2014/11/21

Vinyl: the Before Time

A plain, sturdy, oblong, wooden box, lying on its side. Stored within are vinyl records or, as we used to call them, records. Sweetie and I bought hundreds of records over the years when the only other choices were cassette tapes and eight-track cartridges. Vinyl records, none of which can be played on the only stereo system left in the house, a CD boom box that of course can't play any of the vinyl below in the box below it. The Sony turntable with USB interface has never been unpacked.

'Tis a sad state of affairs! It's made even sadder by the fact that the box contains all the vinyl Sweetie and I have left. We sold so many records before we moved across a continent and an international boundary 20 years ago. It was 1994. Records were done. Much of what we sold as vinyl we had replaced with CDs. Compact, right? And lighter. Much less to lug from domicile to domicile.

That we have no turntable set up now is simply shameful, I know. But our records are all old. We're not collectors. Are we?

I have clusters of genres in what remains of my collection. These represent different periods of my life.

The punk years are lean but high quality. I have Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, the first two Buzzcocks albums. UK imports. I have A Different Kind of Tension as well. I have the first Clash album--import version--and London Calling, which for me would be a desert island album. I have enough Ramones albums for the collection to include some of their not-so-good work. But the great stuff is there too. And to cap it off with a sneer, there's Generation X.

The post-punk years are just plain meagre. But Public Image, the first album from Public Image Ltd., is an import. It's also great! I have the original Mission of Burma Signals Calls and Marches. And just to lighten things up a bit, I have the first Romantics album. "What I Like About You" is one of the great songs of all time.

I have some juicy classic bits. A very special Abbey Road by the Beatles that was given to me for my 17th birthday. Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds, Greatest Hits (early material) and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Paul Revere and the Raiders (a later pickup). The Who: Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who's Next. Most of my Neil Young catalogue (some is on cassette): Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (very well worn), After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night, Rust Never Sleeps, and Live Rust. And finally, the Flying Burrito Bros. albums one through five.

Got some roots I picked up well after the fact: Eddie Cochran, the Bobby Fuller Four, and an amazing album called Beatle Originals which contains original versions of about a dozen songs the Beatles covered. The Larry Williams versions of "Bad Boy" and "Slow Down" are killa!

I had a folk/country/roots/acoustic/purist phase in the 1970s before punk (some of which came from liking the Burritos). I have Mississippi John Hurt, the Weavers, Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many special guests. I have a Dave Van Ronk album called Sunday Street, no doubt out of print. It comes from when I interviewed him for my campus radio station. And I have a more than extensive collection of Steeleye Span, again enough to have some of the lesser works, but much great stuff, including import copies of the first three albums. I also have a couple of albums that band members Tim Hart and Maddy Prior made before they formed Steeleye.

Then there are the outliers: the King Kong Compilation, which is ska, rock steady, and reggae from the 1960s; several Firesign Theatre albums (at least some of which I borrowed from and forgot to give back to a now-deceased coworker); and Boston stuff including compilations on which my band appeared. They can go in the punk/post-punk section. There's also a compilation called the Rock and Roll Show that I have no memory of and I'm not sure is actually mine.

I have a weird 10-inch record called Tennessee Stomp. I know it's mine, but I have no idea where or when I bought it (used). Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and several others are on the record.

And then there is a smattering of seven-inch vinyl, including a treasured copy of Spiral Scratch, the first Buzzcocks record, and later material by Buzzocks and Steve Diggle (their guitarist). There are some old Kinks singles in there, which might belong to Sweetie. And there is "The Metro" by Berlin.

Speaking of Sweetie, she has at least as many albums on her side of the box. Completely different than mine.

Yes, we need to fix that turntable situation.

2014/10/17

Rock is dead, they say

"Long live rock!" is an appropriate response (and the next line in the song). But "rock and roll will never die"? Perhaps not. Nothing lasts forever. Still, certain musical forms persist. People have been writing symphonic and chamber music for hundreds of years. Jazz ensembles have been around for many decades. People play folk music, either modern versions or the actual songs passed down from centuries ago. And if we (some of us anyway) are still listening to ancient Indian classical music, why should rock and roll not still be a viable music form?

Rock was certainly on display at the Middle East Downstairs last Sunday night. The backline consisted of a drum kit, a bass amp, a Marshall half stack on one side, and an Orange half stack on the other. The fanciest piece of equipment that night was a looping pedal that Carrie Bradley used to play solo guitar and violin (I really enjoyed her opening set). There was nothing resembling a synthesizer, and I didn't see any laptops. This was guitar night.

Not that I have anything against keyboards or even computers. I played piano and Vox Continental organ on old recordings, and although I haven't used keys recently, I might. I also know and like bands that are basically made up of synthesizers, computers, and vocals. And with a creative DJ telling a story with ebb and flow, I can dance to EDM all night.

I also love all kinds of music, including reggae, folk, old school country, and some hip-hop, especially the hard-edged political kind. My musical taste is quite eclectic. But anyone who loves music probably has one kind that they really connect with on a visceral level, something that thrills their bodies and sets them on fire, and for me that's the various incarnations of rock and R&B. Garage, surf, punk, post-punk, maybe metal--as long as it's fairly stripped down and not too fancy (no, I am not a prog rock fan).

It's getting a bit tougher for rockers these days. I read that the big draws at the Pemberton and Squamish festivals this year were EDM acts. I know a small club in Vancouver that at this point books only electronic combos. The place fills up. And on the other side, "rockist" has become kind of an insult in music criticism, denoting a dinosaur (like me) who doesn't automatically take pop stars such as Lana Del Ray and Katy Perry as seriously as we do artists such as the New Pornographers or Sonic Youth. I confess to a weakness for Taylor Swift, and I do think that artists like Beyoncé create excellent music. I just can't live on a steady diet of EDM or pop. I need the rock. I can admire clever computer programming, but I would rather see and hear people playing actual musical instruments made of wood and steel.

Even though younger people flock to pop and hip-hop and EDM, there are always those who, like me, get off on playing guitar, or bass, or drums. They dig out their parents' old records. They delve into the past. They follow a form that at its core hasn't changed since the 1950s, and yet they reinvent it. Within the last year or so, I've seen young bands doing their own reinventions: Savages, Silvergun and Spleen, La Luz, PINS. Coming up, I'll see the Pack a.d. and punk band White Lung. I've bought great music recently by Ume, Screaming Females, La Sera, and TacocaT. Kids are still picking up guitars and whacking on actual drums. Someone in every generation seems to do that, whether rock is popular or not.

Frankly, even though it's harder to get bookings or listeners, I think it's probably better for rock to be a somewhat underground phenomenon. Rock gets bloated in the limelight. It thrives in the demi-monde.

So long live rock, in Boston and Vancouver and everywhere in between, in Manchester and Rio de Janeiro and Melbourne and even Angola (where there is a thriving death metal scene). For me, there's no feeling quite like holding an electric guitar against my body, putting my fingers on the strings, and making sweet and nasty and outrageous sounds come out of an amplifier. And some people continue to feel the same way. Maybe not forever, but I don't see an end yet.

2014/10/16

You can go home again

Photo by Paula Worsley
This past weekend, my most successful band from when Sweetie and I lived in Boston had its first ever reunion almost 30 years after we last played together. We were on the bill of the final night of 13 shows spread over several weeks celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pipeline, a popular program on the MIT campus radio station. Bob Dubrow, the show's host, organized an incredible array of reunions of Boston bands from several eras, starting in the 1960s.

I've been in a few bands in my time, but none that ever reached the point where, years later, someone asks the band to get back together for a reunion show. Since we had done OK but weren't hugely popular, I really never expected to be asked. But then we were asked. And once we were, there was no way I was going to say no, even though it involved two return flights from Vancouver to Boston. I wasn't sure what to expect from a band reunion, especially after so many years. What I got was a beautiful, wonderful swirl of music and memory and emotions.

Sweetie and I had never lost touch with our former band mates. We lived in Boston for several years after the band broke up. After we swapped coasts, first there was email, then later Facebook. But people's lives change. Kids, new jobs, sometimes new bands, sometimes no bands. But there was never animosity as with some breakups. The band just came to an end for various reasons after about a three-year run.

When I heard we were invited to play a reunion show, I did hesitate a bit. As you know if you are a regular reader, I love playing music more than anything else in the world. And I had loved that band. But as the main songwriter, producer, and principal instigator, sometimes I felt as though I was carrying most of the weight. Everyone was committed, but I felt (rightly or wrongly) as though it wouldn't run unless I did most of the running. And that can wear you down.

But with the reunion, right away it became apparent that this was a team project, and my hesitation evaporated. Our singer, the first to be contacted about the invitation, was all in, and really putting in most of the effort—an amazing effort. And our drummer and a guitarist who had played with us during our final year were enthusiastic. Much as I am used to running things, I was happy to let our singer keep this moving along with her still considerable energy. In fact, I started to feel guilty that I wasn't doing enough! But Sweetie and I were 3,000 miles way from where things were happening, and there wasn't much we could do.

Photo by Scott Ferguson
The anticipation was intense. Walking into the practice space and seeing our singer was a wow moment. So good! And then our guitarist. And then our drummer. Like it was the most natural thing in the world, just showing up for a regular practice. We had three hours booked, and we used the time well. Better than ever really. We ran through the songs we were planning to do, and if one wasn't quite working, we figured out what needed to change, played the song again, and nailed it. This kept happening. Our singer and drummer's son, also a drummer, came by, since he was going to sit in with us. He ripped through two of our fastest songs with us as if he'd been playing them all his life. It was such a joy! I don't think I've ever practised as hard in my life, but it was the absolute best. When we were done, I knew I needed to go over some things myself, but I felt really good about where the band was.

It took us a while to say goodbye. It was just too good hanging out together again!

The next afternoon, we gathered at the club. Six acts were scheduled, so we were fortunate to be allowed an actual sound check. That let us get a feel for the stage and the rented equipment. We had never played that room, and I had never been there, so I was surprised to see how big it was. A capacity of 575 people! It reminded me of the Biltmore in Vancouver in a lot of ways. After the sound check, we went to the restaurant upstairs and shared a bunch of Lebanese food at a booth that was too small for five of us (minus guitarist, plus a very instrumental fiancé). Coziness, good food, a friendly and cute server, and we had ourselves a pre-show party.

Photo by Scott Ferguson
Our guitarist and special guest drummer arrived. We hit the stage early in the evening, but there was still a good crowd. Although I know I flubbed some of the solos, overall I think this was possibly our best show. The energy was fantastic, especially from our singer. And there is nothing better than seeing someone in the audience singing along to a song you wrote. In a way, it was good to play early, because then we could relax and enjoy the other bands. It was a great night!

And it was hard to leave at the end of it. To say goodbye again to people I love not only as musicians but as people. I still feel the buzz from the weekend. I have also cried a few times. Reunions are powerful things! I hadn't known that until I finally got the chance to experience one. We said this was our first and only time. It's difficult and expensive to get us all together. And this was certainly a singular experience. But with all of us feeling so good about it, I have to wonder if there might be more.

2014/09/18

Adventures in guitar repair

Not as bright red as the flash makes it look
Guitar geek alert. Be warned.

I spent a pleasant afternoon in a small music shop in South Surrey called Surfside Music & Vintage Guitars. For me, musical instrument shops are right up there as great places to hang out with book stores, garden stores, and stationery stores.

My friend E told me about Surfside when I said that I wanted to restore my vintage Fender Mustang to as close to its original condition (plus wear and tear) as possible. Mostly what I wanted to do was to restore the stock bridge that had been modified (badly) before I bought the guitar, used, sometime in the late 1980s. The original bridge had a tremolo bar, a.k.a. whammy bar, which allows you to bend notes (more than you can with your fingers on the strings and more than one string at a time). You can't play surf guitar without one, and it's a good sound for other things. I can already get that sound out of my Stratocaster, but I figured if I could improve the Mustang, why not.

The man who runs Surfside Music is Robbie Keene, an affable man with no mean guitar playing skills himself. I handed him my red Mustang with the yellow racing stripe and let him take it apart.

I had thought the Mustang was a 1969. Close. It was made in 1970, which makes it the oldest guitar I own (my Telecaster Thinline was made in 1972). It still has almost all its original parts, including the nut, which showed evidence of a crack repaired with glue. The pickups, switches, pots, knobs, tuning pegs, and pick-guard are all original. The finish is original. Robbie said that the painted headstock is rare among Fender guitars, which usually have a natural-finish headstock. There is no date stamp on the neck, but that headstock, the same colour and fade pattern as the body, indicates that the neck is original as well. The guitar itself is in the kind of shape that I like—basically good with a few nicks that show that it was played (as I play it now) and not just collected.

The only things missing were the original round bar through which the strings are threaded, the springs it was mounted on, and the tremolo bar.

Robbie and I discussed the restoration of the tremolo bridge. He would have had to send away for the springs and the tremolo bar itself. That was no big deal (assuming Fender still had the parts), since I wasn't in a hurry. But he showed me why the tremolo bridge might not be the best idea. It has to do with the angle of the strings at the bottom of the guitar as they go up and over the bridge. With the modified bridge, which pinned the ends of the strings flat against the bridge plate, the angle was fairly steep, which meant the strings were stable on the bridge and are unlikely to slide (which they don't). With the original setup, the strings come through holes in a round bar at the bottom of the guitar. It's maybe a couple of millimetres height difference at most, but it makes a big difference to the stability of the strings on the bridge. Apparently, this is how Fender designed these guitars. You have to play a bit differently to compensate for the reduced string tension.

I decided to go with Robbie's recommendation and not do the whole tremolo setup. He showed me on a 1965 Mustang (first year for that model, which was named after the car) how he could flip the round bar over so that the strings would go backward through the holes, around and under the bar, and then over the bridge. That would give it about the same angle and string tension as it had before but without the ugly bar that was difficult to get strings under. It's not the original setup, but it's probably more playable. And since, as I said, I have a whammy bar on my Strat, I decided to go for more playable, especially since I would probably not want to change my playing style to prevent the strings from slipping off the bridge.

So I didn't have to leave the guitar. I just waited for about an hour, amusing myself by playing a 1981 black three-quarter-length Rickenbacker 320, a descendent of the three-pickup model 325 that you see in old photos of John Lennon. It was sweet. I also played a Telecaster Standard that was very nice. It felt like my Tele, but the sound is completely different. And I walked around the crowded shop checking out all the cool vintage guitars, basses, and other gear.

The bill was amazingly reasonable. I left with a guitar that plays pretty much the same, looks better, and has clean switches that work better. I also left with more knowledge. And if I ever want to order the hardware and go with the tremolo setup, I can do so. The shop is not around the corner, but it's not very far away, and it's the kind of place where you can get more personal service than at Tom Lee or Long & McQuaid, both of which are excellent music stores but much larger. I know I'll be back for one reason or another. That Rickenbacker is not cheap, but it might have my name on it.

2014/08/24

The year of living agerously

There's nothing magic about the number 60. We attribute significance to numbers that end in a zero only because we use a base-10 numbering system. I can flash all the fingers on my hand six times to show it. I do like the fact that 60 is five dozen. I imagine the ancient Babylonians would have dug that.

Not that very many of them would have made it to five dozen years. I'm lucky to live in 21st century North America.

It's not like I turned 60 and suddenly was old. But somehow, 60 has a psychological weight that none of the previous zero years has had. I can't remember 10. At 20 I was in a haze, somewhere between work and university. At 30, I wondered how I was going to tell my mother that I was going to keep playing in a rock band. At 40, I moved from Boston to the other coast and another country. By 50, I was just starting to get a good handle on Vancouver, and it would take a few years more before I really hit my stride here (Vancouver is a tough nut to crack, at lease when you're a somewhat older "new kid"). But overall, my 50s have been the best decade ever.

Now what can I make of my 60s?

So far, my body seems not to know that 60 isn't some magical turning point. I have been very fortunately healthy for most of my life, but ever since the beginning of this year, I have felt pain in various and sundry parts of me. It's uncanny how it started only days after my birthday. My job has me sitting down way too much, and we know now that sitting is really bad for you. I do get up as much as possible, and I walk a lot, but my right leg especially has been giving me trouble. There are times when I'm driving that the pain shoots from my hip right into my foot. I'm learning pain-management techniques because I have to.

Both knees have their good and bad times. I often feel pain in my shoulders and arms. I've finally started to realize that I can't haul quite as much as I once could, or if I can, I will pay for it later. I've started to add glucosamine sulfate to my daily regime. It never helped my elbow a while back, because that was a strained ligament, but it seems to be helping now. That's good news, but also bad news, because it means that at least some of that pain is from inflammation. And you know what joint inflammation is called.

Yep, me and Wayne Gretzky. I think maybe he's earned his osteoarthritis a bit more than I have.

There are other occasional system failures, but for the most part nothing has stopped me from being active. I suck at exercise, but I'm good at staying in motion in other ways. I can still tend my garden, although not for as long at a time. I've lugged plenty of equipment around, although more carefully than I once would have.

In some ways, I'm more active than I ever have been. I have two bands. I sing in a choir. I just finished my fourth volunteer gig of the year, and I want to get more involved in this last one. I'm less of a dilettante than I once was and passionate about and more focused on things I'm really interested in—music, cooking and food, fashion, politics. And despite being far past both my sexual prime and my sexual attractiveness, if anything I think about sex more than ever.

Nudge nudge.

In many ways, I feel stronger than I ever have. The young often feel invulnerable because life seems to go on forever. But life for young people can also be confusing and painful and even full of fear. When you're my age, much less can touch you. I know that I won't live forever. I am not afraid.

Time for some of that bucket list stuff that I've been putting off? Sweetie and I went to Italy this past spring, and I think we're going to try to travel a bit more if we can afford to. A passage to India, finally? First skydive, maybe? A bungie jump? Isolation tank? I am seriously looking forward to retirement, not to settle into a rocking chair but rather to do more things of my own choosing.

Age has its privileges. I got my first senior benefit just last night. Sweetie and I went with her sister and her sister's wife to the Richmond Night Market. It was our first time at this crazy thing modelled on the crowded, lively night markets of places like Hong Kong. For them, "senior" is 60 or older. We got to jump the long queue and get in for free! Jealous?

2014/08/12

When the rain comes

I have so many partially written blog posts. That's all I have been able to achieve lately. I blame those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. If you are not in or near Vancouver, you might not know that we are having one of the most beautiful summers ever, or at least since I moved here just over 20 years ago. We've been through three heat waves and we might not be done yet. I'm not talking "hot for these parts," which isn't like prairie hot or Toronto hot. I'm talking seriously hot, as in 36° C on my way home yesterday. And we're near the coast. If you don't do metric, I'll just say that 37° C is about body temperature.

This is my second of two days off. My boss was away last week, and when the cat's away, it's not playtime. I become the unofficial cat in many ways. I worked hard last week, and the boss was kind enough to approve this tiny bit of stay-cation as he returned from his time off. Yesterday, on maybe the hottest day of the year so far, I was at the beach with one of my dearest friends, soaking up sun and chatting. She is such wonderful company, and her friendship is invaluable to me. Despite the fact that whoever was cooking at a certain favourite West Side all-day-breakfast place doesn't know how to make home fries ("for this reason, you have been chopped"), I had a wonderful day.

Today is a quiet day. The heat broke, and much as I love hot weather, I am enjoying the feel of cool air through the open window and the sight of a gentle rain falling on the thirsty earth. Something about the rain breaking the heat reminds me of Sweetie's and my beloved Hanalei on Kauai. We have stayed there only a total of three weeks over seven years, but I ache for it. We wonder whether we might actually retire there or at least be able to spend more time. I am enjoying the feel of caffeine circulating through my body. Yes, it's a drug. Is there anyone who doesn't self-medicate in some way? We all want to feel good. We all want to feel at peace.

I wrote once before that I am not often strongly affected by the loss of a celebrity. That time, it was Davy Jones of the Monkees, and that loss felt personal because he was so much a part of my growing up. The loss of Robin Williams feels different but no less sad. I actually did meet him once, on the set of Jumanji, because he loved to meet people. He made every extra feel like a person whose contribution he valued, even if we were just background. Not typical star behaviour! I was never a Mork and Mindy fan, but I loved Williams's improvisational comedy. He was a huge fan of Jonathan Winters, another troubled but brilliant improvisational comic. I didn't realize until I saw Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Awakenings what a fine dramatic actor Williams was. Awakenings is high on my list of favourite films. He was even successful playing very much against type as a creepy obsessive film developer in One Hour Photo. The man had talent to burn.

All of my psychological conditions are subclinical, but on occasion they have been severe enough that I have sought help. Fortunately, I got help. Still, I have thought many a time that it might be for the best to lose consciousness and never wake up. Curiously, I have even felt this when I am feeling particularly good, because I know it can't last. It's the impulse to go out on a high, to keep happiness forever, and not to hear the other shoe drop. I don't know if that's weird or not. As well, sometimes, life feels overwhelming.

Don't worry about me though. I have never gone to ideation. I actually love life and, at least for now, want to keep living it.

But I understand what might lead a person to end their life. If someone can never find peace in life, and they need at least some moments of peace, then certainly the sleep of death achieves the goal. Or perhaps there is just too much pain or confusion or turmoil. Some thrive, some cope, some get by with help, and some feel they can't go on. We all die. Some just decide to hasten the process, and we feel the loss all that much more acutely.

I will stay quiet today. I will take care of some chores. Even working, I will enjoy the day off. And later, I will go rehearse with my choir section to prepare for our opening slot on Friday. Singing is some of the best self-medication I know.

2014/07/31

Pride goeth (and cometh)

It's that time of year again: Vancouver Pride Week, with the big Pride weekend almost here. This is when I ask myself things such as, how queer do I feel? Which events will I get up the energy to go to? Which events will I miss and regret not having gone to? Where will I be with friends? Where will I feel lonely?

Being bisexual and femme, maybe I ask these questions more than many other queer people would. Or maybe it's just me. It's true that I spend much of my time in a fairly heteronormative world. Most of my closest friends are straight. I belong to a book club where I'm reasonably sure I'm the only one who's queer.

Even though I'm at ease in the wide world and pretty much myself no matter where I am, it's probably true that I am most at home and most myself among queer people. There are things I can talk about with queer people that aren't usually, shall we say, topics of polite conversation. At least not among most women. I love the openness with my queer friends. I love the freedom.

And yet sisterhood is not automatic. I've been at queer events where I felt very much the outsider because I wasn't already hanging out with one or more people. Cliques are not a heterosexual thing. We are not always one big happy queer family. Having one thing in common, even if that's a pretty big thing and much broader than just who one finds attractive, does not mean there are not other barriers.

I have made a lot of new connections since last Pride. It will be interesting to see how strong they are. I'm hoping for a good Pride! I'm planning on having fun and being fun.

There's a lovely backup even if Pride isn't what I might hope for: the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. That really does feel like one big family among staff members, volunteers, and film goers. I'm very much looking forward to that.