Categories
Opinion

That’s Wonkers!

There is a piece in yesterday’s New York Times about how Puffin Books and Roald Dahl’s estate are set to release newly edited editions of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda, ” “James and the Giant Peach” and seven other titles in an effort to make them “less offensive and more inclusive.” For example, references to “mothers” and “fathers” have been updated to “parents” or “family.”

From what I’ve read in the past about Dahl and his thoughts on censorship, I don’t think he would approve. Does that matter? Should it matter?

This is primarily a financial decision, calculated to sell more of Dahl’s work by making it seem more “inclusive.” Another example of financial opportunism comes to mind, only it was presented under the veil of artistic license, and not under the banner of social justice.

In 1997, George Lucas released new versions of the original Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV, V, VI). I read, at the time, that he would never release the original versions again, stating that the new versions matched his original vision and intent that he was unable to execute some twenty odd years before. Of course, he did release the originals in a raw, unmastered form on DVD as bonus discs to the second DVD release of the new versions. Anything to get fans to shell out a few extra bucks for yet “another new version” of the same films, right?

What’s more, there were the theatrical releases of the new versions, which drew many children-fans-as-adults (and their own children) to the theaters to enjoy seeing these on the big screen. A perfect set up for episodes I-III, and a box office sweep to boot.

If it seems like I took all this personally, I did.

When I was a boy, my dad took me to see Star Wars. I hadn’t seen a commercial for it on television, and we went on the recommendation of a neighbor who thought I would like it. I knew it had something to do with outer space, but that was it. From the opening sequence to the ending, I was speechless with wonder. I loved every second of it. To young me, it was perfect. When we came home, the real world seemed a little dimmer to me. I wanted to get into the world I had just experienced. I made drawings of what I had seen to try and hold on to it. I haven’t had that experience since. I’m not alone, either – lots of kids my age had the exact same reaction and relationship to A New Hope.

That summer, and during a second run of the film, I saved my money and rode my bike to the theater as many times as I could. I think I saw it about 17 times or so.

Seeing Star Wars as a young person made a permanent impression on me, and has certainly influenced the arc of my life. That seems like a very dramatic thing to write when I read it back, but it’s true.

Lucas didn’t just remaster the old films, he changed them, re-edited them, and added scenes, music and effects. Lucas maintains that it is his prerogative to do this, and I suppose it is. Yet, I haven’t rewatched any of the modified versions since he changed them. I did not find the changes to be an improvement. They did not add significant value to the work. It ruined them for me. And then he ruined everything else with episodes I-III, but mesa thinks that’s a different matter.

When art becomes embedded into our culture, the original work (no matter how brilliant or flawed) no longer belongs to the artist. I don’t mean trademarks and copyrights – I mean the non-monetary value of the thing itself. Lucas can continue to ruin his films all he wants (and he will certainly continue to grind out plastic Star Wars crap destined for our landfills because there are still a few pennies to be made), but I maintain that the originals, or some form of them, belong to us.

When I go to see a band that I liked in the 80’s, they play their fan favorites, and any hits they might have had back then. Bands like Fishbone earn their living from live shows, and they have to play “Party at Ground Zero” every night. And, bands like Fishbone and the Cure seem to genuinely enjoy playing their catalog, given the intensity they bring to each show. As I watched the Psychedelic Furs play “Ghost in you,” I wondered if they are sick of those songs. Certainly, Richard Butler is in a different space in his life. Does he still feel the way he did when he wrote those tunes? Songs are time capsules, both for their author, and for the listener. Songs evoke a particular place in the past. That’s part of their magic. I don’t think replacing the original version of “Ghost in you” (or whatever) to match the songwriters current state of mind, or to make use of some new technology, would fly.

The original A New Hope and what it meant to young me, belongs to me. It should not be edited away. Nor should it be made unavailable. The same holds true with Roald Dahl’s work. Many of us grew up with these stories, warts and all. I have vivid memories of listening to my fifth grade elementary school teacher read James and the Giant Peach during school recess, and I delighted to find myself transported into Dahl’s story. What’s more, as I reflect upon that memory, James and the Giant Peach helps to mark a place in time during my life. Just as A New Hope did. Dahl, Mark Twain, and many others mark time and history with their work. We don’t have to continue to read their words, or even publish new copies, but I’m not sure anyone has the right to change them.

As an aside, I think Gene Wilder is the definitive Willy Wonka. I don’t much care for the Burton/Depp version (we’ll see what Timothée Chalamet can do), but the great part is Burton and Warner Bros. gave us new interpretations without modifying or eliminating the original.

Please note that I’m not making commentary on the social upheaval we as a country are grappling with, for many changes are long overdue. For my part, I know black lives matter, LGBTQ+ people deserve the same rights as non-LGBTQ+ people, and women should have control over their bodies. I do not think there should be billionaires, and everyone should have the same access to excellent healthcare and education. I actively participate in my own examination of identity, bias and privilege, and am better for it.

This post is commentary on creative censorship, and a culture’s right to its art.

Does art have a right to evolve? I think it does, just as we as people have a right to evolve. As humans, we must evolve and take care of each other, all of Earth’s animals and inhabitants, and the environment, or we won’t be here much longer.

I don’t necessarily mind new edits to writing, films and art. But please call them “new editions” or something similar, and leave the originals intact. Changing the original material to suit a private agenda reminds me of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984 rewriting history, only someone is tampering with our culture materials, and not political and military history.

It seems to me that editing Dahl’s stories posthumously will do little to advance the over arching conversations around social justice. I believe that the truly harmful work will be (and should be) weeded out by the culture itself, and not people hoping to earn a few more bucks.

Categories
Opinion

Licorice Pizza

I deleted my Twitter account. I downloaded my data, and snapped my little branch off the Twitter tree for good. It’s been over a month at this point, and I think/hope they deleted my data.

I still think it’s shame. As noted in the New York Times and Google’s news feed, what’s happening to Twitter and its staff is most likely criminal. Twitter’s journalistic and cultural importance distinguished itself from the other social platforms, and I don’t think it can be overstated. I had read that there is an attempt to make Twitter and actual protocol that cannot be owned by shareholders or a single entity. I hope that happens. But, Twitter is new “a hellscape” and that’s life on the web, right? Why am I mentioning this? Because it’s encouraged me to lean into blogging a bit more. Which brings me to this quick review.

We watched Licorice Pizza last night. It was delightful. The sets, lighting and the nostalgic approach to this coming of age story landed just right for me. There are parallels to Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a time in Hollywood, only it’s much more relatable for kids of the 1970’s and lived life experiences. When I saw Steven Spielberg’s ET, I saw myself in the D&D playing latchkey kids who had to deal with very human parents, ADHD school problems, and lives which were not reflected in the proceeding Disney blockbusters of my youth (Strongest Man in the World, Escape to Witch Mountain, Freaky Friday, etc.). Netflix’s Stranger Things obviously capitalizes on those notes too.

Licorice Pizza is a sweet character study that doesn’t distract itself with supernatural/science fiction plot twists, jump scares and severe threats to its characters. In a cellphone/internet free world, Gary Valentine is able to accomplish a great deal using a telephone, handmade fliers, and his quick footed brothers. I enjoyed Alana Kane’s quick temper. Her fascination with Gary’s bravado and confidence kicks off a story that moves quickly and that drew me in. It’s fun to watch their relationship evolve. While I didn’t grow in in L.A., I knew hustler kids that made things happen for themselves and their friends, and so much of this film is relatable to my own childhood experience. It was a pleasure to watch.

The scenes with Sean Penn and Tom Waits are sublime and hilarious.

I ventured out to the grocery store this morning to acquire the ingredients for a nice dinner at home on this foggy, soggy new years eve. I love spending NYE at home. Licorice Pizza was running in the background of my mind as I ran my errands and reflected on where we are at the end of 2022. I hope you enjoy it.

Categories
Opinion

Tár

We went to see Tár this weekend. I really, really enjoyed this – and I’m going to say a few things about the film, and hope I don’t spoil anything.

A post pandemic #MeToo tale with several twists, Cate Blanchett holds us captive as the composer/conductor Lydia Tár. I won’t discuss the plot, which you can find on wikipedia, but I want to say I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the cis old white guy world of classical music (performance, recording and, to an extent, publishing) through her eyes. It’s a rich film. Some things that come to mind: the way the camera follows Tár as she harangues a student at Juilliard, or the dialog of a public New Yorker interview, the hundreds of small details that director Todd Field slips onto screen, and the the decor of the various homes and office was wonderful.

I’ve been spending the past year thinking about and experimenting with improvisation, which is the complete opposite of this world, and there are dozens of examples on display. It brought me back to days pursuing undergraduate degree, music history and even my time working along side the classical music buyers at An Die Musik in Baltimore.

We talked about the movie after we left the theater, while we were laying in bed, and over coffee this morning. There’s a lot to unpack in here. There are a few things that don’t add much (the metronome and nighttime fridge scenes) and don’t lead to any obvious conclusion. The point is, there’s a lot to think about, and it’s easy to return to this story after leaving the theater. I look forward to watching it again, but encourage you to find a good theater with the comfy seats to experience this film. The sound and music production is fantastic.

Categories
Opinion

Twitter, The Watcher, and the change you want to see

Please be advised, dear reader – I’m going to share my thoughts on the show made by Netflix called The Watcher below, and there is a potential spoiler. Don’t worry – that is several paragraphs away from here, and I’ve marked it with a subheading.

If we’ve ever talked for any length about social media, I’ve probably mentioned that all the big platforms will eventually go away. Ice melts, even the biggest bergs in the ocean (sadly, truer today then when I thought of the analogy). Remember when AOL was monolithic?

I joined Twitter in 2007. A lot of good came from my participation. I made a lot of good friends, I learned a lot that helped my career path, and it was a positive experience. Sitting in front of monitors all day in a closet of an office at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I felt a connection to peers in my field. One time, there was an active shooter in the building, and I knew about it 20 minutes before the administration alerted the building occupants because of Twitter. Once, there was an earthquake the shook my home. I had never experienced one before, and local folks on Twitter confirmed that’s what had happened. Etc.

For me, things changed when:

  1. Twitter switched from linear posts to algorithmic feeds, and
  2. When 45 was elected. The divisions in our country became more visible (to me, at least).

My feed on Twitter shifted to more news/politics, and every day seemed to bring some new disquiet. I quit Facebook a few years ago, and aside from some FB only events/posts, I haven’t missed it. As a visual artist, I feel the need to be on Instagram, and to smaller extent, TikTok. I use Snap Chat with my partner, my buddy Dusten, and kiddos. I have limited my Instagram use, and regularly remove it from my device.

So, Twitter is now under new management, and a lot of folks I like are leaving. Other’s have described the potential perils of the new management, and I particularly appreciate Dave Troy’s thoughts and ideas on this. It makes me a sad, even though I’ve been an extremely passive user these past few years. Change is inevitable, as I’ve been telling people for years.

About a decade ago, I had a very healthy LinkedIn account, with 500+ contacts. Someone on Twitter pointed out that LinkIn was allowing various people to appear in targeted ads without their consent. Everyone was opted in by default. I thought about it, and decided I hadn’t gotten any real opportunities from LinkedIn, and so decided to delete my account. I had mild regret over that decision a few times, because I wasn’t able to backup the contacts, and, years later, decided that maybe I did need to hang a shingle out on linkedIn and wouldn’t it be nice to have those old contacts? So, now I’m back on LinkedIn.

I said all that to say I am weighing the value of staying on Twitter. My pal Jenn says she’s staying. She’s my favorite technologist, and I respect her and her opinions more than most. I had been keeping my Twitter handle warm, thinking it might become useful in the future, when I want sell more of my work online.

And I have a nostalgia for when I was able to use Twitter effectively – to develop relationships and opportunities. I miss those days.

On the other hand, social media is tiresome, and I’ve come to resent platform algorithms, the influencers, and a lot of performative advice given copiously by strangers. Not to mention political hostility. There’s just so much bad noise.

I suppose these ruminations have reactivated my feels for… blogging! I’m grateful to still have this shingle, which I’ve maintained for longer than I’ve been on Twitter. I use it to document my art, and rarely, the occasional opinion. I think it’s time to share more of those, hence this long article. It also reminds me of another loss, of which I don’t think we ever fully recovered. Google retired Reader, which was the best RSS tool I’ve ever used. I’ve tried Digg reader and Feedly, but neither really measure up. Hey, Automattic! This seems like a no-brainer for folks the power ~60% of the CMS market! Why not make an RSS tool to go along with WordPress and your other fantastic tools?

A big part of blogging for me used to be connecting with people on this blog, and on their own blogs. I disabled comments back in 2013, when the gale of divorce kicked up. I wanted to close my shutters over the windows, and just be quiet for a while. If you’ve read this far, and want to comment, please email me jim.doran@gmail.com. Maybe it’s time to enable them again? But, I think the choice to disable comments and the loss of Reader changed blogging, at least for me.

I recently started reading The Haunted Looking Glass. It’s a collection of Edward Gorey’s favorite tales of ghosts, ghouls, and grisly goings-on (selected my him). It includes stories by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, M. R. James, W. W. Jacobs, and L. P. Hartley, among other masters of the fine art of making the flesh creep, all accompanied by Gorey’s inimitable illustrations.

I picked this up to take to Yarmouth. Beverly and I read it to each other before sleep in bed. I can see why Gorey liked these stories. Oddly, some of them just stop abruptly. Imagine you are walking through a rambling Victorian house as a grandfather clock starts to chime at midnight in the distance, when your candle blows out, and you step off what you thought was a landing to find you are falling, falling, falling thought the darkness. That would be abrupt, yes?

The Watcher

Beverly and I just finished the Watcher. I hoped it might shape up to be a “Haunting of Hill House” type twister. Not so much. I recently finished The Devil in Ohio and Dahmer, both good October fare. But The Watcher left me feeling much like the incomplete stories in The Haunted Looking Glass. It claims to be based on true events, but imagine if you brought an Agatha Christie novel on vacation and you enjoyed tripping over red herrings and false leads, only to read that Hercule Poirot can’t solve the mystery. Or, can you picture yourself watching seven episodes of a season (when maybe two could have done the job) only to find you are falling, falling, falling through what should have been a satisfying conclusion? I feel conned by this show. On the other hand, I thought about the show for days, and it made enough of an impression to inspire me to record these thoughts. So, yay?

The Change I want to see

I’m looking into making my own RSS reader and I’ll share my work on this soon. I found some encouraging tools that I think I can use to cobble something together. I miss following folks. If Twitter really is borked, maybe this is at least a partial solution. More soon.

Categories
Opinion

Fender vs. Ibanez, a tale of customer service

I’m a fan of affordable equipment. I’m also a fan of quality and I want to share with you a story about customer service.

A few years back, I bought a Fender Mustang GT40 desktop amplifier after watching Nick Reinhart demo the thing on the Fender YouTube channel.

It’s got some really cool amp + effects modeling built in, and I was particularly fond of the USB connectivity to my computer. This became my main studio amp, which I used frequently. I became quite attached to it, mainly because of the USB connectivity and the clean pre-amp setting. It’s absurdly lightweight, sounds good, and has an app that lets one make signal chains from an iPhone. I bought one for my daughter, and my bandmate bought the newer 100 watt model on my recommendation.

Last year, the female USB connector broke – it simply came out of the back of the amp. It had just been sitting on my desk – it has never left the house.

Fender doesn’t service their own amps unless they are under warranty. I called all the local repair places in Baltimore that I could find, and no one will touch this amp.

I asked Fender if I could just buy the USB connecter to fix it myself. Here’s what Caesar A. Tapia (Gear Advisor, Fender Musical Instruments, AZ) had to say:

The part you are looking for is not offered on the consumer end.

You would have to go to an Authorized Service Center for a direct replacement and installation.

You do have Warranty coverage for 2 years from the date of purchase on new amps. The process is fairly simple, You’re welcome to bring your amp to a Authorized Service Center with your purchased receipt to have it evaluated under warranty.

None of the Fender service centers are close, and I didn’t have a working car. In fact, one of them is in a guy’s house, which is cool, I guess? My warranty expired a few years ago, anyway. If your Fender Mustang or Rumble amp is older than 2 years and it breaks, apparently you are out of luck.

I managed to take the amp into a repair placed recommended on the Fender website. The tech explained to me that when one of these break (under warranty), Fender usually instructs them to pull the amp’s board out, snap it in half, and pitch it. Fender then sends another one. The are made in China and very cheap. This explains why “The part you are looking for is not offered on the consumer end.” It’s not the micro USB enclosure that I needed, but rather an entire new board. The tech also said this policy also extends to the Fender Rumble amps.

Fender no longer makes the parts needed for my amp.

These are disposable amps. I’m stunned.

By comparison…

Around the same time, I picked up a Chase Bliss Blooper pedal on Reverb.com. It was listed as new. When the pedal arrived, I noticed one of the knobs was missing the micro-screw that keeps the knob attached to the pedal. I emailed Chase Bliss, and they immediately sent me a couple of new knobs, free of charge, no questions asked. The knobs seem to contain more metal and engineering than the tiny female connector I need to repair my warranty-less Fender Mustang GT40 amp. Or, so I thought. Aside from this excellent customer service, I will say that I love Chase Bliss’ pedals. I own several, and haven’t exhausted their possibilities.

A bit later, I bought an Ibanez AF55TF Tobacco Flat Hollow Body Electric Guitar on Reverb. It played like a dream out of the box. I removed the protective foam padding from under the bridge, and ran into some trouble with the intonation. I wrote to Ibanez for help. They sent me a manual, and after a follow-up email, an engineer patiently wrote a very detailed explanation on how to set up the bridge myself. Fantastic! Above and beyond, as usual. Thank you, Ibanez!!!

Okay, back to the Mustang GT40.

Here’s another drag about the snap-n-pitch method. The Mustang allows it’s operator to create and save amp/effect combos, which can be recalled in the amp at another time. I’m guessing those would be lost to the owner, once the old board is “snapped and pitched,” unless they happened to be shared on the Fender website, which is something I am not interested in doing. But, you’d need to be aware of this before servicing the amp. FYI.

I was happy to pay for parts and labor, but that is no longer an option, as the tech can’t get the part(s). I was also told I’d be better off just buying another Mustang – it would cost about the same.

Okay, so what if I was willing to buy another Fender garbage amp? I will admit I considered it. I reasoned the newer models would probably be better – more solidly built, with more features and better performance. Yet, after reviewing the newer versions of the Mustang at Guitar Center, I see they don’t have the same presents – they are dumbed down.

Maybe Line6 is the way to go?

And here’s something else that really bothers me. I’ve gotten used to consumer grade products having a very limited life. DVD/BlueRay players don’t last. Apple wants us to buy new iPhones and iPads every few years, because they are a hardware company. Major household appliances tend to expire within 10 years. Running shoes don’t last, and shoe makers discontinue popular and well-loved models annually. I’m sure you can add your own examples to this list.

Musicians get attached to their gear. Vintage amps and guitars are sought after, and good gear can become integral to a musician/producer’s sound. For myself, I find something that works, and I stick with it. I’m stunned that I got suckered into buying cheaply made, disposable garbage by two brands that I trusted (Reinhart & Fender).

In conclusion, I’m very disappointed in the quality of this amp. I think I do understand Fender’s seeming lack of interest in helping me – the business model of this amplifier seems to follow other consumer grade disposable devices, and customer service isn’t built into that model.

I miss being able to use the amp. It was lovely while it lasted. Whomp whomp, lesson learned. I will never buy a new piece of Fender gear again. I’m not going to punish myself by saying I will boycott Fender stuff completely. I’ll just find stuff in secondary markets.

Categories
Opinion

Loop Research

Justin, Billy Martin and me

Are loops interesting? Are they useful? Why, or why not?

I started asking these questions in graduate school, and browsed through scholarly sources. I didn’t find a definitive answer from others, but I will put forth that “Yes, they can be intersting and yes, the interesting loops are very useful.” Maybe the why doesn’t matter.

I recently visited the studio of one of my favorite drummers, Billy Martin, in search of more information. He’s inspired me for many years, from the first time I saw him play at the Knitting Factory in NYC with Calvin Weston and John Lurie, to the time Medeski, Martin, and Wood rocked the Ottobar in Baltimore. His short instagram loops have certainly informed some of my S.Ex work (putting an iPhone under the drums on selfie mode, particularly). So it was a thrill to stand in the room where he makes this stuff, and be able to ask a few questions.

Billy is easy going, and generous with his thoughts. There were probably 10 or 12 other people there, and he spent time with everyone. I enjoyed the whole day very much.

I’m about to embark on another studio building project, and he answered my questions about his own studio, The Herman House, which is behind his home in NJ.

A barn like building surrounded by bamboo.

After spending time looping sounds in this place, I came away encouraged by how much I’ve figured out on my own this past year. I have the feeling I’m on the right track (for me, that is). And a few thoughts drifted to the front of my mind.

It’s important to get it recorded – get it on tape, in your phone, in the computer, as it’s happening. Don’t wait for perfection, and don’t lose it by spending time getting set up, practicing, etc. The content of a loop can be simultaneously magical and imperfect, and therein lies charm. They are highly usable that way. I’ve found that a lot of cool loop segments have incomprehensible time signatures, and I get lost trying to find the “one” downbeat when I’m trying to play along with them on my drums. Billy said “forget about finding the one. Just find a shape and go with it.” I really like this idea, and playing this way is new to me. Something the either adds tension to the loop, or supports it, so I’m going to work with this for a while.

Ultimately, if it brings joy, then it’s working.

A diorama of Billy Martin's Herman House Gallery.