Where Have the Guitar Gods Gone?

Inspired by this Washington Post story, blogger Pam Mandel weighs in:

Guitar sales have dropped by a third over the past decade… Maybe it’s because we don’t have guitar gods anymore. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, that sound is — well — it’s old. And the new crop of stars don’t inspire the pursuit of guitar god status the way someone like Carlos Santana did…

Yeah, I miss the era of the guitar god too, Mandel. But seriously, no mention of Eddie Van Halen? Come on.

She continues:

Sir Paul McCartney has a similar take on the decline in the guitar’s popularity.

———————— BEGIN QUOTE FROM WAPO ARTICLE.
“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”

He pauses.

“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”
———————— END QUOTE FROM WAPO ARTICLE.

Something Edgers doesn’t address in his article? Uke sales have doubled in the same period in which guitar sales have declined… And the forgiving little axe serves well as a stepping stone to the guitar. The next generation of wanna-be guitar gods could well be out there; they’re just taking a different route to blazing, finger-blistering stardom.

I must object that the ukulele just doesn’t have the sheer attitude of the guitar. But maybe the uke is a gateway drug to the axe; that gives hope. And when the guys get older and they realize how much cooler they look slinging a guitar than playing any other instrument, it will pick up. (News flash: 16-year-old boys like to do things that help them get attention from girls.)

And the WaPo article has some more optimistic thoughts later on:

———————— BEGIN QUOTE FROM WAPO ARTICLE.
Paul Reed Smith, the Maryland-based guitar designer, says the industry is just now recovering from the recession that struck in 2009. He points to PRS’s sustained revenue — the company says they’re between $42 million and $45 million a year — and an increased demand for guitars.

“This is a very complicated mix of economy versus market, demand versus what products are they putting out…” Smith says. “But I’ll tell you this: You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.”

Then there’s Henry Juszkiewicz, the biggest and most controversial of the music instrument moguls. When he and a partner bought Gibson in 1986, for just $5 million, the onetime giant was dying.

“It was a failed company that had an iconic name, but it really was on its last legs,” Ash says. “[Juszkiewicz] completely revived the Gibson line.”
———————— END QUOTE FROM WAPO ARTICLE.

Not all is lost!

The acoustic guitar is light and requires no amplifiers or other powered equipment. It’s easy to learn the basic idea of playing it and it’s very versatile. In its electric version it looks damn cool; see foregoing remark about 16-year-old boys. It’s basically the workhorse of popular music in the western world, and for good reason. Thus the quote above, “You put a magic guitar in a case and ship it to a dealer, it will sell.” So yes, the era of the Guitar God is probably over for good – that era involved technical innovations that were surprising and wickedly cool when they were new, but are now standard technique. But the guitar as an instrument in western music is not going to disappear.

Trailer Idea for The Republic of Thieves

An idea for the start of a movie trailer for Scott Lynch’s The Republic of Thieves:

Exterior shot of hotel. It’s a calm early morning and not much is going on. We hear coughing and retching.

Switch to interior: Man is lying in bed and puking his lungs out into a bowl. Another, rather large, man attends him. Magically, out of thin air, an older woman appears (go nuts with the special effects here to let the audience know this is a fantasy setting).

Sick man: Come to kill me, mage? Too late; I’m already dying.

Woman: My magic can save you. But you have to do me a favor.

Sick man: Yeah? What?

Woman: You’re the best con man in the world… and I need an election fixed.

BOOM! The audience’s attention is now snagged; the rest of the trailer just has to not mess up.

Prince, an appreciation for novices

The musician Prince died recently. As he would have put it, “Life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant to last.” A guide for the curious on how to appreciate this guy’s music:

1. Ignore the overhype. The first thing to watch out for, if you’re new to Prince’s music, is the effect of his hard-core fans, the worshipers. I once had a friend compare the Purple One to Mozart. In a word: No. The problem with these people – I love your enthusiasm, guys, it’s charming, but – is that they’re setting you up for disappointment. When you check out Prince’s music and find it’s not Mozart-level, you might become disgusted and think, “It’s all BS.” Actually it’s not all BS, but the problem is that no one could live up to the expectations his hard-cores will set up in your mind, and the disappointment will annoy you.
What Prince actually was, mainly, was a guy who wrote a lot of good pop music. Pop music is its own area of the musical universe, with clear and reasonable standards, and hooray for it. For example, one of its standards is that a person with no formal musical training should be able to enjoy it. I.e., it should be accessible. Hence “pop,” short for “popular.” (I’ve had some musical training and enjoy certain kinds of esoteric music, but that’s not pop’s bailiwick.) Pop music is not, and is not designed to be, artistically brilliant. It is unfair to a pop artist to judge him by the standards of artistic genius.
In this sense, Prince is like a less extreme case of the Beatles. The Beatles were a solid band who wrote some good pop tunes, and good for them. But due to some weird combination of circumstances which I’ve never figured out, they became feted as the best thing to happen to humanity since the taming of fire. Because this assessment is moronic – in fact, a significant chunk of their oeuvre is downright boring – one’s instinctive reaction is, “The Beatles suck!” Well, they don’t totally suck; they did have some good stuff in with the boring stuff. They just fail to live up to the ridiculous hype with which the Baby Boomers surrounded them. No one could live up to that hype. If you’re not acquainted with their music and you give it a listen, after hearing the hype, I guarantee you’ll be underwhelmed. But that’s the hardcore fans’ fault, not the Beatles’. It’s the same with Prince.

2. Guitar skill. While the alleged Eric Clapton quote about Prince being the world’s greatest guitarist is a fabrication, he was pretty good on the axe. For readers who are knowledgeable about the guitar, this will be the pleasant surprise about Prince. Remember how above I said the guy is overhyped? Well, given that, the freakin’ bizarre thing about him is how underhyped his guitar playing was. How do his hard-core fans miss this? Well, maybe they don’t miss it, and I’ve just missed their ranting about it. But seriously, listen to When Doves Cry, the opening measures and a passage from around 3:45 for several measures afterward. (You have to have the full-length version for this; the radio version and the Greatest Hits version are truncated.) I think his image as a pop god caused everyone to overlook his instrumental skill.

3. Eclecticism. E.g., the random Ravi Shankar-like sitar inserted into “7” at random moments. The combination of pure light-pop dance-y numbers like Raspberry Beret and more thematically serious material like Sign O the Times (warning: crack gangs, machine guns).

4. Humor. “‘…’cause if you don’t I’m gonna explode, and girl, I got a lot.” LOL. My understanding of Prince’s music expanded when I realized there was a lot of humor. Once you listen for it, you hear it all the time.

5. Recommended entry points:
Albums: 1999, Purple Rain.
Songs:
● 1999 (from 1999)
● Little Red Corvette (from 1999. Warning: One line of the lyrics is really gross)
● When Doves Cry (from Purple Rain. Why does When Doves Cry sound, in some undefinable way, different from most other pop songs you’ve ever heard? I’ll put the answer at the end of this post so as to avoid giving it away.)
● The title track from Purple Rain isn’t bad either. What’s that? Did I hear some hardcore in the back shout, “It’s genius, man! It’s genius!” Sit down, fanboy, and catch your breath.
● Thieves in the Temple (from Graffiti Bridge)
● 7 (from the Love Symbol Album)
● Thunder (from Diamonds and Pearls)
● Sign O the Times (from Sign O the Times).
● He also wrote Nothing Compares 2 U, and there are two (at least) performances of it, one by Sinead O’Connor and one by His Purple Majesty himself. Weirdly, O’Connor’s performance is the better, IMHO.
– – – – – – – – – – –
Why does When Doves Cry have a unique sound? The song has no bass line(!), which is very unusual for this kind of song, i.e., an up-tempo Top-40 pop tune from the 1980s. In fact, within that set of songs, it’s probably not just unusual, but unique. Apparently Prince let his bass player add a bass line was when the song was played live, but why? The song hit #1 without any bass! Give the people what they want! And let the bassist go grab a beer!

Weird guy doesn’t like science fiction

I once happened across an essay by a Hank Parnell (“The Inadequacy of Science Fiction,” 5/05/02, The Texas Mercury)), who took the delightfully weird position of being against science fiction. Imagine having a position one way or the other on science fiction; it’s like being pro-Wednesday or anti-beige. Parnell’s strange piece inspires a few remarks.

One, he’s upset that SF isn’t obsessed with death:

“Life, as the ancients knew, is inherently tragic, for we all must suffer and inevitably die. Yet death in science fiction is invariably a sort of martyrdom, when it is not cheated outright: an ersatz immortality. Science fiction is preoccupied with things that ‘are not and work not’…”

Jeez, Parnell, if you’re obsessed with death, er, have fun with that. Most of us aren’t, and most literature, SF or otherwise, isn’t.

Two, Parnell gets his own analytical perspective, Christianity, wrong. He says that the goal of Christians is to be sinless: “To a Christian, a life without sin grants the believer a moral superiority.” Say what? The point of Christianity is that you can’t avoid being sinful and you need God and/or Jesus to bail your ass out. Just FYI. If you weren’t copied on the memo please contact the system administrator; she’ll put you on the list.

Three, he buys into the common and oft-refuted error that the purpose of SF is to predict the future; he slags it for rarely accurately doing so:

“The second greatest inadequacy of science fiction is the limitations of human imagination and knowledge; and to state that human imagination and knowledge have no limits, as most SF writers/readers will [HUH?]… is to reference my first objection to science fiction. In truth, we don’t know what alien beings, if there are such, would really be like, no more than we can know what our own world will be like 10 years from now, to say nothing of a hundred.”

Of course. That’s why it’s called science fiction.

“…the flux of human culture and technological innovation is such that the world of tomorrow would bear little resemblance to the world of today.”

Quite. That’s the entire point of SF.

“A related inadequacy is science fiction’s reliance on gimmicks. A traditional SF story is a gimmick story. Roads that roll, humans that change sex from male to female and back, robots with ‘positronic brains’ – the heart of the story is the exploitation of a gimmick.”

Parnell, you can’t really slag SF writers for not paying enough attention to technological change, and then slag them for writing stories that assume technological change. And if you’re going to be wrong, at least be original. SF authors don’t try to predict the future, as many people outside SF have mistakenly thought. The point is to explore a large set of possible futures. And cultures, human and alien. And political changes associated with technological changes. Etc. A good example of this last appears in Larry Niven’s Known Space setting: organ donor technology is so cheap and reliable that voters have an incentive to implement the death penalty for, e.g., jaywalking… so they can harvest the jaywalker’s organs and thus potentially extend their own lives.

But after all this it occurred to me that maybe Parnell isn’t serious. Perhaps this essay is just an act of semantic Da-Daism. Lord knows it’s weird enough. If so, I like it. In fact I wish I’d thought of it first, and I’m joining in now. I’m hereby making it known that I’m against A-flat. Join me, brothers, in the struggle against this imperialist, high-calorie musical note! Down with A-flat!! Down with A-flat!!

Album review: Steve Vai’s Flex-able

First in an occasional series.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Vai eventually became prominent as the guitarist on David Lee Roth’s debut solo album Eat ‘Em and Smile, where Vai came out blazing. On tracks like the hilariously-titled Shy Boy (David Lee Roth? Seriously?), the notes fly out of the fretboard at about 800 per second. But hard-rockin’ though that album is, DLR was essentially a one-thing act; he wanted to do hard rock and nothing but hard rock. And that’s cool. That’s great. But. Vai evidently had broader goals, a fact that had been displayed on his earlier solo album Flex-able, an uneven but ultimately worthwhile pastiche of, uh, everything.

This is a time capsule from the era of the Guitar God [1978 (Van Halen’s first album) – circa 1993, requiescat in pace] and it exhibits most of the virtues and vices of that era. The guitar technique can be very impressive, prompting one to blurt, “How does he do that!?” But from a musical perspective it often makes one ask, “Um…why did he do that?” The ugly and pointless There’s Something Dead in Here is a good example.

Music qua music is the main stumbling block here. Some tracks, like Next Stop Earth, are just technique for the sake of technique. On the other hand, Viv Woman is a classic 4/4 blast with the distortion knob turned all the way up, and it rocks. And Burning Down the Mountain and Call it Sleep also use simple themes, but are melodically pretty, which is ultimately the whole point.

When Vai ventures into songs – as opposed to instrumentals – he often founders, at least when he tries to be serious, as with The Boy/Girl Song and Junkie. There aren’t enough departures from the cliches to convey anything but triteness. (Boys and girls often find each other exasperating! Who knew!?) But when he tosses away the attempts to be profound, and just has fun, he creates amusing confections like Little Green Men and So Happy.

Little Green Men about four-foot-two
Maybe they want to mate with you

Little Green Men about four foot
Maybe they want to kick some butt.

The governments of the world are very good at concealing the presence of these little visitors… until we are ready to enter the Age of Light Without Heat.

All of this diverting silliness occurring with interesting guitar noises in the background. Vai’s most entertaining when he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

The track So Happy is pure showing off, but fun due to the novelty. The piece begins with a woman speaking about a how nice it would be if everyone could be happy all the time. A minute in, Vai starts matching her, perfectly, on the guitar. Even my son, who is in grade school and knows nothing about the guitar, exclaimed, “How does he do that?” I would love to send this track back in time to before the Guitar God era, say 1955, and watch the expressions on people’s faces.

Overall, you should definitely own this album if you (1) are interested in the guitar and the history of innovation with the instrument, or (2) have eclectic musical tastes, as this album has a little of everything.

Why you should write that novel now

At some point in the future humanity will fragment as it heads out to the stars in different directions. Our descendants will have the ability to take everything that can be encoded into ones and zeros with them. But as they get farther from each other communication will diminish. If we’re 100 light-years apart, two-way communication takes 200 years. If our successors upload themselves, as is more or less inevitable sooner or later, and then crank up the speed on the hardware they’re running on, it will seem longer. If they think a million times faster than us – and that’s a very conservative forecast – 200 years will seem like 200 million years to them. Also, as the distance rises, the power required to get a message across the distance rises. And the uncertainty about whether there’s anyone still at the other end and where exactly they are rises… etc. So inevitably, communication will stop.

A thousand years from now, a work of art created at point A will never be appreciated 100 light-years away at point B.

Those of us in the here and now are wonderfully lucky. We have an opportunity the vast majority of those who come after us will never have: the opportunity to create things that will be part of the memetic heritage of all our descendants.

Massless drive, science fiction story to end all stories on

Dedicated to Larry Niven.

In 2117 the inertialess drive was finally perfected. It had been tested in the Joint Space Exploration Vacuum Lab over a period of four years, years in which the research team had been dragged through devastating emotional lows and euphoric highs. The Consortium of Space Venturing Nations had contributed more than a trillion dollars in research funding to create the volume known, perhaps somewhat melodramatically, as “hypervacuum.” In the hundred cubic meters of the controlled facility, there was zero matter, or as the leader of the research unit more carefully put it, “Zero matter detectable to our instruments.” Even quantum fluctuations were suppressed within.
       If the experiment were successful, it would create a brutal explosion. For this reason, while the scientists controlled the experimental apparatus from Madrid, the hypervacuum chamber itself was located in extreme isolation at the North Pole.
       The vast resources committed to the project finally created the long-sought result: In the controlled facility, the inertial dampener was activated. As the rest of the team watched the monitors with bated breath, the team leader extended her finger and pushed a button. Thousands of miles away in the hypervacuum chamber, a fragile metal cylinder the size of a pencil moved forward and gently tapped the six-ton engine. An immeasurably short instant later the engine had smashed into the far wall of the chamber. No human eyes witnessed that; the violence of the ensuing explosion vaporized the video cameras instantly, along with the hypervacuum chamber and dozens of square miles of Arctic ice. The cameras showed only static, but satellite images of the pole conveyed the good news to the research team.
       With screams of joy they leapt to their feet! It worked! The engine’s inertial mass had been eliminated; there was no resistance to acceleration! A thousand-kiloton spaceship could be accelerated to just below lightspeed with a mere tap from a feather. Finally, the stars were within reach of the human race!
       After a couple of days of uproarious partying, the American members of the research unit had returned to the US to meet with the President. “Remind me what this does,” the President said. “I read the briefing a few weeks ago but I’m rather busy. What’s that thing about ‘suppressing inertial mass’?”
       A team member responded, “Basically, the object, um, doesn’t weigh anything. By suppressing inertial mass, the device allows us to accelerate any object, no matter how large, to just under lightspeed, with veritably zero energy input.”
       “And what is ‘just under lightspeed’?”
       “A few decades ago physicists discovered that time and space are quantal–”
       “Basically lumpy, right?” asked the President. “Not smooth.”
       “Exactly. So while matter can’t go at lightspeed, the quantal nature of space and time make it possible to have a speed of one quantal velocity unit below lightspeed.”
       “But what about Einstein?” the President asked. “I thought the briefing said…”
       “Einstein’s equations, it turns out, are only continuous approximations to the discrete reality.”
       “Ah, of course.”
       A few years later the first starship had been constructed in orbit. A new inertialess engine was installed. Video cameras outside the ship were arrayed to convey the momentous event to Earth. A theoretical physicist whose work had been crucial to the project had been granted the right to launch the ship. He floated near it in a spacesuit, linked by radio to the crew within. A hopeful planet stared at innumerable TV and computer screens, waiting for the dream of centuries to finally be realized.
       In the ship’s control room, the captain gave the order.
       The engineer engaged the drive.
       Outside the ship, the scientist reached out and tapped the hull.
       Nothing happened, except an annoying vibration throughout the vessel.
       Furious double-checking of the engine. No problems detected.
       “Oh, man, I just thought of something,” said the engineer.
       “What?” asked the Captain.
       “Well, this engine effectively makes the ship massless, right? So even the slightest contact with any other object, no matter how small, will provide the highest possible acceleration…”
       “Obviously. That’s why we should be headed to Proxima Centauri at just under lightspeed right now.”
       “Right, Captain,” said the engineer. “It’s just that space isn’t actually space. It contains about one randomly darting hydrogen atom per cubic meter.”
       “Oh fuck,” said the captain.

* * * * * * * * *

Notes:

1) If you’re not familiar with the good ole “inertialess drive” from various past science fiction works, suffice it to say that one of the classic workarounds to the vast distances between stars wouldn’t work, even taken on its own terms.
2) Dedicated to Larry Niven because Niven’s Laws for Writers includes “Stories to end all stories on a given topic, don’t.” Heh.
3) I don’t know how much energy a six-ton mass colliding with a solid object at “just under lightspeed” would actually have. Enough to vaporize the Earth, for all I know. But that would ruin the fun. Or anyway, that’s a different kind of SF story. In any case, tapping a million-ton starship with a feather and having it zip off at the speed of light would violate physical conservation principles – like, ya know, the conservation of energy – up the wazoo.