News and what’s new

Six weeks since my last post?  Wow.  I’ve been bad.

And honestly a lot has happened since March 28th.

I took a student group to the national journalism convention in San Francisco April 12-15, sponsored by the National Student Press Association and Journalism Education Association.  I’ve been pleased to attend their conventions for each of the past eleven years as a newspaper adviser, and now also as a yearbook adviser.  Gave up four days of my spring break to do this.

Last week I learned my newspaper class is no more. Simply didn’t have the enrollment to justify a class of seven when the district informed every school to be prepared for classes of 38.  No newspaper class, means the newspaper takes on a very diminished role as some kind of club. No printed paper.  There will be lots to do to make it work.  I’ll still have the yearbook and a load of American Studies classes, with students probably hung from the rafters of my very small room.  But, so be it.

I’m bummed.  I offered a model I thought would work, that is working in other schools.  No luck.  Call it the state of our time, call it bureaucratic indifference.  It is what it is. I began as a newspaper adviser 11 years ago.  It is the part of my career I most deeply identify with, and now its gone. It’s been a tough ten days or so.

The loss of the paper coincides with a decision Lorri and I made together that I’ll retire at the end of 2019.  I’ll be 64 that summer.  I’ll have taught 36 years. It’s a long time, and it’s taking its toll on me.  After my cancer scare a few years ago, we realized that some things are important, and retiring with health intact is one of them. I don’t know what I’ll be doing with my time, but I’ve had lots of ideas, and some suggestions.  We’ll just have to figure it out.  Something like 210 school days left until that magical event.

The decision to stop working has had an impact on our planning, and hence spending.  The big priority is to be debt free, or as close to debt-free as possible when the big day happens.  Though I officially wrap up my work at ER in June of 2019, I’ll continue collecting a check until September, so we’ve put together a plan to whack things back.  It’s not that we don’t make plenty, we just spend more than we should, and now things have to change. Now I have to take seriously promises to myself to buy fewer records, miniatures and meals out.

That doesn’t mean I can’t buy anything, and in fact I’ve picked up some interesting albums. I just need to be more planful.

Astral Weeks

In my last post I mentioned my interest in adding some albums by Eric Clapton, The Band and an Van Morrison.  I’ve pretty much focused on the latter for now. My choices haven’t been random.  I began with a copy of 1971’s Tupelo Honey, which I enjoy, and set out to pick up the records in his 1968-74 period, which is truly energetic and innovative, a total of eight albums over the six year period.

I am familiar with Moondance.  I had it on CD and it’s a really special record.  The title track, “And it Stoned Me,” “Into the Mystic,” “Crazy Love,”  all such great songs. I wasn’t in hurry to pick up Moondance.  I knew that record.

So I shot for Astral Weeks instead. Astral Weeks which has gotten universal praise for its confessional mystic quality.  I’ve listened to this record several times.  I like it, but it certainly didn’t help me see god. I find fault in myself rather than the record or the reviews.  I’m often not a good listener, distracting myself with many other activities as the music plays.   Astral demands close listening.

Even so, for whatever reason, Astral doesn’t stay with me the way Jackson Browne’s first solo record does with its powerful collection of reflective, evocative ballads.  Perhaps it’s the melodic fluidity of Morrison’s songs that I can’t quite get my arms around, and it’s the structure of Moondance’s songs that make it so accessible. I’ve picked up four of Morrison’s records in addition to Tupelo Honey.  I’ve picked up Astral Weeks, Moondance, His Band and Street Choir, and Saint Dominic’s Preview.

Astral Weeks books

Astral Weeks also plays into a new examination of the Boston music scene of 1968.  Ryan Walsh’s Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, begins with an examination of Van Morrison’s stay in Boston, his recording of Astral Weeks and his record contract with Bang Records and the mob.  But it’s really a look at the counter-culture in Boston.  Lots of energy is devoted to Mel Lyman’s commune in the North Fort Community. A bit about The Velvet Underground’s move to Boston.  More about the Boss-Town sound.

Unfortunately, the bottom line is that Astral Weeks the book, is about as interesting as Astral Weeks the record.  Good, but not great.  Appeal limited mostly to those interested in Boston in the late 60’s.  Anyone who compares Boston to San Francisco and the West Coast at the same time needs to get out more.

More to come

 

 

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The Siren-song of Alexa

Sonos One

For Valentines Day, my sweet wife Lorri and I splurged and bought a sound system for the living room and bedroom.  We bought a pair of Sonos Ones.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking-and you’re absolutely right-Smyth, how can you do this after all you’ve written about analog sound and vinyl being the true center of the recorded musical universe?

The answer is related to the fact that at least at the present time I’m only able to put one really nice vintage stereo system in my house, and it lives in a small 8′ X 8′ room that only I visit.  So it was a matter of practicality; one can only have so many Pioneer SX-850’s and Rega turntables.

And then there is the ease of use.  The Sonos players aren’t Bluetooth, they run on wi-fi on their own network.  They were incredibly easy to set up.  They are also Alexa-enabled. Setting her up took a little more time. But in the end it all came together.

I presently don’t have a for-pay streaming service, but as an Amazon Prime member (looks at shoes) I can access a great deal of music for free.  However, due to it’s limitations, I’m likely to set up an Amazon Music account.

That said, there is an insidious seductiveness to Alexa.  I just holler across the room and tell the disembodied voice what to play, and bang-o, high quality digital sound.  I’ve listened to the soundtrack to Hamilton, which I’m never likely to own. I’ve perused more Rosanne Cash than I have in my collection. I’ve listened to some Steve Earle, and I see a few LP’s in my future.  I’ve chosen individual songs when the mood suits me.  “Heart Full of Soul,” by the Yardbirds has been popular with me lately. That Jeff Beck-dang.

But last night I was aware of what was happening to me when I told Alexa to play Randy Newman.  After replying “streaming selections by Randy Newman” the player popped out “Rednecks” from 1974’s Good Old Boys, a wonderful record thematically written around southern life.

A little alarm went off in my head.  I have this record. Why am I NOT listening to it, the whole damn thing?  I immediately went to the den, pulled out my slightly ring-worn LP and put it on my 1byone turntable–my poor excuse for a vinyl player in the living room.  It didn’t change the fact the record still sounded great after forty years, and I could listen to all the great songs–“Kingfish,” “Marie,” “Birmingham,” and “Louisiana 1927.”

There’s something sneakily wrong about Alexa.  It’s a great lazy-man’s tool.  Gotta think about that.

 

Boogie Records Closes

 

My local record store, Boogie Records closed yesterday.  It is disappointing. I’ve known Matt Sharp, the owner, since he was a teenager, and I really hoped he could make it go.  But used records seems such a difficult business and it seems there were some outside the store circumstances that simply made it easier to give up  and move on after two years.

The really good news is Matt found a buyer for his inventory and store fixtures, so there won’t be a slow death dive into further losses.  That buyer also plans to open a store nearby on South Hill, so while my favorite record store may be closing, it won’t be a total loss to the record-buying community

Farewell Boogie. I’ve loved ye well. Best wishes to Matt and Stassy, and Jabin whom I spent many fine hours talking about records and music, Seahawks football and some Mariners baseball too.  You will be missed.

The Ol’ Collection

I haven’t listened a lot recently.  I’ve watched a lot of spring training baseball, and my life at school is keeping me really busy. But I have picked up some tunes.

Finds–I stumbled across some great do-wop and soul collections that I didn’t think I’d run across.  When I was in Olympia for the gun violence event on March 14th I stopped by Rainy Day Records, because I never go to Olympia without stopping by Rainy Day Records.  I found a very nice vintage Stax copy of Hip-Hug-Her by Booker T. and the M.G.’s as well as a copy of Del Shannon in London.  Both nice condition, and I think I paid $15 for the pair.  Yes!  I also grabbed up a copy of a Flamingo’s collection and a Chess compilation of the Dells.

I still have five records on my Discogs Wantlist, and I’ve made a point of trying to whittle those down.  Yesterday we got out tax return and Lorri said I could invest in a couple of those I was missing.  I stopped by High Voltage and grabbed the Stevie Wonder Anthology by Motown, the last of the Motown anthologies I needed to complete my collection.  I also snagged a used, but remastered version of Wheels of Fire by Cream

Planning–I have some fairly serious under-representation of three really important artists in my collection–Eric Clapton, The Band, and Van Morrison.  I think I have one album for each of the performers.  They merit more, so I’ve identified three or four records for each of them. I’ll be trying to snag those

In addition to planning for more records, after much discussion with Lorri, I’ve gone into a serious planning for retirement mode.  We’re shooting for June of 2019, so not far away at all.  I’ll have less dough for record purchases, so being smart about what I do buy will be important.

Hamilton

Hamilton

Hype is hot air.  It’s a waste of time and a waste of words. It’s a moment in which expectations are vastly under-performed.  The Last Jedi, while likely the best Star Wars movie in 35 years was hype.  Coke Zero Sugar is hype-it may have no sugar, but it still tastes like shit. Television shows like American Idol and the Voice value ready for the mainstream performances, which sound nice but create little that is new or interesting for consumption.  With apologies to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, just because it goes down easy, doesn’t mean it’s the best. Hype.

For Christmas, Lorri went to a great deal of trouble and expense to buy tickets to Hamilton.  Friday night we made our way through the Seattle traffic, checked in to the Paramount Hotel, across Pine Street from the Theater.  We ate dinner at Dragonfish, which is rapidly becoming my favorite restaurant in Seattle. Spicy seared scallops with any kind of beer to put out the flames.  Amazing spring rolls, the ones on the regular menu not the happy hour. But I digress.

How big is Hamilton in Seattle?  Let’s just say all the merchants in the Paramount district are thrilled.  Not a room to be rented.  Not a parking place to be scooped up.  The restaurants and watering holes are packed. Tickets for the performances were sold by lottery before going to third party vendors.  There, the tickets shot from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. KUOW radio found a pair of tickets a couple of weeks ago for $11K.

So much excitement for one traveling show?  And for what?  A hip-hop musical.  A historical drama about an imperfect founding father.  How many of the attendees knew the story?  How many heard the music?  Hype? Hardly.  I can say unequivocally Hamilton was the most original of the Broadway performances I’ve ever seen. I would see it again in a heartbeat.

There are a couple of different tracks to examine this performance.  Let’s start with the important stuff, the music and dance.  If you’re someone who breaks into hives to the sound of hip-hop you may have a hard time with the score and songs. But just to be clear, yes this is a hip-hop biography of Alexander Hamilton, but I found it quite enjoyable.  We’re not talking about NWA or Public Enemy here.  Yes it’s got beat and hip hop rhythm, and even the odd f-bomb, but it also is better for moving the story along than a traditional show tune which has to be written metaphorically.  Think,  Lin-Manuel Miranda was writing a biographical story.  What better way to tell it than in a fashion depending on rhyming speech.  But don’t be fooled.  Many of the songs are traditional and gorgeous.  If an actor can’t sing, they have no place in this play.

So many great moments in the play, so many great moments in the soundtrack. It breaks down this way:  Hamilton’s persistent demand to be at the center of the action, whether it’s the Revolutionary War, writing the Constitution, negotiating the financial plan that pulled the country out of insolvency.  All accompanied by the refrain (I’m Not Giving Up) “My Shot.” I thoroughly enjoyed the portrayals of the Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington.  But the most delightful moments were the repeated appearances of a dandified King George III who reminds his former subjects of their obligations to him and how they’ll miss when he’s gone.  The most heartbreaking moments are at the end, with Hamilton’s death in the ill-fated Weehawken duel.  The story concludes with extraordinarily relevant and moving “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.”

On another track, the biographical one, I also really enjoyed the movie.  Miranda has reported his inspiration for the play was Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Hamilton.  It’s always a tough thing to create a performance around a book, let alone 832 pages of scholarly work. To do so in a musical is unimaginable.  Yet the Hamilton story that appears on the stage is the one Chernow tells.  Impoverished, illegitimate youth goes to New York, works hard becomes a social climber, war hero and founding father.  He’s also flawed-unrestrained ambition, an inability to get along with others, vain and egotistical that leads first to his disgrace, and later falling to the pistol ball fired by Aaron Burr. It’s all there.

If the show has a flaw, it is the speed of some songs that also propel you through the story. .  They can be difficult to follow, and it’s super important to keep up in order to follow the plot. I can see how some folks get lost. The story has a few didactic moments in which the narrator (Burr) helps fill in gaps, but not many.  If you haven’t had the chance to listen to the soundtrack before you go to the show, I highly recommend it, simply for familiarity.  It can be accessed free on YouTube.

That said, if you can, go see it.  You won’t regret a minute.

 

Olympia’s Kids Speak Out Against Gun Violence.

Olympia 2

The Parkland shootings at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida are a month behind us in the calendar.  I die a little bit with every mass shooting, but the school shootings in particular leave me shaken.  After each one after I grieve for the victims, the kids and the staff, I can do is look my students in the face, look at myself in the mirror, and thank God it wasn’t us. And then I console my wife and assure her it couldn’t happen at Emerald Ridge High School.

But I’ve been endlessly proud of the students at Stoneman, how they’ve advocated to the media, relentlessly beaten up on the NRA, pressed their case to the Florida legislature, represented their views effectively on the media, and waxed the asses of their critics on Twitter.

But the response to the Parkland shootings has spread like wildfire throughout the country.  When I found a link to willwebenext.com on my FaceBook feed, inviting students and supporters to attend a rally today on the Washington Legislature steps , something simply snapped and I decided I had to go.  The event was merely one of many throughout the country.  Walkouts were planned in schools throughout the country, despite little advance notice or fanfare, a walkout occurred at E.R.

Despite that, I was drawn to the Olympia gathering, so I packed up my camera (forgetting to load my battery) and made my way south.  I arrived before things got underway.  There was plenty of visitor parking at the capitol campus, and all I could think of was, “uh=oh.”  The event was slated to begin at 11:00, but by 11:05, there were fewer than 50 people, students and adults, with more dribbling in. But by the time things got underway at about 11:20, there were 100 plus sitting on the capitol steps.

Most of the students seemed to be from nearby Olympia High School and its feeder middle schools.  It was clear it was a bit of a risk to leave campus during mid-day.  One student exclaimed her parents didn’t know she was participating in the walkout, and would likely be grounded.

The presentation began with poems and student presentations. The students had consistent themes.  They were honest and simple.  Students shouldn’t have to worry about threats to their lives when they are trying to learn.  Adults have failed in their obligation to protect them. The NRA is a contributor to the status quo and must be stopped. Lawmakers who further the NRA’s agenda can expect a youth backlash as they reach voting age. At no time did the student speakers venture into policy.  I thought the general demand for an end to gun violence in schools was effective, and it really excluded nobody-except for the invisible NRA schmucks.

Mid-way through the event, students gave way to legislators who reminded the crowd the legislature had passed two restrictive measures during the current legislative session.  Laurie Dolan from the 22nd District and Jake Fey from the 27th District encouraged the students to continue their efforts and reminded them, that at this point they were leading the adults. Sen. Sam Hunt, also of the 22nd District, joined in noting the efforts of the NRA to influence key legislators against gun regulation. Hunt may have gotten the loudest applause when he referred to the gun organization as “delusional.”

Speakers continued until just after noon.  By then the rain began to fall heavily, and it seemed a good time to end.

It was not a large crowd, paling in comparison to those in Tacoma and at Puyallup High School, according to the Tacoma News Tribune.  Still I’m encouraged by the number of students speaking out against gun violence and for meaningful changes in so many places. The real challenge will be to sustain the anger and enthusiasm between legislative sessions and election cycles.

 

 

A Michael Moorcock Convergence!

 

AtMichael Moorcock

At age 75 Michael Moorcock continues writing and splits his time between Texas and Paris.

I’m believe there is a great web of connections between different history’s events and culture, and sometimes every day life. Today my example is the British fantasy writer Michael Moorcock.

Moorcock began his career writing for magazines such as “New Worlds” but he is best known for his story cycle called The Eternal Champion.  During the 60’s and 70’s Moorcock said he could write 15,000 words a day in service of a series of characters who appeared as various incarnations of the eternal champion who could save their place in the multiverse.

I love these books, and I’ve read all of them at least twice, though for some it’s been many years. Moorcock is considered the anti-Tolkien of fantasy writing. While the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings had its good and bad guys drawn in stark relief, Moorcock’s writing is much more grey.  Every character is flawed, with both elements of goodness and evil. And each character strives to find the balance between chaos, with all its attendant problems, and law with its sterile adherence to sameness.  The most famous of these is the albino outcast Elric of Melnibone who carries a soul-stealing black sword called Stormbringer.

Hawkmoon book

Another one of these characters is Dorian Hawkmoon who carried on a war of vengeance against the post-apocalyptic (er, successors to the Tragic Millenium) bad guys from Gran Bretan. Hawkmoon actually garnered two series of novels (totaling seven books.) He is Moorcock’s least complicated hero, but still a fun read.

A few of the painted Hawkmoon figures by Eureka on the left.  The Dorian Hawkmoon figure is on the far left.  He’s actually not my favorite.  That is the figure on the right I painted many years ago, Dorian Hawkmoon by Citadel Miniatures from the late 80’s painted by yours truly.

It also happens that Eureka Miniatures in Australia is developing a range of miniatures for the Hawkmoon story, including figures from the Kamarg (good guys) and Gran Bretan (the nasties.) I am interested in a set of miniature wargame rules called Dragon Rampant, a fairly fun and easy set of rules to play and quite popular in the Puget Sound region.  So I’ve acquired enough of the Hawkmoon figures to play with and I’m slowly painting them.  You’d think with the thousands of unpainted figures I have around the house I could make do, but Hawkmoon really lit my fire.

Of course knowing how to paint one’s fantasy figures is always a challenge. There simply are no reference works, or Uniformolgy on-line for painting Hawkmoon and his minions.  I know because I looked. So I began re-reading my Hawkmoon stories again (Chronicles of the Runestaff, vols 1-4.)  I began by searching just for information about attire, but they sucked me in and I spent several late nights re-reading these suckers-nights when the paper was on deadline.  Not smart.

End of story?  Hah!  I’m just getting started.

I was browsing through some albums at Boogie Records, searching for a copy of Phaedra by Tangerine Dream.  I’d seen it in the shop when I picked up Tracy Chapman, and it had long been on my internal list of records I’d like to have.  As I was perusing, I ran across an album that screamed out Michael Moorcock in big black letters.  I immediately grabbed it.

Moorcock was involved with a couple of bands.  I knew he’d written songs for Blue Oyster Cult.  The most famous was “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” that appeared on Fire of Unknown Origin in 1981. “Black Blade”, a dirge to Elric’s sentient runesword also appeared on 1980’s Cultosaurus Erectus. Moorcock collaborated earlier with the British prog-rock band Hawkwind.  Their 1975 record Warrior on the Edge of Time is inspired by his stories.  Moorcock has four writing credits on the album and appears as a vocalist.

Michael Moorcock and the Deep Fix

I took my little find home and learned that Michael Moorcock teamed with The Deep Fix in 1975 to produce one album, The New Worlds Fair.  Moorcock not only has several writing credits, but plays mandolin, guitar and banjo on the record.  The album needed some clean up and cover repair, and I did  those things before giving it a spin, not knowing quite what to expect.

It was a good listen.  It isn’t a progressive rock record.  Though no song particularly stood out, it was all quite well played.  While the vocals and the lyrics weren’t anything to really catch me, it was quite listenable. It’s a concept album about a dystopian amusement park, but I’m just not seein’ it. In any case, it was a very pleasurable find and I’m thrilled to have it in my collection, especially at this Moorcockian moment in my hobby life.

Tracy Chapman, where have you gone?

Tracy Chapman

I was working my first teaching job in north Seattle thirty years ago, when a colleague I talked music with regularly handed me a cassette.  She suggested I take it home and listen to it over the weekend.  It was Tracy Chapman’s eponymous first album.

I think I was one of the few people in 1988 who still really enjoyed the singer/songwriters–Carole King, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Jackson Browne.  I couldn’t get enough.  But Chapman’s record was something different, and maybe better than all these Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

I encountered a vintage copy of her 1988 LP at my local record store yesterday.  It wasn’t a cheapie, but it was like a moth being drawn to a flame. My memory of the album was so strong, and the songs were so good, I just couldn’t leave without it.

Beginning with “Talking About a Revolution” to get things started, to “For My Lover” on side two, the album is crammed with songs that shout lyrics are, if anything, more relevant today than they were thirty years ago. The dreams of the poor, incarcerated black men, and a host of other progressive issues.

Chapman’s debut was host of melodic, smart songs performed with emotion and intelligence.  Not sure where Tracy Chapman is today, but we could use a little more of her.