I'm aware of the new stuff that comes out each week. When I do a "new" song in SL, I'm referring to a song I haven't performed previously. Sometimes they are indeed new songs; earlier this year, I started playing "It's Easy (Like Walking)" by the Sadies with Kurt Vile literally the same week it was released. One of my new songs this week was "Abrasion" by my band They Stole My Crayon. That shit is so new, it was only written in the last few weeks, and likely won't be released until 2018. But the other "new" tunes were respectively from 1968, 1979, and 1994. If I'm playing them for the first time, and my audience is hearing me do them for the first time, that's new enough for me.

The sun goes down at Serenity Gardens as I rock the Second Life peoples. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Friday I’m In Love (The Cure)
*Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Old Man (Neil Young)
Low Key (Tweedy)
*Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
California (Joni Mitchell)
*Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
*Goodbye Stranger (Supertramp)
*Hey Serenity (Zak Claxton improvisation)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Massive thanks to all who came out to the show, with special thanks to those who helped support it!
JAMBA Losangeles, ErikKottzen Resident, Poneh Resident, shaggycritter Resident, Kathrise Resident, Gandalf Mornington, go2smoky Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, JazzCat Skytower, paula31atnight Resident, Alex Zelin, RansomTalmidge Resident, Ludhir Resident, Asimia Heron, Aurelie Chenaux, Kat Claxton, not4gods Resident, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, my lovely manager Maali beck, and the great staff and owner of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Top Ten Deep Cuts and B-Sides from The Police


I am one of the lucky people on planet Earth who a) was alive for the absolute heyday of the legendary English pop band The Police, and b) got to see them play live... twice, eventually. Starting in my middle school years and extending into the first couple years of high school, there was no band in the world more important to me than the one comprised of Sting, Andy, and Stewart. Not Led Zeppelin. Not the Who. For me, between 1980 and 1983, not even the Beatles held a brighter musical spotlight in my mind than the Police did.

We all know the story of the band... an unlikely pairing of three musicians, a meteoric rise to global stardom, hitting their absolute peak in popularity with their final album, and immediately imploding in a cataclysm of ego and personal problems and artistic differences. But between 1978 and 1983, they put out five albums that caused a sea change in music: Outlandos d'Amour, Regatta De Blanc, Zenyatta Mondatta, Ghost in the Machine, and Synchronicity. Those albums are packed with excellent songs, each contained pretty huge pop hits. Interestingly, my personal favorites (which is what this post is about, nothing more) were more often the deeper cuts. It was even cooler when I'd find myself listening to the stuff that didn't even get included on the album, but were left as b-sides to the pop singles.

Here, then, in chronological order and with no factor of criteria other than "I like them!", are ten great Police songs you might not have given enough attention, or even known about. Note that the only music on this list is featuring the Police as a band unit; there's no consideration to the often excellent solo work of Sting, Stewart Copeland, or Andy Summers.

"Masoko Tanga" (1978) from Outlandos d'Amour
This is so obviously a "Shit, we're out of material and have more studio time and need to fill up the album!" jam. And I'm damn glad they left it on the album, because the Police were still finding their sound on Outlandos, and "Masoko Tanga" was one of the songs that established the tribal/island/reggae influence that would continue as a hallmark for the band over time. Plus, Sting's bass. Sweet funky Jesus.

"It's Alright for You" (1979) from Regatta de Blanc
Very early on, the Police formed under the premise of being an actual punk rock band. If you listen to their earliest demos, including songs featuring their first guitarist Henri Padovani, it was all speed, all attitude, no polish. Some of that vibe continued through the first two albums. I find "It's Alright for You" to be an interesting song in that there's a specific transition in its vibe right at 2:28 from snarly rock to this great outro with glistening treble-packed Andy Summers staccato arpeggios. Gorgeous.

"Bombs Away" from (1980) from Zenyatta Mondatta
Sting, as we all know, was the primary songwriter for the Police, and no one can deny his genius (least likely himself). That having been said, a whole lot of my favorite Police tunes were among the relative few contributed by Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. "Bombs Away" (written by Stew) not only has a great feel and a cynical lyric set, but includes one of Andy's most amazingly innovative and cool guitar solos in their entire catalog.

"The Other Way of Stopping" (1980) from Zenyatta Mondatta
This is the final track on Zenyatta Mondatta, and perhaps my favorite Police song that no one else gives a shit about. Sure, it's a Copeland-penned instrumental. Sure, Andy does this amazing multitracked solo through the long outro. But my personal reason for wanting the song on this list is my memory from the early '80s, playing Adventure on my Atari 2600, and blasting this tune in the background (on vinyl, which probably sounded amazing on my parents' stereo).

"Omegaman" (1981) from Ghost in the Machine
Ghost in the Machine was the album that turned me into a huge Police freak in 8th grade. It's weird; you had these super dark and interesting songs, sandwiching some completely trite Sting-penned disco shite. But in addition to the well-known first few songs on Ghost, there were some fascinating, texture-filled songs toward the end. One is "Omegaman", written by Andy Summers but, in my opinion, as strong and ear-catching as anything Sting was doing at the time. I've read that A&M had initially chosen it as the lead single of the album (which Sting didn't appreciate, apparently). All that aside, it's a great guitar line, it has an unsettling vibe, and I just like it. Plus, the very next track on the album is...

"Secret Journey" (1981) from Ghost in the Machine
It's a Sting track, and my favorite Sting songs are the dark ones. But as a musician and an aficionado of interesting sounds, I loved Andy's guitar synth in the intro and bridge, and just the overall feel of this mystical-sounding song.

"Shambelle" (1981) - B-Side to "Invisible Sun" (UK) and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (US) Singles
So, you're Andy Summers, and you've written a song which isn't super structured. It's more of a couple of riffs thrown together, but they sound cool. Do you have any lyrics? Would your bandmate Sting sing them on the album if you did? These questions will never be answered, because "Shambelle" (which I think has a super neat feel musically) was delegated to the B-side of some of the other tracks from Ghost in the Machine. Andy's musical studies have often found artistic merit in hypnotic repetitiveness, and this tune has that cold Ghost vibe that would have been a way, way better choice than, say, "Rehumanize Yourself" or a couple others that ended up on the album.

"I Burn for You" (1982) - Brimstone & Treacle Soundtrack
So, Sting's gonna be a movie star, which probably surprised exactly no one. But at least he pulled his own band in to contribute some songs for the soundtrack of the film. I find "I Burn for You" to be interesting in that it's a musical bridge between Ghost and Synchronicity. I always thought this was a great track, and owned the single as a kid when it was brand new.

"Miss Gradenko" (1983) from Synchronicity
By the time the Police did their final album, they had all grown tremendously as musicians, and the material they were putting out had a higher level of sophistication (and relied less on attitude). Synchronicity was a super-polished album by a band that was on the verge of collapse, and it's tough to say whether the tension among the bandmates helped or hurt the result. I immediately enjoyed Stewart's song "Miss Grandenko". It didn't really sound much like most of the band's output, with Andy showing off some flamenco fingering chops, and Stewart's acerbic lyrics painting a strangely hopeful tale of a Russian spy.

"Once Upon a Daydream" (1983) - B-Side to "Synchronicity II" Single
Sting can be one of more deceptively dark songwriters. People will include his tunes in their weddings that, if they really knew the meanings, would be horrified at the thought. But that's not a problem with "Once Upon a Daydream", a song that openly invokes multiple murders and imprisonment and ruined lives. I like it.