“Revolver”: Great Art Endures 50 Years Later

August 5th, 2016 by ddeal

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I cannot let Friday end without commenting on Revolver, which was released 50 years ago today.

I didn’t get into the album until after I’d freed myself from the Beatles’ mythology, broadened my own musical tastes, and learned to appreciate the album for its musical merits alone. In context of the Beatle’s maturation as musicians, Revolver endures as a masterpiece – the moment when their personal visions, increasingly sophisticated song writing, and spirit of adventure in the studio coalesced to create an artistic statement that surpassed every other album they would create, including Sgt. Pepper’s. The album also stands as a testament to the production genius of George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick, whose book, Here, There, and Everywhere, is highly recommended for an inside look at how the band created its best moments in the studio.

Sgt. Peppers was the album that transformed rock from a musical genre to a cultural phenomenon. But it’s far from my favorite album. The production and very idea behind the Sgt. Peppers make it stand head and shoulders above most anything anyone had created at that time. But the songs are not all uniformly great like they are on Revolver, and Revolver has just as many moments of musical genius. There is the biting satire of George Harrison’s “Taxman” alongside Harrison’s spiritual meditation in “Love You To”; the dark loneliness of Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” followed by John Lennon’s hazy, trippy “I’m Only Sleeping”; the romantic heartache in Macca’s “Here, There, and Everywhere,” and Lennon’s psychedelic tour de force, “Tomorrow Never Knows,” in which he famously instructed the other Beatles that he wanted his voice to sound like “the Dali Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.”

Sgt. Peppers is like Moby-Dick – influential literature you’re supposed to read. Revolver is great music that stands the test of time. But I didn’t know that when I was growing up and discovering music in context of the Beatles’ legacy. When I was a senior in high school, John Lennon was gunned down by Mark David Chapman. Like many of my contemporaries, I learned about Lennon’s death while watching Monday Night Football, when Howard Cosell, the controversial broadcaster, announced the news in his unmistakably nasal and self-important sounding voice.

The adjective “shocking” gets overused when describing dramatic word events, but Lennon’s death truly was shocking. The idea that some crazed person could just gun down a living legend shattered our illusions that godlike rock stars lived a cloistered existence – vulnerable to their own excesses, to be sure, but not to the same kind of maladies that befall everyday mortals. Lennon’s death would lionize him, to Paul McCartney’s chagrin. The loss of John Lennon also made it impossible for me to view him as an artist properly. Instead, he was a saint. You dont think of saints as songwriters.

It took the passage of time for me to explore enough music on my own and to gain the perspective I needed to critically analyze his vast contributions to the Beatles, which is to say, popular music. And Revolver is his personal triumph. “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “She Said She Said” are the acidic complement to Paul’s sweetness, the powerful voice that gave Revolver an unmistakable edge. He would never again command an album with the Beatles as he did on Revolver. The Beatles became Paul’s band afterward.

Each time I listen to Revolver, I take comfort that I can continue to discover art with the wonder that I felt when I was a child. Listening to the album is like revisiting Nighthawks at the Art Institute of Chicago. I appreciate something different each time – a little nuance, like the striking jangle in the multi-tracked guitars on “And Your Bird Can Sing” or the unfettered joy on Macca’s voice when he utters the word “Good” in “Good Day Sunshine.”

Revolver takes me on a journey with each listening. The twists, turns, and destination never feel the same.




Memorable Album Covers: “Exile on Main St.”

July 29th, 2016 by ddeal

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Whenever I see the cover of Exile on Main St., I think of my courtship with Janice Deal in the late 1980s. We learned about each other through our vinyl collections during that time. Jan’s Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel albums gave me a glimpse into her poetic artistry that would manifest itself in the short stories and book she would publish years later, The Decline of Pigeons. My albums, ranging from Al Green to Led Zeppelin, often revealed my fascination with the interplay between music and the visual power of album cover art, which I would eventually document on my blog and on visual storytelling platforms such as Instagram. Exile on Main St. captures that time in our lives perfectly.

Considered by many to be the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main St. captures the sound and look of a band wallowing in its own decadence. The front cover of the album is a jumbled mess of off-kilter, black-and-white images of circus entertainers and assorted characters of unusual talent, including a dude with an amazing capacity for holding three oranges in his mouth. The back consists of a druggy pastiche of more black-and-white images, this time of the Rolling Stones, leering, yawning, and frowning. The band looks like they’ve been documented amid a chaotic, gypsy existence, which, in fact, they were living, having fled England to avoid paying an onerous tax burden. The images of one of rock’s most memorable covers reflect the nearly out-of-control sprawl of the album inside the cover.

The album itself confused critics and fans alike with its muddy sound. When you listen to songs like “Rocks Off,” you feel like you’re in the uncomfortably hot, squalid French villa where parts of the album were recorded. Mick Jagger slurs, drawls, and shouts the lyrics over scabrous guitar parts and a loose rhythm that feels two notes away from a chaotic breakdown. All the elements add up to an authentically dirty vibe that few bands have managed to capture.

I got to know Exile a little too late in life, long after I had been told countless times that Exile was The Masterpiece. It was impossible to really enjoy the album on its own merits, so thick was the legend (and myth) surrounding the songs and its recording in that French villa while Keith Richards was dropping heroin. Hearing the songs was like listening to Bob Dylan or classical music. You couldn’t relax and let the music pour over you; rather, you were conscious of the expectation that you were supposed to enjoy it, even songs with the juvenile names like “Turd on the Run.”

Only after leaving the album alone for a while and revisiting the songs when Jan and I were dating in the late 1980s could I start to enjoy Exile and the chaotic sounds that unified all four sides. At this point in their career, the Rolling Stones were mired in a fallow period, churning out formulaic-sounding albums like Dirty Work. The band sounded too polished and mechanical. Jan and I were spending a lot of time exploring Chicago neighborhoods, eating barbeque from a place called Leon’s (where a slice of white bread was served with your ribs), and just bombing around in the streets.

Sometimes we would order ribs from the Leon’s carry-out on north Clark Street and simply sit on the sidewalk and chow down on ribs, not caring how messy we looked. As we took long walks through areas such as Lincoln Park, I sang loosely remembered songs to Jan, throwing in a line from “Ventilator Blues” one moment before jumping into “Happy” when I couldn’t get the lines right. I was deep into the Stones’ early catalog then, perhaps as a reaction to how boring the band sounded in 1987. I scooped up copies of worn vinyl Stones albums at used record stores, including the earliest albums with those stark close-ups of their menacing faces. Jan, with her collection of Madonna, the Beatles, and Laurie Anderson, offered the counterbalance to the darkness that fascinated me, and I loved her for providing that lightness.

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During that period, I studied the album cover for Exile with fresh eyes and dwelled on each little square photograph, looking for clues that might shed light on the songs inside. I reappraised the dense and opaque collage of images as a reflection of the music. The unpolished and faded images of Jagger and Richards huddled around the microphone, and of the entire band smirking and gazing off screen with stoned expressions, coupled with the dude with the oranges and the freaks on the front cover, created a band portrait dipped in the kind of grime and grit I felt on my skin after walking through Chicago on a hot summer Saturday. I was finally able to enjoy the album on my terms. And Jan did, too. The Stones were walking the streets with us.

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If you own the album, you know why you have to listen to the songs all the way through to understand the cover. These are the Stones: unvarnished, real, and powerful.




Your Audience Is Always Watching

July 28th, 2016 by ddeal

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Photo credit: Ivan Phillips

Your audience is always watching even if you can’t see them.

Years ago, I was hanging out at one of those sweaty summer suburban festivals where the food consists of elephant ears and the carnival rides look like they’re held together with rust. Amid the squirt gun games and cotton candy haze, I noticed a wiry woman on a small stage singing remarkable renditions of Joan Jett songs. I walked over to the stage and realized that lo and behold, here was Joan Jett in the flesh, writhing, strutting, and blasting through her energetic song catalog. She had an audience of maybe a dozen people standing in a dark corner of the festival, but she performed as if she were commanding an arena packed with thousands.

She looked like she was having fun. I marveled at her obvious joy and wondered how she conjured up such passion when she was performing for a small cluster of people she probably could not even see very well in a poorly lit corner of the festival.

A few weeks ago, I found out for myself.

As I have discussed on my blog, during summer weekends, I perform at the Bristol Renaissance Faire, an outdoor living theater in Wisconsin that re-creates the sights and sounds of 1574 Bristol, England, on a day when Queen Elizabeth is visiting. The character I portray, a pompous guild master named Nicolas Wright, hosts an improv show with a charming and lovable guild master named Thomas Halfcake, portrayed by Benjamin Cormalleth. During our show, known as the Court of Common Pleas, we invite audience members onstage to be charged and tried for comical crimes such as kicking a fetid turnip or smiling without a license. We conduct a mock trail that always ends with our condemning the audience volunteer to perform a silly action onstage, such as howling at the sky as punishment for their “crimes.” The show relies entirely on our ability to create a bond quickly with an audience and strengthen that bond over the course of 30 minutes.

Ben and I have worked together as cast mates for three years now, and we both love the experience of cavorting in the dusty streets of Bristol, making people happy from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer. Do you remember what it felt like when you were a kid and summer days meant playing outdoors from morning until nightfall? For us, being part of the cast evokes that sense of fun. Whether we are on the streets or onstage, we are energized by the spontaneity of improv.

Normally we do our show at noon on an intimate stage known as the Lord Mayor’s Forum. We can easily project our voices and attract attention at this centrally located spot. But on one recent Sunday, our show was switched to a different stage located at a busy crossroads. When noon rolled around, we took to the stage and sized up the audience — which consisted of exactly one cast member who had appeared to catch our act. Otherwise, we had zero patrons filling the benches. Maybe the layout of the stage was not inviting. Maybe the location was not ideal. But it was showtime, and we were on our own.

I glanced over at Ben. He looked as happy as he always does. Without saying a word, he flashed me a smile that said, “Let’s have fun.”

So we had fun. We dug into our characters to swap jokes about being a nefarious barrister and a charming baker who form a most curious pair. We performed improv bits. We dialed up our make-believe Elizabethan-era accents and projected our voices even louder than usual. We laughed like kids on vacation without a care in the world. It really didn’t matter how many people were in the audience or whether they were paying attention. We were enjoying the moment.

At first, no one seemed to notice, or at least it looked that way to me. The Faire patrons kept moving along the lane. But they were watching, even if we didn’t know it. Soon, a family sat down in the front row, curious to find out why these two guys onstage dressed in robes, stockings, and hats were cutting up so loudly. Then the audience began to grow as a few more families and couples decided to check us out. Then more people wanted to find out what the other people were watching.

We quickly had an enthusiastic crowd. Audience members shot their hands into the air when we asked for volunteers. A woman who looked to be in her 70s cracked jokes with us and shouted “God save the queen” with Ben. Two children joined us onstage to be tried for the crime of being happy brothers and sisters. They had so much fun that their parents had to coax them to leave the stage when it was time to call a new volunteer. By the time the show was over, the audience was in a groove with us. We had drawn them into our orbit.

As our 30 minutes came to an end, Ben and I floated off the stage. We both knew something magical had happened — one of those special moments that we would carry with us throughout the summer.

What if Ben and I had phoned in our performance just because we didn’t think we had an audience? We would have let down the patrons who were paying attention even as they walked by the stage without seeming to give us a second thought. We would most certainly have never filled a seat.

And we would have let ourselves down. But instead, we gave ourselves over to the natural joy of savoring a summer moment at Bristol, an experience we love.

It doesn’t matter how many people attend your show, watch your speech, listen to your podcast, or read your blog. Someone out there is paying attention. You don’t always see them. But you owe them your best effort. And you owe it to yourself to love what you do.

Here are other posts I have written about my experiences acting at the Bristol Renaissance Faire:

Own the Stage,” September 3, 2015.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable,” August 26, 2015.

Fake It Until You Make It,” July 17, 2015.

How Acting in a Renaissance Faire Has Made Me a Better Executive,” August 18, 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 




Memorable Album Covers: Elton John’s “Greatest Hits”

July 15th, 2016 by ddeal

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Have you ever come across someone who captures a style that you can admire but never hope to emulate? Elton John made me awestruck when I found a copy of Greatest Hits in my sister Karen’s room when I was a kid. The album came out at a time when greatest hits packages actually meant something, long before digital made it possible for listeners to create their own playlists. The best collections served as an introduction to an artist’s body of work and made it easy for you to enjoy in one listening singles that you otherwise had to catch on the radio if you were lucky enough to be listening at the right time. And Elton John’s first Greatest Hits collection was one of the best, not only for the music but the memorable album cover.

All the songs that defined his rise to superstardom were laid out for you like diamonds — hits like “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and “Bennie and the Jets” (I always wondered who came up with the brilliant idea of pronouncing “Jets” like “jetssssss,” which gave the song its signature moment). My favorite was (and remains) “Daniel.” When he sang “Daniel, my brother, you are older than me/Do you still feel the pain” my mind drifted to my brother Daniel, who was two years older than me and who was indeed experiencing a lot of pain in his life. I’d heard all those songs — how could you not growing up in the 1970s? — usually riding in the car with my mom and dad, driving to places like Peoria, Illinois, or Mishawaka, Indiana, to visit relatives on both sides of the family. Even on a crappy car radio, his songs were unmistakable.

But when I found that album, I didn’t even bother listening to the music at first. I really didn’t need to. I just studied the album. Every detail. The creamy white suit, oversized glasses, and natty hat offset by the dark blue shirt and multi-colored bow tie. The over-sized pin of the dude looking like Marlon Brando in The Wild One affixed to his jacket. And to top it all off, that elegant walking stick. On the back cover, there he was, playing his piano, wearing glitter shoes. I loved everything about his look, but I realized he had captured a style that was all his own. I was just a kid entering adolescence, with no sense of how to look. I was making that awkward transition from matching clothes to jeans and shirts, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I was too shy and awkward to try to attempt to look anything like presentable. On that album cover, Elton John gave me a glimpse of another world, of other possibilities beyond my imagination.

All I could do was press my nose against the glass and watch.




How Pokémon Go Took Over the World with Augmented Reality

July 12th, 2016 by ddeal

3045687-3026698-pokémon+go+logo+copyThey’re in my house. They’re in my car. They’re following me to the store. Of course, I’m speaking of the Pokémon who inhabit the world of Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that has invaded the lives of smartphone owners all over the world since its general release July 6. Seemingly overnight — actually, faster than overnight — Pokémon Go has schooled the world on the power of augmented reality, a technology that is expected to support a $120 billion market by 2020. Thanks to Pokémon Go, it might be time to raise that dollar figure and speed up the adoption timeline.

With Pokémon Go, you use your smart phone to play a game of discovery and battle with Pokémon from the video and card game that Nintendo made popular in the late 1990s. Thanks to augmented reality, Pokémon can seemingly pop up anywhere as you view the real world through your phone screen, including your own bathroom or your backyard. Your job is to catch them, train them, and prepare them for battle with other teams (in designated spots called gyms, which correspond with public places in the real world that you can find by getting out of the house and exploring with your phone as your guide). At locations called Pokestops, you can collect supplies and goodies to assist in your quest to find and train the Pokémon on your own team. As you capture harder-to-find Pokémon and win battles, you level up.

Since the game’s release, I have spent some time playing the game with my daughter, Marion, and friends. I’ve wandered around the town I live, Downers Grove, Illinois, jumping up and down in excitement on public streets while I’ve experienced the thrill of capturing Pokémon. Here’s why I think Pokémon Go resonates:

The Game Rocks for Pokémon Fans and Nonfans

First off, Pokémon Go is flat-out fun for both fans of the legacy Pokémon game and people who know little about Pokémon. The experience has all the elements of an enjoyable game, such as questing, play, skill testing, winning points, challenging others, leveling up, and joining teams. Both single players and multiplayers can enjoy it, and you can keep a session going for as long as you have the app open, which is crucial to creating player engagement.

Marion and I are not really conversant in the ways of Pokémon, but we play games on occasion, and it was easy for us to get the appeal of Pokémon Go straight off. Learning the rules is pretty easy — which is essential for me, as I have zero patience for games with complicated instructions — and yet achieving points is challenging enough to keep your head in the game.

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Google Creates a Virtual Reality Future

July 5th, 2016 by ddeal

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Google wants virtual reality to be everyone’s reality.

During the week of June 27, Google demonstrated its commitment to making VR a mainstream experience. To wit:

  • On June 28, Google shared an online demo showing how creatives, using Google’s forthcoming Daydream VR platform, can create animation in VR without possessing any specialty skills. Daydream, announced at Google’s I/O event in May, will encompass VR-enabled smartphones, a new VR viewer and controller (making Cardboard unnecessary if you can afford the viewer, whose price is unknown), and apps that will unlock VR content ranging from news to games. Daydream will be available on the Android operating system.

In addition, on July 29, roadtovr.com reported that Google is developing a feature for its Chrome browser that will allow you to browse the entire Web in VR when Google rolls out Daydream. Since Google is also rebuilding YouTube, Street View, Play, and Photos with VR modes, a VR-mode for Chrome, when ready, will have a world of VR-content to browse, such as a more immersive Street View experience or VR concert viewing on YouTube. When Daydream is rolled out, we should be able to use the Daydream headset or Cardboard viewer to visit any website in VR, according to Upload VR.

These developments demonstrate just some of the moving parts that will comprise Daydream, and they make Daydream seem like less of an abstraction and more of a tangible reality. Whereas Facebook communicates its vision for VR with good theater and well delivered messages, Google opens the hood to give you a glimpse at the engine.

Designing Animation in VR

The animation demo might seem like inside baseball to anyone who does not design for a living, but making VR accessible to creatives is important. Breakthroughs in any endeavor occur when the tools of production are accessible and democratic. Rock and roll took off because anyone who could get their hands on even a cheap guitar could teach themselves how to play. Basketball exploded in popularity across the United States in the 20th Century because all you needed was a basketball and a court to learn the game. And Google intends to make VR a breakthrough, too.

As Rob Jagnow, software engineer, Google VR, wrote in a June 28 blog post, Google Daydream Labs is reducing the complexity for making VR animation by making it possible for creatives to design scenes by moving objects around in VR, instead of needing complex and costly software to design scenes in 2D. Jagnow indicated that Daydream Labs experimented with VR by allowing users to bring characters to life by moving toys around a screen.

“Instead of animating with graph editors or icons representing location, people could simply reach out, grab a virtual toy, and carry it through the scene,” he wrote. “These simple animations had a handmade charm that conveyed a surprising degree of emotion . . . People were already familiar with how to interact with real toys, so they jumped right in and got started telling their stories. They didn’t need a lengthy tutorial, and they were able to modify their animations and even add new characters without any additional help.”

In a nod to making VR democratic, he added “VR allows us to rethink software and make certain use cases more natural and intuitive. While this kind of animation system won’t replace professional tools, it can allow anyone to tell their own stories.”

Expeditions

The Expeditions experience is more of a crowd pleaser. Google rolled out Expeditions in the fall of 2015 to participating classrooms. As reported in TechCrunch, more than a million students in 11 countries have gone on virtual field trips, and the collection of destinations has grown to more than 200.

The following video testimonial demonstrates how Expeditions can work:

Launching Expeditions in the classroom is a smart long-term strategy. Google is betting that tools such as Expeditions will help make younger generations become more familiar and comfortable with VR. And as they do so, they’ll associate Google with VR. of Google as their preferred platform throughout their lives, which is similar to Apple’s approach of embedding its products in the classroom decades ago.

But Google is thinking short-term by making Expeditions more widely available. Anyone with the tools can now join in the fun. And when the tools improve with Daydream, Google hopes to introduce a whole new meaning of fun. Making Expeditions available for iOS would be a way for Google to entice IOS users to switch to Android — as if to say, “Do you like what you’re experiencing with Expeditions? There’s a lot more fun to be had if you switch to Android.”

As I discussed in a June 11 blog post, Google’s vision is to make VR accessible to all, with Google products being at the center of our everyday VR experience. The way Google sees it, VR will underpin how we search and discover, how we experience content, especially if we use Google’s own Chrome browser on mobile devices. Chrome is now the most popular Web browser, according to Gizmodo. Android has the largest global marketshare of any operating system on a smartphone, according to stastista.com. Google intends to strengthen those leads in an era of VR that Google sees coming.

As the saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Google sees a VR future on the horizon and intends for its own products to lead the way. But it’s not like we’re are all going to stop what we’re doing and start using Daydream when the platform becomes available. Even loyal Android users will take some time to adopt VR experiences. iOS users will watch that uptake (and, Google hopes, become envious) while pundits speculate about Apple’s possible move into VR. What’s clear, though, is that Google is priming the pump for a gradual adoption of VR through Daydream. Expanding Expeditions and sharing a demo for creating VR animation are all about getting us comfortable for a long-term change that is coming. And coming soon.




Awakening the Ghost of Jim Morrison

July 3rd, 2016 by ddeal

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My life changed 35 years ago today.

During the summer of 1981, I was living in Neumarkt, Germany, a little town nestled in the Bavarian hills. I was the guest of a couple of families kind enough to host a high school graduate whose idea of preparing for college was growing his hair long, sprouting a gnarly beard, buying a lot of vinyl records, and making up each day as he went along. Which was the whole point of disappearing to Germany for a summer. I had spent four years as a high honor roll student at Wheaton Central High School, and was ready to do anything but worry about grades.

The German young men and women I got to know in Neumarkt were living their own version of the Age of Aquarius, donning psychedelic pants, talking a lot of politics — especially their concern over the escalating nuclear arms race between America and Russia — and doing a lot of partying like their world was going to end tomorrow. It was the kind of summer where one day you found yourself on a scooter (which I crashed more than once) bombing around the winding streets of Neumarkt, that night you were talking politics and art at a party with students you just met, and the next thing you knew you were on a bus headed to Paris with a bunch of German kids, where you shared a squalid room in dumpy hostel for a few weeks.

My friends Bruce (a Wheaton Central classmate), Robert (from Neumarkt), and I stayed up all night in the hostel playing practical jokes on each other and roaming around. We got little sleep, partly because no one else in the place was sleeping, and partly because we didn’t want to. If you went to sleep, you might miss a spontaneous party breaking out in the hallway or a poker game in the next room. Everyone in the building lived a sort of impoverished communal existence. Males and female shared one shower area although we had separate stalls. I used my bed sheet for a towel and lived off a baguette a day unless I won enough money playing poker to buy something more substantial.

It was easy for us to get around Paris. The Metro went everywhere. We usually jumped the turnstiles and rode for free or walked. On July 3, we somehow made our way to the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery, one of many Parisian cities of the dead that have a history all their own. Père Lachaise was like no other cemetery I’d ever visited, a sprawling little city consisting of tombs, mini-chapels, gardens, and cobbled paths on a hill.

At first, we explored winding, tree-lined paths in search of the tombs of famous people such as Oscar Wilde. We also hoped to find the grave of Jim Morrison but had not bothered to ask anyone for a map. I knew about the band’s hits and some deep cuts, having become turned on to the Doors a few years earlier when Apocalypse Now featured “The End” in its soundtrack. But I had not been turned on to the mystical power of Jim Morrison.

As it turned out, we didn’t need a map. Within a few minutes of exploring the cemetery, we noticed the word “Jim” with an arrow written in chalk on a number of tombs. And so we started to follow the arrows.

As we walked up a lane and approached a row of tightly clustered graves, we noticed a crowd had gathered. We heard strange, ethereal music, which I recognized as “End of the Night” from the Doors’ first album. The air was filled with the smell of sweet incense. Not only had we found Morrison’s grave, we had stumbled on to the 10th anniversary of his death.

I broke off from my friends and let the thick cluster of revelers swallow me up. There were American expatriates like myself, ranging from the backpack-and-beard crowd to couples holding hands. There were European kids with long hair and curious smiles on their faces — smiles that would turn to anger during massive nuclear protests in major European cities later that year, but not on this day. There were many older hippie holdovers from the 1960s, looking like they had walk right out of the fields of Woodstock, dressed in gowns, beads, and flowing white shirts. They had weathered faces, dirty hair, and bare feet. They passed around bottles of booze and stole glances at Morrison’s grave.

These were the true believers I had read about in magazines about the hippie counterculture. They came from another era when rock musicians were gods, not just entertainers, and listening to music meant discovering layers of yourself. And Jim Morrison was one of the greatest of their gods.

The hippies looked just a little said amid the revelry, like they were trying to awaken spirits of the past at the grave of a man who symbolized a lost era. The music of the Doors continued to waft into the air like the incense, coming from somewhere in the throng. I thought of Indians doing a ghost dance on the North American plains, only here they were here, in Paris, with me.

The surviving members of the Doors, John Densmore, Robby Krieger, and Ray Manzarek, were there, mingling among the crowd, signing autographs, sharing their booze, and sharing their memories. It’s remarkable to think of that moment, free of security guards and a horde of news media. Today such a scene would be carefully choreographed and documented in real time on social media. Back then, the surviving Doors were just members of our little party, quietly working their way through the crowd. If I had not noticed them signing autographs, I would have assumed they were like everyone else.

A white bust of Morrison watched all of us, along with a bottle of booze someone had planted to keep him company. His grave was covered with graffiti, and his face had begun to crumble, like he himself had under the weight of fame before his death at age 27. He was long dead but he was alive at Père Lachaise, the shaman in command of a tribe of followers and strangers from different countries and generations. And on July 3, 1981, on a day when I was free of commitment, free of material want and need, and with a life of possibility ahead of me, I was one of them.

From that point onward, I wrote — not for good grades but for me. The streets of Paris and the places I visited in Germany formed the settings for short stories and poems, some of them about an alter ego named Eddie Black whom I created in Paris. Robert and I deepened our friendship as we discussed Eddie’s personality and exploits while exploring record albums be owned and ones I was buying. My time in Germany and indeed my life assumed a new context. Every new place was like a muse.

Eventually the summer abroad came to an end. No more poker games in run-down youth hostels. No more friends with long hair. No more German teens in their psychedelic pants and political talk. Suddenly I was far from home, in Dallas, Texas, at Southern Methodist University.

My first years in college would be lonely and traumatic, marked by family turmoil and a sense of not fitting in on the campus. I was alone, alienated, and homesick for that summer of my own making, especially moments like communing with strangers at Père Lachaise. To endure the alienation, I became immersed in the music of the Doors, the best selling Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud, one of Morrison’s many literary influences. His influences became mine: I took a poetry-writing class and kept writing poems and a journal throughout college (eventually getting a few poems published). Morrison’s words and the band’s atmospheric sound inspired me. The song “People Are Strange” captured my own sense of feeling off balance in a college setting that, it turned out, was just wrong for me in many respects (“People are strange/when you’re a stranger/faces look ugly/when you’re alone”).

During those two years at SMU, I experienced the internalization of music: when you cross the line from being a fan of someone’s music to identifying personally with an artist. I became one of the true believers. Have you ever cared so much about anyone’s music that you feel the words and chords seep into your soul? Have you gotten through a hard time in your life by putting an album on repeat play? If you have, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana, where I graduated, far happier and adjusted, with a journalism degree and a deeper love of all things rock music, including all the classic rockers. Since that time, I’ve read several books on the Doors and helped a friend, Patricia Butler, write one (Angels Dance and Angels Die). I’ve edited and designed a book on rock and roll (Say You Want a Revolution, by Robert Pielke, an experience through which I got to know Danny Sugerman, co-author of No One Here Gets Out Alive), formed relationships with musicians during my marketing career, and passed on a passion for the Doors to my daughter.

Throughout his life, Jim Morrison was fond of telling a story about his family driving through the desert and coming across dead Indians scattered on a highway as a result of a car accident. Morrison believed the ghosts of one of the dead Indians leaped into his soul. On July 3, 1981, Jim Morrison’s ghost leaped into mine.




The “Stairway to Heaven” Lawsuit: How Permanent a Victory?

June 23rd, 2016 by ddeal

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Led Zeppelin’s successful defense of “Stairway to Heaven” against an accusation of copyright infringement over the song “Taurus” is a victory for creativity — but how permanent a victory?

The opening notes of “Stairway to Heaven” share, at best, a passing similarity to a brief chord progression in “Taurus,” written by singer Randy Wolfe, who performed with the band Spirit. (Compare “Taurus” at the 45 second mark to the opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven.”)

Had a jury found that Zeppelin plagiarized “Taurus,” songwriters would have another good reason reason to second-guess themselves as they create new music (and I’m not referring to lyric writing). The next David Bowie might not write the next “Starman” for fear of sounding too much like someone else’s work (in fact, Bowie based the chorus for “Starman” on “Somewhere over the Rainbow”). But the victory was by no means a slam dunk. Over the years, a number of other high-profile plagiarism cases similar to this one have gone against defendants. For instance:

  • In 2015, the family of Marvin Gaye successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for infringing upon Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” when Thicke and Williams wrote “Blurred Lines.” Gaye’s family was awarded $7.4 million (a judge reduced the award to $5.3 million; Thicke and Williams are appealing).
  • Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood of the Hollies successfully sued Radiohead over similarities between Radiohead’s “Creep” and the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” As a result, Hammond and Hazlewood now share royalties and songwriting credits for “Creep.”
  • In the 1980s, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. for plagiarism because Lewis felt that the melody for Parker’s 1984 hit “Ghostbusters” was too similar to Lewis’s “I Want a New Drug.” The two parties settled out of court.
  • In 1976, a judge determined that George Harrison had committed “subconscious plagiarism” in writing his 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord,” whose melody is similar to that of the 1962 song “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Harrison was liable for nearly $600,000.
  • In the 1960s, the Kinks successfully sued the Doors over similarities between the sound of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” and the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.” Consequently, the Kinks and Doors share songwriting credit for “Hello, I Love You” in the United Kingdom.

Why did Led Zeppelin prevail with “Stairway” when other musicians in similar situations did not? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, which speaks to the subjective nature of these cases. From what I can tell, the following two factors seem to influence the outcome of these cases:

  • How distinctive is the music in question? This issue doomed “My Sweet Lord.” The melody for “He’s So Fine,” while forming only a small part of the song, is so distinctive that even casual listeners could recognize its similarity to “My Sweet Lord.” And the judge decided that being distinctive means being original.
  • How integral is the music to the entire song? In the case of the Hollies suing Radiohead, at issue was the overall similarity between the two songs’ compositions as opposed to a single melody that acted as a smoking gun, if you will. The same holds true for “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” The recurring backbeat and chorus that underpin both songs were deemed to be too similar.

On the other hand, copyright infringement cases due not need to prove that the defendant knowingly stole the music to find the defendant liable, as the George Harrison “unconscious plagiarism” ruling shows.

Of course, all kinds of intangibles can come into play. For instance, did the appearance of the surviving members of Led Zeppelin the courtroom wow the defendants with a bit of celebrity firepower? Robert Plant in particular was said to be especially charming and engaging as a witness.

In the case of “Stairway,” the jury ruled that “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” are not similar enough to justify the plaintiff’s argument that Led Zeppelin was guilty of plagiarism. I don’t know what was going through the minds of the juries — but I suspect the two issues of how distinctive and integral the music informed their decision. To wit:

  • The disputed portion of “Stairway to Heaven,” while sounding similar to “Taurus,” consists of only a few fleeting seconds — so the passage was not integral to the overall feel of the seven-minute plus “Stairway.”
  • Both the plaintiff and the defendant produced musicologists who argued about the distinctive nature of the disputed music. Team Led Zeppelin argued that the musical progressions date back to the 1600s, thus attacking how distinctive the riff in “Taurus” and “Stairway” really are. Team Spirit produced technical evidence arguing that “Taurus” uses a distinctive structure.

Ultimately, the arguments of Team Spirit around those two issues did not convince the jury.

In the context of the “Stairway” lawsuit, it will be interesting to see how the copyright infringement lawsuit against Ed Sheeran’s song “Photograph” plays out, as well as one against Justin Bieber for his song “Sorry.” Sheeran has been sued for $20 million by songwriters Martin Harrington and Tom Leonard. Harrington and Leonard claim “Photograph” has a “striking similarity” to the song “Amazing” which they wrote for a onetime winner of The X Factor, Matt Cardle.

Harrington and Leonard assert that the chorus of Sheeran’s “Photograph” and Cardle’s “Amazing” share 39 identical notes, and that the two songs utilize similar overall structures, melodic rhythms, and harmonies.

Given the murky history of song plagiarism lawsuits and subjective nature of their outcomes, the long-term impact of Led Zeppelin’s successful defense remains to be seen. Meanwhile, songwriters would do well to heed the advice of producer and blogger Bobby Owsinski:

“[S]ongwriters beware, there’s nothing new under the sun given the 12 note scale that western musicians use, so you’re probably copying a previous song without even knowing it. And today, that’s enough to get you sued.”

Related:

Consequences of Sound, “10 Famous Cases of Musical Plagiarism,” by Matt Melis and Michael Roffman, May 29, 2016.

The Daily Beast, “If Led Zeppelin Goes Down, We All Burn,” by Aram Sinnreich, June 17, 2016.

The New Yorker, “The Unoriginal Originality of Led Zeppelin,” by Alex Ross, April 14, 2016.

Time, “11 Suspiciously Sound-Alike Songs,” by Melissa Locker, August 21, 2013.

WatchMojo.com, “The Top 10 Rip-off Songs,” May 17, 2014.




Augmented Reality at Cedar Point: First Impressions

June 22nd, 2016 by ddeal

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Virtual reality is grabbing the headlines right now, but augmented reality has a bigger near-term future. My recent experience with a new AR-based game at Cedar Point Amusement Park illustrates how AR can make an already excellent customer experience better.

The Augmented Reality Boom

By 2020, augmented reality is expected to be a $120 billion market, versus $30 billion for virtual reality, according to Manatt Digital Media. And it’s easy to see why businesses ranging from retail stores to theme parks are creating AR experiences. VR usually requires headsets to transport users into make-believe worlds and demands more of a person’s time and attention. On the other hand, AR, while being less immersive than VR, integrates virtual content into real-world settings (e.g., projecting an interactive map on your table top at home).

In June, Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, launched an experience that shows how AR can use immersive gaming to take a fun day at a theme park to another level. As my buddy John Hensler and I discovered when we tried out the new Battle for Cedar Point game June 16, AR in a theme park works best when it enhances a natural part of your visit, such as turning a queue line into an opportunity to score an achievement.

About Cedar Point

Cedar Point bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world and for good reason. The 365-acre park (nearly four times the size of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom) boasts 18 roller coasters, including the recently opened Valravn, billed as the “tallest, fastest, and longest dive coaster in the world.” John and I have been to the park several times with family and friends, and we keep going back because the rides are flat-out terrifyingly fun. But when you’re not losing your stomach on a thrill ride, you spend a lot of time doing things that happen in all theme parks, such as walking around and waiting in lines (unless you have the budget for a Fast Lane pass). With Battle for Cedar Point, the Cedar Fair Entertainment Company has turned downtime and park navigating into game time.

The Battle for Cedar Point Read more »




Why Voice Search Is the Future of the On-Demand Economy

June 14th, 2016 by ddeal

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Mobile gave rise to the on-demand economy. But voice search will fuel its future.

Google demonstrated how voice will form the foundation of an on-demand search ecosystem when Google announced the Google Assistant intelligent search tool at the company’s I/O event in May. Then Apple, at its Worldwide Developers Conference June 13, showcased a smarter and more ubiquitous Siri voice-activated intelligent agent for using our voices to do everything from order an Uber ride to make restaurant reservations. Both developments underscore how voice is rapidly shaping the way we research and buy in the moment.

On-Demand Everywhere

In a June 7 blog post, I discussed how mobile triggered an uptake in on-demand living by making it easier for consumers to use their phones to quickly find things to buy and places to visit. Google calls these moments of rapid decision making “micro-moments.” Uber sensed the popularity of micro-moments by launching its now wildly popular service through which we use mobile devices to get rides when we want them. Amid Uber’s ascendance, businesses ranging from Amazon to Walmart have embraced various models of on-demand commerce.

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