Gone to California

As has been the case throughout most of the country in recent weeks, it has been super hot in Arizona, even up in our high-ish (4300 feet above sea level) home village. It’s also monsoon time where we live, so that the days and our plans can be suddenly knocked awry by torrential, drenching storms. Knowing in advance that these sorts of weather phenomena were likely in late July and early August, we planned our summer vacation to miss at least a bit of the heat and rain, heading off to California, again.

Last summer, we spent our time on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. The trip before that, we traveled from Sonoma County up the coast through Northern California, Oregon and Washington, making it almost all the way to the Canadian border. So for this trip, we’re filling in the gap in our Pacific coast experiences, starting in Los Angeles, and ending in Marin County, just adjacent to Sonoma. As I type, we’re in Santa Barbara, which has been lovely for the first few days of our travels, sunny with temperatures in the 70s, with cool sea breezes keeping the humidity at bay. From here, we will be traveling to Monterey, then up to Marin County, then into San Francisco for the flight back home. I’ll do the usual trip report with photos for the whole thing when I get back.

Today, I’ll just write about our “bonus” vacation day that got tacked on to the trip at close to the last minute. We had planned to leave Phoenix mid-day Saturday, giving us time to make the drive down from Sedona to the airport (about two hours) without any inordinate effort. But United Airlines had other ideas, and moved our flight to a 6am departure instead, which would require a night in a hotel, since I’m not fond of the high speed drive down I-17 in the dark. We decided to bump our flight to Friday, and to stay at a hotel immediately adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), then get our rental car at the scheduled time on Saturday.

The revised travel all went well (though it was 115F when we got to Phoenix, oof!), and we had a bit of time for a walk and dinner on Friday night. As you can imagine, the pickings that close to a massive international airport were a bit slim if you didn’t want hotel or chain restaurant food, but with a little bit of research, we found what looked like an interesting Greek restaurant a little over a mile away. We ambled over, and were delighted by the quirky little urban gem that we found: Aliki’s Greek Taverna. It was located smack between a car wash and a residential motel, directly below the flight line for arriving planes into LAX. We sat in a little courtyard, were served by the delightfully convivial owner, and had an absolutely dynamite meal: gigantes, dolmades, hummus, pastitsio, and excellently fresh pita. Should your travels leave you with downtime near LAX, we would most heartily recommend paying them a visit.

The next day, being an early riser, I decided to take advantage of our proximity to the eastern ends of LAX’s runways to go get some plane nerd photos and bask in the glorious fumes of aviation fuel in the morning. Then we got our rental car and headed up the Malibu Coast, with a nice lunch stop detour into Ojai. As noted above, I’ll post the “regular” trip photos in an album when I return, but today, I’ll share some of my LAX area shots, somewhat atypical of normal vacation images, sure, but still fun to snap, in their own weird way.

A Songwriter Special

If asked to name my very favorite songwriters ever, my response list might vary a bit over time depending on what I’ve been listening to, or not listening to, of late, but I can guarantee that two names will always appear quickly and emphatically in my replies: Jed Davis and Andy Prieboy.

They’re both brilliant lyricists and masters of melody, and (even better) they’re also both astute arrangers, tremendous singers and keyboardists, and aces at recruiting and working with just the right musicians to bring their music to life. Prieboy and Davis have done fine work with various bands (Wall of Voodoo and Eye Protection in the former’s case; Collider, Skyscape, The Hanslick Rebellion, Jeebus and others in the latter’s), but they are also wildly accomplished as solo artists under their own banners. And while both of them craft fine stand-along songs, both have also composed long-form theatrical works: Prieboy having penned and performed in White Trash Wins Lotto (which does not exist as a complete studio recording), while Davis’ Rise and Shine stands thus far as a truly great New York song cycle with its first “two days” (of five) having seen studio release to date. When all ~40 songs are complete and released, I’m hopeful to see the full-scale staging it most emphatically deserves. (If you’re an angel investor looking for a winning pick, I can certainly put you in touch with Jed to spend your money wisely).

Why do I write about these two favorite songwriters today? Because both of them have released excellent new albums this month, both of which bring fresh interpretations to songs from their deep catalogs. Prieboy’s One and One Make Three features a dozen songs written between 1979 and 2020, “re-recorded and arranged as I originally conceived them,” he explains in the record’s liner notes, adding that “my first duty, after all, is to the music and the lyrics.” Davis’ Failing Upwards includes his own dozen numbers composed between 1997 and 2021, organized thematically into six linked pairs of songs, where (per Jed) “the first song in each pair is about doing something because you have to do it; the second is about doing that same thing because you want to.” The songs presented on these records play to both artists’ storytelling strengths, with cohesive, real-world narratives delivered with just the right mixes of pathos and passion, horror and humor, keen observations into the beauty of the human experiences, and occasional visits to the ugly places where the best stories often lurk.

Prieboy’s collaborators on One and One Make Three include all of the surviving members of the outstanding Wall of Voodoo line-up he fronted over three albums (that would be Chas T. Grey, Bruce Moreland, and Ned Leukhardt; Marc Moreland died in 2002), superb blues guitarist (and former Eye Protection member) John Maxwell, drummer David Kendrick (Sparks, Devo, Gleaming Spires) and the late, great cow-punk pioneer Tony Kendrick (The Dils, Rank and File), among others. Stalwart Davis collaborators Mike Keaney and Alex Dubovoy both appear on Failing Upwards, alongside an incredible assortment of stellar players, including (but not limited to) the also late and also great Ralph Carney, Brian Dewan, Anton Fig, Reeves Gabrels, Juliana Hatfield, Tony Levin, Earl Slick, Dweezil Zappa and three erstwhile Ramones: Tommy (RIP), C.J. and Marky. Both records are exceptionally well recorded, with their featured songs deployed in rich and varied settings, covering various styles, idioms, and moods. Both records feature numerous ear-worm melodies that will stick in your brain box, while the deft wordplay in which both artists excel is in full flower throughout these records’ runs.

While there are many commonalities and similarities in the structures of these two albums, and in my affection for and appreciation of their creators’ work, and in the consistently high quality of the songwriting and performances that Prieboy and Davis offer, there are also, of course, notable differences between the pair.

Davis is a Long Island native whose personal and professional lives have generally orbited around New York City, occasionally being sucked into its bowels by its formidable gravitational attraction, including several years living in and working from “The Ramones Loft,” where he collaborated with that great group’s brilliant artistic director, Arturo Vega (another RIP entry). Jed’s songs, stories, and styles are often evocative of the punk and post-punk scenes of the Lower East Side (he’s super-skilled at recognizing and pulling the beating pop hearts from those idioms’ twitchy carcasses), and of the theatricality of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway (its bright lights casting long shadows, within which its ugly, unseen, and more interesting roots are anchored), and of the vast cultural and musical sprawls of the outer boroughs and the suburban and exurban stretches surrounding the great megalopolis at the mouths of Hudson’s River. Beyond his musical chops, he’s also a brilliant graphic designer and artist (his videos and album covers provide proof on that point), and his keen observational skills and ability to transmit information and intention quickly and with lasting power serve his songs and lyrics just as well as they serve his visual works.

Prieboy, for his part, was raised in Indiana before decamping to California as a young man to become a rock star (as one does, when one lives in Indiana, and one does not wish to become a steel-worker, or a farmer, or a right-wing politician), falling into various seedy and tawdry scenes in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, from which he emerged with far better stories than most anybody who you and I are ever likely to know. He is the long-time life partner of Emmy and Writers Guild Award-winning writer Merrill Markoe, who earns an “Editor” credit on his new album. (The pair’s 2004 collaborative novel The Psycho-Ex Game is a highly recommended hoot, if you need a good book to chew on). Prieboy’s work often evokes Hollywood (Babylon Division), including the great cinematic musicals (and their Vaudeville by way of Gilbert and Sullivan roots) that stand as artifacts of Tinseltown’s gloriously garish past, and the Spaghetti Western scores that once made so many bad actors seem good when their gunfights were properly sound-tracked. He spins big stories from small scenes, and he’s a master at finding grace and poignancy in tales about the people who most other people miss, misunderstand, or malign.

The temporal breadth of both of these albums stands as ample evidence of the consistent excellence in which both of these master songwriters have traded, for decades and decades. It also provides testimony affirming their judicious curation and control of their catalogs, as these albums were not just rush-released, half-baked upon conception, but instead were given the time to ripen, or to be re-evaluated, or to be reclaimed when the time was right, and the right players had the time, to make them everything that they needed to be. I know I will be considering both of these discs near the top of the heap when I do my 31st Annual Albums of the Year Report in December 2022. I most emphatically encourage you to score and enjoy them now, as a perfect pair of long-players from an equally perfect pair of performers, who are writing, singing and playing at the top of their most formidable games.

I’ll embed a pair of videos that, I think, provide great introductory peeks into these albums’ guts, if you need some sonic proof to back up my laudatory words, or if your curiosity’s piqued and it needs a good scratching:

You can also click on the images of these two album covers below to nab your own copies, which are available via most of the usual streaming, download, and sales services. And if you’d like to learn more about these artists, feel free to use the search block in the top right sidebar on this website, as I’ve written boodles about both of them over the years. And hope that I will get to do so again, and again, and again . . .

40 Years From I-Day

40 years ago today, I stood sweating in a historic courtyard in Annapolis, Maryland, with a freshly shaven head and dressed in itchy new government-issue clothes, raising my right hand, and speaking these words aloud:

I, John Eric Smith, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

~1,400 other young men and women stood there with me, taking their own oaths, as the Class of 1986 began its joint journey on our Induction Day (“I-Day”) at the United States Naval Academy. I had graduated from White Oak High School in Jacksonville, North Carolina two weeks earlier, that previous milestone coming just four weeks after my 17th birthday. (I had skipped a grade in elementary school, so was always among the very youngest members of my academic cohorts). My mother and my sister were there to see me take the oath, but my father missed it: he was in Lebanon as the Executive Officer of the 32nd Marine Amphibious Unit, where he would remain throughout my entire Plebe (Freshman) Year.

My mom, sister and I had driven over to Annapolis that morning from Alexandria, Virginia, where we’d stayed with a family we’d known since I was in third grade, the eldest son of which was going for his own I-Day at the Virginia Military Institute later that same week. The first few hours after we arrived at the Academy were a busy blur, as we were registered, issued uniforms and books and other military sundries, given haircuts, organized into little training groups (I was put in the 23rd Platoon of Hotel Company), and guided to our rooms in “Mother B” (Bancroft Hall, the immense dormitory where all midshipman live). The Academy’s officers and First Class (Senior) Midshipmen tasked with our training were brisk, but polite, and despite the hustle and bustle of the day, a sense of excitement grew, along with a feeling of confidence that, yeah, I can do this.

After the oath, we were given a short time to say goodbye to our families, along with instructions to be in our rooms by a set time soon thereafter. When those instructions were given, it seemed like the time granted to complete those steps would be more than adequate, so I dawdled a bit, giving my teary mother and too-cool teen sister time to fawn over their beloved son and brother before he set off to be a big boy with the other big girls and boys. Then my family left, I stepped back into Bancroft Hall . . . and all hell broke lose.

First off, I thought I had remembered how to get from Tecumseh Court (where the oath had been issued) back to my room on the Fourth Deck (e.g. fifth floor, with the ground as “Deck Zero”) of the Sixth Wing of Mother B, but, jeez, the place was rats’ nest maze, and there were certain stairs we Plebes could use, and some we could not, and all elevators were out of the question. Complicating the journey was the fact that Plebes had specific instructions on how we were to move about Bancroft Hall: we “pinged” (essentially a stiff-legged race-walk) at all times, we could only move down the center of Bancroft Hall’s corridors, and we could only turn corners on silver plates embedded in the floors of those corridors at various key junction points, shouting “Go Navy!” with each pivot and turn.

Even more dramatically complicating the journey was the fact that those formerly brisk and polite Officers and First Class Midshipmen had suddenly transformed into a pack of howling, raging, frothing-at-the-mouth monsters, seemingly hell-bent on thwarting our progress, questioning our intelligence, scrambling our brains, and crushing our souls. My sense of “I can do this” lasted about three minutes after I stepped back into Mother B, replaced immediately by a deeper sense of “Oh my God, what have I done?!?”

I eventually made it to my room, late I think, and found my new room-mate already there, along with a few sheets of paper on my assigned desk. I flopped down on my bed, ready to take a load off and rest and recover for a bit, but my room-mate (who was a former enlisted man, and who had been given “good gouge” on what was to come) told me that we needed to read those sheets of paper on the desk as quickly as we could, because our little respite was not going to last long. Sigh.

The required reading was a short essay called “A Message to Garcia,” which I later learned was written by Elbert Hubbard in 1899. I started to skim it quickly: some guy named Rowan had to find some guy named Garcia, who was in some jungle somewhere, because President McKinley needed to get him some message, and Rowan didn’t know where Garcia was, but he set out anyway and . . .

. . . BLAAAMM!!!! The door to our room was kicked open, and some howling First Class Midshipman demanded we and our fellow victims assemble into our squads and platoons in the sweltering main corridor of our company area. Like some macroscopic example of Brownian motion, the Plebe members of Hotel Company careened about and ricocheted off each other trying to assemble ourselves into our proper molecular structures, all while pinging, and turning corners on the damned metal plates, and bracing up (e.g. keeping the chin pulled back to the neck as tightly possible), and trying to answer the barrage of questions and demands being fired at us from all sides.

Once assembled, we were interrogated about “A Message to Garcia,” and I was happy to have had my room-mate’s advise and counsel, since most of my company-mates had done what I had planned to do when I got to my room, flopping on the bed and resting, with no idea what anybody was supposed to be talking about. Eventually, I figured out that the message were supposed to learn from “Garcia” was that when given an order, we were just to execute it to the best of our abilities, without pestering our senior officers for information on why were to do what we were told, or how, or when, or where. Or something. It was a bit of a blur.

The rest of I-Day was more of the same. And then we finally slept. Or at least we laid in our beds and tossed and turned in the sweltering Annapolis summer heat, as Bancroft Hall was a vast non-air-conditioned space, and my room on “6-4” was as close to the building’s broiling copper-topped roof as it was possible to be. And then we got up early the next day for some fairly heinous morning calisthenics and sprints and gymnastics called “PEP,” overseen by a ridiculously spry and highly caffeinated septuagenarian named Heinz Lenz, who truly looked and sounded like somebody sent from Central Casting for a “World War II German Prisoner of War Camp Commandant” movie role. And then we marched, and ran, and studied from a little book called “Reef Points,” which contained a massive volume of “rates” (e.g. arcane and detailed Navy factoids) that we were required to spout upon command, and then we got yelled at because we didn’t know our rates, and then we ran, and swam, and marched, and shot things, and sailed things, and climbed things, and crawled under things, and ran, and swam, and studied, and got yelled at, over and over and over again.

(I first saw the gnomic phrase “IHTFP” scrawled on a blackboard somewhere within that first week or so, though it took some time before I discovered that it meant “I Hate This F*cking Place.”)

’86’s Plebe Summer program lasted until Labor Day, with one tiny little reprieve for Parents Weekend, when the howling dervishes got brisk and polite again for a couple of days while outside witnesses were around and about. We had a set deadline to be back to our rooms again after our little break, and, well, I won’t get into the whys, but I didn’t make it back by the appointed time, which was seemingly a heinous hanging-level offense. I’d actually done okay, all things considered, through Plebe Summer’s First Set (the period before Parents Weekend) and had gotten surprisingly decent performance reviews, but that late arrival clearly re-branded me as “Trouble!” By the end of Plebe Summer’s Second Set, I’d dropped down to the bottom ranking in my Company, beginning my long and illustrious career as a Naval Academy “shit screen,” the lowest of the lowest dregs of the Class of 1986, upon which all of the filth eventually settled that better-performing midshipmen were able to evade.

While the end of Plebe Summer seemed like it should have brought some relief and reprieve from our various travails, what it actually meant was that the entire Brigade of Midshipmen returned (dramatically increasing the number of people available to shout at us), and that our academic year started, putting 20+ credit hours of exceedingly difficult college level studies atop the loads of physical and military training that we were already undergoing. And on top of that, my own experience of Plebe Year was even more emotionally challenging that it might have been otherwise or for others, because I got up most every morning to check the newspapers to make sure my father hadn’t been killed or injured or otherwise put in harm’s way as things went south in Lebanon, and he and his fellow Marines were in and around Beirut at a particularly fraught period in that nation’s already and always tumultuous history. It was a lot.

That phase lasted until the latter part of May 1983, nine more months of relentless slog and grind, only and finally culminating when the Class of 1986 collectively completed our “Herndon Climb,” which is the  Academy’s historic and annual “No More Plebes” ceremony. Many years later, one of our ’86 classmates, Rear Admiral Jim McNeal, went on to co-author (with Scott Tomasheski) the definitive history of the Herndon Climb, and I wrote more about that at this link, if you’d like some deeper insight on what that event looked like, and what it felt like, and why. And as a teaser, Jim has another book coming out later this year, for which yours truly is actually the co-author: I’ll let you know when and how you can order our Side by Side in Eternity: The Lives Behind Adjacent American Military Graves (McFarland Book, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2022) as soon as it’s available for sale. Because of course I will.

Of the ~1,400 members of the Class of 1986 who took the Oath of Office together 40 years ago, just over 1,000 of us actually graduated on May 21, 1986, the day before my 21st birthday. I was commissioned as a Naval Supply Corps Officer, headed off to Supply School in Athens, Georgia (a truly great time to be there for a music geek!), then was selected to serve in the Naval Reactors Headquarters Directorate in Washington, DC (where I met and married Marcia, a fellow, though higher ranking, Supply Corps Officer), then transitioned to civilian positions with Naval Reactors in Idaho and New York, then finally left Federal service in 1996. It was a good run.

That being said, I’d absolutely be lying if I said that the four years in Annapolis between I-Day and Graduation weren’t absurdly hard, and I’d equally totally be lying if I said that I enjoyed the experience much at all on a day-to-day basis. My Second Class (Junior) year was particularly miserable, since I spent most of it on restriction for a variety of offenses, unable to leave “The Yard” (as we refer to the Naval Academy campus). But, in the end, I got it done, and I often say that I finished the program primarily out of spite, since there were a good number of people in my chain of command who seemed to consider me as unworthy of being at Annapolis, and unworthy to become an alumnus of the Academy. They were probably right, but I did it anyway. Take that.

On the upside, I formed some of the best friendships of my life during those four years by the Severn River. (Looking at you: Junior, Jacket as Fly, Adam, Bob M, Aldo, Matthew, Thomas, Jim M, among others). Also, there’s no question in my mind that I never would have finished college in four years (or maybe ever) without the controls and constraints imposed upon me by the Academy. And the lessons learned at Annapolis in how to take initiative, how to manage time, how to function under stress, how to work efficiently and effectively, how to direct teams, how to be directed as a team member, how to prioritize, and so many other aspects of leadership and management, were truly transformative for me. Those lessons fundamentally shaped everything I did through my government service time, and in the nonprofit, educational, and writing careers that followed. I wasn’t grateful while being taught those lessons, but I’m forever grateful that I learned them.

In an unexpected turn of events in the years that followed our graduation, and because I was a weird web nerd before too many other weird web nerds had emerged, I ended up building the platform for the Class of 1986’s first online community presence in the early 1990s. I did so less out of sense of duty, and more out of a selfish “I wish we had this, and nobody’s doing it, so I will handle it myself” motivation. After serving the class as “Web Drone” (as I dubbed myself) for some years, I then went on to serve as the scribe for ’86’s monthly column in Shipmate, the Naval Academy Alumni Association magazine. And then I became the Class Secretary because of that. And then I got heavily involved in reunion planning because of that. And then, somehow, I was elected ’86’s Class President for a five year term, culminating with our 25th Class Reunion in 2011, and then I served another five-year term as Class Treasurer, I guess just to touch all of the alumni officer positions for our cohort.

I got a lot of joy and satisfaction from those experiences, even though they were a lot of hard work. I also experienced a lot of sadness from those experiences, as we have lost many classmates along the way, some giving their lives in service to their Nation, some who lost their lives as victims of terrorism on September 11th, 2001, some who fell to illness, or in training accidents, or to the bodily travails that ail us as we all get older. In my role as a class officer, I was often tasked with disseminating those sad news items among the class at large, and as there were (and are) fewer and fewer of us, the bonds that bound and bind us seemed to grow tighter, and to mean more, with each of those losses.

During my time in Annapolis, I never would have foreseen myself holding those later leadership roles, nor would anybody else who knew me closely then, and who was sober and non-delusional when questioned on the subject. I also never would have expected that I would put in so much time and money and effort giving back to an institution that had seemed most determined to make me miserable while I was there. But that’s sort of the beauty of the Naval Academy experience: it takes you as come, it fires you hard through a challenging crucible, and it sends you out as you will be, and maybe, hopefully, as you should be. The Academy experience also inculcates in you a desire to be a part of something bigger than yourself, a “link in the chain,” bound together by history, by shared experience, and by a desire to see those who follow undergo the same transformations, and build the same senses of community, that we once experienced together, beginning on I-Day ’82, all those years, all those haircuts, all those miles, all those stories, and all those lives ago . . .

Playing for Time

1. Marcia and I recently took a little weekend getaway trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico (a city we had most seriously considered as a residence before we settled on Sedona) to catch three nights of the 35th Annual Festival Flamenco Albuquerque. The event’s organizers describe it thusly:

Every summer, the National Institute of Flamenco and the University of New Mexico host Festival Flamenco Albuquerque, bringing the finest flamenco artists in the world to Albuquerque. For eight days, the city is filled with the pulse of flamenco, and is transformed into a cultural epicenter for the art form. This tradition celebrates flamenco, the incredible art form that UNESCO declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The lure of flamenco is its ability to explore the full range of human emotion with an intense, vibrant quality that leaves audiences and students alike, captivated.

We have really enjoyed seeing flamenco live in Spain, most especially when it is presented in the tablaos where Spaniards actually go to see shows, rather than in the more theatrical venues that cater to tourists. The virtuosity of the form when performed by masters is truly breathtaking, and it provides a fascinating insight into the cultural history of Spain, with rhythms and vocal styles that incorporate the breadth of traditions and peoples who have built the modern incarnation of that storied nation. The ABQ Festival features such masters, all singing, dancing, playing guitar and offering the distinctive body-based percussion that define the form. Truly wonderful, even if the Spanish late-night traditions had us staying up until 2am most nights, well past our normal bedtimes. We highly recommend this event to you should you be able to find your way to Albuquerque some summer!

Click the image to see some videos of performances we caught in ABQ this year.

2. When we returned from Albuquerque, our home air conditioning was, thankfully, fixed after nearly three weeks of stifling interior heat. We also finally got our car back from the shop just in time to make the road trip, though we are still waiting for a couple of trim pieces to arrive from the apparently endless back order log impacting the auto industry of late. It’s very discomforting and dismaying to not be able to enjoy such basic everyday necessities as home and auto, so we feel much better not having those constant reminders of our remote home location in our faces every day. First world problems, yeah, but that’s the world we live in, so we do feel them.

3. I’ve been hiking every Monday morning for the past couple of months with a group of folks who share my own personal proclivities when it comes to back country exploration and adventure. I’d define those proclivities as a desire to get an intense workout, to climb things that not many people climb, to explore trails that not many people explore, to be bold in letting the lay of the land dictate the route more than the path on the map, and to do advance research to ensure that each hike has some tangible payoff along its route. This past week, we did a fairly strenuous route that took us up to one of the finest pictograph sites that I’ve yet seen, outside of National Park Service protected areas. Here are some images of what we saw in a cave recess high up on a butte above the forest:

This region’s human and natural histories are both deep and extraordinary. I’m more than willing to put in the work to experience them, even if I come home with regular scrapes, scratches, bruises, strains and contusions from doing so!

4. Our son-in-law, John, is an exceptional artist, in both traditional and digital idioms. On one of our visits to see him and Katelin in the past year or so, he shared some work he was doing using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) art processor called Night Cafe. I found it fascinating, in the same ways that I was fascinated by Holly Herndon‘s 2019 album PROTO, which deployed an AI named Spawn that was trained with a traditional folk/gospel chorus to interpret and process vocal and musical sounds. It also reminded me of some of the fun I had in the primordial days of the Web, when emergent (yet still deeply flawed) technologies like the earliest language translation engines produced freakish, poetic magic that would never emerge from the minds of humans. Here’s a piece I wrote about that, with a sample of “translator poetry,” all the way back from 2000.

For my birthday this year, John got me a subscription to Night Cafe and I have been having a good time exploring its capabilities and outputs. Be clear up front: I’m no visual artist, beyond perhaps an ability to capture and process interesting photographic scenes. So whatever “art” emerges from my dabbling with Night Cafe is not my work, but the AI’s. When I first started using the program, I was uploading some favorite photos that I have taken, and then using the AI to process them. That produced some interesting images, but I then decided to give up on visual inputs altogether, instead submitting fragments from poems I’ve written over the years, giving the AI a list of styles or artists I like, and then letting it rip on its own. Here are some of the outputs from that approach that I’ve enjoyed the most (you can click the images to see them in full size formats):

I find it fascinating to see what an AI “thinks” that my words mean, and how it “chooses” to interpret them visually. (As I typed those qualifying quotes around those key words, I found myself thinking: “Hmmm . . . am I being unfairly meat-sack-centric here?”) But even as much as I enjoy these and other similar images as interesting and pleasurable things to look at, I also find myself wondering: Are these my images? And are they art, in any way, or just pictures? Lots of interesting questions there about intention and creativity and skill and attribution and intellectual property, for sure. As it turns out, around the time that I was first fiddling with Night Cafe and thinking about these things, an artist and critic who I quite respect, named Eric Wayne, wrote and posted what I consider to be the best essay on this topic I’ve yet encountered. I encourage you to read it at the following link: Will AI Replace Human Artists?

You Must Get This Book: Steve Pringle On The Fall

Back when I wrote and posted my original Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands series, one of the longest pieces in that sequence of articles was about the always-remarkable British post-punk group, The Fall. The length of that piece was necessary because The Fall group themselves had an exceptionally rich and complex personnel history, their body of work was immense and wildly varied, my own relationships with and reactions to the group’s work are deep and broad, and because I also have a long involvement (since about 2004) with one of the key virtual communities of Fall fans, namely the Fall Online Forum. Which is populated by a truly incredible assortment of smart and interesting folks whose passion for the Fall and for its late chief, Mark E. Smith, can border upon, or often blow completely beyond, the levels of musical, lyrical, historical, and cultural obsession that most creative artists can ever dream of inspiring.

Around early 2017, a relatively new member of the “FOF” (as Fall Online Forum regulars typically cite it) going by the handle of “Steve69” began to be highly active on the message boards there. We clicked and connected fairly early on during his time there, in the ways that online friendships blossom around shared interests, or shared worldviews, or shared approaches to virtual communities, or shared experiences. I later learned his real-world surname was “Pringle,” which prompted long discussions online (because of course it did) about what that name evokes in the UK (i.e. a type of “jumper” — which we know as a “sweater” here in the States — once favored by Mark E. Smith himself) and in the USA (i.e. a pre-formed potato chip sold in tubes).

Both Steve and I have had periods of absence from the FOF, which can be truly wonderful for its over-the-top passions and enthusiasms continually expressed there on the most incredibly wide array of topics, but which can also occasionally become exhausting precisely because of those passions and enthusiasms. At some point in early 2018, Steve and I were both on FOF Sabbaticals, but were still keeping in touch via email. He posited an interesting idea for a deeply ambitious writing project called “The Fall in Fives,” within which he would evaluate every song the Fall had ever released (there were over 500 of them) in randomly generated groups of five titles.

It was a crazy undertaking, on some plane, but as someone who has routinely launched crazy undertakings on my own website (including this little Fall-inspired adventure), I was supportive and encouraging of his idea, and offered some small tips and pointers on how to roll it out on WordPress, and to promote it via social media. As is the case with most online projects like that, things started slowly, but the quality and depth of Steve’s posts quickly caught the attention of the Greater Fall Community, including numerous former group members, who weighed in or offered perspective on his project. Many other FOF members (both Steve and I returned to the Forum as his project was taking off) also chimed in to provide pointers, express enthusiasms, and offer occasional outrage, with fellow obsessive Fall-site creators bzfgt (The Annotated Fall) and dannyno (The Flickering Lexicon) playing particularly important roles in the Forum’s meta-analysis of Steve’s own analyses.

As Steve got deeper and deeper into the thing, and as it became clear that, Dear God, he was actually going to finish it, The Fall in Fives emerged as a truly interesting, engaging, and borderline encyclopedic online resource for all things Fall. But given the purposeful “mix-master” approach to hearing and evaluating songs from all over the group’s catalog in no discernible order, and also not content to rest on his laurels, Steve then expanded and adapted content from The Fall in Fives to document and consider the Fall’s recorded output on a more intuitive album-by-album basis, dubbing that second project “You Must Get Them All” (more on that title below). And as if that weren’t enough, he then also launched a fun and well-produced series of podcasts to supplement the whole, huge thing.

As wonderful as that online body of work became, anybody who has created large and complex web projects knows that keeping such projects from quickly succumbing to the entropy of the Internet is a constant struggle, and many of the very best online resources at any point in time soon become unusable as image and video files are removed, links break, comment bots and human trolls swarm, browser and content management technologies change, etc. So, having been barking mad enough to create The Fall in Fives and You Must Get Them All in the first place, Steve boldly set off to re-format the whole thing for print. He pitched it to Route (a “terraced publishing house in the north of England with a principle commitment to authentic stories and good books”), who bit on the project, and have brought it to market this month in the form of a truly magnificent book:

Click on the cover image to order your own copy of YMGTA.

The title of the book (and the website that preceded it) comes from a quote by legendary English DJ John Peel, who was deeply committed to the Fall and their music, hosting the group for live “Peel Sessions” 24 times between 1978 and 2004. That quote appears on the back cover of Steve’s book:

People write to me and say, “I heard The Fall, which record should I get?” And I never have any hesitation in telling them: you must get them all, because it’s impossible to pick one . . . and in fact, I’ll go further. I say: anybody who can tell you the five best Fall LPs, or the five best Fall tracks, has missed the point, really. It’s the whole body of the work that is to be applauded.

 

And now, it is also Steve Pringle’s detailed and delightful analysis of that whole body of work which is also to be applauded. Running to 656 pages, You Must Get Them All organizes, explains, and evaluates the Fall’s entire tangled history, with each and every release, and each and every song, and each and every group member being documented, discussed, and appreciated.

The book’s main text is formatted chronologically around the Fall’s 33 studio albums. (Which seems a simple, non-controversial sentence for me to write, but numerous Music Nerd Wars have been fought on the FOF and elsewhere over whether that “33” number is real, accurate, or meaningful, with key arguments hinging on whether the Fall’s brilliant 1981 release, Slates, is an album, or a mini-album, or an EP, or something else). Within each chapter, Steve discusses the personnel and personal forces at work within the Fall, cultural and political happenings surrounding the group for context, the recording processes, locations, and key collaborators for each album, Steve’s own critical reviews and musical analyses of each and every song, summaries of contemporary reviews and reactions, and an overall critical evaluation of each record as an entity within the spectrum of Fall sounds.

The main text is then followed by a series of really valuable reference appendices, discussing The Fall’s Peel Sessions, Fall Compilation Albums, Fall Live Albums, and a “Who’s Who” wrap-up of the countless players, producers, engineers, label chiefs, disc jockeys, promoters and more who played important roles in the Fall’s long history. There’s also a fantastic introduction from Paul Hanley, drummer-keyboardist from what many would consider to be The Fall’s finest era; many former Fall figures have written books over the years, and having read most all of them, I would say with no hesitation that the finest and most insightful writer among that crew is Paul.

And I would also now label Steve Pringle as another most fine and insightful writer. As a person who reads a lot of books about music and music-making, I can tell you that there are generally two types of tomes within that genre. First, there are vast and sprawling books that detail every single nuance or factoid about artists and their bodies of work. Such books are generally very useful as reference, but consuming them can often be about as exciting as reading a phone book or a TV Guide, with little-to-no actual good writing framing the details. Then at the other end of the spectrum, you often get super-artful, beautifully-written books filled with rich, florid text and arching long-form narratives, but often at the expense of detail, or even accuracy, when an author feels the need to bend the story to fit the desired plot points and denouements.

It is exceptionally rare to find books of music journalism where authors demonstrate equal skills as diligent researchers, accurate archivists, exceptional educators, and evocative story-tellers, but Steve Pringle has most definitely achieved that exquisite balance with You Must Get Them All. The Fall’s story is a marvelous one, told by Steve with taste and style, funny and fun in parts, tragic and awful in others. There’s no force-fitting or glossing-over of elements to support a pre-planned creative progression, and even the Epilogue (describing the group’s final days and Mark E. Smith’s untimely death) avoids the types of false sentimentality and over-generalization and myth-making that many similar books succumb to in trying to package nearly a half-century’s worth of happenings into one neat and tidy, well-wrapped bundle.

And on the flip-side, the depth of detail presented herein is just as powerful, and just as effective, and just as well-organized as one could ever expect from such a complicated career retrospective analysis. The structure of the books is solid and sound, and I love the ways that Steve uses foot-noting and asides to add bits that are fun, or helpful, but not necessarily essential to the main narrative, should a reader wish to not go yet another layer deep into the group’s creative architecture and approaches. Because of this balance, You Must Get Them All also becomes that rare volume that can conceivably be of equal value to the most ferocious Fall Fans, to those readers who may be dipping their toes for the first time in the Fall’s sea of riches, or even for those curious souls who may just want to read a fascinating story about an eclectic and important collection of artists and personalities.

It’s a winner, at bottom line, and I highly commend it to your attention accordingly. And I also commend Steve Pringle for his persistence of vision in bringing this work to completion. It was a fun privilege to sort of see the whole thing coming together over the past several years, and there were so many points along the path where most people would have said “enough” and congratulated themselves on their achievements to date. But not Steve, who took a passing idea and turned it into a massive reality, to the benefit of so many fans, listeners, and readers. Bravo!

Rocks in the Road

1. If it’s not been screamingly clear from my posts over the past couple of years, we really are very happy with our life in The VOC. We’ve got a great house, have made many great new friends, and are able to pursue to recreational things (e.g. golf, hiking, etc.) that we like to do when not otherwise productively engaged. But it’s not perfect, of course, because no place is. The one issue that has emerged for us in recent months is the flip-side of the niceness of living in a small, rural area: it can be very hard to get services in a timely fashion that are easy to access in a large metro area. We’ve seen this already with medical care, personal care (e.g. Marcia’s hairdresser), and with trying to get contractors in to do house and yard work. But two more recent events really brought this to the fore. First, we had a fender-bender auto accident, and our car has been in the shop for seven weeks (!) while awaiting parts to be shipped in from across the country. Then, a couple of weeks ago, our home air conditioner croaked just as things were getting super hot here. The service company came out quickly and identified the broken part, but there was a two-week delay in getting it shipped to us. To their credit, they gave us a portable air conditioning unit for our bedroom at no cost to us, so while the days are a bit sticky, we’ve at least been able to cool down when it’s time for bed. Finally, last Friday, the ordered part arrived . . . hooray!

The tech got to work installing but, but, oh no oh no oh no, it turned out to be the wrong part, ugh! The coolant leak was elsewhere! And, of course, the part they really did need is not available in the local market. Dammit! So we did bail to a local hotel for the super-hot weekend, and spent the time in bed watching movies, for the most part. The next part they ordered is now due here this coming Thursday. Here’s hoping it’s the one that does the trick. You don’t realize just how crucial air conditioning is to mental and physical health until you lose it, especially in a desert climate like this one. (Lest you think we’re suffering too much, a reminder that we live about 4,200 feet above sea level, so it’s not as hellish as, say, lower-elevation Phoenix or Las Vegas; when its 115°F there, it’s “only” 100°F here. Small mercies. Plus, you know, it’s a dry heat).

2. On Sunday, to beat the heat a bit, we went up to Flagstaff. It’s only a 40-minute drive, but it’s ~3000 feet higher in elevation, heavily forested, and usually about 10-15 degrees cooler during daylight hours than our home village in the summertime. We did an easy hike in the woods on the north side of the city, enjoying the strong winds through the Ponderosa pines up that way, except when the dust and dirt kicked up in exposed areas, all extremely dry after several weeks-to-months with no rain. When we got done with our walk, we headed back to downtown Flagstaff to get lunch. As we got out of the car, we looked back in the direction we had come from and saw this . . .

Yikes! A quick visit to the Arizona wildfire map site revealed this one had started just a couple of miles north of where we were just around the time that we had started hiking. Glad our chosen trail did not go a bit further than we did! This blaze has been dubbed The Pipeline Fire, and as I type, it has already consumed 21,000 acres. As a perhaps small blessing, it has run up against the perimeter of The Tunnel Fire, which burned about 19,000 acres a month or so back, and had already consumed much of this fuel that could have allowed this one to run further. (Update: Pipeline is now spreading around the north boundary of Tunnel). Here’s hoping our monsoon starts soon. We need it.

3. We finished watching the Danny Boyle mini-series Pistol (which tells the story of the Sex Pistols) this weekend, and enjoyed it. Here’s the trailer:

I’d been iffy on whether I wanted to watch it or not, largely because I’m very familiar with the Pistols’ story, I knew that John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was so opposed to its creation and release, and because the critics had been tepid in their response to it. But testimony from some trusted sources led me to give it a go, and I am glad I did. When it was done, I got to thinking about why the critical response to it was so bland. I think it may be because there’s often an immediate knee-jerk reaction to film bios of people who worked within living memory, as it’s impossible to cast actors who look and act exactly like the way we imagine and remember the characters they play (well, except for The Greatest, where Muhammad Ali played Muhammad Ali), and so the first response (which usually comes from the critics who see it before the regular folks) is often negative for reasons of short-term cognitive dissonance. But once your mind adjusts to seeing the actors as the characters, it all goes down easier. And that’s even more the case in a five-hour-ish mini-series like this, as opposed to the usual two-hour-ish theater film. But the critics don’t re-write their reviews at that point, so their initial bile ends up as the story of record.

I also think the negative reactions can be fueled by the fact that the first regular people who watch things like this are likely to be the biggest fans of the subject, who know a lot about the subject, and so are acutely aware of when the film-makers have had to take creative license to tell an actual story with an actual plot arc, when reality is never as linear and denouement-driven as a movie. So, yeah, I knew there were decisions and things that Boyle and his team had to do to make Pistol a piece of informative entertainment and to keep the story going, and if I was expecting a documentary, then that could lead me to be hostile to his presentation. But it wasn’t marketed that way, and it was told from an unusual perspective (focusing much attention on guitarist Steve Jones and future Pretender Chrissie Hynde, among others, rather than just obsessing about the usual Sid and John and Nancy and Malcolm narratives), and so I was okay when the needs of an entertaining story trumped the needs of strict historical and temporal accuracy.

I remember when the Bohemian Rhapsody film came out some years back and the initial critical response was so savage that, as excited as I’d been to see the film, I found myself waiting until it came out on streaming services to watch it. And then I quite liked it. And in the end, Rami Malek won an Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury. But it took time for it to brew, and if the initial critical response had been the only response, a good-enough film would have been missed and forgotten. I think the Rocketman film about Elton John dodged this a bit by playing more as a fantasia based on a real person (see also All That Jazz) than as a linear biopic; it went way wild on the story’s chronology, but it worked as a great bit of entertainment, helped by the fact that Taron Egerton was that rare case where the actor was somewhat uncanny in his resemblance to and ability to emote his subject.

4. Among the movies we watched during our little hotel air conditioning vacation were three recent-ish “little movies” that were all quite different, but all quite good. I commend them all to you (especially the first one) if you’re looking for something fresh outside of the summer blockbuster milieu:

5. And as a closing note: Is it just me, or has Youtube gotten really obnoxious of late with the embedded ads?

Where Will 10,000 Words Come From (Sedona #13)

(Note: Click on any image above for a full-size view, or visit the links below to see what I’ve seen in prior months and years).

PRIOR ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES:

10,000 Words in a Language We Understand (Sedona #12)

O For 10,000 Words To Sing (Sedona #11)

Land of 10,000 Words (Sedona #10)

Fumbling Over 10,000 Words That Rhyme (Sedona #9)

10,000 Words On A Chair (Sedona #8)

The Night Has 10,000 Words (Sedona #7)

10,000 Words From The Exit Wound (Sedona #6)

What Are 10,000 Words For? (Sedona #5)

10,000 Words In A Cardboard Box (Sedona #4)

10,000 Words (Bless The Lord) (Sedona #3)

Brighter Than 10,000 Words (Sedona #2)

10,000 Words (Sedona #1)

Storm Force 10,000 Words (Chicago #10)

Ship Arriving Too Late To Save 10,000 Words (Chicago #9)

Beyond the Valley of 10,000 Words (Chicago #8)

Return to the Planet of 10,000 Words (Chicago #7)

Revenge of the Son of 10,000 Words (Chicago #6)

Son of Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #5)

Yet Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #4)

Another 10,000 Words (Chicago #3)

10,000 More Words (Chicago #2)

10,000 Words (Chicago)

Trigger Warning

I rarely post overtly political content here, since our modern media space is already so rife with whatever flavor of partisan zealotry you might want to wallow in, 24/7/365, that I don’t wish to add to the constant fire hose to the face that most of us experience anytime we’re near a computer or a television or a radio or a magazine. That’s a conscious, active choice for me to manage my personal website that way, despite my professional and academic backgrounds in political science and public policy, which ostensibly support me having some informed thoughts on the subject of governance. I mean, I also have some strong and well-formed thoughts on religion and sex, but having been raised properly in a good Southern household, I know those are also not things that should be discussed at the (virtual) dinner table.

That said: like most folks in the country, I’m not really able to crawl into my shell of solitude or to stick my fingers in my ears and make “la la la la la la” noises to drown out the horrible stories about mass shootings that have so dominated our discourse in recent days. Or weeks. Or months. Or years. Or decades. Utter tragedies, all of them. And while it seems like the folks we elect to represent us might want to do something about it, we know that entrenched monetary and political interests are virulently opposed to any efforts to legislate limits and improvements on gun ownership and deployment, often suggesting that the solution to too many shootings is just to inject more guns, more freely brandished, into the national ecosystem.

In the aftermath of the Buffalo and Uvalde shootings (and the dozens that have happened between and since them, but weren’t “big enough” to make national news), the usual suspects are working to implement changes to Federal gun policy, and the other usual suspects are working the thwart them. (We know who we’re talking about on each side, right?) As has become standard in these cases, the usual “freedom and liberty” arguments have been passionately made by the guns-guns-and-more-guns team, after the usual “thoughts and prayers” sentiments were expressed, of course. But as national dismay about this state of affairs steadily grows — polling indicates that a sizable majority of Americans seek some changes to the ways in which we can access and deploy high-powered weaponry, be it an increased age for purchase, banning particular weapons, implementing “red flag rules” or universal background checks, etc. — more pro-gun politicians are being pointedly asked by journalists and constituents: “Why can’t  we do something?”

It has been a head-spinning exercise to process their responses. At bottom line: the gun lobby and its clients (political, corporate, community, and individual) argue that we don’t need to do anything about Federal gun laws, because it’s not the guns that are the problem. So the obvious second question is: “Well, why are we having all of these mass killings if it’s not because of the guns?” It’s been a real media hot take in recent weeks to report on the answers given by various elected and aspiring government officials, in terms of who and what they blame for the problem.

After reading a few of those articles, I decided to see if I could make a complete list of the many theories being posited by Team Elephant (if you can find a Democrat making such arguments, please share), so I did a Google search for articles posted in the past two weeks using the search terms “GOP Lawmaker Blames” and “GOP Candidate Blames.”

Here’s what I came up with, on the topic “who or what is to blame for the current epidemic of gun violence,” posited by various Republican legislators or candidates, and presented in alphabetical order:

  • Abortion
  • Black People
  • COVID
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Decline in Moral Values
  • Decline of the “Traditional American Family”
  • Declining Church Attendance
  • Democrats
  • “Drag Queen Advocates”
  • “False Flag” operations by the FBI, CIA and/or White House
  • Fatherlessness
  • Feminism
  • Gangs
  • Gay Marriage
  • Hatred of Veterans
  • Lack of corporal punishment in schools
  • Lack of faith
  • Lack of prayer in schools
  • Legalized marijuana
  • Liberal teachers
  • Mental Illness Epidemic
  • “Mexicans”
  • Open borders
  • Pornography
  • President Obama
  • Public school teachers
  • Rap Music
  • Single mothers
  • Smartphones
  • Snowflakes
  • Social Media
  • Too many doors in buildings
  • Trans People
  • Video Games
  • Wokeness
  • Women in the Workplace

Very few of these targets of blame were explained with any sort of lucid causation or correlation analysis, but were instead seemingly offered simply to distract readers and citizens from exploring any meaningful underlying causes for the tragedies caused by our out-of-control national gun culture.  Yes, it’s complicated. Yes, it’s hard. But, yes, we really do need to do something other than nothing, and soon. Even incremental change matters: if pragmatic public policy could reduce the number of innocent victims of mass and other criminal shootings by just 20% annually, that’s thousands of American lives spared each year from awful, violent ends, never mind the collateral damage victims who don’t die, but are maimed with life-altering injuries. Isn’t that worth something? Isn’t that a good outcome?

I don’t have the answers, of course. And if I did, I don’t have the power to implement them. But one thing I do know is that we must not accept the sorts of bullshit being spewed in the list above, from anybody, ever. Assigning blame to those targets does not fix the problem, and it actually increases the likelihood of additional violence against those people who are being tagged as menaces and dangers, without just cause. Here’s hoping that enough people of all political stripes have had enough of the carnage, and enough of the finger-pointing in random directions, so that reasonable politicians representing reasonable citizens can come together to take steps that demonstrate that we’re not simply sighing a big collective sigh and accepting that this is the way that things must be. They don’t have to be this way. They shouldn’t be this way. They can’t stay this way.

In closing, let me note that if your reaction to this piece is to send me a scathing comment about being a libtard snowflake coastal socialist who wants to repeal your Second Amendment rights, you should really hold your tongue on that point, since none of those descriptors are accurate. I’m patriotic, without having to fly a flag of convenience to prove it. I’ve fired a wide variety of handguns, rifles, and various heavier ordinance pieces over the years, and was well-trained on the proper use and care of them all. I come from a long line of warriors, raised in an Evangelical Southern household. I attended a Federal service academy, served in the military, and worked on in the defense sector as a civilian after my active duty time was done, negotiating deals for some of the most formidable equipment in the Nation’s arsenal, and also supervising the acquisition of the firearms used by the well-trained security inspectors who guarded the sensitive nuclear site where I worked.  And when I no longer needed to do those things to satisfy my professional obligations, and given that I am not part of a well-regulated militia, I’ve not seen fit to own or fire a weapon since that period of my life came to its conclusion.

Shooting guns is just not my idea of fun. Nor is continually reading about my fellow Americans being gunned down when they’re just trying to pursue their own lives, liberty, and happiness. We deserve better. And to get what we deserve, we truly need to identify, vet, and elect better politicians who will smartly pursue policies that hold the social contracts that bind us first and foremost, and not the wishes of the most extremely partisan benefactors who fund their campaigns and shape their agendas. There was a time in our not-so-distant past when electoral offices were typically pursued adjacent to a sense of public service and common good from candidates, who were expected to have a least some modicum of experience related to the jobs of governance. These days, though, it seems ever more of our elected officials are in it for personal financial gain or just because they crave attention. And with no well-formulated beliefs and little professional training for their jobs, they end up just being shills and mouthpieces for whatever lobbyists brought them to the big ball as useful idiot dance partners.

Enough. Really. Just enough.

Another GOP lawmaker noted we need to have high-powered semi-automatic weapons to protect our chickens from raccoons. I guess I’ll buy that when the masked bandits start to show up like this . . .