R.I.P. Davy Jones

Very sad news today, that Davy Jones, formerly of The Monkees, has died at the age of 66.

It’s beyond my comprehension that anyone growing up when I did, in the late 60s and 70s, could NOT know who Davy Jones was, or at least who The Monkees were. Their music and their TV show were ubiquitous, both during the original run of the series and then in reruns. And, even if you didn’t like their music or the show, they were an indisputable cultural phenomenon and remain a relic of the commercialized version of the counterculture of the period.

And Davy, well, hailing from Manchester, England, he gave The Monkees their British Invasion street cred.

Now, I could be cynical and focus on that last point, I could go on and on about how the creators of The Monkees were blatantly ripping off The Beatles, and I would be right on the whole.

And yet, in truth, those are 20/20 hindsight observations, and I LOVED the TV show and the music for years before I figured all that out.

While I was too young to remember the original airing of the series, from 1966 to 1968, the reruns were still one of the most original shows on TV. The only thing that I recall that came close was Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and possibly The Brady Bunch, in terms of how it captured contemporary culture, especially youth culture.

But mostly, The Monkees were masters of silliness, kids LOVE silliness above nearly everything else, I was no exception, and this silliness was a perfect, badly-needed antidote for all the ugliness of Vietnam War, the Nixon years, the dramatic street protests, and the riots.

And so, without further ado, here’s a taste, a portion of an episode, containing the classic theme song, as well as some of the zany humor they were known for. (Full disclosure: The video, posted by a YouTuber, could very well be pulled anytime for copyright reasons, so my apologies if it doesn’t play. In all likelihood, you should be able to go to YouTube and find some Monkees clip or another.)

Tweet of the Day: @MJMckean

I’m pretty tired of this line, but thanks to a twist by Michael McKean it manages to induce laughter once again.


Remembering The Album: Hearing vs. Listening

Question: When was the last time you put on an album — vinyl, cassette, CD, mp3, whatever — then sat down and listened to the whole thing, no TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone screen in sight, no multitasking going on, just listening to the music, song-by-song, start to finish?

Think about that a minute as I take a quick detour…

As I mentioned back in September 2011, Pink Floyd had just released a box set of their entire catalog, remastered and including all kinds of extra goodies. Having been a Floyd fan for many years, I gobbled up as much of the associated media coverage as I could, even though I was already intimately familiar with many details of the band’s history and their recordings.

But, the other day I came upon an issue of Rolling Stone from October 2011, the cover story (subscription required to read online, unfortunately) was their contribution to the press coverage of the box set, and despite the fact that I’d seemingly read it all, I started in on it. Scanning through, there was the usual stuff about their early days, Syd Barrett’s genius and decline into madness, the story of how the band managed to reinvent themselves leading up to their 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side Of The Moon, the tension between Roger Waters and David Gilmour, the under-appreciated contributions of keyboardist Richard Wright, Waters’ departure, the tense reunions, etc.

And then I came across a quote from Gilmour that I’d never read or heard before, a quote that brought on a wave of nostalgia and a pining for days gone by:

[Pink Floyd] expected you to listen to [The Dark Side of the Moon] with close attention, perhaps ideally in the dark, in an altered state. “Attention spans have changed,” says [singer-guitarist David] Gilmour. “The idea of going around to somebody’s flat or house and sitting around in a comfy room and having a really good hi-fi system and listening to a whole album all the way through, then chatting for a few minutes, then maybe putting another album on…does that happen today?”

I don’t think it does happen much today, and whether that is the result of shifts in our culture or the music industry or both, it seems sad to me, similar, I’d guess, to how my parents and their generation may have felt at the end of the age of radio, when an evening’s entertainment was no longer as simple as sitting around listening to what looked like a piece of furniture.

I wrote back in November 2009:

I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that discovering great music, literature, and visual art saved my life…

…and music was the gateway drug.

Amidst the din of crappy Top 40 radio, the trials of a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional world, and the pain and frustration of adolescence and young adulthood, a cousin of mine took it upon himself to expose me to good music by buying me LP records and encouraging me to listen to FM instead of AM. And every chance I could get I would steal away to my room, put on an album, and I’d read every word on the cover and the liner, sometimes over and over again. Or, I’d just stare at the ceiling, soaking in every note and every word. I was, in essence, studying. And, I would visualize the band performing on stage, sometimes I’d be onstage with them playing a guitar, or I’d see the imagery and characters and stories that the lyrics were describing.

It was more than just escape. It was an education for a kid living in a soulless New Jersey suburb, a non-place dominated by strip malls and malls on what had once been farmland and woods. It was a doorway to the cities of the world, the cares of the world, even the cosmos.

And my closest friends were all experiencing the same things, so that when we hung out we often sat listening to entire albums, discussing them afterward, trying to wring out every ounce of meaning and significance we could.

And I wonder if any of that would have happened if I was growing up today, in the world of the $0.99 song on iTunes, the world of shuffle, the world of Pandora, and the world of the ubiquitous earphones that provide a soundtrack for us as we go about our business.

To me, it all has to do with hearing vs. listening. When I’m at work and I have music playing while I’m managing my email, taking phone calls, working on projects, scheduling meetings, etc., I’m hearing the music, in the background, but I’m not really listening.

An interesting April 2009 Stereophile article brings it back to the album:

…An iPod of sufficient capacity and with sufficient variety could—does—connect genres, composers, and songs in unique, and frequently liberating, ways. But I also find that for “serious” listening, I revert to the album concept…

We humans are programmed to enjoy narrative and albums—well-sequenced ones anyway—offer that structure that Shuffle so joyfully abandons. Stumbling upon “Will o’ the Wisp” in Shuffle is a completely different experience than encountering it in sequence on Sketches of Spain. The song is just as moving and delicate, but its impact is greater in situ. For me, anyway.

Of course, we have to consider shrinking attention spans, and some, like the Stereophile writer, place a portion of the blame on artists who took advantage of the CD format to release albums that are 50% longer. (Remember how you used to be able to fit two 45-minute albums on one 90-minute cassette tape?)

But really, how many people do you know who currently would listen to…and really hear…even 45 minutes of continuous music?

And so I long for those days when an album was a discrete unit of measurement, a complete package, like a painting, days when we had the time and attention to really listen to albums, to digest them, to fully absorb and integrate them into our lives.

Eyecatchers: Sam3

It can be thrilling to discover the works of an artist previously unknown to you, and this is absolutely the case with street artist Sam3.

I haven’t been blown away like this by street art in a long time, mostly because so much of it, in my opinion, is derivative, with all the many Banksy wannabees out there.

But this guy’s stuff is amazing, like Matisse cutouts on a giant scale, with a little surrealism mixed in, and most appealing, to me, a distinct touch of sweetness that is often missing in the edgy world of street art.

As is common with street artists, there’s not much information about Sam3 online. The only thing I could find was a brief interview with him. It’s clear he’s European, but besides the fact that he’s obviously an incredible talent, that’s about all I know.

Anyway, Street Art Utopia has a large sample of his work, and there’s Sam3’s website, of course.

Here are some of my favorites:

Mordor Out My Back Door

Video Fridays: Beirut

It’s been a few weeks since my last Video Fridays installment, but I came across something this morning that inspired.

I’ve been meaning to recommend NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series, short, informal sets performed in the music offices of NPR. To adapt to the venue, most of the bands render stripped down, mostly acoustic versions of their material (if it wasn’t stripped down and acoustic to begin with), and it’s fun to see how they’ve adapted.

Browsing through the archives you’ll find a wide variety of artists from a wide variety of genres, but Beirut‘s set from back in September 2011 really jumped out at me.

The notes at NPR.org explain how the band had just returned from a long, exhausting weekend at the Bonnaroo music festival, and you can plainly see on their faces and in their body language how tired they are. I find this a refreshing lack of pretension and flash, and when you add in their wonderful blend of Indie Folk and Eastern European music it makes this performance a real treat.

After all, how often do you get to see an Indie band with a French Horn?

Upcycling: Baluster Fireplace Mantel

As I mentioned late last year, my wife, son and I moved to a new house here in Bellingham.

Nearly four months later, we’re still chipping away at actually moving in, that process whereby all of the boxes are emptied, blank walls are adorned with decorations, routines and rhythms are formed, etc., and one item we recently checked off our list involved what became a perfect subject for my Upcycling series. (Note: 95% of the vision for this project came from my wife, who has a wonderful ability to see the artistic possibilities in objects that a mere mortal would be oblivious to.)

We have a gas fireplace in the living room, above which the builder did not include a mantel. And, since we celebrate Chanukah AND Christmas in our home, it was inconceivable that we would have no where to hang our stockings.

Well, we had all sorts of ideas for a mantel design, but the project kept slipping down the priority list, superseded by things like getting our clothes into dressers and closets, finding a dining table in time for Thanksgiving, and searching for that one box that held things like dental floss and toothpaste.

At last, after the holidays, we settled on the idea of a big, beefy beam of wood, preferably salvaged, preferably weathered and distressed in order to contrast with the pristine white walls and overall modern design of the room.

Finding such a piece of wood proved more difficult than I ever imagined. Driving around to various lumber outlets included a visit Bellingham’s own Targo Woods, whose tag line is, “Hardwoods to Get,” which seemed like a perfect choice, only hardwoods to get come with a hard price tag to swallow, and we were constrained by a meager budget. It would have been impossible to get anything there that met our specifications for less than $200.

Our next idea was a used railroad tie, widely available as they are popularly used for landscaping. However, a little research on the internets revealed that it’s not the brightest idea in the world to hang a hunk of wood in your home that has been soaked in toxic creosote. Additionally, creosote has a distinct stink to it, which, especially when the fireplace is blazing, wouldn’t exactly be pleasant to the nose.

Finally, one day, the Mrs. was browsing at our wonderful local outlet for all things salvaged, The RE Store, when she came across two massive, solid wood balusters that had been removed from some house somewhere, and instead of seeing two pieces of ugly lumber with chipping paint, lumber meant to be in a vertical position rather than horizontal, she suggested that we’d found our mantel.

Because each baluster was only 4-1/2 inches wide, we bought both, planning on mounting the two of them together in order to create 9 inches of depth, to accommodate knick-knacks, and to create a more substantial presence. Thankfully, the Re Store offered to trim the ends so that they were to the length we needed and symmetrical.

Here’s the mantel with temporary mounting brackets:

And, here it is with galvanized brackets to add an industrial aesthetic:

We’re VERY happy with the outcome!

Tweet of the Day: #SeanAvery

I was skeptical, but these sculptures by Sean Avery are actually very, very cool!


Scientists Messing With Lemmings Of The Sea

You gotta love this catchy headline from a Wired article today:

Real Fish Welcome Robotic Overlord Into Their School

…and the story itself is VERY interesting:

A robotic fish has sailed across an aquatic uncanny valley by tricking real fish into following it upstream…

To help investigate the dynamics of fish schooling, Marras and Porfiri designed a robot inspired by Notemigonus crysoleucas, a species of Golden shiner. The plastic-covered robofish was twice the size of the real fish but mimicked its back-and-forth tail motion.

When the researchers plopped single Golden shiners into a water tunnel meant to simulate a stream-like current, each fish swam in school-like positions near their robotic counterparts for several minutes. Around a robot that didn’t move, however, the Golden shiners swam randomly for shorter periods of time.

Although some fish kept a wary distance ahead of the robot — they may have perceived it as a threat — most kept pace by trailing in the machine’s watery wake. The behavior matched that of fish in the wild, which group into schools to reduce drag and make swimming more efficient.

Now, sometimes I read science journalism and I’m blown away by the vast amount of time that scientists spend on what seems, to me, to be the most boring and trivial matters. (It’s a good thing, then, that I’m no scientist.)

When it comes to animal behavior research, in particular, my heart often goes out to the critters being studied, how the scientists try to mess with their heads in order to learn more about how they tick.

In the case of the Golden shiners, however, it might just turn out to be for their own good:

“If accepted by the animals, robotic fish may act as leaders and drive them away from human-induced ecological disasters that are affecting life in aquatic environments, such as oil spills, and man-made structures, such as dams,” the authors wrote.

VERY cool!

Eyecatchers: Hong Yi

Just a quick recommendation for an amazing piece of work by Malaysian-born artist Hong Yi.

The portrait she’s posing with here, made over the course of 12 hours using coffee stains from a coffee cup, is of Taiwanese pop singer and songwriter, Jay Chou, whose song, Secret, opens with the lifting of a coffee cup off its saucer.

This is one of those works that is remarkable as much for the process used to make it as for the final product, and thankfully, via some photos from Hong Yi’s website, as well as a YouTube video, we are fortunately able to fully appreciate both aspects.

Via Laughing Squid, via oh I see red:

P.S. Be sure to check out another work by Hong Yi, a portrait of dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, made entirely of sunflower seeds.