Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Take some time, and learn how to play"

There's a great review of the video games Rock Star and Guitar Hero in today's Chronicle. Sample:

"If this were strictly a review, Rock Band from Electronic Arts - and its first cousin Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock from Activision - would probably both have the Little Man jumping out of his chair. In terms of entertainment value, it doesn't get much better than these two titles.
But something still seems fundamentally wrong when you pick up the video games, which both require that you press an ever-changing sequence of colored buttons to simulate playing the guitar and bass. (Rock Band also has a microphone for karaoke and a small drum kit.) What kid will ever want to pick up a real guitar, when learning to play a fake one is so easy? If Rock Band had been available in the late 1980s, would we even have a Green Day - or just three more no-name slackers killing a lot of time in their parents' basement?"

Sample #2:

"I don't think the makers of Rock Band have to be banned, boycotted or even need to apologize. But both games should definitely be accompanied by the following disclaimer:
1. No matter how good you get at Rock Band, you will never play the Coachella festival.
2. Nobody ever won his soul back from the real devil playing the ax that came with Guitar Hero III.
3. Playing a Guitar Hero or Rock Band guitar is a fairly effective form of birth control. Seriously, look at yourself in the mirror. No one who sees you playing this thing will want to have sex with you.
4. The plastic Guitar Hero guitar is pretty much useless around the campfire. (Even as kindling.)
5. If you get "Mississippi Queen" stuck in your head for more than two hours, consult a physician immediately.

Devon Sproule

The January issue of Acoustic Guitar is out, with my feature on Clarence White and profile of Devon Sproule. Unfortunately there's a typo in the article on Devon. The flat symbol (b) got deleted from the Eb in the following sentence, making it appear as if I think that Bb is a good chord for modulating to the key of E and forever tarnishing my reputation as a theory nerd.

"After four repetitions of that progression, the Bb/D lets Sproule modulate neatly into Eb for the soaring (I–vi–IV–V) chorus."

Ah well, I'll live. And as with all these short profiles, there are usually nice moments from the interview that don't make it into print, because of word limitations. So here's an excerpt from my interview with Devon:

Do you usually write with the guitar in hand?
I’ve started writing more around refrains—coming up with a one- or two-sentence refrain for a song. Those things usually take the longest, of the process. After that, the mystery or intimidating part is gone, and I can fill in the puzzle around it.

Is there an example of that on the new record?
Yeah, there’s a few—“Let’s Go Out,” “Stop By Any Time,” even “Old Virginia Block” is that way. I knew what I was aiming for at the end of each verse. Some of those are a little more stream-of-consciousness writing, and then it's a matter of going through the thesaurus and the rhyme dictionary and tightening up the stream-of-consciousness thing. There are a few other ones—“Does the Day Feel Long” is kind of experimenting with having a refrain that comes in not at the end of each verse or at the beginning of each chorus but that just pokes its head up once in awhile. Yeah, mostly the sort of jazz or swing-structured songs—the “Great American Songbook” songs. That’s what I wrote in my press release at least.

Well, you’re American, or Canadian—North American.
I pretty much identify myself as a Virginian, until I’m applying for a Canadian Arts Council grant, and then I’m all Canada—another Joni Mitchell.

The new album almost paints a portrait of a social scene—a neighborhood or group of friends. How much of this is observation and how much is invented?
It’s mostly personal. I got married a couple years ago, and I was writing most of these songs during and about that time. I was kind of digging having my own space. When one gets married, because you’ve chosen this person to spend all your time with, your social life really gets down to the important stuff. So I just have a few friends, but they’re really awesome. They’re all older than me, and smarter than me, and have these amazing vocabularies. They’re either great songwriters or doctoral candidates in the English department at U VA or whatever. That’s so fun having that kind of family.

And my husband and I we like to drink [laughs]. My girlfriend Danielle got the roughs for the record and she said, “I love it so much, but I’m worried because you mention drinking in almost every song.” And I realize that it is kind of a big part of my life, but there’s this beautiful language that works with it—that comes with it. I feel like there’s always a way to say something nice about drinking or the social stuff around it, or the problems with it, which I’ve started to encounter [laughs].

Do you keep a journal or ever put yourself in a place and try to imagine yourself there?
It’s a little bit of both. When I’m having long drives, I’ll turn off the book on tape and try to comb through my recent experiences and see if there are any interesting snapshots. I’ll try to think of the most interesting way to word them and then write those down. Actually my friend just gave me a little hand recorder thing. I haven’t used it yet, but I’m excited about becoming a safer driver with that.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Uncle Earl - Streak O' Lean, Streak O'Fat

The brilliant g'earls of Uncle Earl.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Sunday we went on a tour of long 12-percent grades in Eastern Sonoma County. This wasn't our intention when we started, but we were tagging along with a Team Swift teammate and his dad, who live in Petaluma, and I neglected to look closely at the map before we took off. We went over Sonoma Mountain twice (once each way) and then started up Trinity Grade, before we came to our senses. About a mile and a half up Trinity, Joey--who was leading the group--rounded a turn and saw that it was going to continue at 12 percent or so for awhile (see the photo above--last year's Tour of California on the same climb), said to himself "this is stupid," and turned around.

This would have been a great hard training ride in the middle of the season, but when we've barely got any miles in our legs and are just riding once a week or so? Nada. When I went back and looked at my Sonoma County bike map, I counted seven 3-arrow climbs on our 40-mile loop. Climbing is one thing, blowing out your knees when you're just supposed to be riding base miles is another. Fortunately we didn't hurt ourselves, but the moral of the story is: Always check your map.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The American Idea

In its latest edition, its 150th anniversary issue, the Atlantic magazine asked a number of writers, politicians, artists, scientists, and other thinkers to reflect on the future of “the American idea” in “around 300 words.” Somehow I was overlooked, so I will take a stab at it here.

Three little words that seem so pure and virtuous, yet themselves define the contradictions inherent in the phrase. First “the,” the definitive article that implies a single American idea, encompassing the populist American exclusion, arrogance, and belligerence of “my country, right or wrong,” “love it or leave it,” and “if you ain’t fer us, yer ag’in’ us.”

Second, “American,” which connotes both an inclusiveness and a wrongheaded arrogance. There are, after all, as any good PC-er will tell you, many countries in North and South America, yet America is usually defined as a single country: the United States of America, the name of which represents a very American concept--unity amid diversity, a melting pot of cultures.

And then that third word, “idea,” bringing to mind the great “American” virtues of independent thinking (a concept nurtured, if not born, in Greece), entrepreneurship (derived from a French word), and avant-garde (another French word) creativity.

America is above all a land of contradictions, of convenient ignorance, where the anti-immigrant throng fears what its ancestors (immigrants, of course) once wreaked upon the original “Americans”--the destruction of a way of life. To some, the American idea is that all persons, whatever their race, creed, religion, or ancestry, should be able to contribute equally to society, to live their lives the way they want, and to be compensated fairly for their labors, but of course this does not happen in America. It may be true that “anyone” can do this--grow up to be President, rich and happy, an American Idol, etc., but the American idea has never been that “everyone” can. This is why socialism is un-American, and capitalism, unrestrained by anything other than cronyism and the legal bribery perpetrated by lobbyism, is American.

But, of course, I am also a contradiction. Here I am complaining that the American idea is more individualistic than collectivist, yet I’m a musician who plays “unpopular” music, ignoring the tastes of the majority; a devoted father who insists on a capricious career that involves large chunks of time away from my family instead of conforming to the societal norm of a salaried, corporate, home-every-night job; and an anti-church socialist who decries the self-centered, materialist ways of the decidedly church-going, capitalist society I live in. In short, an individual, an entrepreneur (though hardly a successful one), a true American. At least, I like to think so. You got a problem with that?