Monday, August 23, 2010

American Regrets

Lately, I've been interested in antiquing. It sounds like something old ladies meet up to do, not something a thirty year old guy would be caught dead doing, but I enjoy it. I like seeing things from the past. I've developed a simple thesis that the average person seems to be a stranger too: Not everything that is current is best. In other words, people tend to think the present is always the peak of how far civilization has come and that we do everything better now than in the past. That is false. Exhibit A is pop bottles. That's one of my favorite old things to look at and collect. They used to be made for repeated uses, out of thick glass (much more environmentally friendly). The writing and imagery was another kind of glass applied as a paste to a bottle and then baked on. In addition to the materials being better and the bottles being built to last, old bottles are designed better, aesthetically. In fact they are brilliant in that regard. When did we loose our way so completely in regard to design in this country? Everything is overly complex and underly clever now. A simple field of color with text of another can be so evocative, and yet this simple fact seems to be ignored totally in current design. And that's just one concept that seems lost in design today.

Which brings me to a new 'reality' show on the history channel called American pickers. It is about two guys who run an antique shop and search the countryside looking for neat old stuff to sell. I should love it, right? I don't---in fact really rubs me the wrong way, but I still watch it sometimes because the actual stuff they find interests me. For one thing, both these guys, Mike and Frank, seem to be rather unlikeable, especially Mike. They are loud mouthed, yet rarely have anything to say, and seem to have a less than encyclopedic knowledge of antiques. They are not clever or fun. They also overlook many neat objects in favor of a very narrow scope of items, such as bikes, motorcycles and oil cans. Further, they lie about values to make every 'pick' on their show seem not only wise, but like a major money-maker. They both have a patronizing attitude towards the people they 'pick' and also rip off many of these people value-wise. They both seem to be trying to appear as cool as possible, and desperately project that they are no longer the looser nerds of their high school. As part of this they are very lingo-heavy. Picking and pikers is lingo for what they do and who they are, professionally. The term itself is crude sounding in general, but also implies that they are picking through mounds of useless crap looking for the 'diamond in the rough'. While this may be true from a money making point of view, the things that the people Mike and Frank visit collect are important to them.

Beyond the fact that Mike and Frank seem like less than TV ready personalities, or maybe part of it, is the 'reality' shown in the program. The show is about guys trying to buy stuff for an antique store. Yet, we don't see the store itself in operation ever. What is it like? Who comes in and buys things? And most importantly, how do they stay in business? None of these questions can be answered by watching the show. Clearly, the value they put on their 'picks' is on average quite high in relation to reality. Even if it was not, antiques move very slow, especially big ticket antiques, and we never get a feel for what they need to collect to stay open. From what is shown on TV, they tend to buy mostly mid range to big ticket items, rarely 'picking' any bread and butter lower price items such as, not to be biased, bottles. In the end, I walk away feeling that only two things keep the store afloat; Danielle the assistant and the History Channel.

Over the course of watching the show, I've come to actually hate Mike. Neither of the pair seem like bright enough people to pull off a brick and mortar store and they seem like poor candidates to build a show around. But Mike makes being unlikeable an art form, while Frank just merely struggles with being likable because of a lack of certain gifts. One must from time to time wonder what people in the antiques industry think of the show and these two fellows. I imagine people who work in antiques around the country are turned off by Mike and Frank as people and perhaps even their tactics. I also imagine they see a lot of money left on the floor of the 'picking' locations just from what we are shown on camera in an episode. The show is getting hard to watch and it is part of a new trend of seemingly simple 'reality' shows that in actuality greatly bend reality and star unlikeable, semi-professional egotists.

Pretty good rant, but I have to eat my words here a little. The other night I was watching an episode where Mike and Frank went to an old bearded man's place who goes by Hobo Joe. He lived on a wooded area with creeks running through it and several buildings. Most of the buildings were filled with stuff and the land itself was covered with small, tarp covered piles of things. After a particularly fruitful 'pick' there Mike did one of his little talks to the camera. He said, and I'm paraphrasing here because I don't have the show recorded, “They should take buses of kids out here [Hobo Joe's land] to see all this great stuff. To remind them of when America made things. To show them that America used to make things too, not just be consumers.” I was stunned. I still am. Occasionally Mike or Frank says something I like or relate to because they like old stuff and so do I. They make efforts to chase down neat old things and so do I. In fact they take it to a pretty high extreme, so they have to say some things I agree with or that sound semi-intelligent. But usually it is rare, and I've come to respect them less and less as time has gone on. So I was surprised to my bones when Mike said one of my mantras, creatively articulately and with true passion. His short enthusiastic rant covers the spectrum of aesthetics to politics.

For one thing, one has to wonder what kids understand of aesthetics and the visual arts these days. They are brought up on Xbox video games, CGI movies and a sense of commercial design that is both hyperactive and dull, that takes no risk and has no ideas other than to layer more crap, plaster more pattern and shade more objects. Just take a look at the cereal isle at a local grocery store and then try to find some old images of cereal boxes from the 50's-70's. You'll see what has happened to them and design in general---but not just design, also aesthetics and our cultural values.

In a country that is struggling as ours is, not just economically, but with its identity, arts education should be highly valued. Instead it is the first thing to be chopped. At very least, what happened to our pride as Americans. We used to want to be on the top of everything---including arts. We were the best-looking, best run, richest country in the world and we knew it and no intention of giving it up. Now we seem to be willing to sell all of it off, piece by piece, to the cheapest bidder. Which brings me to the political side of Mike's rant. If you antique or just pay attention to old stuff, you start to notice something. America used to make a lot of stuff, and it was good. We don't make that much stuff anymore, but we consume more than ever. Perhaps beyond the point is quality---we may never get the care and attention out of the items we consume that we once had because those days are gone everywhere and as expensive to rehabilitate. But how can we expect to have a stable, fruitful economy, let alone the best one in the world if we don't make anything but consume more than ever? While some people might be shocked by our economic problems another more logical view might be to ask what took so long? Our lack of manufacturing and heavy reliance on service industries is only one of many issues that have led to our trouble, but all the factors were relatively apparent. What Wall street, George W. Bush and banks and lenders were doing was clearly was trouble for the future. And our corporation dominated, richness and fame doting culture have created weak minds and a helpless underclass in a country founded on equality.

Which brings me back to Mike the picker. Does all of this mean I now like the guy? No. Or even respect him? For the most part , no. But it brings an important idea into play: If even the idiot cries foul, there are changes that need to be made.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

1950's Rock Guitar Greats

Here's a list of my top guitarists of 1950's Rock 'n' Roll. I don't have enough courage to list things in order---there is too much taste involved. I'm rating them on style, technique, influence and their ability to promote the use of electric guitar. In the 50's Rock 'n' Roll itself was precarious, and it was far from a certain thing that electric guitar would even be used in rock songs.

Carl Perkins----Carl brought the guitar strong on every song he played. With his smash #2 Blue Suede Shoes from 1956 he even had the audacity to include two guitar solos. Carl had a unique scene of rhythm and a sharp attack on the instrument that made for an inimitable style. His total comfort while playing, the feeling that the guitar is just part of his body, brings to mind later guitar gods such as Eric Clapton (nick-named slow finger because of this ease). The rhythm and blues element was very strong in his playing even though his songwriting heart always leaned country. That being said, that mix is what made Rock 'n' Roll, and he was always a honky tonk virtuoso on the guitar, too. Carl had tough career luck, but was always was respected as a founding father of rock. It is unfortunate that his later life was not in the spotlight because he just kept picking up more and more guitar tricks as time went on. Bonus points for any artist that sings and writes songs, too.

Chuck Berry----According to many, Chuck taught Rock 'n' Roll guitar to the 60's. This is true to an extent; I would rate him as one of the two most influential guitarist of the 50's. Several Beach Boys songs lift a simple and rather stiff Chuck Berry solo almost verbatim. Others such as George Harrison of the Beatles are under his constant influence. But in another way, Chuck played in a style of souped-up blues that no one else could pull off. Perhaps his greatest influence is popularizing the instrument. Who didn't want to play guitar in a band after hearing a Berry song? He probably had more guitar per minute than any major 50's rock artist and was thus constantly promoting the instrument. Honestly, Chuck was not always at his best and most original, but when he was he created a sound that no one else has before or since. The guitar in the opening of the solo in Too Much Monkey Business sounds like a spaceship landing. Again, bonus points for writing and singing, too.

Buddy Holly----When people think of Buddy, they think of one of the great vocal stylists in all of rock, but he was a fantastic and original guitarist and songwriter, too. In fact I rate him as one of the two most influential rock guitarists of the 50's. Buddy basically invented the foundation of rock guitar that all subsequent acts stand on---Rock 'n' Roll rhythm guitar. Buddy played great leads solos, but often played something called rhythm-lead. This created a driving momentum to his music, not heard in rock music before. Sometimes he mixed lead and rhythm elements in a solo such as the immortal guitar work in That'll Be the Day. The flip side of that release, I'm Looking for Someone to Love, includes a song with two solos and some of the best pure rockabilly lead guitar of the 50's. Buddy lead the way in other guitar respects. He invented the idea of lead guitar throughout an entire song, as can be heard on Words of Love. He also promoted what would become the king guitar of rock, the Fender Stratocaster, and was the 1st major rocker to use it. Although the stereotype is that Buddy's songs leaned to the sweet, nerdy style of Rock 'n' Roll, the fact is that his original guitar style made for a driving backdrop. Few guitarists of the 50's were as 'heavy' as Buddy, and his modular, driving approach to the instrument became the status quo in rock ever since.

Eddie Cochran---Eddie was the master of the 50's riff and some of his songs were, from a guitar standpoint, nothing but a riff over and over. This could be said of two of his biggest hits, Summertime Blues and C'mon Everybody. But don't let such modesty fool you----Eddie was one of the true virtuoso's of early rock guitar. He came from a remarkably similar background to that of Buddy Holly, starting in country and easing into Rockabilly until he brewed his own style of rock. But his guitar style was more urban than Buddy's with true blues elements. His influence beyond the riff was not so much on record, but from his tours. His tour of Britain introduced many up and coming rockers to blues guitar and the art of bends. Once again, bonus points for songwriting and singing.

Cliff Gallup---In a brief run as the lead guitarist for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, Cliff was able to create a nervous, detailed and jazzy rockabilly guitar style that would influence many lead-oriented guitarists of the 60's and beyond. All this while working in 1956, in the first year rock really took over. He quit early to become a family man, but remains a guitar legend.

Scotty Moore---Elvis only rocked when he was working with this fellow. Scotty exemplifies the early, classic Rockabilly sound more than anyone, with it's circular way of picking chords and gentlemanly country gestures. But Scotty could also play in a very high octane manner, pouring in blues and jazz touches and never letting Elvis' antics eclipse him. Just appearing on Elvis' best records as the lead guitarist makes him one of the most influential of 50's guitarists. But this also has the tendency to exaggerate his abilities and mystique.

James Burton---Similar to Scotty, but less legendary, do to the fact that he didn't work with Elvis in his early heyday, James created a career spanning decades based on 1950's style country-rock guitar. While working with Ricky Nelson he developed classic rockabilly guitar into country-rock guitar, which would be exploited in the 60's and 70's, by mixing rockabilly guitar with country and pop styles of picking. Check out his immortal playing on 1958's Suzie Q.

Johnny Meeks----When Cliff Gallup left Gene Vincent's band, Gene found another guitarist plucked from the mid-southern countryside. Although Cliff is on Gene's biggest hits and has the fame, Johnny is every bit the guitarist that Cliff is. He certainly fit the greasy persona of the Blue Caps better. His guitar style is fluent and audacious. While Cliff could feel cold and bogged down in the technical side of playing, Johnny's blood was always hot. But that doesn't mean he was a technical slouch---his guitar work is as complex as any guitar man from the 50's. This is one guitarist I wish I could hear more of.

Luther Perkins---Johnny Cash was at his best when he did songs in his 'rockabilly-country' style, and he was best able to do this with Luther playing guitar. Luther's style might be too simple and too country for some people to put him on a Rock 'n' Roll list, but I think his style can be considered country leaning rockabilly. Either way, his understated talents added to the thick atmosphere of Cash's early (and best) style. Once you've heard the solo to Folsom Prison Blues, it is in your head for life.

Tommy Allsup---I recently saw Tommy at the Kato Ballroom for the 50th aniversery of the Winter Dance Party tour. At 78 he can still play guitar with the best---in fact Paul McCartney has said he's one of the finest guitarists in the world. Tommy's style relies on touch and detail. He's down here at the bottom because he has a very slim Rock 'n' Roll resume. His home base as a guitarist is texas swing, and he was only majorly involved in rock in 1958. Buddy Holly heard about him through his producer and was so thrilled by his guitar work when he heard it that he granted Tommy lead guitar on a number of songs, most famously, It's So Easy, Heartbeat, Lonesome Tears, and the Everly-style demos Wishing and Love's Made a Fool of you. His guitar style on these cuts is so modern, compelling and unique that it cemented his reputation as a great rock guitarist forever, even if he'd prefer to play Bob Wills and country blues.

Danny Cendrone----While Cliff Gallup took an early exit from rock in 1956, Danny one-uped him by dieing before he saw 1955. Like Tommy Allsup he was a bit old for the rock scene and a guitarist that grew up playing Texas swing. With it's genre bending array of influences, Texas swing was an ideal place for detail oriented lead guitarist to spring up from for rock purposes. Danny was not a member of Bill Haley's Comets, but cut the lead work on Rock Around the Clock and Thirteen Women in 1954. Within a number of days after the session he died. Some have called his solo in Rock Around the Clock one of the greats in all of rock music. I agree. His eerie guitar work on the flip side, Thirteen Women is not to be missed, either. The solo from Rock Around the Clock was actually lifted from Rock the Joint, an earlier Bill Haley number with Danny on guitar. He didn't have time to come up with something new, due to short notice. The Clock version of the solo is better, with superior phrasing. His style was so modern that it still sounds intergalactic today. Despite his tiny output, Danny showed the great skill and mischief that could go into rock guitar from it's earliest days, and thus is an important founder of the rock guitar style.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tea Party Trouble

Here is my attempt at a political essay. I feel the media coverage of the Tea Party movement has been lacking depth and decided to try my hand at analyzing the movement.

If you need evidence that America is on the wrong track, look no further than the Tea Partiers. This is an indicator on two counts. First, the fact that a large group of Americans are dissatisfied enough to rise up in groupings and voice their grievances in various forums speaks to the trouble we are in. You could call this a credit that I give to the Tea Partiers—almost anyone can agree things are not going great in America. The second count is darker. In essence, the loudest mouthpiece of American dissatisfaction is the Tea Partiers, and they don't represent us well.

First off, perhaps out right dissent is not the best way to handle the kind of challenges America faces now. The spirit of cooperation emphasized by the Obama administration should be the spirit of the whole country. The only way to get out of the current mess is by working together. Obama's leadership in setting a tone of cooperation is outstanding, in fact, he even pushes it too far. One could argue that a major tactical error that Obama has made so far is using so much energy in vein just to show the right he is willing to cooperate. The unfortunate truth is that the right that he strives to hold his hand out to are not interested in working with him. They would rather refuse any cooperation just to make a point and wait it out until they have full power.

The Tea Partiers are a bizzaro version of the Hippies in this respect. The Hippies and 60's left worked hard on their agenda, and when it failed over and over, the Hippies began to 'drop out'. They gave up and followed their own track in a separatist sort of way. Eventually, this got tiresome and they dropped back in. The Tea Partiers also seem bent on 'dropping out' in their own way. To them, all Washington is rotten and they aren't interested in forming their own political party—they hate political parties. Oddly, many Tea Partiers are disinterested in a third party. Most probably think Ross Perot was a wacko, while they've taken his banner and infused it with a less logical, articulate and practical bend.

One thing Tea Partiers all hate is 'big government,' but that is how the country has always been run. They think it tramples personal freedoms, while in reality, for the most part, it allows them. Their main solution to big government is to move power to a more local level. While having power at the local level is healthy and efficient, moving things traditionally run at the federal level to state and local government wouldn't work. In fact, it would be a disaster, and it is at best innocent to think that localizing government is a solution to anything. So, in a way the Tea Partiers are pulling back, refusing to participate fully in government as it is, while failing to offer a single viable alternative idea. While rising up, they are also 'dropping out' in their own way.

While many Americans may cheer on or even join the Tea Partiers, a whole other segment of America is disgusted by them. Their mentality as a unit is like that of a spoiled child. A common Tea Party ailment is irony deprivation. Isn't it obvious that there is an irony to complaining about existing political parties while refusing to start your own? There is a certain irony also to aligning yourself with our founding fathers protesting the control of an imperialist government, while you are protesting your own government which you have representation in. A Tea Partier would probably refute that such representation exists for them and their views, but in reality that representation is just one vote away.

The term Tea Party can be mistaken for a double meaning—for being an allusion to their fondness of referencing the founding fathers and the Boston Tea Party, and as an official title—the designation of party. The truth is far from that. As mentioned before, many Tea Partiers are uninterested in creating a new political party. But even if that was the movement's main purpose, such a reality would be far off. The Tea 'Party' has little large scale organization, no official representatives and a great diversity of views. Most of them lean heavy to the right, while some insist that their disgust is equally spread between right and left. This is probably an image-serving lie, but even if it is not, it is a defeatist point of view. Obviously, one party is more responsible for our trouble than the other. I could name names, but I won't just yet. Sufficient to say, it is illogical to assume both parties share exactly equal fault.

Tea Partiers do agree on a few things. They don't like 'big government', they dislike taxes with every bone in their bodies, and most of all they hate the bailouts. In fact, their movement probably began with the bailouts. Perhaps these aren't the most original bullet points. Everyone dislikes taxes, most people want to keep government on a short leash, and no one liked the bailouts. This leads to another characteristic of the Tea Partiers—gross over-simplification of the issues. They tend to simplify things to a cartoon in times that call for exactitude. The most obvious example is bailouts. For those who oppose them, not on principal, but absolutely, put yourself in Obama's shoes. In theory he could have let Wall street, the banks and Detroit automakers fail, which they deserve. Perhaps America would be okay and we would climb out of our tough times quickly. Much more likely is a collapse on par or perhaps beyond the Great Depression. In short, it is not a gamble that any president, conservative or liberal, could take, Obama included. So to not merely complain about the fact that the bailouts had to be made, but instead blame Obama for issuing them is ignorant and not constructive. All parties, real or imagined, would have to avoid gambling with America's future.

The Tea Partier's timing is curious. Not so much because of the tough times we are in, but because of their reactionary nature. While it is understandable that people are speaking out now, because of the desperate feel of our times, politically, Tea Party timing raises questions. Don't like 'big government'? Where were you during the George W. Bush years? Don't like deficits? Where were you during the Bush years? Don't like taxes? Unless you are very well off Obama's tax burden is no worse than Bush's. In a larger sense, all the trouble that we are in now that inspired the Tea Partiers was caused by the Bush administration. While many negative trends have been evolving for a while, like deficit budgets, (Ronald Regan is their modern father) the often outright reckless governing of the Bush administration put us where we are today. It seems very odd that the Tea Partiers were silent until a new president took office. This could be a coincidence—that the times only got bad enough after Bush left to inspire protest—but it is clear from talking to Tea Partiers or just reading their signs, that they blame Obama and his policies even though he has only been in office a year. Certainly, Bush's inarticulate tone, looseness with the facts, and ideological perspective has more in common with the Partiers than Obama's intellectual tone, exactitude and pleas to work together. Still, it is clear that Obama is a very bright and ambitious man, which is what one would hope for in times of trouble and the Tea Party hatred of him is bizarre.

The Tea Partier's lack of organization not only keeps them from developing into a real party with an official platform, but it also, as a result, causes them to include aspects that diminish their credibility. You could call some of this the 'loony fringe,' groups most often from the very far right. These groups include people who believe Obama was not born in the U.S. and other conspiracies. Aside from tastelessly hard edge beliefs on small (or no?) government, taxes (or lack thereof) and anti-immigration, there is a lack of class to the movement. The anti Obama rhetoric goes from intense, to disrespectful, to borderline racist in a flash. Not only was this sort of opposition weak during the Bush years, but such tone would have been condemned as disrespectful and unpatriotic. Why is it okay now? An offensive fog of over simplification, lack of respect, racism, and lack of tolerance hangs over the movement. As of yet, no leader has emerged to try to clean the movement up—perhaps because the dirt is at the core.

While no leaders that are true Tea Partiers have emerged, who the movement attaches itself to as heroes is telling. Most odd, but perhaps least surprising, is Sarah Palin. Her overly simple rhetoric that is loose with facts and heavy on outrage, the victim complex, match with Tea Party tone. But these are surface features. Palin is fairly inexperienced politically and ultimately has little in the way of direction and ideas. Her gift for connecting with a certain segment of 'everyday Americans' is overshadowed by her frankly shocking lack of knowledge and political intellect. Even if her views were articulated and matched the Tea Partiers perfectly, she is a bad powerful representative of the movement. The fact that she quit as governor early and her extremely polarizing personality make her unelectable to national office. Her lack of smarts may also factor into this, but also makes her a dangerous mouthpiece. Will what she says be in the best interest of the Tea Party, or will she just sound off? Her puerile brand of bicker politics brings focus off of political issues which the Tea Partiers need to focus on and define. While she complains about Obama reading speeches from a teleprompter (which every president from our time has) the country continues to fall apart. In short, no single voice adopted by the movement seems to put the movement in a practical or positive light.

The media portrayal of the Tea Partiers is interesting. The coverage of the movement is everywhere, which helps fan the flames. On the other hand, their attitude toward the movement is patronizing. This may frustrate the Tea Partiers and their opposition alike. While the odd sensation that the media (though obsessed with them) do not take the Tea Partiers serious might paint them in an unkind light, it also lets them off the hook for their sins. In effect, while the Tea Partiers may not enjoy being taken lightly, the opposition might feel that the dangerous pitfalls of the movement go unreported and uncondemned. In addition to serving no side well, the media's attitude also leaves questions of our age unanswered. If the Tea Partiers are right on par with many Americans, the majority are confused by them. What do they stand for? Why protest the way things are being done only now? Why is their rhetoric so disrespectful? What ideas to fix things does this movement offer? While the answer to these questions may not satisfy most people, they must be asked, and the media's lack of willingness to look into these matters makes the movement seem inexplicable and even dark. If nothing else, the movement is a good litmus test for the times, and the media seems to feel that both going into depth about the moment and going out on a limb to criticize them is not worth the price.

All the questions that crop up when one looks into the Tea Party movement seem troubling. It is clear that while the movement may politically disagree with Obama, their idea that our problems now are his fault is factually wrong. It is not possible that all these problems could have been created in a year and change. This basic premise of the movement is an error—and the does not speak well of how informed the American people are. Is this because of extreme ignorance or extreme ideology, or some mix? Also clear is the fact that the media, while patronizing to the movement, bend over backwards to not offend that demographic—thus while rarely given full respect, the Tea Partiers are also rarely asked any tough questions that need to be asked. Both these are symptoms of a sick society. In reality, the only thing that can rescue America from the problems that inspired the Tea Partiers is to become more informed and less idealogical—to embrace the intellect and to cooperate toward common goals.