Saturday, May 30, 2009

Guitarists I Admire: Jimi Hendrix

I imagine that most of the small crowd that reads this blog knows that I play guitar. It’s the great pleasure of my life, and “musician” is a key part of my identity. I’ve been playing guitar for about 20 or so years now, and I’ve come a long way in terms of ability. While I don’t consider myself anywhere close to being a virtuoso or even an expert, I’m pretty comfortable with my instrument and can play pretty much anything I hear in my head, electric or acoustic.

Part of being a serious musician is having and acknowledging your musical influences. I am no exception. Certain guitarists have influenced and inspired me since I was a kid of 14 just learning to plink out a few hesitant chords on my mom’s nylon string guitar. I can’t say that all of what I liked when I was a kid has stood the test of time (Mark loves to give me crap for liking crap like Whitesnake and Britney Fox in the 1980s), but over the past two decades, there are certain artists/bands/guitarists whose influence upon my style and taste in music has proven durable and deeply influential to me. And, given the fact I am a total music nerd who can talk for days about music that I dig, I feel like sharing what inspires me.

So, this is Part One of what I plan to be a occasional, long series on guitarists I admire. I’ve been drawn to loud rock n’ roll from a pretty young age, so it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the guitar gods you’ll read about in this series come from that tradition. It’s not that there aren’t fantastic guitarists that I like in other genres such as jazz (Django Reinhart, Pat Metheny, Stanley Jordan) or classical (John Williams, Andre Segovia), etc., it’s just that rock n’ roll is the family of music that has left a lasting mark on my musical personality.

As I’ve often said, my tongue only half in my cheek, “I was born to rock!”

First up in the series of Guitarists I Admire: Jimi Hendrix

This is kind of a no-brainer. A cliché too. I mean, what fan of rock music doesn’t consider him among the greats? But I have to weigh in, because Jimi Hendrix’ music was very important to me as a formative musical influence.

I think I first heard Hendrix on a tape that my friend Nat gave to me when I was a sophomore in high skool. The first song? “Are You Experienced?” It was mind blowing for my 15 year old adolescent brain, that thick, hypnotic, incredibly complex, sidewinding electric guitar figure that comes in over the trippy backwards drums, and a guitar solo recorded backwards in the middle, too. I listened to that tape over and over again… I think I actually still have it somewhere.

Hendrix was a man of many and immense talents. To this day he is primarily known for his guitar solo pyrotechnics (literally… at one famous show he set his guitar on fire before smashing it to bits) and his liberal, revolutionary use of fuzz tone. And it’s true that his abilities in this arena have rarely been equaled, before or since. He had a naturally flowing, lyrical style to playing guitar solos that made them seem effortless. His vibrato technique was among the most expressive and instantly recognizable anywhere. And he pioneered guitar sounds that are still admired all these years later, even though the technology for producing them was quite crude by today’s standards (slashing speaker cones to make them sound “dirty”, first generation fuzz boxes, arcane guitar effects like the Echoplex and Univibe).

The band he became famous for fronting, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, consisted of himself and two seasoned jazzmen, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. Indeed, it’s difficult to separate his own talent from that of the phenomenal talents of his “sidemen”, both of whom, while being slightly lesser known than Hendrix, have nearly equal status in musician’s circles. Mitchell, in particular, is considered to be one of the greatest of all rock drummers and is certainly responsible for much of the magic of Hendrix’ early albums. Prime examples of this band firing on all cylinders are “Manic Depression”, “Red House” and of course his first big hit “Hey Joe”. None of these are particularly musically complex (“Red House” is in a standard 12 bar blues form), but they are prime examples of what master musicians can do with simple ideas.

These guys were so talented that they would record entire albums with minimal rehearsals, sometimes recording tunes that Hendrix had written the same day. That is a significantly different aesthetic than modern recording techniques, which are far more sophisticated and time consuming. The primitive techniques they used resulted in some timeless music, and didn’t rely on technological gimmickry to sweeten them up.

But to label Hendrix as merely a great guitar player does not really do justice to his multifaceted talents. He was also a first rate songwriter. “Castles Made Of Sand” is a melancholy, somewhat simple song that nonetheless shows of some tastefully understated guitar chops. The chord progression to “Little Wing” is a beautiful example of the ideas that sprang from him, lilting and longing. Though his voice was not particularly good by traditional standards and he used a sort of “speak/sing” technique on most of his work, it was nonetheless expressive and well suited to his compositional ideas.

On later albums such as Electric Ladyland, he toned down the flashy guitar solos and focused more on songwriting and use of recording techniques; although this being Hendrix, flashy guitar work is in abundance.. The result was, predictably, great music. Psychedelia just doesn’t get much better than a song like “In 1983 A Merman I Should Turn To Be”

Hendrix eventually parted ways with Mitchell and Redding and formed a new band, the Band Of Gypsys. While not quite as legendary as the Experience, they were more than capable of backing Hendrix and his music. And my favorite Hendrix tune of all, “Machine Gun”, dates from this era. The song was recorded live and is famous for both its politics (a Vietnam War protest song) and the stuttering palm-muted guitar technique that Hendrix used at the beginning to imitate the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun.

But what really makes it stand out is the guitar solo in the middle. Beginning with a single, sustained note that he holds for a ridiculous length to build suspense, it then carpet bombs everything in its path for the next couple of minutes with liquid napalm. All other electric guitarists before and since are felled by this solo. I hereby proclaim it The Greatest Electric Guitar Solo Of All Time!

You think I’m kidding? No. That’s not hyperbole at all. Okay, maybe the caps were a bit much. But if you really want to know why Hendrix is worshipped by musicians to this day with such reverence, listen to this song and your question will be answered. I get goosebumps just remembering it in my head now. Also, "Machine Gun" is an excellent example of what the aforementioned Univibe effect sounds like.

I still like to pull out some Hendrix once in a while, even though his music, particularly his big hits like “Purple Haze” and “Crosstown Traffic”, has been nearly over played to death on classic rock radio. But he was a genuine rock and roll pioneer. His huge impact on later generations of musicians, including myself, means that it makes no sense to write about great rock guitarists without a hat tip to Hendrix. RIP Jimi.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Wendi's stone update

Quick blurb to update everyone about Wendi's salivary gland stone problems. Her surgery was yesterday. Here is what they pulled out of her...

I have read and heard from the medical professionals in our family that most salivary gland stones are about the size of a grain of sand. Wendi has had this one for more than 20 years and it grew to the size of a pea. In Mark's words, "That's a big honkin' stone!"

Though the surgery itself went well, she is having a difficult time swallowing, is in a lot of pain and is rather loopy from the pain meds. I feel bad for her. We are watching her condition closely.

So, I'm at home today again helping with Simon, who is blissfully oblivious to most of this, though I do think he understands that mommy isn't feeling very well. Oh well at least I got off work again.

Get well soon, hon.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Professional sports: parasites of the public

This post started as a response to Mark’s latest post rhapsodizing about the Nuggets. It’s nice that the Nuggs have finally overcome their jinx. They do seem to be playing better than at any time in their history and Denver is really rallying behind them. Awesome!

I’m being sarcastic. Now I’ll turn on the charm.

I don’t have the obsession that most people have with professional sports. In fact, I hate professional sports, almost without exception. And college sports are nearly as bad. If the Nuggs, Broncos and Avs left town never to return, not only would I not miss them, but I would cheer and openly celebrate.

Why, you ask? What did the Nuggets or the Broncos ever do to Matt?

But that’s the wrong question. My question is, “What have the Nuggets or Broncos ever done for me?” I understand the appeal of watching a game. What I don’t understand is the sentimental attachment. The Nuggets are not our friends. Most are not from Denver. They are millionaires, hired mercenaries, paid to use their athletic talents to fool you into thinking we have some kind of stake in their success, that their triumph is ours. We have no stake, and their triumph is not ours. They do not care for us, they do not love us, and they have no loyalty to Denver.

Neither do any of the other major professional sports teams have any particular loyalty to any location. They are notorious for pulling up stakes as soon as they find they can make more money elsewhere. It’s not surprising. Any business would do the same.

What is surprising is the adoration and love that sports fans shower upon their “heroes”. It is completely one-sided – we can read in sports magazines about the sadness sports fans every time their idols do not live up to their perceived status as “role models”. Which is quite often, though the reality never seems to sink in to the fans. Sports stars are generally egomaniacal prima donnas, jerks who relish their status and care what the fans think only so far as it affects their abilities to sign fat endorsement contracts.

And why would they? To be a sports star in America is to be the closest thing to royalty we have in this country, and rare is the scandal that ends one’s career. The worst forms of behavior are winked at. The reality is that the culture of sports encourages it. And people expect these overgrown babies to be role models?

But sports star culture is not even close to being the worst thing about professional sports. Far worse is the parasitic nature of the industry on the economy. Most sports teams could not survive economically without public subsidy of their enterprises, through public financing of stadiums, special laws granting them the ability to effectively operate as monopolies, etc. If the public balks at providing subsidies for the multimillionaire owners, the owners threaten to move to a town more favorable to their public extortion scheme. And they do not hesitate to follow through on these threats if their bluff is called.

Here in Denver, the public provided nearly 70% of the financing for the Bronco’s home, Invesco Field at Mile High, nearly $250,000,000, through a special metro-area sales tax levy.

The rationale behind this public “investment” is a supposed benefit to the economy at large. In reality, the positive effects on the economy are dubious at best, non-existent or negative at worst.

But certainly, some people do benefit economically – the wealthy owners and athletes. They are lucky to have such a deep reservoir of public goodwill and trust, which never seems to deplete, no matter how badly they misuse and abuse it.

It’s true that, in Denver’s case at least, the tax increase in question passed by a wide margin of a popular vote, so clearly the public believes it derives some form of value from the Broncos et al. My question is therefore, what value? The right to purchase overpriced tickets and merchandise? $8 beers and $5 hot dogs, while being prohibited from bringing your own food into a facility that your tax dollars paid for?

Of course not. The “value” to the public is what they perceive to be the “team spirit”, the loyalty to the hometown, the vicarious thrill of victory when the “hometown boys”, who are neither boys or in most cases from the hometown, defeat the enemy. But as I have shown, that is manufactured, not genuine, the result of successful branding campaigns and gigantic marketing budgets. The reality is precisely the opposite. It is cynical exploitation of mass delusion, and very, very lucrative. Every time you buy something in the Denver area, you are paying the interest on the bonds that were issued to pay for Mile High Stadium.

If you feel good about that, consider this: perhaps the worst thing about the public subsidy of pro sports is what economists call “opportunity cost”. An opportunity cost is the result of choosing one economic option over another. How much affordable housing could have been built for that $250 million? How many schools built and funded? How many public works like parks and infrastructure could have been paid for? Don’t ask the owners of the Broncos. They’re too busy putting that new wing on the mansion or vacationing in Bermuda.

I am under no illusion that professional sports are going away any time soon, or that they don’t command significant popularity. I just think that people should try to be a little more aware of the realities of the world of pro sports before they go painting their faces orange, or arguing about statistics in some bar. Professional sports teams are not your friends.

Wake up. Class dismissed.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Slack and a salivary stone scare

For the record, today was a classic rainy day in Denver. So, I thought I would write a short post, just to show I haven't disappeared or anything.

Y’all don’t have to tell me what a slacker I am. I will just say that there are 2 reasons I haven’t posted anything for more than 2 months.

The first: school. Or “skool” as I like to spell it. I am taking a really hard tax class this semester and I’m in skool 2 nights out of the week. Wendi is of course back in skool too. From Monday to Thursday, it seems we barely see each other. So when I’m not at work or at skool, I’m at home taking care of Simon. And when he goes to bed, I usually don’t have the energy to write much. Sorry. Plus, this tax class I'm taking is really difficult.

The second reason: music. I have finally found a good drummer to work with. I have been playing with Will for about 2 months now, and am looking forward to summer when I will have more time to devote to creating loud, obnoxious music that will frighten decent people, disgust upstanding citizens and make children cry. That’s really what I live for, after all. Plus, a very good situation has come my way recently that I think will give me a great foundation to network and play with even more musicians. More about that later.

For now, we had a bit of a scare this evening. Wendi has had sporadic problems with a salivary gland stone since she was 17. Her stone had been hurting her for a couple days but this afternoon it really started to hurt and swell. A conference with Dr. Mark and internet research revealed that an abscessed salivary gland stone can be very serious. We made the decision to take her to the ER at Swedish Medical Center, where she spent a good portion of the evening.

Don't worry, everything is more or less OK. I picked her up a few minutes ago from the ER. She will probably need surgery for it. Bummer, but at least she won't have any more stone problems. Geez, it seems Wendi and I are on track for having an average of one surgery each per year. As Wendi is fond of saying, "Ain't nobody getting any younger."

Anyway, I plan on posting again soon. From famine to feast and all that…