Finding Phish

No matter how often my friends tried to push Billy Joel on me I just couldn’t get in to his music. Especially “Big Shot” which made me want to reach through the radio and punch Joel in the nose.

One summer Joel toured through Salt Lake City,  and I refused to go with two close friends who could not understand why I wouldn’t tag along. Three hours of Billy Joel tunes would have either killed me or put me in a coma.

But I couldn’t fake it. Music is too personal. Some say certain groups are an acquired taste. That might be the case for coffee, but I haven’t found that translates well to music. I may hear a song and not immediately love it. But I may find a groove or hook interesting and worth another play. But I can’t remember listening to a song that annoyed me on first listen ever making it back onto my playlist.

I never liked Journey. But during the 80’s it was nearly impossible to turn on the radio or MTV without hearing “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Any Way You Want It”.

Yet I loved about anything from Jackson Browne, a musician most of my friends couldn’t stomach. My efforts to get  them into “The Pretender” fell on deaf ears.

About a year ago I came across “Intro to Phish” from Marco Arment, a blogger I read regularly. I’d heard of Phish, but wouldn’t have recognized of their music because they live outside the radio-friendly confines of mainstream music.

Phish is considered a jam-band known for their extended improvisations and “super extended grooves.” I’ve heard people relate them to the Grateful Dead, not in sound, but in how they connect with their audience.  Arment said it best: “The band shows none of the rockstar “screw you” ego: they get on stage, share the spotlight among the four members, play like crazy, have a lot of fun, and humbly thank the fans for our support.”

I can’t convince you to like Phish anymore than my friends could drag me to the Billy Joel concert. But I hope you’ll give them a listen. You may enjoy their upbeat and unique sound. They are one of the few bands I can listen too for extended periods of time without getting bored. I don’t connect with their studio albums, but I really enjoy the energy from their live concerts. That’s where Phish shines.

46 Days was the song that hooked me initially. But Ghost is my favorite song right now. The jam from about 6:50 is amazing. They recently played four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden to end the year. If you find their music matches your taste, dozens of their live concerts are available for purchase  at the Live Phish website.

Phish–Ghost from Madison Square Garden 12/31/2010

I Want My MTV

I’m about halfway through the book, “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution”. It’s been a slow read because I often have to stop and catch my breath from laughter.

I love reading about all the wheeling and dealing that took place between MTV and record executives. Like how MTV convinced the record companies to pay for the videos which gave the nascent network free content to build a business around. Can you imagine a new radio station convincing the artists and record companies to give them free access to their music catalogs? Unreal.

But the best stories include the original DJs and their interactions with the bands of the 80’s. I liked Martha Quinn. She was cute in an awkward way which made her even cuter. None of my friends will admit it, but we all had a crush on Martha.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to my mom, but if you grew up with MTV in the 80’s you’ll probably enjoy it. Here are a few of my favorite quotes so far:

“Rock n’ roll always sounds better in the car” – Bruce Springsteen

“Just get a stage, a crew, a bunch of cameras, a bunch a smoke and a crapload of doves” – Prince, preparing to direct the When Doves Cry video

“It was a whopping, steaming turd just about any way you look at it” – Mick Kleber referring to the Rock Me Tonight video by Billy Squier. Many consider this the worst video ever made.

Digital Clock Radio

The mostly brick home I grew up in was built in the 1940s. My parents rented out basement until the second or third child arrived and more rooms were needed.

With the renters gone, my parents decided to turn over one of the bedrooms to me. I took the one with shag carpet and was excited as any sixth grader could be.

My favorite feature of my new bedroom was the drop-down desk. Well, it looked like a desk, but was held up by a single metal chain. But I used it to store my football cards and the few coins I had at the time. On the wall closest to my bed, was a hidden compartment. A small square of paneling covered a water valve that my father told me never to touch. So, of course, that’s one of the first things I did after moving in.

 panasonic

A year earlier, my grandparents had given me a digital clock radio for Christmas. The reception from the basement wasn’t great, but good enough to bring the groups like the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Abba into my room to keep my company. I could sing along to Dancing Queen without my sisters teasing me.

And that’s where I’d retreat when I wanted to get away from everything. I’d lay down on the shag carpet and put my ear up close to the radio’s speaker. My room was the coolest area of the house, and I could listen to music for hours. I’d tell my parents I was using my desk to complete my homework, but that seldom happened.

Sometimes I’d tell myself I had to stay awake till the green glow of the clock emitted 11:11. Then I’d act like I was the first kid to recognize the pattern.

For the next 10 years or so I used that room to escape whatever was bothering me.

When I was old enough to attend a church stomp, a cute girl asked me to dance. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew I looked stupid doing it and couldn’t wait for the song to end. When I returned home that evening, I jumped into bed and turned on my radio. The DJ introduced the same Toto song I’d danced to earlier that night. That was bittersweet.

I still retreat to music when I want to get away from it all. But I’ve traded the mono speaker for a set of sweet headphones.

All I need now is shag carpet.

Catching the Music Bug

Like most kids, I grew up on pop music. My parents owned a stack of records I’d thumb through on occasion. The only album I remember is “It Ain’t Easy” from Three Dog Night. I’m sure there was some Beatles, Doors and maybe a little Rolling Stones in that stack, but I don’t recall which albums. tdnight

Years would pass before I’d learn my father’s favorite song was off that Three Dog Night album. The song is called “Out in the Country” and it has become one of my favorite songs as well. Mostly because it reminds me of the many conversations I’ve had with my father about music, most of which end with us coming to an agreement that Fleetwood Mac is one of the greatest bands of all-time.

I’ve never confirmed it with my father, but I’m not aware that any of my 80’s head-banger music rubbed off on him. That means one won’t find any RATT, Quiet Riot, Whitesnake, or Def Leppard around his home today. I may be able to take credit for getting him into U2, but I doubt it. I believe my brother or youngest sister probably gave him the Joshua Tree CD, and he was hooked.

I was free to listen to music around our home as long as it wasn’t vulgar. I was often asked to turn down the volume but I never recall being asked to turn off my music. My parents loved music, and they encouraged me to find my own styles and bands. When I heard a song on the radio I had to own, my mother would drive me to ZCMI and I’d purchase the song on 45 for less than two bucks. It wouldn’t be until I began mowing lawns that I was able to afford full albums.

My initial foray into albums is marred by the selection of Rod Stewarts, “Blondes Have More Fun”, a poor choice regardless of my age. Then again, I had just turned 11 years old and canbloneshave blame it on hormones as I look back at the album cover and wonder how I turned it around.

I caught the music bug at an early age and it’s never let go.

My children are beginning to listen to more music. Our two oldest have created playlists on their iPods, but they’re comprised entirely of music they’ve heard us play at home or in the car. They enjoy music, but they don’t love music. At least not yet, and that’s fine with me. My oldest daughter would rather play the piano. My son would rather practice card tricks.

I suspect any musical influence I have on them today will shortly be replaced by that provided by friends. I hope I’m as patient as my parents were if my kid’s music tastes veer towards the shallow junk coming from shows like American Idol.

Because I’m not below creating a Pink Floyd playlist and sneaking it onto their iPods.

How Does Spotify Compare to Rdio and Slacker?

After taking Europe by storm, Spotify is finally available to American music fans.

Reviews have generally been positive from people like Louis Gray who has a way of gaining early access to the hot new services. He covers the features of Spotify in far more detail than what I’m going to do here, given I’ve only used it for two days.

I’ve used a number a streaming music services including Pandora, Rdio, and Slacker. I’ve also used Grooveshark, and  Zune Pass to a lesser extent. Although all these products have overlapping features, they have their own take on the how we’ll be listening to music today and into the future.

I shunned streaming music services for years for the most part because I have a large collection of music that includes hundreds of CDs I’ve painstaking ripped using Exact Audio Copy and the LAME Alt Preset Standard. Over the past few years, I’ve managed my music collection in iTunes which continues to frustrate me. iTunes just feels kludgy and slow. If I didn’t own an iPhone or iPad I’d return to a more powerful music management solution like MediaMonkey.

Rdio ($4.99 or $9.99/month)

rdio

About a year ago, I signed up for Rdio which allowed me to use iTunes primarily as a podcast and apps manager. Rdio is primarily a web application that’s the best looking  music service I’ve used. I use Rdio to create playlists consisting mostly of songs I don’t own mixed with some I do. I can then access these playlists when I’m at work or on my iPad or iPhone. Rdio feels modern and fresh and fun to use. Great detail was paid to design.

Rdio is a great option for those who place a high value on simplicity. It does take some time to manually create playlists, but Rdio makes it easy to see what your friends are listening to and share playlists. It even suggests users with similar music tastes can lead to discovering new music.

Rdio is the product I recommend to most people. The $4.99 plan gives you unlimited web streaming whereas you’ll need the $9.99 to stream or save music to mobile devices for offline use.

Pros: Elegant, , no software to install, fun to use, excellent social features.
Cons: Time consuming playlist creation, no dedicated iPad app, some buffering.

Spotify (Free, $4.99 or $9.99)

spotify

If you know how to use iTunes you’ll feel right at home with Spotify. It looks as though someone took iTunes and applied a darker theme to it. The first thing I noticed about Spotify was the lack of buffering. Click on a song and it begins immediately as if it were stored locally. Impressive.

Upon install, Spotify automatically cloned the handful of playlists I have in iTunes. This is a nice feature because it gives the new user a place to start. Otherwise it would have felt empty and cold compared to the colorful and inviting Rdio. But dig a little deeper and there’s a lot to like here.

Creating a playlist or adding to one feels more intuitive compared to Rdio. I found it easy to drag songs into playlists as one does with iTunes. Right click on any song and Spotify gives you a link to share that song with anyone. Very slick.

Type in an artist or song into the search bar and you’ll be listening in seconds. Spotify touts a song library of over 13 million songs compared to 8.5 million for Rdio. One feature audiophiles will appreciate is the high quality streams available to Premium subscribers. When I wear my Grado headphones I can tell a difference.

Had Spotify arrived a year ago, I’d probably be singing its praises more than I do today. But Spotify is a very solid product that many will love. It’s also backed by a lot of VC cash so you know it won’t disappear anytime soon.

Pros: High quality streaming, zero buffering, large library, free plan.
Cons: Requires software download, minimal social features, higher learning curve.

Slacker (Free, $3.99 or $9.99)

Slacker

Rdio and Spotify garner most of the attention these days and rightfully so. Both services have a huge library of songs that nearly any casual music listener will enjoy. Rdio strips away complexity with it’s super easy to use web based service while Spotify goes out of its way to make the millions of iTunes users feel right at home. Both are very solid products that will find large bases of music fans.

But Slacker is a different beast, and it’s my favorite. Slacker has built a rabid following of fans since it arrived in 2004 by focusing on curated stations and music discovery. Sure, you can discover new music through friends on Rdio and Slacker, but they are minor features compared to Slacker’s approach.

With Slacker music discovery is at the heart of the service. Slacker presents the user with a list of genres ranging from Jazz to Rock to Country to Blues. Click on a genre such as Rock and you’ll see 17 stations to select from such as Classic Rock, 70’s Rock, Hard Rock and Southern Rock.

But the best part of Slacker is that each station has been curated by a Slacker DJ. I don’t know how Slacker does it, but it consistently plays great tunes while still introducing me to new tracks. It’s uncanny how well it does this. Rdio and Spotify are focused on playing music I already know and love. Slacker is that best friend in high school who couldn’t wait to share his favorite music with me by mixing tapes or burning CDs full of his favorite songs.

With Rdio and Spotify, I find myself listening to the same playlists over and over because I have to curate new tunes myself. Slacker does the work for me. Rdio and Spotify feel like music services created by business executives for more casual listeners. Slacker feels like it was created by music fanatics like myself who devour Rolling Stone, can explain why the Clash are better than U2, and can’t imagine going a day without listening to their favorite bands. In short, it’s for the  music nut.

Which also means it’s not for everyone.

Both the web interface and Windows application feel outdated in comparison to anything out there besides Pandora. I should also mention that my two favorite bands are Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and neither of them can be found on Rdio or Spotify due to licensing issues. But both are available on Slacker.

Pros: Uncanny music discovery, huge number of genres and music stations, gorgeous iPad app.
Cons: Outdated web and Windows app, no playlist sync, fewer features than others.

Conclusion

I’m excited to see new products and services push music into new directions and onto modern devices where they were unavailable or difficult to maintain not long ago. Although I don’t see myself paying for Spotify, the attentions it’s received is welcome news for all music services because it educates casual listeners on what services are available.

Slacker has become indispensible and well worth the cost of subscription. When I’m at my PC, it’s what I use 90% of the time. Rdio and Spotify aren’t left with much on my desktop, but I could see that percentage changing on my phone and tablet. All three services have iPhone apps. Only Slacker has a dedicated app for the iPad, and it’s gorgeous. It’s so much better than the Slacker desktop app or the web app.

I don’t believe that one music service will fill the needs of everyone. Spotify is the hottest product going today, but it’s not as enticing for people like me who value discovery over size of library. But that’s not a bad thing because healthy competition means competitive pricing and more choices for consumers.

If you haven’t already, give one or all three a try and let me know what you think.

People Are Strange

One of the few facts I knew about my father as a young boy was his adoration of The Doors music. Wikipedia didn’t exist back then, and I was too young to know Jim Morrison was a controversial figure who was the first rock artist to be arrested while performing onstage, among other dicey antics.

As newlyweds, my father even convinced my mother accompany him to a concert when the Doors toured through Utah. The thought of Jim Morrison performing in Utah still makes me smile. To this day, I’m not convinced my mother has forgiven my father for buying those tickets.

the doors

Yet, I never really embraced the Doors. Their music felt distant and Morrison’s voice didn’t connect with me. Even the organ reminded me of church, which was painfully boring to a boy wearing a clip-on tie and attempting to remain awake during the three hour service. It wasn’t until years later when I watched Apocalypse Now and heard The End that I began to understand the mystery of the Doors.

This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end

My mother couldn’t stand the Doors and especially Jim Morrison. When I began listening to rock music in my teens, I’d often use a comparison to them when my mother would express displeasure in my choice of bands. For example, “Hey, at least David Lee Roth didn’t expose himself onstage”. No matter how raunchy my music was, it was never worse than what the Doors performed.

It was the early 80’s and groups like Van Halen, Def Leppard, and Rush were popular. MTV was all the rage and we had it before many of my friends. Girls were still too scary to approach so we’d spend Friday nights in front of my parents 19-inch Magnavox watching music videos. I even began to like Big Log by Robert Plant after the twentieth viewing. I swear MTV played Big Log every sixth video.

The only solo effort from Plant I still enjoy is In the Mood and then not even the entire song. The first minute of the song rocks because Plant doesn’t sing, and the last minute rocks because Plant makes up incomprehensible lyrics. But that didn’t stop me from singing along. I’m still surprised my mom didn’t ask me to explain the title of the song. Or ask why Plant swims in his boxer shorts.

It wasn’t long before I sat in the locker room after a baseball game and one of my teammates played Pink Floyd’s, The Wall. I heard Comfortably Numb and was hooked. He let me borrow The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon and I’d found my favorite band that still stands today.

Most of my friends thought Pink Floyd was too strange. That made me like them even more. I was listening to Mother while they listened to Billy Jean. There were a few older boys who loved Floyd, and when I discovered them, was invited into their unofficial Floyd Fan Club. We sat around listening to their albums trying to decipher the lyrics. We probably should have started with Comfortably Numb.

Those are fond memories. I’m glad my parents let me discover my own musical tastes minus the heavy handed tactics. One of my friends purchased the Business as Usual  album by Men at Work only to have his father toss it in the fire before he could play it. I’m not kidding. The guys who gave us the vegemite sandwich fed the flames.

His next album, REO Speedwagon, was safe at our house. Imagine if he’d brought home Motley Crue?

How close do you monitor what your children listen to?

With A Little Luck

By the time I was able to purchase my own music, cassette tapes were pushing records off the shelves of music stores. Remember Musicland and all those corny posters? My parents kept a collection of records in the closet, and I’d thumb through them regularly. Fleetwood Mac, Chicago, Frankie Valli, the Four Seasons, and the Beatles. They were all there including a few obscure bands I’d never heard of like Paul Revere & the Raiders.

I couldn’t wait till I had a job and could add some modern rock and roll to the mix. A young man can only handle so much Oh What a Night.

Holding your favorite album in your hand is almost spiritual. Cassettes and CDs don’t’ compare. With an album, you get a feel for the band. The cover art becomes a conversation piece, and it’s tangible.

Nobody had to tell me who my dad’s favorite bands were. I could tell from the condition of the albums. The most haggard looking album was one from Three Dog Night.  And on first listen I knew his favorite song was Out in the Country because that’s where the needle dropped into the deepest grooves giving it a rich sound not found on a CD or MP3.

I kept a small case of cassette tapes in our Buick Skyhawk. It was our first and only car with a tape deck. My favorites looked like blanks because all the print had rubbed off. The only two cassettes I wore out were Pyromania and Dark Side of the Moon. Or maybe the player had enough  Rock Rock (Till You Drop) and decided to swallow the tape. If the eraser end of a pencil couldn’t wrap it back around the spindle, I was out of luck. Back to Musicland for a 3-pack of TDKs.

Kids today have iTunes and the 25 Most Played smart playlist keeping track of their favorites. At the top of my list with 277 plays is Indian Summer from Chris Botti. It’s not my favorite song, but I listen to it while I write which is often. I won’t have a stack of albums my kids can thumb through like I did. I play enough music through my computer speakers that they probably know I like classic rock and jazz. One day they will know albums such as The Wall, Led Zeppelin II, Sticky Fingers, and Who’s Next are sacred and should be treated as such.

With iTunes, iPods and digital subscriptions on the horizon, they may never have to replace their favorite album. Do kids listen to albums anymore or do they cherry pick their favorite songs off iTunes? Some of my favorite songs on albums were those that never made it to radio.

My kids haven’t caught the music bug like I did at an early age. With a Little Luck from Paul McCartney and Wings was the song that hooked me, and I was fortunate enough to purchase the 45 before my parents could decipher the first few lyrics.

With a little luck, we can help it out

We can make this whole damn thing work out

With A Little Luck

But my parents were reasonable. As long I didn’t sing “damn” I was OK. I didn’t want to be forced to play the “But you went to a Doors concert” card.

What albums or cassette did you have to replace?

Variations on the Canon

Buried deep in a Sunday morning Deseret News was the announcement I’d been waiting for. On the back of the Art and Music section was an ad for an evening with George Winston at Symphony Hall.

The first person I told was my mother who allowed me to flood our home with his music since returning from Germany. Both our favorite songs were off the same album, December. She loves Variations on the Canon by Pachelbel while Joy is my favorite.

It didn’t take much to convince my mother she should be there.

Neither of us had been to Symphony Hall before. In hindsight, I should have researched which seats would give us the best vantage point from which to watch his hands dance across the keys. (10 to 15 rows back to the left side of the stage is ideal) But this was before such details were easily found on the internet, so we ended up sitting right next to the stage on the first row. We must have looked like the man in the Maxell ad, slouched in our seats trying to see the piano over the stage.

It didn’t matter because the music Winston coaxed out of that glorious black Steinway made us forget how sore our necks would be the next day. The crowd was older than I expected. Polite applause followed each song the shoeless Winston played until he announced Thanksgiving which brought loud cheers to the Hall.

Have you attended a concert, and with each passing song, crossed your fingers that the next would be your favorite? That’s how my mom and I were that night. When Winston came out for his second and last encore, she turned to me and said, “Oh, I wish he’d play Variations on the Canon.”  

Unfortunately, the curtains closed before he played either song. If we were disappointed as we left the Hall, neither of us showed it because we’d had a magnificent time together.

I’ve thought back to that evening that took place nearly 20 years ago. The opportunity to spend an evening listening to one of our favorite musicians together happened at a time when my mother’s health allowed for such activities.

So tonight we did the next best thing: we brought the music to my mother when she called to check in with us. As Kim held the phone near our modest Yamaha piano, Luca played Variations on the Canon for my mother.  The music made the 900 miles that separate us disappear for a moment.

Sure, it lacked the acoustic splendor of Symphony Hall, but I know it meant more to my mother than any song we heard on that evening, many years ago.

Raindrops Keep Falling

The routine is the same each winter morning.

I make sure my compact umbrella is inside my briefcase. I slip my black leather gloves over my cold fingers, but not before I pull on my jacket. Once zipped the gloves go on.

I used to wear a wool Northface hat. But Kim made me one that’s much softer and better looking. That’s my last line of defense against the chilly Seattle mornings.

Just the thought of standing on the platform waiting for the train sends a chill down my spine. Gusts of wind following every freight train. The sight of of my breath as I rub my hands together. The type of cold that makes each breath seem like a chore. My feet were always the first to go numb.

But tonight it warmed up to 55 degrees and began to rain. I stood off our deck and listened to the rain hit the wooden slats. I considered grabbing my jacket. Or an umbrella. Anything to act as a barrier between me and the elements. Instead, I stood there.

When is the last time you’ve stood outside in a rainstorm?

Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head
But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red
Cryin’s not for me
‘Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’
Because I’m free
Nothin’s worryin’ me

That’s one of the first songs I heard on the radio. Even as a kid, I knew all the lyrics and would sing along as it blared from the AC Delco radio in my dad’s Dodge Duster.

My shirt was now soaked. Rain dripped off my hair and onto my face and down my nose. As a kid did you ever look up at the sky and try to catch drops in your mouth until one hit you square in the eye? I stood there until I was soaked. My dog had long found dry ground inside. I felt as though I’d taken a cold shower in my clothes and considered what excuse I’d tell my kids when they asked why I was all wet.

I don’t know why I did this. Maybe to feel like a kid again having turned 43 last week. But I can tell you that it made me feel alive. Too often I instruct my kids to put on a jacket or grab an umbrella before going outside. Don’t step in the puddle because your shoes might get wet. Get all bundled up so you can play outside as if you were inside.

Forget that.

Next storm I’m going to grab my kids and run with them until we are soaked to the bone. If clothes have to be hung in the garage before we can come back in the house, I’ll know I’ve succeeded.

Mind Games

Has it really been 30 years?

The day was supposed to be a memorable one. One I’d been looking forward to for many weeks. My birthday happened to fall on the same day as “bring your child to work” day. I woke up earlier than normal and left with my father, whom I’d shadow for the next six hours at his job as a high school teacher and coach.

I was still shy around girls, but I loved the attention I received as each class of students rotated through my father’s class. He let me help take roll. But I mostly sat back and observed how these high school students interacted with each other. They seemed to like my father, and he liked them. Maybe attending the same school with him in a couple years wouldn’t be so bad.

But the most memorable part of this experience was the somber mood that hung over the school that day. The year was 1980 on the 9th day of December: The day after John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York apartment.

I’d heard the news the night before when Howard Cosell made the announcement during a Monday Night Football broadcast. I knew Lennon was one of the Beatles. But Paul McCartney was the familiar name. Songs like “With a Little Luck” found their way into my 45 collection and were played over and over.

Years would pass before I’d comprehend how much Mark David Chapman took from us that December evening.

At the end of the day, I sat next to my father as he drove through the snow covered streets of Ogden. I asked him about Lennon as I tried to understand why he was killed. He explained to me he was a member of the most famous rock band and an accomplished song writer. That night we watched the news together. I saw the flowers pile up outside his apartment. Tears flowed down the faces of a generation hoping the 80’s wouldn’t be a repeat of the 70’s.

Lennon gets more interesting to me with each passing year. Here’s my favorite song of his that makes 30 years feel like yesterday.