By total accident, I happened upon the documentary film Moog recently — what a pleasant surprise! I had missed its 2004 release entirely. The subject of the film is Bob Moog, the inventor of the modern synthesizer. The way Moog and his compatriots talk about his work with music and synthesizers will seem very familiar to software developers or anyone who lives “close to the machine” (that phrase being the title of an excellent Ellen Ullman book). The description of the film on the Plexifilm site reads in part:
. . . a portrait of the legendary figure in music and technology and his ideas about creativity, design, interactivity, spirituality and his collaborations with musicians over the years.
In the film, Moog explained that he “can feel what’s going on in a piece of electronic equipment… it’s something between discovering and witnessing.” [I love this phrasing. – CD] And he was convinced that many musicians come to “feel” a circuit in a similar way. In fact, musicians make such strong emotional connections with the electronics inside a Moog synthesiser that the inventor himself reached cult hero status.
Permanently changing the face of music, the Moog synthesiser went from being the centerpiece of a late-60s craze — appearing on records with such titles as Spotlight on the Moog, Moog Power, Music to Moog By, Country Moog, Moog Indigo, Exotic Moog and countless others — to an indispendable instrument for progressive rock bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes to predating the electronic dance music movement of today.
In the film (which is an eminently watchable 75 minutes), Moog and his colleagues and admirers speak to each other like the geeks that they are, talking shop about the various parts of the synthesizers, their modularity and tuneability, and the difficulty they had explaining the early models to musicians and others as they attempted to commercialize their work. While the filmmakers don’t position it this way at all, the discussion of Moog Music sounds very much like the tale of any technology startup, only the startup was founded in 1953, predating even the first known uses of the term “hacker.”
Moog is a laudatory ovation to the man whose technical work has proved essential to numerous artists working today. As such, it provides only a smattering of social context for the electronic music explosion. Moog is an inventor’s movie all the way. . . There are things to be learned here, but it would take a real aficionado to geek out on all the knobs and circuit boards on display.
I’m not a hard-core music gear aficionado, but watching Moog was a sheer pleasure, even when I didn’t understand the specific technical aspects of the discussion. Set your Tivo for Moog, or buy it here. It’s a really, really delightful film for geeks (and Moog’s enthusiasm and joy of creation is enough for me to forgive his role in the rise of prog-rock — just had to say that!)
Whenever I come to NY, I step off the plane, grab a copy of TimeOut New York, and flip through the pages on the cab ride to my hotel to see if there are any good shows while I’m in town. More often than not, I’m handsomely rewarded (this is NY, right?) Every time I’ve thumbed through TimeOut in the past seven years, I’ve been looking for one name that has consistently eluded me: Laura Cantrell. Finally, after years of this ritual, I discovered when I landed last night that Laura Cantrell was playing TONIGHT at Joe’s Pub in Greenwich Village. I bought tickets and could barely sleep last night.
I first became aware of Laura Cantrell via her appearance on John Peel’s Peel Sessions in January 2001. If you’re not familiar with John Peel and the Peel Sessions, Peel (who died in 2004) was a legendary DJ and man of taste. His Peel Sessions ran from the 60s until his death and have included Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Joy Division, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Pavement, White Stripes, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley. . . so it means a lot when someone like John Peel says this about an artist (referring to her first record, When the Roses Bloom Again):
My favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life is an LP by a New York woman born in Nashville called Laura Cantrell. It’s country, and I don’t know why I like it, but it has the same sort of effect on me as Roy Orbison had in the ’60s.
Like John Peel, I have a hard time explaining the effect that Laura Cantrell’s music has on me. Her voice is beautifully smooth and classic (note: just avoided temptation to use whiskey metaphor), with hints of Kitty Wells. In fact, Elvis Costello said of her: “If Kitty Wells made Rubber Soul, it would sound like Laura Cantrell.” The lyrics drip with authenticity but without a trace of the cloying self-consciousness that you often find in country music made by city-dwellers who are long-disconnected from the places and scenes they sing about. Her music is very real and very simple and utterly remarkable if you like real country music (if you don’t, please move along. . . nothing to see here).
Her new digital-only album Trains and Boats and Planes (available on Amazon, iTunes, and eMusic) is described on her site as “travel-themed, based on the Burt Bacharach-Hal David title track, along with thoughtfully-chosen songs by Roger Miller, Merle Haggard, John Hartford, Gordon Lightfoot, New Order, and three previously-released tracks.” Tonight, the standouts from the new album for me were Roger Miller’s “Train of Life” and Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” but the whole show was wonderful. I embedded a couple of snippets below from my Flip camera using Flickr Video:
There are lots of Laura Cantrell songs from this album and past albums available online, many as mp3 downloads:
I just go an email from Jon Williams, a friend and CTO of Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, and he let me know that he is now blogging (feed here). Excellent! Jon is one of my favorite CTOs and an all-around good guy, as evidenced by the fact that Jon was on the very short list of only two CTOs I interviewed for my short-running CTO Connection podcast at InfoWorld (check it out).
Jon and I still keep in touch, but now we talk mostly about our guitar-playing (a subject we discussed in the podcast) and music. Tonight, Jon told me to check out Andrew Bird (his latest album got a solid review from Pitchfork). I’ll put that on my list. . . .
I’m really glad to see Jon in the blogosphere, and I’m looking forward to reading more of what my favorite Aussie guitar-playing CTO has to say!
I had been planning to write something really profound about my impending nuptials on Friday (and it is definitely profound in so many ways), but a moment last night really brought it all home. After a late night of doing some last-minute wedding preparations and errands in which copy machines played a critical role, we were driving when I cued up a Silver Jews album in the car.
(For those of you not familiar with the Silver Jews, their Wikipedia entry reads in part: “The Silver Jews were always a conduit for David Berman’s brand of sardonic, countrified indie rock.” Hmmm. . . . “sardonic countrified indie rock” is about as close to my ideal as one could imagine, suggesting the perfect mixture of Stephin Merritt‘s raised-eyebrow lyrics, Gram Parson‘s “Cosmic American Music,” and a nice dose of Bakesale-era Sebadoh thrown in for good measure.)
So, it only makes sense that when I put on track one of the Silver Jews’ excellent 1998 record American Water (9.9 from Pitchfork — whoa!), an album we had never listened to together or even discussed before, we sang the first wonderful sardonic-countrified-indie-rock line in unison, completely unprompted:
In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection
In that simple shared moment, I experienced the powerful feeling of knowing that things were just plain right.
On Saturday night, I was hanging out with some friends when we started talking about music legends we wanted to see while they were still alive. I talked about how Nancy and I saw Buck Owens play at his restaurant in Bakersfield less than a year before he died, and my companions said, “Have you seen James Brown? You gotta see James Brown.” James Brown had been on my must-see list for a while — at this moment, I can’t think of a more larger-than-life figure in the history of American music.
Several years ago, I used to spend time in Augusta, Georgia — James Brown’s hometown — and always loved how much the city embraced him despite his tawdry legal troubles. They still named a street after him (James Brown Boulevard) and eventually named the local civic center the James Brown Arena. I’m not sure if he was ever charged with any crimes in Georgia, but he was pardoned for his past crimes in South Carolina in 2003 and released a public statement:
God bless America on this beautiful day. I hope my pardon shows the youth that America is a beautiful country. I feel good!
James Brown helped make America a beautiful country. Rest in peace.
I was logged in to Amazon tonight checking an order and followed the link to “orders by year.” The first order in my history was placed on December 23, 1997 and appeared to be a last-minute Christmas gift for my mother. I ordered these two books:
Kay Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: a look at the connection between manic-depressive illness and creativity. I bought a copy for myself — it’s a fascinating subject.
George Jones’ autobiography I Lived to Tell All. Now, a title like I Lived to Tell All might seem a little melodramatic to some, but for George Jones, living to tell all is a truly unexpected achievement. Wikipedia describes George Jones as follows: “an American country singer known for his distinctive voice and phrasing that frequently evoke the raw emotions caused by grief, unhappy love, and emotional hardship.” That barely scratches the surface. Anyone who cares about American popular music (or humanity itself) should keep a turntable around loaded with a couple of scratchy George Jones records. George Jones lived his life squarely inside the agonizing parentheses in song titles known to all country music fans. . . If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will), These Days (I Barely Get By), A Picture of Me (Without You), Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You). These songs are clever in their expression of abject sadness (“these days I barely get by“), but never cute — they hurt every time. I saw George Jones perform at the Masonic in San Francisco in February 2000 (see photo) and the place was 2/3 empty. 1/3 full is a triumph for a man who once rode a lawn mower to the liquor store when his license had been revoked.
Life can be hard at times, and my mother’s old George Jones records taught me just how bad it can get (and the book I gave her was just a clear explanation of the story behind those records) — but they also taught me a little something about resilience and faith. (A 1999 piece about George Jones in Salon.com makes it all clear.)