Music to get through 2016 to

Back once again with my random sampling of music that came out in 2016. I bought most of this from emusic.com, and probably at least once directly from the artist via Bandcamp, so clearly it skews indie. I used the same evaluation technique as last year: listen to the albums from start to finish (at least twice) and listen to individual tracks in random order on my phone.

Sad13 - Slugger

I only just bought this, but I've listened several times, and I think it's my favourite of the year. Sad13 is Sadie (get it?) Dupuis, leader of Speedy Ortiz, and this is her first full solo release. Slugger is Sadie's great lyrics over different beats, from trip-hop to punk. It picks up where Speedy's "Raising the Skate" left off, with a strong current of feminism and just plain independent thinking. Keep your eye on this woman! Highlights: "<2"; "Get a Yes"; "Devil in U"; "Line Up" (so Lennon-esque, and not just because of the "Birthday" melodic quote); "Tell U What"; "Krampus (In Love)"; "Hype."

The Pack a.d. - Positive Thinking

After coming through some unspecified difficulties, the Pack have returned with yet another great album that deserves way more notice and respect than it will probably get. The band reaches back to their blues origins and incorporates the psychedelia of the past couple of records as well as going for bold new sounds. Highlights: "So What"; "Yes, I Know"; "Anyway"; "Los Angeles"; "Skin Me."

White Lung - Paradise

A breakthrough album for White Lung, or at least it should be. The playing is furious from Kenneth Williams on guitar and Anne-Marie Vassiliou on drums (she should be on "top drummers" lists). Mish Barber-Way is no less ferocious on vocals, as always. But the songs are among the best that the band have recorded and add melody to the mix in a way that White Lung have not done before. Highlights: "Below" and "Hungry" are huge in a whole new way; "Kiss Me When I Bleed," "I Beg You," and "Paradise" are very good. Really, 27 great minutes.

The Julie Ruin - Hit Reset

I liked Run Fast, the previous record from Kathleen Hanna's electronic punk band the Julie Ruin. I really like this record. Great songs, band sounding strong. What feels like genuine punk edge injected into the melodies. Highlights: "Hit Reset"; "I Decide"; "Mr. So and So"; "Record Breaker"; "I'm Done"; "Calverton," a sad song. I danced a lot to this record, as I did when I saw the band live this past year.

Garbage - Strange Little Birds

I've never followed Garbage beyond appreciating their singles. I always thought of them as better than the usual radio fare but not really that alternative. But maybe I'll have to work backwards through their catalogue, because this is a strong, engaging, and refreshingly dark album. Highlights: "Empty"; "Night Drive Loneliness"; "Even Though Our Love Is Doomed"; "Magnetized"; "So We Can Stay Alive."

Tacocat - Lost Time

I loved NVM. This album is growing on me and shows the band growing as well. Highlights: "Dana Katherine Scully" (try not to sing along with the chorus); "FDP"; "I Love Seattle"; "I Hate the Weekend"; and the surprisingly different "Horse Grrls." "Talk" is another interesting track that's different for Tacocat. Bummed I haven't see this band live yet (almost did but they had border problems).

Honeyblood - Babes Never Die

I learned about Honeyblood from one of my favourite bands, PINS. Enjoyable indie pop from a Scottish duo. Big, shiny production, much less "lo fi" than their previous record. They write killer chorus hooks! Highlights: "Babes Never Die"; "Ready for the Magic"; "Sea Hearts"; "Walking at Midnight"; "Sister Wolf"; "Hey, Stellar."

Beverly - The Blue Swell

Drew Clinton and Frankie Rose apparently had creative differences, and Rose left. But Clinton is back with a strong album of indie dream pop. Highlights: "Crooked Cop"; "Victoria"; "South Collins"; "Contact."

That's only eight, but there's nothing magic about 10.

Well, maybe nine. I'm not sure. I've listened to Tanya Tagaq's Retribution a couple of times. It's challenging for sure. It's more a soundscape with music than a musical work. "Cold" stood out for me on first listen. It's interesting in the context of other songs in the random mix. I want to listen more.

I had not listened to Bob Mould in a few albums, but I decided to try his new release Patch the Sky. Some sounds like his earlier solo work. Some sounds like Hüsker Dü. It sounds fine, but it's not the sound of a musician growing.

Head Carrier from the Pixies is certainly better than Indie Cindy. New-ish bass player and vocalist Paz Lenchantin seems to have integrated well. The playing is strong. But it's a bit like Season 3 Star Trek (TOS)—new episodes, which was better than none, but no longer the glory days.

Instead of indie 1960s pop, Bleached have moved to the 1970s with Welcome the Worms. Very Joan Jett. Sometimes it's so much like 70s hard rock that it feels like a parody. The songs are hooky, and they do this stuff well, but it's not thrilling me.

Skeleton Tree is the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album I have ever bought. As an indie snob, I'm supposed to be into Nick Cave. I guess you either like that kind of half-spoken, marginally melodic baritone or you don't. I like the feel of this album. It's dark, slow, and moody, with songs mostly written before Cave's son died but changed because of that in the recording process. But I'm still not a Nick Cave fan.

La Sera bummed me out with Music for Listening to Music To. What started as Katy Goodman's post-Vivian Girls solo project is now more a collaboration between Goodman and her husband and guitarist Todd Wisenbaker. They teamed up with Ryan Adams and created a country-flavoured indie pop album. It's fine. It doesn't get me off.

Given that I haven't even bought the latest PJ Harvey album, clearly I need to do some non-emusic shopping.


Music for life

I'm a musician. That's a fundamental aspect of me. I tried being not-a-musician, but it made me unhappy. I realized that I love making music more than anything else, and that it is my primary source of joy. Especially at my age, I'm not going to live without that.

I'm also a songwriter. Even when I was trying to be not-a-musician, the songwriter kept popping out, making me scribble lyric ideas in notebooks or on scraps of paper.

Being a musician and songwriter, I make records. Not vinyl records, although I have in the past. More in the sense of snapshots of a set of songs at a particular time. In August and September I recorded four songs. I just received the approved masters. Three songs are available on Soundcloud. The song that is somewhat of an outlier is for later.

As well as being a musician and songwriter, I am also a performer. I have been performing on stage (mostly as a singer-musician but for several years in theatre) since I was about 17 years old. These days, public performance for profit, or even for free, is not easy to come by. I am very unfamiliar with the scene in the Lower Mainland for solo performers. There are some clubs. There are pop-up venues and house concerts. There are festivals. Obviously I must get a lot more familiar with the ins and outs if I hope to play anywhere.

Even if I never played for anyone but myself (and Sweetie, who can't help but hear), I imagine I would continue to write songs, simply because I haven't managed to turn them off when they want to be written. I can't get my brain to stop turning life into song lyrics.

But because a huge part of why I make music is that I need to communicate, to reach out to people, I do crave listeners. I'm long past dreaming of fame and fortune, but I'm pretty sure even the most confident artist needs a certain amount of affirmation from viewers, listeners, participators. Even negative feedback is better than indifference.

So, the record. At this point it's called, with much flair, Demo 2016. It's far from perfect, but I'm proud of this record of my performance of the songs. To anyone who at least gives a listen, thank you. Maybe I'll get to play for you live.


On impact

A week and a half ago while I was driving home from an appointment, I was involved in a collision with an SUV. No one was hurt. The damage to the passenger side of the Subaru did not look terrible. I was able to drive the car home. I opened a claim with ICBC (the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, our public motor vehicle insurer). Armed with a claim number, I drove the car to the body shop down the hill. I figured all would be set right soon.

A couple of days later, I got another call from ICBC. There was more damage to the car than it was officially worth, so they declared it totalled. I did not argue, since what had seemed to be surface damage actually included frame damage as well. Once the frame of a vehicle is bent, it will never be right again. As well, the car is, or was, a 2002 model. As invaluable as the car was to us and despite fairly low mileage, it had little market value.

If you're going to crash your car, do it when it's still worth fixing.

For the nonce, we are car-free. Neither of us commutes by car. Non-driver Sweetie works two days a week a short bus ride from the house. I work out of my home office. She has a monthly transit pass because she rides frequently in addition to her commute. I use transit less but still quite a lot, especially to go into Vancouver. Our main use for a private vehicle was to go shopping on Saturday, which might involve stops at any of a pet store, a farmers market, our co-op for groceries, a seafood shop, and an Italian deli. We would also occasionally use the car at other times, including to go into Vancouver when there was a compelling reason to do so (dressed fancy, coming home very late, etc.). And once in a while, we would take a road trip.

Being without a car had an impact on last weekend, as expected. On Saturday morning I made a trip to the final Trout Lake Farmers Market of the season. In the afternoon I made a very long trip to get cat food (a brand not available in most stores) and to make one other stop. It was not the most efficient trip—bus-SkyTrain-bus to get to the pet store; bus-bus to get to the next stop; and finally bus-SkyTrain-bus to get home—but connections were pretty good, and it took less time than I expected. Each trip cost me two one-zone (because weekend) fares ($2.10 with Compass card), so C$4.20 for each round trip. On Sunday I went to the co-op and the fish market. That trip also cost C$4.20.

I'm glad to know that it's possible for me to do all the things I need to do on transit, given plenty of time and the ability (and willingness) to haul heavy loads. It is unlikely to remain practical. In two weeks the winter farmers market will be at Nat Bailey Stadium—accessible by transit, but a long ride plus walk (there is also a Sunday winter market at Hastings Park, but many of the vendors I need aren't there). The farmers market trip would be fine in good weather, but add rain or cold or both and it's a different story. And even though I can carry a lot of weight, I have only two shoulders for bags, and taking more than two bags on transit is difficult anyway.

As well, even though I'm a tough old broad and pretty strong, I'm getting neither younger nor stronger. I was proud of myself for doing all the hauling this past weekend, but my body was pretty worn out later, and my left knee threatened to go on strike a few times while I was out walking.

And here's the kicker: if I somehow were to get a gig, I would need a car to get to it. Or a much smaller guitar amp.

Joining a car co-op would have been our first choice. It's expensive to buy, maintain, and insure a vehicle, especially for the little that we use one. Sadly, ICBC ruled that I was at fault in the collision. I can't approach the co-op unless I have two years free of at-fault claims. I have to earn my way back into the good graces of the driving world.

That leaves us with three options: remain car free, buy a used car, or buy a new car. For all the reasons above, the first option is good only for the short term. That leaves buying a new or used vehicle, with both require money up front and ongoing costs.

If we buy a new car, at least it can now be an electric vehicle (EV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), or hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). Our all-wheel-drive Subaru was awesome on curves but was not particularly fuel efficient, even for highway driving. EVs, PHEVs, and HEVs available in Canada are all expensive, but if we're going to buy new, it has to be tomorrow's car, not yesterday's. Either that or we buy an older car and then have to go through the same exercise in a few years.

Meanwhile, even though using transit takes extra time and effort, I'm enjoying my liberation from driving. I get to read or check my phone or even observe my surroundings while being taken to my destination. I do more walking by covering distances on foot that are too short to bother waiting for a bus (I'd rather move than wait). I realize that I am fortunate in not having to use transit during peak periods. I have done so in the past, and I know that rush hour trains and buses are only more crowded now than they were then.

I also appreciate not having to drive because at this point I'm still feeling the effects of trauma. That surprised me, but shouldn't have. Even though the collision was minor (except to the vehicles), the scenario plays itself over and over in my head. I see and feel the other car closing in on me, me trying to get out of its way, and the bump of the hit. My brain wants to undo what happened. But that's not how time works. We live with our mistakes until we can let them go.

So I'm feeling chastised and wobbly. I get to deal with both trauma effect and shame! Being a conscientious and careful driver is something I was proud of. I will overcome this. Whenever I get back in the saddle, I will be even more conscientious and careful. But I'm not there yet. So I shall try to enjoy my car holiday.


Studio nerd

I'm sure there are bands that go into a recording studio and just bang out their songs, leaving all the technical aspects to others. But I think for most musicians a recording studio is a magical place. Some serious wizardry happens in studios! I find it more fun to immerse myself in the magic than just to be a player and singer. I don't know nearly as much as some, but I'm learning.

And this time was different than previous studio sessions. I've spent lots of time in recording studios where it was only an engineer and me. That's usually how it has for mixdowns. I don't remember any band members being particularly interested in those. And sometimes, being the guitarist, harmony singer, and occasional percussionist, I would go in by myself for overdubs. But these three sessions were the first I ever did both by myself and for myself.

The object was really to create a demo—decent recordings of a few songs that I can link to when I try to get someone to hire me. But I aimed for a bit more than that. I wanted the tracks to sound pretty much like they do when I play them live, but I also wanted to fill them out a little.

I took four songs in. I was well prepared. I had been practising with a metronome to get used to playing with a click track. All of the song tempos were where they sounded best to me.

At the same time, I knew that I didn't have to have everything planned in advance. I wanted results within two sessions, more realistically three, but this being my first experience as the sole creator of the music (engineering is also a creative process), I also wanted to give myself time to relax, be happy (and not just okay) with takes, and maybe even to come up with new things.

The first session was about guitar and vocals. I recorded bed tracks—just a guitar, in this case—for each of the songs I had planned to record. Something about the fourth song didn't feel right when I was playing it, and playback confirmed it. It wasn't right. It didn't feel like it should be in a set with the other three. More surprising, it didn't feel like V. Diz. I had not suspected that before, but I was sure of it now. I abandoned that track, got inspired, and played another song from my list. And I realized that was the one I wanted to record. Which I did. At the end of day one, I had guitar tracks and most vocals for "Drive By," "Normal Day," "If We Pretend," and "Hunting Season"—the new song, which is actually an old song, which is another story.

After listening to the rough mixes for a week, I had a plan for the second session. Some things went right. I nailed a vocal section that had given me trouble at the end of day one. I played more guitar parts. I might have subtracted a track or two of guitar from the previous session. And then the engineer and I set to mixing. Initial setup takes a bit of time. Fortunately, the setup provides a starting point for the subsequent tracks. We got a possible keeper mix of "Drive By" and a mix of "Normal Day" that I knew had been done too hastily and would need more work.

Listening to the two mixes confirmed that at least "Normal Day" needed work. I had several weeks to listen and consider and come up with ideas. One idea was for percussion. In session two I had intended to play djembe (African hand drum) on a couple of songs but I had forgotten to bring it. Just as well! I needed a lot of practice. I'm happy to say that I have gone from being a djembe dabbler to actually playing the djembe—perhaps not in a traditional way, but mostly in rhythm.

So for session three, I started with the drum. I did a couple of takes for "If We Pretend" and a couple more for "Hunting Season." And then it was time to do the serious mixing.

We put "Drive By" aside as potentially being a keeper and started with "If We Pretend," because it's very simple, not even a second guitar, just one guitar, djembe, and vocal. I ended up putting the vocal well in front of the instruments. That's a scary thing for me, but it sounded better that way because the song is a story. At least I'm reasonably happy with the singing.

We changed a few things before getting the sound I was looking for on "Normal Day." I wanted to go psychedelic on it, because I have psych in my blood from way back. Swirly guitar, fuzz guitar, processed vocal.

On "Hunting Season" I decided to drop the djembe from the beginning of the song and have it start at the chorus and continue to the end. I think it's more effective that way. And you can blame me for the echo on the chorus vocal. Totally my idea.

Finally we went back to "Drive By." I wanted more of a sound change on the bridge. So we put a chorus effect on the guitar (I play it live through my flanger) and ran the overlapping vocal tracks through software that emulates a Leslie speaker. More psychedelia! I guess I indulged myself, but hopefully it sounds good to others as well.

None of the tracks has been mastered, a step that involves matching volume levels among songs, sometimes changing equalization or compression, and making sure that the songs sound like they belong together. I need to book that. But it's been so long since I had any recorded output other than my home recordings that I have to preview, at least. So here is the debut of "Normal Day" (premaster):



In the beginning, according to a sacred text, woman came from man, formed using a rib taken from his side.

And thereafter man continued to form woman, not in his own image and likeness but in the image and likeness of his fantasy mate. And he declared himself to be her superior.

And all was well for woman as long as she fulfilled what man wanted. But woe upon her when she failed to do so, in myriad large and small ways.

And man imposed his will on women and indeed the entire world for tens of thousands of years. But finally, woman realized the injustice and stupidity of this system and decided to demand and create change.

The idea that the world should be human-world, not man-world, sent man's heads (big and little) into a spin and caused him to cling even more desperately to man-world.

But man-world is so last millennium (and several before). Human-world has already begun, and will become stronger and stronger until man-world is but an historical memory.

Because really, everyone should get to live in human-world.


Band of one

I miss being in a band.

As soon as I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, I wanted to be in a band. The idea of a group making music fascinated me. There is no leader, it's an ensemble! Or so we thought. Even once we knew that wasn't quite true, still, a band has a sound, an identity, that is more than the sum of individual members. I've played in cover bands, acoustic combos, and original rock bands. The only time I've ever had any measure of success in music has been with other musicians. Playing in a band is also hugely fun.

And yet now I find myself sans band. I know a lot of musicians. I don't know if I could get any of them to start a band, but I doubt it. At any rate, I haven't really tried. After all those years in bands, I'm going for it. I am performing as a, gasp, solo artist.

(I am still open to bands and playing with other people. It's just that younger musicians mostly want to play with other young musicians, which makes sense, and most musicians my age aren't into the same kinds of things that I am. There aren't many Kim Gordons and Toody Coles in the world.)

I began this project in earnest last year, especially when I started having rehearsals with Leenie Bennett. On my own and with Leenie, I started to figure out just who I am musically. Not me in a band, not me leading a band, but me answerable to no one but myself.

It's scary. It's thrilling. It's either audacious or misguided or both. I have only my guitars, an amplifier, a small pedal board (but no loop pedal), my songs, and my voice. I want to create music that works using those components. I want that sound to define this project, at least for now. And I want to be heard. My passion for musical communication is stronger than ever.

Songs first. I've always thought of myself as a songwriter before anything else. I've been writing for almost as long as I have played guitar. I feel good about the material I have been coming up with lately. I'm pleased that some older songs, including some unexpected ones, fit this new paradigm. I used to have trouble writing unless it was for a band, which set boundaries and provided a guideline for my songwriting. Now I'm finding my own personal song boundaries and figuring out where the guidelines are, really for the first time.

I write songs. I keep the songs I enjoy playing, as long as I enjoy playing them. I send that all through an important filter: does this song sound like V. Diz? I could play any song I wanted, but I want to create a distinct sound, just as with a band.

One way I'm trying to make the sound more distinct is by really working on melody. Listen to a lot of rock songs and you will find that the melody is pretty close to the one you'd come up with if you just sang words to a chord pattern. There's a sort of default melody, one we fall into easily, and it's not special. I'm trying to stay out of that pattern or to break out of it if a song has gone that way. Interesting melody is not just for pop songs!

Guitar is making me pretty happy these days. Even though I'm older and have pain in my left hand, I seem to play better than I used to. Not more reliably. I'll still mess up a part in the studio. But I think my playing-to-accompany is better. More creative, more varied, more interesting. And since I'm not using the overdrive side of my Marshall, I can make better use of the pedals.

And then there's the voice. Oy. I can nail harmonies like nobody's business. But singing lead is a whole 'nother thing, especially without a band. If you have a good voice, great. You practise and get better. I admire such skill! But I don't have a conventionally good voice. I have a peculiar voice. Since that's not going to change, I have to figure out how to use it to best effect. For expression. To convey meaning. I allow it to be distinctive and weird and hope that anyone listening likes it better than I do.

I'm still often disappointed by what I hear, but I keep working at it. I might change the key of a song (a capo is a wonderful thing) to hit the best range for the melody. I'm letting notes be short if hanging onto them doesn't sound great. I'm learning how to sing a lot more quietly! Or rather, with my full dynamic range, something you don't usually do in a rock band. And I'm actually practising singing and working on rough spots or making changes to avoid them.

Learning to cultivate and embrace distinctiveness and weirdness is a lesson applicable to all of my music. I have always been a pleaser. Unless you're a particularly talented pop songwriter, trying to please everyone can be a terrible thing. I realized that I would all too often knock the edges off my songs, my playing, my voice. I would try to push everything toward a more conventional sound, even when I thought I wasn't doing so. But now I'm letting the edges stay sharp, and I critique every song. Is it too conventional? Is it pretty but generic? Does it really express whatever I am making V. Diz about? I'm just as tough on any covers I want to play. Do I play it well? Sing it well? Sing it poorly but interestingly? Make it distinctive? Make it my own?

Because whether people love or hate my music, the first thing I have to do is get them to listen at all. And I have no idea why people like some artists and not others. There are a lot of successful performers who I think are pretty much shite, and many I think are great but that remain obscure. Somehow, in this crowded, noisy world, I have to get at least a few people's attention. And I will never have a hope of doing that in any conventional way. My particular weirdness will either succeed or fail, but it's the only way I have a chance.

It's not as though "success" is particularly ambitious these days. I really only want to be able to play around town, maybe out of town. So all I need is to get enough positive attention to be able to have a draw, so that people will come see me when they see I am performing and thus I will keep getting hired.

In less than a week, I will be in the studio to see if all this work can sound like I want it to. Can't wait!


Withdrawal symptoms

Photo by belle ancell
Is it possible to live anymore without social media? Of course it is. Lots of people live without it, and not just old folks. I have two friends who have sworn off social media entirely. I know of others who did as well. Many other people use social media but only on an intermittent basis. It's not central to their lives or a major use of time.

A more pertinent question for me is whether I can live without social media. Or if not without social media, then with less involvement—whatever that would look like and however it could be made the happen.

Until about a month ago, I would check Twitter frequently, at least at certain times of day. I would check tweets from as many as five lists. I followed favourite bands to get news about them and hear about shows and releases. I followed a variety of accounts that I found interesting. I got a lot of news. One list in particular was for accounts in my city, for which Twitter is a good source of information and connection. Sometimes I would get the satisfaction of having tweets faved or retweeted. Often I would get the satisfaction of micro-blogging my not-so-humble opinions, no matter that I was usually just an old lady shouting at a cloud.

My problem with Twitter is basically time. Checking it often or even occasionally rather than obsessively is still a time sink, because it's never just checking. It's reading and responding and writing and reading more and searching and watching videos. I like the actual interaction on Twitter, at least in my twitterverse. I'm going to declare, on no particular evidence whatsoever, that Twitter is beneficial to my well-being. Except for that time thing.

Facebook is a different story. Even a month ago, I had already curtailed my Facebook involvement. Even so, I was reading part of my wall several times a day. I wasn't posting often, but I would read a lot, and like or react or comment fairly often. And I would check events.

Facebook is more than just a time sink. I get much more stressed out from Facebook than from Twitter. I don't have a huge number of Facebook friends, but quite a few. These are people I know, people whose lives I care about, people who are special to me. I do want to know things that happen in their lives. But sometimes I get overloaded with information.

A month ago, I went off Twitter and Facebook almost entirely. All of a sudden I just didn't want to go on. I say "almost" because I had a show coming up and I needed to publicize it. There's part of the answer to the question: it is difficult to have a music career without social media, not just to advertise shows but just for general schmoozing. After the show I stayed off, but then my usage crept back up. Now, however, I'm feeling an aversion again. I can't seem to find the sweet spot. And the longer I stay off, the more I fear going back on, lest it turn to shite again.

Because it's not just usage of Twitter and Facebook. It's the time I spend on my laptop. Twitter and Facebook take quite enough time, but then while I'm sitting there, it's very easy to find something else to do on my computer after Twitter and Facebook, and until the next scan for new posts. Before I know it, an hour or two has passed, and things I ought to do as well as things I want to do have been crowded out.

Thanks to one of my social-media-less friends, I've read what life offline is like. I've experienced some of the same things. It's disorienting to have been following so many lives and suddenly to follow almost none. That's quite a void. It's disorienting to have been (seemingly, at least) plugged in to your local scene and suddenly to be quite unplugged. And indeed unplugged from the world to some extent. But the sudden silence of the void might also be welcome. Right now I seem to need the silence.

Every good thing has a price. The price of this peace of mind is isolation. I miss your babies and kids, your pictures and links, your heartfelt postings! I miss the occasional lively debate. I miss feeling connected, whether I truly was connected or not.

It seems to me that I will have to reconnect at some point. The only question is how to keep that from getting out of control. I've started to use Twitter only on my phone. That removes the factor of lounging comfortably at my laptop for hours. I want to put Facebook back on my phone as well, but the app is so bloated that my SIM-less phone can't install it. I need to figure that out (I hate having to delete most of my music). So far, I've used Twitter a lot like I do when I'm on vacation—much less.

I do want to reconnect. I have no snobbery about having become a non-user. After all, even now I'm active on social media-ish sites like Goodreads and TripAdvisor, and I'm going to hypocritically post links to this blog post on Twitter and Facebook.

But I have to say, staying away really is liberating for my time. When I'm done work, if I don't immediately get involved in laptop activities, then I'm out for a walk or to practise my songs or to write new ones (a bit tricky, because I do most writing on my laptop). Or to clean or fix something in the house. Or to work in my garden. Or even to see friends in person! Or any of a number of other things I need or want to do. When I reconnect, I need to be able to do so without losing (too much of) the liberation.



I confessed something during a show I played the other night: I think Taylor Swift is the shiz. I think she has a strong voice that she knows how to use to very good effect, and it's imperfect enough to be interesting. She's a real musician. She has excellent stage presence. And above all, I think she is a distinctive, inspired pop songwriter.

I keep going back to videos of her performing "unplugged," just her singing and playing acoustic or electric guitar (she plays well). That's where you can tell whether a song is truly a good song or just the result of production. "Wildest Dreams" on the album doesn't particularly stand out for me, but Swift performing it solo at the Grammy Museum slays me. I watched a video of her playing "We Are Never Getting Back Together," a monster hit that sounds great with her singing and playing.

Before she sang it, she told the story of how the song came about. And there's no question that having the inspiration of saying about an ex-boyfriend that "we are never getting back together" in the way that she did helped create a hit song. But what struck me was Swift saying that she had gone to the studio that day specifically to write a song. She and Martin were going to work until they had produced something good.

This is not an unusual way to work. It's how pretty much all pop songwriters work. You don't wait for inspiration. You make inspiration. You scribble ideas, or draw, or play an instrument, or whatever gets your juices flowing. You bounce ideas off collaborators. You write and throw away the stuff that doesn't work until you have not just a song but a good song. There are bands that do something similar: hole up together and write songs for the next album until they have enough.

Me, I've usually been of the lazy, wait-for-the-muse type. The upside is that I'm generally happy with what I write. The downside is that I have so little output. The muse is fickle. And if I don't block out time to write, other things will get done instead, and song output will be less than my output on this irregularly updated blog.

It would be dumb to say, as I have said, that I'm just not a prolific songwriter. The reality is that I don't work enough at it. Neither harder nor smarter.

I have rarely collaborated to write songs, and almost never in the way that Swift and Martin do. I wonder what that would be like. I do know that writing with another good writer is likely to do two things: produce more good songs and make both participants better songwriters. I say I "almost" never work that way because that's pretty much what you do at rock camp. But rock camp songwriting does not usually produce hits. You're mainly concerned with getting the song finished at all!

I don't know if any of the songwriters I know would want to do any collaborating. I could ask. I could also seek out workshops where co-writing is part of what you do. I'm so used to writing alone, in a very personal way, that it's a bit scary to think of working with one or more other people. But I bet it would do me a lot of good.


Pilgrim's progress

I'm about a week into my reform program. I hate reform programs and resolutions and self-improvement shit. I didn't want to change anything about my life. After too much time, I realized I was unusually stressed and anxious. Once I did realize it, I got over not wanting to change anything and started making changes. Because feeling bad sucks.

So far, not bad. It's been a week partly of being more conscious of how I already spend my time and partly of doing more priority things. I practised more, including with Leenie. I wrote an important email that took away the obligation to do something I really did not have time or desire to do. I sent some personal correspondence. I walked more, usually as transportation to do errands plus added distance.

It wasn't all work and then more work. On Tuesday, I did three fun things: took a road trip, had dinner out, and saw a band I love. Sweetie and I went out to dinner last night. And a lot of what I do is not work, including preparing meals and reading.

More time doesn't mean I get everything done. Some things are easy to do more of -- playing guitar and singing, writing to people, gardening. Some things, however, I'm not as good at doing.

Songwriting is one of those things. I get bored without new songs. I need new songs. But writing is work. I've mostly been a lazy songwriter, getting inspired occasionally and then following through. But with songwriting you need to facilitate inspiration, give it a kick start, and that means grabbing a notebook or opening a text file (I do both) and writing virtually whatever comes to mind, for a good hour at least. Topics, titles, bits of lines, rhymes, drawings, whatever. That's how you write more and write better. But it's one of those tasks that is easy to put off because it's daunting.

It's also too easy to put off house cleaning and maintenance. I can't say I've improved that situation much yet. But it's a lot easier to keep a reasonably clean and fixed up house if I don't let things slide until there are too many chores. Both cleaning and fixing are things that I should do at least every few days.

Getting overwhelmed is one of my biggest problems. The longer I let things go, and the more things there are to do, the more intimidating it is to start even one thing. It becomes easier to do nothing. The pile is so high! But there's nothing that will make the pile smaller other than to keep at it.

Most of the time I gained comes from being scarce on social media. As much as I enjoy tweeting, I was spending too much time on Twitter, and even then not keeping up. It's pretty much the same with Facebook. Unfortunately, the relief of having more time and less anxiety is offset a bit by the anxiety that comes from being out of touch. Without Twitter, it's harder to maintain contact with local people and know what's going on locally. Without Facebook, I lose contact with Vancouver friends and people far away and am unaware of even more events. And yet I'm afraid to do more than breeze in and out, lest I fall back into old patterns.

For the next couple of weeks, at least, my social calendar is fairly light. I will keep doing things I should be doing. I will keep leaving time to relax and do nothing (other than maybe watch TV). I will fill whatever time I have with things I claim to want to do. One of those things is hanging out with friends. I will try not to worry that social media invisibility will lead to actual invisibility. I do have email and text links to many people. I can reach out. I can hope that people reach in.


Sea change, maybe

I'm at the end of a few months of being heavily booked. Overbooked, really. Everything I committed to was something that I wanted to do. But the lack of downtime started to get to me. And I realized that the overbooking caused the things I claim are most important to me to lose out. I can't be much of a musician if I rarely practise or write or play out because I'm too busy with other commitments as well as stressed out and unable to focus because of two months of house uncertainty and repair (thankfully done).

Just this past weekend, I felt something shift. I have no idea if it's a permanent shift. I imagine not. But I hope some of its impact endures. Right now I find I have at least some resolve to change the situation, to reorder my priorities. I feel the change even physically. My appetite is down (for me, that's a good thing). I feel more energetic, a nice change from the usual. I found myself on a social media break (it happened, then I realized it), not total but substantial. I have more time and energy to work on my time.

When I need to figure stuff like this out, my analytical and obsessive-compulsive sides tend to kick in. Probably both of those played into my creating a table of priorities. I entered activities that I do or want to do. I marked each as to whether I needed it, wanted it a lot, or wanted it a little. I added the frequency of activities, first as it is at present, and then as I want it to be. The table evolved as I added information, sorted it differently, remembered more activities, added and removed columns. It's full of colours too.

It's a chart of my life. I never realized my life fit into a Microsoft Word table.

The still-evolving table is currently sorted by desired frequency, so it's easier to see activities that need to happen daily, often, weekly, and so on.

Most important are the activities I need or want to do pretty much every day, such as work, walk (my only real exercise), practise music, make dinner (I get breaks from that), and screen films ('tis the season). There are things I should do at least every few days, such as housework (best if I keep at it regularly) and gardening (both so my garden will thrive and for my own mental health).

Just as important are the things I've been doing daily that I need to reduce or eliminate. At this point, that's pretty much just social media. It's not just the actual time on social media. It's the overhead of sitting at my laptop too often and for too long. There are always other things to do on my laptop when I'm not on Twitter or Facebook.

The chart also shows other things I need or want more time for, such as reading and personal correspondence (mostly email but occasionally handwritten). I would like to get together with friends more often, which is way better than social media interaction, but when it's less often than I wish I'm not going to stress about it.

The chart helps me be honest with myself. Am I ever going to play softball? Not without eliminating or drastically reducing at least a few other activities, and that's unlikely. Do I really want to blog more than I do? Probably not. My blog seems to run only off sporadic inspiration, not steady hard work, and that's okay. Songwriting, however, is something I need to do every day, or at least every couple of days. Block out time with minimal distractions and write.

One thing that's going to take a hit is political volunteering. I've realized that while it's something that I sometimes love to do, mostly it's something that I feel I ought to do. One reason that's been stressful lately is that I'm not very good at "ought to" volunteering. I'm a better volunteer when it's something I love to do, such as my arts and civic involvement. I'm always a political junkie, but only a sporadically enthusiastic political volunteer.

Full-time work makes a huge impact on the schedule, not just in the time it takes but in the desire not to work during non-work time, even when it's work I want and need to do.In only a few years I will be able to stop working. I have not yet managed to get my hours reduced, but at some point work hours will cease altogether. I can only imagine how my life—and chart—might change.

While I'm still working, however, I need to manage my time. There really aren't enough hours in a day (and sleep is not optional), so I have to divide my waking hours more carefully than I would like. I'm not very disciplined! But occasionally I get determined, and while that's so, I'd better take advantage of it.

One day at a time. I'm not going to get this changed all at once. I hope I stay determined for a while, however, lest this blog post become an embarrassment. Long-term determination has never been my strong suit. That itself must change.


Vox pop

Over the years I've heard a fair amount of praise for songs I've written. As well, I've been complimented on my guitar playing, which surprises me but I'll take it. But I don't think I can remember anyone saying that they liked my singing.

Most of the time, I don't like it either.

I've been singing for pretty much as long as I can remember. I liked to sing as a child. When I learned to play guitar at 16 and began to write my own songs, of necessity I also became a vocalist. I've sung on my own, in a duo, in bands, and in choirs. I've sung my own songs and cover songs. As a chorister, I sing on key. My harmony singing is solid. But as a lead vocalist, I am meh at best. I sing with passion and intent, but quality, not so much.

I don't hate the voice I hear recorded, but I don't love it. I think it's harsh. Not very pleasing. Just not very nice sounding.

I don't know if others feel the same way. Or rather, figuring that some must feel that way, how many of them are there? Does my voice put people off? Does it make them not listen, or not listen again, to my songs?

The only bands of mine that achieved some level of success were those with a lead vocalist who wasn't me. I know my songs are good, but maybe that only really comes across when the vocal is by someone who sings better than I do. Maybe my voice will put people off from listening more than once and really liking. Moreover, it's just guitar and vocal now, with some percussion help from Leenie. When so little is going on, all the parts had better be worth listening to.

Since I still want to play professionally and get booked, I hope that somehow my voice pleases other people more than it pleases me. Or that they find my voice interesting. Or that it's an instrument the sound of which they happen to like. Other people hear me differently than I hear myself, and maybe I sound better to them than I do to me.

If that's true, then not having a good voice won't hold me back. Despite higher vocal quality expectations for women than men, there are women whose unconventional vocals are well appreciated. Hardly anyone can sing like Beyoncé or Adele anyway. Courtney Barnett's voice is distinctive in a pleasing way. PJ Harvey's voice can be challenging. I aspire to have a pleasingly distinctive voice. I'm probably more the challenging type.

It's really since I "went solo (again)" that I have been consciously exploring my voice, probably more than I have ever done. I'm looking for its strengths and strengthening weaknesses. I'm trying new things and taking risks. I listen to distinctive women vocalists, including Leenie, and learn from them. Leenie has also influenced me to make more extensive use of my capo, not just to create a key but to find the best key, the one where the melody, especially the chorus, is in a sweet spot for my voice.

It's funny how I feel at one with my guitar but not so much with my voice. My guitar is an extension of myself, and it expresses something about who I am. I want my voice to be and do those things as well. The work I've done hasn't improved my vocal quality that much but I think it has improved my expressiveness. Just have to see if that's enough.



Facebook users had long asked for more than just "like" to click on posts. The request I heard most often was a "dislike" icon, a "thumb down," such as Reddit and some newspaper comment sections have. Well, that didn't happen, and probably just as well. But five other things were added: "Love," "Haha," "Wow," "Sad," and "Angry."

Unlike a lot of Facebook innovations, I actually like this one. And I click on the various reactions. But I've noticed some subtleties in the way I do, or don't, use them.

"Love" is an interesting one. The obvious use is when you really, really like a post, beyond just "Like." But I have also used it, and seen it used, to mean "sending love," such as when a person is sad. It's a way of offering comfort, when "Like" just doesn't seem right. And then there are the times I'm tempted to click "Love" but have second thoughts. If I click "Love" for this profile picture update because I think it's really cool looking, will it be misinterpreted as meaning more than that? Especially when no one else has clicked "Love"? Peer pressure!

"Haha" is pretty obvious and unambiguous. When the person has posted something that's obviously a joke or something ridiculous but not horrifying, it's an appropriate reaction.

I don't think anything that I've ever seen posted has "blown my mind." But some things are really cool and surprising. So "Wow" is a good reaction to have then. Science posts often rate a "Wow."

I use "Sad" when it seems an appropriate reaction to the thing shared or to express sympathy with the poster. I think it's contextual whether I click "Sad" to sympathize or "Love" to comfort.

"Angry" is always used for something shared, never against the poster. Egregious sexism, horrifying racism, anything where someone is being mistreated and it makes you more angry than sad. "Angry" implies that you feel you could help do something to change it, whereas "Sad" is resigned.

When in doubt, "Like" is still a safe choice, even if you don't really mean that you like what was posted. It works as agreement, assent, "glad your band has a gig," or even "I took the time to follow the link/play the GIF/etc." If you kind of want to use one of the reactions but just aren't sure, "Like" will pretty much always work, as it did before the reactions existed.

At this point, the reactions that are not there that I most want are "Eye-roll" and "Side-eye." There are some things that get shared that just need those reactions!

If you use Facebook, how have you dealt with the reactions? Which others would you like to see?


My city was gone

Sweetie and I live in a small city near Vancouver. We own a detached house. We have good jobs. We have even saved for retirement. We're the kind of people who can afford to live here. But as we near retirement, I'm not sure that I want to live here anymore.

Like the woman who wrote an article in The Province, I fell in love with Vancouver when I first came here over 20 years ago. Seeing the mountains so close by was what really did it, but it was also the water (and beaches), the neighbourhoods, and even occasionally (very occasionally) the buildings. I say very occasionally because Vancouver was already somewhat lacking in character. The beauty of the city was, and still is, more about the surroundings.

When I first arrived, I was working only part time as a technical writer and as an extra in films and television. I managed to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the not-yet-hip neighbourhood of Hastings-Sunrise, a decent place with a view of downtown and the mountains for only $495 a month. Having more time than money, and no car yet, I loved that I could reach Lynn Canyon Regional Park by bus and, after a short walk, be in the back country. Before I realized it was shorter to take a bus to Phibbs Exchange and then another bus, I used to ride the Seabus to Lonsdale Quay—functional but also fun! When I bought a bicycle, I ranged along False Creek and English Bay, sometimes all the way to UBC and back.

When Sweetie completed her master's degree and moved up from Seattle, we were able to rent the floor of a house at the far eastern end of Hastings-Sunrise, right next to Burnaby. We enjoyed that area. We did a lot of shopping in Burnaby Heights and bird watching in Montrose Park, a small gem at the foot of North Boundary Road on Burrard Inlet.

Fifteen years ago when we wanted to buy, we looked first at condominium units. But having lived in a house for a while, we couldn't figure out how to fit ourselves and our stuff into 600 square feet, even with a storage locker. After an improvement in our financial situation, we starting to look at houses. But even then, houses in Vancouver, even in East Van (where we would have loved to live) were either too expensive for us or somewhat marginal properties. As reluctant as we were to leave Vancouver, we looked outside the city and found a small but cozy heritage house in an area that is well connected to downtown by transit.

Now, of course, that house—or rather the land it sits on—is valued at far more than we paid for it. While Vancouver property has gone out of sight, the rest of the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley are not far behind. We might be able to sell our house and buy another, but we would be severely indebted at an age when neither of us wants that.

Greater Vancouver seems to be all about property speculation now. It wears me down when there is so much talk about real estate. Is that all we are about anymore? We still have a thriving arts scene, but for how much longer? How much longer will restaurants and small shops be able to afford to do business? We already know that tech start-ups are having trouble finding young developers, since prospective employees are unable to buy or even rent anywhere near where they would work. We wonder about heading to the Victoria area, but land speculation has begun to spread there as well.

Speculation leads not only to a lack of affordable housing but to an even greater loss of character. Beautiful old houses are being torn down with alarming regularity. Someone tweeted that our heritage might not be heritage for the buyers, might not be their heritage, and that's a fair point. But if heritage and older buildings of all kinds are torn down, will Vancouver become generic? Will it be completely about its surroundings, having no other distinctiveness at all? The great cities of Europe combine new building with preservation of their heritage. Many U.S. cities also retain a distinctive character as they modernize. But I fear that Vancouver could be picked up and dropped somewhere without its surroundings and no one would know which city it was.

I realize there are many reasons for the shine going off a city, many of them more personal than about the city itself. Before we came here, I had loved Boston for two decades before feeling that it was just time for a change of scene. There is still so much I love about Vancouver and the surrounding area. But it's starting to wear me down—the real estate speculation, the hollowing-out, the political inaction (at least for anything good, and that's at the provincial level too), and the decimated music scene. Just today, the Railway Club shut its doors. That's a loss for both music and heritage.

When we no longer can or want to deal with the two flights of stairs in our house, could we end up elsewhere? There are cities we love in the United States, although many of them suffer the same land squeeze as Vancouver, especially San Francisco and New York but also Portland and Seattle. We adore Kauai, but we both feel that we probably couldn't live there year round, even if we could afford it. And all of those places have a major drawback: they're in the U.S. The political culture has only got worse since we moved away.

Oh, Italia. Would it really be possible to retire to the Adriatic coast?


Big city of dreams

New York is a city that draws me. When I was a musician in Boston, we always talked about moving to New York, a much bigger city with much more happening. Some did move. Some, like me, just visited with our friends who moved. Sometimes, I still feel a desire to live there. I make do with visiting often.

New York is now a long flight (or two) and an international border crossing away. I have spoken with people in Vancouver who have never been to New York. The flight is expensive and so is staying anywhere in or near the city. But still I am drawn, and for me it's worth all the 75-cent Canadian dollars that it costs.

Sweetie and I flew there last Thursday. Her uncle and aunt (who live just north of the city) generously picked us up at LaGuardia Airport and brought us to our hotel—on the Upper West Side, but a good deal via Flight Centre. Then we went to a restaurant not far away called Parm, a red sauce place in a former deli. Excellent Italian-American food, great service, and a fun place! We were even recruited by a woman at the next table to sing "Happy Birthday" to her boyfriend. I guess we seemed like people who would do such a thing. I guess our boisterousness was a giveaway!

Little by little we discovered the attractions of our neighbourhood, which included a French café called Maison Kayser where we had a light breakfast on Friday morning. We spent the rest of the day with the uncle and aunt. We always go to the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) with them (they're members), so that's where we went. We will never see all the wonderful exhibits there! This time we took in a special exhibit of (mostly) portraits by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, the first woman admitted to the Académie, as well as an exhibit of Artistic Furniture of the Gilded Age and one of vintage timepieces. After a tour of a Fairway Market, which has absolutely every kind of food known to humankind, and Eataly, a collection of Italian-themed food shops and restaurants, we met Sweetie's cousin, her uncle and aunt's elder daughter, at Hill Country, as close to Texas barbecue as you can get in the north. Wonderful brisket, great sides, and the best company, as well as the beginning of a performance by Americana trio Underhill Rose.

Already some bloom even outdoors
On Saturday, Sweetie and I went in different directions. She met up with Facebook friend, now in-the-flesh friend, to go to the Museum of Natural History and to have lunch. I took the subway to Crown Heights in Brooklyn where I met a friend who had moved to Brooklyn from Vancouver several months ago. Jamaican brunch at Glady's was great! And then we walked around the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, chilly but lovely even barely into spring. We also had an indoor break in the beautiful glass houses to see a bonsai exhibit as well as tropical, warm temperate, and desert plants. A most excellent afternoon in great company!

In the evening, Sweetie and I had an early dinner at a Spanish-Argentinian tapas restaurant called Ella before walking to the Theater District to see Fun Home at Circle in the Square. My first actual Broadway show, and it was outstanding. Funny, entertaining, and ultimately heart-rending, Fun Home might be my new favourite show after West Side Story, which has a similar emotional impact. And it was a treat to be in Circle in the Square where so many amazing actors have worked over the years.

Reminded me of a Heart Tree from GoT
Sunday was our downtown day. We met with good friends who were up from Philadelphia for brunch at Balaboosta in Nolita, a restaurant we have now been to four times—because it's fabulous! This was our first time for brunch, and I wished I could have ordered everything. More great company! We then walked to the Lower East Side to the Tenement Museum and went on a tour called "Sweatshop Workers" with a knowledgeable and engaging guide. Afterward, we met with the sister of one of our friends, whom we had not seen in decades, and her seven-year-old daughter, whom we had never met. We wandered around the Lower East Side and made a stop at Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery, which specializes in cupcakes and—this is new to me—pudding! Tasty pudding. Later, Sweetie and I walked back to Little Italy, where we somehow managed to find a place with expensive, mediocre pizza (wish we'd been in the Village, which has great slice places), and then went to the Angelika Film Center on Houston, a wonderful art house, to see a French black comedy called Marguerite. It was snowing when we came out! We had planned to walk to the West Village, but the snow sent us onto the subway and back to our hotel, via a brief stop at the Amsterdam Ale House.

On Monday, we were lured to another neighbourhood attraction, DSW (Discount Shoe Warehouse), the place to buy shoes. Both of us had noticed a New York spring trend, cute booties, and yes, I bought yet another pair, along with some sandals for summer that I really did need. Later we walked across Central Park (for the second time) to meet again with Sweetie's uncle and aunt at the Jewish Museum, this time joined by their younger daughter, whom I had not seen since her wedding eleven years ago, and her nine-year-old daughter, whom neither Sweetie nor I had met. It was all delightful! We had lunch at a restaurant in the basement of the museum called Russ and Daughters (a newly opened third location, with great blintzes among other kosher dairy food) and then said goodbye to the family. We then took in a great special exhibit of Isaac Mizrahi fashion as well as some of the permanent collections of Jewish artifacts and art. In the evening, we took a subway to Midtown and then walked west to Hell's Kitchen, where we met my nephew and his wife for dinner at Taboon, a fabulous upscale Lebanese restaurant. More great food and great company, in a neighbourhood that was new to me.

On Tuesday, we were scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia in the afternoon. Sweetie was not hungry, so I found a gem of a local spot called the Eighty-Two for breakfast. We then packed up and headed up to Harlem to catch the bus to LaGuardia. Not long before our flight, we were informed that mechanical problems had prevented the plane from leaving Toronto. We were stuck. But while waiting in line at the check-in counter, I got on the phone with WestJet customer service, who did a fabulous job of getting us on the first flight to Toronto the next day and then on an Air Canada flight to Vancouver. So we ended up staying an extra night in New York, in the Queens neighbourhood of East Elmhurst. East Elmhurst seems to have a large Colombian population, and a Bollywood theatre and an Indian restaurant suggest that South Asians live there too.

It's always interesting, and a good reminder of our privilege, to walk around in a neighbourhood where we're the only Anglos. That struck us especially on the Upper West Side, where we were acutely aware of being well-off White people served in shops mostly by Black and Latina staff. I hope they are paid well, but no way to know. We're good tippers.

We flew out on Wednesday, a day late, well before the crack of dawn. And back to the Vancouver rain and spring bloom. With colds. Hard to fly on four airplanes, ride a lot of public transit, and be on a diet low in fruits and vegetables without bringing something more back from New York than clothes and shoes.

If you're interested in reviews of any of the restaurants and attractions we visited, I've turned into a TripAdvisor reviewing fiend.


Touch of sense

I'm a hugger. I'm one of those people. I try not to hug anyone who doesn't want to be hugged, but I'm an enthusiastic participant. Not with just anyone, but I have a lot of friends who seem to like hugs, so that works out well.

But there are people I consider friends whom I usually don't hug. I know it's just not their thing. For some people, hugs don't feel like they do for hug-people. For any reasons or no reason (should not matter), they simply are not comfortable being hugged and hugging back. They might or might not want to be touched at all. They might like light touch, perhaps on the hand or arm. They might go as far as a semi-hug.

I'm not sure if there are more hug-people than no-hug-people, but hugginess seems to prevail. In these days of modern times, we hug a lot. People with whom we would have exchanged a handshake not many years ago now hug us and we hug them, with a greater or lesser degree of comfort.

We might have pushed this too far. The proliferation of hugging can be awkward even for me, because I'm free with hugs but not with just anyone. Shaking hands is a time-honoured way of greeting or parting.

And even though I love human contact, I don't think everyone else has to love it too. Non-huggers should be able to do whatever makes them comfortable and not do what makes them uncomfortable. Huggers need to remember that hugging or not hugging is not in itself a sign of the quality or depth of a relationship.

We need to be okay with handshakes, some kind of touch, or even words only without touch at all. We should know who our real friends are, regardless of whether they are into hugging or not. In fact, we usually do know who our non-hugging friends are and feel just as close to them. We don't base judgment on their non-hugginess.

I don't want to make people uncomfortable. I think society will be fine if we stop expecting hugging to be the default among a wide array of people. Huggers need to be more mindful, more perceptive of signs, and even ask if that seems to be called for. Be cool if the answer is "no."And give 'er with warmth if the answer is "yes."


We can be hero-worshippers just for one day

I was in high school when David Bowie burst onto the scene. I don't remember if I heard the earliest songs, such as "Space Oddity," but I do remember Ziggy Stardust, at the leading edge of glam rock. At the time, I was very much into British bands that had a certain amount of rock and roll flair, something to set a stage performance apart from ordinary life, and I was lamenting that everything around me had gone Allman Brothers and denim and, for me anyway, boring. I remember the first concert I attended at university. Argent opened for local favourite the James Montgomery Band. I was there to see Argent (who, admittedly, were rather pretentious, and certainly out of place in that venue). Everyone around me hated them, preferring blues and boogie and songs with long, drawn-out endings.

So yes, awkward weirdo in high school, still awkward and weird at university, out of sync, listening to Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Jethro Tull. I should have latched onto David Bowie, no? So many people have written about how Ziggy let them feel that being weird was okay. Bowie was liberating for them. But for me, weird and awkward and not wild, Ziggy was intimidating. Even though that whole movement started by outraging people and breaking all the rules, they were soon impossibly cool. Bowie couldn't be a role model, because I was never, ever going to be that cool, not in my wildest dreams.

At university, I was in an isolated dorm off campus (housing problem), surrounded by a certain kind of people. Rather than seeking out others like me, I became like them, as I have done too often in life. By spring of 1973, I was actually in the front row at a Loggins and Messina show at the Orpheum Theater (one of the shows that was used for the On Stage live album) and shortly thereafter was tripping my brains out to the Grateful Dead at Boston Garden. The hippie shit won out for a while.

The summer of 1974 was the last time I went home for any extended time. I was working the night shift at an all-night grocery story. We had one of those Muzak® receivers, piped into speakers all over the store. The night supervisor figured out that the cable that delivered Muzak® also had other radio signals on it. So he worked out a way to connect the cable to a radio, and thus we were able to listen all night to WPLU in New Haven (sister station to the better-known WPLJ in New York). Real rock had largely given way to California mellowness by then. But one song that stood out among the R&B and country- and pop-flavoured stuff that WPLU played was "Diamond Dogs." Woot! That was my speed. And of course "Rebel Rebel" was on that album as well, one of the greatest rock songs of all time. But I saw the album cover, and it was just so weird. So once again, it was great music, but it felt unapproachable.

I lost track of Bowie when he ditched glam and rock, which were never really what he loved anyway. I'm sure I heard songs from the period, certainly "Heroes," another of the greatest rock songs ever, but songs like "Young Americans" and "Golden Years" weren't really my thing. I was getting back into rock via punk and then new wave. When I finally started to overcome my awkwardness, Bowie as role model seemed kind of old and classic. I was too busy getting my mind blown by Pretenders and the Clash and Talking Heads to pay much attention to the Thin White Duke.

My next real encounter was via MTV. I loved the "Ashes to Ashes" video! It was so wonderfully disturbing. And shortly after I was spending a lot of time at a Boston dance club where I shook my booty to "Let's Dance" and "Modern Love." For anyone who hadn't stuck with Bowie through the Berlin years, this was pretty much a revival.

But then I lost track of Bowie again. I have never seen Labyrinth! I don't remember any of his material from the mid- to late 1980s, nor from the 1990s. By the time The Next Day came along, I didn't really care. I watched the videos. I was not nearly as impressed as many others. I've only scratched the surface of Black Star, but I will say that Bowie succeeded in disturbing me with a video once again. "Lazarus" is some scary shit!

Still, when I saw that David Bowie had left us, it hit hard. I don't tear up over too many celebrity deaths, but I did for this one. Bowie is one of the most significant influences on music specifically and on culture in general. He made an impact that is still felt far and wide. A world sans Bowie feels wrong. And it felt wrong that he was taken away so young, and for those of us outside his family, so suddenly.

But as is often the case, I am not quite in sync with the majority of mourners. Musically, Bowie was not my main man. I never saw him in concert. I don't even own any of his albums. I love individual songs, several of which I mentioned (and let's not forget "The Jean Genie," "Suffragette," and "Changes"). I think he was an excellent songwriter, but he's not my favourite. I'm glad he was so creative in a way that must have been satisfying to him right up until his death, but I probably won't buy Black Star (although never say never).

Sometimes I get a bit star-struck when I meet a musician or other artist I admire, but I'm not much of a hero-worshipper. We can be heroes, for one day or many days. It's a daunting task, for sure. When I look at Bowie's body of work and the influence he had and will continue to have, sometimes I just want to down tools and stop even trying. I will still never be as cool as David Bowie. My songs sound pitiful to me next to his. But then, they sound pitiful to me next to those of any great songwriter. And at least some of those songwriters probably felt the same way about someone who had gone before them. If artists got overwhelmed by other artists, they would never produce their own art, and we would be the poorer for that.

So I will admire Bowie and mourn his loss, a loss to all of us, but I will hold back on the hyperbole. I will do my best not to be intimidated. Because someone else might think my art is worth liking and admiring. And even if no one does, I have to make it anyway, for my own sake. Bowie earned huge success, but I have read that he felt the same way. He did what he had to do. He was fortunate to connect with a great many people, but ultimately he did it for himself.

We shall never look upon his like again. But perhaps, at least to some degree because of him, we shall look upon others.


The vinyl frontier

Deities help us, we have a turntable set up again, for the first time in longer than I can remember. We have started to listen to the two crates' worth of records that we didn't sell before we left Boston more than 20 years ago, armed with a stack of CDs. No dancing in the living room when a record is playing! This is an old house.

I've been critical of the resurgence of vinyl for a number of reasons. Vinyl records are easily damaged. Every time you play a record, the reproduction quality goes down. You can't run a weighted diamond stylus through jagged plastic grooves without molecules flying off. That's just physics. And to get the best sound quality, you need some seriously good equipment: a quiet, leveled turntable running at exact speed, a well-damped tonearm with optimum balance, and a stylus that is not worn. If the record warps, you're toast. A skip is forever.

Let's not even get into the weirdness of the RIAA rolloff or the physics of playing inner grooves versus outer. Given all the factors, I find it even more amazing that it's possible to get such fidelity out of this system than it is to believe that music can be reduced to bits and then turned into music again (which is also weird).

Still, it's not the inferiority of the medium that I have objected to most strongly. It's the fact that the new vinyl you're buying is unlikely to give you the full analog experience that you get from an old record.

Back in the day, no part of the process of making records involved sampling voltage levels and encoding them as bits. Music was recorded on analog tape. Effects were analog. The mastering process was analog. The entire process involved some form of waves, not zeros and ones. Even in the early days of CDs, the steps before CD manufacture were analog. You can see the letters "AAD" on old CDs, meaning that the recording and mastering were analog and only the process of encoding onto CDs was digital. Little by little, analog slipped away, first from the mastering stage (ADD) and then finally from the entire process (DDD).

Nowadays, if you have enough money, you can still record on analog tape. You can even do analog mastering, if you can find a mastering studio set up for it. But unless you're super careful, you will likely be using digital effects during recording. Some part of the signal will have been turned into zeros and ones before being reconverted for recording on analog tape. ProTools and other effects software are ubiquitous, doing their best to emulate the analog reverb, compression, and other effects they replaced.

Most bands can't afford to record on tape. It's not only expensive; it's hard to do, and thus time-consuming. In the old days, if you screwed up a note, you could "punch in" a new one, if it wasn't too close to notes you wanted to keep, but that's about it. Otherwise, you recorded another take, and maybe several more. You couldn't correct the myriad mistakes that are routinely corrected now, such as imprecise rhythms. Digital recording and effects are the devil's toolkit, but if you're willing to sell your soul, your band can sound better than it has any right to sound.

This means that when bands press vinyl, and buyers think they are hearing analog sound like on old records, they're wrong. They're hearing a digital bit stream converted to analog one step earlier in the process, at the turntable rather than the amplifier and speakers. They're hearing a certain amount of analog "warmth," to be sure, but not the same way as they would if they were to listen to all-analog recordings. Really it's like a CD with pops and scratches. Even reissued older recordings are often remastered, and that remastering is usually digital. Vinyl lovers seem not to realize that at least some of what they are appreciating is high-quality digital sound.

But actual all-analog vintage records, we got 'em! And I definitely understand the appeal of taking out a record (nice weight), carefully putting it on the turntable, and listening to the results, possibly while checking out the full-size artwork or lyrics you can actually read (and possibly using that double-album gate-fold for other purposes). We'll listen to a whole album all the way through, the way it was intended to be listened to. Even turning the record over is part of the pleasure, unless you're having trouble getting off your couch.

I get it. The satisfaction of playing our old records isn't just that we haven't heard them since forever. It's the return of the record playing ritual, something you can't get from CDs and certainly not from MP3s (nor, really, from cassettes). For kids, it's something new and exciting. For altekakers like me, it's old and exciting.

New records? Still problematic. And I could not care less about things like coloured vinyl. I have never treated records as collectible items. I bought them to play. And sometimes that meant they got very scratchy indeed. But every pop and scratch is familiar, like an old friend. Yesterday, I was listening to some new music using my computer and headphones, and all I wanted to do was to put a record on downstairs and let music fill the house.

(Apologies to my dear friend Mackie for nicking the name of his old band for the title of this post.)