Spaceman's Pancakes

Steering towards the Weird since 2010

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Poem of the Day #23- 9/19/17

I don’t trust Vodka
It’s basically hairspray and I’ve had too many bad hair days
Gin I like though
On summer days
With lime and tonic
Something to steel me for the long boat to Mumbia and
Where there might be Tigers

I like white wine,
It doesn’t expect much of me
And I don’t expect much of it:
We have this special bond of modest expectations
With Red Wine, it’s not so easy.
She makes demands
She will not submit
She will aspire and she will fail
Or else inspire and seduce and leave me too disarmed
We burn up to the end and start again and
Isn’t that almost what love is?

Whisk(e)y I also love,
And why not?
It is, after all, the water of life and
We should all drink of that draught.
It saved Tim Finnegan too, you might recall,
And, for me, I expect it will do the same someday.
Mostly though it’s been nothing but trouble, but
Life can be that way.

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Introducing The Re-Animated Podcast

In the house I grew up in, there was a closet that held our movie library. This was no glorious collection of 35mm prints or pristine laserdiscs and this was long before DVD, in time when blue-ray could only have possibly been a reference to a species of fish. This closet held VHS tapes.

Even by the low standards of that humble medium, these were low-quality. Some strict, unspoken edict in our house demanded that every tape be filled to the eight-hour long-play maximum and each one was. Actual store bought VHS movies were the exception. This collection was built on dubs. Movies and tv shows were taped one after the other until the run-time was maxed.  No thought was given to the order of the contents or their connection to each other. I recall that The Empire Strikes Back was second a tape that contained some lesser works that have been forgot, leaving only the bitter memory of having to fast-forward through something else to get to the best of the Star Wars films.

But for all the poor quality and Empire-access issues, that closet of VHS tapes was a defining force in my life and in the life of my younger brother, Mike. It was the 1980’s and this technology was revolutionary. For the first time ever, the average person could play a movie in their home. And the average parent could put one on for their kids to get them to stop beating each other for a solid ninety minutes. For those kids, it shaped their lives.

We were those kids and now we are adults.

So we are going back. Opening that closet back up and looking inside at the films that passed our rainy days and bored childhood nights.

Every month, Mike and I are looking back at one iconic film- iconic for us, that is- watching it and reflecting on it.

In Episode 1, we look at the 1982 Rankin/Bass animated film The Last Unicorn. If you too were entranced, engrossed and traumatized by this film as a kid or if you just want to hear me destroy a tiny bit of Mike’s childhood, watch with us and enjoy Re-Animated: Episode 1- The Last Unicorn.

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Poem of the Day #19- 8/01/17

Outside a Bank of America branch,
A small plaque catches my eye
Here once was the Filmore East it proclaims

Walking through city streets
These memento mori abound
Telling tales of places now gone
And where people once danced and got high
Here they raged against the dying of the light
And there they wrote and there they drank and here they died.

And for this a plaque.

Here stood CBGB’s
This was once the Bell Labs, where once people watched quarks dance
Home of Janis and Dylan and Cohen
At this bar, George Washington drank the Brits under the table

After I’ve walked through half of Manhattan
And I’m worn down by these ghosts
I wonder what the plaques will say tomorrow
Will they boast of apps created,
Deposits made

A rage begins to grow in me
I want to find the last seedy street
In Alphabet City
Score a dime of shitty street weed
-No Botanists-choice-Cannibus-Cup-artisinal-kind-
a bag half dirt and seed

I’ll storm bank branches and mobile phones shops
I’ll fire a joint and dance

Dance to Jerry’s Guitar
Dance as Jimi wails
Dance to Janis’s blues
Dance to Yardbird’s sax

Just so one day
A plaque might read
This is where he danced until they dragged him away








Thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘King of Tears’ Podcast

I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve read most of his books and I now follow his Revisionist History Podcast closely, typically listening to the newest episodes the day of their release. That was the case last week. On my way into work, I listened to the wonderful King of Tears episode, which centers around the difference between Rock N Roll and country music and country music songwriter extraordinaire, Bobby Braddock, who wrote for George Jones and Tammy Wynette among others. Like all of Gladwell’s work, the podcast was expertly written and researched and completely captivating. Few writers have ever been better at examining the nuances of our culture and their wide ranging impact on our lives. Gladwell makes me think as much as any I read regularly and I love him for that.

King of Tears certainly got me thinking. More accurately, it started me debating Gladwell’s premise. This is a fantastic bit of radio and well worth a listen, but the elevator pitch version of his theory here is that the specificity of the lyrics in country music- music made and embraced primarily by rural Southern white people- is more cathartic than the more vague lyric expressions of rock n roll- music made and embraced by Urbanites from the Coasts. He then reads into this, ideas about this phenomenon’s impact on the cultural divide in contemporary America. It is fascinating and beautifully rendered, but it is also a hopelessly flawed argument.

To make his case, Gladwell snarks about the lyrics of songs from Rolling Stones list of the 50 Greatest Rock N Roll songs of all-time. He calls out the weak lyrical content of Hotel California at #49 (which would be better suited for a list the 50 worst rock n roll songs) #27 Layla and several others, but spends the most time mocking the nonsense lyrics of Little Richard’s Tutti-fruity at #43, lyrics which the articles notes for being made trite after having to be changed from the sexually-charged original version. He concludes by pointing out that the number-one song, Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is essentially about a girl who drops out of Harvard. It’s entertaining sarcasm but it is a bit disingenuous.  Anyone making this kind of culture-close-reading style of argument is going to cherry pick the examples to some degree, but Gladwell is doing that in the extreme here and while Rolling Stone is certainly a worthy source to cite for the list, there are terrible choices here that can and should be questioned, especially Like a Rolling Stone as the number-one song of all time. I am a huge Dylan fan and wouldn’t even count that song among his five best. The song happens to share a name with the magazine making the list, so maybe it isn’t the definitive choice.

I’ll address the problem with Like a Rolling Stone as the torch-bearer for rock n roll and Gladwell’s interpretation of it another time because that was a large part of my reaction, but haggling over his examples doesn’t really matter much in terms of confronting the biggest misconceptions in his analysis. He isn’t wrong in his central premise that country music’s lyrics are more specific and that that stylistic choice makes them more cathartic in certain ways. Sure, George Jones singing He Stopped Loving Her Today can get a tear to my eye and the version at this memorial service is a good reason to invest in Kleenex stock, but that isn’t the whole story.

Country and Rock N Roll are very different musical styles despite sharing many of the same roots. What generally defines the difference between the two is which of their influences they lean into. The man who wrote Like a Rolling Stone began his career as a folk singer. Folk music from many sources influences both rock and country, but country music is the child of folk music in a way that even Bob Dylan’s rock music is not. Folk music is about story songs, songs like Woody Guthrie’s Buffalo Skinners or The Greens of France, begot the songs of Bob Braddock that Gladwell admires for their specificity.

Rock is the bastard son of the blues. The blues does not accommodate such long, detailed storytelling well at all. In fact, it is built in opposition to it. The traditional blues form is that of a single line, repeated once or twice followed by a “turn,” a line that completes or confounds the repeated phrase that came before. Blues has been incorporated into every form of American music in some way, even country, but rock n roll is the style that most closely resembles its father.

Consider the following blues lines from the blues standard Little Red Rooster, song covered by countless rock bands, including The Doors, The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead*.

I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day

I have a little red rooster, too lazy to crow for day

Keep everything in the barnyard, upset in every way

Specificity is made almost impossible by the form itself, but it would wildly inaccurate to say that blues music lacks the ability to bring you to tears. It just doesn’t try to accomplish that feat lyrically.

Listening to George Jones’s He Stopped Loving Her That Day, it isn’t hard to be moved by the lyrics and by Jones’s beautiful delivery of them. But how emotionally effective would the music itself be? Listen again and the answer is obvious. This song is nothing without its story; apart from some beautiful harmonica early on and the female backing vocal,  it is musically simplistic to the point of country cliché- a strumming guitar playing basic chords, a dull pedal-steel line and some swelling saccharine strings. If not for the lyric and Jones’s perfect performance as the man in that lyric, the song is nothing.

Contrast that with the song Gladwell sets in opposition to He Stopped Loving her…in his podcast, the Rolling Stones’ White Horses. It isn’t the perfect counterpoint, actually because, like the George Jones song, it is musically simplistic. Yet, even being a fairly typical, easy -strumming guitar driven song, the production is as musically superior in its specificity as He Stopped Loving Her… is in its lyrical specificity. Both songs are primarily in the key of G, with Wild Horses shifting toward the key of C and He Stopped… moving up a half step to G#. Both get their primary harmonic foundation from strumming basic chord voicings. And that is where the similarities end.

He Stopped Loving Her…’s rhythm guitar is metronomic. It’s simple bass-chord-1-2 pattern performed with robotic precision. The pedal steel is controlled and predictable, a cliché, really. On Wild Horses, Keith Richards’s 12-string guitar strumming drags heavily on a dirge-like beat, stretching the beat out in an agonizing way. Mick Taylor follows suit, tiny little lead lines high up on his acoustic guitar like a man who had been woken up, hung-over and dragged into the studio to play against his will and is trying not vomit mid-take. This all perfectly mirrors Jagger’s vocal style, defines the idea of worn out. By the times the chorus arrives and Mick sings “wild horses could not drag me away,” we have listened to over a minute of music that feels like it is holding on by a thread. The drums enter at the chorus to provide not only the rhythmic propulsion but also the backbone badly needed to sell the lyrics convictions. When the chorus ends, the music basically falls apart before reconstituting itself.  The song is musically specific in a way that He Stopped Loving Her is not. It isn’t really telling a sad story, it is embodying the sadness of its story.

And that is what blues music does.

The lyrics to Little Red Rooster are not the point. It is not the story of a roguish, cheating man leaving his wife and who misses him. It is the feeling of that longing. The specificity is in the performance and not the words. The song is a popular cover because it is a platform not for a storyteller but for a singer or a lead guitar player or harp player to pour the pain of missing someone. The last line is not a conclusion to a story but a plea.

If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home

If you see my little red rooster, please drive him home

Ain’t had no peace in my barnyard, since my little red rooster been gone.

Vocalists like Howlin Wolf might bend and twist these lines to the point of near obscurity. Guitarist wail on this tune. The point is not to make people cry. The point of the blues is that you are already crying and you need to get it out, not by telling the story but just by crying it out.

You can’t do that with He Stopped Loving Her… If you wail your way through the lyrics, the story won’t come through. The pedal steel needs to be restrained, the harmonica has to be subtle and brief. Anything that the music does that pulls attention away from the tale being told detracts from it. Gladwell is right that country has lyrics of greater specificity, but that often demands that the music submits to being more generic. Rock can succeed with lyrical clichés because it delivers through musical specificity. If Jones and Jagger both had to scat their vocal lines, which is the sadder song. It is Wild Horses and it is no contest.

There are always exceptions to these “rules”, of course, and while I like both country and rock, Jones and the Stones, I will admit my full-force preference for rock music here. My point here is not to hold up one style over the other, which is my biggest issue with what Gladwell does. I don’t think country musicians play inferior music to rock musicians. I am arguing that they play music that must be more constrained to a certain vocabulary that lets the lyrics rise up to the surface. Lyrical specificity demands that. Strip away that lyrical imposition and the music is free to go more places. Bob Dylan wrote many long, lyrically complex folk songs in his early career and many could be expanded into great rock songs. Check out the Hard Rain is Gonna Fall from Live in 75: Rolling Thunder Review if you need proof. But there is no translating the heartbreaking and lyrically specific Boots of Spanish Leather into rock n roll. Anything more than the simple fingerpicking accompaniment is too much for that lyric to bear. Conversely, there is a reason that when Nirvana stripped down for Unplugged to highlight the songwriting of Kurt Cobain, they didn’t play their biggest hit, the lyrically incomprehensible ode to teenage reckless desire Smells Like Teen Spirit. It just won’t work. It isn’t a story, it’s a feeling.

What does this all mean for the ultimate conclusion that Gladwell draws- that we are so divided as a country because while one side (conservatives) embrace music that brings them to tears, leaving them looking at the side that listens to the more lyrically generic much and seeing them as icy and cold, while the other side (liberals) hear these tales of small broken people and look down on them as unsophisticated and unthinking? I think it means that it can’t be that simple. I don’t think the divide that Gladwell describes is imagined, but there is a sense of a false dichotomy here. At the extremes, a certain type of lyric can’t co-exist with an expansive musical vocabulary and wild, musical experimentation won’t fit next to a detailed, personal narrative lyric, but there are as many shades of gray in between as the eye can see.

There is an important difference that exists between the lyrically-specific and the musically-specific that does say something about the division in our culture, but it is not what Gladwell says it is. Malcolm Gladwell is a writer and his bias toward stories, and therefore story-songs, should probably be understood in light of his profession. Listen a classical piano player talk about which pieces of music brings tears to his/her eyes and it won’t be George Jones or the Rolling Stones or anything else that fits into the pop music analysis above.  The difference is not a willingness to expose ourselves to emotions, but the level of comfort the two sides have with abstraction. Music with the kind of highly specific lyrics that Gladwell is praising is less abstract that music that relies more heavily on the musical performance of the lyric than words and the images they provide. Music is a greater abstraction than words. The word “tree” is not the thing of a tree itself, but it is only abstract to the degree that it means roughly one thing: tree. The musical note “C” has no meaning but the sound that exists at a certain frequency.  The more concrete the images the words create- the letters, the picture on the wall- the less the effect requires the listener to be ok with abstraction.

And I don’t think anything divides America today more how the two sides feel about abstraction. On the left, the comfort level is high to a fault. On the right, it is almost non-existent. Look at the extremes. Let’s take atheists vs. creationists. On one side, people believe in incredibly complicated hypotheses about the collision and expansion of atomic sub-units, theories they hardly even comprehend, but trust as reasonable because the people who do understand something about these great mysteries tell us they are reasonable. If that is not a high tolerance for abstraction, I don’t know what is. On the other hand, you have people who believe the world is just 6,000 years old and it was created when a fatherly spirit called God spoke it into existence over the course of seven, twenty-four hour days and they believe this because a very old book, written by that father-figure says so. That is avoiding abstraction to a fault. This is just an example. You can find hundred more. Liberals have unyielding faith in statistical analysis, while conservatives brandish antidotal evidence like rhetorical daggers.

And yes, the end result can be conservatives thinking that liberals are cold and detached and liberals thinking that conservatives are unsophisticated, but that is not because one side is more at home with their pain. After all, we call people “bleeding heart liberals,” right? The gap that needs to be bridged is not a gap in empathy- both sides can feel the pain. The gap is a one between people who feel empathy for the person before them, for their neighbors, for their friends and family and those who feel empathy for distant strangers. Half the country needs to stop looking away in disgust from the people in pain riding the subway next to them and weeping for the children in Aleppo and half the country needs to be as willing to sacrifice a little of their paycheck so a person they will never meet won’t die from lack of medical care while they are out volunteering at the local hospital with their church group. It is much bigger gap than the one between George Jones and the Rolling Stones, who are both pretty awesome.

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Poem of the Day # 10- 6/28/17

Set the metronome
Bye Bye Blackbird
on the lead sheet
and “Pack up all my care and woe”
in F-Major suitcases,
travel slow, at first
Searching for the time
Searching for notes
“Here I go”
again at the altar
of time
again offering up some
Just another pilgrim

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Amazon’s Long Strange Trip: Discovering The Grateful Dead, Our Most American Band

Early this month, Amazon released the fantastic Grateful Dead documentary series from Long Strange Trip, from director and Deadhead Amir Bar-Lev and the six-part series needs to be considered mandatory viewing for both Deadheads and for anyone interested with deep interest in rock music, regardless of their feelings about the band it follows.

Bar-Levi’s telling of the story of the Dead is definitely a strong dose on cool day for the bands rabid fan’s- and I count myself among that ragged group- but the strength of the storytelling and way the director weaves the saga of this cult-phenomenon into a fable about the perils of the fame and the music business can draw in even those who can’t abide ten-minute sonic explorations of traditional folk ballads. Early in the documentary, writer and Dead-publicist Dennis McNally calls the Dead the “Most American Band,” and the documentary takes that bold claim at its full value and tells a uniquely American story, spanning from the mid-sixties through the next three decades.

Yet, even as it tells a sprawling tale of the world’s most famous traveling freak show, the documentary manages to feel extremely personal, getting close to the band thanks to the fantastic interviews with the members of the Dead, their road crew, their friends and family and the other key players in their story. The mix of the saga’s epic scope with the personal warmth that comes through from the interviews makes this series one of the great documentaries on American music ever made. It belongs in the canon with Don’t Look Back, The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense.

Explaining the Grateful Dead might be an impossible task. To a small group of rabid fans, they are the most important band there is. To nearly everyone else, they are strange relic of the hippie-era, a tie-dyed artifact worshipped by outcasts. In part, the film succeeds because it doesn’t try to hard to explain the Dead to either side of that equation. Bar-Levi is a Deadhead and he makes no attempt to hide that, but he also returns time and time again to the band’s rejection of all that makes a band successful in the world of pop music. Towards the end of the first chapter, lead guitarist Jerry Garcia sums up the philosophy that would guide the Dead, saying, “Once you know them [the tricks to win over a crowd], they become lies, they become frozen.” The film follows this logic down the line to the parable of the Watts Towers, these giant sculptures that an artist build that the city could not tear down, structures that had a profound impact on Garcia. Reflecting on those towers, Garcia sums up the organizing principle that would make the Grateful Dead so successful. “For me it was more important to be involved in something that was flowing and dynamic, not something so solid that you couldn’t tear it down.”

That philosophy made everything that would follow possible and shaped what began as a not-so-promising electric blues band into one the most successful touring acts of all time. Long Strange Trip takes its cue from this philosophy as well. You will not find a tight chronology of the Grateful Dead in this series. Like musical time in a Dead Space jam, the order of events is merely a loose guideline, something to vamp around. The narrative is not imposed, but brought out from the people who lived the stories.

If the film does succeed in explaining the inexplicable, it is because it cares more about stories than structure. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from the sound man charged with recording the live material that would become Europe ’72. When a mic needed fixing and the stage crew was too spaced or pissed off to fix it, he left the sound truck to do it himself, the tape rolling without supervision. After fixing the mic, he found himself caught up in listening to the song being played and hung around just offstage instead of returning to his post. Sometime during that tune, Garcia noticed him and he knew he was busted. After the tune was done, he returned to find the tape still rolling away. Back in the US, mixing the album, Jerry tells him the song is on the album and laughs, chiding him, “ and no one was in the truck.” That track was Morning Dew, the breathtaking ten-minute-plus ballad that closes the entire double-album.

That story shows so much about the Dead. This was no professional operation. The band was notoriously leaderless, but the astute viewer will note that when you get “caught,” you get caught by Jerry Garcia. Consequences are vague at best, however, because, as in the music, the journey is the thing, not the destination. Yet, somehow, not only does this reckless, completely unruly process succeed, it does so in the most sublime way possible. If there is a way to understand what the Dead was, it is wrapped up in stories like the recording of Morning Dew. Trusting stories like this to tell paint the picture of the band is Long Strange Trip’s great strength and the sum of all the tales and philosophizing and rhapsodizing is a beautiful illustration of the Dead.

America had to be discovered and, as the Dead’s one-time tour manager points out, Americans still feel the need to discover it. Dennis McNally calls the Grateful Dead the most American Band and that claim holds up in Long Strange Trip. The Dead are not just there for you. You have to find them. This series manages to be their Columbus, their Leif Erikson and their early-Native-Americans-crossing-the-Bering-Strait all at once. It finds America in the Dead and we find the Grateful Dead somewhere on that road, just as the namesake fable suggest we will.