Tag Archives: music

“Shedding Light on the Darkness of Greed”

31 May

Rage Against the Machine is a punk / rap band that was woke before woke was cool. Their songs got a lot of play thirty years ago when I listened to music radio, so I heard and enjoyed them. They’re really good; I enjoy them, even if I don’t agree with their philosophy. But I was just thinking about this particular song and thought… man, these lyrics are so stupid.

My first thought is, “of course it’s stupid! They’re song lyrics.” They’re not supposed to be well-crafted academic texts; they’re supposed to convey an emotion. It may be a call to action (which this is), but to quote another song, “Please don’t put your life in the hands / of a rock-and-roll band / and throw it all away.”

The song is “Darkness of Greed” and what I was particularly bad phrasing was:

Ya cram ya culture down my throat
Say I’m inferior when I find it, I choke
You fill my mind with a false sense of history
And then you wonder why I have no identity?
Well, I’ll strike a match and it’ll catch and
Spread the insight we need
A tiny fire, burning bright
Shedding light on the darkness of greed

Rage Against the Machine, Darkness of Greed, 1991

Let’s break this down. “Darkness of greed;” the fact that you call it “greed” is bad. Otherwise you’d call it “prosperity” or “wealth.” But we gotta shed light on how bad it is, man… we’re fightin’ the system, bro! Okay – let’s keep on this lyric. “Then you wonder why I have no identity?” No, I never wondered. Many generations have worked very hard to break your original culture to become Americans. It’s only when people won’t let you forget it (see Irish) that you develop a whole system to empower your identity… because you have no place in the new identity.

But wait, it gets better… “My people’s culture was strong, it was pure
And if not for that white greed, it would’ve endured.” Shall I point out the obvious? That (like most woke) you’re four white boys from suburbia? Maybe you believe that story, and here’s not the post to argue about what pre-European contact cultures were like, but can we all agree that you can’t call yourself another culture without some justification?

Again, I’m thinking way too much about this, because this is a protest song. The band is Rage Against the Machine… it’s kinda on the label. You know what you’re getting when you listen to it. But there’s been an awful lot of rage and not a lot of what comes next. “If we just get rid of those nasty (insert whites, men, rich people) in power, then we’d have a utopia.” Except we wouldn’t, because (to use the language of the left) we’ve all learned oppressor behavior. Once the righteous come into power, and the king is dead, the new power start acting like a-holes.

And that’s why I mistrust activists; because even if they told you how they get to paradise, you’d quickly realize that that’s not what you believe. It’s far easier to say, “It’s these people’s fault. If only we got rid of (insert whatever), we wouldn’t have this problem.” Sorry… we campaign in poetry but govern in prose, because the details of “how we get there” don’t match the vision. When we stick to the poetry, we can’t govern.

“I Gotta Have My Tunes!”

31 May

Attending a fancy birthday party recently, I was amused that everyone was inside… away from the DJ blasting in the backyard. If you wanted the music, then why are you avoiding it?

For me, someone with ADHD, I’ve come to accept the world is too loud for me, but most people don’t notice. At my favorite bar, I remember one of the regulars noticed the jukebox had stopped, and she called out, “I gotta have my tunes!” She proceeded to throw money in the machine, but then continued her conversation. I was thinking–how did she not notice that it was harder to talk with the music on?!

My main theory is that “it’s not a party without music;” that they’ve been conditioned to equaling having fun with playing music. However, it could be something simpler; it could just be “I need something in the background.” Then maybe most people’s volume levels are set higher than mine.

The common excuse did restaurants having their music too loud is “nothing attracts the crowd like the crowd.” People are loud, so if the music’s loud, more people will come. But people might be less inclined to come back.

I could be completely off base here… What do you think? Is there another reason people need their tunes? Let me know in the comments below!

Harpo’s Harp(s)

15 May

File this under “things you never think about”: what ever happened to Harpo Marx’s harp? His nickname came from the harp he played, (actual name Adolph, changed to Alfred) apparently during a card game. But what happened to the harp?

I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not very conversant in the Marx Brothers–wrong generation, I’ll have to say– so it’s something that never occurred to me. You’d think that a major comedy figure’s instrument would be in some museum somewhere. But no, it gets weirder. According to Wikipedia, he willed his harps to the State of Israel, where they are still used in an orchestra.

But that wasn’t good enough an answer for me. Which orchestra? Is it still there? Thankfully, someone put a link to justify this claim, so I followed that to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews website (which my grandparents-in-law were members of, being both… well, Christian and Jewish). They have a link to another blog post that says that the instrument is still at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

So… mystery solved, right? No. The story gets more interesting. You look through the pictures and the saga of finding the harp at JAMD, and then you get to the comments. Since the harp is not a… popular instrument, those that play it are passionate about their harps. So let a harpist from Yosemite, California tell the next part of the tale:

“Harpo’s TWO harps were donated to the state of Israel, and not by Harpo, who didn’t “will” his harps to anyone. His widow Susan was VERY explicit in this and told me first-hand; in her own words, “no, he didn’t will anything to anything.” In a nutshell, after Harpo’s death, Susan was invited to judge the first International Harp Festival in Israel. She – as she told me: knew nothing about harpistry and asked if their son Bill (who’s a pretty brilliant musician and had worked extensively with his dad) could come along and judge in her place. And then SHE decided to donate those TWO harps of Harpo’s to the state of Israel, with the proviso that they NOT be kept in glass cases, but that they be used by students; she told me she wanted one in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. But when they were being unloaded from the plane in Israel, Susan was presented with a bill for 100% duty – which she told me, was a total of $12,000 (and this was in 1965.) She was furious and said, “Forget it! I’ll send them home!” And she then told me it took (so she claimed) intervention from the highest levels of government to arrange for those two harps to be “allowed” in as nothing had ever been admitted to Israel duty-free. But that’s the story, straight from Harpo’s wife, as told to me. Two harps, not one!”

So where’s the second harp? The comments continue to be revealing. Apparently it was donated to the Tel Aviv Music Academy, which today is the Buchman Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University. Cool. Mystery solved. But then if you’re a Marx Brothers fan, you know there was a third harp that was used in an episode of I Love Lucy. Apparently this harp has a lot of provenance, It was owned by Harpo and he used it playing with Milton Berle, on a Pepsi commercial, and played with Louis Armstrong. He sold it in 1962, three years before he died.

So instead of a simple answer, I found a whole epic tale about different harps and a chain of events throughout history. It’s amazing what you find down the rabbit hole. Have you ever run into this before? Let me know in the comments below! While you’re there, go ahead and pick up one of my books! However, if you’re not ready to commit to my epic tales, go ahead and download one of my stories. You’ll be glad you did.

“There’s a piece of Maria in every song that I sing.”

28 Feb

“Never ask an artist about their art.” Mostly because they’ll give you a long rambling answer that doesn’t tell you anything or the answer is disappointing. So when I woke up with a Counting Crows song in my head, I had to find out who Maria is.

Unless you grew up around the same time I did, you’re probably not a fan of Counting Crows. I find that I tend to gravitate towards lead singers whose vocal range is similar to mine and Adam Duritz fits that bill. He’s the white guy who wore dreds for twenty years and was labeled by MST3K as the most repulsive thing in the universe. Anyway, in at least four songs I can name, Adam sings about a girl named Maria, including their most popular, Mr. Jones.

The great thing about the internet is that you can find answers to just about anything really fast. Whether they’re the correct answers is up to you. When Counting Crows hit the scene in 1992, the Internet wasn’t that robust, so you were left with wondering on your own? Who was Maria? From the lyrics, I guessed that she was an old girlfriend that he treated rather bad, felt bad about doing it, and then never quite got over that fact. That was my guess because… well, that was my experience, right?

Well, someone interviewed Adam and asked that very question. Turns out the answer was disappointing. Maria is… Adam. It’s just the feminine form of himself that gives personality to his experiences. Well, that’s either a) deep or b) too up his own butt. But hey, it’s his songs–let him write about whatever he wants!

This is probably why Pearl Jam never explained the story behind their hit song, “Jeremy,” because as cool as the song and the video is, the real answer would be disappointing. Certainly I can remember looking up Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Hold Him Down,” which has a lot of violent imagery, and learning that it was really about beating up his brother as a kid. Gee. That’s exciting. (blink) Okay, what’s next?

So when I write about the Terran Associated States, and you think to yourself, “Wow, that’s a cool term–where’d you come up with that?” I should probably keep my mouth shut. But because I’m a fawning attention whore, I’ll more likely blurt out, “It came out of a game I played at a church picnic.” Plus, all the normal names for governments have been taken in other sci-fi universes: Federation, Confederation, Republic, League, Union, Alliance. You have to find more obscure references in history: Madras Presidency, Anglo-Irish Ascendency, Brotherhood, et al.

Have you run into this trouble before? Or does finding out the truth behind the art make it more significant to you? Let me know in the comments below!

Yiddishkeit for Assimilated Jews

9 Feb

Finally got my musical-loving son to watch “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971 movie) and he absolutely loved it. However, by the time it came out, it was idealizing a world that was already foreign and lost for Jews.

The movie takes place in Russia sometime around the turn of the century (pre-1905 Revolution) in the imaginary village (shtetl) of Anatevka. Even though my family could immediately recognize the ceremonies of Shabbat candle-lighting, Jewish weddings, and prayer services, the tension of the plot–the world changing from their traditions to modern practices–was completely alien. Since it was a hundred years ago, it makes sense. After all:

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

Of course, when Sholom Aleichem, the pseudonym for probably the most famous Yiddish writer of all time, wrote the Tevye stories (which the musical is based on), he was already addressing a readership for whom those Russian villages was already a memory. He lived in New York City, he wrote to Jewish immigrants to America, and in 1894 when his book came out, he was telling them about a world they (or their immediate relatives) had just left. There was a great nostalgia for a home they could never return to.

The musical came out 70 years later (1964) and ran on Broadway for almost 20 years. By that point, most of the people who read Sholom Aleichem were dead, their kids wanted to forget their Yiddishkeit (Yiddish culture) and assimilate as Americans, but their grandchildren wanted to remember. Why? Because in 1967, there was a little dust-up called the Six Day War. Israel defeated four Arab countries intent on destroying them. American Jews suddenly felt proud of being Jewish. They wanted to express their heritage. And BOOM–here it was! A story about how their grandparents lived–what nachas! (joy)

Mind you, even fifty years later, when those grandchildren now have grandchildren, it still translates to the modern day. Imagine how much American culture has changed since 1971 when this movie came out. Nostalgia for the past, changing traditions–all of these are concepts that modern Jews can latch onto. And… it’s good to have a reminder that our ancestors were persecuted, that three of my wife’s great-uncles were sent to Siberia, and how Kiev and Odessa were not far enough to escape that life. It’s only in America where we were free to forget.

Is there a film that does that for you? A view back on a world that your family lived through but is now gone? Share it with me in the comments below!

Dance Party USA, whether you want it or not.

24 Jan

Does this sound familiar? You enter a restaurant / café / business and you are barraged by a wall of sound–hard pumping music while you’re trying to get a coffee. You can barely hear the server, they can barely hear you. Why is this a good idea?

There are days I feel like I’m the only one who notices. However, one of my ADD superpowers is that I have an incredible sensitivity to sound, so I can notice sounds that most people don’t actually hear. So when they pump up the tunes, it’s rather painful. As a result I have a couple theories about this little phenomenon.

Nothing Attracts the Crowd like the Crowd

This is the actual theory behind most bar managers and restaurant owners–if you have pumping music in your store, it sounds like people are having fun and there’s a lot of them in there. That means more people will come into your store to buy stuff. And maybe–they won’t want to stay after they buy their crap, because it’s too damn loud to hear themselves think! Quick turnover.

However, when I go into a Starbucks or a Panera Bread, they take the opposite opinion. Go with soft indie rock, because you want people to stay, sit down, and buy more of their product. Sometimes they still keep the volume up too loud for me to be comfortable, but I’ve simply learned to carry a set of headphones in my pocket. I just plug myself in, and from looking around, so do half your customers.

I Gotta Have My Tunes!

I specifically go to a bar that has either has no music or the music is low and in the background… like it’s supposed to be. However, every time one of the regulars comes in, she has to hit that damn jukebox, and crank out her favorite tunes. Why? Because to her, a bar isn’t a bar without loud pumping music. However, since the average age of the bar patrons in this particular bar is 60, I don’t think they come in for the tunes. The problem is that I can barely talk to anyone once the jukebox is playing… which is the main reason I go there.

It doesn’t matter if they’re good tunes or not, if you’re having to shout over the music to talk to folks (which includes, by the way, the barfly in question), it’s not that good. I think it’s an acculturation thing; she’s spent most of her life working in bars, so loud music = bars. Duh. However, when she’s riding in on her motorcycle to the most sappy pop music imaginable, I question her theories… and her taste in music.

So whether business thinks its good for business or whether people expect music in the background, doesn’t really matter, I’ve simply stopped asking the manager to turn it down. Because they just… don’t… get it. So if they look askance at why I’m wearing big headphones in a sports bar, all they have to do is ask to find out why.

Am I the only one who finds the pumping music annoying? Am I overreacting? Let me know in the comments below!

When you put “Knife” in the title…

8 Jan

When you put “knife” in the name of something, it grabs your attention. Sure, a knife is a common enough item, but it’s also dangerous, and when you use it out of context (kitchen), your mental eyebrows go up. So let’s see what happens when you add “knife” to the conversation.

Take–for example–the book I’ve chosen. Lois McMaster Bujold is a great author; love her Vorkosigan books. To my shame, I haven’t read her Sharing Knife series, but that’s mostly because I love sci-fi and not fantasy. It seems silly, because there’s a reason why the two genres are lumped together. Both involve going to different worlds, both involve some sort of advanced ability/technology, and both meet alien species. Although in one it’s an extraterrestrial, the other an elf. For me, fantasy has to have some quirk for me to be interested, such as magic using calligraphy, or low-magic politics-heavy (Game of Thrones), or urban fantasy (Dresden Files).

However, I remembered the name, didn’t I? Which is the point of this blog post–“knife” grabs your attention.

Take this electronic dance party (EDM) band–Knife Party. If you’re even peripherally into EDM, such as myself, you’ve heard of these guys. They are really good and throw in fun quotes by some serious sounding woman saying, “You blocked me on Facebook, and now, you’re going to die.” Again, the word “knife” grabs your attention. After all, a knife party is not something you want to be invited to. It’s like playing stabscotch–sure, it looks cool when someone else is doing it, but when someone is trying to stab a knife between your fingers over and over again, it’s not so fun.

Do I want the sharing knife? But I am curious… what is it? It doesn’t have the same effect as saying, “Year of the Cat.” But maybe if we add “Black Cat,” would you be more likely to pick it up? It’s hard to come up with another word that grabs your attention like that. Okay–“sex” always grabs your attention. But unless you want to put in that book section, your list of grabbing words shrink.

Can you come up with some other words that grab your attention? Let me know in the comments below!

The Lord Don’t Rain Down Manna in my Yard

7 Jan

In high school, our drama teachers decided to put on Quilters, a musical about women’s experiences in the Wild West. This hurt me because it was an all-female cast and this was my only chance to star in a musical. However, I forgave my teachers completely after I saw it.

A little background–I grew up in the small town of Morrison, Illinois, a wonderful place to grow up because it allowed me a lot of freedom and opportunities that I never would have gotten in a bigger city. If you wanted to be in a play, you could; if you wanted to join the football team, you could. There were few entry requirements because they simply needed people to participate!

Up until my junior year–when they decided to put on Quilters–the drama teachers (John and Anne Frame) would do a fall play, a children’s play, and a musical every year. If you’ve been a drama teacher, that’s an exhausting schedule, so for the 1991-1992 season, they decided to do a musical one year and a fall play the next. But at the time I was 16 and didn’t know that, so from my perspective, I had been cheated out of a performance. This was especially true because of the RHIP rule: rank has its privileges. I couldn’t get into Pump Boys and Dinettes because I was a sophomore, there were only two male parts (and only two female), so those were going to juniors/seniors. I didn’t know that at the time either, so to this day, I can still sing my audition piece, “Farmer Tan.” 🙂

To add insult to injury, I found out that Quilters was an all-female cast of eight women. (It has been performed with a 2-3 men in supporting roles, but they don’t sing.) So now I was never going to star in a HS musical; I was pissed. However, to get eight singing girls to perform in our small school, they got every female who could sing AND wanted to perform. So that meant my sister, my sister’s friends, my female friends, and even some freshman girl I didn’t know all got to be in it… and I didn’t. Of course, since my sister was in the musical, I couldn’t just boycott out of sheer teenage spite. So I went.

Oh… my… God! The musical was beautiful! Each scene was a “quilting block” (which they showed) and told a different story about the Wild West. It had a real band in the band pit which played beautifully. The ladies on stage sang songs that sounded like 19th Century hymns (which I love) and often did it eight-part harmony. The stories were funny and serious and shocking and made me cry by the end. It was a beautiful experience… so much so, I went again the second night (there were only two performances)! I asked my sister’s friend whose dad recorded the dress rehearsal for a copy and I got it–I still have that tape and watch it, but usually only when I’m seriously depressed.

That musical for me represents a significant change in my life. Not only was it good, but it was a snapshot of what life was before everything changed. My sister went to college the next year–she ended up going two years, quitting, and then getting married to her stepbrother. It worked out, they’re still married 20+ years later, have three teenage boys, and she got her bachelor’s in Early Elementary Ed. My mother died in March of the next year, my stepfather remarried, and moved out to Iowa selling my teenage home. Half the cast have been divorced, picked themselves up, and sometimes married again. All the cast has children of their own. If they’re not where they thought they’d be, what I heard from them tells me things are doing all right. As one of them put it, “Now that we’ve had those experiences (that their characters had), we could put on a much better version.”

So every time I see it, I still cry–it’s that good. Have you got something similar in your life? A song, a movie, even a HS play that represents to you childhood innocence? Let me know in the comments below!

Bluegrass Hip-Hop Grunge

2 Nov

When you go down the YouTube rabbit hole, you never know where you’ll end up. I rather like bluegrass covers of other songs, because… well, it’s funny. However, I didn’t realize how much of this subgenre really existed.

Meet The Cleverleys – a great bluegrass band from Arkansas. This is a five-man family band who do great covers of Thunderstruck, Walk Like an Egyptian, Milkshake, and the piece de resistance, Gangnam Style… in Korean!

There’s also a Finnish band called Steve ‘N’ Seagulls, which is a country band that specializes in bluegrass covers. They’ve done November Rain, Nothing Else Matters, and their own version Thunderstruck, which has to be seen to believed.

But you might say to yourself, okay, heavy metal and pop music… I can see that being parodied very well. However, you haven’t heard of The Gourds, which is alternative country band (or “y’allternative”) which does great songs on their own. However, they managed to do a bluegrass version of the hip-hop song Gin and Juice by Snoop Dogg which is simply divine.

Of course, when it comes to music, Your Mileage May Vary. So what do you think? Does this sub-sub-subgenre appeal to you as much as it does to me? Are there other artists I need to be aware of? Is this not your cup of tea? Let me know in the comments below!

Baroque Tuning

18 Oct

Somebody once observed to the eminent philosopher Wittgenstein how stupid medieval Europeans living before the time of Copernicus must have been that they could have looked at the sky and thought that the sun was circling the earth. Surely a modicum of astronomical good sense would have told them that the reverse was true. Wittgenstein is said to have replied: “I agree. But I wonder what it would have looked like if the sun had been circling the earth?”

James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed

I love James Burke – he created several documentaries that really challenged how I viewed history. In fact, the quote is from The Day the Universe Changed, which explains the history of thought. People did not think the same throughout history – fundamentally different ways of viewing the world – because if someone tells you the sun goes around the earth… well, it looks that way, doesn’t it? Common sense. Let me give you a minor revealation to me that the way things now are not how they were.

James Burke – the man, the myth, the legend.

I have perfect pitch – most days, it’s a curse rather than a blessing – because although it helps with singing, it also means you notice everyone else’s singing is slightly off tune. I know what note the refrigerator is humming. Oi.

So once upon a time, I went to my stepbrother’s house and was jazzed that he had a harpsichord. He owned a church organ company, didn’t have kids, and being a musician… of course he had a harpsichord. This was the most bad-ass thing a young 14-year-old Marcus could imagine; forget the baby grand piano in the corner, this is a #*$%&@ harpsichord!

So I’m playing a minuet that I had memorized that had to have been played on a harpsichord when it was composed (by Nannerl Mozart, Amadeus’ sister). I’m playing it on this cool instrument and I’m disturbed to hear that it played flat. So I go through the piece and look over at my stepbrother and ask, “What’s wrong with the harpsichord?” He smiles and pointing to a strange block at the right end of the keyboard, he says, “Oh, I left it on Baroque tuning, that’s why it sound flat.”

Baroque tuning? I wondered. Yes, it turns out that there was no standardized pitch until 100 years ago. They did what I do to tune my guitar; pick one tune for the low note and make sure all other strings are tuned in relation to that one. To explain, the note A is set at a modern standard of 440 hertz (that’s what the tuning fork does). Although there was no standard back in Mozart’s day, most musicians came to a consensus and said – on average – the tuning of an A note was around 410 hertz. So an A today would have sounded like an A sharp.

The sound of many of the great composers’ work is going to sound flat to modern ears. This is a minor detail, but it made me question how we perceive many of things in the modern world.

Have you ever had a minor revelation like that? Did you know no one thought to standardize piano tuning until 1885? Do you think that’s a good thing? Let me know in the comments below!

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