Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

May it be better than last year!

Keeping Track

I woke up yesterday night needing to make a note about something or I'd forget it. I switched the light on and pulled a notebook out of the bedside cabinet, groped for a pen and looked for a blank space.

There was something already on the page where I'd written down what I was thinking some nights ago. I don't remember when or why and probably never will. What I'd written was:

Piles of bones lay scattered on the ceiling where they had fallen.
I wish the note I'd taken yesterday matched that beginning but it was only something prosaic about Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus.

Hey, that would be a good name for a band.

Monday, December 29, 2008

The North Wind Doth Blow

It's cold here in Southern California. Yes, I am a wuss. Yes, it is warmer than it was in the UK. But it's still cold. The house's solar panels are useless at this time of year, and the sun himself isn't doing much of a job. The house cools down overnight, and the world outside is in the mid-forties by morning.

At times like this I'm glad I have a gym membership. I'd stopped going a while ago. The exercise hadn't worked, in the sense that I'd lost bone mass according to my last bone density test (I have hyperparathyroidism) and I couldn't be bothered to keep it up. After the bone density test last September I never went back, not even to see if the famous blocked drain had reached its one year anniversary last October.

But at $9 a month (the low price a benefit of getting memberships on the ground floor of a new gym) it's always worth keeping the payments up, and I did. So the past few days I've been going to the gym to sit in the dry sauna.

This is a little wooden room that's usually at abot 160 F, though recently it's been at 170 F. It's a dry heat and this temperature's no problem for a living body. If you took a steak in on a metal tray it would cook in 30 minutes. No sizzle, mind, but it would cook all the way through. A human body doesn't. Superb homeostasis mechanisms kick in to keep the body temperature exactly the same. At least, most people's do. My own body forgets how to sweat if I don't do it regularly and it takes a few minutes to kick in.

When I first joined the gym, twenty years ago, someone told me about the carry-a-towel-at-all-times rule and I was mystified. Why a towel? Was it some secret sign, like a Mason's apron? What would be the possible use of a towel? To wipe down sweat, I was told. After about three weeks of working out, I finally needed the towel. I guess my body just doesn't like sweating. The first time back at the sauna this week, it took about ten minutes of actual burning before my arms started to sweat. Today I did it in five. Go me. Fast learner. (Maybe next time I can teach my body to listen to the other feedback mechanism and not produce so much parathyroid hormone?)

Anyway, going from the cold air to the sauna is a profound warming experience. That, along with the subsequent exercise, lifts the metabolic rate and keeps me comfortable for the rest of the day. One of the small delights in life in winter.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

How many times do I have to ask you: Won't Someone Think of the Children?

"Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds." Thurgood Marshall, 1969

My new adopted country has done some strange things and holds a few oddball beliefs that cause me to cringe, but whenever I look back at Good Old Blighty I'm amazed at the stupid that emanates from the kingdom. Given that most – well, many – Brits are reasonable and educated people, I can't understand how it perpetually gets the governments it gets.

In the news today is Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary (even his name is Orwellian). His plan is to censor the internet to protect us from ourselves.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

No one would take this utter bullshit seriously if Andy didn't drive it home by declaring we Have To Take This Step To Protect The Children. If you don’t agree, you must be a pedophile. And the pedophile is the boogieman of modern British morality tales.

It worries me - like anybody with children,” he says. “Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do."

That's true. And no parent would do it, I hope, particularly as there are hundreds of programs and filters and parental controls you can fit on your computer to prevent your children from accessing sites you do not approve of. Programs that work by preventing the content from arriving on your own computer. Not ones that work by preventing the content from existing, or from arriving at anyone in Britain's computers. Or…wait:

“The change of administration is a big moment. We have got a real opportunity to make common cause,” he says. “The more we seek international solutions to this stuff – the UK and the US working together – the more that an international norm will set an industry norm.”

Make that anybody in Britain's and anybody in America's computers. Andy thinks big.

Do you want your access to information controlled by a man who says,

“If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now."

- apparently quite unaware that the "people who created the internet" were the American Government and had nothing to say to about creating a space that governments couldn't reach?

Most of the comments on the Daily Telegraph interview with this idiot say either that Something Should Be Done but this isn't the way to do it, or say that his idea won't work.

Alas, it will work, if the daft sod can muster the political will to get it done. He does not have to go after the 1.8 billion websites, hosted worldwide and changing on a regular basis. He only has to tell the handful of British ISPs they are out of business if they don't censor their traffic. They will be happy to do so. The only business a regular ISP values is commercial business. eBay keeps itself clean. Google censors itself for China, so you wouldn't see any problems there. Amazon is nice. Your blog might not be nice, but an ISP doesn't care about your blog, or your need for blogs. Why should they care if you are no longer able to access Furry websites? Why would it bother, say, Tiscali if you were a young gay man who cannot find access to a safe sex website? And if a kid is looking up breastfeeding to learn more about what his mother is doing with his new little brother, screw him. He won't have any money until he's 18 so he doesn't need access to information. Think I'm joking? Facebook is in the news this week because of its ban on pictures of breastfeeding. Their definition of indecency is apparently a visible areola.

Australia is planning to ban thousands of websites. Only the other day an unelected British body made a decision about a picture of a 30 year old album cover, never declared illegal, suggesting that it damn well oughta be illegal. By some ill-thought out crapulousness of British law, it was in this body's power to stop almost all ISPs in Britain from displaying that picture (or in fact the web page on which the picture was displayed, largely concerning how controversial the image was). (Scorpions cover controversy). The government can do it, all right.

But, I hear someone say, surely Something Must Be Done? Hardly. There isn't that much legal 'harmful' material on the internet, anyway. Most things that are 'harmful' (such as pedophilia) are already illegal. In England (I don't know so much about Scotland) almost any activity you can imagine is either compulsory or illegal, so websites which display the latter are already subject to prosecution. Anyone in the wider world who has travelled to England to take advantage of suing under the most repressive libel laws in the western world, or who owns what is now being known as "extreme porn", or has considered posting on his or her website or blog any of thousands of proscribed topics, already knows that. New laws aren't needed to keep illegal content off the web.

The reason the British government wants to censor the internet is not because children are dying in agony all over its anarchic frontier. They aren't. The Won't Someone Think of the Children meme is getting old. The government wants to control the internet because it wants to control you. It has not changed its view since it asked the public if Lady Chatterley was the sort of book you'd want your wives or servants to read. It considers you a minor, a ward of the state. It believes you need its protection or there will be tears before bedtime. The thought that you might give or receive information it has not vetted is making it squirm in horror. It will be happy when you are required to have an ID card and you have to give the number and add your biometrics before you can visit the internet, and it will monitor your access the way it monitors your emails and your phone calls.

There's no question who is going to define what this useless twat calls the "wider public interest" – he is, with his pet think tanks of bishops and assorted young crazies. Your narrow private interest, your political party, your kink, your foreign cause, your children talking about their activities – will all be monitored and assessed by people who think free speech is dangerous.

Free speech is not dangerous. It is the only system that works

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Electric Warriors

Electric Warrior doesn't have anything
to do with this post, but it's one of the coolest covers ever,
so here it is.

One of the bands I've dug the most over the years had an unusual line up – a guitarist/vocalist and a percussionist, and that's it. No bassist, no rhythm guitarist. They had a full sound though, due to great production and the guitarist's blues-based, Hendrix-loving power-chords and feedback ethos. The albums echoed to the rafters, though the vocals were a little high and fey for the sheer decibels produced by his instrument. He was pretty, high cheekbones in a wide face and a body that had a little meat on it, not like most of the pipe-cleaner men that fronted the average rock band. His hair was black, unruly, uncombed (and possibly backcombed or discombed) and he had a mischievous grin that would melt ice. He himself was of the folkie persuasion, but a love of rockabilly, Marshalls and Les Pauls eventually won out.

The band was T. Rex, and the album was also called T. Rex. Actually the last album by Tyrannosaurs Rex, A Beard of Stars, counts too. The folkie guitarist/vocalist was of course Marc Bolan, and the year was 1970.

That 'video' is actually of an oddity – an earlier single, King of the Rumbling Spires, from 1969. It has more enthusiasm than actual execution in evidence but I've loved it for years. If you think about the bands Bolan was seeing and competing with at the time – Cream, Led Zeppelin – trying to do it their way made sense. In the end, after the T. Rex album, he got a bassist and a proper drummer (the type with a drum kit) and made four-piece pop music - with five people, as he kept the percussionist up front on congas, trusting Mickey Finn's cut-glass cheekbones and straight hippie hair to lure in a few more chicks. (He was right.) The next album was Electric Warrior, the one which had a cover of pure, distilled rock and roll imagery, one of the finest covers ever produced. Just a long-haired guitarist in flared jeans, with a Les Paul, in front of a Marshall stack, in black and gold.

Now, over the past couple of days I've been listening to the White Stripes, an unusual band in that it features only a guitarist/vocalist and a percussionist…oh, just read the first paragraph again.

(Updated to mend links, 7/17)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Lucky Charms

Two different on-stage lucky charm arrangements - Jimmy Page and Jack White, the latter evidently not a believer in less-is-more.

Instant Messaging with a friend produced the following profound dialogue on the two pictures:

Friend: Jack's wearing his lucky cutlery necklace.
Me: His lucky cutlery is much larger than Jimmy's sigil thing.
Friend: Is it larger? Or just more of it.
Me: Aren't those two the same thing? Puzzled smiley.
Friend: No, very different. More bits and pieces does not equal larger sigil. Just more.
Me: OK, after a careful comparison, Jack just has more, not larger.
Friend: Always wondered if that wasn't a coke spoon. But the necklace is too short for it to be useful.
Me: Perhaps it's like that story of heaven and hell.
Me: The original story is, heaven and hell are the same. You're at a table and your fork is longer than your arm. In hell, people try to feed themselves and starve. In heaven, people feed each other. Well, in rock'n'roll heaven, you use each other's short coke spoon.
Me: A modern parable!!!
Friend: That's romantic!
Me: It is isn't it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

View From Apollo 8, 40 years ago today

Christmas, 1968: Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders flew the Apollo 8 command module from the Earth to the Moon and back. The mission was launched on the first manned Saturn V rocket on December 21st and returned to Earth on December 27th. The ship was the first one to pass behind the moon. The astronauts were the first people to spend the solstice away from planet Earth, and one of the things they brought back was this famous picture of Earthrise over the Moon.

It made a big impression on me - the first sight of our beautiful and yet rather small planet hanging in space behind the moon. It's a revelation that can only happen once, but their picture will, I hope, continue to amaze.

Monday, December 22, 2008

You don't need a weatherman...

... to tell you it's cold. It even gets cold in Southern California.

Snow at Hells Kitchen on the Ortega Highway, December 17th.

Photo by Steve Parr.

This is Southern California, so that was enough snow to close the road.

Rain at Caspers Park, Ortega Highway, December 22nd.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tired Eyes on the Sunrise

In a May post, Eyes That Shine Burning Red, I put up a number of screencaps from the Led Zeppelin movie The Song Remains the Same and used them to illustrate Jimmy Page's statement, "All my sections are related to the eyes, the eyes being the mirror of the soul."

The post ended by asking if anyone could think of other instances of "eyes" in the Jimmy Page parts of the movie. Steve A. Jones on the Led Zeppelin Official Forum quoted the post, and said, "Yes, I would add if you look very closely you can see an "All Seeing Eye" on the back of theshirt Jimmy is wearing when he turns to reveal his red eyes."
Absolutely true. I missed that. The shirt he's wearing is one of my faves. My most favorite shirt is the 1975 one which he's wearing in the famous picture of him upending a bottle of Jack Daniels - that is Teh Shirt. This one is Teh Other Shirt.
Here's Teh Other Shirt in TSRTS - you can just see the "eye in a pyramid" design on the back here.

Here's another shot of the back of Teh Other Shirt, this one taken with Bill Graham. Jimmy has a poorly hand (again). Poor thing.

The Eye in the Pyramid, or All-Seeing Eye, is often explained as being the eye of God. It's used on the Great Seal of the United States, and is on every dollar bill. People have said it's a Masonic symbol, or even a symbol of universal surveillance, e.g. by the Illuminati in their present day guise of The New World Order. Teh Other Shirt has a pattern of clouds, planets and stars all over it and may be a generic Illuminatus! woo-woo stuff shirt. Some people say the link goes back to the eye symbolism of the Ancient Egyptians. They might be right.

There's a series of photos of Jimmy Page at Sol Studio. He's wearing Teh Other Shirt and another All Seeing Eye - the Eye of Horus - on his undershirt. It's a remarkably well-thought ensemble for Jimmy, who wasn't known for his carefully matched accessorization.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When the bubble bubbles

Apparently Bernard L Madoff's firm was "a giant Ponzi scheme" and he Madoff with 50 billion dollars of other people's money. After thinking about that for a while, the SEC chief Christopher Cox recently said, "“I am gravely concerned by the apparent multiple failures over at least a decade to thoroughly investigate these allegations or at any point to seek formal authority to pursue them.”

You can hear the harrumph in Cox's voice from here. Everyone's gravely concerned and will do better next time. Too late for this time, though. The SEC was apparently examining its shoe sole for traces of chewing gum or something and missed the whole thing! How unfortunate!

Like that a couple of months ago when it turned out banks had been loaning people mortgages for ninety gazillion times the net worth of their house and then passing off the debts as "Triple AAA Sure Fire Bet You'll Get Yours John, All Right, YBOS Bonds" to other banks and foreign pension funds. (YBOS stands for "You bunch of suckers.") The watchdogs didn't catch that because they had something in their eye and were standing in front of the mirror blinking and tearing up while it was going on, or something. How unfortunate!

Let this be a lesson to us (again), that when the fox sighs, "Look, all right, if you insist, it's totally going to interfere with my social life so I don't know why I'm offering but, I will. I will guard your hen house. OK?" the correct answer is not, "Awright! Fox is on the job! Let's all go to the bar and get loaded. Nothing can possibly go wrong!"

Capitalism is based on the premise that things expand. If the population's growing, if it's getting richer, if more of everything is happening, it gets along fine. If everything isn't getting bigger, then the only way to keep Capitalism running is to inflate bubbles. Eventually, being full of nothing but hot air, they pop. It's happened before; it's happened again. It'll happen in future, unless the paradigm's changed.

Crazy Name, Crazy Guy

This family was surprised when they had difficulty finding someone to decorate their three year old son's birthday cake. His name is Adolf Hitler Campbell.

You know, if they'd asked me, I would have told them that the name thing would have worked out badly. I would. I'd have said, "Y'know, this isn't necessarily going to be a popular name. Have you thought about that?"

I can only see two futures for Adolf Hitler Campbell. Either he'll grow up liking Adolf Hitler, which will put him at odds with a lot of people - and he won't be able to hide it, either, because something about him will keep reminding people to ask about it, or he'll grow up not liking Adolf Hitler, which will be a problem as that's his name. So no wins here then.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Davey Graham, RIP

A sad goodbye to Davey Graham.

Here he is playing Cry Me A River in a 1959 Ken Russel documentary called Hound Dogs and Bach Addicts - about those cuhrazy guitar players.

I've posted this video before. It's worth watching again.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Climb On Top of a Mountain

I was listening to Great High Mountain and Sitting on Top of the World from Cold Mountain today, and finding that all things considered, I was rather enjoying them.

It reminded me of a time several years ago when I visited a friend who's into pure, unadulterated foods. I was half-way down a glass of milk when she said, "That's unpasteurized goat's milk. Do you like it?" I felt a Ghlag!! Noise in my throat as my clack shut tight.

While I struggled to recover, she said, "What's the matter? Are you afraid of bugs?"

"No," I said, "but it's unpasteurized…goat milk…all the goat molecules are still active…entering my body…" I trailed off, unable to explain, even to myself, the sudden fear I'd had that the goat molecules would win out over mine, and slowly but surely I'd turn into a goat.

Well, it didn't happen. Whatever loopy superstition my hindbrain was grooving on at the time turned out not to be actually, like, true. But something similar is happening to me. After 20 years in this country, enough of my original English atoms have been replaced with local American atoms that the balance is tipping. I'm becoming American.

If the symptoms were confined to shopping at Mervyns (which I did on Saturday, as it was having a 60% off closing down sale) that might be one thing. But to develop some sort of a taste for native music seems rather over the top. It's not British. I mean, in a very real sense, even liking English folk music isn't very British, so to go native in this fashion is right out. Luckily, it's been confined to music by Jack White so far. And honestly, thus far, the hooks in the music have been:
  1. Identity with British music, if by British music you confine yourself to tracks found on Immediate Blues Anthologies, or related items by such as Jo Ann Kelly or the Rolling Stones.
  2. Similarity to Tuvan music, which is big in Southern California and I'm used to listening to it.

One track, Great High Mountain, is religious in that luminous way that threatens to be infectious, like some spiritual goat molecule. The lines about Jordan, the lines I want to climb this mountain/I want to drink from this fountain, the use of images of arduous labor and sweet succor to sketch ineffability. Far from the concrete verses, I got a girl/Her name is Sue, of rock'n'roll.

Now, turning into someone else would be peculiar enough, I suppose, but turning into the type of person who might take that song to his heart is turning into someone I might not like. What an oddity that would be – it would be like being cell-mates for ever, me and the new person in one skin. A chimera – what an adventure!

Some easy listening:

Jack White Sittin' On Top of the World

Rolling Stones You Gotta Move

Jo Ann Kelly Come on in my kitchen

Jack White Wayfaring Stranger

Huun Huur Tu Ancestors


Thursday, December 11, 2008

I Believe in pitch correction

I've mentioned Auto-Tune before. It's the proprietary name of software that corrects vocal pitch, and is so popular that "auto tune" is the generic name for vocal pitch correction. If the pitch correction is overused, there's an odd warbling sound that was first deliberately used on Cher's I Believe in 1998. The sound is now so loved by those who love this sort of thing that it's used as an effect of its own in many R&B songs, to the extent that my last trip to the All You Can Possibly Stuff Down Your Neck Sushi Bar a couple of weekends ago was actually made miserable by the number of songs using it. After a while it starts to sound as though a robot blackbird has taken up residence on your chimney breast and is determined to drive you insane.

Here's a song that uses the effect even more obviously than is currently fashionable. For comedic purposes, luckily. It certainly demonstrates the eerie Uncanny Valley of Vocals very well.

Talking of vocal pitch correction, here's Hamster on a Piano.

WARNING: Be aware that if you click it, you will forevermore be singing it, and worse, you'll turn into Meghan Daum's worst nightmare, never again free to leave YouTube, searching frantically, like Ahab for the White Whale, for other companion animals rolling on musical instruments - eating popcorn.

Edit 04/06/09: The video has been removed because the person who filmed the hamster sent a DMCA to the person who wrote the song. Aren't people weird.

Here's the film. I rated it 'poor' because the guy made the other guy take down the kooky song.

Here's the kooky song, now with a video about a skunk, which makes no sense.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Especially the poems


"I like Beethoven. Especially the poems." Ringo Starr

I've mentioned before that I find Meghan Daum, Op Ed columnist for the LA Times, to be a bit of an idiot. When I think more rationally, I realize she's probably quite bright, but forced by her profession to explore, so to speak, Idiot Space. She does it very well. (I used to hate the very similar Joel Stein until I realized he was trying to be funny. After that I found I could tolerate him.)

In Saturday's LA Times, Ms. Daum is once again pouring scorn on the internet in an article entitled From YouTube to Carnegie Hall. YouTube is asking classical musicians to try out for a place in an orchestra, which has got her goat. Her thesis is that YouTube, being on the internet, is hopelessly populist, but classical music is a sort of cultural pinnacle. The idea that common people might get their sticky hands on classical music, of all things, fills her with column-writing horror (which is much worse than the superstitious or existential kind, but pays better).

But is it wise to allow an orchestra to be selected by those accustomed to posting about pet tricks? How, after all, can an audience raised on Auto-Tune vocal enhancement and digital sampling be expected to tell one violinist's pizzicato technique from another's? Won't "American Idol" standards prevail, saddling the YouTube Symphony with musicians who have questionable pitch but really awesome hair?
She's not done with the sarcasm yet! There's another half-dozen digs at people on the internet – that's you, by the way – in the article. Her barbs include "mouse-clicking masses", YouTube being the "official network of forest yodelers and babies slobbering mashed peas down their chin", and imagining YouTubers thinking "I thought an oboe was that thing that looked like a bong". [1]

I believe the print press hates teh intarwebs. I would too, of course – a buggy whip manufacturer is unlikely to think much of horseless carriages – but Daum always takes it further, into disliking people on the internet for their crime of being on the internet. She's an elitist, in other words. If everyone can watch YouTube, then it can't be worth watching. She's unaware, or willfully ignorant, as in the earlier article I discussed, that most of the internet, including YouTube, comes with both a search engine and filters. These mean one is not forced to watch pea-drooling babies unless one wants to do so. If one does want, a few words in the search box will ensure that pea-drooling babies are all one sees.

The classical piece which is exercising her snobbery centers is Internet Symphony No. 1 "Eroica," a new work by Chinese composer Tan Dun. Here's YouTube's first search result for it, as of today.

It happens to be the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tan Dun himself rather than a baby snorting peas, but I'm sure that won't get in the way of Daum thinking YouTube is filled with awful people and their awful pets and awful babies.

Here's how to join the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.

[1] It is, isn't it? I'm not sure what a bong looks like. Maybe an alto sax would be closer?


Saturday, December 06, 2008

Octopus news

Dana Point Institute's 2-spot octopus has had 300 babies! Four mm long, they are currently eating brine shrimp. Apparently they'll graduate to eating crabs later. The Institute is hoping that around 30 of them will survive.


The LA Times reports:

Their mother -- unnamed, as are all the animals at the institute -- tended the eggs faithfully, cleaning and aerating them, without stopping to feed herself, Steers said.And she didn't have time for her usual entertainment: unscrewing jars to find treats, dismantling Mrs. Potato Head toys and taking apart Legos.
One wonders what octopuses do for lulz in the wild, since they seem so keen on Mr and Mrs Potato Head in aquaria.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Obliging underwear

The Guardian reports on some sort of new underwear that can raise an alarm.

Carlsen said he used the handcuffs as a tool to unscrew the hook from the wall. He ran to the door with O'Dowd lashing out at him with a metal chain. He managed to escape and ran out on to the street wearing only underwear screaming for help.

It's actually from an article about Boy George, found guilty of assault. Poor Boy George. I used to like him back in the day.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I can haz Jimmy Page Doll

My Knucklebonz Jimmy Page collectors' figurine, or doll as we call it, has arrived. It's #212 out of 3000 and comes with nice aviator shades, boots and hat. It's authentically skinny. You can be sure that Jimmy will be having Jack Daniels, I mean tea, parties with Queen Amidala, Darth Maul and the rest of the dollies as soon as I can have it arranged.

Here's the rest of the crew. I knew you were wondering. Yes, I already have a Jimmy Page figure. Now I have two.

I hadn't realized my camera was so willing to rat on me to the's put all its details onto Photobucket along with the pic. Wow. Luckily I've never told my camera my mother's maiden name. The camera reports that was 1/39 of a second at f/3.3. Who knew?

(Edit: the photo has been removed from Photobucket and placed here 07/17/17)

Friday, November 28, 2008

Stick with me and I'll make you big.

A review of Bumping into Geniuses my life inside the rock and roll business, Danny Goldberg, Gotham Books 2008.

I picked this book up for the obvious reason – I remembered Danny Goldberg's name from Led Zeppelin articles – and stayed to read it through. Goldberg started as a music journalist, albeit not a very successful one, became a publicist and a manager. He eventually climbed up through the ranks of Big Music to the top – president, CEO, something like that (he mentions title inflation was a problem). On the way he worked for Led Zeppelin, KISS and Kurt Cobain. His facility as a journalist means he knows how to write and keep the story interesting, and his life story certainly hasn't been devoid of people to write about.

My first thought, on beginning to read, was that Danny Goldberg would turn out to be a real PR guy – a smooth-talking liar, the fast talker with an eye on his 10% and no real liking for music apart from what the stars can earn for him. I was wrong; for a start, it's not called "10%", it's called "ten points". Goldberg gives the points formulas for managers, promoters, publicists, writers, arrangers, and so on – and does it in such a way I remained as entertained as I was when he was talking about Kurt Cobain or Jimmy Page. I was wrong about the other bit, too – he loves rock music and seems genuinely, unaffectedly happy when he can get good music into other people's hands. There's just one moment where this wavers: talking about Styx and apparently forced into gabbling by an outbreak of honesty, he says, "I cannot deny that my interest was largely fueled by images of the millions of dollars I could make by commissioning their income, but when I did the requisite homework I was genuinely moved by their most recent album, Paradise theater." The fact he's honest there leads me to believe he's telling the truth about his love for the others.

Where I'd heard of Danny Goldberg before was in terms of his famous coup in telling the world that Led Zeppelin had beaten the Beatles' 1965 Shea Stadium attendance record for their show at Tampa Stadium in 1973. The phrase "bigger than the Beatles" has always been a blockbuster, and Goldberg was clever enough to flog this to news outlets at a time when no-one could be induced to utter the words "Led Zeppelin" on air (and could scarcely be motivated to print them). It was a breakthrough for Zeppelin and for Goldberg, even though, as he says in this book, "the contrast with Shea Stadium was a reflection of the size of the stadiums, not the relative popularity of the groups". He didn’t tell anyone that then, of course. Much later in the book he describes his "validation" at Led Zeppelin's 2007 O2 show, where the music was preceded by a short 1973 newsclip in which the "long-forgotten local newsman breathlessly explained that Led Zeppelin had 'broken the Beatles' record'."

In this book Goldberg gives his own take on a number of incidents in the Led Zeppelin mythology, starting with his hiring in 1973 because of the lousy relations between the "uncool" Led Zeppelin and the hippie press, exacerbated by the Rolling Stones' fawning mainstream media coverage. The Stones, who hung out with Princess Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote, earned Newsweek covers. Led Zeppelin could hardly get an inch of copy, and if they did it was positively hostile, a situation that led to drunken members of Zeppelin occasionally abusing journalists verbally, or even physically, which – guess what! – did not improve the tone of the reviews they were getting.

He gives a first hand account of the incident where John Paul Jones looks out at the kids arriving for a gig and says, "Come on, kiddies, and bring us your money," and Robert Plant admonishes him, "Jonesy! Those are our fans." He tells how Bonham or Grant would grab him by the balls and say, "How's your knob?" He describes the impossible task of keeping groupie photos taken at the Rainbow from being published and possibly seen by the band's wives, and the even less likely to be successful orders to have not only every mention of "Swan Song" removed from Brian De Palma's movie The Phantom of the Paradise, but also the scene where a musician is electrocuted on stage. (Peter Grant had suffered very badly after the accidental electrocution of Les Harvey on stage; however, unlike the words Swan Song, he did not own a copyright on generic depictions of electrocutions.)

There are less well known anecdotes. He mentions that while Peter, Jimmy and Jonesy "sought refreshment in the dressing rooms" during Moby Dick, "Robert usually stood on the side of the stage watching his boyhood friend reinvent rock drumming on a nightly basis." That's probably the sweetest and most moving story anyone's ever told me about touring Led Zeppelin. It's so different from the usual tales of debauchery and infighting.

I won't tell all the Zeppelin stories – read the book, if you're interested. In other chapters Goldberg discusses his personal and professional relationship with Stevie Nicks, Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Beep Fallon, John Cougar Mellencamp and others. His diversions into the business side are short, clear and educational, and his anecdotes are unpretentious and telling. Here's one:

Howard told…Mellencamp, "If you want to be a star, you need to be like a hooker and make every interviewer feel they are the best you've ever met. […] To be a star you need a story that helps other people understand who the hell they are and gives validation to parts of themselves they thought were insane."

Good book, thumbs up, five stars etc.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sour Grapes

A Biography of Led Zeppelin When Giants Walked the Earth by Mick Wall, Orion Books UK 2008

I finished Mick Wall's book. It's long, 450 pages not including the indexes, but has little new to say. It covers the early gigging days of the individuals in Led Zeppelin and Led Zeppelin's formation in great detail, the life of the band in good detail and then hurries through the post-Zeppelin days touching briefly on the times when Zeppelin members played together and hardly at all on solo efforts. At the end, there's an astonishingly bitter wrap-up taking in the 02 Led Zeppelin Reunion in 2007 and Jimmy Page's current life. There are a few pictures, all of them in common circulation, some with weird captions that make sense after you've read the text but don't relate to the picture at all. (e.g. one picture of Jimmy Page onstage wearing his Poppy Suit and playing a Les Paul is captioned, "Riding Caesar's chariot on the '77 US tour. According to one journalist, Jimmy 'sauntered unsteadily into the room on obscenely thin legs.'" Caesar's Chariot is the plane Led Zeppelin chartered to get them around the US for the tour. What Caesar's chariot with a small 'c' may be is anyone's guess.)

It starts off hopeful and positive and as it wends its way to the present day it becomes more and more negative, ending up in a sour blast at Jimmy Page and (unusually, as he's generally untouchable) taking some digs at Robert Plant. How did a man like Mick Wall, who wanted to write a better book than the zany, entertaining but hopelessly tabloid-oriented Hammer of the Gods (by Stephen Davis) end up focusing on drugs, curses and deaths, with an unpleasant side order of shit-stirring between Plant and Page in the last few hundred words?

The book needs a copy editor – or rather another one, since he mentions on his blog that he had one. Wall's workmanlike prose is mostly serviceable, but he has a tendency to dangle participles, misplace his modifiers and occasionally use a word that means the opposite of what he intended. The lack of attention means we get text like, "Situated along a steep track that leads through a ravine, when Jimmy and Robert arrived at Bron-Yr-Aur in May they found a stone dwelling so derelict it had no electricity, running water or sanitation." The mind runs in circles trying to reconcile Jimmy and Robert simultaneously arriving and being situated.

Of Plant's car crash he says, "Landing on top of Maureen, the impact shattered Plant's right ankle and elbow," and there's a sentence beginning, "A former member of the Tornadoes, a week later the whole band joined Hale for a surprise forty-five minute set at the club". We also get, "you'd recommended your old friend Jeff, who was just sat around", as though Jeff Beck was a stuffed rabbit; "such laughingly prudish tomes as Hammer of the Gods", instead of laughably; and the younger Jagger described as "no less malleable" than Mick Jagger when Wall means no more malleable.

There's more; I stopped writing them down after a while, but I do have to mention the sentence that concerns a revamp of Train Kept A-Rollin' which "again found the band bending over backwards to rein in their natural inclination to stretch out". Right. Oh, and the description of promoters prior to Bill Graham "herding the kids… like cabbages."

Fact-wise, who knows? I can't be bothered to check it against the Dave Lewis tomes that Zeppelin historians use as date references. When it comes to my own pet subjects, I can do a little better. Wall refers to "Bulmer Lytton" instead of Bulwer Lytton (p. 400), refers to Jimmy Page's ring cast in the shape of an Ouroboros, a snake eating its tail, as "a symbol synonymous with 'evil' throughout all conventional religions" (p. 429), states that a plea of "nolo contender" (sic) means "I will not plead guilty" ('nolo contendere' actually means "no contest") (p. 382), and calls the Boston Gliderdrome the Gilderdrome (p. 361).

He also quotes something from Peter Makowski's interview with Page which makes no sense at all. "You have Isis who would correlate to the early religions. Isis is the equivalent of man worshipping man, which is now where we have Buddha and Christ and all the rest of it, like the three ages. And then the child is Horus, which is the age of the child. Which is pretty much the new age as it was seen." (p. 305) Simple addition shows Page's quote has been garbled - the only ages mentioned are Isis and Horus, but Page says there are three. Page must have actually said something like, "You have Isis who would correlate to the early religions. Osiris is the equivalent of man worshipping man, which is now, where we have Buddha and Christ and all the rest of it. Like the three ages, and then the child is Horus, which is the age of the child."

You can't blame Wall for the quote but if he had really studied up on Page's beliefs you'd think he would have found a better way to explain this fundamental tenet. Alas no: when a similar concept comes up elsewhere, in Bonham's three-intersecting-circles symbol, Wall calls them a "man-wife-child trilogy" (instead of "triad" p. 250) and goes on to say, "It represents the three evolutionary ages, Osiris (past), Isis (present) and Horus (future)". Perhaps Mick Wall is a Mariolator. Most of the rest of us, including Crowley, were under the impression that our currently sanctioned gods are male and the mother-gods lost ground some time ago.

On page 221, after consulting his tame occultist, he says that the Golden Dawn (Uncle Aleister's outfit) is based on ideas from the book of Enoch, "angels who consented to fall from heaven that they might have intercourse with the daughters of earth [causing] the birth of Magic", without Wall appearing to realize that the same story is also in Genesis, and is the ultimate source of the title of his book.

Genesis 6: 4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

He gives the reason for the title as only, "(I)t was actually called: When Giants Walked The Earth. Which is kind of how I look back on those times now. A time of real rock giants, not false gods like Oasis or whoever your current favourite bad boys are but your actual great beasts like Zep, the Stones, The Who... " I don't know why that lack of cross-referencing to Enoch bothers me, but it does, especially as he says "great beasts" in there too.

On the other hand, the book's high word-count means that Wall is free to spend a lot of time going through the band's history in detail. This is the selling point of this book – you couldn't wish for someone to pack in more facts on the Yardbirds, Peter Grant, the history of Tin Pan Alley management in general, and the fighting, intimidation, pushing and shoving that gets a band to the top. The scene setting for the early sixties is superb and even though I've read my share of pop biographies, Wall managed to tell me something new, or at least put something a more striking way, every few pages. His description of Led Zeppelin as a band appealing to youngsters, not the officially empowered arbiters of cool, the older hippies, really hadn't been brought home to me before. A simple mention of a mobile pie stall had me back in England in the sixties in a second. The description of the angry, regret-filled sessions for Presence gave me a deeper understanding of that record. Describing the lack of activism in British hippies (who had no Vietnam to radicalize them) Wall mentions the Oz obscenity trial in 1971 concerning cartoon Rupert Bear's sexual exploits, and he quotes commentator Andrew Marr as saying, "A teddy bear with a stiffy: it rather sums up Britain's answer to revolution." Now that's context – loved it.

Where this contextualization wavers is in the second-person sections. When Wall wants us to understand what a person (Peter Grant, say, or John Paul Jones) was thinking, he puts in an italicized passage addressing the reader as "you". This is a tough sell at the best of times, because "you" find yourself being ordered about by the book and resenting it. That is, if you can figure out who you are.

This means they misjudge you, seeing only the smooth surface. You know this but are unconcerned. Let others say and do what they will, what's it to you? Ideal material for 'unsung hero' status, over the years most people will see only the bass guitar you carry…

Aha! Bass guitar! I am John Paul Jones!

It doesn't help that the "you" sequences are out of sync. As the narrative advances to the present day, "you" are still talking about the time "you" first met the others, "your" session-man days and "your" first tours.

Most of these sections are in "authentic" accents, so there's lots of swearing when you are Peter Grant - lots of nice well-turned prose if you're JPJ. The first is quite wearing, but what's wrong, really wrong, with second person is the overall tone. It's the tone of a whiner. The person who says "you" when talking about himself is almost always a whiner. In my inner ear, these myriad passages all sound like Have Your Say commenters. "You work all your life, scraping and saving, don't you, and these immigrants come over here, take your job and draw the fuckin' dole, don't they?"

And that's the bitter, regret-filled tone the remainder of the book takes. It begins by telling you that Led Zeppelin was magic, Peter Grant was wonderful, Jimmy Page was clever, and then it begins a kamikaze power-dive into the toilet bowl. Drugs are not so much mentioned as dwelled upon at length. Groupies, whips and violence are mentioned prominently. Jimmy Page's interest in the occult is parlayed into a deep, inescapable trap that ultimately dooms him to suffer forever. Robert's car accident is shown as fated, inevitable in some way. The violence at Oakland in 1977 is foreshadowed. Bonzo's death is made to seem fitting, part of some cosmic plan. And when Led Zeppelin are broken up, Mick Wall starts to put the boot in 4rlz. Everything Page does post-Zeppelin is bound to fail, because Kenneth Anger's curse is on him. Robert has been given the magic gift of determining the future for Page, because his "no" to a reunion is more powerful than Jimmy's desire to bring it off. Mick Wall revels in Robert's power, rolling around in it, clutching it to his chest like a lover and describing it over and over in rapturous terms. The power to frustrate Jimmy is elevated to supreme importance. Wall even suggests that the times Robert has said yes to a post-Zeppelin project were solely to slingshot his own solo work into the stratosphere, making Jimmy the unwitting creator of more power for Robert. The last few pages, detailing the O2 show and after, end with a call for demons to attend Jimmy Page for evermore. More Jimmy-humbling, Wall seems to be saying. More power for "you", the golden god, the midlands brickie made good.

Here's an example of the depth of his 20-year friendship-based insight into Jimmy Page:

Inviting me up to the Old Mill House one day – the same house in which John Bonham had died – he showed me around…."Do you like this sort of thing?" he asked, pushing at a button on a control panel placed in the arm of a couch. The wall opposite the couch began sliding back to reveal another wall behind, from which hung three or four large oil paintings. "What do you think?" he asked. I walked over and had a better look. Thick polychromatic splodges of oil on dark, brooding canvas; what appeared to be a series of bodies twisted in torment, as though in hell. “Weird,” I said. “Heavy . . .” I turned to him, waiting for some explanation, but he merely stood there, smiling , saying nothing…I felt I had failed some sort of test. (p. 429)

I guess. They sound like some of Crowley's paintings. Everyone knows he collects them. What's all the Dr. Evil imagery about? This, the story of the "evil" snake ring and tens of other comments all add up. Wall does not want us to like Jimmy Page. Why not?

It seems churlish to review the book based on a cod-psychoanalysis of the writer, but I don't think the book can be read in context without hearing where the writer is coming from. We know that Mick Wall was Jimmy's friend. He says so himself. It seems that the very act of writing a book is regarded as disloyalty by Jimmy Page. Page has had a hard time trusting journalists in the past – they hated Led Zeppelin from before day one, as admirably outlined in publicist Danny Goldberg's fascinating and readable book, Bumping into Geniuses (Gotham Books, 2008). To have his long term friend turn on him in this fashion must have angered Page beyond belief. As soon as Jimmy learned Wall was writing a book, he cut Wall off.

I appear to have lost the 20-year friendship of Jimmy Page (how dare I try and write a better book than the bog-awful Hammer Of The Gods), Robert Plant (he'll change his mind when he sees it) and related friends. (Mick Wall's blog.)

Wall seems to have over-reacted, in a giant attack of Sour Grapes, deciding Jimmy is worthless and his friendship not worth anything.

Mick has particularly harsh things to say about Page, even though he was once very close to the guitarist. The two fell out when Mick decided to write his book about Led Zeppelin. Initially, the rock writer attempted to persuade his old friend to get involved. But Page refused and has even threatened to sue over the contents of the book. “It has been made plain through mutual friends that I’ve burned my bridges with him,” says Mick. “But you know what? I’m 50 now. When I was 30, 35, even 40, it was very important for me to keep those doors open with Jimmy. But now it’s far less important. I’ve had 20 years of talking to him and I don’t really need to talk to him again. (From the Sunday Mercury.)

The article goes on to say;

Mick even claims Page… has squandered his immense talent and now rarely plays guitar.… “These days he’s far more likely to have a remote control in his hands. From what I’ve heard from mutual friends, he just sits watching football on the telly. Tragic, really.”

"Squandered"? The man who played on about 60% of Britain's hit singles in the early sixties, formed one of the best loved bands in the rock catalogue, wrote some of the best selling songs of all time, arranged and produced six of the best selling albums of all time, and is a consistent top three guitarist in all professional guitarist polls? What the hell do you have to do to fulfill your potential in Wall's world?

Wall appears to be consumed with that jealousy the perpetual hangers-on develop. They realize eventually that the validation they are receiving is because they are in the same room with handsome, talented, successful, rich, skilled people. These qualities, however, do not rub off. Self-esteem issues develop and the only way to save face is to get out, and cash in. If it means losing the artist's friendship – and it often does - they proclaim loudly like a LOLCAT, "I toataly MENT to do that!!1!"

Well, thanks, Mick. I bought the book, so it works. But it really is just Hammer of the Gods on Viagra, though, mudsharks, drugs and big airplanes, with a side helping of the sourest grapes.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Devil's In His Hole

In 1975, after their American tour ended, Led Zeppelin were told that they would have to become tax exiles. A relatively common term in the mid-seventies in Britain, this signified a group of people whose temporary earning level put them in the highest tax bracket, and who would have to be domiciled outside of Britain for the remainder of the tax year in order to avoid paying most of their year's earnings as taxes.

After their Earls Court shows (which are peppered with Robert Plant's bitter references to the tax man) Led Zeppelin's members split up to travel the world. Robert Plant, his wife Maureen, his children Karac and Carmen, and Jimmy Page's daughter Scarlet were in a car accident in Rhodes. The family was flown back to England for treatment and very shortly afterwards a still seriously-injured Plant was flown to Jersey in order to maintain his non-domiciled status in the well-known tax haven. For six weeks or so, Plant remained at the house of a millionaire lawyer colleague.

The album Presence was recorded shortly afterwards, with Plant still on crutches. More than one song on the album, particularly Achilles Last Stand, has been described as "intensely autobiographical". According to Mick Wall in When Giants Walked the Earth, Achilles went under Plant's working title of The Wheelchair Song" and blames the exile for what Mick calls their current malaise. One line refers to "the devil's in his hole".

Mick doesn't mention this, but the Devil's Hole is a place on the Jersey coast. (Jersey is historically French speaking and in French the cave is known as Le Creux de Vis, which I'm told translates to "the screw hole", rich in double entendres but probably just meaning borehole or awl-hole, right?) Plant can't have walked down to it, mostly because he couldn't walk but secondarily because the difficult passage down to it has been closed for years. The cave is a famous landmark featured on picture postcards, a blowhole where the waves have blasted a tunnel through the cliffs. A ship wrecked close by in 1851, and the figurehead washed up in the cave, resembling a devil. This was carved into the wooden figure of the devil by Captain Jean Giffard and remained there for many years during which tourists could pay to climb down the cliffs and visit him.

Since tourists are not supposed to go into the cave today, a devil figure – though he looks more like Pan to me – has been placed in a pond at the top of the cliffs at The Priory Inn. Here's an excellent picture, but since there are prints for sale, I won't reproduce it for copyright reasons. It's worth a click.

The whole verse in Achilles, however, doesn't appear to refer to Jersey.

Sending off a glancing kiss, to those who claim they know
Below the streets that steam and hiss,
The devil's in his hole

As a former Brit myself, I believe the image summoned up by "streets that steam and hiss" is of New York. There's a Devil's Hole State Park in upstate New York, but it's not below the streets of Manhattan!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Oh Well

I'm still only half-way through it. But Mick Wall's When Giants Walked the Earth has an interesting insight on Black Dog:

...musos stroked their beards appreciatively over the peacocking, lugubrious riff - originally in 3/16 time, smirked Jones, "but no-one could keep up this that!" - and Plant's acapella vocals, based on Fleetwood Mac's recent hit, "Oh Well"...
Oh Well, of course. One of my favorite tunes but I had never thought about the two of them together. Apart from being in a very tappable four four, it does have a similar structure. Here's Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac with Oh Well.

He's very modest isn't he? He can sing, he is pretty and I like thin legs.

And here's Page himself Oh Welling with the Black Crowes and Joe Perry in 1999. (Thanks, C!)

While I'm here, here's another bit of Peter Green, with a better picture.
Danny's broken a string and Peter just rips this out as an improvisation
while he fixes it. It's spellbinding.

If you've forgotten what Black Dog sounds like ... how could you?... then try this one, the Jimmy-Page-Quick-Costume-Change version.

Civic Literacy.

I'm not completely Civicly Literate, with 27 out of 33 correct on this quiz from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)'s American Civic Literacy Program. That's a score of 82%.

Then again, I'm about as good as people taking it online - the average score for this quiz during November was 78%. And I'm far, far better than elected officials (44% correct) and ordinary joes sent the official version to complete (49% correct). And no, I didn't google for answers. I suspect that some might have done, however, hence the significant difference between the official results and the online results.

The ones I got wrong were entirely in the first section - knowing what was in some-old-guy-with-a-stovepipe-hat's letters and so forth. None of the later ones were incorrect. I assume that not going to school here did me down a little.

The write-up on the dreadful performance of the elected officials is here on Yahoo News. Beware, the test is biased, but I think part of civic literacy is knowing that you are supposed to find a happy answer to a free trade question, not start throwing things at the screen and ranting communistically into your beard. Caveat quizzee.

(Found via More Words Deeper Hole.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Exterminate - Forty five years of Doctor Who and the Daleks

1963 is one of my favorite years. That was the year it all changed, and not just for me, apparently. Philip Larkin put it this way in his Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me)
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP

At five I was a little too young to realize that two of those things existed. The Beatles I was big on. Forty-five years on, 1963 looks like the watershed year it was.

This day, on 22nd November, 1963, President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas. I have a vague memory of that – not the assassination itself, but of my family being strangely subdued and my grandmother buying a memorial book, Four Days, which I still see around. My family lived in Yorkshire, England. The impact of that deed was worldwide.

Also on that day, the Beatles' second LP, With the Beatles, was released. I already knew about the Beatles. Now there was a phenomenon with impact. I missed most of the other 1963isms. The dreadful weather; General De Gaulle's Non to British hopes of joining the Common Market. I remember the White Heat of Technology Speech by the new leader of labor, Harold Wilson, but I'm sure I heard of it much later. One of Britain's many communist spies, Kim Philby defecting to Russia, the Profumo Scandal, and the authorization of Britain's third TV channel, BBC2, with a mandate to edumacate the masses or something, I don't know, I didn't see it for many years afterwards. In fact I don't remember ever watching ITV, the second channel. BBC (the first one) was all we had. (I'd occasionally sneak round to houses with lower parental morals in order to catch an ITV programme, but that's probably another story.)

But tomorrow, 23rd November, is the forty-fifth anniversary of the day the world REALLY changed. On that day, the first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast. And then, as Philip Larkin put it,

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

Dr Who debuted on the BBC, in glorious black and white. It was the story of an old duffer and his niece, made far more strange and beautiful than the usual BBC story by the fact that the old man – the doctor – was a traveler in time and space. His vehicle was disguised as an emergency telephone booth, a rather steampunk attempt at fitting in with 1960s planet Earth. I'm no otaku and I can't remember a single original Dr Who storyline, although I do remember the (1965) motion picture in great detail. All I knew of it was Dr Who fought the Daleks, and that was enough. Here's a clip from the 1965 movie.

This clip opens with a flipbook of the book The Dalek World, which - oooh! - I have.

After that, I insisted on getting Dalek material in my own chosen medium, the written word. I still have some of it – a couple of Dr Who annuals, which I reread recently and was surprised to find were simple in terms of word-length but complex in terms of moral values, depiction of unpleasant events and so on, and the Dalek Pocketbook and Space Travellers' Guide,

which had a fair amount of facts (as then believed) about the solar system and was therefore my introduction to science. (Thanks, I think, Dr Who!) Unlike most, I did not hide behind the sofa when the Daleks appeared, and unlike 99.9% of people at the time, I knew that the effect that produced the Dalek voice was ring modulation. (My father worked in audio electronics.) I don't know why. Chicks dig Daleks, what can I say.

Hey, I used to have a little black battery-operated Dalek like the one she's holding…

The BBC has some historical photos and background on its site here.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Problems I didn't even know it was possible to have, part I

The BBC reports the case of a supermodel who does not have a bellybutton. There is a picture. Tens of thousands (almost) of readers write in to say they, too, do not have a bellybutton, or navel, or, in one case, naval.

Full story here.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fields of the Nephilim

Gen 6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
I bought a book, against my better judgment. Wait. The phrase "against my better judgment" assumes that I have a better judgment. One imagines it professionally pressed and hanging up, covered in a flimsy nylon bag, in the coat cupboard we use as the server room here at Casa Hopwood, to be brought out only on Sundays and funerals.

Actually, I don't have a better judgment, just a pair of matched judgments that are a few tens of ethical millimeters apart, giving me stereoscopic judgmentovision from appropriate distances. When I first heard of it, Mick Wall's riposte to the unworthy previous biographers of Led Zeppelin When Giants Walked the Earth sounded like a dumb idea. It was bound to be a hatchet job, along the lines of the infamous Hammer of the Gods (by Stephen Davis), but with the added cachet of being written by someone who could talk Cockney and had probably hung around the Speakeasy. Mick Wall has a blog, and a brief review of it convinced me he did know what he was talking about. But his frank admission that he'd lost Jimmy Page's friendship over the publication of the book suggested I was right to think of it as HOTG on steroids.

I appear to have lost the 20-year friendship of Jimmy Page (how dare I try and write a better book than the bog-awful Hammer Of The Gods), Robert Plant (he'll change his mind when he sees it) and related friends like - apparently - Cookie, who ceased all communications the moment I fessed up and told her what I was doing.
So far, so not convinced.

Then my other judgment, the greedy completist one, kicked in and demanded I buy it. So I did. It got here yesterday - unfortunately for it, arriving after a slew of reviews in the papers that made it sound like crap - and I've got almost 1/8 of the way through it in the first day. It appears to be called "When Giants Walked the Earth" for the simple reason you need to be Peter Grant-sized to lift the damn thing and spread the pages. It's huge. It must be 170,000 words, I swear.

I can't 'review' it in one go, so I'll just put things here as I get through it. Remember I have the two judgments, though, so I reserve the right to change my mind.

Mick Wall has had a Good Idea. For the bits that would be boring as he said/she said exposition, he's taken a leaf out of the fanfic writer's handbook and written short sections in the second person. So, a chapter will be all about how "you" ran the NAAFI when you were in the army, you were a wrestler, you negotiated contracts etc. because in that chapter "you" are Peter Grant. Since Mick Wall is not a natural fanfic writer, it hasn't occurred to him that second person is the hardest POV to write in because readers will unconsciously rebel against identifying with people who do things they wouldn't do, such as hang out with Don Arden or be a bodyguard at the 2is. It is a bit of an effort to sit in your car at lunchtime eating a Lean Cuisine and have to "be" 1968 Robert Plant or John Bonham, but it is, I have to agree, marginally more thrilling than other ways of putting a biography together, so I'm not totally fed up with it yet.

There's another way in which this stuff reminds me of fanfic. Consider this passage from the book:
Things warmed up when you [Jimmy Page] started playing records. You told him [Robert Plant] about your idea for taking the Yardbirds and building on it, going in a whole new direction. The kid nodded along, "Yeah, great", though it was fairly clear he didn't know any Yardbirds' songs - not from your time with them, anyway. But you sat there on the floor together, letting him flick through your LPs, pulling out stuff...He was still nodding, still sitting there pulling on a joint and going, "Yeah, man, groovy," but you could tell he didn't really know what on earth your were on about half the time. He'd heard of Joan Baez, all Dylan fans had heard of Joan Baez, but what did she have to do with the New Yardbirds? He was just a big curly-haired kid with a big curly-haired voice from somewhere up there in the Midlands.

So you picked up your acoustic guitar, said, "I've got an idea for this one", and began playing your own arrangement of "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You", and slowly, slowly, it began to sink in. Not all of it, but enough to get him started, get him thinking about it on the train back to Brum or wherever it was he came from. Then you said he could crash for the night if he wanted and he did.

Yes! All right! And then...?

Unfortunately, the second person Jimmy narrative stops there and it goes back to reportage. I wonder if Wall's aware of the hundreds of second-person Jimbert slashfics that have covered this exact Boathouse scenario, the first meeting of impecunious young Robert and the flush, wordly-wise older southerner - and how many have turned on that same last phrase: "Do you want to crash here tonight?"

If one of us had been writing it, of course, it wouldn't have ended there. But Mick Wall, who I'm sure will get to the sex and drugs and rock and roll a bit later, draws a discreet veil over that first night.


I gather there's also a lot of stuff about magic in here too. Will we learn that Jimmy Page worshipped evil and was a generally evil all round evil person who was shadowed by evil and haunted by it (evil)? I hope so! (Rubs hands.) I love it when biographers cover the important stuff! :) Stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


In comments yesterday, I said I'd never quite understood how Clapton got Cream's Crossroads out of what he heard on Robert Johnson's Crossroads. I put it down to genius – Clapton, after all, was God.

I went looking for a vid this morning. When I found one, I found I did know how he did it. The version of Cream's Crossroads which comes up first on YouTube is not the vinyl version - it's a 1968 live performance that's very unusual. It's an intermediate version between RJ's and vinyl EC's riff. For the first 20 or so seconds, Clapton leaves in the underlying boogie structure that bridges the gap between the two versions. It's like he's left the scaffolding in place. I couldn't see how he thought of that riff, but with the structure holding it up, I can! I checked about thirty other performances, and he doesn't do it this way any other time!

The Missing Link Crossroads

Here's the vinyl version (no video)

And of course Mr. Johnson's version.

Off on a tangent: Paul Bunyan had a Blue Ox called Babe that was forty-two axe handles and a plug of tobacco across the forehead. I can say that and not be lying and yet not think it's actually true. When a YouTube commenter says Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, are they living in Mythspace, like me recounting Paul Bunyan, or do they really believe it?

I may not want to know the answer to that.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Make a Wish

It's fire season.

The Santa Ana winds aren't blowing very hard, but it is very warm - around 90 today. I have a work colleague here from back east and I was explaining to her this morning that it's fire weather and it would be hot. She was too busy staring out of the window. She pointed a shaky finger at a big black bird on the pathway light post about a foot from the window and said, "Is that a...vulture?"

I replied, "Yeah, it's a turkey vulture. Don't worry, they don't attack you unless you're dead. The other 20 in the flock are over there." I pointed out the rest of them, drying their wings on the lawn. You get used to the things. At work it's likel iving in a cartoonist's desert set with the rattlesnakes and opuntia and vultures.

Anyway, we sorted out what work she needed to do and I left her to it. About three o'clock a helicopter went over, too low to be commuting, and someone checked the CHP scanner. Sure enought, there's a fire on the 2 lane highway which is the only route past my work. It's at Milestone 12, we're at Milestone 10. That means the road would be closing at the first mile to anything coming our way and closing entirely at the other end.

I live at the Milestone 1 end, so there was still chance to get out in that direction. As I milled around bumping into myself in the sort of confusion you get into when you realize you haven't made any evacuation plans, three more fire calls came into the CHP *and* a reported vehicular accident, all on the same highway. I called up my colleague and said, "You remember I said it was fire season. (Hearty fake chuckle.) Well, there's a fire. The road will soon close and you might be trapped here all night?"

Sensible woman, she said she'd leave right away. I thought about it for five minutes and left myself. On the way back to Milestone 1 I passed 16 fire tenders coming the other way, and a couple of ambulances heading up towards, and hopefully two miles past, my workplace. It took me forty minutes instead of 20 to get home. But, IAM HOME, which is the main thing.

Of course I forgot to get her cell phone number, so I'll have to call every hotel in town, and let her know. "Say, er, if the company building still exists tomorrow, I'll see you there at 7 am.(Hearty fake chuckle.)"

Oh, the title of the post? The helicopter that we heard was dumping fire retardant ahead of the fire. As it came over our property and dipped lower, it blew all the fluffy seeds from the dandelions and similar plants up into a Ridleyscott of gossamer airfluff. My supervisor, who watched the helicopter fly over, said to me, "When you blow the seeds off a dandelion clock, you have to make a wish."

She has an unusual take on the mobilization of the emergency services, but not a bad one, I think.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A lien on my soul

My family's musical traditions were a murky stew. My mother's family mostly sang and listened to Music Hall songs - I can still sing rather more of My Old Man Said Follow the Van or recite more of Stanley Holloway's The Lion and Albert that you might imagine - and my dad was solidly Matt Monro and Frank Sinatra. Skiffle, which had revolutionized Britain, had passed them by, with the possible exception of "Chewing Gum" (I think that got grandfathered into Music Hall), and Elvis was regarded as joke, one of those youngsters you can't tell if he's a boy or a girl, can't sing without heaps of reverb and is sure to sink into the mire from which he accidentally arose, like some quiffed vacuum fluctuation.

In the bumbling way kids do, or at least did pre-Wikipedia, I found rock and roll, learned it had blues roots and decided to dig around. BB King and John Lee Hooker and the hundreds of other major influences on rock seemed to go unsaid in those days. Too obvious to mention, perhaps, for the grown-ups who were actually playing music. The one man everyone mentioned was Robert Johnson.

So, I picked up King of the Delta Blues Singers volumes 1 and 2 at an early age, without actually having heard any other original American blues that I can recall. They were recorded in 1936. The songs of Robert Johnson's I'd heard by British artists were recorded from 1967 on. A thirty year period, in which those playing his stuff had also listened to Elvis, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and a host of other musicians forming a bridge. I hadn't, and Robert Johnson might as well have been a Martian for all the similarities a naive 13 year old could detect between say, his Malted Milk and Black Sabbath's Paranoid. Luckily I was an avid Science Fiction reader, so the problems of First Contact didn't throw me. It took a while to apply this discipline, and it took even longer to grow up enough to know what Robert Johnson was singing about, and why he sounded so hunted, even haunted, on every track. It took about ten years, then, to figure out why he was the one every rock musician mentioned first.

Led Zeppelin famously borrowed his lyric "squeeze my lemon" in The Lemon Song and a little less famously, because it was performed for a BBC session and not released until many years later, they covered his Traveling Riverside Blues. They doubled the "l", as British people do, and added in words from other Robert Johnson songs and even other blues songs, as Robert Plant is wont to do, and fundamentally changed the guitar part from compelling to absolutely sublime, as guitar gods do. I recorded it from a BBC broadcast and had it on cassette tape for many years before it was released, and it is still my favorite Led Zeppelin song. There's something about the structure, the way it fits together and seems sort of inevitable, like a beautifully designed roller coaster, the highs and lows scripted and set in motion to play out perfectly, the musical equivalent of one of the executive desk toys in spinning chrome.

Here it is. Led Zeppelin's Travelling Riverside Blues.

Now, Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge has been suggested as a singer for Jimmy Page's, John Paul Jones' and Jason Bonham's new band, the "To Be Decideds". Does he like Traveling Riverside Blues? Yes, he does!

Alter Bridge’s management offered a terse “no comment” to Classic Rock’s official enquiry regarding the rumours; the fact that the band included Robert Johnston’s ‘Travelling Riverside Blues’ (from whence Zep borrowed the immortal “Squeeze my lemon…” line) seems to imply the deal has already been done. And, so long as it was temporary, why the heck not?

He plays it straight, with just a little adjustment here and there to make it smooth.

Edit: replacement video. The Copenhagen link died.

Here's the original, in Martian. Robert Johnson in a hotel room in 1937. Second Contact, in this case, as he'd been recorded once previously. Imagine that meeting of cultures! Stanley G. Weinbaum's creatures were not separated by the gulf that's being bridged here by this flimsy magnetic tape - or was it still wire in those days?

I put the others first to build the (alter) bridge in case you haven't heard Robert Johnson before. Please feel free to decide it's infinitely superior to the modern interpretations. I'm used to people saying that.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Life Aquatic

Oceangal forwarded this video on the jellyfish of Palau.

These jellyfish live in saltwater in the center of the island, trapped away from the sea. In their new little homes (there's more than one lake) they seem to have thriven. The jellies are farmers, or perhaps farms, depending on your level of anthropomorphism. They keep algae inside their bodies and live off the by-products of the plants' photosynthesis. In return, they ferry the algae from sunny area to sunny area during the day, and at night take them down to the low-oxygen level of the lake where some of the weirder bacteria live. They pick up nutrients from them for their plants and then go back up to catch rays the next morning. The jellies also catch the occasional copepod and eat it.

Although jellyfish look as though they're going somewhere, they aren't really swimming like a frog or an otter; their bell contracts and relaxes in the same way a heart does, with as much conscious thought as a heart puts into its beat.

Apparently these can barely sting, so snorkelling around in a cloud of them is a nice experience.


At the end of October, in Superhype Awry, I whinged about people's perception that anything Jimmy Page does without Robert Plant will be Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant in it, and therefore doomed. In fact, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones have been careful for 11 months not to say Led Zeppelin reunion or anything remotely similar. That hasn't stopped everyone, even lost Japanese WWII soldiers still hiding out in jungles on Pacific Islands, even Ambrose Bierce, even Lord Lucan and the crew of the Marie Celeste, from going online and telling each other that Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones going on tour without Robert Plant would be a misuse of the name Led Zeppelin.

Jimmy must have wanted to clear this up once and for all, because yesterday his spokesman told Rolling Stone, "Whatever this is, it is not Led Zeppelin. Not without the involvement of Robert Plant."

Thank you spokesbeing.

This clarification was instantly successful, as you can see by reading the comments below the article. This commenter, for example: "Touring without Robert Plant is fine, but I think it's really stupid for them to still go by Led Zeppelin, because they simply aren't."

I'm not making that up. The article is above, with the spokesguy's comment as I've reprinted it here, and the comment is below, posted after the dude had presumably read the article.

When I lived in London, I used to go to a pub in Canning Town that featured live bands on the weekends. About once a month, they would have The Blues Band. Singer Paul Jones and bassist Gary Fletcher were from Manfred Mann, Tom McGuinness and Hughie Flint were of McGuinness Flint, and they were supplemented with slide guitarist Dave Kelly, a mainstay of the blues scene (and Jo-Ann Kelly's brother). These were the rockingest gigs I've ever attended. I doubt the pub paid the band much, if anything. They had a good time, we had a great time, and although you'd imagine it would eventually get old, drinking beer and singing along to "What did I do to make you mad this time, baaaaaaaaaaaaybee?", it actually didn't. Sometimes I wish Jimmy and John Paul were just a little less rich and famous, so they could shrug off the fans' hyperactive expectations and just do this circuit, bringing rock 'n' roll fun to people who just like having fun.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Give me your funny paper

I have the American version of a pension scheme, an IRA. They're simple. All your life you put your own money into buying stocks and bonds, and when you retire you have a fortune, it says here. I'll avoid going into the similarities between everyone getting rich by putting money into stocks and everybody getting rich by putting money into one-armed bandits for the moment. (It's not like I had no choice; I mean, I could have put it into houses instead...)

Anyway, the IRA's robot sent me a warning email today. It said, "[I]t may be time to revisit your plan. The equity portion of your investments is currently at 30.91% and your current target asset mix suggests that 70.0% may be more appropriate." Which is good advice.

The really sad thing is, two months ago I did have 70% of my retirement money in equities. I didn't sell them. They just lost so much value that the few bonds I own overtook them. In other words, I'm screwed. My retirement account has lost a fortune in hardly any time at all. I daren't look to see what the actual damage is.

Should I believe the robot and buy more equities? After all, they're cheap. Or should I just find finance workers and, hanging them up by the feet, collect the coins that drop out of their pockets? Yes, that seems much more satisfying.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What a beautiful buzz

From Shine a Light, the Rolling Stones live with Jack White. Loving Cup is one of my favorite Stones tracks and this is a nice version which seems to gain added Stoniness from the non-Stones member. I don't know how White does this - older musicians seem to love having him around, and he seems to add something special to them. He's a musician's musician who's popular with the crowd as well, I guess.

(Edit: Actual clip is now unavailable.)

In this case, a lot of the thrill is seeing how happy he is to play with the Stones. Getting a smile from Jagger, a signal to go into the coda from Keef, it makes his night and in turn he makes mine. Dig the accents - Mick sings the first line, Jack takes the second in perfect Jaggerese, which seems to set off some sort of accent-one-upmanship in Jagger. I suppose it doesn't take much with him, but it was odd to hear a little bit of Boston in amongst all that...that...that whatever-it-is accent he sings this in.

If they'd sung the whole of Exile, I'd have been an even happier camper.


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