Friday, January 29, 2010

31 Years Ago Today

The Boomtown RatsThe Boomtown Rats via

On January 29, 1979, a 16-year-old from San Diego, CA named Brenda Spencer took the rifle her father had given her as a gift that Christmas and fired it into the playground of Cleveland Elementary School, killing two and wounding nine. Her stated motive when questioned by police became the inspiration for and title of The Boomtown Rats' most well-known song: "I Don't Like Mondays":

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye Franny, Zooey, and Holden

upright=1.Image via Wikipedia

"I'm afraid of people who like Catcher in the Rye.
Yeah, I liked it too, but someone tell me why
People he'd despise say 'I feel like that guy'?
I don't wanna grow up, because I don't wanna die..."
- "William Holden Caulfield" by Too Much Joy

J.D. Salinger passed away today at the age of 91. Best known as the author who gave the world its most emulated anti-hero, the character Holden Caulfield, in the classic Catcher in the Rye, Salinger's writings included a second novel (actually a splicing of a short story and a novella), Franny and Zooey, a collection of short stories (Nine Stories), and Raise High the Roof Beam, which collected two more novellas into one book. Considered one of the greatest short-story authors in American history, his entire output was published between 1941 and 1965. Becoming famously reclusive and shunning publicity and celebrity at all costs, Salinger admitted in a rare interview in the 1980s that he had written at least another fifteen books which existed only in manuscript form in his home, because he wrote only for himself.

Salinger's style, a very stream-of-thought narrative through the eyes of his characters, gave his works a voice that could be heard and understood by generation after generation, even though the vocabulary and phrasing he relied upon were very much of the time in which they were written. Catcher in particular has been poured over by students year after year for decades, with Holden Caufield's naive rebelliousness both propelling and handicapping his attempts to find meaning and purpose in life over a three-day binge in NYC. Written as though we are hearing Caulfield's thoughts, the story connects on a visceral level with an adolescent reader, although Salinger was writing for an adult audience.

At various points in time, Catcher has been both the most taught and the most censored book in American public schools (the frank language and adult themes are upsetting to some). Despite it's placement by Time Magazine among the most important books written in the twentieth century, the book's reputation suffers from the perception that everyone who fancies himself a rebel of some sort names it as a favorite, yet if everyone loves it so, how can they be rebels? (Ironically, the very type of conundrum Holden Caufield would mull over for a chapter or two!)

Franny and Zooey, his other full-length work, is perhaps not as universally known and revered - and sadly so. Our first introduction to members of the Glass family, who would become recurring characters in Salinger works, the story of Franny's emotional and spiritual breakdown as she seeks enlightenment through ceaseless prayer, and her eventual epiphany reached through the help of her brother Zooey, is every bit as captivating and "real" as Holden Caulfield's story. While I love both books, I may actually be among the few who prefer Franny and Zooey.

Indeed, in many ways, reading (and re-reading, and re-reading) Salinger is a large part of what made me want to begin writing. Those who know me know that I am, overall, not huge fan of fiction (I do, however, voraciously read non-fiction). Salinger is an exception to that rule, I think because his writing does ring so true to life. What I would give to be able to read those manuscripts of his that never saw the light of day!

Salinger was 91 years old when he passed away this morning of natural causes at his home in New Hampshire.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #50

Comprised of original Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, future Ultravox frontman Midge Ure, future founding member of Visage Rusty Egan, and drummer Steve New, who would go on to play briefly in Public Image, Ltd., Rich Kids were one of the first "supergroups" on the Punk/New Wave scene. With that much talent in one group, their first record was eagerly anticipated by fans and music journalists alike.

Their first album would turn out to be their only album, but oh what a record it is! Ghosts of Princes in Towers landed on store shelves in the summer of 1978, its grooves fairly bursting with energy, its tracks ranging from simply very good to stunning. Unfortunately, for as good as the music was, the recording sounded terrible. Mick Ronson had been brought on board to produce the album, and the resultant recording was a muddied rumbling mix that thoroughly disappointed everyone from critics to fans to the band alike.

Still, there's no hiding talent. From the title track to the eponymous first single to cuts like "Marching Men," Rich Kids blasted out a punky power-pop vibe with a little tinge of '60s mod sounds a la The Small Faces (whose "Here Come the Nice" they covered as an early b-side). The songs are well worth the audiophile's nightmare to listen to. Years later, CD re-issues of the album would try to improve the sound through remastering, with fair to middling results, but we vinyl junkies are stuck with Ronson's folly.

After that fiasco, Rich Kids went their separate ways. Supergroups seldom have a long shelf-life anyway, but it sure would have been nice to hear what these guys would have come up with as a sophomore effort.

This week's NW4NW entry is a clip of Rich Kids performing their debut single "Rich Kids" on Top Of The Pops. Enjoy!

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #49

Australians Harry Vanda and George Young have an interesting musical pedigree. In the '60s, Vanda played lead guitar and Young rhythm guitar (and both provided backing vocals) for The Easybeats, best known for their one-hit wonder "Friday On My Mind."

When that band broke up in 1970, Vanda and Young continued writing songs and recording under various pseudonyms including Paintbox and Grapefruit, and also got involved in writing and producing for other performers. Most notably, they produced several early albums for a band you may have heard of that George Young's brothers Angus and Malcolm put together called AC/DC (from 1975's High Voltage to 1978's If You Want Blood You've Got It). They also had a worldwide hit in the mellow soft-rock genre, writing and producing "Love Is In The Air" for the unrelated John Paul Young in 1978.

With successes in '60s pop, and '70s hard rock and soft rock, why not dabble in early New Wave as well? Vanda and Young began a side-project studio collaboration that soon blossomed into a nearly ten-year run as the wonderfully named Flash 'n' the Pan.

Beginning with the outstanding "Hey St. Peter" in 1977, Flash 'n' the Pan released a steady stream of inventive, enjoyable records that were heartily embraced both in their Australian homeland and throughout most of Europe. Their sound, a keyboard-propelled loping melody beneath heavily compressed spoken-sung vocals, was easily identifiable, and their ability to write catchy tunes saw them score overseas hits with "Media Man," "Welcome To The Universe," and "Waiting For A Train."

By the mid-80s, Vanda and Young had slowed down drastically, although they have never completely stopped working together. Occasional albums sporadically appeared under the Flash 'n' the Pan moniker up through the mid-90s, although many were repackaged "hits" collections. They are one of those bands that just might have been different enough to catch on in the US had they been given a even chance here (of course, conservative radio programmers wouldn't play their records back then - they sounded too "weird"). Most people I introduce to Flash 'n' the Pan find that, once they get used to the vocals, they really enjoy them. You might too.

This week's NW4NW entry is the clip for that first single, "Hey St. Peter." It remains one of my favorite songs of the era. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lima Beans for My Birthday

My brother and I each have somewhat bizarre senses of humor, as anyone who knows either of us can attest. Anyone who knows both of us can tell you that putting us together results in a combined humor that is odder than the sum of its parts. But there are few out there who would fully understand how a bag of frozen lima beans had us both in tears laughing this weekend.

There are only two vegetables I will not, cannot, eat: brussel sprouts and lima beans. I know that they are good for me, packed with nutrients and antioxidants and vitamins and a bunch of other good things. Unfortunately, when Mother Nature packed all that healthiness into them, she found no room left to add things like flavor, enjoyable texture, or anti-gagging qualities. Any other vegetable you put in front of me, I'll eat happily. Asparagus, spinach, turnips, peas, corn, carrots, collard greens - all yummy in my book. Heck, I'll even eat okra and smile (I did live in the South for a while)!

My brother has considerably lower tolerance for vegetables than I, so lima beans are high on his "will not eat" list as well. In fact, this whole story begins with him sharing his dislike for the little green horrors with his in-laws, declaring them so vile that, at Christmas, he'd rather find a lump of coal in his stocking than lima beans! Sure enough, come Christmas day, his in-laws, who have become accustomed to his odd sense of humor over the years, delivered to him a Christmas stocking containing a bag of frozen lima beans.

After the merriment had subsided, he suddenly realized he was stuck with a bag of lima beans! He certainly didn't want them, his wife wouldn't eat them, his in-laws didn't want them back. Who in their right mind would? The things are atrocious! Over the next week or so, he asked friends and neighbors if they wanted the lima beans. Everyone responded the same way: "EWWWWW! YUCK!!!" Resigned to his fate as owner of the lima beans, he put them in his freezer, where they would still be had I not opened my big mouth.

Because my brother's birthday is Christmas Day and mine is January 6, and because our parents are divorced and Dad lives about an hour away, it has become tradition that we signal the end of the holiday season with a combined Christmas/New Year/both of our birthdays celebration with Dad. This year, it turns out that this holiday celebration was not the last of the festivities; a combined birthdays dinner with Mom will close out the holidays this time around. But, Sunday was Dad's day, and since I do not drive, my brother and his wife were going to be picking me up to head west to Dad's place.

The phone rang around 11:30 Sunday morning. "We're on our way to get you," my brother reported.

"Alright, I'm ready!" I replied.

"Do you want us to wait until our birthday dinner with Mom, or should we bring your birthday presents along today?" he asked.

Sensing an opening for one of our standard phone routines, I again replied, "Alright, I'm ready!" In fact, as chance had it, that phrase perfectly answered another question or two that he asked, so I declared "Alright, I'm ready," the most handy phrase imaginable; that it could be applied just about anytime.

"OK," he smirked, "how about if I bring you a bag of frozen lima beans?"

I paused for a moment, and then, not knowing that he actually HAD a bag frozen lima beans (Why would he? He hates them as much as I do!), I foolishly decided to call his bluff: "Alright, I'm ready!"

I should know better. I really should. When we were kids still living at home, there was the day he triumphantly marched into my room proudly carrying a shoebox containing somewhere around $35 in assorted coins and dollar bills. "This is all the money I've won off of you in the past year!" he grinned. As brothers often do, we'd bet on things - a quarter here, a dollar there, oh-come-on-double-or-nothing - but whereas the money I would occasionally win would be soon spent on baseball cards or candy or something, he won more often, and had been saving everything he won from me solely for the enjoyment of rubbing my face in it A YEAR LATER! This was no rookie I was dealing with.

I lost this bet, too. Amongst my birthday presents sat a bag of frozen lima beans.

As I picked it up and realized what it was, my brother just started laughing. What else could I do but laugh as well. Dad looked at both of us as though we were crazy, but once the story was explained, he had to laugh too.

So, the bag of lima beans now resides in my freezer, and I am resigned to be their keeper for the time being, until I can find either a willing recipient or an unwitting soul to pass them along to.

Any of you out there have birthdays coming up?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Friending Me on Facebook: You're Doing it Wrong (5 Tips For Networking On Facebook)

I've mentioned in previous posts that I am a firm believer that social media should be just that: social. While I understand and respect those who choose to limit their friend lists to those people with whom they have interacted in some way in the real world (former classmates, ex-coworkers, family and friends, etc.), I also feel they are missing out on one of the great joys that social media offers.

The ability for the average person to meet and converse with people from all across the world at the touch of a keyboard simply didn't exist a short few years ago. Now, thanks in large part to sites like Facebook, there is little difference between "across the street" and "across the globe." While this has been a boon for the professional networking crowd, it's also a chance for anyone to expand their horizons beyond their physical location. The people that you can connect with online and who become "cyber-friends" are the 21st century equivalent of the pen pal, without having to wait weeks to receive replies in the mail.

I have met and built friendships with many wonderful folks on Facebook who I will likely never have the chance to meet in person due to the distance between our physical locations. I have connected with folks as far away as Indonesia, India, France and the UK, networking both for business purposes and out of shared interests discovered through common Facebook groups or other online interactions. I tend to keep an open-door policy when it comes to accepting friend requests, as I am always interested in meeting new people. However, in the interests of safety and sanity (there are some real wackos online!), there are some basic guidelines I use in determining whether I'm going to accept that request. These are guidelines I also follow when I am extending a friend request to someone.

Last week, I received a friend request from someone who broke almost every one of these guidelines. I had to chuckle to myself as I hit the "ignore" button, as this person was clearly unskilled at the most basic concepts of networking, which happen also to be the foundation for these guidelines:

1. If We Haven't Met, Introduce Yourself. Facebook offers an option to include a personal message when you send a friend request. If you are reaching out to someone you have not met before, take a moment to add a sentence or two explaining why you're reaching out. Something like, "Hi, I noticed that you and I have several mutual friends here," or "I saw your profile and we are both fans of _____," or even "I am interested in meeting people from your part of the world." Something that gives me an idea why you are reaching out to me, so you're not mistaken for some weirdo stalker type.

2. If We Have Met, Don't Assume I Remember Who You Are. Especially if the only place we've met is another online service. (Twitter folks, I'm looking at you!) Whether we've talked on Twitter, met at a social function hosted by a common friend, or have interacted briefly in a business context, it helps a great deal to see a note saying, "I'm @twittername," "We met at John Doe's house last week," or "I work for XYZ Inc, and would like to add you to my contacts." Trust me, not everyone's memory is as superb as yours may be. This also applies if you are reaching out to someone from your past - a simple "I sat behind you in history in 8th grade," may make the difference between your request being accepted or tossed into the "ignore" bin.

The person who sent me the mystery request that inspired this post included no personal message, so I all I got was a name that rang no bell with me whatsoever. Had I ever met this person before, anywhere? If not, why was I being invited to join his Facebook circle?

3. Fill Out Your Profile Page, And Make Sure your Settings Allow Me To See It. If I don't know you well - or at all - believe me, the first place I'm going is to your profile page and the "about me" section. I want to know if we do have interests in common, or if there is something especially interesting about you that sells me on adding you as a friend. Be honest, but be creative - have a little fun with your profile page. Let your personality come through your words; this is one of those times when it is better to write the way you talk rather than stick to stodgy rules of composition. This is your first impression, and first impressions count!

Also, make sure you've got your privacy settings structured so that at least your basic "about me" info is viewable. The mystery person last week had his entire profile set to private, so again all I had was a random name. Even without the explanatory message, an interesting or unusual profile might have sold me.

4. Use A Photo Of Yourself As Your Profile Pic. That profile picture is extremely important! Some folks' memories are better jogged with a visual than anything else. Yet so often I get friend requests with no picture - or, worse yet, a meaningless picture. Use a picture of yourself. Not your family. Not your dog. Not your car. Not Bob Hope. Yourself. Preferably a head shot - remember, the pics aren't that big to begin with, so if the picture is of you rappelling down a rocky cliff, you're going to look like a shadowy smudge on my monitor.

Keep in mind that your profile pic can also work against you. The mystery friend request last week included a picture of a car (I assume owned by the person who sent the request), a high-end, high-dollar sporty number. All that told me was that this person either a.) is so materialistic as to believe others are going to be impressed by his wealth, or b.) is so shallow as to believe it important to project that image. In either case, that's a direct ticket to the "ignore" bin in my book.

5. Be Willing To Engage In Conversation Before I Decide To Accept. If I've got nothing else to go on, and I'm in a gregarious enough mood, I'll take one final step before hitting "ignore": I'll send a message to the person asking for some help in figuring out who they are. This can be done politely enough.

In the case of my mystery request, since all I had was a random name, no info, no profile, and a meaningless picture, I sent a message saying, "Forgive me, but have we met? If not, what made you choose me as someone to send a friend request to?"

Well, I never got a response from the mystery requester. In fact, in short order the friend request itself disappeared - had I scared this person off by asking such a basic question? Or, had I in fact successfully filtered a wacko? I'll never know for sure. If he was trying to network, he certainly was not doing it well!

By the way, if you would like to friend me on Facebook, feel free. Just make sure, please, to give me some idea of who you are!

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Monday, January 4, 2010

New Wave for the New Week #48

There came a point, about the middle of 1983, when the standard in music videos changed from the early shoestring-budget chromakey clips of bands singing their songs amid various cheap-o video effects to high-minded "concept clips" that told a story. What was once a three-minute promo clip for a song became twice as long, with some sort of scene played out using the band as actors before getting around to the song itself.

Usually, only the big-name major-labels had the budgets to create these mini-movies, but in early 1984 a little-known indie label out of North Carolina, Dolphin Records, created one for their band-of-the-moment in hopes of gaining a slot in MTV's airplay rotation and the national exposure that came with it.

Although the clip was timely (a take on the Indiana Jones saga so popular at the time) and well done, and although the song was fantastic and the band local cult heroes in Durham, NC, "Change Gotta Come" by The X-Teens never received the airplay that was hoped for.

Kitty Moses (vocals and bass), Robert Bittle (guitar), Ned Robie (drums), and Todd Jones (keyboards) formed The X-Teens in 1980 and immediately released their first of three excellent records, ...big boy's dream. Mixing ideas and sounds gleaned from Elvis Costello, Pylon, and The B-52's into a twitchy, poppy blast, The X-Teens found an eager audience in the early '80s North Carolina New Wave scene.

Two more albums would follow: X-Teens in 1983 and Love and Politics in 1984; but the band was getting frustrated that their regional success was not translating into a wider fan-base. When "Change Gotta Come" failed to break them big, the band split up.

The X-Teens remain well-known in their home state, and are often pointed to as forerunners of what would become known as "The Chapel Hill Sound" of the mid-to-late '80s as defined by NC bands like Let's Active, The Connells, and The dB's. Indeed, all three of The X-Teens records were produced by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, whose trademark sound practically defined that subgenre. All three records are well worth your efforts in finding, but for now, here's our first NW4NW entry for 2010 (and a fitting title as we enter a brand new year with hopes of better days than 2009 left behind!), "Change Gotta Come" by The X-Teens. Enjoy!

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