The Smithereens

I was 14 years old when I first heard the opening bass line to The Smithereens “Blood and Roses.” It was played as part of a commercial for a movie called “Dangerously Close.”

In my adolescent mind, I made the mistake of thinking the movie must be as good as the music that went along with it. This was a big mistake. Reading Wikipedia, I learned the film was made by a man dubbed “the new Ed Wood” who produced a movie called “Bulletface” and later got into legal trouble in a failed movie deal with Guam.

Funny thing is, watching the video now, you can see why I made this mistake. The song is so good it makes an obviously kitschy B-movie look almost like “At Close Range” mixed with “The Breakfast Club.” A stretch maybe but remember I was 14 years old.

I mean, listen to that bassline! There’s something so dark, menacing, and noir-ish about it that would lend itself well to any movie.The lyrics were also mysterious. The incident he is describing is a bad situation but it’s unclear what exactly happened.

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Not a band that will be confused with contemporaries Ratt and Poison

Another thing that helped was the un-glamorous look of the entire band. This was as far from LA hair bands as you were going to get. Just a couple of kids in leather jackets from New Jersey who let the music speak for itself. The drummer wore glasses for God’s sake. The guitarist looked like he was comfortable having a couple beers at the local bowling alley. The lead singer wasn’t exactly dashing. If I were in charge of who did what, I’d put him as the bassist in the background.

But it lent an authenticity to the lyrics they sang. When a not-so-great-looking lead singer sang:

“I used to travel in the shadows
And I never found the nerve to try and walk up to you”

and

“I’ll do anything I have to do
Just to win the love of a girl like you, a girl like you”

coming from him, it was a believable tale. And it resonated among people who felt the way he did. It certainly did with skinny, insecure high school me.

But there was something dark and edgy to the music they sang. The lyrics were plaintive and sincere but vaguely unsettling, like an Edward Hopper painting. In my mind it was music that would go well with drinking bourbon and smoking cigarettes in a dive bar.

The Smithereens will be playing in my hometown Londonderry on Friday the 13th. I’m looking forward to seeing them finally after all these years.

The Music to Homeland

One of my favorite stories in the history of free jazz is from one of Ornette Coleman’s first performances. Outraged at the noise he was creating as part of the Silas Green group, the audience rose up, attacked him and destroyed his saxophone.

That’s quite a statement. Although I did not witness it and no footage exists of the incident, I imagine it played out something like the climactic scene in Spinal Tap where, instead of breaking out crowd favorites like “Bitch School” and “Big Bottom”, the band uncorks “Jazz Odyssey” – an epic prog rock experiment to booing fans.

“On the bass, Derek Smalls, he wrote this.”

“On the bass, Derek Smalls. He wrote this.”

These scenes both underscore the saying, “Jazz is more fun to play than to listen to.” That expression explains why musicians who play it often outnumber audiences willing to pay for it. Musicians who want to play it for a living have to be really good to pull it off.

Free jazz does this one better by doing away with of all standard conventions like fixed chords structures and tempos. Freed from all constraints, it sometimes results in things that are completely unlistenable. One sure-fire way to clear out a party is to pop in John Coltrane’s Om album. Give it a shot, it’s the biggest train wreck I’ve heard in my life.

Playing free jazz is a huge risk and you have to be supremely skilled to pull it off. But sometimes this freedom from all constraint results in things that are stunning. There used to be a drummer-saxophonist combo who busked in Harvard Square when I was there. Somehow, using only these two instruments and not playing any identifiable tune, they made music that made you stop and say, “That’s cool.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 12.23.25 PMRecently I started binge watching Homeland, which seems to have firmly latched onto a free jazz aesthetic. The opening music grabs you from the start: it’s a David Lynch-like mishmash of free jazz, disembodied quotes about terrorism, and bizarre imagery. Although it runs for too long, it works.

And this track that they play in the first episode of season four, goddamn. If only someday I could play drums along with that. It feels as if at no point does anyone know where it is going or what direction it is going to take. It is a song that wants to tell you something but the message is not clear – it remains dark, mysterious and slippery. The meaning isn’t even clear to the people playing it, they are just channeling it. Seriously, listen to it.

I like to listen to this track late at night, when my work is done and I’m playing online chess while drinking a beer. In our era of instant information at all times, it’s nice to know some things remain impenetrable and mysterious. The music of Homeland is a reminder of that.

Profiting in the Age of Free Music

When Napster hit the scene, cialis sale I was living in the heart of technological change in Silicon Valley. My drum teacher there, decease who had been playing since the 1960s, regarded it as one of the most wonderful things ever invented. “I was like a kid in a candy store,” he said of his experience, “All these songs FOR FREE.”

The last part of what he said was what set off alarm bells in everyone’s head. One day I argued with a musician friend about the future of music. He thought Napster was a harbinger of doom – if artists couldn’t make money making it, music as we knew it would be wiped out.

I took a contrary view. Music wasn’t doomed, I said, but everything was about to change. Yes, CD sales were about to plummet to nothing but musicians would make up the difference in live shows and selling t-shirts, stickers, and the like.

This made basic economic sense to me. People only pay for things that are scarce and live shows are, by their nature, scarce. In the old model, bands toured to promote their new album but, in the age of free music, this would be flipped – bands of the future would  use their free recorded music to promote attendance at the money-making tour.

Over the years as music got more and more available, I started to question if my prediction was at all accurate. I read so many accounts of musicians getting fractions of a penny from streaming services for songs that would previously been huge money makers that I began to doubt everything I said in 2001.

So it was a relief to read this article from the New York Times. According to the data, there are now more people earning a living making music than there was in 2001. The live show industry has gone from $10 billion in 2001 to $30 billion in 2014.

While so busy fretting about the potential consequences of technological change, a lot of musicians didn’t see the advantages. Recording and distributing music used to require massive amounts of cash, now it can be handled with a laptop and an internet connection. As the indie producer and musician Steve Albini said: “When I started playing in bands in the ’70s and ’80s, most bands went through their entire life cycle without so much as a note of their music ever being recorded.”

The way I see it, when technological change is imminent you can either fixate on using it to your advantage or cry about all you stand to lose. It’s your choice but given these forces won’t be stopped, it’s clear which one is the wise course.

Lead The Life You Love

Love the life you live
Lead the life you love
Love the life you live
Lead the life you love
You should lead the life you love
You should lead the life you love

World is in trouble
Arm a geddon shall show her face
Upon creation
Goodness and mercy
Driven from the minds of the people
Lamentation
Jah Sire deliver me
Jah Sire have mercy
Jah Sire Father send I some
goodness and mercy

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Five hours from summit day

The mountains of Africa
They are familiar to me
You see the black sons of Cush
We were scattered everywhere
For as far as the eyes could see
But we are from the
mountains of the moon
Kile Man Jah Row, doctor pilule Kile Man Jah Row
Mount Re Wen Zui, link Mount Nebo
Kile Man Jah Row

Your body is your temple
Your one and only temple
You body is your temple
Your one and only temple
You are living in the Holy Places
Of the tabernacle of the most high Jah
You are living in the Holy Places
Of the tabernacle of the most high Jah

Love the life you live
Lead the life you love
Love the life you live
Lead the life you love
You lead the life you love
Lead the life you love