Friday, March 27, 2015

Led Zeppelin: the folkies who recorded a few heavy tracks

Someone - and I wish I could remember who - once said that Led Zeppelin were a folk band who happened to record a few electric numbers. It does put a different spin on the whole thing, seeing them as a band setting up in 1968, which was perhaps the height of the Children Of The Great Folk Scare setting up bands thing. Peak Mirror Folk.

I've been listening to the remasters a lot over the past few weeks, obviously. And since I heard the sad news that John Renbourn passed away this week, I've been listening to Pentangle more than I have for about forty years as well.

And this struck me.

Pentangle. Jump Baby Jump from Solomon's Seal, 1972.

Led Zeppelin. That's The Way, from Led Zeppelin III, 1970

A track from folky Pentangle's folkiest album and a track from Led Zeppelin's folkiest album sound almost the same. It's at times like these when you forget all about Immigrant Song and just think of the guys who loved Joni Mitchell so much they wrote a song about Southern California folkies.

And for anyone thinking the usual, "So Jimmy Page ripped off another tune of Bert Jansch's, har har," note that LZIII was released two years before the Pentangle album.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Get Thee Behind Me Satan - the Almanac Singers

All kinds of people I know want the White Stripes record Get Behind Me Satan. OK.

That need fooled me at first as one of the earliest tunes I ever learned on guitar was Get Thee Behind Me Satan - a formula from the Bible that precluded Jack White's interpretation of 'get behind me' meaning 'I need you behind me - get on my team'. It originally meant get out of my way. (Maybe that's obvious. Who knows these days.)

What I liked about the old Almanac Singers tune as I learned more about popular music was that the blue notes in the chorus managed to avoid the actual Blues. They just sounded a bit flat and odd. But they were blue notes even if the band didn't know it. The group just hadn't had the chance to listen to real blues and figure out how it really went.

The song was a union-promoting ditty and as a descendant of the Wobbly movement myself, I'm all for it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lithofayne Pridgeon, Hendrix's girlfriend: Interview in the Guardian

While I'm extolling the virtues of Roadies, I should also mention that The Guardian had a piece on another aspect of musician support networks. Not that I'm suggesting this lady, the amazingly-named Lithofayne Pridgon, was a groupie, in the vulgar sense. She is one of those women like Pattie Boyd, Charlotte Martin or June Child who seemed to understand rock musicians and their odd lifestyles and ended up dating or marrying several of them.

Lithofayne Pridgeon was associated with Sly Stone, Little Willie John, and of course Jimi Hendrix. She also befriended such men as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye. It's an incredible life story, and the Guardian gives a long interview and brief overview of her life.

My favorite remains Pamela Des Barres, though, because she is such a sweetie. Also, she wrote a tell-all book, which always helps.


The Wall Street Journal (of all things) had a long piece on Road Managers - Roadies - on Friday.

Roadies have always interested me as a representative of the class of people who move around to provide support while the overall lattice of support - interstates, electricity grids, diners - stay static, along with their personnel. I've never managed to get any of that feeling into my fiction but this article got me thinking again. When I first thought about it - in the early seventies (I still have the first three issues of short-lived mazagine International Roadcrew) moving around like that meant you were dissociated from much of your static support - for example, wives and new job offers - throwing you completely on the support of other mobile members of your community. Nowadays, your webpage, cellphone number, Facebook and so forth is in cyberspace, so it neither moves nor needs to move physically. In a way, that diminishes some of the kick of it but I might be able to find a way around that.

One may notice that I'm mentioning the roadies rather than the bands they (obviously) travel with. I *have* managed to get that type of travel into fiction, and so have lots of other people, even though the difference is in many ways just one of degree.

I'll also note that nobody says to a roadie, "The world don't owe you a living mate. If you love your job so much you'd do it for free!" But they do say that about musicians, a lot, for some reason.

WSJ: Roadies: Unlikely Survivors in the Music Business Roadies’ elevation to ‘concert technicians’—the term many practitioners favor—is reshaping their culture

Jack White Lollapalooza show (complete video) 2015-03-21

Jack White Lollapalooza show, full set (complete video) 2015-03-21

(Thank you Matthew!)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jack White: Ball and Biscuit, Lollapalooza, Argentina 2015-03-21

Yesterday, I posted a video of Jack White singing The Lemon Song with Robert Plant and remarked that the last few chords were from Ball and Biscuit. This video is from half way through Lemon Song and continues to the end of Ball and Biscuit.

This was a killer show, all right!

Jack White and Robert Plant

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Jack White and Robert Plant, The Lemon Song/Killing Floor Lollapalooza, Argentina 2015-03-21

Jack White plays The Lemon Song. Robert Plant sings it. Robert pushes up against Jack like they were old pals.

The bass playing is not quite up to the original, but Jack takes the place of Jimmy Page in a very, very creditable fashion here. The end of the track is the first few notes of Ball And Biscuit, so stay tuned for the next video. Edit: Here it is: Ball and Biscuit. 

Edit to add this picture vv. (Sorry, I did not see a picture credit on Facebook - if it's yours please let me know.)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Genetic Engineering: Birds Do It, Bees Do It. Let's Modify Our Embryos!

David Baltimore wants a moratorium on CRISPR/Cas9 technology and likens it to the voluntary moratorium on recombinant DNA declared at the Asilomar conference in 1975. Paul Berg, one of the signatories back then, is one of the signatories now.  They feel that the technique could be used for 'germline' genetic modification, even though the current uses are for 'somatic' (non-inheritable) genetic changes. And germline engineering - inheritable changes to DNA - would be bad.

It's interesting that it's taken literally 40 years to go from OMG we can do what to bacteria? through OMG we're adding what genes to tomatoes? to OMFG we can do what to human babies? I think once we got past Asilomar, people thought the timelines would be shorter.

An image of DNA.

Anyway, according to Genomeweb (which you may have to sign up for to read; it's free and doesn't send you spam), Ye Olde Concernede Scientists are making another principled stand against the possibility of the Frankenstein thing. They've published two editorials, one in Science and one in Nature, which is the strongest stance scientists can take. (It's equivalent to ordinary mortals saying "I say Good Day to you Sir, Good Day!" and walking out.) You can't read the one in Science because it's beyond a paywall (because science) but the Nature one is free to air, or whatever it's called in sciency terms.

The Nature piece describes CRISPR as:
The newest addition to the genome-editing arsenal is CRISPR/Cas9, a bacteria-derived system that uses RNA molecules that recognize specific human DNA sequences. The RNAs act as guides, matching the nuclease to corresponding locations in the human genome. CRISPR/Cas9 is the simplest genome-editing tool to work with because it relies on RNA–DNA base pairing, rather than the engineering of proteins that bind particular DNA sequences.
The CRISPR technique has dramatically expanded research on genome editing.
And Zinc Finger Nucleases as:
For instance, ZFNs are DNA-binding proteins that can be engineered to induce a double-strand break in a section of DNA. Such molecular scissors enable researchers to ‘knock out’ specific genes, repair a mutation or incorporate a new stretch of DNA into a selected location.
Scientists could use these powers for good:
Genome-editing technologies may offer a powerful approach to treat many human diseases, including HIV/AIDS, haemophilia, sickle-cell anaemia and several forms of cancer.
Or use the powers for evil:
In our view, genome editing in human embryos using current technologies could have unpredictable effects on future generations. This makes it dangerous and ethically unacceptable. Such research could be exploited for non-therapeutic modifications.  

Admittedly that doesn't sound very evil. I think what they're really concerned about is this (the next sentence):
We are concerned that a public outcry about such an ethical breach could hinder a promising area of therapeutic development, namely making genetic changes that cannot be inherited.
In other words, people might find out about it and stop them.

In the article that is pointed to by the Science editorial, entitled Embryo Engineering Alarm, Gretchen Vogel points out:
Rumors are rife that scientists in China have already used CRISPR on human embryos.
If the Chinese are creating supersoldiers who can withstand boiling lava and nuclear explosions, I sense what we actually have is an embryo engineering gap, and we should move full steam ahead!


Anyway, if we won't genetically engineer our own embryos, the bugs will do it for us. That's the gist of  another article in Genomeweb this week called Genome Analysis Reveals Horizontal Gene Transfer Events in Vertebrates. It shows that a number of genes that vertebrates bear actually come from other organisms, transferred there 'horizontally' which is to say by being transferred physically into cell nuclei where they cause a permanent change, rather than 'vertically', which describes genes that get there from your mother and father.

The authors say:
"This is the first study to show how widely horizontal gene transfer occurs in animals, including humans, giving rise to tens or hundreds of active 'foreign' genes," Cambridge's Alastair Crisp said in a statement. "Surprisingly, far from being a rare occurrence, it appears that HGT has contributed to the evolution of many, perhaps all, animals and that the process is ongoing, meaning that we may need to re-evaluate how we think about evolution."
But that's not really what the overall article says:
To place the timing of these HGT events, Crisp and his colleagues mapped the foreign ortholog groups for each taxon to their phylogenetic trees. For Drosophila and Caenorhabditis, the branch length corresponded with the number of HGT events along those branches, suggesting that HGT is both old and ongoing in these species.
Which is to say for fruit flies and a type of roundworm, the horizontal gene transfer has been going on for a long time and still occurs.
However, the pattern was different for primates, as most of the foreign groups mapped to the base of the phylogenetic tree, indicating that the HGT events occurred in the span of time between the common ancestor of Chordata and the common ancestors of primates.
So for us and our cousins, these HGT occurred half a billion years ago. If they hadn't said that, I would assume the whole paper simply existed to give credence to Big Ag's contention that genetic engineering occurs naturally, and therefore the more fish genes they can stuff into tomatoes, the more natural they are. Crisp's statement above about "ongoing" HGT is right in line with that thinking.

And also note this, also from the Genomeweb article:
The researchers also noted that they couldn't fully rule out the possibility that these foreign genes were inherited by vertical descent and then lost from other metazoan species.
Well then.

Personally, I'm still more worried that, as the original Asilomar team thought, someone will genetically engineer anthrax or some minor tick-borne disease to become untreatable or more  easily spread. And I'm more worried that Monsanto will continue to add weird genes in random spots on the genome of world-wide crop plants, as the Greens fear. I'm not particularly worried that Mr. and Mrs. Ritchie Rich of the Hamptons will want their kid to have green eyes or agouti hair. All that would happen is, instead of people saying, "Hahaha -she's called Skylar. She must have been born in the twenty-teens!" people will say, "Hahaha - he's got six fingers. He must have been born in the twenty-teens!"

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Led Zeppelin - Key To The Highway and other delights

I'm digging (as the kids say these days) the Led Zeppelin remasters series.

Jimmy Page is in charge and he doesn't do any of that "Fuck it, here's a cassette tape we recorded of an Osmonds hit while we were drunk in Tallahassee, let's call it a lost tape" crap.

I listened to the Physical Graffiti one last night, and it's like hearing it for the first time, if hearing it for the first time involved listening to other stuff as well while Jimmy Page himself curated what records were on the turntable. Amazing stuff.

Here's Key To The Highway, the nearest thing to covering an Osmonds hit so far, i.e. not in the same ballpark. It's gorgeous.

And the reversed colors of the third album on the video's splash screen are just great, y'know.

I imagine all the remasters are on YouTube now, which is nice if you can't get hold of the originals. If you can, you'll find that there really is a difference between a YouTube/mp3 and a proper lossless track.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thicke and Pharrell's Melancholy Elephants shuffle onstage

Nobody likes Robin Thicke or his marginally rapey song, and Marvin Gaye is a demigod, which means that everybody is happy if Thicke's song is determined to be infringing and all his pots of money are handed over to Gaye's family.

Pharrell just got caught in the crossfire.

That seems to be the consensus, and I have to agree with it. Unfortunately, I think the verdict does usher in the age of Melancholy Elephants.

To recap, Thicke (who says he was too out of it to have a part in it) and Pharrell wrote "Blurred Lines" which they seem to acknowledge has the "feel" of Gaye's "Got To Give It Up". It doesn't have the protectable elements of the earlier song - the notes. Nevertheless, a jury decided it was infringing and told the pair to pay $7.4 million to Marvin Gaye's estate.

The Future of Music Coalition gives a great breakdown of the legal aspects. Although you can't copyright "feel" or "groove" - which I would hope is self-evident - the court looks at "extrinsic" and "instrinsic" factors in determining whether something is infringing. "Extrinsic" factors are objective ones, such as the actual notes played.
The intrinsic test is more subjective and aims to determine “whether the ordinary, reasonable person would find the total concept and feel of the works to be substantially similar.” Pasillas v. McDonald’s Corp., 927 F.2d 440, 442 (9th Cir. 1991).

So the test of "feel" has been around for some time. It's not a new factor in determining these cases. But many people think that if "feel" or "groove" are protected, musicians will shy away from any attempt to perform the types of music they grew up loving, or as Future of Music Coalition puts it: 

If the case ends up setting a legal precedent, it could also chill expression, if songwriters shy away from stylistic homages to earlier works. (FMC)
Or the Atlantic:
The entire history of popular music has, in large part, been driven by songs that evoke other songs, whether when Bo Diddley’s strumming style birthed rock or the “trap” beat transformed hip-hop over the past few years. It seems counterintuitive, but creative copying often accompanies innovation... (Atlantic.)
Or Deadspin:
I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won't, and they shouldn't, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate's bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one. (Deadspin.)

And I agree.

But where do the melancholy elephants come in? Not because "pachyderm" means "thicke skinned" although that might have something to do with it.

They came in because of a 1983 story by Science Fiction writer Spider Robinson - it's the title. Although it's a short story, it's quite a long read for a modern, Twitter-using human (3 pages) so I'll summarize it.

One day in the future, Dorothy goes to her senator to ask him to quash a bill. It's a bill that would give copyright in perpetuity, because who would argue that you shouldn't keep control over your creation just because you're dead? Dorothy herself stands to gain a lot from her late husband's estate.

In the course of the story, the senator realizes he hasn't heard new music for years. There's only so many variations on the few notes that are available.

Pick a figure for maximum number of notes a melody can contain. I do not know the figure for the maximum possible number of melodies--too many variables--but I am sure it is quite high. "I am certain that is not infinity. "For one thing, a great many of those possible arrays of eighty-eight notes will not be perceived as music, as melody, by the human ear. Perhaps more than half. They will not be hummable, whistleable, listenable--some will be actively unpleasant to hear. Another large fraction will be so similar to each other as to be effectively identical: if you change three notes of the Moonlight Sonata, you have not created something new. "I do not know the figure for the maximum number of discretely appreciable melodies, and again I'm certain it is quite high, and again I am certain that it is not infinity.  (

 I won't give away the ending.

Since the story was written, copyright has been extended to 70 years beyond the death of the last author, so Dorothy is already set for the foreseeable future.

Now we are asked to refrain from not only the notes of the composition, but also its "feel". And elephants - and families - never forget.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Twitter sent me these two tweets next to each other.

If you can't read it, the second tweet is a promoted person called Jeff Rabhan tweeting, "If you can quit, then quit. If you can't quit, you're an artist."

Sunday, March 08, 2015

21st Century problems - the mandatory mailing list sign-up

I bought some "vinyl" the other day, i.e. an LP. It came with a little card to download the mp3 files for the tracks, which sounded like a good idea.

I typed in the URL and it said this:

If you can't see that, it says,
It's easy and quick to download your music now. Just input the unique code from the coupon you received inside your record jacket.

Please note you will only be able to access the files once. After that your pass code is deactivated. Your files will download as a zip file, so if you have not prepared your mobile device with an app to deal with zip files we don't recomend downloading to an iPhone, iPad, or other mobile device.
Notice: By submitting your email address at the time of download redemption you are agreeing to be added to the artist's mailing list.
If you encounter any problems with your downloads, please click here.
If you did not receive a download card click here.
Enter your info below.
* indicates required field

The required fields are first name, last name, date of birth, zipcode and email address. In other words, enough to steal my identity and go to town with it. 

I'm not saying URP - a company who once gave me a tour of their facility and had the nicest employees I've ever met - are themselves identity thieves, but buying a record shouldn't involve sending your personal details across unsecured links. It's not like we don't hear about data being stolen, even from https:// -using guys, by the gazillion-load every day with a "y" in the name. 

It certainly didn't mean handing your details to strangers when I was a kid. You turned up at a record store, shoved cash at the guy and left with your record. 

Also, that bit about agreeing to be added to the artist's mailing list. You're going in the spam bin, artist, so don't get your hopes up. 

And there's a typo. That's not how you spell "recommend".  I sure hope I didn't do anything similar and misspell my name or date of birth or anything!

The download itself was quick and easy.

Friday, March 06, 2015

Kapok blowing in the wind over San Juan Capistrano.

The area near the Mission has several kapok trees as part of the standard landscaping. These trees are peculiar in that they are spiny when young, so their trunks look like wooden durians.  Once they hit twenty or so, they start to fruit. A large, heavy husk like a wood avocado opens up to reveal light fluff containing seeds. The fluff blows away.

When I was little, kapok was the common stuffing for plush toys. Natural, renewable, biodegradable - now kapok just blows away in the wind and we use polyester batting made from oil in our toys instead. 

Kapok blowing in the Santa Ana wind over San Juan Capistrano. 

Their latin name is Ceiba pentandra and they are originally from Mexico. Known as Ya'axche, they were sacred world trees to the Maya.

Here's most mature tree, at the foot of the hill by Las Brisas:

And here's a close up of the thorny bark (starting to lose its thorns
now it's mature) and random kapok:

Monday, March 02, 2015

The multiple disguises of a common food plant

As an iguana owner, back in the heady days just after Jurassic Park hit, and iguanas were big - or, more precisely, they were little - we had lots of conversations on how to keep them healthy and enable them to be big in the future. Iguanas eat tree leaves in the wild, particularly protein-rich leaves from trees related to peas. There's not much like that available in grocery stores in the US.

One thing we rapidly learned was that the majority of 'green leafy vegetables' in stores were actually the same plant. Brassica oleracea is the plant, and it's high in oxalates (that impair calcium absorption, a no-no in iguanas and some humans) and in goitrogens, compounds that interfere with the functioning of the thyroid.

(Picture from the Vox article.)

How did one plant come to dominate the produce section - and why can't we spot it immediately as a plant that shouldn't make up all of our (or our iguana's) diets? Because Brassica oleracea is a master of disguise. It's a science-fiction-style shapeshifter that lurks unseen in the produce section.

You may know it by such names as cabbage, kale, collard, spring greens, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, broccolini, and cauliflower. Mustard greens are of the closely related species Brassica juncea. Napa cabbage (won bok), and Chinese cabbages (bok choi, pak choi, pei tsai), rapini and turnips are Brassica rapa. Brassica napus includes the oilseeds (rape, canola) and Russian Kale. Rutabaga, mustard seeds, horseradish, mizuna, radish, cress, watercress, wasabi and daikon are all also closely related.

How does one weedy wild mustard plant turn into kohlrabi (with its swollen stem), a headed cabbage, a leafy cabbage and a giant flower like a cauliflower? Plant breeding over thousands of years. (Not to be confused with genetic modification, despite the latter being described in comment sections of articles on GMOs as mere plant breeding recently; don't be fooled by a Big Ag spin.)

There are a couple of recent reviews of Brassica oleracea and its rise to kitchen supremacy. One was in The botanist in the kitchen  and the other in Vox, here.  Both are quick reads.

Some of the compounds that the cruciferous vegetables produce in an effort to stop mammals eating them are actually useful to us. They slow down cell division, which gives the plants some anti-cancer properties.

They're an interesting Old World institution.


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