Cashing In With The Satans Of Swing

Twenty-five years ago, I happened to find the complete tablature for Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” during a late-night session browsing USENET on the university VAX. I printed the whole thing out, for free, because back then my school let VAX users print whatever they wanted for free. Amazing, right? When I think of all the things I printed out at school just because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find them again. We had no way of knowing that Google would end up buying most of the USENET archives. We had no way of knowing there would be a Google. We still thought that the Internet would end up taking us to the Singularity. What fools we were. Anyway, after printing the tab out I tossed it in a 3-ring binder. Then I forgot about it.

About five years ago, I found that binder, pulled out the tab, and fussed around until I was more or less able to play “Sultans Of Swing”. I was reasonably proud of myself for having done so. It’s a brilliant tune and there are parts where the timing is more than a little tricky. I never shared this accomplishment with anyone, so I’m not sure why YouTube thought I’d want to see the above video. Maybe the almighty algorithm knows me better than I know myself.

There are two talented musicians at work in this song, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but what impresses me the most is how well it’s been monetized. After the jump, I’ll explain all the ways that this “Sultans Of Swing” cover is making cash. Less clear than the how, unfortunately, is the who. Who’s actually getting paid? It’s not as simple as you might think.

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This Is (A Trio Of) America(n-made Honda Accords)

If you went to Starbucks this morning, chances are that the gender-studies major who made your unicorn frappo-whatever has very strong opinions about Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover’s new video, titled This Is America and seen above.

Warning: It’s not necessarily safe for work.

I’m probably too old, too classically-educated, and too, er, “privileged” to be permitted an opinion on the video itself. It’s deliberately ambiguous in virtually all of its most controversial aspects. Much ink has been spilled on the “Jim Crow” pose struck by Glover before he shoots the hooded figure, but the hooded figure is an older Black musician. So is he saying that playing an acoustic guitar is the act of an Uncle Tom, or is he suggesting that the violence-suffused rap music of the modern era, which by and large replaced the blues and conventional R&B within the black community, is nothing but blackface stupidity?

Furthermore, the motif of police violence is omnipresent throughout the video. There’s no statistical backing for the media hysteria regarding “racist police killers”, but nobody seems to want to be the first to admit it. I’m reminded of the scene in The Wire where Slim Charles says, “If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie.”. The problem is that there are a great many people in America who seem to want to fight on that lie. More pertinently, they want other people to fight on that lie while they collect their checks from the major media corporations and from George Soros. It’s a brilliant racket, earning rapper-style money stirring up racial hatred in the pages of the mainstream press while you buy, then try to flip, a $2.1 million townhouse.

Okay, let’s put all of that aside and talk about the real issue in Glover’s video: the Accords.

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And Now For Something Not Quite Completely Different

Last year we talked about John Mayer’s released-in-waves recent effort, The Search For Everything, and one of my favorite tracks on that album. I guess that the Temptations felt the same way, because they cover “Still Feel Like Your Man” on their latest release. (Only one of the original Temptations is still in the band, if you want to discuss the Ship-of-Theseus angle.) I think the track is pretty good and it meets the traditional standard of being sufficiently different from the original to merit your consideration.

I’d like to dedicate this song once again to all the husbands, fiances, and boyfriends out there from coast to coast who still wonder if I’m going to show up out of nowhere and steal your girl back. Not that I would — I’m very happily married. But keep wondering, you feckless mooks.

Those of you who want to see Mayer’s official video for the song, complete with dancing pandas, awkward dabs, and enough samurai imagery to make noted Japanese-book lyric-lifter Bobby Zimmerman blush:

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Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie: “When the Levee Breaks” (1929)

(This piece originally appeared on The Tannhauser Gate — JB)

The infosphere is fairly crackling with the news that the current incarnation of the musical ensemble Fairport Convention Fleetwood Mac has notified one of its elderly members that his services will not be required for their upcoming world tour. More than 40 years later, Fleetwood Mac Drama still grabs headlines.

My favorite story about Fleetwood Mac is that during the Narcissistically tumultuous (my words, not theirs) recording of their 1977 mega-album Rumours, the two remaining founding members of the band (Mick Fleetwood and John McVie) repaired to the recording studio’s parking lot to get a breath of fresh air. One of these two gentlemen, not at all at peace with the way things were then developing (at the time, the tattered remnants of the original band were being either re-energized or supplanted by a pair of newcomers), said (or perhaps it is more accurate to write, “whined”) to the other,

“You know, we used to be a blues band.”

To which the other replied, “Yeah. But now, we’re rich.”

(That riposte refers to the fact that while the group was recording Rumours, their most-recently-released recording Fleetwood Mac, which was the first album with newcomers Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, was topping the charts and already throwing off so much cash that the previously hardscrabble members of the band were buying houses in Los Angeles. But: A blues record, Fleetwood Mac was not.)

That exchange says a lot about the endgame of British popular music’s fascination with American blues music.

Intriguing history, and sound bytes, after the jump link. Continue Reading →

Amazon Takes (Your Money), Then Amazon Taketh Away (The Service)

“Someone is here to see you,” the nurse said, in a voice that was more or less indistinguishable from the battle cry of a bull elephant. It was March 26, 1988, and I was lying in a hospital bed near the top of what was then Riverside Methodist Hospital’s only tower. Four days previously, I’d been smacked by a 10-wheel Mack lumber truck during a brief street ride on my Free Agent Limo. The right fender had broken my neck then I’d been tangled in the back wheels of the trailer before being gored in the back by the recurve of the rear bumper which then dragged me a hundred feet, face-down, along the gravel shoulder. No, that’s not the reason I’m ugly. I was born this way.

At some point my right femur had shattered into four pieces, allowing me to kick myself in the face with my blue-and-white “Big Nike” high-top during my merry trip. When I came to a halt, I had a brief chat with my pal Woody, who was riding with me, as to the state of my bike. After they loaded me in the ambulance I had the good luck to pass out and stay that way for a while.

It hadn’t been certain that I would survive the thing but I was helped both by my cockroach-like nature and the willingness of a hotshot 31-year-old orthopedic specialist to cut open my right leg, scoop out the garbage, and install a shiny new titanium femur nail in its place. Top billing, however, has to go to Dr. Janet Bay, who happened to be walking by as they were bringing me in, diagnosed the spinal injury from looking at my pupils, and immediately stabilized my neck. Otherwise I’d be a “quad” with a breathing machine today. Then, as now, Dr. Bay wore a crew cut; I repeatedly called her “sir” during our initial interactions, mostly because I’d had my head dragged along the road. What can I say. In her place I’d have let me die.

Anyway. Four days later I was sitting in the hospital with a mind-numbing amount of pain but some not inconsiderable satisfaction from the brand-new Sony D-2 Discman sitting in my lap. My father had arrived with it shortly after the femur surgery. Something about his time in Vietnam must have told him that my biggest enemy in the weeks to come would be boredom. He’d also brought Eric B. and Rakin’s “Paid In Full” so I would have something to play in said Discman.

When the nurse announced that visitor in a voice to vibrate my deeply-injured head like a struck bell, I was surprised but not shocked to see my Honors English III teacher, Scott Weber. If any of my teachers would have bothered to see me, it would be him; after all, his class was the only one I didn’t spend either talking back or sleeping through. In truth, he was more than a little bit overqualified to be a high school teacher and he would go on to be a significant landholder and gun dealer in Cody, Wyoming, where he has made plenty of enemies. His debut novel, Plain People, is a joy to read.

But I digress. Mr. Weber brought me his condolences, and he also brought me two brand-new CDs. One of them was the fourth Led Zep album, the other was Now and Zen, Robert Plant’s oft-panned Eighties electronica record complete with a DJ merrily scratching his way through tracks like “Tall Cool One” and “Walking Towards Paradise”. It was a nontrivial gift, $32 spent on an injured kid in an era where a high school teacher was lucky to earn $300 a week after tax. Mr. Weber recently told me that he’d bought himself a loaded Audi A8 with the money he made selling guns; as far as I’m concerned he deserves a Phantom EWB.

Needless to say, both of those CDs are etched in my head from the hundreds of times I listened to them in the weeks that followed. About a decade ago, I “ripped” them into my iTunes; six years ago, I uploaded those MP3s to Amazon Music. It has been a long time since I actually played either disc. But I still own them, I have unlimited license to use them as I like, and at any time I like I can pull them out and listen to them, even though it has been thirty years since Mr. Weber bought them for me.

I’m telling this rather long story because of a notification that Amazon Music just served me regarding my Amazon Music Player and the “250,000 song service” for which I currently pay. There’s a difference between ownership of an item and the use of a service, and Amazon has decided to forcibly remind me of that difference.

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A Sign Of Times Long Past, Now Available For Free

About a decade or so back, give or take, I wrote and recorded a song for a woman I particularly liked at the time. She was not what you would call music-savvy, but when I explained that I played all of the instruments on the song myself she promptly responded with, “Like Prince does.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m pretty much just like Prince.” Here’s the funny part, though: I am just like Prince. Not in the sense of being an inhumanly talented and accomplished musical prodigy, of course. Rather, we have both demonstrated an ability to make enemies and foul our own nest for reasons ranging from a manic belief in our artistic integrity to simple mean-spiritedness.

A few weeks ago, for example, I was sent the final PDF of something I’d written for a major print publication — not R&T, I hasten to add. The article had been given to an editor who proceeded to shit all over the thing, introducing borderline obscenity and broken-glass sentence structure even as he tirelessly removed anything that looked like literature from the text. As fate would have it, the writer’s fee for that piece almost perfectly matched up with the overall cost for my Honda Challenge race weekend last month. So I took the money, because I’d be a fool not to, and because there was a certain satisfaction in having my trophies paid for even if I didn’t like the work. Yet you won’t be hearing about this piece on this site, and when I get my copy of the magazine I’ll be throwing it in the trash. It’s not difficult for me to understand why Prince effectively destroyed his career so he could have control of his own music. He didn’t want to see his own name on something that he despised.

Yet just like Prince, there have been times when I would be better off with a little bit of oversight.

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The Lyrical Wink And The Musical Nod

“Turn up the Eagles / the neighbors are listening”

“They stab it with their Steely knives / but they just can’t / kill the beast.”

Those of us who listen (or listened) to Seventies rock will recognize those two lines and remember their context. The first appeared in Steely Dan’s “Everything You Did” off the Royal Scam album; the second appeared half a year later on The Eagles’ Hotel California. In the era where the Internet didn’t make every bit of trivial information immediately available and where artists typically spoke almost exclusively through lyrics and liner notes, much was made of this “war” between Fagen/Becker and Frey/Henley, but the truth was that the artists shared a management company and generally admired their counterparts’ work. Consider both lines as being critical of the fanbase, rather than the musicians: vacuous, adulterous people who use the Eagles as background music, sun-bleached Californians whose love of irony goes well with their empty souls.

On a lark, as the lovely Aoife O’Donovan would say, I’ve put together a pair of musical nods to go along with the lyrical winks above. In both cases, you have an artist who is paying a sort of backhanded respect to a peer or muse. For me, one of them is far more obvious than the other.

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A Brief Introduction to Jazz


In response to “What Would You Like To See Here?” I’ve decided to re-post something from my old blog. It’s a bit of a jazz primer for those of you who said you’d like more music recommendations. I’ve added some bonus content—the above video is some advanced content from the the great Kenny Garrett for those of you who want more than the introductory music in the post. More of this to come if you like it—Bark

Jazz currently makes up less than three percent of all record sales, and that’s probably a generous number—I imagine that is probably much less than that when all forms of music sales are taken in account. As a Gen Xer who’s been a fan of Jazz for over twenty five years, I wish I understood a bit more about why Jazz is so unloved by people of my generation and younger.

There are countless articles on the internet that have been written by Jazz lovers, trying to explain to the uninitated why they should start listening to Jazz. I have never found any of these to be particularly helpful. They set out to introduce people to Jazz by giving a list of classic recordings that people should go out and listen to.

Well, there are a few problems with that. First of all, the classic recordings are just that—classics. Nobody who loves Jazz doubts that Kind of Blue or Giant Steps are great records, but they’re pretty inaccessible to the untrained ear. Kind of Blue, for example, is based on modal harmonies with the purpose of allowing the musicians to stretch out without being constrained by traditional vertical chord structures. Fascinating and revolutionary, yes, but interesting to the novice? No.

Secondly, they’re written by people who don’t listen to popular music. Like, not never. So how would they know what would be interesting to a person who enjoys Imagine Dragons or Katy Perry?

Therefore, I find it to be my moral obligation to try to create a sampling of music that the popular music fan might find interesting enough that he or she would actually listen to the whole thing—sort of a gateway drug to Jazz, if you will. I encourage you to listen to just a little bit of the selections I’ve picked out, and tell me in the comments below what your reaction is. Continue Reading →

Lights Out For Gibson Memphis

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago. Seven and a half years ago, to be precise. The precise who and why of it we can leave to the privacy of the woman involved, but here’s the what and where: I found myself behind the wheel of a nearly-new, livery-spec Lincoln Town Car, pulling up to the arrivals lane at the Memphis airport. I’d driven it down from Columbus for what was supposed to be a week-long trip across the American Southwest. For a variety of reasons, mostly alcohol-related and drama-related, we never left the city. By the time I took my date back to the airport, we were no longer strangers to each other — and that was, perhaps, the problem, because we liked each other best as strangers.

It was the kind of “lost weekend” that every man should experience a few times in his life, because it teaches you the raw mechanics of human desire and disgust in a way that you’ll never learn from frantic collegiate couplings or dissipated domestic boredom. In that short span of days, she and I shimmered and sank through a fast-forward series of scenes alternating between exhilarating and exhausting, the fragile high of each evening collapsing into the vomiter’s cockroach crawl at four in the morning. True to form, I managed to make a few bucks out of the thing, with a review of the car and a fiction-ish story. That modest financial return was far outweighed by long bar tabs and rack-rate extensions on a hotel room that we couldn’t summon the moral strength to leave.

Oh, and somewhere in there I spent $3,400 on a new guitar.

From the Gibson Memphis showroom, immediately following a spur-of-the-moment factory tour. I’d made fast friends with the shop foreman and asked him to find me something that had turned out just a bit better than the rest of the day’s haul. He returned with a cherry-red ES-339 Figured. It was absolutely flawless and rang out strong even before I’d plugged it in. In the years after, I used it twice a week for my sandwich-shop gigs, always enjoying the complex tone and perfect playability of the thing. Which was good, because financially speaking I lost my shirt on it.

Turns out the nice people at Gibson were losing their shirt on it, too.

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The Darkest Days Of The Les Paul (Kind Of)

When I got home from the mountain bike park yesterday I saw an email from a friend telling me to watch the above video. “Is that a P-90/humbucker combination in Schon’s Les Paul?” he asked. “I’ve never seen that.” My off-the-cuff response was, “Well, it’s a Les Paul BFG combo, just like my Les Paul Gator.” But that was an obviously ridiculous response because the BFG wasn’t introduced until twenty years after this video was filmed.

So I decided to do a little bit of Internet (and actual book!) research to find out what was going on. The answer ended up being a sort of Seventies synecdoche, incorporating various sorts of concepts and tropes — from guitar-as-tool to Boomer-driven-nostalgia-control to plain-and-simple corporate ignorance.

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