Two Deaths & a Birthday

18 12 2011

A front-row seat to the cycle of birth and death makes the holidays a little more poignant, nonetheless so for three people I’ve never met but would have enjoyed the opportunity to buy them a drink and say thanks for their great works.

Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdean singer who died this weekend, is one of those artists whose work I unhesitatingly recommend to anyone willing to take a gamble. Not much risk involved. She’s an artist everyone likes when they give a listen, and that’s rare. There’s only a few in that pantheon, which includes Louis Prima and Al Kooper, crowd pleasers all once given the chance.

While my Portuguese isn’t exactly up to snuff, it doesn’t matter. The timbre, the expressive quality of her voice, allows her message to cross language boundaries and find its rightful home in the heart. If you haven’t heard her, do yourself a favor and buy or download any of her material. High on the list should be Miss Perfumado and Cafe Atlantico.

She came to Atlanta and played to a half-filled house a few years ago. The audience was the faithful, and they sincerely appreciated every note and gesture. At one point, the piano went a little out of whack and while someone climbed under the lid for a minor bit of tuning, Evora lit a cigarette and gave an appreciative smile whenever a note slid back home. Soon the audience was applauding too and she nodded along. The band thought it was all funny too. It was a small group, barely beyond playing cafes and other small venues. They probably didn’t know a lick of English between them, but you could see they were glad to be along for the ride.

Oh, and no one on the stage that night, including the star, was under the age of 60. They all had enough life experience to appreciate their skills and luck.

The world also lost Christopher Hitchens in the past week. Not always the most likable of public intellectuals, a rarity enough in this country, he became a star because of his sheer force of will, a remarkable intellect, and a work ethic that approached superhuman. Sure, his appetite for alcohol and cigarettes was also beyond human and ultimately it did him in. But that was part of the appeal.

Two of his works stand out for me: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies. He was not one for the echo chamber that has become the American version of public discussion. He had opinions that respected no party line but were rooted in a passion and a deeply philosophical belief that the oppressed deserved a voice the giants could hear and respect.

I didn’t always agree with him, but I’ll miss the wit, the humor, the discourse, the accent, and the huge breadth of his knowledge.

Not all is lost this weekend. Keith Richards, the human riff, celebrates his 68th birthday today, Sunday.

I’m always taken aback by people who, especially lately, say they’re surprised he can remember anything beyond this morning. Keith has been the best interview in show business for decades, and that knocks aside a few really good ones who aren’t afraid to tell a backstage anecdote, including Peter O’Toole and Malcom McDowell.

His 1971 interview with Rolling Stone was lengthy, hilarious, and pithy. If you haven’t read it, take the opportunity if you can find a copy. Sure, the language has dated, but the passion and humor haven’t.

A more recent glimpse of the man is here, courtesy the Beeb: 

Keith’s ever-present so give yourself a good listen to Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge. Both are overlooked, underrated, late-period Rolling Stones records that show how an artist in command ages with dignity and respect. Yes, not words usually associated with him or that band, but give them a chance. Both will add quality to your life.

Happy birthday, Keith, and I hope there are many more.

Box Sets, Steve Jobs & the Military Industrial Complex

4 12 2011

Quadrophenia: Long due for an expanded edition, this massive box set is a complete immersion in mid-60s England  and a leap into Pete Townshend’s mind. It’s a high point for rock, something that should be in everyone’s collection.

The reviews on the remaster however raise lots of questions. The original was badly recorded? Really? Tommy still sounds murky and Quadrophenia jumps from the speakers and it has since its release. The singer is buried in the orginal mix? Hardly. The 5.1 mix in this new set contains only 8 of 17 songs? Please, remix every song this way, though it’d be nice to know what the thinking was in the final decision. The demos are better than the final band versions? Doubt it. The original was pretty much perfect.

But, in this case, more is better. Pete Townshend’s demos, audio versions of shaded pencil sketches, are always worth hearing. He lost his hearing doing demos such as these. At the time, his studio was in his house. He worked late, the kids were asleep, as was his wife, so the headphones kept the volume down everywhere except in his head.

Volume should have been Pete’s middle name. His hearing loss, in this case, is our gain.

This box improves on a great thing, though the cost is high. It’s a literate immersion into history and rock. It doesn’t get much better.

Steve Wilson interview: Sound is the prisoner of its surroundings. Steve Wilson knows this and his limitations.

This video interview, well worth sitting through, shows he’s practical yet determined to bring the best sound to an audience.

When it comes to recordings, he’s remixed some of the best of prog into shimmering 5.1 mixes that allow the listener to luxuriate in a surround sound experience that often improves upon the original recordings. In this video, he talks about bringing surround-sound to a live audience. Can’t be done nearly as well as a recording, he says, and rightly so: in an auditorium or theater, there’s only room for a handful of people to be seated in the sweet spot. If you’re not in the sweet spot, you’re getting a distorted version of the sound field.

He has a few tricks to fix that for live performances. He also ticks off the bands and records he’d love to remix, such as the Kate Bush catalogue. Hey, give the guy his head and let him do it. No one is more sympathetic to remastering this style of music.

Jethro Tull Aqualung remaster: Two versions, the more reasonably priced has the Steve Wilson stereo remaster but you have to buy the collector’s edition to get the 5.1 mix. The deluxe edition has a deluxe price, not to mention items you may not want, like a vinyl copy of the album. Please, release all this ala carte.

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here box: Lots of extras from Pink Floyd’s best album. Live recordings from the period, experiments in the studio that didn’t quite work out but are still interesting, video backdrops from the ’75 tour. Does anyone need the marbles in a bag, or the Welcome to the Machine scarf? No. The 5.1 mix of the entire album is pretty good, though not nearly as head-thwackingly stunning as the King Crimson remixes. Worth hearing and having. Absolutely.

Be careful what you wish for: George Kennan lived to be 101 and saw the most tumultuous century ever. He also lived long enough the see his one of his worst fears come to pass — the US has in many ways become a national security state in order to protect itself and its overseas interests.

It all started out with the best of intentions, but Ike saw it coming too. This Vanity Fair piece from Todd Purdum is worthwhile and rewarding reading.

A sample from this story:

Just over 50 years ago, in his farewell address from the Oval Office, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation of the dangers inherent in a powerful “military-industrial complex,” and just three days later—as if in proof of Eisenhower’s words—John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yes, the United States faced extraordinary challenges in the postwar era—and was forced to shoulder extraordinary responsibilities. But some steps, once taken, prove impossible to walk back. By 1961 the problem that Eisenhower had identified was well advanced. Already, the United States was spending more on military security than the net income of all American corporations combined.

In the years since, the trend has warped virtually every aspect of national life, with consequences that are quite radical in their cumulative effect on the economy, on the vast machinery of official secrecy, on the country’s sense of itself, and on the very nature of national government in Washington. And yet the degree to which America has changed is noticed by almost no one—not in any visceral way. The transformation has taken hold too gradually and over too long a period. Almost no one alive today has a mature, firsthand memory of a country that used to be very different—that was not a superpower; that did not shroud the workings of its government in secrecy; that did not use ends-justify-the-means logic to erode rights and liberties; that did not undertake protracted wars on the president’s say-so; that had not forgotten how to invest in urgent needs at home; that did not trumpet its greatness even as its shortcomings became more obvious. An American today who is 25 or 50 or even 75—such a person has lived entirely in the America we have become.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: A mesmerizing portrait of genius and unhinged ego. It too is worthwhile reading, as Isaacson gives free rein to both sides of the mammoth personality that was Apple’s founder. What does it take to birth a revolution? It takes a lot of sacrifice, both interpersonal and administratively. In the mid ’80s, Jobs had seen Xerox’s stab at the personal computer. He took the best ideas, as artists do, and improved upon them. When Bill Gates did something similar with Microsoft, Jobs was outraged.

Gates calmly stood his ground and said, “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

People spend their entire lives wishing they’d been present enough to shoot out a zinger like that one at exactly the right time. Good one, Bill.

Throughout his life, for good and ill, Jobs believed the rules didn’t apply to him. From the book, as an upset Jobs sped down a California freeway at 100 mph only to be pulled over by a highway patrolman determined to write a ticket:

After a few minutes, as the officer scribbled away, Jobs honked. “Excuse me?” the policeman said. Jobs replied, “I’m in a hurry.” Amazingly , the officer didn’t get mad. He simply finished writing the ticket and warned that if Jobs was caught going over 55 again he would be sent to jail. As soon as the policeman left, Jobs got back on the road and accelerated to 100. “He absolutely believed that the normal rules didn’t apply to him,” [Mac team member Alain] Rossman said. 

He had brass ones his entire life. Everyone around Jobs paid a pretty high price for it. The world is reaping the benefit.