Monday, May 30, 2011

Travels With Charley

NPR is broadcasting a series called Travels with Mike in tribute to the 50 year anniversary of John Steinbeck starting his cross-country trek that culminated in his last major work, Travels with Charley. Steinbeck’s traveling companion was Charley, a Standard Poodle. Travels with Mike is produced by John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. “Mike” is his microphone used for recording interviews and observations as he retraces Steinbeck’s journey (bit of a cheesy title, if you ask me).

You can decide on the overall value of Biewen’s project, but there were three aspects to the project and its treatment that disappointed me:

1) In retracing Steinbeck’s path, Biewen skips the New England leg altogether (a personal affront!) and I guess believes that Long Island is representative enough of the Northeast that no further exploration is required.

2) The only folks interviewed in Biewen’s trip were artists, musicians, photographers, craftworkers and the like. Even recounting Steinbeck’s observations of the segregated 1961 South was done through interviewing a musician. Are there no farmers, foresters, shopkeepers or dentists left out there in vast America? Apparently Biewen doesn’t know of any.

3) Biewen’s treatment hits all the PC topics: race relations, environmentalism, Native American spirituality, urban sprawl and homosexuality. Not that Steinbeck didn’t of course; Travels with Charley is not a light family summer vacation travelogue but provides serious observations and commentary on America in the early 1960s. But Biewen’s interviewees come across as rather hand-picked with scripts on-the-ready.

Having said all that, I really do appreciate any exploration of Steinbeck’s last work. Steinbeck doesn’t attempt pat answers to the situations and circumstances he encountered in his travels. To my mind he offers many more questions than answers; questions worth exploring and requiring discussion in the 21th century.

My perspective is probably forged through first reading Travels with Charley when I was 15 or 16 years old. It was not required reading in English class but rather appeared on a suggested Summer Reading list sent out by my Massachusetts high school. I was not a particularly strong academic in my high school years, but I was an avid reader and took the school’s suggested list as an opportunity for exploring topics I might not have otherwise sought out. Travels with Charley made a lasting impression on me, more so than Steinbeck’s novels (but as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a non-fiction kind of guy anyway). It gave me an entire set of adult questions to carry into my college years and beyond that helped shape how I defined myself and how I approached the world I encountered.

The NPR/Biewen piece is well worth hearing. But read the original – rinse and repeat.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Memorial Day means the unofficial start of Summer, so we need some summer songs. Yes, we could choose Cruel Summer by Bananarama, I do have a 45 RPM of that gem, but how about the 1958 classic from The Jamies, “Summertime, Summertime,” or as they sing it “Summatime, Summatime.” The Jamies were a brother and sister and two friends hailing from blue-collar Dorchester, MA, (hence the accents) and this was their only charting record.

We could also throw in the 1959 “Here Comes Summer” by Jerry Keller, only charting at #14 in the US but reaching #1 in the UK (oh those wacky Brits).

School's not so bad but the summer’s better
It gives me more time to see my girl
Walks through the park ‘neath the shiny moon
Oh when we kiss she makes my flattop curl

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Honoring Poets

In New Hampshire we hold our poets in high regard - even the places where they were sick by the roadside get markers.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Hey, I'm Trying to Get Some Sleep Here

I bought a new, name-brand window air conditioner a few days ago.  Seems pretty nice but the "All About" brochure that came in the box contained a section titled "Normal Sounds" and proceeds to tell me that all of the following noises coming from the unit are perfectly normal:

Sound of Rushing Air
High-pitched Chatter
Pinging or Swishing

I'm not making this up.

In My Life

Since I have been blogging a bit on the Beatles I thought I'd share this CD that I just came across in the grab bin of my local swap shop (junk store at the town dump). George Martin was the producer of most of the Beatles output of course and he released this collection in 1998 (how did I miss it?) of others performing Beatle songs.  For a mere $2.00 investment I can now enjoy total quirkiness:

Robin Williams and Bobby McFerrin - Come Together
Goldie Hawn - A Hard Day's Night
Jeff Beck - A Day In A Life
Jim Carrey - I Am The Walrus
Sean Connery - In My Life

Friday, May 20, 2011

Holy Attention Span

What Does God Think of Entertainment?

In Leadership Journal this week, John Ortberg provides a lengthy discussion of modern church services and asks if entertaining congregants is a gift, a tool, or trap. A brief except from the full article:

What are people able to absorb?

In the 1858 senatorial campaign, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated each other seven times across the state of Illinois. The format was formidable: the first speaker had 60 minutes; then came a 90-minute rebuttal, then a 30-minute response.

Three hours of political speech. People attended by the tens of thousands—and actually paid attention. Why? It wasn't because they were morally or politically superior to our generation. And it certainly was not because they were more educated.

It was because they had nothing better to do.

There were no TV shows, computer games, movies, DVDs, YouTubes, iPods, iPads, iPhones, or home theaters. They did not suffer from information overload. Three hours of political debate by brilliant minds felt like a treat for minds that had never gotten used to outside stimulation competing for their attention.

If you are raised on nothing but broccoli, an apple tastes like dessert. If you are raised in the Cheesecake Factory, an apple tastes like punishment.

We are doing church for a society raised in the Cheesecake Factory.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You Can't Tell the Players...

In the late 1990’s I did some expert witness testimony consulting on a pollution case and its pending trial.  I was retained through the huge Philadelphia law firm of Morgan, Lewis and Bockius.  During a break in one of my meetings with the attorney who was prepping me (oh excuse me, I meant: soliciting my independent opinion on who caused the contamination), he mentioned that the firm would soon be changing their website address from to   Now why in the world would a powerful, prestigious law firm go through the trouble of changing the on-line identity they had been using successfully for years?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Pet Sounds

“It was 45 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.” Well, maybe not quite exactly like that. But May 16th marks the 45th anniversary of the release of the Pet Sounds album by the Beach Boys. Beatles producer George Martin has said that without Pet Sounds there would have been no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.

Considered one of the first themed rock albums, Pet Sounds had its origins in Brian Wilson’s love of creativity and his spirit of competitiveness. Wilson’s creative spirits were surging during the waning months of 1965. He had decided to stop live touring with the Beach Boys and to concentrate instead on writing and studio work.

Earlier in 1965 the Beatles released Rubber Soul – presenting the world with a new, increasingly creative Beatles. George Martin; “For the first time we began to think of albums as art of their own, as complete entities.” Rubber Soul’s emotional range and thought-provoking lyrical slant caught Wilson’s attention.

Brian Wilson had just bought a new house in Beverly Hills and arranged it to be conductive to his brand of musical creativity. “I started to plan the new direction of the group. I wanted to move ahead in sounds and melodies and moods. For a month or two, I sat at a huge Spanish table looking out over the hills, just thinking, or at the piano playing ‘feels.’ ‘Feels’ are musical ideas: riffs, bridges, fragments of themes, a phrase here and there.”

Once in the studio, Wilson was a determined and focused man on fire. Through the Beach Boys earlier commercial successes, the recording companies loved everything they did (up to that point) and allowed Wilson extremely generous amounts of paid studio time to create, re-track, experiment and do things his way. Over four months the studio musicians lead by Wilson laid down all the musical tracks when the rest of the Beach Boys, with Bruce Johnson replacing Brian, were off touring in Japan.

The accomplished studio musicians could read music, Wilson could not, he was self-taught and worked out detailed arrangements in his head. Wilson would show up for a scheduled recording session and proceed to take each musician aside one by one to teach them their parts – from his memory. Once everyone knew their parts, the recording would start. Typically, one song would be recorded at each session with the studio musicians playing under Wilson’s direction until they had recorded a take that satisfied him.

While Wilson often knew exactly the sound he was trying to create, surviving tapes of his recording sessions show that he was remarkably open to input from the professional musicians, often taking advice and suggestions from them and even incorporating apparent 'mistakes' if they provided a useful or interesting alternative. On working out the track for God Only Knows, Wilson and studio guitarist Ray Pohlman are striving for a certain sound. Pohlman suggests, “Why don’t I play this part short” (staccato) and demonstrates the effect for Wilson. “OK we’ll try it!” responds Wilson without hesitation. The studio sessions are absolutely filled that that kind of creative innovation and give-and-take among the musicians. In recording just the introduction to the 2:16 minute Caroline No, you hear Wilson instruct: “A little more ‘dit-dit-dit-dit’ on that part. Ok, take 14 please” as the session continues. No musical details were unimportant to Wilson.

Contrast Wilson’s creative approach with the famous “wall of sound” created by Phil Spector (much admired by Wilson). Spector had everything written out before he entered the studio and the musicians better play it just the way he wrote it or there’d be hell to pay.

Producer Danny Hutton was a friend of Brian’s and one of the only non-performers allowed in the studio. “I heard the stuff that he (Wilson) was working on for Pet Sounds, it was overwhelming. There wasn’t any way I could figure out what instruments were playing. And I didn’t care what was playing. It was like going into sonic heaven. At that moment, my image of Brian turned into a whole different person musically.”

When the rest of the Beach Boys returned from their concert tour of Japan, Wilson taught them the lyrics and harmonies to accompany each track he had laid down while they were away. And Wilson wasn’t afraid of giving a lead part to one of the others if it produced a superior final arrangement or “sound.” So its brother Carl that sings the lead vocal on the God Only Knows version released on the album; certainly one of Brian Wilson’s finest pieces ever.

With few exceptions, most rock and roll albums of the day were “assembled” by adding filler tunes to a handful of hit songs. Pet Sounds was much more thematic and hung together as a unit, one song complementing the other. Top 40 radio wasn’t the ideal medium for Pet Sounds and the album failed to reach gold status on its initial release in the U.S., where it reached #10, which deeply disappointed Wilson.

Paul McCartney has repeatedly named it as one of his favorite albums (with God Only Knows as his favorite songs). “It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I've just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life ... I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it may be going overboard to say it's the classic of the century ... but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I've often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John [Lennon] so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time.”

Pet Sounds placed #2 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time behind only Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In 2004, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry.

This is a studio version of God Only Knows but with Brian singing, not the released album version with Carl on lead.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Best Humor of the Week

From Jay Leno: "Bad news for Donald Trumph this week. That racoon that was killed to make his hairpiece?  Yep, born in Kenya."