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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Middle Finger

Buckle up, people!  This isn't a warm and fuzzy PSA brought to you by the Church of Do-Gooders, or some inspirational post about the future of America.  It's a loud, unforgiving and unapologetic protest of irresponsible, inconsiderate, ignorant, unlawful and inhumane behavior.  I'm not perfect, nor would I ever claim to be, but I am kind, respectful and considerate.  I work to earn a living for my family, I pay taxes and obey the laws of government (and common sense).

I have no tolerance or leniency for the kind of people whose behaviors exhibit a blatant lack of respect or consideration for others.  Against all odds, I remain hopeful for a future filled with people of higher character, the kind of people who will take a stand against something more meaningful than an unpopular opinion expressed by a TV personality or some first world problem like a phone that bends when sat upon.  I've had my share of success and failure and have always tried to consider how my actions, positive or negative, affect others.  As I turn my attention outward, my observations prove that the percentage of Americans who are socially aware or concerned in the same way is the minority.  Anyone who is offended by the following is likely to be among those called out, and therefore part of the problem.  It can either be taken at face value as nothing more than an unflattering observation, or as an opportunity to acknowledge and improve.

To the following group, I raise a middle finger; for their behavior and the negative impact it has on everyone else.

I'll start with a daily experience during my commute to work, dealing with people who expect a red carpet to be rolled out as they merge on to the freeway, typically driving much slower than the ongoing traffic.  Entering a freeway by forcing cars in motion to dramatically adjust their speed is an act of pure selfish stupidity.  I gladly respond to the hideous glares from the stupid drivers who attempt to cut in front of me at half my driving speed with my middle finger.  Moving on, I have a middle finger for anyone who leaves a child or a pet locked in a hot car because you couldn't be inconvenienced to handle the situation properly.  Another goes out to
the lazy, entitled, self-important jerks who leave their shopping cart, usually filled with their own trash, in the open space next to them that's no more than 20 feet from the cart return area.  I don't have to extend a middle finger for those who decide their expensive car deserves two parking spaces; karma takes care of that with help from those scumbags who vandalize cars just for the joy it brings to their pathetic life.  Speaking of entitlement, to the people who live off of handouts from those who work for a living, especially who would reject an offer of help in the form of a meal, I would stand on the opposite corner and raise both middle fingers in the air until I can no longer hold my arms up.  The same sentiment goes for music leeches who believe that the dawn of digital technology relieved them of the obligation to pay for it.  To the people who chose to take jobs with gratuity-based earnings and complain or publicly shame your customers who didn't satisfy your expectations for a tip, I have a platinum credit card from the bank of STFU which I'll use to pay for my meal.  I will tip according to how well I think you did your job; taking my order and bringing it to me is the bare minimum.  It's ridiculous to expect an extra pat on the back for fulfilling the basic requirements of your chosen job role.

This is my middle finger to every lawyer in America that defends the people whose behaviors plague society, rather than putting your efforts into being on the side of the law that enforces maximum punishment.  I have a super-sized, double serrated-edge middle finger for every politician who has been elected into office only to betray the people whose vote was wasted on them.  The level of corruption within our government that has crippled our nation is infuriatingly despicable to the level that demands an annual recall voting option be established.  To break this up with a gesture of unity, I share a collective middle finger with all who would argue against the use of tax dollars to feed convicted felons across America while any child goes hungry, and another for our miserably ineffective and inconsistent legal system.

Here's a middle finger to the parents who ignore their children and fail to accept the role created by their own actions, whether intentional or not.  This also covers parents who use children as a crutch to escape the practice of common courtesy in public.      

There aren't enough middle fingers for rapists and child molesters, but thankfully even the degenerates that comprise the population of our prison system have their own form of justice to serve.  I have a fistful of middle fingers for bullies that will return the abuse they dish out one hundred fold; a bully is nothing but a coward in disguise.  I raise a firm and vigilant middle finger to racists as well as anyone who treats another person with prejudice in any form.  In recent years, there has been an alarming and increasing number of people who've died at the hands of someone with poor judgment, leading to the fatal outcome and aftermath that ensued.  I extend that same finger to the so-called justice seekers in such cases whose real agenda is to perpetuate stereotypes with their inconsistent whistle blowing.

Finally, a middle finger would be an undeserved gesture of leniency and compassion in comparison to what I wish for all who take the life of any innocent person, referring to random acts of malicious violence.  I have more respect for toilet paper than anyone who is so cowardly as to place no value on the life of another but would likely cower in a puddle of their own waste if their own life was threatened.  While the "pull out" method is hardly an effective form of birth control, in the case of those mentioned above I wish their father had sacrificed a few seconds of pleasure to spare us all the misfortune of their existence.

To all who are unaffected or unmentioned in the above examples of wrath, I offer a handshake and many thanks for being, at the very minimum, a marginally decent member of our society.  Have a nice day!

Musical Chairs

The last few years in Rock music have marked the anniversary of several classic albums and prompted news (or rumors) of reunions of the classic lineup of some of the biggest names in Rock and Metal.  For the hardcore fans of any band, the only acceptable version includes all original members, but is the classic lineup always the best?  There is certainly a handful of bands on each end of that argument.  The success or failure of a band following a lineup change is arguably the most revealing indicator of how important each member is (or was) to their sound and their fanbase.

While there are many factors that contribute to lineup changes, whether made by choice or forced by tragedy, the music that follows ultimately tells how well each band overcomes the changes to their creative dynamics.  The death of a band member has forced several of the biggest names in Rock to make the decision to wave the white flag or carry on.  AC/DC and Led Zeppelin are probably the two earliest examples, both crippled by the tragic and untimely death of one of their bandmates as the result of alcohol poisoning in 1980.  Led Zeppelin chose not to carry on when drummer John Bonham died, while AC/DC made a historic comeback following the death of original singer Bon Scott with the album "Back In Black" featuring new singer Brian Johnson, who has remained Scott's sole successor.  Metallica arrived on the scene a few years later with a trilogy of albums that put them on a trajectory for limitless success until disaster struck and they lost bassist Cliff Burton when their tour bus crashed.  After auditioning several players, Jason Newsted, formerly of Flotsam and Jetsam, joined Metallica and remained with the band for 14 years before leaving for personal reasons.  He was replaced by current bassist Robert Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies and a member of Ozzy Osbourne's band.  Nirvana disbanded after the alleged suicide death of singer Kurt Cobain in 1994, and Alice In Chains went on an indefinite hiatus following the 2002 death of their singer Layne Staley.  Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl formed the band Foo Fighters as a singer/guitarist, while Alice In Chains eventually returned with a new singer, William Duvall.  Metal group Pantera had already disbanded due to conflicts with singer Phil Anselmo, but the 2004 onstage shooting death of guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott devastated the Metal community and crushed the hopes of any possible future reunion of the band.

The lead singer is undoubtedly the hardest member of any band to replace, as they are the voice and the face of the band for most people.  Some bands have had to replace their frontman due to nothing more than a case of LSD (Lead Singer's Disease) or any variety of internal conflicts.  In 1984, Van Halen had reached the peak of their success with original frontman David Lee Roth until tension between Roth and Eddie Van Halen regarding Roth's early solo endeavors led to his replacement by veteran rocker Sammy Hagar, a move that polarized their fanbase.  Van Halen went on to have four consecutive #1 albums until tension between Hagar and Eddie Van Halen led to his departure after 11 years with the band. 

Not all bands have been fortunate enough to achieve the same height of success with different singers.  Motley Crue released a self-titled album in 1994 without original singer Vince Neil, instead featuring vocals by John Corabi.  Although it was not as commercially successful as previous releases, it remains a fan favorite and highly regarded by the band.  Corabi himself suggested that the band bring back Vince Neil, who eventually rejoined shortly after.  Skid Row fired Sebastian Bach in 1996 and emerged three years later with his replacement Johnny Solinger.  The band has yet to see any resemblance of the kind of success they had with Bach, despite constant pressure by their fanbase to reunite with him.  Queensryche singer Geoff Tate was fired by his bandmates and replaced by newcomer Todd La Torre, taking the name with them and leaving Geoff to pursue a solo career with a new band under the moniker Operation Mindcrime.  Time will tell which side will emerge victorious and earn the loyalty of the Queensryche fanbase.  After years of turmoil, Great White replaced original singer Jack Russell while he was recovering from surgery after suffering a perforated bowel.  Their first album with replacement singer Terry Ilous received mixed reviews and neither the band nor Jack, with his version called "Jack Russell's Great White", has seen much success.  Guns N' Roses frontman Axl Rose has attempted to find success using the band's name as the only original member and with a completely new band, while the rest of the classic lineup have all moved on to many other projects.

Singers aren't the only members who get the boot, although most people would say the other members are far easier to replace successfully.  However, just like with replacing singers, fans aren't always forgiving when other key members of the band are exchanged.  Following the departure of Sammy Hagar from Van Halen, he returned to a successful solo career and invited Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony to play on some of his tour dates including a co-headlining tour with Van Halen's original frontman David Lee Roth.  Mike's participation damaged his relationship with Eddie Van Halen, and he was ultimately replaced by Eddie's son Wolfgang, another move with a polarizing effect as fans have been disappointed to see Roth's return without Michael, cheating them out of a full reunion of the original lineup.  KISS guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss were replaced by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, respectively.  Although Ace and Peter re-joined KISS for one album and tour following their headline-making appearance for the band's "MTV Unplugged" performance, Thayer and Singer resumed their roles and the fans have not been shy about expressing their disapproval.  Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine started his career as Metallica's original guitarist before being fired for alcoholism and drug use and replaced by current lead guitarist Kirk Hammett.  Like Dave Grohl, he changed roles and became the frontman AND lead guitarist of his own band.

Not all lineup changes have a negative outcome, and some bands have actually benefited from changing or adding members.  Journey was formed in San Francisco in 1973 featuring Neal Schon and Gregg Rollie, both formerly of Santana, and released 3 albums before creating the classic lineup featuring singer Steve Perry, drummer Steve Smith, and keyboardist Jonathan Cain.  That lineup achieved the band's greatest period of success until they disbanded in 1985, before returning 10 years later with a new album.  Due to health problems, Steve Perry could not tour and permanently left the band when they continued with out him with 3 different replacements.  So, while ultimately lineup changes hurt the band initially it gave them their biggest period of success.

Of all the bands who've dealt with such changes, there are two that I personally feel have evolved into their strongest version.  The first of those two is Metallica, not because I think the death of Cliff Burton helped the band or that current bassist Robert Trujillo is better, and not because I think Dave Mustaine was not a good player.  Over the years I think the band has grown tighter from dealing with these changes and with Kirk on guitar and Robert on bass the band sounds better today than they ever have, at least since the early era with Cliff.  No disrespect to Jason Newsted, but I think the band was too busy hazing him and taking their grief over Cliff's death out on him to utilize him properly.  Whether Robert is just a better fit or they learned their lesson after Jason left, the band seems more solid and prepared to return to their roots and the growth between the last two albums is compelling evidence.  KoRn is the other band who I think has finally found their ultimate lineup, with their drummer as the only non-original member.  The first change came in 2004 when guitarist Brian "Head" Welch left the band to overcome drug addiction.  After releasing one album as a 4-piece band, drummer David Silveria left to pursue other interests, including the restaurant business.  Eventually, current drummer Ray Luzier became a permanent member and "Head" returned on a full-time basis after helping the band make one of their tightest, heaviest albums to date. 
Silveria spent much of his time out of the band making derogatory comments about all members, curiously halting his attack as the 20th anniversary of their debut album approached.  Although Silveria announced his interest in returning to the band to "help return the grove", singer Jonathan Davis replied by saying he would "never never play with him again", a reference to their song "Never Never" from their latest album "The Paradigm Shift".

Ultimately, the "classic lineup" is going to be the one that everyone wants to see, with very few exceptions.  Nostalgia plays a big part in how adamant the fans can be about only accepting the original lineup of a band.  The connection that is made between a band and their fans often leads to more than casual interest in the music but more of a vested interest in who is making it.  Many bands have managed to overcome lineup changes and sound just as good or better with different members but some fans just cannot accept the changes and are convinced it could be better.  In some cases, they're right, otherwise they're just too stuck on logistics to accept the fact that the relationship between the creative entities in a band is far more difficult to manage than many people can appreciate.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Digital Era of Music: Quantity over Quality

Convenience is a highly valued attribute for any product, but often comes at the expense of sacrificing quality.  Portable music started with the Sony Walkman during the era of cassette tapes, followed by the Discman after the introduction of the Compact Disc.  The digital era arrived at the dawn of the mp3, which allows users to carry a much larger variety of music on smaller devices like the iPod or other mp3 players.  The trade-off for this innovation in portable music is sound quality, and unfortunately the majority of today's users are so desensitized by the convenience they no longer care about the dramatic loss of sound they're experiencing.

The mp3 is a compressed audio file generated from a computer algorithm that basically removes portions of the source audio in order to maintain a smaller file size.  This allows the user to store more songs on their portable media device, thus putting more value on quantity over quality.  The highest quality attainable with an mp3 file is a 320kbps sampling rate which probably means nothing to most people unless compared to the uncompressed sound of a CD with a sampling rate of 1411kbps.  Even without an explanation of what those numbers mean, it's clear that the rate of the mp3 is significantly lower, and that translates to a greatly diminished listening experience.  Streaming music on Pandora and similar sites is no different, because the music is presented in a highly compressed format so that playback is smoother, mostly to account for various Internet connection speeds.  The best analogy for this is the difference between hearing the same song on a high-quality sound system vs. a cheap pair of speakers or earphones.  For those who prefer a visual example, it's like the difference between standard definition and high definition TV.  Standard Definition (cable TV) is displayed at 480p, while High Definition is displayed at 1080p.  The same image is presented through both outputs, but obviously High Definition presents it with far more clarity and color depth.  If you apply that concept to music, it's easy to imagine how much more dynamic and rich your favorite music sounds if listened to without compression. 

The film "Distortion of Sound" provides an in-depth look at the sacrifice of sound quality in portable audio, from both mp3's and streaming music, much to the dismay of artists who regret having their music heard with significantly compromised quality.  Mike Shinoda from Linkin Park discusses the frustration in pouring time and effort into his music only to have it heard through poor quality mediums that compromise the work that went into creating it.  I consider that film to be a great companion piece to another film, "Sound City", which focuses more on the recording process but shares the emphasis on quality.  Both films are equally important for educating people about just how much is being lost in translation as listeners become more detached with the importance of music and the experience it can provide.  Meanwhile, they're less concerned with the quality of the music they're listening to despite the amount of effort being made by artists to put their best work in the hands of their fans.  Hip Hop artist Snoop Dogg and Rock guitarist Slash discuss the overall musical experience that has become significantly devalued in the digital era as physical media like CD's and vinyl have been all but forgotten except by audiophiles (people who value and appreciate hearing music as intended).

Beyond the loss of audio quality, music as an art has become horribly devalued in the digital format.  Listeners rarely purchase an album and listen to it from start to finish, taking the journey the artist was on while creating it.  The convenience of buying individual tracks has replaced the immersive experience of holding the physical album in your hands and turning the pages of the liner notes as the album plays.  While illegal downloading has been the undisputed catalyst for the hobbled music industry, a great deal can be said for those who stopped appreciating music as the most powerful and unifying form of art it always has been and will continue to be.  Music cannot be truly appreciated when it's not heard as it was created by the artist, and the proof is in the sound.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

What is "celebrity"?

The stars of film and music, known as "celebrities" and "rockstars", as well as professional athletes or basically anyone in the media spotlight, start and finish their day like everyone else.  When the final score is on the board and cameras are off and the encore is over they're just people; parents, husbands and wives, siblings, family and friends like the rest of us.  This seemingly moot observation is surprisingly hard for some people to grasp, thanks to the glamorization provided by media outlets working tirelessly to keep us "connected" to them.  Paparazzi lurk behind every corner to capture the next headline-grabbing image of these everyday people, thanks to the demand and fascination of those who perpetuate the "line in the sand" that separates the stars from their followers.
This is the so-called "price of fame", the irrational movement that prevents celebrities and public figures from being able to live their life as a person but rather as a character or persona.  Their ability to manage the moments when their person and professional life overlap determines how they're viewed or judged.  For the average person, this would be like leaving work to go home and being followed by everyone who is affected by your work one way or another, expecting some kind of unwarranted interaction as if you owe them a moment of your personal time; the undisclosed cost of your career choice.  Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling Rap icon Eminem has mentioned the cost of fame in his song "The Way I Am" with the following lyrics...

But at least have the decency in you
To leave me alone, when you freaks see me out
In the streets when I'm eating or feeding my daughter
Do not come and speak to me...
I don't know you and no,
I don't owe you a motherf***ing thing

What are "celebrities" really?  In most cases, they're just uniquely talented people who followed their dream and achieved success in any industry that's followed by media.  Professional athletes are just the kids on the playground who had a special gift which helped them to excel in their favorite sport; with hard work and determination they earned the right to play professionally and make a living doing what they love.  Our favorite movie stars were just kids who were starstruck by the people in their favorite movies and aspired to do the same, and their talent was developed and recognized so they could live their dream.  Rockstars were kids who grew up with posters on their walls of their favorite artists and bands, whose vocal or musical talents caught the attention of people in the business and they became the faces on the wall of the next generation.  In other cases, they're merely people who ended up in the spotlight through the fame or attention of others and remained a public figure, or became famous from a single headline-grabbing event.  There are "good" and "bad" figures in the public spotlight, some of whom become unwilling role models when their actions inspire bad behavior or they are blamed or criticized for what they do in their personal life.

Dave Grohl, founding frontman of his post-Nirvana band Foo Fighters, urges the next generation of dreamers to cross that line in the sand and his message makes the impossible dream seem perfectly within reach for anyone.  During a passionate and inspiring keynote speech at 2013's SXSW Music Festival, he walked the crowd through his own personal journey from hearing a simple guitar riff to joining an underground culture of musicians who managed all aspects of their career while working to become signed artists.  During Nirvana's recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction Grohl took advantage of another opportunity to blur the lines by telling the crowd

"...You look up to your heroes and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I can never do that." Look at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I’m going to do that!" 

In all corners of the entertainment industry, there are people like Dave who haven't forgotten where they came from and stay connected to their humble beginnings, and then there are those who abuse the fame and fortune they have and choose to dig that line in the sand deeper.  Sadly, the spotlight seems to aim more at the latter because it sells more magazines and generates more Internet traffic.  For those who appreciate Dave's advice and approach and choose to be inspired by your favorite stars, choose wisely so you're among those who work to inspire and erase the lines because they only exist as long as we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those we look up to or admire.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Better To Burn Out Than Fade Away"

For the fans, bandmates, and families of iconic Seattle-based Rock band Nirvana, the year 2014 presented the perfect convergence of events to celebrate their music and remember frontman Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of his death.  The timeline almost makes their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (in the first year of eligibility) seem suspiciously opportunistic, but occasionally it's perfectly acceptable to accept such timing as fate.

Not only has the anniversary of Kurt's death and their induction re-ignited the passion of Nirvana's fanbase, but also refueled rumors of foul play surrounding his death, ruled a homicide by Seattle PD following a very short and flawed investigation.  For 20 years, fans, conspiracy theorists and detectives have challenged the investigation and conclusion, insisting on foul play and almost universally pointing the finger at Kurt's widow Courtney Love.  This movement has increased with the recent release of images from rolls of film that were undeveloped until now, as well as an additional note written by Cobain which was logged but never released.  The note, mocking his vows to Courtney Love, paints a far different portrayal of their marriage than what was written on the note found near his body on April 8th, 1994.

Nirvana was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 10, 2014 by R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe.  After their acceptance, drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic (on accordion), and guitarist Pat Smear played a 4-song set of Nirvana tracks featuring an all-female cast of guest vocalists, accomplishing the same kind of uniquely unorthodox result they had achieved with their appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" series.  Among the highlights of their induction was a gesture given during Courtney's speech as she hugged Krist and Dave, ceremoniously ending their headline-grabbing public feud.  Following their induction, the same lineup performed a secret invitation-only 16-song set at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus club.

As a fan of the "Big 4" from the Seattle music scene of the early 1990's (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains), I recognized and followed them all, but my allegiance weighed most heavily towards Pearl Jam.  That's not to say that I didn't recognize the impact that Nirvana's massive breakout album "Nevermind" had as its early buzz quickly escalated to a thunderous ripple in the musical landscape.  The success of the album occurred so quickly that the band was still driving a van with a U-Haul trailer on tour as the album reached Gold status.  Their 3rd album "In Utero" was released in September 2013, followed closely by their acclaimed performance on "Unplugged", which has become one of the most highly regarded of the series.  At the peak of their career, Kurt was found dead in his home by an electrician, after leaving rehab early and flying home alone about a month after Nirvana's final show as a band.

Kurt's contempt for the fame and business associated with the music he made, likely exacerbated by his heroin addiction, was highlighted in the original note he left.  The line in his note "better to burn out than fade away", borrowed from a Neil Young lyric, offered a glimpse into his struggle with the trappings of success and how it left him disenchanted and unable to enjoy or appreciate the connection his music made with fans.  Neil has said that seeing his lyric associated with Kurt's death affected him deeply, and that he had attempted to reach out to Kurt to offer some advice.  There's no telling to what level Kurt had wanted to achieve success (or fame, if any) but when it comes at such an accelerated pace, along with the other stressors in his life, it certainly had him existing in a very unhealthy frame of mind in his final days, regardless of the true circumstances of his untimely death.  

There are several cliched phrases which can be attributed to that feeling of finally appreciating Nirvana as they bask in the afterglow of their induction and enjoy this renewed attention.  While I wasn't among their biggest fans, I certainly enjoyed their music but somehow never embraced it quite as much as I have in the past few weeks while re-visiting their catalog, mostly the Unplugged album.  There is no doubt that Nirvana's music will capture future generations with no end in sight.  Whether the recently released new evidence
changes anything about the the circumstances of his death, this year will prove to be monumental for celebrating and appreciating the magnitude of Nirvana's impact.