Why Not Other Bands?

Last week marked the end of the Favorite Bands/Musicians feature. I caught all the ones I wanted to talk about, starting with The Beatles and ending with The Foo Fighters. I’ve gotten emails asking, “Why not Rush?” or “Emerson, Lake, and Palmer?” Some want to know why I didn’t do newer bands or how I could leave out Radiohead and most of the hair metal groups.

Simple. I didn’t want to do them.

There’s a certain point where the term “favorite” becomes meaningless. If every band or singer I’ve ever listened to is a favorite, then none of them are favorites.

Also, I opted to start with The Beatles and the Stones because they were the first groups I really got into. And really, any feature that discusses rock and roll must feature them. It’s like going all the way back to the beginning and skipping over Elvis. Speaking of which…

My knowledge of rock prior to 1964 is limited. Rock was still primitive, closer to country than what it later became. I know. This is what Lennon and McCartney, Mick and Keith, even the guys from Yes listened to as kids. Remember, though, when I was old enough to understand what this strange music coming out of our radios and from the television during American Bandstand, Led Zeppelin ruled, there were still four living Beatles with a new album always a possibility, and the new hot bands were Bad Company and Aerosmith.

I deliberately avoided hip hop because, frankly, I don’t know enough about it to write about it. I like some of it. A lot of it is crap, but then one could probably go through my iTunes and say the same thing.

Also, I avoided country, with the exception of Johnny Cash. And therein is where the heart of the feature lies. Johnny Cash was a favorite. In fact, I had a big Johnny Cash phase about the time I got into Tom Waits (who is definitely not rock and roll.)

And finally, there are a lot of bands I liked – Rush, for instance, some of the Lillith Fair performers, and Dave Matthews – whom I like very much but never grabbed me the way Marillion or Garbage or Zeppelin did.

It’s subjective. No one would consider my list a valid list of most influential or best musicians of the last half century. If it was, I’d have to include the Sex Pistols (whom I’ve never liked) and drop Marillion. Since I’m not a music critic, we’re gold here.

A Modest Proposal: Multiple Windows

I am still trying to figure out what sort of crack they were smoking in Redmond when they came up with Windows 8 and its migraine-inducing interface. No one will accuse Microsoft of being design geniuses, but the smartest thing they ever did was to put a Start button on your desktop. It’s the one thing that makes Windows Windows.

Of course, the Start button emerged on the watch of Bill Gates. Who was in charge when this fustercluck hit market?

steve-ballmer

Source: Microsoft

Yeah, this idiot. Steve Ballmer. The man who thinks corporate cannibalism is cutting edge management. There are some things Microsoft has gotten right, but they’re all on the development side. (Which makes me happy. I write C# over SQL Server. Anything that hurts Oracle is a good thing.) So what did this genius decide to do with Windows in the tablet era?

Make Windows a tablet operating system that runs on a PC. Know who else does that?

NOBODY!

Not even Google. While Google has announced plans to merge its Chrome and Android operating systems at some point, but Chrome will still run on laptops while Android will run on tablets and phones. So when will we see iOS on Macs?

Never.

As it should be.

So, a modest proposal for Microsoft before they’re forced to become a consulting firm like IBM: Well, you all know my feelings on Steve Ballmer. He desperately needs to become an unemployment statistic. But moreover, let’s do this with Windows. Instead of the visual atrocity that is Windows 8, let’s make Windows 9 a new and improved Windows 7. Keep Windows 8 for the tablet. And the phones?

Hire someone from Apple to fix it.

Remission: How I Measure Weight Loss

There are two ways to measure weight. One is to weigh oneself once a week, usually on a Monday. The other is to do it daily. Weekly gives you a consistent number to work with and only causes anxiety that first morning. Daily can be nerve-wracking, but it does give you an idea of how certain foods and activities will impact your body. Just don’t be shocked when that long night of beer, wings, and mozzarella sticks add 3-5 pounds that don’t go away by the next morning.

I do daily, but there’s a caveat. If I jump on the scale one morning and see a number that’s a goal weight (this week, 255 pounds), I don’t automatically assume I’ve met my goal. This was once a source of frustration that derailed previous attempts to lose weight and get in shape. You can have a day where you eat little, drink lots of fluids, and are physically active, resulting in a very nice reading on the scale the next morning. The problem is you have a perfectly normal day the next day. Or you have a business lunch or are so busy the only food you get is a Whopper and fries. Then the scale is not so nice.

I do my weight daily because it gives me a trend. I also have to check blood sugar and blood pressure daily, so my weight gives me an additional health factor to gauge how I’m doing. I get up, do what it is we do when we first roll out of bed, then hit the scale. This is when you’re at your lightest. Everything after that is added weight that hasn’t been absorbed yet.  If I’m at or under my target weight, it’s a good morning. But it doesn’t count as meeting my goal. Not until I’ve had 7 consecutive readings at or below my target weight. After that, it’s pretty obvious the target weight is the new normal, and I can move on.

How’s it worked? I talked recently about stopping several medications. I am now about to stop using a CPAP machine to sleep. This is a milestone. Plus, I’d like to be able to travel over night with nothing but my laptop and an overnight bag.

I am writing this on Sunday morning, which now marks 3 days under 255 pounds. My original goal for 2013 was 250 pounds. If those numbers hold by the time you read this, I will be less than 5 pounds away from my goal for the year.

The Compleat Kepler: Cold Cocked

cover-smallerCold Cocked

The Deep Purple song that inspired this one was an obscure one off Machine Head called “Pictures from Home.” Some would ask, “Why not ‘Highway Star’ or ‘Lazy’ or ‘Space Truckin”?” Or, for that matter, why not “Smoke on the Water?” Well, actually, I did come up with a story inspired by “Smoke on the Water,” but it’s a lengthy one involving a fictionalized version of the abandoned Chippewa Lake Amusement Park near where I grew up. I outlined that one, and it may or may not become the fourth Kepler novel. I have not decided yet.

I took all the titles from the album and tried to come up with an image. “Smoke on the Water” was pretty obvious. The old park was, until the land was finally cleared in 2010 for development, prone to arson fires. “Pictures from Home,” though, didn’t go the way I expected it. Those who know the song tend to fixate on the lines “I’m alone here/With emptiness, eagles, and snow,” which doesn’t work for a private detective prowling the mean streets of Cleveland. There’s nothing empty about Cleveland. Eagles there are a band featuring Don Henley, Glenn Frey, and former Clevelander Joe Walsh. And snow? You’re not alone in the snow in Cleveland. There are two million people in that whole corner of Ohio who want butcher Punxetawney Phil and Buckeye Chuck for lying to them about snow.

But the title… Now that’s different. Pictures from home? The story starts with a picture. And Nick’s taking the picture. I decided to make that a shocking picture. He’s photographing a carefully staged murder scene. The idea is to show the woman who tried to pay him to kill someone the photo. When she hands over the money, in swoops Nick’s pal, Homicide Sergeant Frank Windsor, to slap the cuffs on her, and the “deceased” shows up at the police station, they have a slam dunk for prosecution. Only someone cold cocks (hence the title) Kepler and the “deceased” dies for real in this one. Now, both Kepler and Windsor are suspects. And it’s up to Windsor’s partner Bertkowski (who first appeared in “Just Like Suicide”) to straighten things out.

Megan Powell, the editor of the old Shred of Evidence zine, snatched this one up, having published “Full Moon Boogie.”

Favorite Bands: The Foo Fighters

Foo Fighters

Source: USA Today

This is the band that never should have happened. It started as a demo EP by Dave Grohl, drummer for Nirvana, and was intended more to work on songs outside of that band. Only on the way to the next Nirvana album, Kurt Cobain died, orphaning the other three members. Just think how guitarist Pat Smear felt. He hadn’t even made it into the studio with the band yet, and already, they were done.

So Grohl had this EP and no place to go. He got a record deal for it and proceeded to put together a full-blown album, calling the act “The Foo Fighters” instead of “Dave Grohl” because of the old joke about the drummer going “Hey, man, I got some songs I wrote, too.”

Recruiting Smear and members of the punk band Sunny Day Real Estate, Grohl went out on tour in support of his new album. I remember when they first debuted that I thought it sounded “like Nirvana on Prozac.” The songs, with the exception of “I’ll Stick Around” were poppier, breezier. There’s “Big Me,” with the infamous Mentos video (parodied hilariously by the band and Weird Al Yankovick on an episode of AlTV), “This Is a Call” (almost childlike in its lyrics), and “For All the Cows.” The last is lightweight and soft until you really listen to the words. Kurt Cobain could have written that song, and it’s quite likely Grohl intended it for Nirvana.

But the video and tour demonstrated that this was, indeed, a band. By 1997, they were back in the studio recording The Color and the Shape. The album nearly destroyed the band. Grohl admits he still wanted to be the drummer and did not like where the beats fell. So he rerecorded all the drum parts and told drummer William Goldsmith that it was just something that bugged him. Goldsmith was not happy and quit. Not long afterward, Pat Smear, already having started in the hot mess that was The Germs and dealing with the drama surrounding Nirvana, decided he didn’t want to be in the Foo Fighters if that was going to be the norm. So he tendered his resignation, leaving Grohl and bassist Nate Mendel the only original Foos. Grohl hired drummer and vocalist Taylor Hawkins (who could easily trade places with Grohl and did so during a fantastic rendition of Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll” with Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones sitting in) to drum. To replace Smear, Grohl turned to his old friend Franz Stahl from his days in the band Scream. Smear left the band live on MTV, playing one song, announcing his departure, and introducing Stahl. Probably the classiest exit in all of rock and roll, but then I’ve always liked Pat Smear for some reason.

The new line-up did not do so well. Grohl meshed with Hawkins quite nicely – I’d characterize that as a full-on bromance, and was very comfortable writing with Mendel, who already was steeped in how the Foos did things. Stahl, on the other hand, wrote all of Scream’s music. This did not translate well into the Foo Fighters, where Grohl had realized collaboration was crucial to the band’s survival. So Stahl was invited to pursue other opportunities. Eventually, they brought in Chris Shiflett to replace him. And that, my friends, is how the Foo Fighters as they exist today came to be.

Almost.

davegrohlGrohl is definitely THE Foo Fighter, but his attitude has been “Once a Foo, always a Foo.” If Stahl or Goldsmith were to show up backstage, they would likely be out there for two or three songs. Even Nirvana bassist Krist Novocelic is considered an honorary Foo Fighter, even though he and Grohl passed on the idea originally to avoid being seen as just a rehash of Nirvana. It’s this attitude that had Pat Smear slowly drawn back into the fold first as a guest, then as an official member, careful to reassure Chris Shiflett that his job was safe.

The Foos are remarkably unpretentious as a band. Dave Grohl seems oblivious to his own fame most of the time. The band did not even realize their status until they sold out two shows at Wembley Stadium in weeks rather than months. The music is born of punk, but it has a much wider appeal. Instead of four or five guys banging the hell out of their instruments, they’re very careful about arrangements and recording. Their latest CD, Wasting Light, was recorded in Grohl’s garage using tape instead of digital because they wanted to put the music together a certain way. Tape would force the band to play better since, unlike digital, you can’t go in and change a sour note or fix a sloppy tempo. It has to be right on the take or there is no take.

While the Foos are definitely a band – Why else would Grohl work so long and hard to bring Smear back into the fold? – there are really two essential Foos without whom the band does not exist. First, obviously, is Grohl. He is the focal point, the literal personality of the band, and the brains behind its existence. One might as well ask the Stones to tour without Jaggar or Richards. Second is Taylor Hawkins. Though not the original drummer, Hawkins is yang to Grohl’s yin. His is the opinion Grohl seems to value most when things are not right in Foo Land, and he’s the one Grohl wants in the audience when he plays for Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age, or even Nirvana (Oh, chill! Nirvana was a band. Even Roger Waters gets this concept now.) He is like Ringo or Ronnie Wood or Steve Howe, that essential band member that doesn’t come in until later in a group’s history.

For me, the Foos are In Your Honor, the two-disk set Grohl defines as their “Physical Graffiti.” During the trip to and from the 2005 Bouchercon in Chicago, I played the hell out of that album both ways. Just really unpretentious rock and roll that never seems to get stale.

Which is hard to do the way record companies and radio stations flog even the best music to death these days.

Thursday Reviews: Roughing It by Mark Twain

Roughing It

Mark Twain

The original American smartass tells tales of the origins of his career in Nevada, dedicated to a partner in a mining venture, along with whom they were “millionaires for two weeks.”

This could be considered The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Version 1.0 when coupled with The Innocents Abroad. Young Samuel Clemens heads east during the Civil War to become private secretary to the new territorial secretary of state of Nevada. There, he catches mining fever during the territory’s silver rush and becomes a paper millionaire. Of course, it’s not that easy. He has to deal with rough weather, questionable business deals, his first turn as a newspaper editor, gunslingers, and periodic bankruptcy.

From there, Twain makes his way to San Francisco, flush with silver stock that, like the dotcom stocks of 125 years later, will be completely worthless within a month of his arrival. He has to “lower himself” and become a reporter. When he loses that job, he tries his hand at gold prospecting and is a miserable failure. Returning to San Fran, he lands a difficult gig to rescue him from poverty. He will have to spend a few months in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where he is to report back to his newspaper on life in the tropical kingdom. Yeah. Life sucks, even in 1870.

Upon his return home, he’s unemployed with no prospects. To make a living, he embarks on a lecture tour of the Pacific coast. It’s a novelty as no one lectures on the Pacific Coast. And thus, a star is born, though Twain seems to be loathe to call himself that. He seems rather shocked anyone wants to hear him speak about anything at any length.

At a time when essays and fiction tended to be long-winded, even today, Twain’s prose reads as easily and accessibly as anything one might read online. Better, actually, because the misspellings are the result of the grammar rules of the day and not the sloppy editing that plagues even the major news feeds. There are some things that give pause. Twain is not skittish about quoting someone dropping an N bomb, though he refers to black people himself as “Negroes” (which was still valid as recently as the 1960’s) and clearly has a dim view of the Anglo-Saxon superiority complex. Even with biases in evidence, Twain is more forward thinking than most of his contemporaries than terms of race, to the point where he talks about missionaries in Hawaii with dripping sarcasm. It really puts some of the squick moments in Huckleberry Finn into perspective. (Then again, Huck’s pa was too racist for the slaveholding south, so you get the idea that Twain knows there’s a better way.)

Twain spares no one from his sarcasm. Presidents such as Pierce, Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson were given barbs we normally reserve for George W. Bush or Barack Obama. (He does give Lincoln, president when the book begins, a free pass.) He rips on the Indians, then white people for taking the Indians’ land. He calls out Brigham Young on polygamy since, as he cites, Joseph Smith was actually against the practice. He doesn’t even spare himself. Twain freely, even gleefully, admits he was after the fast buck in his Nevada days and seems amused whenever his plans would be foiled by nature or by that pesky silver vein being nowhere near where they discovered it.

Twain is funny, slightly raunchy, and not the least bit pretentious. We need more Twains and few pundits. America would be a happier place for it.

The Compleat Kepler: Demon’s Eye

cover-smallerDemon’s Eye

The fifth song from the Deep Purple catalog picked for short story fodder came off the British version of their 1971 album Fireball. There were a lot of song titles I could mine for creative gold: “The Mule,” “Fools,” “Anyone’s Daughter” (That one could have been a lot of fun.), and “Strange Kind of Woman” (originally a single and the song that replaced “Demon’s Eye” on the American version of the album.) But “Demon’s Eye” suggested, possibly, a jewel of some sort. I immediately had a flash of a woman clad in black lingerie holding up a necklace with this evil-looking red diamond in the middle of it while her lover whispers in surprise “Demon’s Eye!” The woman, breaking the fourth wall of this scene, winks at the reader/viewer and says, “So, Paris? Or Rio?”

The scene looked to me like a cheesey eighties remake of a classic film noir movie, one where a director couldn’t get the rights to the original, so he commissioned a couple of screenwriters to steal from it, changing details to suit his “eighties sensibilities.” God, did I ever get sick of the word “sensibilities” in the 1980’s. It was a word designed to basically say, “It’s not crap! It’s modern!” Rolling Stone used it a lot, but they were talking about music and why certain artists sounded the way they did. I got it when Rolling Stone‘s reviewers said it. When Hollywood latched on, the word in that context turned to garbage.

Anyway, I now had the origin of the titular item. It was the very expensive prop to an eighties rip-off of The Maltese Falcon. And that is how Nick Kepler introduces it. It’s his latest case, one assigned to him by his insurance company benefactors. It belongs to the lingerie-clad actress in the movie, an engagement present from her first husband. So where is it?

She married a former Cleveland Browns running back with a thriving car business and a raging gambling problem. He’s looking to Nick’s insurance company client to help him balance the books.

This was a lot of fun to write, and it’s a favorite of people who’ve read these stories. I wrote a condensed version of it to read for Toastmasters meetings a few years ago, and it went over quite nicely.