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Random thoughts, settings, characters, situations, perhaps leading somewhere

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Dreamscenes: Odd Reruns

Thursday 21 August 2014 - Filed under Dreamscenes

I was waiting for a friend to finish shopping for groceries, and was sitting out in the large entryway where the shopping carts were lined up. There was an old TV lying face-up on the corner, so my wife and I  went over to have a look. It had knobs and dials for tuning, and I nodded and mentioned that this was definitely on the old broadcast standard and wouldn’t be able to pick anything up. On a lark I turned it on, and started twisting the knobs. Most of the channels held nothing but snow, but there was something being broadcast on channel 11.

I was surprised to say the least, but I figured someone was attempting to keep the old technology alive. The picture was quite dark, so I tuned it in so that I could actually see what was playing. It was a colorized episode of “I Love Lucy”, although the background sets and colors made it look like a 70s game show like Match Game or The Price Is Right. The actor on the screen was someone I recognized as a former porn star, who had publicly renounced his former career and had become something of a minor sensation. He was wearing an orange jumpsuit for some reason. I vaguely remembered he’d been in an accident or something, for he had to lever himself up from the stage with large poles held in his hands, and his feet had been replaced with metal claws in black and silver. I was happy to see that he’d been able to make the transition without too much problem, because he was able to launch himself off-screen without problem using the poles.

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 ::  2014-08-21  ::  Edward Semblance

Dreamscenes: Heavy Weather

Tuesday 12 August 2014 - Filed under Dreamscenes

Nobody was panicking, everyone was calm, but the storm was intense and the rain was heavy. During a momentary lull, I looked out of the large picture window at the bright line of the horizon, where blue sky was framed by dark clouds and shining trees. We went outside to check on things, and the warnings on the radio were correct. It wasn’t close yet, but we’d need to move into the basement.

I couldn’t help but marvel at the vast white tornado sweeping the northern sky like a slow, hollow pendulum.

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 ::  2014-08-12  ::  Edward Semblance

Dreamscenes: Jamming with Sleater-Kinney

Monday 2 June 2014 - Filed under Dreamscenes

I was pretty stoked to play bass with Sleater-Kinney! We started up in an empty living room with beige carpet, with one whole wall open to the street. For some reason, Janet Weiss, the drummer, was not there, but that was okay. After a couple of jams they told me I should change into a costume for the next song. I went behind a low dividing wall and found a large suit in green plush with pink spikes along the back that looked like a dragon or Godzilla. It was hard to play the frets with the clawed gloves on, but I managed. I had to get a longer cord, though, because we went out into the front lawn for the rest of the set. Some sand got on the costume, but we had a great time! I was surprised when the spindle of the tuning head for my D string broke off — I had been gigging for years and had broken countless strings, just never a tuning head. We were obviously rocking out! They told me they were planning to tour soon, I should probably make arrangements. I was excited, and hoped my wife would be, too.

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 ::  2014-06-02  ::  Edward Semblance

Dreamscenes: Low-Orbit Tourism

Monday 2 June 2014 - Filed under Dreamscenes

It was nice being on the observation deck of the International Space Station. The gibbous Moon was very clear and bright as it climbed the horizon to my left. I was surprised to find the air was cold but breathable, and you really didn’t need a space helmet, although the breeze was very strong if you left the windbreaks. I figured they had to spend a lot of fuel keeping the station in orbit if it was that far down in the atmosphere.

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 ::  2014-06-02  ::  Edward Semblance

Snapsongs: “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band

Thursday 15 May 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

I have been a science fiction nut probably since I first started to read. It didn’t help that I saw Star Wars at the tender young age of six, and it completely blew my young mind. My Dad actually took off work so we could go see it, and I remember everything about our trip until the opening scene of the movie. The air-conditioned brown-tiled lobby, the big box of popcorn, my Dad’s casual shirt (I mostly saw him in suits during the day, so this was delightfully exotic), the feel of anticipation sitting in the theatre seat, the wave of excitement as the lights dimmed. Then a star destroyer came lumbering across the screen shedding laser bolts in stereo, and my brain overloaded. I remember nothing else but flashes of light and then going home and drawing TIE fighters everywhere I could find a piece of paper. I mistakenly thought of them as “I-wing fighters”, but fortunately a friend of mine corrected me on this faux pas.

Although Star Wars was an influence, it was not the origin. One of the reasons my father took me to see it, besides it being 1977 and everyone and their brother was seeing Star Wars, was probably because I was already well-versed in various forms of astronomical trivia. One of my more vivid early memories was proving my mother wrong when she told me that Mars was bigger than Earth. It was a intellectual victory that had me hungry to amass ever more arsenals of data and facts. The Astronomy Shelf in the Children’s Section at the library was quickly mined out, so I had to beg my mother to help me find books in the Real Part of the library. These facts informed the increasingly complicated adventures that were always befalling my space LEGO dudes and their increasingly elaborate moon bases. As a catalyst, Star Wars neatly dovetailed with these twin obsessions. It was only a matter of time before I took matters into my own hands and decided to write down some of these scenarios.

One of my first coherent writing samples, dating from third grade and which I am still in possession of, was a space opera, hastily scribbled on spiral notebook paper, that contains a random salad of elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, LEGO Space, members of my grade-school posse and some prototypical germs of narrative brilliance. The Big Bad in this particular manuscript were the residents of a planet I named “Exon” with one “x”, no relation to the then-recently-launched rebranding of Standard Oil of New Jersey. It was not a Galactic Empire, per se, just a world of assholes who wanted to blow up everything in the universe except themselves. As a narrative trope, it was pretty successful, and they remained the requisite enemy through at least six revisions of my magnum opus. The second revision even got accepted into the local chapter of the Young Authors Conference, which was very exciting, although I am curious exactly how many Star Wars-inspired entries the judges had to wade through in order to get to my particular take on the theme. Through five grades, four schools and two states a legal pad and pencil were my constant companion, carefully enclosed in a leather-bound folio that my Dad had gotten for me from work. At each of the schools I attended, I managed to rope in some of my friends to help populate this fictional universe, and although I produced probably 90% of the actual writing, the others were useful as soundboards and sources of inspiration. Science fiction was a basic part of my life, either reading it, writing it, or enacting it.

And no one understood this better than my best friend in fourth grade. The worsening economy had landed me in the local elementary school that year, instead of the über-crunchy private open school my parents had sent me to previous two years. To explain: “open schools” were something of a starry-eyed concept promulgated by well-meaning hippies during the early 70s. The basic idea was, take a building, knock down all the internal walls, put a library in the center of it, and group grade levels around the perimeter in clockwise fashion. To divide the space into classrooms, you use movable chalkboards and corkboards to reconfigure everything on-the-fly. Specific classes like gym and art might have actual enclosed rooms, but everywhere else people were free to move as they wish. Maumee Valley Country Day School was just about the perfect example of this concept, and it empowered students from kindergarten through eighth grade in its laid-back, no-hassle educational paradigm. Thinking back, I don’t remember being taught much of anything there, which I suppose is the whole point. I remember basically being a slacker truant with the son of the principal during second grade, and various shenanigans, pratfalls and donnybrooks with my friends during third. All that said, I certainly don’t remember operating at a deficit when I entered Maplewood Elementary in the fall of 1980. I suppose that’s as good enough a justification for the open school concept as any: I evidently was given an education, it was just subliminal.

At any rate, my only difficulty with attending a normal, run-of-the-mill school after that was my disconcerting habit of getting up and going to the bookshelves or the art bin or the bathroom whenever I damn well pleased. It took me a while to realize you had to ask for permission before you did anything that wasn’t in the lesson plan. But that didn’t stop me from integrating myself with the local social scene. Within a few weeks, I had a large group of confreres to hang around with and to plot galactic takeovers. One specific boy, however, knew exactly what I was on about.

Space, space, space, it was all about space. Space was The Future, it was The High Frontier, it was The Destiny of Mankind. The two of us spent countless hours with pens, pencils and paper plotting out diagrams of interstellar spaceships, blueprints of orbital habitats, and elevations of buried moonbases. We were conversant with concepts from hydroponic gardening to Helium-3 mining to mass drivers to deep-space telescope arrays. It’s an odd little filip of the zeitgeist, this obsession with space, but we understood, and we believed. You have to remember, the late 70s kinda sucked. Inflation, oil embargoes, nuclear annihilation, the gutting of American industry, the collapse of starry-eyed hippiedom into louche sleaziness. Popular culture was in a shell-shocked daze. High-rise conflagrations warred with volcanic eruptions warred with airborne hijackings to up the ante on just how many people could be picked off, one by one, before the last man standing recognized the futility of his struggle. Higher-level sci-fi was not feeling any better. Luminaries like Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Harry Harrison and Harlan Ellison were blighting their fictional landscapes with surreal apocalypses and high-tech dystopias, and the nihilistic endgame of cyberpunk was accreting from the fragments around them. The one place where a paradoxical thread of blue-skied Utopia still remained was in the popular science press, and none more uplifting than Life in Space. Even as gas shot up to $2.50 a gallon and lines formed at the pumps, we were still going to live in sun-drenched O’Neill cylinders, serviced by a regular parade of Pan Am space shuttles. Far from the crumbling cities and polluted landscapes of contemporary America, smiling families watched laughing youths hang-gliding through the zero-gravity point as the vast majesty of their space habitat curved around them. Poring over these rough-sketched pastel-and-watercolor illustrations, I felt like it was only a matter of time before I could step through the page an into a solar-powered Better Tomorrow.

So. Since it was the 70s, neither of our parents had a problem with either of us biking a mile away to visit each other, and back-and-forth sleepovers were common. Of course, I thought his house was awesome, because his parents were evidently not having financial difficulties like mine, and his mother — exotically Belgian! — didn’t have a problem with cable television. I watched quite a few off-limits movies like The Blues Brothers and Airplane! over at his house, but one of our absolute favorites was the completely awful Sonny Chiba vehicle Message from Space. I think we realized exactly how bad it was, but the audacity of the plot — glowing space nuts! blowing up the Moon! laser battles! — won us over. Listed as “Japan’s answer to Star Wars“, it was accepted into the canon as another awesome space movie. The other bonus to going over to my friend’s house was his absolutely astounding collection of space toys. He had a whole shelf just bursting with what I now recognize as early manga figurines, animé characters, obscure sci-fi action figures, and alien creatures. They were myriad, they were legion, they were everywhere. They warped into the LEGO Space universe with hardly a red alert bleep.

This was the milieu that “Fly Like an Eagle” inserted itself into. Steve Miller is not really known as a high-tech visionary of high-orbit settlement, but as someone who once denoted himself as the “Space Cowboy” you could expect there might be some fellow feeling there. This particular song kinda puts the wink and the nod to this hidden technogeekery. It’s usually played with “Space Intro”, the album opener, and contains a mind-warping amount of delayed Moog synthesizer scattered around the basic blues-rock core. At least it was mind-warping to me and my best friend, as we lay on the thick shag carpet in his bedroom, listening to the song on the radio. It’s all full of spacious reverb and open sonic spaces. The funky groove is there to keep the song moving, and at this early age I still recognized the importance of the basic bass thrust. Even the Hammond organ has an otherworldly feel to it, some of the portamento passages eliciting a dark, thick eruption from the soundboard that resembled nothing more than the low barking speech of some large and authoritative alien creature.

It was about that time that one of us would pull out my friend’s copy of our most favorite book in the world. That would be Spacecraft 2000-2100 — more accurately titled Spacecraft, 2000-2100 A.D.: Terran Trade Authority Handbook, but we didn’t bother with the subtitle. This was an odd little sci-fi project that had the author taking his favorite illustrations from the major sci-fi magazines and weaving together some sort of future history out of their implied narratives. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t really bother with the gingerbread. We were more interested in the pictures. Vast warships blazed past each other, umbilicalled astronauts suspended themselves over alien landscapes to conduct repairs, spiky probes encountered shadowy vessels in swirling mists, and a myriad of spacecraft jostled for berths at enormous spaceports. Planets with giant red suns shared the same spread as sentry ships lost in empty, star-speckled gulfs. This was the dream made real, this was The Future taken beyond just tame and domestic Lagrangian toruses and projected into the glow of the galaxy. This was space exploration taken from the hands of futurists and NASA engineers and turned into simply the way things were.

Just like the future history of the book, neither of us noticed or cared much about the more literal message of Steve Miller’s lyrics. Sure, it was an excellent idea to shoe the children and house the people living in the streets, but that was beside the point. The point was that time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future, and we were there. In the ripple of Moog synthesizer sounds simulating the sensor sounds of our personal exploration craft, in the final beep-beep-beep of updated Sputniks circling forever around the world, we understood that it was high time to escape the Real World and the completely real and unavoidable dystopia that it presented. The real revolution, if one chose to look for it, was not here on Earth. It was in space, a territory as limitless as time. Staring at that book and hearing Steve Miller’s final coded message beeping through the speakers, I hoped to see the spacecraft of 2100 arc into orbit myself, when that time came.

 ::  2014-05-15  ::  Edward Semblance

Snapsongs: “La Villa Strangiato” by Rush

Sunday 11 May 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

Ahhh, Rush. Amongst a certain demographic, the ne plus ultra of rock groups. It took me a while, but I finally got there. They’d been active pretty much all of my musically conscious life, but none of the parental generation in my family was into them, and I never listened to the radio stations that would play them. Except for a complete fluke — one singular moment in 1983 when an afternoon DJ at my favorite Austin pop station played “New World Man” in a momentary lapse of playlist oversight — I’d never really heard their music. I vaguely knew of their existence, and I thought “New World Man” was very cool, but that was about it.

It wasn’t until I really began exploring the concept of album-oriented rock in my sophomore year of high school that this whole musical catalog opened up for me. I was formally introduced to Rush on a field trip with the German Club to New Braunfels. We were shepherded onto a charter bus by my German teacher,  we ate funnel cakes, wurst, and pretzels, and had a water war on paddleboats in the Comal River, all in honor of the remnants of German culture that remained in central Texas. One of my fellow travelers brought along a jambox for the bus ride. Many albums were played, including Led Zeppelin II, Back in Black and Pyromania, but the cut that caught my ear was “Red Barchetta” off of Moving Pictures. I remember thinking, “Ohhh, so this is Rush.” It sounded awesome. I immediately took action.

A friend of mine from junior high had accompanied me to high school, and I knew he was into Rush. He was also, incidentally, into Ayn Rand and Objectivism, which sometimes accompanies a preference for Rush, but I never succumbed. Philosophy wasn’t really my cup of tea, and I was more interested in the music, anyway. (Later, when I finally perused Ayn Rand out of curiosity, I was amused to find I’d neatly dodged a bullet.) So I went to him the next day and requested entry into the hallowed halls. He immediately lent me his Rush collection: a nice selection of five cassettes that fit neatly into a padded silver TDK tape case. From Permanent Waves to Power Windows, it was a slice of middle Rush that showed them at a perfect nexus of popularity and precision. Later albums would be more accomplished and evolved, and earlier albums were more popular amongst the contemporary fandom, but these were an excellent sampling. Indeed, Grace Under Pressure remains one of my favorite all-around Rush albums.

I didn’t actually hear “La Villa Strangiato” until quite a bit later. The studio version of the song was not on this introductory set: it was on Hemispheres, an album from a more bombastic time. It helps to understand that “La Villa Strangiato” is an eleven-minute instrumental, with several parts that one could call “movements” and assign them goofy titles, if one was in a progressive power trio in the late 70s. Sure, it’s a bit overblown, as a lot of progressive was, but it isn’t anywhere near the lofty heights of self-importance attained by such acts as Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Pink Floyd. Indeed, it contains several quotes from “Merrie Melodie” cartoon scores, and the boys subtitled it “an exercise in self-indulgence” to make it completely obvious exactly what was going on. Such things are perfectly acceptable if they don’t get too out of hand. At any rate, I had to wait for my friend to lend me his copy of the live album Exit… Stage Left before I heard it. I was deeply impressed. The live version is much harder than the studio version, and basically serves as an organized excuse for all three musicians to just let things go crazy while on stage. As the album closer, it was a perfect setup for a fist-pumping, air-guitaring jamfest. Later on, I was able to capture a copy of the studio version when a local radio station played the entire record as part of its Sunday night full-album show. Both versions became staples in my Walkman while I wandered the neighborhood with the family dog. Both versions became major exhibits in my understanding that I was singing along with the bassline, not the melody, in the songs I liked. As such, the song became a major factor in my later decision to purchase and learn to play a bass guitar.

And, as luck would have it, the song became a major factor in my dedication and final mastery of the bass guitar. As with another snapsong, this was helped along by Bass Player magazine publishing the sheet music for the bass line in the center pages of that illustrious periodical. It was early enough in my apprenticeship that I was even more hopelessly lost by actual music notation than I usually am, but Bass Player helped me out: they included the tab notation.

Tabulature notation is a simplified way of representing what one should play by referencing the specific instrument one is playing and not the general universe of musical notes. Instead of a staff of five lines that represents an abstracted pitch space, tab uses a staff of however many strings is involved in the instrument played: in the case of bass guitar, the four strings tuned E-A-D-G. Instead of circles and dots representing pitches and timings, tab uses a numerical code on the requisite string to instruct the player which fret to play. Timing is indicated by spacing in the measure. For example: to play the upper bass clef note “E”, the tab could either indicate “12” on the lowest line, “7” on the next higher line, or “2” on the third line. Depressing each specified fret on the specified string would result in that particular note being played. The fourth line would not encode that note, because that note cannot be played on the bass guitar’s G string.

With tabulature one sacrifices theory for practice. Tab is not transposable between instruments, but with the tab in front of me I could figure out what to play and reference the staff notation to obtain more precise timing information and reference the recorded track to obtain feel. And that is exactly what I did. I had owned my blue Peavy jazz-bass knockoff for about six months, and I was already locked in to a dedicated schedule of practicing. I didn’t have a set time or duration for my practice sessions, but I pulled out my bass every free moment I had, and this song became a graduated lesson plan of technique, rhythm, timing, feel, swing, complexity and virtuosity. “La Villa Strangiato” has something for every level of prowess. There are simple sections, easy sections, middling sections, hard sections, and mind-blowing sections. I could either tailor my practice to parts I was comfortable with, or I could focus on the harder parts to see if I could start to make headway with higher-level fingerings like hammer-ons and pull-offs. Or I could just step back from the minutiae and play along with the entire song, feeling my way through the composition and fudging those parts that I couldn’t quite handle. From the beginning, Geddy Lee was one of the bass players I revered and hoped to one day emulate. Although we’ve only once met, he instead became something of my bass instructor.

One of the more ironic things about this particular time in my life is that my roommate at the time had actually purchased the copy of Bass Player that became my practice bible. I say ironic because it was this very purchase that probably had very much to do with the fact we did not stay roommates for much longer. It was too bad. I’d been pretty lucky in my dormitory roommate assignments, all things considered. My freshman year roommate had been a nice enough guy, but he was rather antisocial and preferred to spend his time studying in the carrels of the UT Law Library far removed from anyone that could bother him. His side of the room was very neat and organized, with his pencils lined up together and grouped separately from his pens. My friends commented that our room looked like a dorm room on one side and a hotel room on the other. He found himself his own apartment at the end of the year, and that was that. In contrast, my sophomore year roommate was quite a bit more engaging. We hit it off pretty much that first week, and he joined my group of friends as another cool guy to include on adventures. We hung out together, we went to the dorm cafeteria together, we played racquetball together. We even volunteered for Paul Tsongas’ presidential primary campaign together. We were, in actuality, just good friends.

It was somewhat interesting to note that this relationship worked best when we were in the dorms. Living together in cramped quarters in a cinderblock room that reeked of five decades of mold and mildew didn’t really faze us: we worked around the idiosyncrasies of each other’s schedule and the various shenanigans going on around us without problem. (It is amusing and apropos to note that I taped a hand-lettered sign with “La Villa Strangiato” on the top of the doorframe of both of my dorm rooms. The phrase means “The House of Strangeness” in Alex Lifeson’s goofy pseudo-Spanish.)

Of course, as with every person who lives in a dorm situation, we longed to move out, and did at the end of that first year. It’s unusual for two nineteen-year-olds to be approved for a lease without cosigners, but I suspect it was because I knew the apartment manager from my accelerated college German class. At any rate, that first off-campus apartment was not a beautiful dwelling, but it was my first actual real-life apartment away from my folks, and so it worked out okay. Neither of us was a slacker, the rent was never late, and splitting the groceries wasn’t a problem. When I went through a bad breakup and when my roommate broke his leg playing racquetball, we managed to cope with the fallout. It was only during the third year, in another (better) apartment, that things began to really break down.

I am pretty much certain that a good portion of that was my practice regimen. I played constantly. The problem was, I was also not very good, as one would only expect. My roommate was a marching band trumpeter who had at least four years of musical experience under his belt, so my constant bad notes and bad timing and just all-around continuous bad musical fuckups must’ve been like fingernails on a blackboard. The other problem was Rush. For all our rapport, neither of us had terribly compatible musical preferences. He, for some inexplicable reason, loved Kenny G, Queensryche, and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. I, on the other hand, loved Rush, the Police and the Cars. He also was obsessed with Tori Amos, which, if you’ve already read my musings about Suzanne Vega, know exactly how anathema this form of female singer/songwriter is to my tastes. As much as I hated much of his musical catalog, however, at least I didn’t have to hear him playing along with them on his trumpet. He had no such solace.

Alas, such a situation could have had a different outcome. At one point in time we could have sat down and worked out a mutually-agreeable way of eliminating the internal friction in the household. But we were twenty, and very few twenty-year-olds can go a week without some kind of drama. The fact we’d made it that far without some sort of blowup was actually pretty impressive. And at the time, our entire social group was undergoing huge stresses outside and beyond anything that we were dealing with, with the tribe fracturing along tensions and faultlines both obvious and obscure. It didn’t help that he had been becoming increasingly hermetic and judgemental in his overall worldview in the last year of our cohabitation. Although I was the sonic perpetrator in the bad dynamic, he became the close-mouthed perpetuator of the ill will. And, sometimes, the open-mouthed instigator. So the roommate situation went downhill, then underground. It culminated in me moving out one Saturday afternoon while he was still at work. Time to go. Exit… stage left.

So I moved into a crappy little hole-in-the-wall, to breathe and decompress and, hopefully, practice my music without driving anyone else bugnuts. He went off to do something, probably graduate, possibly work in economics, which was one of our shared interests. I really don’t know. My move-out exploded the tensions that had been building around us, releasing years of pent-up drama. He kept up with some other members of our shared group of friends for a short time, then just vanished. It is the sad truth that we never saw each other again, even after I had mended other fences later that fall.

To keep myself sane, I played as much as I could that difficult summer, in between sessions of work on my undergraduate thesis. I played mostly on an acoustic bass guitar I had fortuitously found through the local classifieds. By that time I had mastered every bit of “La Villa Strangiato” except for the really crazy bass solo around the 7 minute mark. It became a point of relaxation, to either groove with the recorded version or simply play it by memory. I still referred to the Bass Player sheet music to try to figure out exactly what Geddy was playing in that solo. It was an interesting talisman of an era that had abruptly closed down behind me.

So it went. My life reassembled itself. I managed to finish my thesis, creating two statistical metrics that positively tracked the ultimate success or failure of students in my honors program’s physics for non-majors class. I managed to graduate with decent honors and a decent GPA, and went on a whirlwind roadtrip to New Orleans to celebrate. And I managed to find a relationship with a woman that didn’t involve long-distance telephone calls or unrequited obsessions. Thus, late December found me in a much better frame of mind than I had really expected to be in. And so, late one winter evening, I was comfortably curled on the couch, reading a book and idly listening to the radio. The music interview show “Rockline” was on, because Rush was in town and they were being interviewed. I had tickets to see them the very next night. It was a good, but not stellar, interview — the usual Q&A about the new album and what it’s like touring. The DJ did his thing, they did their thing, and that was that. I don’t know if I would have remembered any particular thing about it if it hadn’t been for the fact I didn’t bother to get up to change the channel when the DJ started in on the production credits for the show. He thanked the band, his producer, the radio station, their staff — and the staff of the University of Texas at Austin. My ears pricked up. Why UT? Why thank UT? The offices of the radio station were ten miles north of the university, along the feeder road for the interstate highway. There was no reason to thank UT, unless — they were using the studios at the Communications Building to conduct the interview.

One of the few bonuses to that particular apartment — and there were not many — was its location to the university. It was only three blocks to the northwest corner of campus, where the lovely Modernist monstrosity of the Communications Building loomed. The ugly skin of rusting CorTen steel had been replaced with a dull gray plastic-coated cladding, but it was still an obtrusive blocky landmark. Within a minute, I was dressed for the weather and out the door, walking briskly.

Quite a few other fans had made the same inference that I had, judging by the crowd that surrounded the loading doors that lead to the basement studios. The waiting limousine made our deductions obvious. It was a group of about thirty to forty folks, milling in pent-up anticipation. People clutched glossy photos, notebooks, random pieces of paper. One excited gentleman had even brought his guitar and a giant Marks-A-Lot for the occasion. I had the first writing implement that came to hand — a Rotring fountain ArtPen — and my dogeared copy of Bass Player. If I was going to be able to meet my Bass God, I would be damned if I wasn’t going to have evidence.

Our gamble paid off. After about twenty minutes of waiting, the band and their entourage emerged through the wide steel double doors. It was obvious we were expected. Indeed, Alex Lifeson, the guitar player, had a huge grin on his face and extended his arms above his head, wiggling his fingers for a pen. As the crowd converged, I saw the guy with the guitar beaming rapturously as Alex scribbled his name on the pickguard of the instrument. Geddy Lee was not quite as enthused. Indeed, he looked like he was ready for the hotel and a good night’s sleep. However, he merged with the biomass without complaint. My proffered pen was accepted, as was my magazine, open to the first page of sheet music. Truth be told, a fountain pen is not the easiest thing to sign with, and another fan’s jostling elbow made the scribble less than legible, but it is my first, and only, autograph. It hangs on my wall, framed in medium gray black-core matting, and the newsprint has mellowed to the shade of a light tea.

Of all things to cap off an eighteen-month whirlwind ride of learning bass, finishing college and dealing with the vicissitudes of life, that would have to be one of the most fitting. By turns happenstance, coincidence, or predestination, depending on your philosophical bent, my virtual music instructor ended up autographing the very source code that had inspired me to play and practice, which behavior drove a wedge between myself and the friend who had given the sheet music to me, which forced me to move to a location where I was ready and able to obtain that signature. By design or by randomness? Who knows. All I know is, I walked home with Geddy Lee’s signature on the sheet music for my favorite Rush song.

So let’s hear it for the perversity of the Universe, which always increases to a maximum. And let’s also give a big thanks to Geddy Lee, the boys of Rush, Bass Player magazine, the University of Texas — and my old roommate, wherever he might be.

 ::  2014-05-11  ::  Edward Semblance

Dreamscenes: Rare Album

Saturday 10 May 2014 - Filed under Dreamscenes

I was able to score a copy of Black Sabbath’s “real” first album, Malleus Maleficarum, which was recorded on 8/5/74, according to the album artwork. The title track was excellent, and it had an early version of “Fairies Wear Boots”. However, it was packaged in a special “long” CD jewel case, which meant I had to reorganize my collection so it would fit properly.

 ::  2014-05-10  ::  Edward Semblance

Dreamscenes: On the Down-Low

Monday 5 May 2014 - Filed under Dreamscenes

It’s always best if you wait until after your semester-end critique of your design class to shoot up with the very amber liquid heroin you keep in Mason jars in the door shelves of your refrigerator.

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 ::  2014-05-05  ::  Edward Semblance

Snapsongs: “What Is And What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin

Monday 28 April 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

As I am a male of a certain age, no series of musical memoirs should be considered complete without some mention of Led Zeppelin. Every young man needs to select a particular British supergroup to obsess about, and my choice was Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones annoyed me, Pink Floyd was too full of themselves, I hadn’t yet crossed into the land of heavy metal a la Black Sabbath, and I appreciated but was ultimately bored by the Beatles. Led Zeppelin answered the demands for volume, thump and energy that youthful testosterone requires. I could air drum with Bonham, thrash out with Page, play weird keyboard noodles with Jones, and practice my awful falsetto with Plant. It was the perfect setup. It was a staple for my high school morning commute.

But the memory that sticks in my mind the most whenever I think of Zeppelin comes from a somewhat later time, when high school was an era rapidly retreating into history and I was almost finished with my first college degree. The hormone storms were subsiding, I was no longer as young a punk, I was working on my undergraduate thesis. I had begun to embrace a wider array of musical styles, I was more interested in nuance, and I was teaching myself to play bass. My song selections became less of a vehicle for rocking out and more of a vehicle for playing along. Before the howls begin: yes, yes, John Paul Jones is an excellent bass player, but I rarely looked to Zeppelin for inspiration. That came from elsewhere.

So, the scene: it was the summer of 1993, an odd transitional point, an odd brief hiatus in that early collegiate career. A roommate situation had gone sour, which had necessitated a quick exit from my former place of dwelling. I was in a low-rent apartment less than three blocks from the university; it took almost five minutes for the warm water to make its way from the hot water heater to my shower, it was carpeted in medium-gray indoor-outdoor carpet that made spill cleanup a breeze, and it was considered a “one-bedroom” rather than a “studio” apartment through the addition of a flimsy partition of wobbly drywall that was actually installed over the carpeting. But it was cheap and close, it had a nice garden with a big tree, and the high wooden fence around the courtyard meant we only got weird homeless people wandering by every couple of weeks at most. Of course, the fraternity house next door had the habit of playing “Whoomp There It Is!” at high volume early in the morning, but all I had to do was turn on my wall-mounted air conditioning unit to drown them out. As I remarked to a friend at the time, there could be two tornadoes doing a samba outside my window and I’d never know it, because that A/C unit was loud. It made sleeping something of a chore, but dealing with the summer heat and humidity was even worse. I know this because I tried it.

All this would have been just fine and dandy if it wasn’t for the unfortunate mental space I found myself in at the time. In a nexus of genetic susceptibility, social isolation, general malaise and worry about what I was going to do with my life, I had become the victim of periodic panic attacks that lasted anywhere from fifteen minutes to two hours. As it turned out, they were almost completely contextual, and as my general outlook and situation improved over the next two years they lessened and finally subsided, never to bother me again. However, that didn’t help me as I lay on my back in that shitty apartment, the din of the air conditioner warring with the roar in my ears, gripping the corners of my bed in a sweaty determination to wait until the world ended or my heart exploded, whichever came first. Although millions of causal abusers have given it a bad reputation as a designer drug, let me just say this: alprazolam, brand name Xanax, is a wonderful therapeutic medication.

In between panic attacks, I was ostensibly working on the undergrad thesis required for my honors degree program, but everyone who has tried such a thing knows how that goes. Things happen in fits and starts, and although the things that needed to get done got done when they were supposed to, there was never a coherent and protracted level of effort involved. I was doing an examination of how my fellow honors students reacted to a required science class, using statistical instruments to analyze their expectations and strategies from an educational psychology standpoint. It was a belated way for me to give something back to the honors program: instead of writing a novel like many of my cohorts, I would attempt to help the administration improve their course design. The class in question was physics for non-majors, and it had been a bone of contention and a hub of controversy amongst my classmates. Honors liberal arts students are not used to learning science, and they are especially not used to failing at any intellectual endeavor. This class offered them the opportunity to do both. I had rather enjoyed my time in the class, as it was taught by an experimental physicist who regularly rubbed shoulders with Murray Gell-Mann and Steven Weinberg, but I was a minority. Sometimes, indeed, a minority of one.

So I figured I’d give back to the program by explaining why the class hadn’t been going so well. In doing so, I had stacks of bubble sheets and questionnaires to check off, I had legal pads to fill in with data, and I had to figure out if the answers to a series of thought problems I’d given the class through their discussion sections actually had something important to say, and what that exactly would be. Fortunately for me and my thesis adviser, this indeed was the case. I was able to find a statistical link between the creativity of the answers given and the ultimate grade in the class. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t discover this until later in the fall, when I was able to run my codified data through some stats programs on the VAX cluster at the university. That summer, it was hard to keep slogging through the stacks of paper without an indication that the slog was worth it. This was before iPads and smartphones, mind you, paper was what we used for everything back then.

And paper was how I distracted myself when the slog got too much. I would work my way through the morning newspaper — something of a micro-Internet printed out and delivered to your door every day — reading through everything and then ending with the comics and the classifieds. The classifieds — an analog Craigslist, one that you had to pay to post in, back in those benighted times — were a guilty pleasure. I had very little money and even less storage space, but I always checked out Automobiles, Electronics, and Musical Instruments. I was a closeted car nut, a stymied audiophile, and an aspiring musician. I would briefly fantasize about that 1973 turbo Diesel Mercedes, or the 1978 BMW 3.0, or the Mackintosh tube preamp, or the Adcom spatial multiplexer, or the five-string Fender bass. Or that Kramer acoustic bass guitar. Wait a minute… the what?

Yes, there it was, right in the Musical Instruments section, a listing I hadn’t seen the day before. A Kramer acoustic bass guitar, black, with case, for only $300. Oh, man. I didn’t have much, but I did have $300. I called immediately. It was 8:30 am. The gentleman on the phone was amused when I asked if he still had it. Four other people had already called, but he still had it. I asked when I could pick it up. He said 1:30. I said, okay where are you? Five hours later I pulled up to the house with a wad of cash in my pocket. He was waiting with the guitar in the carport. Deal done.

To clarify: this was an acoustic bass guitar, not an acoustic bass. This was not an upright instrument that might answer to the name bass viol if it wandered into an orchestra pit. I would not have been able to get a double bass — maybe not even the bow for one — for $300. It was just like a guitar, but strung E-A-D-G just like an electric bass. Since it was acoustic it didn’t need amplification. I could hang out on the walkway, or in the courtyard, or around campus, playing out in the breezy air. Or, more importantly, I could play and practice in my apartment without annoying my neighbors through the very, very thin walls we shared.

So I started using my new-to-me acoustic bass whenever I could, which was pretty much every day, because I was still avoiding my thesis. It was glossy black, with golden phosphor bronze strings and blond wood neck behind the rosewood fingerboard. The headstock drooped down in a sharp point beyond the tuning heads. It had a piezoelectric pickup next to the sound hole, so I could technically plug it in and play it through my amplifier, which I did from time to time. It had a decent woody sound with bright attack from the high string action. What this means is, the strings were set high above the frets, so it took more pressure to press them down, which helped generate more sound energy through the soundboard. This extra pressure made the noise of the strings striking the frets sound louder and higher-pitched. This meant I needed to play more precisely, unless I actually wanted that sound. It also meant it was physically harder to play quickly, and raised more blisters when I did. A week of that and I had extra callouses on my callouses, and it made playing my electric bass seem like playing butter. I was pleased at this extra benefit from my impulse purchase.

And this is where Led Zeppelin comes in. I’ve never been able to read music, and have only occasionally attempted to teach myself to do so. Mostly it was because I get bored and quit before I see any results, some of it was because I have a real dyslexia in interpreting timing from the whole-half-quarter-eighth array of flags and bars, and some of it was because I just feel ornery about it. The attempts I’ve made usually coincide with a half-guilty effort to Improve Myself and the availability of sheet music for me to stare at. That summer was one of those times. I had a new bass, one that I probably couldn’t afford, and I felt I should make some effort to rise to the occasion. Every now and then my parents would buy me a Bass Player magazine, and I had a few of them kicking around the apartment. Soon after buying the Kramer, I discovered one of them had the bass sheet music for “What Is and What Should Never Be”. Well, then. Musician, improve thyself.

That particular song was never one of my absolute favorite Zeppelin tunes, but I liked it, and it was a valuable part of the arc of the album Led Zeppelin II. It was definitely more laid-back, something more of a swing-lounge piece than the usual fare I would favor. So it was an interesting experience coming at the song from underneath, so to speak, taking the sheet music and trying to figure out what all those dots and sticks were trying to tell me. In the process I discovered that there was quite a bit more going on than I had expected. Lots of bluesy runs and scales, but a lot of bass chords, riffs that needed tricky fingerwork to pull off, and little bits of gingerbread that I never would have been able to hear in the studio recording — unless they were pointed out to me, like they were on the sheet music. It gave me a new appreciation for John Paul Jones, and for the construction of Zeppelin’s music that lay below the rock-out-with-your-cock-out bluster. It was mellow, and mellowing.

So that became my non-thesis project that summer, deciphering the musical staff and toughening up my fingers in order to play “What Is and What Should Never Be” in its entirety on my Kramer bass. I never managed to learn to read, but I guess that wasn’t the point. The point was to find a place of solace in the panic. When my eyes got tired of reading student handwriting, I’d pick up the Kramer and begin where I’d left off, sometimes playing with the song on CD, sometimes just playing. When my fingers got tired of the high action, I’d pull out my blue Peavy electric bass and run through the licks with very little effort, pleased with how this new acoustic regimen was increasing my speed. Sometimes, if it was a reasonably dry heat that day, I would actually play outside, leaning my folding chair against the wall and putting one foot on the railing of the walkway that served me as an ersatz balcony. The tree would shadow me, the breeze would blow, and the cicadas would serve as a background drone. Peaceful.

As I said, it was mellowing, and that was a relief to me that season. I was plowing through my thesis work, but I didn’t know if it would be a success. More ominously, there was that unspoken situation that lurked behind my thesis, ready to pounce: graduation, and the murky future that extended beyond that. After the December ceremony, assuming I passed all my classes and my thesis was accepted, all bets were off. This was the source and the sustenance of my panic attacks during that long hot summer. What would I be? What would I do? What would I become?

At least I knew one thing: I was becoming a better bass player through the intercession of Led Zeppelin. It wouldn’t put food on the table, at least not yet, and it wouldn’t answer all my questions, but it was something.

 ::  2014-04-28  ::  Edward Semblance

Snapsongs: “I’m In Touch With Your World” by The Cars

Tuesday 22 April 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

It probably should be said, that in the swirling constellations of music that guided my adolescent life, none shone as brightly nor guided me as faithfully as the brilliant Triangulum of the Police, Rush, and the Cars. Perhaps an odd mix of genres, but that didn’t matter: when I wanted to chill, or jam, or sing along, or rock out, or escape from the world, those three groups would have a dedicated place in my trusty Walkman. Their albums shared pride of place on my pricey Maxell 90-minute metal masters, dubbed with my dual-cassette jambox from borrowed cassettes or recorded reverently from friends’ CD copies. They served as the sonic backdrop for my formative years, and thus I pretty much have their entire catalogs memorized. It is a point of fact that I was once was able to identify the song “Touch and Go” by the Cars from a single isolated drum sound played for the fraction of a second it took for a friend of mine to slide in the tape and to punch the fast-forward button on his car stereo. Teenage touchstone memories are elephantine.

The difficulty with all three of these bands is identifying a singular happening that could be definitely called personal or idiosyncratic and not necessarily a reaction to a popular hit played on the radio. Before I became a fan, I knew of the Cars, I’d heard the Cars, and I liked the Cars. For starters, they were all over the place in the summer of 1983, I really couldn’t have avoided them. That, of course, was not the time I really encountered them. One does not “encounter” something someone sees every day. It took the gift of the aforementioned Walkman in 1985 to make me realize that I could, in fact, purchase the albums recorded by my favorite bands and listen to them in the comfort and safety of my own home. I didn’t have to rely on the radio to serve me music at a sequence and selection of its choosing. When a friend of mine copied The Cars’ Greatest Hits for me I realized this was a band I could explore with confidence. I liked everything they did.

So in the fall of 1986 I discovered the world of album-oriented rock and the joy of perusing deep cuts. Sure, I was at least a decade behind the concept of AOR, but I was getting there. With the Cars I had a reasonably manageable selection of albums to choose from, not too few, not too many. It was still amazing to me: there were so many more songs out there than just “Magic” and “Drive”. There was something more than just the payola playlist in the hands of a bored DJ. There were oddities, experiments, brilliant failures and obvious padding. And there were songs that were just awesome, so awesome it was a crying shame I hadn’t heard them before.

“I’m In Touch With Your World” could be any of the above list of deep cut descriptives: in turns it’s an odd song, it’s an experimental song, it’s a brilliant song, it’s a silly song, it’s a filler song, it’s an awesome song. It’s the first non-hit song in the album The Cars, and showed the not-quite-a-pop-confection side of the group. One remembers that this was a band that had a Berklee graduate on keyboards, cut their teeth at the same time as Roxy Music, Iggy Pop and Generation X, and later got Andy Warhol to direct one of their videos. You get a feeling of a jam session gone studio, with a condenser mic set up next to the keyboard stand so someone could hit one of the various noisemakers assembled there whenever the notion hit. There’s a wide-open reverb, a sense of space different from the tight set of the hit tunes. And the verse construction is also sparse and simple, the first three beats of the 8-note bar reserved for a repeated motif, the rest open for jangly guitar riffs, doubled drum fills, or saxophone squeals. Then a quick power-chord rock-out for the chorus. The lyrics were off-kilter and ran through some silly innuendos and drug references that Ric Ocasek found amusingly oblique. To a newbie, it was dangerously fun.

And a newbie I was, that fall of 1986, in more ways than one. I was finally feeling the excitement of being fourteen, and things were starting to change in my brain. One could say my conscious adult self was finally waking up. It was, unfortunately, a later blooming than for most. Part of that had to do with the fact that my junior high experience had been a series of social isolations — yeah, I know, welcome to the party, brother. But this was slightly different. In my first year of middle school, I’d carved out a niche for myself and my weirdo friends in a huge public school in the rapidly developing rural suburbs north of Austin, but in retrospect I’m sure the Devil would have found ill use for my idle hands there. So my parents moved me to a place with more possibilities for intellectual stimulation. Unfortunately, in a private school populated by the offspring of the newest of the Nouveau Riche, a chubby sarcastic nerd will not fit in very well. Especially when there were no more than sixty-two children in the entire building. In this limited space I really had nowhere to run to. The same proto-douchebags would still be there, class after class, practicing their douchebaggery on me to perfect it for their later fraternal careers. It became rather tiresome.

To be sure, I did befriend the other oddities and outcasts around me, and I suffered no major insult to my body or my mind, but it was not a happy time. This was probably a large reason why my freshmen year in high school was spent in something of a bunkered mentality. But, then again, I have always enjoyed the comfort and safety of my own skull, and I am usually perfectly happy to let the world outside do its thing without me. My experience in middle school just made it that much easier to stay ensconced. So I did as a freshmen, inadvertently building up a reputation as a sequestered iconoclast, certainly brilliant but perhaps not all there. It was a science magnet school, there were plenty of those around. I had my fans, and my foes, but I didn’t really have many friends.

Well, sophomore year that changed. Some of that had started the end of my freshman year — the fellow travelers on my school bus banded together to get me some copied music, and another friend started asking me to come over to play on his computer bulletin board during the summer. I started wanting to hang out with people my own age, rather than the neighborhood group of children that included my younger brother, and for whom I kinda served as a benevolent leader. As the school year began, I started to make tentative social steps in German class and in my archery PE section. But, as usual, it took something completely out of the blue to make me realize I couldn’t be self-sufficient forever. And, as usual, that something was a woman.

It didn’t go well. Such things never did until much later in my life. As a sophomore in high school, I was completely at sea. I was too self-ensconced, too self-conscious, too nervous and too scared of this new dynamic to be able to do anything coherent. I was a hopeless, hopeless newbie. It didn’t help that I was, and am, something of an intellectual loose cannon, an informational leaf-blower, an incontinent free-thinker that oooh, shiny look a squirrel hey, let’s go ride bikes! The object of my desire was none of that. She was cool, calculated, smart, smug, superior and set. Her social surround was a group of math savants who looked down on a syncretic assimilative intelligence like my own as somehow inferior. And she had selected for her chosen a virtuoso cellist classmate of ours who had no discernible personality whatsoever. It was hopeless from the get-go.

But what does one do in the face of a flood of hormones? For that is what I finally found swirling around inside me, altering my thoughts, changing my brain, waking me up from the latency of childhood. Alas, one does what teenage man has done from time immemorial: I thought and despaired and obsessed and, finally, I acted. I sat moodily on my bed with my Walkman, trying to scry some solution — or failing that, some solace — from the words that spilled through my headphones. I joined Speech & Debate so I could talk with her more. I went on school trips, I spent the night in other cities, I got up and defied my stage fright to argue a point of logic. I started to engage with the people around her so I could have an in. I began to sift nuances of social interaction, finding like minds and fellow feeling in the milling mass around me. Indeed, that science magnet program had brought together a startling array of interesting and fascinating people, even though they were, as yet, not even old enough to vote. I pushed and cried and fumed and built up my resolve until I could get over my adolescent awkwardness. And in the end, I finally asked her out, and got shot down in epic style. In doing so, it gave me heartache and truckloads of drama, but it also gave me a growing selection of actual friends, a series of positive experiences regardless of their origin, and made my high school career something to experience rather than something to endure.

And, thinking back to those times, the sometimes intentionally goofy and sometimes inadvertently brilliant song “I’m In Touch With Your World” sums things up in surprisingly apt ways.  It’s a good song to calm a newbie, whether to AOR, to life, to music, or to love. It’s not flashy, it’s silly, it’s fun. Ric Ocasek nods at you from behind some New Wave shades and welcomes you in. “It’s all a jam, man, just feel for the bass groove. No pressure, no rules. Here, make some funny noises, I’m gonna sing some silly jokes and recherche non-sequiturs. That guy over there is gonna do goofy synth stuff. It’s all good.” The song never fully resolves, but never fully stops. Hesitant yet dogged — going back to mistakes and fixing them — or making them again, but better — with a taste of snark and knowing cynicism — this was something I could use, something I could pattern after, something I was, actually, familiar with. It was something to make you smile while walking the dog on a crisp autumn evening. The sequestered iconoclast finally had something to say: I’m in touch with your world, and don’t you try to hide it. I might not be all there, but I can see you from where I’m standing, and maybe you’d like to share the view. It’s such a lovely way to go.

That whole worldview is summed up nicely in the final verse: “It’s a sickie contradiction, this thing you call Creation. Everything is science fiction, and I oughta know.” Indeed. Indeed.

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 ::  2014-04-22  ::  Edward Semblance