Monday, December 28, 2009

More DIY vengeance

Earlier this year, Dave Carroll wrote a song about how United Airlines broke his Taylor guitar, then made a video of it with his band, Sons of Maxwell.

Now the sequel is up on YouTube: United Breaks Guitars 2

You know what blows my mind? The part at the end where they thank the volunteers who helped make the video.

If you decided not to watch, suffice it to say that this is a professional video, with lots of sets and lots of performers. The band didn't simply have someone point a camera at them while they played the song.

Nicely done, Sons of Maxwell. You are an inspiration to musicians and do-it-yourself geeks everywhere.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Conversion

Yes! I have acquired software that will convert video clips to MP3 (thank you, DeppityBob). That means I'm one step closer to being able to post stuff from our Single Payer Band Jam gig.

Now I just need to figure out how to post MP3s on this blog. For some reason, Blogger has buttons for uploading video, but not audio.

I could just upload the two clips we have so far as video. Problem is, during the first 17 minutes of our set, the camera was pointed at the spot right between Ron the Drummer and me. For the aforementioned clips, you can see Ron's hi hat and my right arm, and nothing else.

Audio will be less dorky. But I'm a little technically challenged and a lot busy, so this could take a while.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

'Twas the day after Christmas

'specially people
Who care about strangers
Who care about evil
And social injustice
With a big grin, I remove my finger from my car radio's search button. I like this song. Even better, it's being broadcast from 94.9 Mix FM, which has played nothing but Christmas tunes for the past few weeks. Today is December 26. I officially don't have to deal with holiday music until next year.
Easy to say no
Much too easy to say nooooooo
I sigh contentedly as the last organ chord draws to a close. Yeah. I really like that—
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
(Click)

Oh well. I guess it's too much to expect Mix FM to go cold turkey.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The perils of work for hire

Like most of you, I don't generally keep up with news involving Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana. However, a bit of drama around one of the songs she sings unfolded recently, and you might find it interesting. I did. (Hat tip: Songwriting Scene.)

Seems that "The Climb," from the Hannah Montana movie soundtrack, had been nominated for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture. One day later the nomination got pulled because, strictly speaking, the song hadn't actually been written for the movie.

The sequence of events makes the decision seem pretty straightforward. Jessi Alexander and John Mabe cowrote the song. Alexander, who's under contract for Disney, submitted it to Disney for general consideration. The director of Hannah Montana: The Movie wanted to use it.

Here, in the words of Alexander, is where it gets fuzzy.
We started a song. It was actually called “It’s the Climb,” and it was a more spiritual song, sung in third person. And it was really about my woes, and Jon’s woes in the music business ... [Peter Chelsom] called back within weeks and said the song was gonna be an integral part of the movie, and the only thing he needed was for me to change what I would consider to be a substantial amount of the song.
Full interview at Entertainment Weekly

They made their substantial revisions, changing third-person perspective to first-person and downplaying the spiritual elements. If they didn't write the song with Hannah Montana in mind, they certainly rewrote it with Hannah Montana in mind.

The interesting takeaway question for those who care deeply about the Grammies is, where should these guys draw the line when vetting music for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture? Does every aspect of creation have to occur with the knowledge that it will be used for the film, or can, say, the melody come beforehand?

The interesting question for me is, how do songwriters do this kind of work without going insane?

I can handle criticism. I can handle hearing that this line or that break isn't good enough. But rewriting autobiographical lyrics so they're perfect for somebody who isn't old enough to drink?

Let's just say I'm not sure I would cope with as much grace as Alexander and Mabe.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cherry-picking

At some point in my teens, I decided to stay away from "greatest hits" and "best of" albums.

Doing so, I reckoned, would enhance my enjoyment of the music and honor the artists' visions. Records weren't just a random collection of tunes, after all. The good ones hung together as a coherent whole. Every song enhanced every other song.

I pondered that long-ago decision while reading an article on listening trends by Andrew Dansby.
[Eric] Garland's research suggests that people who like five or six songs from an album will ultimately acquire the whole thing, even with legal -- and illegal -- options for digital music. Short of that, they're inclined to make a $1 purchase instead of a $10 purchase.

Weak albums are pecked apart, with the carcasses of unwanted music left behind, an option that was largely unavailable on 45 rpm vinyl.

This isn't a new idea, of course. A subsequent search for "death of the album" brought me to this Christian Science Monitor article, written in 2003, the year iTunes launched. Here's the paragraph that landed the piece in my search results:

Some bands - such as Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers - have said they won't participate in the online services because they don't want their albums sold as individual songs. It takes away creative control and could bring the death of the album format, they argue.

I can sympathize. When we put out Highways and Hiking Shoes, Ron the Drummer and I (and our producer) took the album concept very seriously. We spent a great deal of time thinking about which of our songs played well together, and where each one should go. We endeavored to create the best possible listening experience—to control it.

Does it annoy me that some listeners will download our songs as singles, bypassing our carefully planned collection? A little.

Are we opposed to letting them do it? No way.

After declaring my commitment to real albums back in high school, I discovered what everybody learns eventually: most albums suck. When I bought a record (or, later, a CD) because I liked a song, I'd be lucky if even one of the other tracks was any good.

I'd like to think our own album is better than that. We worked hard to make it better than that. But the fact is, some people are only going to want one or two tracks anyway. Now that the technology is available for them to buy only what they like, who are we to tell them they shouldn't?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Today's Last Chances

Every day, Sonicbids sends me e-mail with the subject heading "Today's New Gigs." We pay Sonicbids to host Cinder Bridge's electronic press kit, and said purchase entitles us to their gig alerts—opportunities to submit our work, audition, etc.

Every day I give each alert a cursory glance, then delete the message.

* * *

Back when I was attempting to enter the nonacademic workforce for the first time, I picked up a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute. There were all kinds of exercises and worksheets designed to help you figure out what to do with your life. Alas, none of them provided any clues—at least none that I could decipher.

If the book couldn't tell me what career I should pursue, however, it contained great advice about how to get a job. The nugget of wisdom that stuck with me: Classified ads are a sucker's game. Everybody uses the classifieds. Apply for a position that's posted there, and you're competing with hundreds of other desperate seekers for the same slot.

The alternative? Cold-calling. Grab your phone book (this was when people still used phone books), contact every single company that you might want to work for, and ask if there are any positions available.

It sounded crazy. After all, if a company wanted to hire someone, wouldn't they be advertising?

Not necessarily, said Parachute. Many employers intend to create a position one of these days, but they're busy and don't make it a priority ... until an interested potential employee falls into their lap. Creating the position for real becomes a much more attractive prospect if they can bypass the whole advertising/interviewing/weeding-out process.

Most companies that aren't advertising really aren't hiring. But the strategy works. I've gotten one or two jobs that way.

* * *

Every day, Sonicbids sends me a second e-mail with the subject heading "Today's Last Chances." As you might guess, these are notices for previous alerts whose deadlines are fast approaching.

Every day I think, There can't be anything too exciting here. If there were, I would have set it aside the first time around. Then again, I know I didn't look that closely ...

After a brief moment of discomfort, I delete the message.

* * *

I don't know how many musicians get these alerts. My guess is, too many. It's the classifieds all over again. Better to create our own opportunities than to spend a lot of time competing with every other Sonicbids member in our genre.

So why do I bother with these at all? Why don't I simply unsubscribe?

I haven't had the guts.

Maybe someday they'll send something that's perfect for us. What if we miss our biggest, best opportunity because I shut the door on the classifieds option forever?

At some point I will either actually submit for one of these gigs or I will gather my courage and opt out. Until then, approximately 15 seconds of every day will be wasted in the service of not burning our bridges.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Lessons from Mr. Splashy Pants

Not long after reading the news item about the guys who plan to fight whalers with music, I ran across this Ted talk, in which Alexis Ohanian of Reddit describes another anti-whaling campaign.

If you don't have time for the highly entertaining video (only four minutes and change), here's the summary. The Japanese Fisheries Agency planned to kill a bunch of humpback whales in 2007. To raise awareness about this, Greenpeace put a tracking chip in one of the whales-in-peril so they could apprise people of its status.

The whale needed a name. Greenpeace submitted a list and put it up on Reddit.com so people could vote. Choices included ...

Ahani
Kaimana
Aiko
Libertad
Mira
Mr. Splashy Pants

Guess which name won by a landslide.

Greenpeace, not thrilled about the prospect of calling the mascot for this very serious issue "Mr. Splashy Pants," extended the voting period by another week. Mr. Splashy Pants still won by a landslide. The people had spoken.

Did the silly name trivialize the campaign? Not at all. The enthusiasm over voting for it garnered more awareness than Greenpeace could have dreamed of. Oh, and perhaps due to the added pressure, the Japanese government decided not to kill humpback whales in the Southern Ocean that season.

Alexis Ohanian's conclusion: It's OK to give up control sometimes. It's OK not to take yourself so seriously, to have a little fun with your cause.

* * *

I spend a lot of blogspace trying to raise awareness about a disease that causes chronic pain, crushing exhaustion not relieved by rest, cognitive impairment, and a host of other nasty symptoms. Lately I've been hanging out on a message board with other people who want to put together an awareness/fundraising campaign for said disease. The problem: the disease is called by many names, and figuring out which one to use is not a trivial matter.

These are the main contenders:

Myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). The name given to the illness in 1934, after the first documented outbreak. Very few people have heard of this.

Chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS). Stresses abnormalities in patients' immune responses. Even fewer people have heard of this, as the term isn't used outside the United States.

XMRV-associated neuroimmune disorder (XAND). The latest entry, put forth by the Whittemore Peterson Institute right after discovering a link between the disease and a retrovirus called XMRV. This name has serious potential, in my opinion, but because it's only existed since mid-October, almost no one has heard of it.

Chronic fatigue syndrome. Invented in 1988, CFS is the term most people are familiar with. Unfortunately, it also trivializes the illness by implying that sufferers experience nothing worse than greater-than-average tiredness.

So the little talk about Mr. Splashy Pants got me thinking. Maybe we should do our own Reddit vote—explain our dilemma to the masses whose awareness we're trying to raise, and let them decide.

I bounced the idea off of the guy who inspired Everybody Knows About Me, my song about living with the disease. The following (highly paraphrased) discussion ensued:

Him: "It could work. We could list all the good names, with an explanation of why 'chronic fatigue syndrome' was an epic fail."

Me: "Yeah! Of course, if we do that, we're likely to end up with 'epic fail syndrome.'"

[pause]

Me: "Which would still be less stupid than 'chronic fatigue syndrome.'"

* * *

Say we do this for real. Should we even include "chronic fatigue syndrome" as one of the possibilities?

Greenpeace's campaign survived "Splashy the Whale" because most people already believe whaling is A Bad Thing and A Serious Issue. If ME/CFS/CFIDS/XAND had that sort of sentiment behind it, we wouldn't need to worry over its name in the first place. And the label "chronic fatigue syndrome" has already hurt people who have it.

But some activists would reluctantly argue that like it or not, this is the term everyone knows. Better to change people's perceptions of it than start from scratch.

What do you think? Should we give up control, and put the question to the people we're trying to reach?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Music vs. Ahab

Sea Shepherd Conversation Society is a nonprofit organization that works to protect marine species and ecosystems. Among its many activities, it sends crews out on high-tech boats to save whales from poaching.

Last year, according to Ecorazzi, the Japanese whaling fleet fought back with a long-range acoustic device that blasted a shrill, high-pitched sound at the Sea Shepherd crew harassing it.
While annoying, it definitely did not keep Paul Watson and Co. from continuing to be a nuisance — and it appears to have inspired them to bring their own “music” [on this year's intervention].

Pete Bethune, captain of the new Sea Shepherd stealth boat “Ady Gil,” has revealed that he’ll be blaring the song “Tangaroa” from NZ musician Tiki Taan. “It’s a pretty spooky dark song and it’s got this sort of ethereal Maori chant going on it and I don’t think they’ll like it at all,” he told a NZ Radio station.
Funny thing is, I liked the song a lot when I heard it on YouTube. In fact, I think it would make great workalong music. Then again, I listened voluntarily on earbuds at a reasonable volume. It will be interesting to find out what happens when it's blasted during an epic confrontation on the high seas.

Have a listen. What do you think? Will "Tangaroa" work as intended? Would it stop you from doing nefarious deeds?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

New home for Everybody Knows About Me

A while back, Cinder Bridge recorded a song called "Everybody Knows About Me," about someone living with ME/CFS. We wanted to use the song to promote awareness about the disease, but didn't know where to begin.

A web search led me to Tom Hennessey, the activist who founded ME Awareness Day. I contacted him and asked for advice. Upon hearing the song, he offered to host it on his own site, RESCINDinc.org, and take donations for downloads.

Sadly, the site's been down for a few months now, probably because Tom isn't doing well. He's actually been very sick for a long time, so "not doing well" is a relative thing—he's doing even worse. I've resisted finding a new home for "Everybody Knows About Me," hoping the site would come back. There are other places I can put it, but none that will take donations.

Tonight I wanted to give someone a link to the song and decided, enough waiting. I just made the fully arranged and produced version of "Everybody Knows About Me" available for download on Myspace. It replaces the demo version that was up there before.

If RESCIND makes a dramatic reappearance, or if we hook up with another ME organization that would like to use the song for donations, maybe I'll take it off Myspace. In the meantime, anyone looking for "Everybody Knows About Me" can find it here:

myspace.com/cinderbridge

Friday, December 11, 2009

Woofers, tweeters, hooters

This just landed in my e-mail inbox, courtesy of my dad:
Apple announced today that it has developed a breast implant that can store and play music. The iTit will cost from $499 to $699, depending on cup and speaker size.

This is a major breakthrough, as women are always complaining about men staring at their breasts and not listening to them.
Yeah, you laugh, but this could be a real thing someday.
BT Laboratories analyst Ian Pearson believes breast implants may as well serve a purpose rather than.....well, lets just say "eye candy". Pearson states, "if a woman has something implanted permanently, it might as well do something useful ..."

Pearson's idea involves inserting an MP3 player in one breast and a storage chip in the other. The implants would transmit sound and be controlled with Bluetooth technology.
According to the mini-article, this technology could be available within the next 15 years. The article was written in 2005, so just 11 years to go!

I'll keep you abreast of any updates.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Mozart effect

Why is it always Mozart?

Seems like any time scientists discover a link between music and some measurable form of well-being, the music is his. Mozart makes you smarter. Mozart improves your memory. Mozart promotes good health.

According to the latest such report, Mozart's music may help slow the metabolism of babies born prematurely. This could mean they'd gain needed weight more quickly.

Cool. But why Mozart and not, say, Brahms? Why not Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, or Debussy?

The researchers themselves say it's not yet clear whether the benefits come from Mozart specifically, or music in general. But ...
They do, however, point to a previous study of adults with seizures that found that compositions by Mozart, more so than other classical composers, appeared to lower seizure frequency. It's possible, according to Lubetzky's team, that the proposed Mozart effect on the brain is related to the structure of his compositions.

Compared with other famous composers, they explain, Mozart's music tends to repeat the melodic line more frequently. Other researchers have speculated that this more-organized musical structure may have greater resonance for the brain.
If the speculation proves correct, it has interesting implications. Find out what about Mozart's music produces the Mozart effect, and composers can incorporate it into some of their own works, on purpose.

It'd be fun to hear what today's aspiring Mozarts think up.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tempo inflation

Listening to the recording of our last gig, I noticed that we played some of our slow songs a little fast. This is a common performance issue. When you're in front of an audience, the extra adrenaline makes you want to speed up, and also makes it harder to realize you're doing it.

We decided at yesterday's rehearsal to work on those slow songs and get them up to speed. Or down, as the case may be.

As we practiced, I realized I couldn't blame my fast count-offs on the thrill of playing live. Here we were, in Ron's living room, no one to hear us (except Ron's wife, who's allowed to witness our mistakes), and the songs at the correct tempo sounded like freaking dirges.

Why is it that music seems slower when we play it than when we listen to recordings of ourselves playing it?

Is there a neuroscientist in the house?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Invisible illnesses and media bias: Comment advocacy

A little while ago, I ran into fibroPR101 on Twitter. As her handle suggests, she does public relations for organizations that support people with fibromyalgia and other chronic diseases. I asked her (in 140 characters or less) for advice on how to get the media to dig deeper when psychiatrists make claims about ME/CFS or fibro being psychosomatic.

Here's her response, in more than 140 characters.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rudolph and Jack

Hunting for green things in the produce aisle at Whole Foods, I hear the opening strains of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Ugh. I liked this when I was nine. Like most secular Christmas songs aimed primarily at kids, it hasn't aged well.

I grumble to myself for a bit, then realize it isn't quite as annoying as I'd anticipated. The arrangement is one I haven't heard before.

And yet, there's something familiar ...

My god. It's Jack Johnson.

Jack Johnson is making "Rudolph" ... not entirely suck.

See, there's a reason I buy every album this man puts out.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

#60

I'm in a good mood. You know that song-in-progress I've been talking about? I finished it tonight. Actually, Tuesday night—it's well past midnight as I type this.

It's taken months to complete. Despite the advice of many experts who tell you to write at least one song a week, I tend to go slow.

And yet ... this is my 60th song. I have now written 60 songs.

Is that a lot? Or are there actually people out there who write 52 songs a year?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

In praise of my inner critic

Last week I wrote a line for a song I'm working on. Honed it a bit. My inner editor said, It's OK. Could lead to something good if we add supporting lyrics elsewhere. Otherwise it doesn't quite connect.

Tonight I swapped out one word in that line for another one. Something that tied in more strongly with the surrounding words.

Yes, said my critic. Yes. That's it.

Some people say you shouldn't censor yourself when you create a first draft. Just go with the flow, edit later. The implication, I think, is that editing inhibits creativity. That you do yourself harm by badmouthing your creation while it's in progress.

Maybe they're right. Still, I'm loathe to silence my editor at any stage of the process. Yes, it slows me down. Yes, it tells me what I've done isn't good enough. But mostly it tells me I can do better.

And when I listen to it, I do better.

Works for me.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Make it stop

How can you stand it, I asked a grocery store staffer. It annoys me, and I only have to be here for a little while.

He shuddered and told me they started three days before Thanksgiving. It's driving him batty.

How can you stand it, I asked the guy at the register as he bagged my groceries.

He tried to stay focused, he said. He just ignored it the best he could, concentrated on what was in front of him.

You'd think, after establishing strict child labor laws and a five-day workweek, unions would be able to ban all-day Christmas music in supermarkets.

I can sort of understand blasting "White Christmas" at customers in other stores. We're potentially buying presents. Maybe the management figures it can whip us into a spending frenzy by reminding us of when we were kids and anxiously awaited Santa's arrival. Or something.

But supermarkets? People buy food because they need food. It's not a seasonal thing. As far as I know, people don't shop for gifts in the frozen aisle.

I can strategically avoid most retail until December 26. I cannot, however, stop eating.

It's going to be a long month.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Substance abuse, part II

Today has been the last full day I'll spend at the parental homestead before jetting back to Tucson. Know what I'm going to miss?

Well, the family, sure. It will be a while before I see them again.

Also the vast blocks of time where I'm free to do nothing at all.

But you know what else?

I'm going to miss orange juice.

My first vocal coach, during my first voice lesson, gave me a list of all the items I should not consume before singing in public: Sugar. Dairy products. Alcohol. Caffeine.

At first I thought this wouldn't pose a problem. I hardly ever drank alcohol. I never drank coffee. Avoiding sugar or dairy would be a pain because of chocolate, but I tried to do chocolate in moderation anyway. I could go without it from time to time.

Then it hit me. No sugar meant no orange juice. Which I consumed on a very regular basis—at least one of those cans of concentrate a day.

I'd had a perpetual dry cough for years. Was orange juice the reason?

I stopped buying it. The dry cough didn't disappear entirely, but it got dramatically better, very quickly.

So now, the only time I drink orange juice is when I'm on vacation. I can justify it then. It's not like a last-minute gig will pop up when 1,400 miles separates me from my keyboard, our speakers, and Ron the Drummer.

About 14 hours left to drink with impunity.

(Cough.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Showing off for the nephew

"Aunt Susan!" Sammy says. "Show me how to do stuff on the piano."

The family has gathered at my parents' house for Thanksgiving week, and everyone speaks kid except me. They delight in entertaining my sister's boys, six-year-old Sam and four-year-old Ian. I'm the lone adult who doesn't talk to them in singsong tones. Someday when they're older, they'll appreciate this. I'll be the cool aunt. For the time being, I'm not that interesting.

But now I follow Sammy into the sunporch. Finally, something I can do.

He wants a lesson. Sort of. His current technique consists primarily of pressing most of his fingers and part of his hand onto random keys. I demonstrate playing one note at a time with one finger at a time. He hits random keys. I demonstrate experimenting with different notes to produce more pleasant chords. He hits random keys.

I follow his lead, not pushing the instructions on him. If he really wants to change what he's doing, he'll let me know.

Then he teaches me a game he plays with his dad.

The rules go like this. Sammy closes his eyes. I play a note. Sam opens his eyes and tries to hit the note I played. To narrow it down, I place my hands on each side of the note at a 90-degree angle, about an octave apart.

He gives this a couple tries. Then he plays a note for me while I cover my eyes. Before he can surround the note with his hands, I plink it. He sees it's the right one, and he finds this ... maybe not impressive, but possibly amusing. He's smiling, anyway.

I close my eyes again. He plays another note. Plink. Again. Plink. We repeat this once or twice until my parents tell us it's time for dinner.

Perfect pitch is generally not a skill I get to use in day-to-day life. Bet it's another ten years before anything like that happens again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lost and found

I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook

On the one hand, some of the features are confusing. The "conversation" is disjointed, as we're not all talking to the same people. The little apps for quizzes and games are annoying. And I can't figure out how to put music up on our band page, once again in production after my first attempt vanished into the ether.

On the other hand, it's the best lost and found I've encountered since Google was invented.

I've been paying some attention to my long-ignored Facebook account, adding contacts to it. In the process, it occurred to me to look for Megan and Vanessa, a couple of musicians I'd lost touch with. I found them instantly. In Megan's case, I discovered I'd been spelling her last name wrong all this time.

They friended me back within 24 hours. One of them sent a personal message saying she'd been thinking about me. I'd half wondered if she would even remember who I was.

They're not the only ones. I've reconnected with people from high school, grad school ... in some cases I hadn't known if they were alive or dead.

Funny thing is, I've been hearing buzz about how Facebook is so over because of its lack of exclusivity. If your grandmother is friending you, how cool can it be? For me, though, that's its biggest strength. I can go elsewhere to find the small groups of people who share my esoteric interests. Facebook is where I reconnect with friends I've known in real life.

It feels good to know that people from my past are still alive, still doing OK.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Detached observing

Just before I skipped town to hang with my family, I got my hands on some Cinder Bridge footage. Chet Gardiner of the Earthlingz set up a video camera and shot all the performers at the Single Payer Band Jam. He was nice enough to make us a DVD of our 50-minute segment.

Having seen the video, I wish we could get someone to record us every time we play out. Watching Ron and me as if I were a member of the audience is highly educational.

For instance, I've always disliked my head voice. (If you're unfamiliar with the jargon, head voice is the falsetto you sing when the notes are too high for your regular range.) Listening to myself here, I realized that it ... wasn't that bad. I've learned to better sing around my weaknesses.

There were moments in our playing where I thought, hmm, I could've done that better. I'll work on tightening that up. (Just me. Ron was awesome, as always.) Those were subtle, though -- not anything the audience would notice.

So I sing better than I thought. Unfortunately, I talk worse.

Don't get me wrong. My little speeches about ME/CFS and other invisible illnesses didn't go horribly. I said what I wanted to say. Just not as articulately or smoothly or entertainingly as I would have liked.

Entertainingly is important. If you're going to use the stage as a bully pulpit, you'd better develop a stage presence and keep people interested. A normal audience -- one that hadn't come to raise money for healthcare issues -- would have lost patience with me.

So I need to practice the speechifying. I also need some role models. If anybody knows of performers who are good at advocating for a particular cause, let me know. Maybe I can educate myself via YouTube.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bank robbers and Facebook users

"Could you take off your hat, or turn it around?"

I looked up from my deposit slip. "Huh?"

"It's to prevent robberies," the teller said apologetically. "I know you've been coming in here for years, but it's the policy; we have to apply it to everyone. No hats, no dark glasses."

I pondered the implications as I stuffed my hat into my purse. Bank robbers concealed their identities with baseball caps and sunglasses? Really? I'd always assumed they wore a mask that covered their entire face. Granted, they'd probably attract a bit of attention while standing in line ...

According to the teller, a lot of people have recently robbed banks using the less stereotypical mode of disguise. "It's impossible to tell what a person looks like with a hat and dark glasses," she explained. "The cameras don't pick up anything. You can't see their eyes."

* * *

After declaring Myspace obsolete, People Who Think About Such Things are speculating that Facebook has become a victim of its own success. Now that everyone knows about it -- now that your grandmother can friend you, and probably will -- Facebook isn't cool anymore.

Under normal circumstances I'd find this bit of cultural news only mildly interesting. Unfortunately, it may be relevant to my life. I was finally getting around to constructing a band page for Facebook. (Actually started it a few weeks ago, but everything I did vanished, and the feature currently appears to be fried.) If our target audience stops using the site, we'll have to think of some other way to promote our gigs and sell our CD.

We're already on Twitter, but I don't use it very often. It's hard to engage in meaningful dialogue 140 characters at a time. While I don't feel all self-conscious about it like Norah Jones does, my tweets are nothing to write home about. They haven't resulted in any CD sales.

Neither, come to think of it, has this blog.

* * *

Because my brain is weird, the bank robbery thing got me thinking about the social media thing. I knew all along that getting the band noticed through social media would be difficult. How could it not? My friend DeppityBob describes it as being like "screaming 'I'M IMPORTANT!' in a sea of ADD people yelling the same thing."

Standing out from the crowd is nearly impossible. To achieve anonymity, all you need is a cap with a visor and a pair of cheap sunglasses.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Social media advice for Norah Jones

Like many artists these days, Norah Jones has a Twitter account. She hasn't posted anything on it, however. From Entertainment Daily:
“I stared at that web page for about two weeks, every few days. I feel like a total dope. Everything that I want to say sounds dorky, and everything that I don’t want to say sounds totally contrived.”
Hmmm ...


People following her: 4,371
People she's following: 1

For the Twitter-impaired, that means 4,371 users are reading her tweets (or would be if she had any), but she's only reading one user's tweets.

Norah Jones, if you're reading this (which you're not, but whatever), here's some free advice:

If you want to use Twitter like a giant megaphone, you're doing it wrong. The idea is to follow the fans who follow you and listen to them at least as much as you talk to them. Engage in some kind of dialogue ... inasmuch as you can have dialogue 140 characters at a time.

More to the point, this will cure your virtual stage fright forever. Once you see what most tweets look like, you will never worry about coming off dorky again.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Single Payer Now Band Jam video

Sound & Fury put together a little video of last week's Single Payer Band Jam. About five and a half minutes long, it starts off with some nice footage of the Earthlingz, followed by interviews with some of the organizers.

The video is available here.

If you're interested in what intelligent, articulate proponents of a single-payer system have to say, watch the whole thing. If you want to catch the Earthlingz rocking out, watch the first minute and a half. If you're desperate for scraps of anything involving Cinder Bridge (i.e., you are my mother), here's a breakdown:

1:43 - Cinder Bridge plays "Goodbye to You" (heard in the background during interview of Rick Graap, MD, of Single Payer Now)

2:31 - Cinder Bridge babbles to the audience (heard in the background during interview of Lee Stanfield of Single Payer Now)

3:50 - Cinder Bridge thanks the MC offstage (seen in the background while Dr. James Dumbauld speaks; I think this is when I apologized for making the poor guy try to pronounce "myalgic encephalomyelitis")

4:12 - Cinder Bridge introduces "Everything Changes," then plays a bit of it (heard in the background during Lee Stanfield interview)

4:47 - Cinder Bridge plays "Saturday Morning" (heard in the background during Rick Graap interview)

5:10 - Cinder Bridge's "Everything Changes" is played over the closing written statement -- yay!

So, you can hear us, and you can see us. Just not at the same time.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

ME/CFS in the media: A snapshot of the turning tide?

The New York Times published a story Wednesday about what the Whittemore Peterson Institute's XMRV discovery means for ME/CFS research.
[T]he study pointed to a physical cause for an illness that the medical establishment had often snidely dismissed as psychosomatic. The research could not be ignored: it was published last month in Science, one of the world’s pickiest and most prestigious journals.
If you're even passingly aware of the history surrounding ME/CFS, the article won't say much that you didn't already know. Still, it's worth a click-through and a glance just for what it tells us about the media's perspective on this disease, and how it may be shifting.

First, the article itself is pretty sympathetic. Note the use of the word "snidely" in the above excerpt. Note the lack of an interview with some random psychiatrist who claims (without providing any evidence) that it's all in patients' heads. There is a one-line quote from William Reeves of the CDC to that effect, but in context he comes across as an idiot.

Second, check out the photo at the top. Notice anything unusual about the photo?

That's Andrea Whittemore-Goad, a longtime ME/CFS patient and the daughter of the woman who founded the Whittemore Peterson Institute. She's using a nasal cannula for oxygen.

I've looked at my fair share of newspaper stories about ME/CFS. When they include a visual, it's usually stock footage of someone who looks (a) tired, (b) depressed, or (c) tired and depressed. The NYT photo is the first mainstream media image I know of that suggests sufferers might actually have medical needs.

Better late than never.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Unpronounceable advocacy success!

Today's benefit concert went nicely, I think. Some highlights:
  • The event was a lot more political than I originally thought it would be. Somebody I talked to mentioned the individual family that urgently needed medical care, but all the public statements were about getting the government to do the right thing and pass the right laws. The organizers were firmly in favor of a single-payer system.

  • The weather was perfect -- in the 80s with a gentle breeze. Sometimes it's good to live in Tucson.

  • The MC, reading off the prepared introduction for Cinder Bridge that I'd written, totally could not pronounce "myalgic encephalomyelitis." I told him beforehand that if he didn't think he could manage it, he could abbreviate to ME. He said he had to at least try.

  • In our 50-minute slot, I devoted more time than usual to ME/CFS speechifying. I went into a little detail about the symptoms, and why the name "chronic fatigue syndrome" is so misleading. People seemed receptive. Of course, they were there to support a single-payer healthcare system, so I'd expect them to be.

  • The audience seemed to like us. This is always a good thing, but particularly a relief given the advocacy element. When I put on my advocate hat, I fear we'll lack credibility if listeners think our music sucks.
So, all in all it went well. My only regret is that I forgot to tell the health insurance provider lightbulb joke. Next time ...

Unpronounceable advocacy

Cinder Bridge will join a bunch of other musicians today for a benefit at Old Town Artisans. The organizers will be taking donations to aid a family with urgent medical needs.

Last night we got e-mail from Ted Downing, a former state representative who's going to be co-MCing the event. He wanted us to write a few lines that he could read to introduce us. Here's what I came up with:
A hard-driving coffeehouse band, Cinder Bridge has been compared to Carole King, Billy Joel, Janis Joplin, and Tori Amos, none of whom sound anything alike. Cinder Bridge is the most talented band in the United States to play any songs relating to myalgic encephalomyelitis advocacy. It is also the ONLY band to play any songs relating to myalgic encephalomyelitis advocacy.
We usually don't mention the advocacy in our bios because only three of our songs relate to ME/other invisible illnesses. But hey, it's a healthcare-themed concert, so it works.

The fun part will be seeing if the MC can pronounce myalgic encephalomyelitis.

If you happen to be reading this in Tucson, come down and see us. The event kicks off at noon and goes until after 7 p.m. Cinder Bridge plays from 2:20 to 3:15. Old Town Artisans is at 201 N. Court Avenue.

Friday, November 6, 2009

ME/CFS unfiltered

A little over a week ago, Atlanta Unfiltered ran a brief story about the Centers for Disease Control and its role in ME/CFS research:
A possible research breakthrough — the discovery of a correlation between CFS and a retrovirus related to the AIDS virus — has fired up the medical community in recent weeks. “This is going to create an avalanche of subsequent studies,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times this month.

But will the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention play a role in that research? It hasn’t so far. Advocates have been pushing the Atlanta-based CDC for years to fund outside research into a possible viral explanation for the debilitating disease, which afflicts as many as 1 million Americans — maybe more.
The full article succinctly outlines the specific criticisms. If you're unfamiliar with the long saga of the CDC and ME/CFS, this will give you a quick grasp of the basics.

Something that struck me about the story was that I'd never seen it reported by the news media before. There exists a very well-researched book, a documentary, and numerous websites/blogs on the subject, but conventional newspapers and magazines haven't touched it.

Comments are overwhelmingly positive and still coming in. Many can be summarized, "Thanks for being the first to tell everybody else what we already know."

Now, here's what really got me.

One of the commenters suggested further avenues of investigation that Atlanta Filtered should pursue. Editor Jim Walls replied:
I plan to work on a few more stories (next priority would seem to be the blood supply), but I gotta make a living and have been distracted by work for which I am actually paid.
I had to read that a couple of times before the full meaning sunk in.

There’s a certain poetic symmetry at work here. After the CDC ignores and denies the true nature of ME/CFS for decades, they’re shown up by an institute that hasn’t existed long enough to have its own building. After the mainstream media fails to pick up on this story for decades, it’s scooped by a newspaper that can’t afford to pay its reporters.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A songwriting insight from Nick Hornby

When I first began songwriting seriously, I averaged a song per month. I struggled to wrap my mind around my topics. I struggled to piece the puzzles together. I emerged victorious.

Now it takes me three to four times longer to finish a song. One reason is obvious: I'm much busier these days. But that's not all.

A couple months ago, I put my finger on part of it. My earliest songs -- the autobiographical ones, anyway -- dealt with the past. Even though those past experiences still hit a nerve, I could analyze and make sense of them more easily than if they were consuming me right at that moment. Now my more personal songs tend to focus on situations of the moment, and they're more raw.

I had an aha moment about a related reason late last night, courtesy of novelist Nick Hornby.

Hornby is an excellent writer who also happens to be a big music enthusiast. His latest book, Juliet Naked, is (very broadly) about the strange relationships that fans have with artists, and vice versa.

The aha moment came with this passage, about a retired musician who's had writer's block for over two decades:
The truth about autobiographical songs, he realized, was that you had to make the present become the past, somehow: you had to take a feeling or a friend or a woman and turn whatever it was into something that was over, so that you could be definitive about it. You had to put it in a glass case and look at it and think about it until it gave up its meaning ...
Yeah.

God, yes. That's it.

If an experience is already over, it will stand still while you examine it. Pose for you. If you're still waiting to discover how it will all turn out, you have to guess.

And that's fine. It's just harder.

I suspect this knowledge won't make me a better or faster songwriter. But maybe I can forgive myself if it takes a while to pin down whatever it is I'm trying to say.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Music search for the lazy

Google rolled out its new music search feature on Wednesday. Being as on top of things as I usually am, I got around to trying it out today.

The bad news: Google's integration of music into its search results isn't going to happen overnight. I looked for "I Can See Clearly Now" (Johnny Nash), "On Reflection" (Gentle Giant), "I'm So Tired" (Beatles), and "Her Diamonds" (Rob Thomas), and all I got for top results were a bunch of YouTube videos. To get to music Google has already ... indexed? web-crawled? databased? I'm not sure how this works ... I had to go to their landing page, where they helpfully provided examples of stuff you could actually find.

The good news: When it works, it's neat. A search for Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" brings up a handy play button labelled "Play song from Lala.com." Click the button and it lets you play the whole song.

This part is key. The whole song. Not the 30 seconds that iTunes and some others dole out. Depending on which service comes up, you may only get the entire song once, an excerpt thereafter, but that seems fair enough. (It also makes me wonder why iTunes doesn't do this. If Lala.com and the other iTunes competitors working with Google can negotiate better deals with the copyright holders, why can't a powerful player like Apple?)

I'm looking forward to the day I can punch any song title into Google and then listen to the song. And yet? A little voice inside my head asks me why I haven't been doing nearly the same thing already. Lala.com has been around since 2007. Why did I, a music lover, not bother to find out that there are services that allow you listen to the whole song? Why, now that I know about this, do I suspect I'll still be going through Google to sample songs?

Because I'm busy. Because I'm lazy. And Google made it just that tiny bit easier.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What to write about

Sharon Goldman of Songwriting Scene posed a question to her real-life and online songwriting buddies: what's your take on political songwriting?

I wrote my first ever protest song not too long ago, so I read the responses with some interest. My favorite was this, from Fred Gillen Jr.

"I have learned, just for myself as an artist and songwriter, that it is not my job to decide what I am going to write about."

Huh. So it's not just me then?

My lyrics generally begin with one good line, some new way of expressing an idea. Both the idea and the expression of it tend to come more or less spontaneously. When it's interesting, I feel compelled to pursue it. Out of the 59 songs I've written so far, I can only think of one where I chose the topic before any words found me. Only one where I decided, "I want to write on the subject of X."

For some reason, I've always kind of assumed that my method of discovering topics by tripping over them (if you can call that a method) was mostly unique to me. I figured that at least some of the time, other songwriters sat down and thought about what they wanted to create before any actual creating happened.

What's your experience? When no one else is dictating what you're going to create, do you choose the topic, or does the topic choose you?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Right rhyme, wrong time

Awww, man.

I came up with the perfect sounding rhyme tonight. Then I realized that it would take my song in a completely different direction than I intended to go.

Sometimes that works out. Sometimes a different direction turns out to be interesting and serendipitous. Unfortunately, this time it was the wrong direction.

Oh well. Back to the drawing board.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down

New research suggests that if you get people to pay attention to music with lyrics about helping people, they'll be more likely to help people. A Psychology Today blog has the juicy details.

Makes me wonder if I've been too subtle in my attempts at musical persuasion. I've written a few prosocial songs, to use the social psych lingo, but never anything that comes out and says, "Hey, be nicer to people! Right now!"

The study only compared neutral songs to those that blatantly call for help. They'd need to do further research to find out if a less blatant approach works too. I hope it does. Because otherwise, I'm going to have to try my hand at a "be nicer to people" song, and I don't know how to do that without sounding like a public service announcement.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ain't there one new song that can make me break down and cry?

Aaaaaaaalllllllllll night
She wants the young American
Young American, young American, she wants the youuuung American
I bopped my way through the produce section, appreciating Sunflower's musical selection. "Young Americans" isn't my favorite David Bowie tune, but it's significantly better than the blandness that usually comes out of a grocery store sound system.

"Music was better then," a Boomerish woman said to me, apparently noticing that I was moving to the beat. "They just don't make songs like that anymore."

I nodded and mmmm'd my assent, partially because I agreed with her, partially to be agreeable. Then I remembered something. I am a musician who makes music, not thirty years ago, but right now. As such, it is perhaps not in my best interest to encourage the view that our best days are behind us.

I dug a copy of our CD out of my purse and showed it to her. "We're trying to make music that's just as good."

"Oh! Neat," she said. Then she quickly made her way to some vegetables farther down the aisle.

She probably thought I was going to attempt to sell her the CD. Either that or she didn't want to engage the poor, deluded Gen-X musician whose stuff couldn't possibly be as cool as her generation's music.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Another thought on loudness torture

We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends' music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge is horrific. It's anti-American, period.
REM
The fact that music I helped create was used as a tactic against humanity sickens me. We need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.
Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine
Maybe I would feel differently about this if there were any chance that Cinder Bridge's music was on the torture playlist. Maybe. But I kind of wonder why these musicians are focusing on the music torture. As long as they're all getting together to protest, why not protest all torture? It's not like they're OK with waterboarding because waterboarding didn't involve their creative input.

Loud

"We've only done one of the five basic torture groups. We've done blunt, but that still leaves sharp, hot, cold, and loud."
Faith, Angel
Ever since former vice president Dick Cheney said we needed to work the dark side in our fight against terrorism, torture has gotten a lot of press. Specifically, various methods of torture and whether they count as torture.

The latest "enhanced interrogation technique" to make the news? Apparently people in charge of such things at Guantanamo Bay blasted music at earthshattering decibels for hours or days to coerce and punish the prisoners. From the Washington Post:
“Sound at a certain level creates sensory overload and breaks down subjectivity and can (bring about) a regression to infantile behavior,” said Suzanne Cusick, a music professor at New York University who has studied, lectured about and written extensively on the use of music as torture in the current wars. “Its effectiveness depends on the constancy of the sound, not the qualities of the music.”

Played at a certain volume, she said, “it simply prevents people from thinking.”
Pretty sickening if you believe in things like due process, rule of law, and, you know, not torturing people. But beyond the obvious human rights issues, there's an interesting twist. A coalition of musicians has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. They demand to know which songs the Guantanamo staff used. Once they find out, their next move will be to "explore legal options."

OK. I get these artists not wanting their music to be used for crimes against humanity. I applaud their efforts to make it stop (though the Obama administration claims it already has). What I don't understand is how it will help to know if their own works were on the playlist. I'm no expert on copyright law, but I'd bet good money that they don't have the rights to determine how someone uses their music once they buy it.

I've scanned other articles on the subject since reading the Washington Post's, and I haven't found anything that answers my question. The closest I've come is this side note from a piece by Harry Shearer on HuffPo:
[I]f the musicians really want to get at the government on the use of music for torture, why not get ASCAP and BMI on the case? Where are the royalties for the semi-public (over PA systems) use of their songs?
Hadn't thought of that. Along those lines, maybe we could convince the Recording Industry Association of America to get involved. Forget a congressional investigation. If the RIAA finds out those guys illegally downloaded the songs they used to torture people, they're in BIG trouble.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The search (algorithm) for good music

Google is launching a music service. They're keeping quiet about the details until they make an official announcement next week, but it looks like they're aiming to compete with iTunes. From WA Today:
Google will launch music search pages next week and include ways for consumers to buy songs for download, according to people familiar with the matter.

The music pages will package images of musicians and bands, album artwork, links to news, lyrics and song previews, along with a way to buy songs, they said.
My first reaction was, that's nice, but iTunes already does all that. How will this be different?

Then I remembered my introduction to Google.

About a decade ago, I used AltaVista for all my searches. It worked. I was perfectly happy with it. A coworker used another search engine that she really liked, however, and she recommended that I try it. The name of that search engine was ... Dogpile.

I gave it a shot. Then I promptly went back to AltaVista. I had nothing against Dogpile -- their results were just as good, as far as I could tell. I just preferred what I was used to.

Meanwhile, I kept hearing about this new search engine called Google. One day I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Just like Dogpile, it seemed perfectly OK, but I couldn't really tell the difference.

Except that after I tried it, I never used anything else. And I didn't know why.

In retrospect, I think it was the clean design that hooked me. AltaVista was cluttered with all sorts of links below the search field that I never bothered with. Google had the logo, the search box, and a whole lot of whitespace.

So who knows. Maybe Google will offer a better aesthetic experience than iTunes. If not, maybe they'll at least be able to hook me up with some Beatles songs.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nobody knows, particle man

Ooh, nice. Here's a Rolling Stone piece about They Might Be Giants and their breakthrough album, Flood.

Track by Track Guide to the Geek-Chic Breakthrough
Issued the first week of 1990, Flood was a landmark release in the evolution from college rock (the awkward handle for music like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü that dominated university radio stations in the 1980s) to the alternative movement that defined much of the 1990s. Flood is still a hallmark in geek chic's rise, too: the Giants' two previous LPs proved a skinny guy with an accordion and a partner in crime wearing black-plastic glasses could rock a party.
The article is worth a read if you're interested in the technical details of how the band created its sound. Or if, like me, you've spent the last almost-20 years wondering about some of those lyrics.

One early morning when I was a senior in college, an urgent question kept me awake: What did the characters in "Particle Man" represent? Particle Man himself obviously stood for the downtrodden, but what about the benevolent Universe Man? Why did Triangle Man hate Particle Man? Why was Triangle Man called that?

This went on for a while until well-modulated, calm voice interrupted my thoughts. Maybe the song doesn't mean ANYTHING, it said. Thus reassured, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Turns out I probably wasn't that far off.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Invisible people on the edge

It's a familiar story these days. Dave Rhodes has been looking for work and not finding any, and his unemployment benefits have come to an end. Now he and his wife, Dorian, face homelessness if they can't make their rent.

The twist: They have nowhere to go. Dorian is sick. She has ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, and chemical sensitivities. Homeless shelters don't accommodate chemical sensitivities. Even if the people who ran them knew they should, I doubt they could afford to.

So, Dave came up with a plan. He's selling sidebar space on his blog.

For $20, he'll put your badge on the bar for 30 days. He'll link the badge to your business website, blog, Twitter account, or whatever you want.

Details here.

They have a few days to come up with $850. After a few days they'll be hit with an additional $500 fee.

If you've ever considered advertising on the web -- or even if you never have -- now's a great time. Dave doesn't guarantee fabulous results, but I tell you what. If you put a badge up, I'll click through to your site.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A biomarker, and a bit of vindication

For years, many doctors have claimed that ME/CFS, aka "chronic fatigue syndrome," isn't a real disease. Despite patients' insistence that they aren't imagining their pain, that they aren't just depressed or lazy, physicians who take their symptoms seriously can be very hard to find.

Doctors, meet xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus.

According to the Wall Street Journal:
Researchers have linked an infectious virus known to cause cancer in animals to chronic-fatigue syndrome, a major discovery for sufferers of the condition and one that concerned scientists for its potential public-health implications ...

Like HIV, XMRV is a retrovirus, meaning once someone is infected, the virus permanently remains in the body; either a person's immune system keeps it under control or drugs are needed to treat it. The virus creates an underlying immune deficiency, which might make people vulnerable to a range of diseases, said Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute and one of the lead authors on the paper.
The full article is here.

Oh, sorry, that link takes you to a "subscriber content preview page," doesn't it. If you don't feel like plunking down money to read the article, there are others in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many more.

I couldn't resist quoting the Wall Street Journal, though. Why? Because a little over a decade ago they printed an opinion piece in which they argued that people with this disease have a "deranged sense of victimization." That they're in it for the oh-so-lucrative disability payments.

Perhaps the WSJ will print a long-overdue retraction. I'll be right over here, holding my breath, waiting for that to happen.

Snark aside, this really is big news. The findings could lead to better treatment. Or, you know, any treatment. They could also lead to an incredibly useful diagnostic tool (great news not only for people with ME/CFS, but also those who have other neuro-immune diseases, like Lyme, which are sometimes misdiagnosed as ME/CFS).

It doesn't mean these researchers will discover a cure tomorrow. It doesn't mean the bigotry will disappear overnight. Still, it feels like there's something new in the air. Something like progress. Something like hope.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Art, wine, dogs

Sunday's gig went well. The turnout for Art and Wine for the Weimaraners was good, even if you only count the two-legged attendees.

I think this is the only art show I've ever been to that was open to dogs.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she's gone

Lucy O'Donnell Vodden died on September 22. She was 46.

You have no idea who that is, but you've heard of her, kind of. In nursery school, her buddy Julian drew a picture of her and showed it to his father. His father asked what he had drawn. Julian replied, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

You know the rest.

I heard this story sometime in middle school and reacted with some amount of skepticism. Inspired by a picture by John Lennon's kid? No way. Got to be about LSD. Well, and maybe it was, but the drawing was real, and so, it turns out, was the girl.

Lucy Vodden battled lupus, a neuroimmune disease, for 15 years before finally succumbing. By the time she died she was housebound and very sick. Unfortunately, it took a while before she got the correct diagnosis; lupus sufferers can do better if they receive treatment early on.

Full story at www.dailymail.co.uk

Thanks to LupusVoice for passing this along. Here's hoping for happier news next time around.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Art and Wine for the Weimaraners

Doggie!Ooh, look at this. The Arizona Daily Star has designated Art and Wine for the Weimaraners -- at which we will play -- as one of this week's "hot 5 events."

AZ Nightbuzz

This is essentially last week's gig with a twist. In addition to the art by Carolyn Anderson and musical accompaniments by Kevin McCalix and Cinder Bridge, the event will raise money for rescue dogs.

The fundraiser is Sunday, October 4, from 3 to 6 p.m., at Gallery 801, 801 North Main, Tucson, Arizona. Admission is a donation of $5 or more to Arizona Weimaraner Rescue. Mutt Lynch Winery will offer samples of their award-winning wines, so be sure to designate a driver. If you missed last week's opening, come join the festivities.

Thinking is overrated

For days I'd been on the cusp of finishing the chorus to my song in progress. Just one word and I'd be set. The word didn't come at the end of a line, so it didn't even need to rhyme with anything.

I thought real hard, trying to will the word into my awareness. When that didn't work, I continued to think real hard. Sometimes I furrowed my brow. No dice.

Here's what happened when I enlisted Ron the Drummer's help during rehearsal.

Me: "Hey, Ron. What's a word that means 'brief,' with two syllables, accent on the first syllable?"

Ron: [thinks for a moment] "Brief ... two syllables ..."

Me: "Yeah, you know. Like 'fleeting.'"

My brain is weird.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Acoustic Battle: What we learned

Last week I reported that Cinder Bridge didn't make it to the second round of Acoustic Battle of the Bands. One benevolent commenter offered words of encouragement, saying that whatever we learned from the experience made it worthwhile.

I do think the experience was worthwhile. We had a good time, met some new musicians/listeners and reconnected with old ones, and got our act in front of people who wouldn't have otherwise heard us.

But a learning experience? Hmmm.

As it happens, some musicians who participated in the previous ABOB requested that judges write comments instead of just ranking the bands. They felt the feedback would help them improve. So this year, we got feedback.

Was it helpful? You decide.

Judge #1

Overall -- Nice tunes -- tough to pull off as a 2 piece. [Cinder Bridge is a duo consisting of me (vocals, keyboard) and a drummer.] I might add a sequence[r] part for more texture.

Judge #2

Great lyrics and sound. I wasn't that drawn in to their music. The keyboard threw me off, not acoustic.

Judge #3

[No comments, but mediocre ratings.]

So, to sum up:
  1. We should be less acoustic.
    (Using a sequencer probably would have disqualified us for Acoustic Battle of the Bands, but I'll assume he meant for regular gigs.)

  2. We should be more acoustic.
    (Next time we'll hire a U-Haul and bring my upright piano. If we can get the thing on and off the stage in time, we'll be a huge hit.)

  3. Sometimes people will think you're doing a lot of stuff right, but they won't be into you anyway.
    (An important insight, but we pretty much knew that already.)
Actually, I'm inclined to take the sequencer guy seriously. If he thinks our sound is too thin, maybe we should try to acquire a bassist and/or guitarist. Then again, other listeners hearing us for the first time have told us -- with no prompting -- that they're impressed by how full and rich our sound is with just the two of us. Their opinions aren't more valid than that judge's, but they're not less valid either.

As much as we'd love to use this year's ABOB feedback to learn and grow and improve, we don't quite know what to do with it.

Oh well. Did I mention that we had a good time?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Why did the health insurance provider cross the road?

A few weeks ago I posted some ideas about what we can do to help people with ME/CFS and other invisible illnesses. In it, I admitted that my only public act of advocacy has been to write a song. So far that song hasn't had much of an impact. This is probably because hardly anyone has heard it.

We're working on getting "Everybody Knows About Me" out there. In the meantime, though, I've had another thought. This popped into my head while doing dishes tonight:

Why is it that we have thousands of lawyer jokes, and no health insurance provider jokes?

There are a couple of possibilities. One, lawyers have been annoying people for centuries while evil health insurance companies are a relatively new phenomenon. Two, lawyers have a much higher profile. When we think of unscrupulous legal practices, we think of an individual who masterminds and profits from said practices. When we think of dicey health insurance, we think of faceless people working for monolithic corporations. They're harder to make fun of.

But that doesn't mean we can't try! I'll go first.
Q: How many health insurance providers does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Zero. The light has been turned off in the past, so it's clearly a preexisting condition.
There. It took me about 30 seconds to come up with that. Not exactly comic genius, perhaps, but about average for a lightbulb joke.

Now it's your turn. Why did the health insurance provider cross the road? What's the difference between a [fill in the blank] and a health insurance provider? Post your jokes in the comments, then tell them to everyone.

Just wait. Soon everybody will be telling health insurance provider jokes. Then the American public will be CLAMORING for a public option.

Chickens and doggies and art ... oh my

Gig Saturday! Gallery 801 is presenting Carolyn Anne Anderson's first solo exhibit, and we're providing some of the music for her opening.

I'm psyched for a couple of reasons. First, we're sharing the stage with Kevin McCalix, a friend of mine. I haven't gotten to hear him play in ages. Second, I want to see the art.


The painting above caught my eye while I perused her press release for the event. It's part of a whole series, “Pollos del Pueblo," featuring chickens that wander around familiar Tucson scenes. I like all the Pollos paintings, but this one particularly made me grin. There's something about the expression on the face of the chicken in the foreground. "Hi. I'm a chicken. Why am I in front of the Rialto? What am I doing here?"

I've had days like that.

Anyhow, the opening reception is Saturday, September 26, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Gallery 801, 801 North Main, Tucson, Arizona. There will be hors d’oeuvres and samplings of award-winning wines. You should go. It will be fun.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Outside the box

I never mourned the loss of vinyl records. When CDs took over the world, I was too impressed by the lack of pops and scratches to notice any other difference in sound quality.

The thing that saddened me, just a little, was the shrinking down of the cover art. Cover art looked cooler when it was big.

Of course, everything is relative. For people who get most of their music through downloads, the art is even smaller, even less important. The space on a CD case is huge by comparison.

I pondered such things while looking at Our Favorite Album Covers on The Music Is the Message. They posted up some good, provocative, if not totally safe for work images. All of these would look great at vinyl size. Not all of them would work so well as thumbnails.

When Cinder Bridge put out Highways and Hiking Shoes just four years ago, we gave no consideration whatsoever to the move toward MP3s. We loved our designer's work. Still do.



But the nuances are lost if it comes up as a thumbnail in an iTunes search.



Contrast that with the art for Everybody Knows About Me, our single available only for download. (Art by RachelCreative.)





The greater simplicity and obvious color contrasts make the cover perfect for thumbnails.

Beyond scalability lies an even more interesting issue. Why does cover art displayed online look exactly like physical cover art?

Think about it. The image is no longer tied to packaging. No record or CD lives inside it. Why, then, is the shape always a square? Why not a circle, or a triangle, or ... anything at all?

This wouldn't work for all sites. Not yet. iTunes, for instance, displays cover images with a shadow effect, to make it look like they're real CDs. I suspect that whatever shape you started out with, it would be framed by a square. But the effect would work somewhere. And who knows, if the idea inspired enough imitators, iTunes might adapt.

Makes me want to put more albums out. I want to be among the first to create an album cover that is -- literally -- not inside the box.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The music industry eats itself

Hey, y'know how album sales are down? It's because of all that illegal downloading. It's got nothing to do with the way music industry runs its own business.

So run along now, boys and girls, and fork out $18 for the latest Hannah Montana CD. Whatever you do, don't read articles like this:

Why the Music Industry Sucks (Part XLVII)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Eliminated

The preliminaries for Acoustic Battle of the Bands are complete. We didn't make it to the next round.

I admit it: I'm bummed. Despite saying it's all about the fun and exposure -- despite meaning it -- in the end, losing still feels like losing.

On the plus side, though, it really was fun (aside from the losing part), and it really was good exposure. After we played we got lots of compliments from the other musicians, a CD sale (to someone who came to vote for another band), and some mailing list signups.

Having done three of these Acoustic Battles now, I honestly don't think we're ever going to win. The people who make the decisions seem to like a couple categories of sounds, and we don't fit either of them. But again: Fun. Exposure. Unless we're too busy the next time it comes around, we'll be back for more.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

When bands compete, you win!

Olympic figure skating is weird.

Not the figure skating part. The Olympic part. Think about it. Here you have performers displaying breathtaking, beautiful movement, and piercing through the musical accompaniment is the voice of some commentator, informing us exactly how impressive or unimpressive we should find the last half lutz. At the end, judges hold up numbers: their quantitative assessment of the routine.

I'm not saying you can't regard skaters as athletes. It requires brutal training and inhuman stamina to do what they do. But so does ballet. Can you imagine announcers interrupting Prokofiev's score as the dancers leap and twirl their way through Romeo and Juliet? Can you imagine the Arts & Entertainment critics for your local newspapers holding up starred reviews as the performers take their final bow?

Also, as much as the judges might try to base their decisions on objective standards, figure skating doesn't lend itself to the emergence of clear winners. In baseball, the winning team is the one with the most runs at the end of the ninth inning. In track, the winner is whoever reaches the finish line first. You'll never hear a referee say, "The Giants, y'know, they scored the most downs this game, but it felt like they were just going through the motions. The passion, the gestalt wasn't there. We're gonna have to give this to the Ravens."

I think about things like this at times like this, when gearing up for tonight's Acoustic Battle of the Bands.

Musical competitions are kind of silly, for all of the reasons above. Musicians don't win because their songs or performances are better than everyone else's by some objective standard. They win because they get more friends to vote for them, or because the judges happen to like the kind of music they play.

So why do it, then? Why do Ron the Drummer and I enter Cinder Bridge into the Acoustic Battle every time?

Because it's fun. It's a helluva lot of fun. We get to do our thing for people who come for other bands and might not otherwise learn about us. We get to talk to the other performers. We get to hang out with people who love listening to music.

I've pondered ways one could make the judging of Battle of the Bands more fair. Some list of objective criteria that would force judges and voters to look beyond their personal preferences. I get about two seconds into this when I realize what a stupid idea that is. It's impossible to be completely objective when judging art (again, see above), and if you tried, you'd suck all the fun out of the event.

The point isn't winning (though winning makes it even more fun). The point is giving bands an excuse to get their music out there. The point is giving fans a chance to support the bands they love -- to get involved and have their opinions count.

So, we go in, we play, and we give the audience the same love we'd give for any other gig. If we don't make it to the next round, we don't assume it's because we suck. If we do make it, we realize it's not because we're better.

That said, we hope to qualify for round two, because then we get to play more. If you're in the vicinity of Tucson, please come see us and everyone else tonight.

Where: Old Town Artisans (201 N. Court Avenue, Tucson, AZ)
When: Saturday, September 19, 7 p.m. 'til whenever it ends

Hope to see you there!

* * *

Judge: "This blog post had a compelling start, with good, reasonably entertaining arguments. The segue into cinderkeys' personal experiences with Battle of the Bands, however, was weak, and she never brought the essay back to its original point. In the end, all of the early material comes across as an excuse to promote her band and tonight's Acoustic Battle. I give the post a 6.8."

Creative connectivity

This is why I love the Internet.

On July 21, 2009, a blogger by the name of Laurel posted a poem she'd written several years ago. The poem, Waiting from Within, describes the inner life of someone who's become bedridden with ME/CFS.

One of her readers, Michelle, found the poem very moving. She set the words to background music and images. Then she contacted Laurel and asked for permission to post the video on YouTube.

Michelle's video on Dreams at Stake

Before the Internet, it's unlikely that Laurel would have been able to broadcast "Waiting from Within" to an international audience -- not because of the poem's quality, but because of the sheer number of poets competing for a tiny number of slots in a finite number of publications. On top of that, her health problems might have prevented her from submitting it.

But in July of 2009, posting the poem to her blog with a brief introduction was doable. Her readers could decide for themselves whether they liked it. When one of them did like it, she did something new with it. Added her own creative input.

Before the Internet, neither of these women would have known the other existed. Now they've collaborated on a video. Now other people who would never have heard of either of them will see it.

This is why I love the Internet.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Out of sight, keep in mind

September 14–20 is Invisible Illness Awareness Week. If you have friends or family members with health problems, now would be a great time to give a call, see how they're doing.

What's that you say? You haven't spoken to them in a while because they never stayed in touch? All the more reason to call. Chances are they really do want to maintain contact with you. They've just been too overwhelmed by their illness and activities of daily living to manage it.

If you don't know what an invisible illness is, look over here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Gender-specific

Several lifetimes ago I taught a class called the Sociology of Women. As an earnest graduate teaching assistant, I presented evidence indicating that women and men might not be as diametrically opposed as people think they are. Even if there are biological factors that lead to gender differences in personality, interests, and so on, culture leads us to perceive more and greater contrasts than actually exist.

I believed that. I still do.

Years after dropping out of grad school, I came across a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Miss You" on XM radio. Cinder Bridge (my band) also covers "Miss You," so I was curious as to this singer's interpretation. The woman belted out:
I've been waitin' in the hall
Been waitin' on your call
But when the phone rings
It's just some friends of mine who say, hey
Whatsamatter, man?
We gonna come around at twelve
With some Puerto Rican guys that's just dyyyyyyin' to meetchoo
Wait. Puerto Rican guys?

That's just wrong.

* * *

My gut response, strong and immediate, may strike you as hypocritical. Didn't you just say women and men are more alike than we think? I hear you cry. Didn't you just write a whole essay on why gender neutrality is a good thing to strive for in songwriting?

Yes and yes. But even if certain gender differences are solely a product of culture, they still exist, and sometimes the songwriter has to acknowledge them.

For instance, I broke my no-gender rule for the first time in a song called "Nice Guys." The lyrics tell the sad tale of a character (male) who is interested in a person (female) who rejects him in favor of some jerk (male). The rejected nice character is completely oblivious to the fact that the narrator (female) has the hots for him.

From the chorus:
Talking 'bout the good girls, the good girls
Who only want the bad boys, the bad boys
It's enough to shake your faith and tear your fragile soul apart
And they say nice guys never win
But they're the ones who always break my heart
There's no way to make this song gender-neutral. None. Don't believe me? Think about how many guys you've encountered who complain that women only want jerks and not nice guys (like them)? Have you ever heard the same lament from women about men -- or, for that matter, from women about women or men about men?

Me neither.

In part, I wrote the song to point out how we're all the same in some ways. Pining after people who are only interested in other types of people is a human trait. Neither men nor women have a monopoly on it. But I couldn't get to the message about sameness without digging into the differences -- or perceived differences, anyway.

Back to the Rolling Stones, and "Miss You." Most of the lyrics really are universal. Male or female, gay or straight, we've all obsessed about someone who dumped us. The part about the Puerto Rican girls, though ... that doesn't translate so well. I'm not sure I can put my finger on why. Maybe it's because I've noticed guys fetishizing foreign women more than women fetishizing foreign guys. Maybe it's because a woman's friends are less likely to try to get her out of a rejection funk by encouraging her to sleep around. Whatever the reason, substituting "guys" for "girls" just didn't work for me.

In retrospect, it's entirely possible that the singer was aware of all these issues and made a conscious decision to turn a gender stereotype on its head. See, women can treat men as sex objects too! Women can be sexually liberated too! If that was her intention, then I take back everything I said about the girls/guys switch.

But if she simply assumed she had to change that word to "guys" 'cause she was a chick, then I stand by my initial reaction.

* * *

On a tangential note, I have now spent far more time analyzing that one line than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards ever spent writing it. Such is the fate of a wannabe sociologist turned songwriter.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Atmosphere etiquette

I arrived at the J-Bar about half an hour into Amber Norgaard's set. As her music wafted into the lobby, I told the friendly hostess that I'd like to sit on the patio, where she was playing.

"Oh," she said. "Do you have reservations? There's a half hour wait."

Oops.

The last time I saw Amber perform here was a year or so ago. I came alone, sat at a small table, listened, ate good food, and generally chilled. Without thinking about it, I had assumed tonight would go pretty much the same, except that Ron the Drummer would be there too. I hadn't expected a crowd.

Fortunately, Ron had arrived far ahead of me. Also fortunately, a large table of Amber's friends and admirers had invited Ron to sit with them as he waited for a table. They graciously scootched over and made room for me too.

And then came the inevitable dilemma: I never know how to behave at atmosphere gigs when I'm with other people.

See, I know how it feels to perform at these things. You understand that your audience won't be paying much attention to the music. You accept that. But you also rejoice when people come to see you and listen to you. So when I'm the one in the audience, I like to focus on the artist or band I came to hear.

On the other hand, if I'm part of a group, I feel like I'm expected to socialize. Everyone else is. I don't want to be rude.

I ended up spending half the time listening to Amber and the other half attempting to be social. "Being social" in this case mostly meant directing my gaze at my tablemates and trying to follow the conversations -- somewhat difficult, as I couldn't hear anyone except Ron and the woman to my left, and then only when they spoke directly to me. Still, I hoped I was being sufficiently attentive to everyone involved.

Not until I came home did it occur to me that I was way overthinking this. Nobody else was paying attention to what I was paying attention to. Maybe I should've just done whatever I wanted.

Am I the only person who gives two seconds of thought to this kind of thing?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

When it's time to record again

Seven or eight years ago, I stumbled across an amazing singer/songwriter named Amber Jade at an open mic. I bought her CD and began seeking out her performances.

After a few of her shows, it occurred to me that she almost never played any of the songs from her CD. I asked her why. Her response was something to the effect that her newer material was more interesting to her.

I didn't get it, but whatever. Her non-CD songs were good too.

Fast-forward to the present. Ron the Drummer and I are gearing up for this year's Acoustic Battle of the Bands. We only have 15 minutes to play, so we have to choose our songs carefully. As we deliberated during rehearsal, I realized something. My top picks didn't include one song from our album. Ron felt much the same.

Now I get it.

Set lists evolve. We have to rotate older songs out to make room for newer ones. When deciding what goes and what stays, we've given the songs from Highways and Hiking Shoes preferential treatment. Why? Part of it is that we used some of our strongest work for our album, so it floats to the top naturally. The other part is promotion. If listeners hear and like specific songs from our album, the logic goes, they'll be more likely to buy it.

We released Highways four years ago. That's four years of heavy rotation. We're still proud of those CD songs, but we're ready to play something else now.

The obvious solution is to record again. If we make another CD, it expands the number of songs that we need to promote.

We're working on ways to make this happen. Stay tuned.

* * *

Note: Remember how, at the end of my last post, I said that "next time" I'd talk more about vagueness and specificity in songwriting? What I should have said was, I'll talk about this the next time I have a lot more time to contemplate the subject. Hopefully this weekend or next. Hang tight.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Universality

"I think the Indigo Girls are gay," said Beth.

"What? Why?"

Her statement surprised me, not because I disagreed, but because I'd honestly never given one thought to the sexual orientation of Emily Saliers or Amy Ray. As we listened to their CD together, I tried and failed to pick out anything in the music that would prompt my friend to wonder about this.

Beth couldn't give me much in the way of a concrete reason. Essentially the Indigo Girls had set off her gaydar, though this was 1990 and we had yet to learn that word. The only solid piece of evidence she could produce had to do with the songwriting.

"They never use pronouns," she pointed out.

She was right. Whenever they sang about love or breakups, they didn't give away the gender of whoever they were singing about. For instance,
Hey, Jesus, it's me
I'm the one who talked to you yesterday
I asked you please, please for a favor
But my baby's gone away
Went away anyway
I pondered this, less interested now in the original question than the songs. Say Beth had guessed correctly. Even if I hated the bigotry that had most likely inspired these pronoun games, I approved of the songwriting technique. By keeping gender ambiguous, they made their songs more accessible. Straight women and gay men could more easily insert themselves into the stories.

I resolved that if I ever wrote songs, I would do the same.

* * *

Eventually I did try my hand at songwriting. With a few necessary exceptions, I stuck to my principle of gender neutrality. I also discovered that the universality issue extends way beyond gender.

For instance, here's the last verse from "Not Going to Run," which we included on our album Highways and Hiking Shoes:
Picking up the jagged pieces
Kneeling on the floor
Far away the road still beckons
But I've been there before
I will never understand it
Why you feel that I deserve the wonder of your love
But I'm not going to run
At some point in the middle of writing this, it occurred to me that religious people might think I was talking about God. Not a believer myself, I contemplated throwing something in to indicate I was referring to a romantic relationship.

I discarded the idea half a second later. When it came down to it, the song wasn't about how Mary Sue Peterson, a 32-year-old accountant with short red hair, had changed the narrator's life. It was about how the narrator, whose only coping mechanism had been to run away, had lucked into something worth sticking around for -- love. It didn't matter whether that love came from a person or a deity.

* * *

These moments came floating back to me when I read a recent post by Angel on Fibromyalgia Journal. Angel wrote,
Browsing through my iPod at the gazillion songs I've downloaded, I stumbled across an oldie-but-goodie ... The more I listened to it the more I realized that the song was about US! People in chronic pain.
Here's an excerpt from the song, "Unwell" by Matchbox 20.
But I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell
I know right now you can't tell
But stay a while and maybe then you'll see
A different side of me
I'm not crazy, I'm just a little impaired
I know that right now you don't care
But soon enough you're gonna think of me
And how I used to be... me
Her entire post is here, along with the full set of lyrics.

I read all the words to the song twice. My take? Maybe Angel was onto something. Everything there could apply to living with chronic pain and dealing with other people's lack of understanding. On the other hand, it could just as easily be about feeling paranoid or depressed or out of control.

The only way to know would be to ask Rob Thomas, the guy who wrote "Unwell." But if it turned out he'd had something else in mind, I bet he would still like Angel's interpretation. This song is about not feeling right, whatever right means to you, and feeling that people are judging you because of that. In the end, the specifics don't matter. It works as a fibromyalgia anthem even if Thomas has never heard of fibromyalgia.

* * *

Our lives are filled with experiences that are specific, distinct, unique. Songs are powerful because they cut through those isolating specifics to get at the universal themes.

Marissa Moss sums it up perfectly in this piece:
The first time I heard an Indigo Girls song, or remember hearing one anyway, I was about 11 years old. I had just survived what felt like an overly traumatic dissolution of a crush on a boy named Joey, and for whatever reason, the song Ghost made everything feel a little bit better -- that, maybe, we all feel this way sometimes. When I learned that the lyrics were probably written for a woman, by another woman, I also remember it being the first time understanding that in love, life, or anything else for that matter, we were all the same. Felt the same.

* * *

Next time: when to be vague in songwriting, and when to add the nitty-gritty details.