Monday, June 29, 2009

But Someone Picked You From the Bunch/One Glance Was All it Took

Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out....

I don't think it's too early for this...

Take a listen to this (pops). It's the first thirty seconds of the Jackson Five's first single for Motown, "I Want You Back." Number One for a week in January, 1970. (Preceded in that spot by -- oy! -- "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head," succeeded by The Shocking Blue's "Venus." There were giants in the earth in those days.)

It's particularly instructive to stop the clip after ten seconds, after twenty seconds, and at the end, and ask yourself, "What has happened so far?" The answer will be that after ten seconds, you've had one iteration of the verse's main instrumental motif. You've had that fabulously exciting piano crash that kicks the whole thing off, you've had nine -- count 'em nine! -- chord changes. The rhythmic pattern is immediately established: the rhythm guitar sets up its chang-ka-chang syncopation against which the bass, keyboard and lead guitar establish the chordal pattern directly on top of the beat. What an amazingly effective musical idea: Make the clanging, monotonal guitar the central syncopative device, while the rest of the band plays a slightly plodding series of notes that declare the harmonic pattern. Not a single drum has yet been heard -- only one cymbal crash -- but we're already up and dancing to this marvelously infectious and complex polyrhythm.

Between seconds 10 and 20, we get our second iteration of the motif, this time with congas, orchestra, and a third guitar adding yet more complexity to the rhythm. This sets up the beautiful explosion between seconds 20 and 30, in which the drums finally kick in, and the bass slides up an octave and plays for the first time the magnificent descending figure with which it will bolster the chorus throughout the song. (That's what your professor would call your contrapuntal motion; and like the man said, "Live it, or live with it.") Little Michael does his nearly wordless vocalization ("a-lemme-tell-ya-now" being the main concept being put forward) -- sounding improvised, but, I'm sure, the product of whole lot of thought on somebody's part. By now, if we aren't completely hooked, we never will be -- we're probably back with the "Raindrops Keep Falling" crowd.

Now, Michael Jackson, all of ten years old during its recording, had absolutely nothing to do with the creation of this stunningly terse exposition. That credit goes to The Corporation -- Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell -- and to the various musicians who played on it, most notably the stunning bassist Wilton Felder. Michael's task going in was to sing the living shit out of the lyric -- and by the end, no one will cavil when I assert that there remains neither jot nor tittle of living shit in that lyric. Talented kid, no question.

So that's that -- now take a gander at this. The first thirty seconds of "Billie Jean."

Let's try that every-ten-seconds exercise again.

0:00 - 0:10: Nothing. A drum machine and a farting synth. No motion whatsoever.

0:10 - 0:20: The same fucking nothing.

0:20 - 0:30: The nothing continues, with the addition of a four-note synth figure. A human being enters 29 seconds in, when Michael hiccups and begins the verse. The first chord change comes in at 0:37.

This shit went platinum.

Now, a lot happened between 1970's "I Want You Back" and 1983's "Billie Jean." Not only in popular musical tastes, but also in technology. MIDI. Click tracks. Drum machines. And of course, the all-important, sine qua non technology: video. YouTube has disabled embedding the Billie Jean video, but you can still watch it here. It's something of a revelation. Ah, we think. That's where those thirty seconds went. That's why the song's so spare, why so much of nothing is going on in the opening strains: The music's become subservient to the video.

Music for the eyes. Music to stare at.

The whole purpose of that utterly wonderful opening of "I Want You Back" is to reach out and grab you. It's producers knew perfectly well how their product would for the most part be consumed -- by people with better stuff to do, who have the radio on in the background as they go about their daily business. If your first couple of seconds don't contain something that makes them go woah! you may well be screwed. They're back to their work, tuning your product out. Think of how many iconic pop artifacts of the AM radio era start with a clang like that -- "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," the Byrds' chiming twelve-string confections, "A Hard Day's Night."

When you are watching TV, that's what you're doing. Watching. Attending. It matters very little that there's fuck-all going on in the first thirty seconds of the record, as long as the material onscreen tickles the audience's Entertainment Gland.

That's what we lost sight of in the Eighties -- the imperative to make interesting records that stand absolutely on their own, independent of any other medium. To serve your audience. To, yes, pander.

It's when I checked out, too -- probably not at all coincidentally -- and started investigating musics of the past: bluegrass, old country, jazz, that stuff. Haven't looked back.

Michael Jackson's death is sad in many senses of the word, but as he was the first true MTV phenomenon, I blame him in a real sense for killing my love of pop music, my interest in following what's new. That I won't forgive.

Update: Jesus Horatio Christ
Michael Jackson will live on as a 'plastinated' creature preserved by German doctor Gunther von Hagens.

Von Hagens has caused controversy with everyone from the Pope to the chief rabbi in Israel with his practice of embalming corpses with preserving polyurethane.

Yesterday, he declared: 'An agreement is in place to plastinate the King of Pop.'

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Who Is, Really?

There exists a story of an Eskimo gentleman come down to the Lower Forty-Eight to try his hand at farming, only to come to naught when he could not fallow his fields in the right order. I'd call it "The Lore of Unintended Corn-Sequences," but I'm just not that Inuit.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Thought Amuses Me

At some moment or another, Andrew Sullivan is going to have to "de-green" his blog. What's his end-point? What historical event will cause him to decide that either the Iranian people have a perfect Jeffersonian democracy, or the mullahs have prevailed?

This is the problem with purely symbolic self-decoration.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Neddie's Big Fathers' Day Adventure!

Queried yesterday about what activities would appeal on Fathers' Day, I gave the matter some cogitation. The Prince William Potomac Cannons Nationals were out of town, the Frederick Keys were playing at an inconvenient time, so an afternoon or evening at a minor-league ballpark -- the perfect activity for such an occasion -- was sadly to be denied me.

Then I remembered the incompleteness of our exploration of the National Portrait Gallery from last week, and suggested, to general approval, another visit. We roped in the Matriarch, Wonder Woman, and those children who were not already committed to other engagements, and ho! for the District. (Which already has enough ho's, snark snark.)

Parking of a Sunday near 9th and G was ridiculously hard to find, so, in a moment of paternal clarity, I hove the car into a garage that advertised a flat $10 rate. Worth it under the circs, I thought. Day's a-wastin'. A snaggle-toothed gentleman of indeterminate national origin appeared at the window and demanded his baksheesh. Just as I was handing him a ten-spot, I noticed a sign saying that the garage closed at 4 PM on Sundays. Knowing that we intended to stay at the museum well past that hour, I asked -- and I will admit that this, in retrospect, was poorly phrased -- "What happens after four o'clock"?

"You go out through building," came the reply. I am pretty sure, now, with the benefit of hindsight, that this phrase, and "Park on P-2, P-3," made up the sum total of this gentleman's English. I took "You go out through building" as a rational response to my original question, implying there was a separate after-hours egress -- some kind of sensor that opens a gate, shuts it after you.

Having parked and ridden up in an elevator to street level, we found ourselves in an office-building lobby, complete with sleepy security guard and check-in desk. As I opened the door to the street, it occurred to me that we were going "out through building," and the slightly nauseating idea occurred: that my conversation with Snagglepuss had had something of the non-sequitur about it.

Foo! I pushed the thought out of my head, and we traipsed along to a lovely afternoon with History.

I won't dwell on the museum, save to say that The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly in their Folk Art collection (enlarged image here -- bear in mind the thing you're looking at filled the artist's garage, and not all of it is displayed) is without doubt the weirdest and most wonderful thing I've laid eyes on in thirty years.

At five o'clock, through the magic of cellphones, we reassembled in the lobby, footworn and replete. I offered to go fetch the car while the ladies rested. Betty and I marched back to the office building and were admitted by the slumberous security guard. Elevator back to P-3, car found, all going according to plan. Round the winding route back to the land of the Eloi. Turn the last corner...

The. Gate. To. The. Street. Is. Closed.

Not a soul in sight.

Ohhh... KAY. Thinking that maybe an electric eye or some such device would trigger the raising of the portico, I nudged the car forward until the bumper was nearly touching the steel curtain.

Nothing budged.

A sign on the wall, hitherto unseen, mocked me: "Cars left after hours will be kept until the next business day."

Thanks, Snagglepuss. Thanks a whole bunch.

But the blame really rests with me, for not having asked him the direct question, "What will happen to cars left after hours?" and not been satisfied until I knew I had a reliable answer in the form of the complete sentence, "Cars left after hours will be kept until the next business day."

Some folks might panic in this circumstance. Succumb to claustrophobia. Run around with hair on fire.

Not your Neddie. Contemplating the major-league hassle involved in the admission of defeat -- cab ride out to the Matriarch's (a place not well served by public transport), where she would have to ship us the 50 miles home to Lovettsville and then drive back -- I reached back into the reserve of sang-froid that has flowed in Jingo veins all these centuries and set myself with steely resolve: This shall not stand.

I exited the car, senses aquiver. Having tried shouting "Open Sesame!" to no avail, I reasoned, with the deadly logic gleaned from years of Sherlock Holmes stories, that something must trigger this portal. Magnifying glass in hand (I keep one in the glove compartment for occasions such as this), I examined the edges of the unyeilding gate. Then, mirabile dictu, my eyes fell upon two buttons on a switch not a foot from the portal itself. With nearly mocking simplicity, they were marked "Open" and "Close."


With a trembling finger, I pressed the "Open" button. Creaking and moaning, the hitherto immovable object groaned into life, and blessed daylight shot into the murk.

Now I had been forming a plan. When the gate was fully open, I would drive through into freedom, park on the sidewalk, bravely go back into the hideous hole, press the "Close" button, and scurry back out, Indiana Jones-style, before the steel curtain could crush the life out of me. And all would be well.

The first half worked perfectly. Car and Betty successfully freed and basking in the sunshine. There would be no 30-mile cab rides today.

No, it was second half of the adventure that unmanned me. Having gone back in to the garage, I pressed the "Close" button, and the giant machine once again groaned back into life. I did my Indy thing, leaping back onto the sidewalk -- and the damned door just reversed itself and raised to the ceiling again. I had not considered that there might be a safety device -- as there is on any standard automatic garage-door opener -- that prevents the door from closing if it senses that an object -- in this case, my all-too-vulnerable flesh -- stood in the transom.

Okay, I mused, what sets off this device? Is there a sensor of some sort that I might, through acrobatic means, avoid triggering? I pressed again, leaped back into the sunshine with my feet as high in the air as I could manage (about four inches). Failure. Perhaps I have to go under the sensor? Pressed the button, and this time emerged hunched over making myself as small as I could.

Eleventh Street on a Sunday is no deserted place. As I was performing my antics, leaping out from under closing doors in various ridiculous poses, a small crowd began to gather. And here's the curious thing: I didn't know it at the time, a rally for the people of Iran was just breaking up a few bare blocks from us, and I noticed that quite a few of these folks were wearing green and carrying signs saying "Where's My Vote?" and the like.

One more attempt, which again failed to raucous laughter, and I thought Fuck it. I flashed a V-sign to the assembled folks, hollered "Sea of Green!" leaped into the car and hightailed it. I did stop in at the sleepy guard's desk, described to him as succinctly as I could what was now his problem, and ran.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


I don't know about you, but the info coming out of Iran today is utterly riveting. I hope this turns out without bloodshed, inshallah. I'm casting my memory back to Tienanmin Square, when it was incredibly frustrating to be reliant on the MSM for updates -- and not really believing what they said. Back then, the dominant technology was faxing -- when was the last time you faxed anything? -- but now, we get on-the-ground reports from eyewitnesses within minutes of the reported occurrence.

I'm obsessively reloading Sullivan and Nico Pitney at the Huffington Post (when do these guys sleep?) -- anybody got any other sources?

My best wishes to the brave marchers. Stay strong.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

This Machine, Too, Kills Fascists

Besides Andrew Sullivan and The Huffington Post's outstanding coverage of the events in Iran, I'm finding Al Giordano to be an extremely compelling daily read:

Ever since I penned The Medium Is the Middleman: For a Revolution Against Media, I’ve been waiting for this moment, which I predicted, twelve years ago, would come: a great day when the corporate media got pushed out of the way by authentic media from below. What is occurring worldwide, with the Iranian crisis as catalyst, is the emergence of the very kind of media from below that the human race - particularly the working class and the poor - so desperately needs.

Following these events – including the fast-developing advances in communications strategies and tactics and the efforts from above to censor and cut those communications – provides a gigantic global teach-in and workshop (much like during the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela) on how it is done. As a journalist, I have always followed the stories that help me to learn something new and important to me. And every hour, I’m learning a new set of tricks from these brave communicators in Iran and around the world: methods and techniques that will serve us in this hemisphere, soon enough, too.

The study of how to break information blockades is a life’s study for some of us. What a wonderful classroom we’ve been provided this week. Perhaps, just as Woody Guthrie painted on his guitar, we will finally be able to mark our communications tools: “This machine kills fascists,” and then evolve it to his friend Pete Seeger’s rejoinder, painted on his banjo: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Interesting article at Wired on the cyberwar underlying the events in Iran:
But Burton — who helped bring Web 2.0 tools to the American spy community — isn’t so sure. “Giving a citizenry the ability to turn the tables on its own government is, I think, what governance is all about. The public’s ability to strike back is something that every government should be reminded of from time to time.” Yet he admits to feeling “conflicted.” about participating in the strikes, he suddenly stopped. “I don’t know why, but it just felt…creepy. I was frightened by how easy it was to sow chaos from afar, safe and sound in my apartment, where I would never have to experience–or even know–the results of my actions.”


Update: Al Giordano: "[L]ike I've said again and again, the fight to keep the channels open is "the front" in this war for hearts and minds."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Strummin' on the Old Banjo

Dinah, in happier times

Sometimes the most puerile earworms dig their way into the cranium. This morning, driving Freddie to a doctor's appointment, I became aware that "I've Been Working on the Railroad" was buzzing around between my ears, and nothing I could do would stop it.

The first half of the song makes a fair amount of sense, I suppose -- all that tribute to labor for its own sake ("just to pass the time away," etc.). No, it's when the character of Dinah enters stage left pursued by a banjo that things get a bit surreal. Okay, we think, Dinah has a horn that the singer encourages her (at great length and with the enthusiasm borne of obsessive repetition) to blow, that much is clear. But when we learn that a mysterious "someone" is occupying the food-preparation area with Dinah while flogging a banjo (Earl Scruggs? Bela Fleck? Uncle Dave Macon? The curious mind can't help but ask), we descend into surrealism and madness. The song never identifies the musician -- itself a kind of self-aware metacommentary that we expect from a Kubrick or a Pynchon, but not from a 19th-century blackface minstrel -- but the idea of "being in the kitchen" with a woman who's been "blowing her horn" evinces a sort of eyebrow-waggling salaciousness that does the hitherto innocent work-song no credit.

I think the phrase "someone's in the kitchen with Dinah" could be rescued, refurbished, given new life and new meaning. Let's give it a shot, shall we?
"Could you possibly see your way to doing the goddamned dishes once in a while? I'm not your damned mom, and this place is a dump! Dirty socks in the sink, for God's sake! And you just sit there with that damned XBox, picking your nose! I'm going out, and this place had better be picked up when I get home, or there'll be hell to pay!"

"Well... Looks like someone's in the kitchen with Dinah!"
Or how about this:
"It's a three-one count... Beckett looks the runner back to first... Rodriguez looking for the heat, now... Rears back, pitch is on the way -- and A-Rod gets all of it! Left-centerfield, back is Ellsbury, but he won't get it.... Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah!"
Or this:
"...and he said, 'My God, it's full of holes!'

"Holes! Get it? 'Cos the... thing...

[Tap tap] "Is this thing on?

"Oh that's... unnecessary... Yeah, I remember when I had my first beer... Do I come to your work and yell at you? Man -- someone's in the kitchen with Dinah!"
Can I get a fee-fi-fiddle-dee-i-oh?

Friday, June 12, 2009

I Gotta Admit...

This one raised a lump in the throat and a tremble in the old lower lip...

Among everything else, it demonstrates the possibilities of digital multitracking in a global environment. I particularly like the look the guy at 1:48 gives the camera: "Oh yeah... This is gonna be good!"

These are the folks responsible.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


With a few hours to kill yesterday as Betty cavorted with some friends in western DC, Wonder Woman and I decided to take in the reopened National Portrait Gallery.

We hadn't ever visited. We will be back, and as soon as we possibly can -- as we only had a couple of hours, we left unsatisfied. The visiting Marcel Duchamp exhibit alone is worth an entire day. Unlike some of the other Smithsonian museums, the explanatory tags next to the exhibits are lengthy and detailed, and and assume curiosity and intelligence in the visitor. Absolutely worth a visit next time you're in town.

We were struck, also, by the lack of bag-inspecting, metal-detecting security measures as we walked in the door. This was so unexpected that we both remarked on it. Of course, there are plenty of vigilant guards in the lobby, as there should be, but nary a patdown did they give us or anyone.

It wasn't until later that afternoon, when we turned on the car radio, that we heard of the dreadful events at the Holocaust Museum, less than a mile from where we'd just been having a pleasant afternoon. We've been the Museum once, but long enough now that I can't remember what the experience of walking in the front door was like -- the Museum's Entry and Hours web page clearly says that all visitors must pass through a metal detector, so this maniac must have just jumped in the door and started shooting immediately.

My sympathies for the family and friends of Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security-guard victim. They don't pay those guys enough. Their union was trying to get them bulletproof vests, but their employer, Wackenhut (guilty! Guilty! Guilty!), ignored their request.

(Update: Read that "guilty" article from 1992; a whole lot of questions about Iraq WMD might be cleared up for you: "Another reason is that after a six-month investigation, in the course of which we spoke to more than 300 people, we believe we know what the truck did contain-equipment necessary for the manufacture of chemical weapons-and where it was headed: to Saddam Hussein's Iraq." This is why we still need journalism...)