Guitar Heaven: Chicago Music Exchange

After years of second hand conveyance of its greatness, we ventured into the Chicago Music Exchange Saturday afternoon as part of our pre-Phish-at-Wrigley festivities. With adulthood musical interests heavily influenced by the original Sam Ash and Manny’s (when they were two entities) in Musician’s Row, we are both somewhat snarky about music shops and also always on the lookout for that sincere mix of expertise, axes, and environment that makes you feel at ease no matter the extent of your chops, geography or wallet.

The Chicago Music Exchange (@ChicagoMusicEx) is our new comfort zone.

The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

When you walk in you’re greeted by walls of guitars, sorted by vendor – if you’ve never seen a wall of Rickenbackers, or better yet, an entire wall of Gibson Les Pauls (further sorted into black and sunburst/tobacco finishes) then you should make the trip. It’s hard to quantize properly – imagine being at a car show where car from commuter can to high end speedster is on display with all variations in color, options and vintage. There are 50 year old guitars with all of the signs of being played hard, and pristine mint models that await their first introduction to an amplifier.

The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

The second, and more subtle, sense is that the store is optimized for people to come in, play and relax. There are comfy couches and chairs, and some benches lining the display walls. Sound protected rooms with an abundance of high-end amps and cabinets are there for you to audition guitars, so you avoid the cacophony and fatigue-inducing “I can go one louder” of a purely open floor. I was looking for the “No Stairway To Heaven” sign – although this weekend it more properly should have read “No Stash” (the dexterity demonstration of Phans with six strings everywhere).

Downstairs, in the appropriately punned “Bassment” we found an equally wonderful assortment of gear, from new Rickenbacker 4004s to local luthier Serek’s work to more Fender basses than you could play in a lifetime. Again, accommodating setup for musician and family roadie alike, and the staff knowledge was as remarkably deep as it was freely and politely dispensed. Years ago I read stories about Steve Howe (of Yes fame) going into Manny’s in New York to see “what was new” and I have to believe Chicago Music Exchange provides an equivalent experience.

The bass-filled Bassment

The bass-filled Bassment

Despite the siren (and drop-D tuned) calls of the Serek, Sandowsky and Warwick basses, it was not our day to add to the ever-growing guitar collection. The coda to our visit: “We just played $50,000 of guitars, can I get a shirt?” asked Ben, and the front desk staff was only too happy to go find one in the right size/color scheme. It’s the small things that make customers — especially long-distance customers — eager to return again and again. It may be the centerpiece of our next pilgrammage to the Second City.

Father’s Day 2016: A Poem In The Cards

This is a chapter from a book I’ve had in progress for more than 15 years — one day I may finish it, but for now, here is my tribute to fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and fathers’ friends, all of whom help us craft poetry out of our allegiances. Hat tip to Cory Doctorow who provided inspiration along the way.

“..so the cards stayed in the glass cases in Eddie’s…And after a while I no longer opened my shoe boxes…And the surprising thing was that I never really missed them. Or even thought of them in any special way. And very gradually the memory of it all faded….And that is the way you always lose your childhood.”
– Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book”

“It all made poems…when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away…A thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month’s rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma’s kitchen was a story and a poem.”
–Cory Doctorow, “Craphound”

My childhood was never lost, not with the passing of Willie Stargell and not with university commencement and not when my baseball cards were thrown away, because my Mom never thought to dispose of the briefcase in which they were safeguarded. My childhood retreated and went subsurface, only to be reeled back into current events with my own kids. Collecting sports memorabilia, especially sports cards, is the cornerstone of that rebuilding.

I love collecting things with a past. They form a jigsaw puzzle, missing some center pieces, telling most of a story with only a few salient details left to be discovered or invented. I have an entire box of world coins, collected by uncles in various tours through Europe, stamped with mint dates between the World Wars, in currencies or from countries that no longer exist. The older, more worn coins have history encoded in fingerprints and scratches. Their person to person circulation stopped when pocketed by someone like my Uncle Ziemel, saving a coin from every country where he had a cup of coffee and told his own stories.

Coins were something to be studied and tucked into cardboard albums; baseball cards were the circulating currency of my youth. I remember the smell of the bubble gum inside the wax paper packages, the slightly gritty feel of the card unlucky enough to be riding shotgun with what passed for gum but had the taste and consistency of an ill-fated marriage of gum rubber and sugar. Baseball cards arrived in my hands from a number of sources: cards won in flipping contests with classmates; payment for some nerd oriented activity – my biggest haul being payment for the home-made Phillies jersey t-shirt that eventually ruined my friends’ laundry; a reward after a Little League game long before the snack bar became a staple of the 60-foot diamonds.

I sorted, arranged, cataloged and read my baseball cards with interest ritually required for rabbinic interpretation, fearing that I’d overlook some subtle nuance or fact that might prove useful later in life. It’s how I learned that Willie Stargell was from Oklahoma; that he owned a chicken restaurant that was his off-season occupation; or that some baseball players took time off for military service before resuming their careers. Baseball cards were the intersection of nerdiness and sports; they let me be a student of the game without actually playing the game. They were a view into the game; they elaborated on players’ lives off the diamond one sentence at a time; they were a mass of statistics and numbers and checklists and other things to thrill a budding engineer. I never had the urge to collect famous players or complete sets; I had what I had and was happy to pick up the occasional extra Willie Stargell card as well as additional Pirates or Mets. Too young for Mickey Mantle, too old for baseball cards as a serious business. Cards were the harbinger of elementary and middle school springs, pre-dating televised spring training games or fantasy baseball magazines on the variety store shelves. An old business-suitable briefcase served as safe haven and predictor of their eventual value in someone else’s business, and prevented them from suffering in the periodic childhood closet pogroms.

Somewhere between 7th grade and having kids of my own, sports cards went from “my business” to Big Business. Collectors fret over the nuances of a card in mint condition and look at the quality of the image on the card stock. Price guides abound and cards represent a brisk business on eBay, creating a stock market for childhood memories. Sports cards don’t have the well-traveled history of a 1923 Czechoslovakian coin. They go from sealed pack to plastic holder to eBay or memorabilia retailer, untouched, unworn, maintaining their “near mint” status but losing some ability to carry the memory of touch. The sports card industry has somewhat made up for this by embedding pieces of game-worn jerseys or equipment in the cards themselves, so our associations with the cards are through experiences with the literal sports thumbnails wedged between the pasteboard slices.
Before commercial interests established formal systems for card ownership, my own grading system went something like this:

  • Pack Fresh. Smells of bubble gum, and minor nicks where the glue that holds the wax packs together leeches onto the face of the cards. They last approximately 36 seconds in this state before being shoved into pants pockets, thrown into boxes, or deemed fit only for spoking. Should a particularly interesting card surface in the wax pack, the lifespan of pack fresh cardboard increases correspondingly, but eventually the goods have to make it back to your bedroom.
  • Unlaundered. Rescued from pants pockets before the washing machine could bleach ink from the paper, corners slightly damaged from last minute shoving out of a teacher’s line of sight, but reasonably legible.
  • Game worn. Today “game worn” means the card has that small slice of a jersey, bat, glove, stick, or other equipment wedged between the front and back faces. It is a bit of the game reduced to trading size and delivered to the collector. In middle school, “game worn” meant that the card had seen its share of flipping, trading, last-second jamming into desk trays in home room, and any other signs of having been played with by pre-teens.
  • Spoked. Shows clear signs of being clipped to the fork holding a bicycle wheel. Spoking a card, or a set of cards, meant that your bicycle made a cool thwack-thwack-thwack sound as you raced up and down the street; if motorcycle mufflers were filled with papier-mache you’d get the same sound effect. Much of the ink on the front is worn off, and at the atomic level card is barely held by the weak nuclear force. There are definitely times when, as fans, we feel we’d like to take one of our less favorite players and administer a virtual spoking, but as kids we did it symbolically and regularly. I humbly apologize to the man in the Pittsburgh hot corner, Richie Hebner, for spoking him. Multiple times. Not my fault he showed up in wax packs with the alarming regularity of the telephone bill.

Most of my baseball cards – and one errant pack of basketball cards, whose story figures prominently into my little sports montage – lead back to Grandpa Herman’s general store. The prime funding timing and sources for my little cardboard empire were spring and summer afternoons spent at my grandparents’ house. Each invariably brought a trip across the street to the general store, where the candy assortment seemed to stretch from the front door to the darker regions where the meat cases began and younger interests faded. Grandpa Herman’s store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint – the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn – between New York City and Philadelphia. A disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts defined the boundaries of the store, only Grandpa knew everything’s true location but you never had to ask twice for any item. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). The shelves ran floor to ceiling; the days ran dark to dark o’clock.

Somewhere near the front door, just to the right, where the grandchildren could look up at Grandpa, and he would look down over the counter to his grandchildren, were boxes of Topps baseball cards, seated proudly on the candy shelves next to the Necco wafers. On Sundays when the family congregated at our house, Grandpa brought an all-star selection from his general store along in the trunk, a true grab bag with all of the younger cousins bobbing for whatever goodies we chose without visual cues. The unmistakable feel of a pack of cards in your hands, the promise of what lay inside, is a juvenile lottery ticket on which there is no way to lose. Even if you get your fourteenth Richie Hebner card.

One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us – the kinder, as our grandparents referred to us in Yiddish – popped into the store. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn’t quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa’s shrug indicating that he didn’t know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we’d take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage. Faced with players who looked like our parents in their wedding pictures, from cities of uncertain basketball heritage (Syracuse? There were professional teams in Syracuse?) they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper goody bag once we had crossed back to the house side of the street. Those hoops cards were dumped into the big briefcase along with the rest of my cardboard memories, where Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, and a collection of Pittsburgh Pirates (including a pristine Richie Hebner) sat protected from the elements. Most men will tell you that their baseball card collections died a more pitiful death than transit through the washing machine – they were thrown out during some room purge; my parents simply insisted that I clean out my room, and the briefcase moved with me to Massachusetts where the pieces of the Topps jigsaw puzzle would finally slide together.

It’s necessary to fast-forward to adulthood and my own married life. Taking a hint from the numismatists, sports cards today are slabbed and graded; once they become an investment they are no longer something you can touch to enjoy. That robs you of the feeling, of the connection, that this was little cardboard token was part of someone’s life, perhaps part of your own. I adore my old Willie Stargell cards that are far from mint condition with perfect centering and sharp color because they survived four tours of duty in my favorite school pants. Willie Stargell went to science class with me and sat where wallet and car keys sit today. The briefcase full of cardboard wonder came to rest at our house in Burlington, Massachusetts, where, between moves, I decided to examine its contents more thoroughly and was again caught blindside by sports tradition.

One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it’s easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics: Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years this never registered with me; he was another guy with the wrong ball in a strangely lit picture. With the briefcase open, and the business of my cards displayed before me, I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Gently slipped him into a plastic protective sleeve, then and ever since that afternoon Cousy runs above my desk, frozen in time dribbling toward the hoop, evoking the voice of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most with “a notion, going right to left”. Cousy’s backstory doesn’t involve basketball for me; it’s about my grandfather, a first generation immigrant to America; the humble beginnings of a major sports derivative business; boys and the little swatches of youth that we cling to forever. Or at least until we decide to part with them via eBay.

Fast forward to early 2005 when I am stuck at home with a broken leg, battling cabin fever, making it time to once again dip into my cardboard history. If the cards don’t hold my interest, there must be someone else who can put a time and place to a face, a quote, or a number left open on a checklist. Turns out that 1957 Topps basketball cards have a following somewhere north of ice hockey in Florida but less than current all-star baseball players; there’s significant activity and action as I lovingly photograph, describe and post most of the cards. Cousy watches the whole thing, immobilized in his plastic trap, as my trading business gains critical size and momentum. I am momentarily in middle school again, and thanks to the crutches, just as clumsy.

Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was a player named George Yardley who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it’s likely you didn’t know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, “very nice, humble men”. Nice and humble don’t trump “valuable in this condition,” and my eBay transactions continue. This results in the hobbyist’s own worst enabler: more money to spend on the hobby.

Sales of old basketball cards fuel purchases of hockey cards. This dates back to the beginning of our family love affair with our favorite New Jersey Devil, Patrik Elias, when I asked Ben “What if we try to collect every Patrik Elias hockey card?” It seemed a simple way to get him interested in one of my childhood pastimes, a simpler diversion in a day of video games and movies on demand. Simple questions have complex answers. Obvious simple questions have very complex, difficult, expensive answers. “Every Patrik Elias” card tops out at close to a thousand unique items, ranging from the simple rookie card printed before anyone in New Jersey knew that the terminal, accented Czech “s” sounds like an “sh”, to cards highlighting milestones and carrying the ever-popular slices of game equipment. A first approximation of buying all of them would make it the most expensive hobby that didn’t land me in the hospital.

When they became big business, sports cards also lost their childhood. They became a stock market in their own right, with the card companies annually creating new products with ever-decreasing print runs. Today, sports cards are about numbered editions, jersey cards, game-used equipment cards, short-print (fewer than average) run, and rookie cards. They are about acquisition and ownership, not knowledge and collecting. However, they still have the ability to make adult men think about days spent looking at the faces of heroes, arrayed before them in a system that only made sense at the time, gazing back at us.

Starting with current cards selected from packs, and adding small “player sets” picked up on eBay, we had a good starting point. A year of more precise searching, bidding and research brought us more than halfway through An Illustrated History of Patrik Elias, in full color and mint condition. At that time, Ben and I hit what most collectors think of as the “hard ones” – the difficult cards were what remained as empty spaces in our collection; the easy finds were found and now equal combinations of money and luck were required. Immediately after becoming flush with hobby funding from I discover the existence of the Elias “Country of Origin” card. With some mix of bravado and stupidity, I decide I’m going to find one.

Sadly, there may only be one to find. The Beckett Price Guide, de facto authorities on sports card values, doesn’t list a price for it due to scarcity. This puts its value in collectors terms roughly on par with the Hope Diamond, with only a slightly better chance of finding one in the wild. Supposedly there are a dozen that have been printed, but I’ve only seen proof of two in existence; a picture on a web site and an eBay auction that I managed to misjudge. I search eBay listings and online catalogs to no avail; there are no more Elias Country of Origin cards than in-the-wild large bore diamonds to be found in New Jersey. That’s when luck comes into play, as one of the two is re-listed on eBay and I simply bid until it’s mine. I exchange the price of a good dinner for a small rectangle of high-gloss paper, an inch-tall picture of Patrik Elias on the side, and a square inch of jersey real estate wedged in the middle. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a “do you know” radix of no more than two. The minor miracle urged along by good obsessive-compulsive online shopping habits lets me have a daily reminder of a great day involving two generations of heroes.

Three winters earlier, Ben and I attended the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It was a magic weekend of “guy time,” watching hockey, talking about hockey, glimpsing athletes in and around the hotel, going to parties and generally celebrating in a city known for celebrations. Elias was voted onto the All-Star team, wearing a maroon jersey for the World Team, facing off against teammates Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur skating for the North American All-Stars. During the pre-game warm-ups, Ben ran to the glass, watching the players skate without helmets, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias as he sped by. Before the game started, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was introduced. My heart jumped up into my throat, nearly a quarter century of my own hockey memory looking back at me, waving again from the ice, this time in person. I quickly and quietly explained the Miracle on Ice to Ben, letting the video montage and the rink announcer provide the details. Two weeks later, at the opening of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we smiled again having seen this hand tipped as the 1980 hockey team lit the torch. Those are the moments that forever bond a father and son; not the winning or championships; just seeing heroes as men, made human without helmets or equipment, smiling for all to see. During that warmup period, when the players and the fans were all smiles as well, I captured one badly focused picture of Ben looking back at me, Elias looking back to the blue line, both of their blond curls in the frame, with a red, white and blue Czech flag jersey patch on Elias’ shoulder visible just past Ben. If you know countries of origin and hairstyle, you can figure out the puzzle, otherwise it’s another blurry picture taken in a major sports arena by an enthusiastic father. I love that picture for both reasons.

When the bubble envelope containing my personal Honus Wagner equivalent arrives, I wait for Ben so we can open it together. Nestled deep inside the mailer is a smaller package, wrapped with card protectors and tape, a hard shell inside the soft outside. We peel it open, and I show Ben the card with a jersey patch segment in the middle, a tiny window on a Czech flag waving to us, having gone from Elias’ shoulder to our kitchen through a card manufacturer. The look on his face tells me that he gets it immediately; he’s seen that player in that jersey with that patch, and we have the picture to prove we were there when the jersey and patch were game-worn. There’s a soundly reassuring circular logic to it, value in a shared memory far greater than the price tag. Even though our Elias cardboard mosaic now contains hundreds of little rectangles, there’s only one that sits out on display in my office. It frames a small lineup of a plastic-cased Bob Cousy, a well-worn Willie Stargell, and a flag-waving Patrik Elias. It’s the poem of multiple family generations, a haiku tinged with regret that I didn’t know my grandfather well enough, but hope and promise for what and who comes next.

Ecstatic with this happy end, I still have cards to mail out as payments trickle in, completing the flow of funds that funded my mental excursion back to Los Angeles. On the way to the post office with the George Yardley card, I notice that it’s addressed to someone with family name Yardley. This cannot be a coincidence, so I email him as soon as the bubble mailer is en route, asking if he’s related. The buyer returns stories of professional basketball players who are nice and humble and a George Yardley card is his own Country of Origin: his father is pictured on the front. He was putting together sets of his father’s sports cards for each of his kids. My grandfather’s desire to clean up his safe area, followed many years later by my desire to clean up piles of old trading cards, will connect another generation of Yardleys to their grandfather. I’ve returned whatever karmic balance in the universe that caused the Elias Country of Origin to re-appear out of the wild, as both Yardleys and I have bridged generations with a story told in pictures of our childhoods.

The value of memorabilia is the tensile strength with which it ties a thing to a point in your or your family’s life. I doubt Nick Swisher will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his photograph on my wall of signed pictures reminds me of the summer of 2009 when daughter Elana and I watched the Yankees together en route to a World Series win. It’s more Richie Hebner than Reggie Jackson, but it makes the memory tangible as well. The artifacts make poems, the poems tell stories, and the fire of those stories forges family tradition.

Memorial Day, Twenty Years Later

I had a somewhat stereotypical start to Memorial Day: went outside and played basketball with my recent college graduate son. I’m as terrible as I was back in 1972, the first and last time my name appeared in the sports section of the local paper (I was fouled in a tournament game in a “Hack A Nerd” play, because nobody had ever seen my make a shot — I made both foul shots and sent the game into overtime). My shoulder (rotator cuff) and knee (arthritis) remind me that I’m slower and more cautious than the twenty-somethings, which is acceptable. But dribbling the ball, clanging it off the rim, chasing it into the backyard and providing our own Johnny Most-channeled commentary reminded me of countless days practicing on my parents’ driveway.

That highlight reel season was made more fun by one player — a relatively new kid in town who became a great athlete in high school and went on to be a Navy Seal. Steve never once criticized my playing skills, my lack of playing time, or my overall tenor as more of a student of the game rather than a player of the game. He complimented, cheered and led with the same quiet, respectful voice he used around adults. My interest in basketball waxed and waned with geography – quiet in high school, outsized while at Princeton and watching my classmates play in the NCAA tournament, excited while the Celtics were in their Bird-flight peak during my first tenure in Bean town, and finally rekindled with a little 1:1 on my own driveway – but my early lessons in how you treat teammates, or players on your team, have been invariant.

Twenty years ago Steve was killed in a search and rescue mission. He’s the only contemporary I know killed in active service. Barbecue, official start of summer, retail sales — none of them convey the solemnity of the memorial part of Memorial Day. Steve got up and did his job, every day, protecting our freedoms, our stance in the world, and our ability to enjoy every one of those calendar time markers of the season. As I wrote eight years ago, he frequently found it repetitive and grueling, but his personal comfort came second. That is, in so many ways, what it means to serve, and why we observe — not just celebrate, but mentally take note — of those who gave their lives in active service to our country.

Navigating Prague Modulo Language Skills

Needed to grab an Uber today as I’m recovering from some travel bug and didn’t want to be out in the rain for ten minutes waiting for the Prague city tram to get to the office. Fired up the app, got a driver assigned, went to the lobby to wait. I had entered the office address in the Uber app, but Prague addresses have a variety of slashes, vernacular annotations and other information that remind me more of disk formatting than street geography. To be safe, I told the driver “MSD Riverview, Smichov, Prague 5.”

“No English. Sorry.”

The smart play, of course, is to type what you want to say into Google Translate, then either have it spoken for you or attempt to further butcher the native tongue. Given that Czech has an accented r which is the love child of the Spanish teacher who rolled her Rs for 20 seconds and Crazy Ivan from “Red October” emphasizing his Cyrllic “X,” I always opt for help. Then again, the translation of “MSD Riverview” is reflective in any language. Google untranslate back to self.

Inspiration strikes – I know a landmark and know about six numbers in Czech.

“Pivovar Staropramen, dve ste meters (indicate straight through with karate chop motion)”. Rough translation: “Staropramen brewery, then 200 meters further on”.

Got it in one. It’s amazing how much you can pick up from reading the denominations on currency (I know 100, 200 and 500, as well as 1, 2 and 5 this way), and knowing a local landmark is always helpful.

So far this trip I’ve learned the words for “right” and “left”, “emergency” (not needed, I was wondering what a sign said that translates to “Beer Emergency!” and yes, this is a thing in Prague) and at least I understand there are seven declensions of nouns and verbs, none of which I will remember. Unless they are currency related.

Theme From The Bottom 2: Synth Pedal

My first year of playing bass — for real playing, not coddling in a store while the Bubba auditions fine instruments — led me into a circle I’ve only observed from the periphery from years. Whether it was lusting after the electronic instruments in Freehold’s Caiazzo Music on South Street (and wondering how exactly they produced sound without any active electronics, only to back into the science a few years later) or guiltily leafing through “Bass Player” magazine before handing it off to Bubba, I was a bass playing wanna be. Knowing a handful of riffs and songs, some elements of chord and scale structure, and developing finger strength that puts me somewhere between “galloping metal core” and “finely manicured hands” I can at least feel as though I belong inside the first circle of competency. Most of my practice time is spent thinking about note names, frets and hand positions, and scale modes. At age 53, it’s significantly harder to put the pieces together in real time.

Last night my ever-patient bass teacher Max brought in a DigiTech Bass Synth Wah pedal, a compact combination of an auto wah (envelope filter), octave synth, and simple ADSR synth. It’s one part DIY Synth and one part Peter Frampton channeling through the bass clef, and it was fun. For the first time, I could “see” my sound — not in notes on a staff paper or circles in a tab chart, but as attack and decay envelopes, as synthesized wet signals mixed back into the dry, and I actually could predict sound effect before turning knobs for physical effect. It was some of the best fun I’ve had in the studio in a year, because I was active in producing something that was “my sound.”




Post (sound) production, I get the unique association of bass players and their tone – whether Chris Squire’s slightly ringy, full stereo sound or Geddy Lee’s overtone rich playing. Mine will get neither monikers or followers but it was, for the duration of a few dozen bars of “Boogie on Reggae Woman” all mine.

And now for the plate o shrimp moment: My foray into bass synth territory came only a few hours after the death of keyboard virtuoso Keith Emerson, the man who put the Moog synthesizer on the map and the stage and the turntable. Emerson’s fluidity on the keys was matched only by his creativity in patching and sequencing and hand-crafting an array of sounds that created musical history. Girded with the underlying understanding of synthesizer electronics, and coaxing a particular sound out of a physical instrument, my dual experiences yesterday just reinforced my belief that Emerson was indeed a Prog God and that any chance I have to float, for even a few moments, in the same intersections of engineering, math and music is a gift.

Whit Diffie Wins The Turing Prize

I am so thrilled to see Whit Diffie honored with the Turing Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of computer science. I had the distinct, wonderful and often times quirky pleasure of working with Whit at Sun Microsystems, where our paths intersected three or four times a year: at the bi-annual CTO nerd fests and at a research computing or privacy event where his wisdom was always shared with a smile, a story and subtlety. He is one of the most approachable people you will ever meet, and despite the fact that he is half of the reason you can safely transmit information over public networks, he has advocated tirelessly for us to continually rethink and reconsider our notions and mechanisms for privacy.

My favorite Whit story seems to have disappeared with my former Sun blog, so I can use the occasion of his fete to re-share: Every year the Sun Analyst’s Conference would feature a “CTO Panel” where each divisional CTO would join corporate CTO Greg Papadopoulos for some direction, big challenge, and market sensing banter. Seating order was never decided in advance, and after throwing out tenure, age, and alphabetical ordering, I quipped during walk-on that we should order ourselves by Erdos number. Without missing a beat or step, Whit said, with perhaps the most excitement I’d heard from him, “Great, mine’s 3, so I’m sitting first.”

He is one of the best people at marrying deep mathematical theory and practical applications, as they relate to real people, whether it’s nerd seating charts or worrying about how we balance security, privacy and risk. I found him to be a stanch advocate of diversity in all views, from what defines “good engineering” to how to recognize valuable work.

This is an award presentation worth sharing.

One Shining Moment, Coach’s Version

Coaching youth sports is not without its challenges. Working with under-8 hockey players in our Devils Youth program, I stress three things at the beginning, middle and end of each season: hard work, unerring sportsmanship, and having fun. If you put in the hard work and are a good team player, you improve and the fun comes along with the game. Under the USA Hockey ADM rules, we don’t keep score, assess penalties or worry about offsides – it’s about getting touches on the puck and learning the fundamentals of the game. Most of my time as coach is spent on breaking the puck out away from the net, paying attention to the low slot on defense, and passing the puck.

Each year, there’s one small moment that stands out from the rest that rationalizes the crazy early mornings, the throbbing right knee, and the unique smell of a locker room that hasn’t seen antiseptic or paint since the Clinton administration.

Two weeks ago I noticed that the youngest player on our team — whom I’ve had the pleasure of coaching for three years — had outgrown his stick. He was hunching over to control the puck, and when we did the stick-to-nose measurement his stick barely reached his chin. Today: brand new, longer Warrior stick, which of course he was proud to show me. First shift of the game, he found his way to the front of the net, got a tape to tape pass from a teammate, and ripped the hardest shot of which he was (newly) capable. Goal. From the bench (open to where the attendant families were standing) I heard his parents erupt; I saw his smile from 80 feet away on the bench. Every teammate on the ice hugged him.

It’s his first goal in a game since I’ve coached him. It won’t be his last, because he knows the value of hard work and being on the receiving end of good sportsmanship. And I know he had fun, in that one shining moment. If I contract some stomach bug later this week, it’s likely because after that play I licked his stick blade (helmet tip to Coach Scream-a-lot for that motivational act) and said “Tastes like goals. Lots of them.” And got another smile.

Here’s to the kids who work hard, every game. You make being a coach fun.

Moving Pictures and Life in Thirds

Rush’s “Moving Pictures” turns 35 this weekend, released February 12, 1981. While I had a passing interest in the trio before then, having heard “Spirit of the Radio” on New York and Philly FM stations with some regularity, it was “Limelight” and “Tom Sawyer”, played first on WYSP (Trenton) and then religiously on my own brand-new component stereo system that turned me into a lifelong Rush fan. It’s the only album that my sister and I both purchased (aside from some Partridge Family noise of the 1970s, but you get a hall pass for music you whine your parents into buying at a 7-11). It has one of the most visually pun-rich covers (on the front, men moving art, and the secondary pun of people moved by the moving art, on the back, the sight gag that the whole front shot was a moving picture set), which has infused recursive references into Rush tour interstitials for the ensuring 35 years. It’s nerd nirvana before you even drop the tone arm on the first track, the phased shifted, slightly spacey opening punch of “Tom Sawyer.” That was me, in every sense, in 1981.

"Moving Pictures" front cover (source: Wikipedia)

“Moving Pictures” front cover (source: Wikipedia)

Moving Pictures neatly divides my life into thirds reflected around the axis of my relationship with Rush: its release; their hiatus; and their semi-official retirement.

“Moving Pictures” is one of the few albums I can listen to end to end, finding something different each time, depending upon my mood and the context. The morning commute is enriched by “Camera Eye” as much as “Red Barchetta”. I find codon-inspired irony in using “YYZ” as an MTV-like soundtrack for EWR, SFO or FRA; it was the song that introduced me to 3-letter airport codes which have defined the vertices of my business graph since 1989. “Vital Signs” had an eerie video that I caught on Don Kirschner’s late night “Rock Concert” while home over some school break, and the “breaking sound” on YYZ is still one of the best recorded and appropriate effects in any rock song (it’s the sound of wind chimes being slapped against a wood table, not a brick thrown through a plate glass window as many of us believed). “Moving Pictures” was one of the first albums I bought after carefully weighing the opportunity cost of the $8 investment of my summer earnings (about three hours of after-tax pay, at that time), an anchor store to an album collection that expanded from under 100 to over 600 vinyl sleeves in about six years. Seeing Rush perform the whole album at Madison Square Garden, with my son and some friends in tow, was a life experience. Attempting to learn the bass lines to some of that music cements my position that it represents Geddy Lee at his technical and phrasing best, not just following the guitar lines but leading a wholly counterpoint melody that pulls the listener in all sorts of aural adventures.

First period: “Moving Pictures” makes me a rock and roll listener, for life.

The next 18 years are classic young adulthood: jobs, marriage, kids, multiple moves, the cultural void that comes from having young children, and then my insistence that our kids listen to “good music” rather than Barney or Raffi. Our kids were raised on a diet of classic rock before having an XM station made that a bit easier. Our daughter’s first “big concert” was seeing Santana in August 1995, the night Jerry Garcia died, an intense confluence of introducing a new generation to “my music” and also having a larger than life force in that music taken from us. It was the first time I had that feeling, and one that has become far too frequent in the last few years. For our son, his indoctrination came two years later, just a few months after his third birthday, when we caught the Holy Trinity at PNC Bank Arts Center. That show was one for the ages, opening with “Dreamline” (which Ben referred to as “We Are Young”, a reference to the chorus) and bookended by “Red Barchetta” and “Limelight” near the open with “Tom Sawyer” and “YYZ” at the close. It was as close to a perfect concert experience as you could get for a young fan, with liberal doses of songs he knew coupled with introductions to newer (or older) material that would become part of his musical heritage over the next 18 years.

Two months after that show, Rush went on hiatus as Neil Peart handled tragedies in his personal life. Second period: I graduate from technical adult to parenting adult, and the foundation of a father-son relationship is laid only to be quietly subdued again.

What “Moving Pictures” was for my formative music listening years, “Vapor Trails” was for Ben – a vivid, acoustically wonderful set of experiences. Four years into the last third of the current storyline, Rush returned to our lives, and we began a decade plus of ten concerts that took us from New Jersey to New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas. If you look carefully along the left side of this arena photograph (framed in both of my offices), where the seats meet the floor, you’ll see us cheering, singing, punching the air along with “The Temples of Syrinx” from the Boston Garden show of October 2012, Ben’s freshman year at university, the song set to play again one generational octave lower. And then, with this year’s summer show in Las Vegas, just in time for my 53rd birthday, Rush implied their retirement from touring, and perhaps from music. And so we find ourselves back at the second intermission once again, a young adult and a middle-aged adult, wondering if there’s an extra stanza to come.

Never underestimate the power of music to forge lifelong connections, a sentiment proven by scientific research sponsored by Sonos and Apple (two major contributors to my music listening experience in the current frame), and replete with suggestions for finding the right musical accompaniment to your Valentine’s Day. For me, the final third has about a year to go — one filled with music, Rush references, puns, bass lessons, parenting, summer concert tours, and thinking in thirds, fourths and fifths.

Themes From The Bottom

One of the advantages of learning to play bass — not just a hold and pluck stance, but really using both hands to play — is that I can appreciate the technical mastery of some of my musical bottom heroes. I’ve slowed down the introductory riff in Rush’s “YYZ” to slo-mo spoof tempo, and I can still only reach about 2/3 of the notes in something resembling the right phrasing, completely reinforcing my non-scientific view that Geddy Lee is one of the most proficient bass players alive.

With the benefit of a year of lessons, a lot of listening, and some minor deep memory stimulation of scales and scale structure, here’s what I’ve extracted:

Jon Camp, from rickresource.com

Jon Camp, from rickresource.com


Jon Camp, bass player for Renaissance in their “classic” line up, was under-appreciated. Playing a Rickenbacker, with a sound similar to Chris Squire’s, I think he lived in the shadow of the Yes flame. “Ashes Are Burning” and “Can You Understand” have riffs that are not that overly complex but require significant practice to master. The bridge to “Ashes” One of the first riffs I learned on my own, and while it’s not complex it’s a nice mid-practice workout.

Geddy Lee is in fact as amazing as he seems. Most of “Moving Pictures” is astonishingly complex, but just as fun to learn if you can slow it down. And just when you think you think you know the patterns, you find the fingers requires six or seven digits and a span of more frets than should be anatomically possible. This may be the closest I get to Talmudic study; unraveling each bass passage requires listening to the guitar and drums, identifying whether Geddy is part of the rhythm or lead, and then adding in the fills that Geddy pulls off (literally) with ease.

After writing out much of the early Phish book in tab form, you realize that there is some serious overlap in the chord progressions (“Back on the Train” and “Heavy Things”, “Slave to the Traffic Light” and “Harry Hood” as two examples). That simplicity is wholly misleading; you can play the root and octaves of the chords and sound like most 1970s bass players pounding out a stream of eight notes, or you can listen to what Mike Gordon does with scales, fills, and creating a flow with Fishman that is a carrier signal for the Page and Trey solo work. The more I listen to Cactus, the more I want to listen, see him (and Phish) live, and explore his chromatic phrasing.

Also getting votes but still under tutelage: Chris Squire (Yes), Mic Todd (Coheed & Cambria), Tony Levin (with Peter Gabriel), Mark Egan (Pat Metheny Group, especially “Pat Metheny Group” and “American Garage”), Jaco Pastorious (“Heavy Weather” in particular).

Blueshifting Mortality, and Mic Gillette

You probably don’t recognize the name Mic Gillette, and even if you are a fan of Tower of Power (or the Tower of Power horns, who played on dozens of albums from the 70s through the 00s), you may not place him as his tenure with the band ended in 1984. But his intro to one of ToP’s better known songs – “You’re Still A Young Man” – has been described as the “four most famous trumpet notes in rock and roll”. Outside of Chicago and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” with Randy Brecker, that’s likely a small population of intros to begin with, but the sentiment is as precise as the intonation and crispness of his playing. He put horn sections on the rock and roll map with a simple arpeggio.

In what’s becoming a maudlin theme here, Mic Gillete died of a heart attack on Saturday night, as reported by ToP bassist Rocco Prestia (and is now on the ToP website. Bowie, Lemmy, Squire, Gillette — and a host of others in the last 12 months — have blueshifted mortality for those of us who discovered rock and roll in the 1970s. What was once far away is now Doppler shifted, increasing in frequency, coming toward us at an apparent rate faster than it likely approaches based on chronological or actuarial bases. But it is a siren call, an alarm that those musicians who provided the soundtrack to our formative years are aging, frequently less than gracefully and seemingly, lately, more than statistically submitting to the ravages of what Neal Peart calls “the wasting disease.”

Those four notes of Gillette’s created a 30-year old memory that is audibly as strong as the very warm fall night on which it was impressed. I went to see Tower of Power at the Paradise Theater in Boston in the fall of 1984, on the edge of the Boston University campus. Going to club shows was a new experience for me; I had been to a few arena shows and some small theater concerts, but nothing in the 1,000 person and under venue. It was crowded, hot, smelly, sweaty, poorly lit, and the band seemed no more than an arm’s length away. I was familiar with perhaps half of ToP’s work; while they didn’t get much airplay I had purchased two albums in my college days (thanks, Princeton Record Exchange, for making room for all genres) and was looking forward to some funky music. While I was thrilled to hear “Only So Much Oil in the Ground” (my favorite) and an extended “Squib Cakes” it was “You’re Still A Young Man” that literally blew me away — the trumpet intro, the singer’s “down on my knees” enactment of the lyrics (on a stage barely wide enough for him to stand, let alone kneel), the audience reaction to what was clearly a favorite just outside of my listening circle.

That show — among a few others that year, including Santana, Pat Metheny, and Stan Getz — strongly hooked me on live music. It’s a passion I’ve shared with my kids; it’s one of the few things you can do to support your favorite artists despite the flagging health of streaming and recorded audio industries; it’s a chance to find yourself taken away for an hour or three. It’s why I still continue to abuse my knees and lower back with 3 hour Phish shows; it’s why the Bubba and I venture into sketchy venues to hear emergent bands we like.

Mic Gillette left Tower of Power shortly after the Paradise Theater show to dedicate time to raising his daughter — yet his impact on my love of live music gave me something to share with both children of my own over the ensuring three decades. At the end of this interview, he says he’d like to leave a legacy as a strong influence on younger musicians. For this old musician, he has done just that.