Friday, July 3, 2015

A Farewell to the Big Bookstore

I have always loved bookstores, especially the little ones that hold hidden discoveries and the bigger independent ones that contain carefully selected stock of the essentials. In the not-so-old days, I even liked the mega stores, for a different reason: You could usually find the book you needed.

I love to find the out-of-the way stores, still, but it has also been a practice of my family to sometimes go to dinner and then to the big bookstore to pick up a new treat, especially as summer kicks in. But it's just not fun, for me, anymore. That makes me pretty sad.

I hear the remaining big bookstores are still doing well and I am glad. I'm also glad the book is faring well against the e-book. I realize, however, that they are doing well because they are stocking what sells: "Teen Paranormal" and various other popular series. As for the rest? Forget it.

If you are a real reader with a literary background, don't consider looking for an out of the way Theodore Dreiser; you'll find only Sister Carrie. Jack London? Forget The Sea Wolf; you'll find only White Fang. I suppose they need to save room for Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest installment of Young, Handsome Vampires on Prom Night. (Okay -- I made that one up.)

My kinda bookstore. 
I'm not trying to be curmudgeonly. I have no problem with light reading or with popular fiction. I just hate to see it push out the wonderland of undiscovered stuff I could once wander through at a Borders or Barnes and Noble. Last trip, I had a heck of a time finding something I wanted to read. I did wind up finding Vonnegut's Mother Night, which was an exceptional book, but this was only after I had slogged my way up to various other dead-ends in pursuit of authors whose work I wanted to explore more deeply. I had "settled" because Vonnegut was in stock in numbers few other top-notch authors are.

I understand that, from a business perspective, bookstores are doing what they need to do to survive and I would rather see them survive than bend to my stuffy will and fold -- I just wish it didn't have to be so.

So, now, it's either trips into the city (and good luck there, too, finding the little shops) or it's onto the web to get what I need. There used to be two little bookstores five minutes from my house. I just miss them and the trips on my bike, on foot or through the heavy summer evening air that made them feel like a cool conclusion to an occasional little quest.

I miss a lot of stuff, but I guess that's getting older.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Sound Revelation

This is, I suppose, nothing more than a public service message plus a little bit of self-service.

I generally get annoyed by "audiophiles" because they tend to spend their time looking for things to dislike in recordings, but, I have to agree with many of them who claim that an mp3 does not sound as good as a CD. I think it is completely true.

My four-year-old prestidigitation. 
I'll occasionally listen to my 2011 album, Hats and Rabbits, on my phone, in the car. The other day, for some reason, I put in the CD and, as attuned as I am to every aspect of the sound (having recorded, engineered and produced it all myself) I was completely taken by surprise by the added depth of the sound on CD.

I'm not sure if everyone would notice this difference, consciously, but I do believe that music works on so many levels that it could have an overall effect on the listener. It's similar to the effect of drinking a Coke, with high fructose corn syrup, and then drinking a Mexican Coke with real sugar: something is just more right about it, even if you can't consciously put your finger on it.

That said, I am not afraid to self-promote, having listened, recently, to my work, and thinking I done pretty good, and to give you a link to buy the actual CD.

Also, in a few months, my collection of piano pieces, American Sketches, will be ready, and available on both CD and download -- I suggest the CD.

Self-promotion aside, it really does make a difference. A step back to CDs could feed your soul on unconscious levels. There's a richness there that mp3s just lose. I guess this position is similar to that of the "vinyl" people (the smart ones, not the dumb ones who say they miss the scratchy sounds, but the ones who prefer the warmth of analog sound).

Too much virtuality. Not enough to sink our teeth into. The world of the senses is slipping away every day, stolen by the scramble for efficiency and ubiquitousness. Everythnig is low fat, across the senses' board.

(By the way, I think just burning a CD from mp3s woud fit the bill to improve the sound by turning it into a WAV file -- try it!)

Monday, June 29, 2015

Blood, Mud and the Convergence of Fifties

Last week was the first week since 2010 in which I have not posted a single piece. The reasons for this are many, including a major storm that knocked out our home's power for five full days. Other factors range from a serious health scare to a band gig, outside, in a near-tornado while water ran under and around all of our electronic equipment. (Idyllic setting, though, on the banks of the Chesapeake, if we could see it through the deluge.)

The beautiful house at which we played in Maryland. 
Of course, everything is "worth it" if there are lessons to be learned; and, there are lessons to be learned from everything, so I suppose that means everything is "worth it." So, let's do this in order of lessons learned:

I. Weather is not kidding around. Take it seriously. 

Around six PM on Tuesday, last, my wife and I got tornado warnings on our phones. The message was: Take cover now. I was packed and ready to go to band practice, so I texted the guys (censored, in order to keep this blog family-friendly:

Me: Serious tornado warning. Take cover now. We worrying about this? 

Tony: Yeah, right. 

Two minutes later, after texts that some of the guys are on their way to practice already:

Jeff (on the road): Stay home. I'm stuck. No power anywhere. Stay home, I'm not f-ing around. 

Various other texts from everyone, then Jeff, again:

Jeff: I'm in a tornado.

Tony: It's here. 

Then the lights went out. For five days. Live power lines were everywhere in my neighborhood. We were some of the last people in our area to get power. The sound of the generators at our house and those of our neighbors nearly drove me to the brink.

This little guy came out of nowhere to lift our spirits
and he lifted mine as only a dog can do. 
II. Don't skip your blood pressure medicine. 

Before the storm, I'd started a curriculum workshop in various locations around South Jersey. I had re-ordered my meds on Sunday, but through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with all of the craziness, I had forgotten to pick the prescription up. No pun intended: there was a perfect storm of the blood that followed. Four days of conference breakfasts and lunches (all salty stuff; sandwiches, chips, etc.) after a month of bad meal choices, even on family time ("School's out! Let's celebrate!") added to the stress of the major storm all ran down to a moment, on Friday, when my son looked at me and said: "Dad --  you have blood in your eye." 

I looked. I did. I thought it was a broken blood vessel from a sneeze or something. I told him not to worry -- I was fine, but he texted my wife on the sly and told her. (She was at a friend's house working because we had no power. She's a former cardiac nurse.) 

Karen texted me back and suggested I go to the local pharmacy and have my pressure taken. She knew I had forgotten to renew my meds. I went. It was 150/100. (Normal is 120/70.) For the rest of the day, after taking the meds, it continued to drop, but I had to go play with the band at an outdoor party -- party number one for the the heat, under the sun of an uncovered stage that leaned severely to the left, which wrought havoc on the spines of everyone in the band. ("We have to make a note about this for future contracts," Jeff, the keyboard player, said.) 

III. There is a difference between being tired because of stuff on the outside and being messed up on the inside.

We played the first set. We came off. Jeff, the band's singer, approached me.

"You know I love you, right?" he said. "You know I am honest with you, right?"

"Yep," I said.

"That was," he went on, "The worst set you ever played since being in this band. Are you okay?"

I got a little defensive, but I knew he was right. I wasn't alright and I knew it. My concentration was all over the place, worried as I was, and I was feeling horrible. I did recover for the next two sets, but it took all I had. Breaking down the stuff that night, we had to use brute force instead of wheels because of the mud. As we were carrying stuff to the car, all I could keep thinking was: This is bad. I shouldn't really be doing this... It wasn't the usual post-gig exhaustion. Sometimes muscle fatigue can seep right into your soul.

IV. Joy sometimes overcomes mud. 

On Saturday morning, the band had to travel to Maryland from New jersey to play at a really nice house on the Chesapeake for a fiftieth birthday. This was supposed to be fun. Big payday; hotel rooms; the wives were even coming, some along for fun, one celebrating her fiftieth birthday and my wife and I celebrating our anniversary.

With the power out at home, my wife, Karen, had to stay home with the generator we'd bought to keep our food edible. Happy anniversary. So, okay, circumstances...

The rain poured most of the way down to Maryland, and when we got to the house, to set up, tornado warnings started rolling in. The rain came down harder; lightning flashed which made us stay far away from metal tent poles, which really didn't matter because we were walking in puddles running from those very poles. As the rain intensified, water started pouring in around the electronic equipment. Tarps came out and Tony started digging trenches to divert the water away from the band and down to the Chesapeake.
A muddy-feet-pic, shared by someone in the audience.

By the end of setup we were wet, tired and covered with mud. After a quick trip to the hotel to change and after a quick dinner, we went back to play. And play we did.

By the time we started, the grass had turned to mud and people danced barefoot in the muck, covered to their knees. But everyone had come for a party, some from very far away, and nothing would stop them from throwing their own mini Woodstock. (Kurt, the bass player, called it Bryan-stock, in honor of the gentleman whose birthday it was.) It was a great gig and the band played its collective butt off.

The musical night ended on a hilarious note, as a possibly-tipsy, rather attractive and completely muddy woman asked one of the wives where they were going after the party. When she was told, "Back to the hotel with the band," not knowing the ladies were the band's wives, she jested: "Oh -- is that an option?"

Not a very good picture, but it shows
the trampled, muddy "dance floor." 
V. There really is a difference between being tired because of the outside and being messed up on the inside.

Soggy, exhausted details, aside, the band broke down the equipment, trying to avoid the muck and mud, only to find out the the key to the truck that was pulling the trailer for our equipment, had gone missing. The meant another hard walk, carrying even the things that have wheels, over a swampy mess. From the end of the gig, at 11:30 until around 1:30 AM, we had to carry things to the singer's van and transport them to the trailer, which was about an eighth of a mile up the gravel road, and load things, one van load at a time, by the glow of an iPhone light.

As we moved things from van to trailer, I realized I was dog tired, as they say, but that it was a healthy kind of tired; not the insidious tired I had felt the night before.

"Well," I said to Jeff, as we unloaded the last of the stuff, "Look at the bright side. We're actually getting back to the hotel earlier than we'd get home after a normal gig." (We usually play until 1:30 or 2AM.) 

He had to agree. Later, Jeff said, "We must be crazy working this hard to play music."

I thought about that. We're not crazy. We're musicians. It's what we do.

I thought of my dad, who has been gone for going on two years. He was a lead trumpet player, the lead guitarist of his day; the hero of the band. At one point, he put down his horn, stepping aside, thinking he no longer had the stuff to sit in the center chair. After that , the decline began, slowly but surely, over a few decades. He'd put down who he was because keeping it going would have been a tremendous amount of work and he felt he didn't have it in him. An understandable choice, but one that, I think, eventually did him in.

It's not crazy. If there's a fire in your heart, you have to tend it. A lot of guys don't get the chance to make music, or they let it take a total back seat to everything. Sometimes doing what is inside you is worth a little tornado/electrocution risk. Sometimes it's worth the mud. It's good for a bunch of guys in and approaching their fifties to put aside talk of Metamucil, back pain and plantar fasciitis and rock out, tornadoes and blood pressure be damned. 

Oh, for the record, after we finished our ridiculous piecemeal load out to the distant trailer, the key was found, right where it was supposed to be, in Tony's backpack.

"In a few years, "Jeff said, "This will be that 'Hey -- you remember that Maryland gig?' story."

Indeed it will be. Or it already is. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Old Web and the New Web

The old web: It is an exquisite structure, stretching to points connected to solid surfaces. It is nearly invisible, except when hit properly by the light or when little, glistening globes of water travel its skeins before being burned off by sunlight. At its center, a single spider waits. And when she feels the vibration of a struggling creature who made a mistake, she travels outward, smothers it, and sucks out its life.

The new web: It is an exquisite structure, stretching to points unknown from one end of the world to another, connected to screens and keyboards and fingertips. It is invisible, except when screens light up and glow against information-hungry faces. At its edges (not the center, the edges, out in the invisible darkness) innumerable spiders wait. And when they feel the vibration of a struggling creature who made a mistake, they travel inward, smother him, and suck out his life.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Worthlessness of Fame

Roy Harris
Ever hear of the composer Roy Harris? How about Vincent Persichetti?

What about the writers Robert Nathan and John Cheever? Don Delillo?

Or...some TV pesonalities? Like...say, Hal Linden or Carroll O'Connor ("Who's she?") or David Ogden Stiers or Marion Ross? Loretta Swit?

There is a good chance someone my age or older might recognize some of these names, but I'd bet big money anyone younger than I am would pretty much be in the dark about these people who reached pretty big heights in their respective careers.

After only -- what? -- three or four decades, many of these names that used to be often on the tongues of their respective colleagues and of the public are, at best, occasionally Googled to jog the old memory (as I had to do with Hal Linden).

These were people who made a mark on their fields -- the tier under the legends, who disappear more quickly than the legends, also, are destined to do, some day. (Many of my high school students don't know who John Wayne is. Still more couldn't name a single movie he was in. None of them have any memory of the show M*A*S*H. Most have never heard of Alfred Hitchcock.)

If it were not for school and annoying teachers like me, the kids would not recognize names like Twain and Steinbeck.

Even the more current people, like Toni Morrison -- still alive and still writing and still brilliant -- are not common knowledge.(Delillo is still writing. Does your teenaged daughter know who he is? Does your forty-year-old neighbor? Do you? He's won a Pulitzer.)

So what's the point of rising on the ladder? What's the point of fame? I write and Toni Morrison writes. I compose and Alexander Desplat (I know -- who's he?) composes. In a few decades, none of us will be remembered, however high we climb.

There are just too many people, now, and too much information saturation for us to have Shakespeares or DaVincis in 500 years.

The thing is, we do what we do because we love it. In the end, time will wipe us all out like a sandstorm over a Saharan city. Fame is worthless in the long run. What's worth something is doing the thing. And I just did. And I will do it again on Friday -- whether anyone reads or not.