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

Jon Camp, from

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.

Why We’ll Miss David Bowie

Floating in the midst of millions of other fans mourning the loss of David Bowie, it’s hard to find just one or a few common themes about what Bowie and his music represented. For me, it was the hard rock of “Jean Genie,” “Suffragette City” and “Rebel, Rebel,” the anti-brand William Gibson-esque message of “Fashion” (you can almost hear “facist” if you listen to the doubling vocal track), and the highly danceable “Modern Love.” For some of my WPRB-FM friends, David Bowie epitomized every hip, trendy and erudite movement in the music business. From Lou Reed’s influence on his early career (much of which I believe is captured in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) to Rick Wakeman’s keyboards on “Space Oddity” to Bowie’s “This Is Not America” collaboration with Pat Metheny to his meta-meta-Christmas “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby (!!), Bowie intersected just about every plane of the music business, driving a perpendicular to each facet to reveal a new experience, a new tonal style, a new interpretation of something that had sedimented into our collective musical history.

When I heard of his death this morning my first thought was of some radio station friends who loved Bowie with nearly religious fervor. I get it, at least with three decades of hindsight. They felt what I did when Chris Squire died last May; a pillar of the soundtrack to our salad days was suddenly removed from its rightful place. We can’t count on that musical constant of constant change, and we are collectively, socially, poorer for it. We deal with uncertainty by looking for those things that are familiar; no matter how hard the work day or parenting night might be, you could listen to some Bowie (or Yes or Rush) and be grounded, at least temporarily. While those artists are alive, we refuse to age; when we lose our musical heroes we are fragile and exposed through those cracks in our framing.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Be weird. Be different. Define culture as you wish to be observed, because culture is all about observing how ideas spread. And if you’re asked to play keyboards for an upcoming artist whose music seems completely different, get more than twenty quid for it (read: Wakeman on “Space Oddity”) because you may just be providing the music for the dispersion of those new ideas.

Feeding Facebook

For a long time I used the “RSS Graffiti” app on Facebook to take the RSS feed from this WordPress site and publish it as a set of stories on my Facebook page. I’ve found that Facebook is a primary driver of eyeballs to the site; aside from the random Google query (like “best hockey books” or “electric sheep shirt”) that deposits readers deep within the Snowman’s innards, I rely on click-through from Facebook and Twitter. RSS Graffiti fell into that “too hard to maintain” gutter of applications that needed regular development work but didn’t have a revenue stream to support the coders.

I’ve been lazy and have been tweeting and explicitly posting items when I update the site. Until last week, when I dusted off my Zapier account and connected the WP RSS2 feed directly to Facebook. Zapier is an industrial grade workflow (or “business process automation”, if you’re an enterprise nerd, and your definition of “business” includes just about anything you can do with a net-based content tool) system. With my free account, I can create five workflows that run 100 times a month, every fifteen minutes — perfect for small-scale audience generation.

Comics 2015: The Time Is Now Again

One of the best parts of 2015 was watching Berkley Breathed re-animate “Bloom County.” A staple of the mid-80s to early-90s and a definite influence on Sun Microsystems culture (Rob Gingell’s machine was “opus” for as long as I knew him; perhaps only William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” spawned more machine names), Milo, Binkley, Bill, Opus, Steve Dallas and Oliver have returned in a most timely manner. Posting strips online gives Breathed more artistic and cultural reference flexibility (read: less censorship), and the political, technological, social and (sum of previous) Star Wars memes exposed are both unchanged and incredibly relevant. It is, as Geddy Lee sings, like “the time is now again.”

Strips are on Facebook.

Signed strips in reverse chronological order.

My favorite part of the reboot (in addition to the Star Wars references and Bill and Opus once again deciding to run for office) has been the Christmas sequence. The holiday sniffle usually prompted by John Scalzi this year put a soggy exclamation point on the last few strips of the year.

If you’re too young to remember Bloom County in its syndicated glory, start at reboot strip #1 and say hello to the characters. If you ever said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Bill and Opus” (and have said it frequently in the run up to 2016) it’s like the funniest guy in college just reappeared in your daily news feed.

2015: Change, Change We Must

2015 was a year of very high dynamic range, in all possible senses and interpretations. In addition to well-defined highs, there were some definite lows, and significant reflection around the midpoint.

Our daughter kicked the year off with a law school acceptance – and we somewhat stupidly decided to drive home from her celebratory dinner in what would be the first major snow storm of January. She wrapped up her undergrad career with a spectacular graduation that included large and small ceremonies, dinners with friends, and all of the pomp and circumstance you’d expect. Random highlight: the procession to Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Procession of the Nobles” which was a high school band favorite.

After more than 30 years of discussion, gentle handling of basses in various music stores, and watching our son play upright and electric bass in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to McGann’s in Boston, I decided to take formal lessons. Hat tip to Max at So.I.Heard music studio in Millburn, for both having the patience for an (older) adult student as well as finding the right mix of 70s classic rock and Phish songs to stimulate both long- and short-term musical muscle memory. I still suck, but at least I can do more than pluck open strings when I find myself staring at a wall of basses that plead “Play Us”.

Despite horrible ticket lottery luck, and random travel schedules, I was able to see Phish twice at the Mann Center, including one of the best all-time sets I’ve heard them play in a dozen shows. Got shut out of the Grateful Dead “Fare Thee Well” tour despite hand-decorating an envelope, but the Mann twinbill made up for that miss. There is nothing quite like seeing an intense show with old friends and a regular crew for the pre-game. This could become a tradition.

On other other end of the musical spectrum, we lost BB King and Chris Squire. Squire’s death was my personal equivalent of a lifelong Yankee fan experiencing Micky Mantle’s sudden and too-young death. It was the first bookend of music related events that made me realize, yes, my icons are aging, and the windows in which to see them live are closing or have closed. The other happy-but-sad event took place in Vegas, with the Bubba, as we caught one of the last large-arena Rush shows on their (effective) retirement tour. Seeing a band you love with your own kids, singing along as loudly as you are, enjoying the music in the moment, captures the wonder and pageantry and energy of live music in the best way possible. Like our daughter’s graduation, it marked a “last” that will endure in memory.

More personally, we said farewell to my uncle who had encouraged me in my more random engineering pursuits, and who epitomized the “do the right things” school of design. Despite his employer (at the time) insisting that there wasn’t that much value in the idea, he filed a patent for a radio frequency tag device which we recognize on the highways as EZPass. This Thanksgiving, our combined families celebrated the first “reunion turkey tour” in more than twenty years. Turns out we had four bass players at the dinner table. Loudness of all types ensued, and it was a wonderful celebration of the season.

By the time the ball drops on Times Square I will have read close to 50 books, including way too much science fiction and musical history, and a surfeit of trilogies with dystopian or apocalyptic under- and overtones. I do believe, as Neal Stephenson points out in the introduction to “Hieroglyph,” that science fiction drives science forward; it gives us the mechanism and meter to describe the future we wish to create. I got to use that line with Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, when he asked me why we (and by inference, he and the board) were hosting an internal hackathon, and he at least tacitly agreed (my badge still worked the next day). I had reviews of books retweeted or favorited by the relevant authors (Hannu Rajaniemi and Ted Kosmatka, both featured prominently in this year’s reading list). I learned quite a bit about the Grateful Dead, and relived some of my fascination with KISS (which introduced me to the wonders of live music, which of course fueled so much of this summer’s ups and downs).

So 2015 had its moments, good and bad, like all years. It brought changes in things to anticipate and appreciate; it reinforced the value of family and friends; it made me consider that change is good if it creates new opportunity and doesn’t forget, forgo or eclipse the path to its development.

2016 is going to be an interesting year, for all values of “interesting”.

CAH’s Sensible Hanukah

“Sensible” and “Cards Against Humanity” do not often co-habitate the same paragraph, let alone the same sentence. But this year’s holiday special, Eight Sensible Gifts sets the bar very, very, atmospherically high in terms of social good, humor and layered intricacies. Just reading the cartographic notes on the castle map (Night 8: I was given a 3-minute reign of Sensible Castle, an actual property purchased with some of this year’s proceeds) has had me laughing for over an hour – and then I registered my femto-liege and doubled down on the potential appelations and titles in the drop-downs. Each night comes with a parental note, some ephemera to convey the richness of the gift and the season, and an underlying set of messages: Do something meaningful and good if you’re handed a lot of money, especially for a game. Be silly, because laughter is the glue of the season. Think big, because nobody else will, not at that scale.

Some of this year’s craziness included the purchase of a Picasso, a $150,000 TIPS investment (of which I own $1), the afore-mentioned castle, and a hefty sized donation to Chicago’s NPR station. The most touching reward is the week of vacation given to the workers in the Chinese factory that prints the card sets; included in the envelope were personal notes from people whose work environment doesn’t include a paid vacation. And finally, yes, this year’s CAH holiday comics included another above-the-fold strip from awesome artist Richard Stevens. This is the best $15 I’ve spent in ages.

And if you haven’t played Cards Against Humanity, buy it, play it, and let your not so correct freak flag fly. It’s no worse than the Republican debates.

Good King Wenceslas Season

In what can only be one of the longest running plates of shrimp, I’m off to Prague again next week, where I expect to spend at least one night in the Christmas market of Old Town Square. Central to Prague is the legend of Duke Vaclav, known in English circles as King Wenceslas of the eponymous Christmas carol. 1970s high school band led me through an array of “holiday music” that most definitely included Christmas carols — and we were careful, specific and dedicated in performing the music of the season. Unfortunately, we never learned the lyrics, so most of my repetitions of “Good King Wenceslas” ranged from nonsensical to possible Cheech and Chong covers.

Statue of Duke Wenceslas, Prague 1

Statue of Duke Wenceslas, Prague 1

But if you actually check the book, “Good King Wenceslas” is historically accurate and what I consider to be a uniquely Christian stories: A rich duke notices a peasant outside his court during a winter storm and offers the stranger lodging and food. Learning the carol (music and specious lyrics) didn’t diminish my love of Hanukah, or impair my religious freedom; instead it gave me a chance to celebrate the season and a song to sing while enjoying the pageantry in a city that has celebrated more than 1,000 Christmases. I adore Prague — the people, the architecture, the food, and at Christmastime, the feeling that you’re in Renaissance era outdoor market, participating in a set of traditions that literally became the stuff of carol-y legend. And the pernicsky – Czech gingerbread cookies that are made with honey, making them particularly spicy, sweet and outrageously addictive – is in fact something around which to focus a work outing.

There are any number of lessons in there, starting with what director Nick Santoro asserted as rule #1: “Band teaches you about life.” Getting past red cups and misplaced outrage over impedance mismatches in greetings and religious preferences, the holiday season should be a time of tolerance, of looking for good, of welcoming strangers with kindness, of simple and small gifts, and of religious freedom.

Church of The Subwoofer

[ed note: This was originally posted as a page, but wasn’t getting any traction, and in an effort to clean up the site a bit I’m moving the content into the mainline. Plus I’ve been trying to squeeze ever lower frequencies out of my Sonos sub, using the TruePlay software to offset the minor dropped ceiling rattle it sometimes induces.]

Subwoofers are snarky audio components: feed them the wrong audio, with the wrong level settings, and you feel like you’re in a subterranean basement that’s all low echo and no daylight. But gently place one in your listening room, set the levels to not overpower your over-200 Hz drivers, and listen to some tracks with pronounced bass, and you’re in heaven. There’s an indescribable feeling of being at a live show, with the bass pouring over you, undulating your shorts or shirt sleeves, and for a moment you not only hear the music but feel it, in phase, and it’s nothing short of catching a bit of ocean spray as you hear the wave crash and smell the salt.

I also love “bass in front” music. So I’m biased. But after a few weak attempts to place a subwoofer and drive it well, I’ve fallen in love with my Sonos Sub – much less dependent on room placement and with the Sonos controller’s ability to level adjust, I can take 6 or 8 decibels off the top and keep the kitchen furniture from rattling.

If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, listen to the following with and without a well-matched sub, and see if the deeper bottom transports you to that spot on the musical beach:

  • Yes, “Wurm”, from the end of “Starship Trooper” on “Yessongs”. This is the gold standard, with Chris Squire working the Moog Taurus bass pedals into a frenzy.

  • Genesis, “Squonk,” from “Seconds Out”. More bass pedals, more prog, more Mike Rutherford! If you’ve ever heard progressive rock referred to as “arena rock”, you get the idea here – that sound could fill a football stadium (American or European).

  • Rush, “Subdivisions,” preferably from the live “Clockwork Angels” set, but even the studio version. More bass pedals, sitting under Geddy’s synth playing.

  • Phish, Mansfield MA show from July 1, 2014. There are a few “brown notes” in there, and listen to the second set closer “Harry Hood” around the 14:00 mark.

  • 2015 Gift Guide, Snowman Style

    I’ve slightly edited my gift guide for 2015, based on availability, practicality, and functionality. It’s what to get for people who have things, or for whom gift giving is remarkably hard, or who have unique tastes, or if you just want to elicit the massive exhalation upon gift wrap deconstruction.

    Jewelry For A Cause. It’s jewelry with a purpose, for a social movement, and it’s beautifully crafted. My favorite is the Caliber Collection, cuff links and bracelets made from bullet casings and destroyed guns taken off the streets, leaving the serial numbers as a bas-relief link between construction and destruction. Take the admonition to “beat swords into plowshares” and spur interesting conversation at work or a party. Be good and look good. (About $250).

    Schneider iPro Lens Kit. This is now my “go to” for concerts and just walking around new cities. Wide-angle, telephoto and macro lenses in a single carrying “tube” that slips into your pocket easily. (Yes, someone at a Phish show asked me what kind of pipe that was, and when I said it was for my iPhone, he said “Cool, a pipe for your phone”). Even if you eschew the phone-wielding crowd at shows (a camp to which I’m gravitating), it’s nice to be able to capture some landscape shots outdoors with a simple snap-on to the phone. You can buy the case (in case you upgrade or in my situation, lose, your phone) and keep the same lenses, or just buy specific lenses: iPro Lens System Trio Kit for iPhone 6 For $200 it fits the intermediate point between a vanilla iPhone and a full-size DSLR body (Between $180 and $300).

    Borrowlenses gift card. Let’s say the photo-nerd in your life won’t spring for that $5,000 piece of glass, but really wants to be able to get some high-quality shots on your next trip, or you want to use an extra wide aperature lens to shoot an event without having to invest the equivalent of 100 tickets in the process. Enter BorrowLenses, where you can rent a wide variety of photo gear for 3 days to a month. I’ve used this to get super telephoto lenses, or to audition gear before deciding what to buy (better to spend $180 on a weekend rental than be to annoyed with an $800 lens that isn’t quite as fast as you had hoped). Their gift certificates encourage experimentation, which is part of the fun of photography. You can now pick up your lenses at their retail locations in New York City and the San Francisco bay area, which saves on shipping and time. ($100 for something reasonable, but gift cards in any amount).

    Kiva gift card. Kiva is a microlending site – you make interest-free loans, $25 (or more) at a time, to the unbanked populations around the world. Whether it’s buying supplies for a bodega in Tanzania, or funding engine repair for a driver in South America, the aggregation of those $25 credits into $800-$5,000 short-term loans makes a difference. It’s not charity; it’s a continuous (over the course of tens of months) cycle of re-investment in people. I’ve given Kiva gift cards to people who seem to “have everything” and the reaction is usually quite positive. If the recipient wants to cash out after making one loan, at least you’ve made an epsilon economic improvement wrapped around a gift card. ($25 minimum, and a nice gift).

    Patreon. It’s easy to be a patron of the arts when you have millions laying around. If you have single dollars lounging electronically, direct them to people who are creating art and get a “behind the scenes” view of the process. For $5/month (on average), you get previews, interesting Q&A, and in some cases not-quite-public art. Create a PayPal account, fill it up with gift money, then direct your giftee to use it to support the arts. I’m a huge fan of Jeph Jacques and while I’ve purchased a variety of books and t-shirts from him, I’m kind of full up in those patterns. Supporting his Patreon gives me a bit more of my daily-Jeph-dosing including forays into music and other things that make his slightly left of center mind tick. ($60 is $5 a month for a year)

    Sonos Play:1 or Play:3. I outfitted the house with all Sonos gear this summer, and removed about 80 pounds (seriously!) of speakers, amplifiers, cables and mess. We have a Play:1 in the kitchen, and I use a play of SONOS PLAY:3 Smart Speaker
    in my office. Having music follow you around makes doing any sort of repetitive labor fun, whether it’s prep work in the kitchen or filing those expense reports with the four crumpled paper receipts from Taco Bell. Most important, it’s changed the way I listen to and discover music. I’m hearing subtle details I’ve missed before (that high-end percussive theme on “Promised Land:” glockenspiel!) and I’m able to create loudness from just about any source on the ‘net – radio, streaming services, or the whole family music library I’ve loaded onto a NAS drive in the basement. (About $200 for a single Play:1. $300 for a Play:3)

    Live Music, Now. Give someone a StubHub gift certificate, so they can see the live music (or sporting event) of their choice. I’m noticing that the premium over face on most tickets on StubHub is retreating back to something resembling a fair spread, and in some cases no worse than the collection of insane fees you’d pay to Ticketmaster or Telecharge. (Any amount supports your favorite artists)

    Live Music, Later. Very early in 2015 I started taking bass lessons after 30-plus years of wishing, thinking, procrastinating, and rationalizing my misunderstanding of the bass clef (old saxophone and clarinet players have this treble clef preference that took years to unwind). It’s one of the most fun things I’ve done. Find a studio that accepts adult students, and buy a month of lessons — it’s very important to find a teacher who likes the same music as your potential student, and whose styles mesh. In my case, a huge hat tip to Max at So I Heard Music in Millburn, who has taught me that so much of the music I love goes down in a minor key. (About $150 for a month)

    Meaningful Reading. My go-to is something personalized and signed by John Scalzi for the sci-fi fan on your list, but recently reading through the middle-aged Facebook lamentations of a kindler, simpler Long Beach Island made me think of Tales from an Endless Summer: A Novel of the Beach (A Cormorant Book). I’m also promoting high school classmate James Campion’s Shout It Out Loud: The Story of Kiss’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon. (Under $20)

    Strong Community Memberships. My personal new favorite is “Cash Or Trade,” a site that pairs fans sick of Ticketmaster fees and Stubhub market pricing to buy and sell tickets at face value. I’ve used it several times when my late spring Phish tour planning didn’t quite coincide with work or other obligations and I found myself needing to shuffle paper. A gold membership is $24 and is the best value for using the site, since you can get real time notification when new inventory arrives. Slightly more Phish-y and related is a donation to the Mockingbird Foundation, a non profit founded by Phish fans to support music education (see previous idea for music lessons; crowdsource this for someone you don’t know through Mbird). And finally, the Music Maker Foundation fights for the rights, recognition and remuneration of Southern musicians who have suffered poverty, poor contracts, and obscurity.