Tag Archives: squire

The Rat, The Ox, The Fish and Me

Saturday afternoon I concluded, rightfully and formally, if not a bit hurriedly, a forty year journey. I played bass, on a stage, in a club, with a small band. Never mind that my guitar player and drummer are teachers where I take lessons and that the stage setting was that of a the year-end recital. I took “play in a band” off the bucket list.

Deep, networked appreciation of the journey of 10,000 musical missteps begins, as it should, with a piano lesson. It’s 1970, the Mets had won the World Series early in the school year, and I’m taking piano lessons from our next door neighbor. I barely made it a year, because I didn’t practice, and that’s probably why I still harbor a mild fear of the bass clef. Years later, her son would be something of an inspiration, gently letting me know it was acceptable to bury myself in the rhythmic and modal vagaries of British prog rock. Thanks, Mrs. Millering and Brett, for helping me identify with Chris Squire, my first bass hero, and essentially the root cause of what was to follow.

Fast forward seven more years, to private clarinet lessons at Caiazzo Music in Freehold. Caiazzo’s most famous customer was one Bruce Springsteen, and despite never seeing him come up those few steps from South Street, I vividly remember a hand-printed sign on the cash register that read “When the bank sells guitars Caiazzo will cash checks.” A leading indicator about musicians, across multiple economic cycles. On either end of my 30 minutes with classical etudes, I explored the guitars and basses hung on the walls, a mosaic of colors and inlays and pickguards that awed me. Standalone, they made a tinny, tiny sound, but plugged into an amplifier the sound leaped out of them. For years I tried to decipher how an instrument with no power source other than a fast picking hand could generate a signal (more on this later).

Middle school concert band. One of the most dedicated music teachers ever — Ben Webb, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Zoot the Muppet — and my first taste of public performance. What I remember more from the halls of Clifton T Barkalow, though, was a conversation at a lunch table one day about The Who. One of the cool kids — currently a performing guitar player, and a genuinely good guy — was in a heated debate about whether the Who were relevant. Someone asked me if I knew the Who. I did, and provided a reference (likely the fact that “Boris the Spider” was the B-side of “Pinball Wizard” on 45), and my 40-year admiration for The Who’s John Entwistle was cemented in the scree of Ron Howard movies.

High school was clarinet, saxophone, concert band, jazz band, pit orchestra for school musicals, and a few years of marching band. During one particularly long rehearsal the pit orchestra broke into an extended jam, completely spontaneously, right out of the lunchroom scene in “Fame.” For six minutes, until the drama teacher coerced everyone back into whatever real life scene wasn’t working, it was the most fun I had had playing an instrument. By the early summer, I played my last high school concert, took a perfunctory saxophone solo with the jazz band, and effectively didn’t play “real music” again. Didn’t make the Princeton Jazz Band, didn’t want to march in the band again, had neither skill nor interest in concert band. But thank you Nick Santoro, and Jettie June, and several dozen band mates, for putting the performance bug in me.

I met another crazy Springsteen fan from NJ, who was an amazing piano player, and he invited me to bring my saxophone over to the common room one night to jam. At one point he said “Listen to Bruce’s songs, Clarence is always playing something, but you don’t hear it up front, you have to listen.” Best advice ever about playing in a band. Thanks, Steve B (and Hillary who listened, politely, to the whole train wreck of staves and notes).

Home on a break from Princeton, and after my first bit of delayed rebellion (I bought hockey skates and insisted on taking them on our annual winter vacation) I drove myself to Caiazzo and picked a Fender Squire bass off the wall, tobacco burst color, for just under $200. I didn’t buy an amp, deciding instead to use the Rube Goldberg sound chain: bass connected to Radio Shack cassette player with a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable, putting the cassette deck into “record” mode to use it as a notoriously noisy pre-amplifier, 1/8″ to mono RCA cable to connect cassette player output jack to tape deck input (with correct impedance and level matching!) on my stereo amplifier and voila! Bass sounds came out of my component stereo system, the “adult purchase” of the previous break. I bought a fedora (because, you know, the cover of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” had one) and had no idea what I was doing, until some sophomores from nearby Wilson College heard my thrashing about and invited me to sit outside and play with them. Not only did I not know how to find the roots on the bass, when they mentioned Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane” I had no idea who Lou Reed was. Thank you, Steve “Rat” for opening my ears and teaching me the first song I played (truly horribly) on bass. Every single time I hear “Rock and Roll” I think of that afternoon on the steps outside of Wilson Hall.

Later that academic year, deep in the throes of Physics 106, I had an epiphany. I figured out how electric guitars work — the magic of pickups and inducted current and moving magnetic fields. It didn’t help my playing one iota but it convinced me that maybe there was something to my tone chain that didn’t result in electrocution. Some introductory electrical engineering, discovery of WPRB-FM, and new friends with diverse musical tastes. But my performing days — with an instrument, not just a voice — were done. I played other people’s music and told stories about and around the songs, a trend that lasted until 2015. I sold my bass to a fellow WPRB DJ, never playing more than one song on it. But thank you Matteo Cavelli-Sforza, Supersonic Surber, Bill, Alan, Brita, Chuck, Mark, Steve, Jordan, and Ray.

After watching our son turn into an accomplished bass player, and applying that moldering but still useful electrical engineering knowledge to building guitar effects pedals, I decided it was time to really, truly, certainly learn to play the bass. Having won a month of lessons in a tricky tray auction (which I bid on only after discovering the offering new music school — So.I.Heard in Millburn — via a search for a pedal retailer), I bought my second bass — another Fender Squire, this time in Lake Placid blue, for only slightly more than I paid in 1980. Thank you, Ben, for being patient with me, teaching me about strings and tone and setups and technique and making sure my left hand was at least in the vicinity of correct position.

Here’s the hard thing about picking up anything new after age 50: it’s really hard. Your brain isn’t as plastic, your reflexes aren’t as good, and new motions tend to tweak anything that was bordering on the arthritic. But patient, fun teachers with similar musical tastes produced a bit of deja vu all over again this spring: When Max suggested some recital pieces, he asked “What’s the best Who song with a bass solo” and my first thought was “Boris the Spider” (revisited, 42 years after 7th grade lunch table). He was aiming for the Ox signature piece, “My Generation”, 16 bars of bass solo recognized by anyone who has listened to a radio. And so my recital piece was selected. That was the easy part.

Entwistle got that demanding tone out of his bass through pure physical effort. He played hard, he played dangerously loudly, and he was technically on another large-handed planet. Listen to the bass lines on “The Real Me” and you hear a jet engine, a blues scale, and a working class cry. Most of Entwistle’s lines are, it turns out, based on fairly simple blues progressions. Playing them isn’t nearly as easy, but that was my lesson in recital prep: play what you feel, play the song the way you want to perform it, and worry less about the notes and more about making music. My Caiazzo clarinet teacher, who later also taught me saxophone, used to describe a good solo as “Not a lot of notes, but the right ones.” Right is a many valued thing, always in the moment, but better when louder.

Two days before the recital I was convinced I wouldn’t ever master enough of the song to avoid sounding like the punch line to every bass player joke on the internet. And Max and Fabian just had us trade four bar solos around the practice room, truly an etude in G, until I felt that I could play with confidence. If you want to know the difference between music education of the 1970s and the 2010s, it’s that – developing the confidence to own my own notes. Thank you Max, Fabian, and Sam.

And so 37 years after stepping off of the Freehold Township High School stage, I strapped on the blue bass, turned up the volume (after plugging into the correct amp on the second try) and plucked out “My Generation”. I was, for two minutes, back in the pit jamming away, and it was insanely fun. Mike Gordon has nothing to worry about, and I’m more inspired than ever to lose another 20 pounds so it’s easier to see the frets when I play standing up, but I now feel like the story that began in Caiazzo Music (now, sadly, a condo building) has hit the dramatic climax. And no drummers exploded along the way…..

Hall Of Fame Lifecycle

In the span of 24 hours I revisited forty years of parenting, music and sports.

Friday night we attended the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction at the Barlcays Center in Brooklyn, mostly to see two-thirds of Rush (inducted a few years ago) do the honors for Yes, my all-time favorite band and the core of so much of my love of music. Saturday took us to the other new hockey arena in the tri-state area, this time to see Patrik Elias take one final pre-game lap as he has announced his retirement from the NHL. Elias cemented us as Devils fans, not just for bringing home two Stanley Cups (and two more Finals appearances) but for his loyalty, work ethic, and popular presence in the local area. His number will be retired by the Devils in 2017-18, and he is a likely NHL Hall of Fame candidate. Over the course of two nights in two big rinks, we saw the past, present and future of various testaments to craft well plied, through the lens of our past, present and future love of music and sports.

The similarities between the two nights were subtle but present: Playing — sports or music — is critical to our enjoyment. Seeing something live gives you context and texture and experience that you can’t get from recorded or televised events. Our heroes, whether known to us personally or just from the backs of their sports cards and record sleeves, influence our approach and goals and style. Our greatest moments of joy are often theirs as well.

Hearing Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson describe the influence Yes had on them as teenage musicians was priceless; it was a peek past the close of the “R40” tour that wrapped all the way around to the beginning of Rush time. Devin Harrison connecting Jeff Lynne’s ELO to his late father, and Geddy Lee invoking the awesome power of Chris Squire’s bass lines by sitting in with Yes on “Roundabout” made it feel as if both musical icons were smiling from on high. From past to present to future – Elias was greeted at center ice for the ceremonial face off by his wife and daughters, a surprise that made all in attendance (including Patrik himself) tear up; they are the influences on his future life.

30 Days of Giving 6 7 8 9 10: Giving Voices

So much for the daily updates on this topic — I didn’t forget, I just got buried with work projects and post-Thanksgiving turkey recovery. Here’s a quick catch up to get us to the 1/3 point: I’m trying to fund voices that need to be heard.

Day 6: CaringBridge. When my friends Kevin and Sari’s son was critically injured in a late season ski accident, we were able to his treatment, recovery and progress via CaringBridge. When you want to communicate with a large audience but don’t have the emotional or physical strength to be on email or the phone, CaringBridge provides a mediated, modulated voice to inform those who want to know, and to receive their good words without further taxing your mental reserves.

Day 7: The Electronic Frontier Foundation. You have a safe voice online because of the work of the EFF, who have been fighting since 1990 to protect encryption, privacy and individual rights. I’ll admit to spluring on this one, going for the $65 funding level so I can get a cool encryption t-shirt.

Day 8: Immigration Equality, through my friend Alan’s fundraiser. What if you came to the United States seeking safety and asylum, knowing that giving voice to your true identity as LGBQT or HIV+ would effectively be a death sentence in your home country? Immigration Equality provides legal assistance to those people who need it the most.

Day 9: Friends of the Wanamaker Organ. Not just once voice but hundreds, carefully restored and playable in what is now the Macys in Center City Philadelphia. I’ve been fascinated with pipe organs since discovering that the late Chris Squire (Yes bassist) made his musical debut on the church organ, and some of the most complex polyphonic classical pieces were written for organ (Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy, long before it was adapted by Jaco Pastorius for bass):

The former Wanamaker store holds something of a place of honor in various parts of my family, and the organ is cranked up for a fairly regular holiday concert schedule starting about now.

Day 10: Wikimedia Foundation. The voice of reason in online content, Wikimedia Foundation are the people who bring you Wikipedia, and do so without a single display ad or sponsorship. Wikipedia represents one view of democratic voices: crowdsourcing content such that the truth slowly converges not to what one person or one writer thinks, but to what the most people find the most reputable, corroborated and reliable over time. Imagine if all of life had “citation needed” or “This article needs improvement” overlays: we’d cut down on a lot of misinformation and encourage people to discover facts, figures and forces for themselves.

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”.

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.

  • Chris Squire, Bass Player

    I am in shock at the passing of Chris Squire. When he announced he was battling acute leukemia in mid-May, my first thought was of my coaching buddy Chad, who faced — and won — a similar fight a year ago. The tall bass player, who had survived the 70s, four decades of touring, more than twenty studio recording sessions and any amount of internecine band warfare was going to win as well, to go back out on the road again, to continue to play amazing and intricate music. And on Sunday, suddenly, he was gone, and I felt a deep, personal sense of loss. Squire was central to my musical education, to my desire to play bass, to the love of live music I had tried to inculcate in my family, and to fundamental harmonics that underpinned a thousand nights of homework. I believe he taught all of his fans to listen to all things a bit more acutely and accurately.

    I met Chris Squire only once, five years ago, and so his death is not equivalent in impact or grief to that of a family member or friend; it’s more that a sense of order and consistency has been perturbed. A pillar of my musical universe has been harshly removed, and it is a stark reminder of my own mortality.

    I wanted to be Chris Squire after I devoured, in every sense, “Yessongs.” I probably was first exposed to Yes through a Philadelphia AOR station (WMMR or WYSP in the day), and “Roundabout” was a gateway to “Fragile” and to “Yessongs”. That one triple LP had an amazing profound an effect on my musical, engineering and social life, and Chris Squire’s bass playing was, and is, central to the story. My Yes fascination unfolds in typical nerdy fashion: During a summer in Harvey Cedars, our older, significantly cooler and more musically inclined downstairs neighbors revealed their Yes affiliations as well, and suddenly liking progressive music wasn’t as weird. I listened to “Yessongs” incessantly, and believe it spurred my love of live music, and desired to support artists through their tours. “Yessongs” wasn’t a perfect reproduction of the albums; it was something so much more, so definitive a performance, so characteristically Chris Squire leading with his bass. Two summers later, working on a math problem late on a Monday night (to be fair, before the internet and portable music players, you entertained yourself with TV, a book, puzzles/games, or by playing outside), I heard all of “Close to the Edge” tracked on WYSP, and found that combination of math and music abstraction intoxicating. I studied every picture, album cover, or poster I could find, and so wanted to be able to combine a cape, striped trousers, and a full-scale bass. Along with Geddy Lee and Jon Camp, Squire produced a wonderful, rich set of sounds out of his Rickenbacker bass, a guitar that became an unusual object of my affection for nearly forty years. When “Going For The One” was released, and high school buddy Lewis loaned it to me to record onto cassette tape, it was an experience like no other. To this day, the bass parts on “Awaken” and “Parallels” give me chills.

    Personally, Chris Squire’s legacy is preserved in vignettes: the first time Ben and I saw him at the Beacon Theater (my first live Yes show, after twenty-five years his deft mastery of, and range of sounds from, the triple-neck on “Awaken” (at the State Theater in New Brunswick); seeing Ben pick up a Rickenbacker bass at Sam Ash and pluck out “Heart of the Sunrise;” seeing Squire’s intense and yet simultaneous grinning countenance driving the band forward; a brief “hello” and handshake backstage at Bethel Woods five years ago; making sure that the Taurus pedals on “Starship Trooper” were the first thing to come out of my Sonos Sub; the outpouring of respect and sincere sadness from his musical peers.

    Here’s what I learned from his music: The interesting parts of life aren’t necessarily in 4/4 or even whole measures. Define your sound because it defines you. You decide when to play the melody and when to join the rhythm section. Intensity and precision are important but having fun is required.

    Thanks, Chris, for teaching all of us to hear (as Tom Brislin writes) “the bass lines in the background of life.”

    The Drama of Graduation

    This is about the Yes album “Drama”, with a thin reference to my own high school graduation.

    Thirty-five years ago today, as I was deep in final exams of my last year of high school, a friend told me that Yes had broken up, and that Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson were being replaced by Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn of the Buggles. The shock that swept over me must have been close to that felt by Red Sox fans when Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees, or when Wayne Gretzyky was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings. This wasn’t so much a trade as I felt it was a betrayal of my adolescent sense that nothing should change, that things I designated as “mine” would remain consistent and persistent until they were no longer such an integral part of my daily routine.

    It’s easy to look back now and realize that (a) I didn’t really like Tormato, the last Yes album with the the “core five” on it, all that much, and that Jon Anderson’s pseudo-religious waxing lyrics had started to grate on me even then (b) It was a perfect time for a transition, for me to identify with the things that were constant (Howe, White, Squire) and embrace something new and (c) Drama is a rather good album.

    I remember buying Drama in the midst of packing my things for college; I put it on my trusty Radio Shack turntable (which lasted another two months after school started, to be replaced by my first component stereo system) and listened to it all the way through. Once. Twice. It rocked out. It had soaring guitar solos. It had driving bass lines. And yet, I think I was terrified by it, as terrified as I was about driving 30 miles across the void between high school and college. As I sought comfort and stability, my musical family suffered a divorce, came back together with a trophy spouse of a vocalist (the Buggles had the first video played on MTV), and dared to challenge me. I am reminded, 35 years later, of something my friend Jim says about good art: “It is supposed to make you uncomfortable.” With hindsight, it was all good, and was the beginning of my decision to explore musically at WPRB-FM over the next few years.

    Chris Squire’s Progeny

    I’m still kind of reeling from the announcement that Chris Squire of Yes is being treated for leukemia. Squire’s bass playing basically powered my engineering education at Princeton; I’m pretty sure I completed every physics, electrical engineering or math problem set listening to Yessongs, Relayer, and Going For The One. His bass was equally at home as a melodic voice (Heart of the Sunrise, Perpetual Change) as it was nestled in next to Alan White in the rhythm section. My love of all things Rickenbacker stems directly from Squire’s choice of axe, and I’ve even modeled capes (truthfully: while getting into trouble in departments in which I had no business at Nordstrom) playing air bass.


    The news is amplified through a 3-course plate o shrimp: It’s been just about a year since my ice hockey coaching friend Chad beat his leukemia into remission; I’m just getting proficient enough on bass myself to appreciate the dexterity and musicianship required to pound out some of those Squire bass lines; this week, Progeny, a 7-show collection of 1972 Yes concerts was released in a nicely packaged and Roger Dean-enhanced boxed set. Progeny is effectively the early leg of the 1972 tour that produced Yessongs; it’s a bit of Phish show catalogue of the Fish in his favorite element.

    Yessongs may be one of the single largest musical influences in my life. It was, at the time, the most expensive record I had purchased (the original vinyl is a triple LP). I copied Roger Dean’s artwork repeatedly; I studied the packaging as a musical history codex. It’s a safe bet that my love of live music is a by product of the crowd noise, energy and gentle melodic liberties of that recording. Progeny, indeed. And sincere hopes that Squire is able to beat his leukemia and continue making music that spans decades.