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Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter I, Section B January 31, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in history, Japan, Music, Other, postmodernism, Rock.
2 comments

So, what happened to Cheap Trick?

Well, Jimmy (if that is your real name), they put out another album in 1980 that was produced by George Martin, and then appeared on Saturday Night Live, and they did a concert that aired on PBS that rocked so hard I thought I would die.  I watched a videotape of that concert approximately 100 times, something like once every week for a couple of years.  If it hadn’t been on Betamax (ask your grandfather) I’d probably still be watching it. 

All Shook Up (1980) had a lot of really great music on it.  But better than that, the album captured the power and verisimilitude of the band’s stage presence (to the extent possible).  The album’s most famous track “Baby Loves to Rock” was almost punk, but without punk’s anger.  It was based on a firm power chord tripod that even novitiate rockers could play (without any moveable chord forms), Robin Zander’s inimitable howl, a bass sound like an oil tanker slowly running aground, interesting and sometimes cryptic lyrics.  And the album that came after that, One on One, was just as good.  

Unfortunately, it was too late for the band to achieve the kind of stardom they deserved.  They have since written and performed the theme music for dozens of movies, as well as for That 70s Show and The Colbert Report, but their bid for superstardom faltered.

Why? 

By 1980, Cheap Trick’s three disappointing studio albums of the late 1970s had made some of their most promising fans wary of being burned again.  Worse still, the band was simply one of a kind, and thus difficult to understand.  For example, the band was solidly connected, in popular imagination, to Japan, which was already, during the rapidly growing energy crisis years, becoming problematic. 

What do you mean?

Their most famous album began with the words “All Right Tokyo!” They did not look American enough, which was a crime during this era, when Americans were talking about energy independence and bombing Iran (I mean the last time we did this, of course.  I told you this was going to be confusing.)   Since the band didn’t look like anyone else, they must be Japanese, right? 

It was confusing.  Look, “Elo Kiddies” was a song off their first album that the Japanese schoolgirls seemed to really take to.  How this tune transmuted into the Hello Kitty phenomenon is a dark and frightening story that is not appropriate to tell here in this public space.  (N.B.: I was not able to link to Sanrio’s Hello Kitty, because it makes me ill to even think about doing that.  And I couldn’t use a picture, because it is trademarked, so the link goes to Hello Cthulhu, a cartoon that gives you the general idea of Hello Kitty from the appropriate perspective of ironic mockery.)  All I can do is point out the clash of the two cultures, the huge gulf between interpretive frames of reference.

Compare the song’s refrain . . .

So you missed some school,
they say school’s for fools,
today money rules,
and everybody steals it.
You lead a life of crime,
you gotta go unwind,
you haven’t got much time,
because they’re out to get you.

. . . to the Hello Kitty icon that began to appear about the same time.  Extra credit for any of you who can make even a tiny bit of sense out of that. 

They seemed to delight in confounding all of the dominant stereotypes of the era.  This was especially so in the case of lead guitarist Rick Nielsen, running around on stage wearing checkered tights and a baseball cap (hey, those Japanese are playing baseball now, too).  He looked, quite intentionally, like a cartoon character.  In contrast, Robin Zander, the lead singer, was attractive and graceful, an ex-dance instructor, with long, golden hair.  Then there was Bun E. Carlos, the band’s hard-rockin,’ chain-smokin’ drummer, who looked and dressed like a despirited, pot-bellied, balding, accounts receivable clerk.  The bassist was probably even more attractive than Zander.  It was just too large an interpretive disjuncture for the average rock fan to navigate.  

Conversation overheard in record store (Tower Records, Sunrise Blvd., Sacramento, California) between typical rocker and store employee, circa 1980:

“What does it all mean, record dude?” 
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.  Um, you got any Journey?”
“S’under “J.” [Points]
“Jay?  No, Journey.  Are you making fun of me?”

It was too easy to come to the conclusion the band was making fun of its audience.  That was a dangerous game, far too dangerous for the Reagan era, and one most simply avoided taking part in.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Chapter I January 30, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in history, Japan, Music, Other, Rock.
12 comments

Part A
Isn’t it a Shame?

During the Scientific Revolution, so-called “Natural Philosophers” often collected anomolies to help them understand the truth.  What could a two-headed sheep tell them about the natural world?*  It could tell them more, they figured, than looking at a thousand “normal” sheep, because it explored the limits of “sheepness.”  Figuring out why nature has gone awry helped them to figure out how it goes right.  We study the abnormal to examine the boundaries of normalcy.  For these reasons, this chapter examines Cheap Trick.

In the late 1970s Cheap Trick rocketed to stardom on the success of a live album that also predicted their downfall.  That album, Cheap Trick: Live at Budokan, was recorded in Tokyo, Japan, and kept the band on rock radio through the mid-1980s.  A string of hits including “I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and others should have tipped the band off to the secret of their success. 

What did the album’s success say about the band?  It said this: These guys know how to get an audience of Japanese schoolgirls cheering at a frequency about six octaves above middle “C.”  These guys know how to rock. 

How does one rock?

Well, there are lots of ways.  One is by working hard at being the best/loudest/fastest/strongest band you can be–being extreme.  Tom Petersson, the band’s bassist, had a twelve-string bass, the world’s first, specially constructed at around this time.  The company initially made him a ten-string bass because they didn’t think that the instrument’s neck would stand up to the strain of twelve bass strings.  Travelling to my cousin’s house one Thanksgiving I found that he had gotten a bass guitar, an Ibanez, and I spent much of the day sequestered in his room, trying to play the bass part to “Gonna Raise Hell,” by Cheap Trick.  But I eventually had to stop, because I didn’t want to get blood on his new guitar.  Bass strings are like round files, people.  You must have a grip of steel and a quarter-inch of callous to survive playing one for the length of a concert.  Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers often had to superglue parts of his thumb together to finish a set.  Yet here was Petersson, demanding three times the number of cheese-grating, garroting wires with which to flay his left hand.  And that was pretty much all he played, eight and twelve-string basses.  And the bassists who followed him in the band after he left, Pete Comita, Jon Brandt, and others, played these things, too.  That’s rock, friends, pain in the service of power and a unique sound.  Pushing your own limits, and upping the ante, too, forcing others to put up or shut up.

Additionally, in order to rock, you have to be real.**  You cannot depend upon re-recording take after take in a studio, only releasing the dolbyized, computer-smoothed, noise-reduced, effects-laden pap that the producer decides is best.  To rock you have to be able to play it live, and not with keyboardists and extra vocalists hidden behind the curtains to help you out.  This band rocked so hard in concert that they could turn an old Pat Boone song (“Ain’t That a Shame,” written by Fats Domino, but recorded by Boone, who wanted to change its title to “Isn’t that a Shame”) into a hit in 1978.  Pat freakin’ Boone. 

Unfortunately, the band missed an important warning signal from the success of Budokan:  “Surrender” had already been released on a previous album, In Color and Black and White.  But radio stations never played that version.  Why?  Because the overproduced tune had no freakin’ teeth, no edge.  The band later blamed the dullness of that album on their producer, saying that it sounded like it was recorded in a cardboard box.

People, rock fans, want to believe that the people they see are actually producing the music they hear on the radio.  With Budokan there was no doubt.  This band made noise, interacted with the audience.  The audience loved them, worshipped them.  You could hear that.  Three of their crucial studio albums, In Color and Black and White, Heaven Tonight, and Dream Police, though sweet, carefully written, masterfully played, with brilliant harmony, could have been played by paid studio musicians. 

Hundreds of rock bands in the 1970s and 1980s would use technological fixes and careful editing to make themselves sound like they could really rock, only to disappoint any relatively sober rock fans that happened to show up for their live performances.  MTV amplified this problem ten-fold by adding visual elements to the fakery, which culminated, eventually, in a backlash known as “Grunge.”  But Cheap Trick was that most tragic of anomolies–a true rock band that sounded fake on many of their albums.

To be continued . . .

*Textbook for the School of Rock originated in conversations with my son on the morning school commute.  Thus, it seems to be unfolding in a Socratic presentation style. 

**Not real, in the sense of being essential, of course, but real in the sense of performing your own music, or adding a whole new dimension to somebody else’s.  In the sense of doing your own stunts, not taking orders from The Man.

Textbook for the School of Rock-Introductory Preface January 29, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Education, Memory, narrative, Other, postmodernism, Rock.
14 comments

The week before Christmas my son and I got “The School of Rock” from Netflix, and after I prescreened it I watched it with him.  We don’t play much rock music in the house, partially because I can only really do one thing at a time.  Playing loud rock music (’cause if it ain’t loud, what’s the point?) with a 9-year old in the house is actually two things, since he would have to play with the dog at the same time, or whistle along with it, or talk about it, or pace.  But he seems very interested in rock now that he has seen the movie.  So when I take him to school in the morning, about a ten-minute drive, he asks for another lesson, which I give him, a blasting CD and commentary afterward, a short quiz.  The school commute has become a rolling school of rock.

I guess my own musical education is pretty typical of most consumers of rock in my age group, in that I had four guitar lessons, which came free with my first guitar, an incredibly crappy Les Paul knock-off made by Memphis (all of the rigidity of an actual Gibson Les Paul, without any of the sustain, solid electronics, or prestige).  I was a pretty strange 18-year old, and instead of asking the lanky, long-fingered, long-haired guitar teacher to teach me some ACDC (where is the little lightning-bolt symbol on the keyboard, dammit?) I asked him to teach me some theory.   It never occurred to me that there was no rock theory, or that this guy might not know it.  At any rate, he taught me how to tune the thing, as well as three very different moveable jazz chord forms, barre chords, the blues scale, and a couple of other things, mostly by accident.  And then the lessons were over and I was on my own. 

Consequently, much of my knowledge of rock is stuff I have made up in my head, stuff I have interpreted incorrectly by watching rock videos on MTV, concert movies, going to actual concerts, listening to the radio, doing some reading.  What I like about rock, though, and its history, is that this is the way most people experience rock.  You go to a concert in a alcoholic daze, sit in a pot-fueled haze and you really can’t tell truth from apocrypha anyway.  So that’s what I’m giving him, myths that are better, more dramatic, than the ugly commercial reality of the actual business.  And I fit them together in a narrative, which reshapes and warps what little is left of its relationship to the truth.

We aren’t going in chronological order in these lessons.  It gets a little confusing, but that’s the postmodern world, pal.  “No,” I tell him, “the Brian Setzer Orchestra, a 1990s group, re-envisioned the music of the 30s and 40s; it was Setzer’s first group, the Stray Cats, a 1980s band, that re-envisioned the music of the 1950s.”  And we aren’t going thematically either.  So it may be confusing to put these lessons online.  But that’s what I will probably end up doing.  Check this space for lesson one soon.

Books–The Size of Thoughts, by Nicholson Baker January 27, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, literature, Other.
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I think that it was Bokonon (pronounced “Johnson”), the Zen-guru-rebel of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle who said “Strange travel suggestions are like dancing lessons from God,” or something like that.  I can’t recall, or even summon the strength to look it up right now.  Regardless, I have always felt that if somebody liked a book enough to suggest that I read it, with all of the baggage that such a suggestion entails (five seconds later, for example, thinking to ones-self “Oh, no.  She’s going to think that I’m a pervert for liking that,” or “Uh, oh.  Now he’s going to be able to read my mind) I should heed their suggestion. 

Some time ago davidbdale urged me to read this collection of essays and stuff by Nicholson Baker.  And I immediately bought the book.  As soon as it came in the mail I dove in.  And I have not yet finished.  I might never finish, because I might start it again as soon as I do.  There is a lot of interesting stuff here, and stuff that has the same relentless, almost exhaustingly detailed prose for which I idolize David Foster Wallace (unless I’m not interested in the subject, and then I get bored, of course).  I am currently bogged down in a book review Baker wrote about the first volume of J.E. Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Baker’s subject matter is hard to resist. Other essays discuss nail clippers, cinematic projection equipment, books, and plastic models, among other things.  I’m enjoying it immensely, but I can’t imagine reviewing a book like this.  All the essays I have thus far read were engaging and interesting.  I learned a lot about things that I had no idea I would ever learn, or even be interested in, for that matter. 

My personal favorite so far has been the chapter on plastic models.  Baker has odd ideas about plastic models, seeming to like them best before he takes them out of the box and begins to put them together.  This leads him to rhapsodize about plastic extrusion techniques and, finally, to assert that the ultimate model project would be a scale replica of an old Cincinnati Milacron injection molding machine.  A bit self-referential, I think, but even so, I couldn’t agree more.

I work at a University that has, arguably, the best plastics engineering program in the country, if not the world.  But we have, alas, only the most up-to-date equipment.  No old Cincinnati Milacron, as big as a freight train engine.  So I offer instead a picture of the Battenfeld Gloucester Thin Film Extruder (below, click to enlarge). 

batten1.jpg

The lights were out (no students were making garbage bags that day) and I didn’t want to bother the hardworking faculty of the Plastics Engineering Department, so I snapped this from the hallway.  Despite the quality, you can see that she’s a beauty (it is convention, like with ships, to refer to these with a feminine pronoun.  In this case, however, you can see from the picture that she actually is a female.)

What a model.  And who wouldn’t want to build a replica in their own home?

Ken Stein’s anti-Carter Phlegm January 26, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, history, Israel, Jimmy Carter, Logic, narrative, Other.
2 comments

I was listening on the way into work today to an interview with Ken Stein about his reaction to Jimmy Carter’s new book and I have to say that I don’t really care for him.  I have not the expertise to really talk constructively about the disagreements between Carter and Stein, unfortunately, much less the Israelis and Palastinians, and I probably never will.  I’ve never read any of his books, including the one he wrote with Carter back in the 1980s.  But if the imprecise language and odd, traditional dualist logic of his interview persona is any indication, I would find them a trial.  Two quick examples:

1)  He believes that Carter is characterizing the bad situation in the Occupied Territories as entirely the fault of Israel.  And he claims, simultaneously that (and I’m paraphrasing a little here on this one because I couldn’t write it down while driving–not in Lowell, not during the commute time of the morning) if you tell this story, you can’t “unpack it” in such a way that one side is at fault.  Note: that is exactly what he accuses Carter of doing–unpacking it in such a way that it shows that Israel is at fault. 

Perhaps he meant to say that one shouldn’t.  Such statements require a different mode, a subjunctive one, which is used in English to indicate value judgements like this, among other things.  Perhaps Stein didn’t want his statement to sound like a value judgement.  Perhaps he wanted it to sound like a statement of fact. . . .

2)  This one is a direct quote, because I had reached the frigid wasteland of the faculty/staff parking lot by this point in time. 

“History always tells us the truth is somewhere in-between.”

Not to pick nits, here, Dr. Stein, but it tells us nothing of the sort.  Perhaps the ones that you write tell us this.  I have read many histories that do not simplistically group conflicts into two opposing sides and then claim that the truth is in-between. 

Is the glass half empty?  Is it half full?  To Dr. Stein, the glass is three-quarters full, or something close to that.

Five Things You Don’t Know About Me January 24, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Blogs and Blogging, Other.
23 comments

Raincoaster tagged me with this meme, because I asked her to.  I’d never been tagged with a meme before, and when I saw that raincoaster had not only been tagged but had actually responded to this meme I decided that it was a bad thing, not being tagged.  I decided that it meant I was not popular.  Anyway, then she tagged me with it and I immediately had no idea what I could possibly write that nobody would know.  I don’t want to be self-serving, nor do I want to be uninteresting, nor do I want to appear tragic. 

So, anyway, here is the best I can do:

  1. My high-school Grade Point Average (G.P.A.) was exactly the same as my college G.P.A.: 2.54 (for those not in the U.S. or not using the same system, for whatever reason, that is a “C,” which originally meant “average,” but even in those days had come to define the start of a very slippery slope toward flunking out of school.  It is not easy to maintain an average like that.  Most people who actually do the work end up with a better average than that.  Most people who don’t do not continue in school.)
  2. I have an almost pathological fear that, while shaving, the razor will slip and shave off part of my teeth and gums or the cornea of my eye.  It’s never happened to me, but I think about it every single time I shave, and have since at least 1988.  I know, the teeth thing is improbable, but just because it has never been documented does not mean that it is not possible.  It’s living tissue, right?  That would really hurt.
  3. Most of the time I have a song going through my head.  This has been going on for about four years now, and I don’t know how it started and I don’t remember exactly when.  It just kinda snuck up on me.  It is always the same and it has not been written down by anyone.  When I pay attention to it I usually improvise some variations into it.  But even when I improvise it is incredibly monotonous. 
  4. The other day I went to a website where you could test your “brain age.”  My brain was 75 years old that day.  This must be because it thinks so fast, right?  So it ages faster than other peoples’ brains?
  5. My nose doesn’t work very well.  Being able to smell fewer things, I remember them even better than other people do.  So my favorite smells are really strong (because I otherwise would not smell or remember them).  So my favorite smells are things like gasoline, marijuana smoke, airplane glue (the good stuff you could get back in the 1970s), cordite, and that stuff that you used to be able to buy but has probably been outlawed that came in a tube and you put it on the end of a straw and blew it up into a balloon.  That stuff smelled great.

And Cyndi, and Baralbion, consider yourselves tagged with this one.

New Writing Contest at The Moon Topples January 23, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Other, writing.
10 comments

The Moon Topples is running a writing contest starting on February 1 and ending on the February 14.  I’m planning on entering, despite the fact that I am struggling with my pirate story and also want to enter the First Chapters contest (and know that my NaNoWriMo novel needs considerable revision and rewriting and may be hopeless anyway), for which the deadline is March 15.

Pencil cap hacks, continued January 22, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in how to, lifehack, Other.
5 comments

I wrote, recently, here about how to make a cap for a pencil, so that it wouldn’t inadvertantly poke you if you kept it in your pocket, and I want to revise a couple of minor points in that article. 

First, I noted that Dick Blick had plastic caps available.  They do.  But after I wrote that post I ordered a pack, and these caps suck.  That’s pretty harsh, I know, but here is a picture of one of them in action:general2.jpg (click image to enlarge).  As you can see, the pencil pokes out the end of the cap, which would, I think, poke right through to your femoral artery, letting all of the blood from your body in approximately two minutes, unless you left it in as sort of a makeshift cork. 

If you sharpen your pencil like some of the pre-sharpened kinds that you might buy, or the free pencil stubs you get at the golf course or the bowling alley, the caps work, but I don’t know how one would go about doing that.  See here:general1.jpg Otherwise, they are a little too big.  And let’s face it, those things at the golf course are like that to keep people from doing anything with them other than writing numbers on a card.  They are dreadful to write or draw with.

General, the company that makes the caps (or distributes them, whatever) makes a pencil sharpener as damage control, some way to keep the people who order the caps from complaining that they don’t work. 

generalsharpener.jpg

But sharpening pencils with this low-quality sharpener yields pencils that look like this:general3.jpg, and the points stick right out of the pathetic little caps.  There is at least one brand of pencil that is round and a little larger than the standard (by standard I mean the hexagonal pencils made by Dixon, General, Faber Castell, Eberhard Faber, Staedtler, Rexel Cumberland, Tombow, Universal, and the others.  I don’t have the package they came in but they appear to be made by a company called Focus, or perhaps Focus is the particular line of pencils.  I have a bunch of these in my desk, so the caps aren’t a total waste.  But speaking of waste, the hexagonal design was initiated to reduce waste in the manufacturing process, so I hate to buy round pencils.

I’ll also put another possibility here, just to give people another option.  This next pencil is capped with a piece of rubber tubing with an inside diameter of one-quarter of an inch.  tube.jpgApparently people use this for low-pressure water pumps of some sort (I really don’t know.  It was in the HVAC section of Home Depot, but the label only told me what I was supposed to not use it for.)  It was snipped from a roll of such tubing purchased for $2.99.  I used a pair of lineman’s pliers.  I think I could make several hundred caps with this roll and have some left over for spitball shooters and other strange projects.

It seems to work really, really well. 

Books–Sixth Column, by Robert H. Heinlein January 21, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Books, China, Constructivism, Japan, libertarians, Other, Science Fiction.
3 comments

I had been reading Hyperpat’s reaction to a recent article that mentioned Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers in an unflattering and baseless screedlet (Um, not Hyperpat, he was right about Heinlein’s book.  The New York Times, not so much), and corresponding with Hyperpat about said screedling.  And while I was doing that I realized that I might never have read Heinlein’s Sixth Column, or at least I couldn’t recall much of it.  This was a little important to me because although this is an embarassing thing to admit (Heinlein’s treatment of sexual relationships has been a repeated embarassment to me over the years) I have read pretty much everything Heinlein ever published, which is a considerable amount, and had even visited the Heinlein archives at UCSC to peruse what few scraps the Trustees of the Heinlein Estate would allow.  I considered myself an expert of sorts but could not have outlined the plot of this thing to save my life. 

So I got a copy through paperbackswap.com and tackled it last weekend.  And I was pretty surprised.  I knew that Heinlein didn’t care for this book, because he had noted his opinion publicly several times.  But I seem to recall that his objection to it was founded on the fact that the outline of the plot and main speculative elements (the idea that the other forces, the weak nuclear force, gravity, the strong nuclear force, could be harnessed and projected in various ways) were given to him by John Campbell, and that he had no real interest, just did it for the money, etc. 

But boy oh boy there are so many reasons to hate this book.  Perhaps the most offensive aspect to the book, aside from the lackadaisical, disinterested writing, is racial, I’m afraid.  The forces I mentioned above are used by the protagonists to drive the Asiatics (conquering hoards of those with “yellow” skin whose culture originated in Japan, um, apparently during the Tokugawa Era, if I had to guess) and spread as they conquered first Mainland China, then the Soviets, then, finally, in the opening page of the book, the US.  The attacks came as a complete surprise to the US, of course, (this post has nothing to do with the space weapons tested yesterday by China, by the way).  But new technologies allow the scientists to focus these different forces to distinguish people by race, so that they can aim their weapons at a mixed crowd and kill only the Asiatics, sometimes explosively disrupting the cells of their bodies, turning them into a big, messy cloud, sometimes just making them dead.  But the protagonists, hopelessly outgunned and disorganized, since they have become the slaves of the Asiatics, turn the tables by using the power of the new technology, under the cover of a new religion, to demoralize the Asiatics, forcing critical military commanders to commit honorable seppuku, ritual hara kiri.  Oi!

Yeah, so it’s pretty icky, and obviously conflicts with current understanding of race (postulating very solid and discrete biological differences), which seems to be that it is mostly socially constructed, of course. 

I don’t think of Heinlein as a racist.  He was probably as unracist as possible for a white libertarian guy born in Missouri near the turn of the century to be.  No wonder he hated this book.  It was written in the late 1940s and copyrighted in 1941, before Pearl Harbor, if I’m not mistaken, but still. . . .

Index card stuff on Squidoo January 20, 2007

Posted by caveblogem in Hipster PDA, how to, index cards, lifehack, Origami, Other, web 2.0.
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My Hipster PDA stuff and index card stuff, which is filed permanently here under the origami page (see the header, above) got a mention, just barely, kind-of, I think, on a squidoo lens.  Plus it has plexo, whatever that is, yet another wrinkle in social networking that I don’t seem to have the brain cells to understand.

At least it has the word “squid” in it.  So there’s that.