Solo Trey

For an artist used to fronting a funk or rock band, going “acoustic solo” represents a huge change in context. You’re expected to tell stories, engage the audience, create the feeling of your living room or home studio while simultaneously whittling songs down to their skeletal form. After nearly three decades of Phish, a dozen Trey Anastasio band tours, playing acoustic with both a string quartet and an orchestra, the solo acoustic Trey Anastasio show raised the expectations bar very, very high.

Trey Anastasio, solo and acoustic, Mayo Performing Arts Center 2-8-18

Trey’s usual inter-song banter is limited to gentle expressions of appreciation, or sometimes a one-line quip about stage antics. Thursday night he sat us down in his living room and explained where various lyrics came from, gave us glimpses into the green room, and shared his abundantly optimistic view of life with us. Musically, favorite TAB and Phish songs were distilled into basic chords, letting us hear not the typical layered and composed structure but the real intent of the song. Using a looping pedal, a few delays and an electronic drum to keep time, Trey was able to scat sing, solo over chord changes, and recreate minimalist Phish solo dynamics. It’s rare to see any of the band members with a seated audience, in a room quiet enough to hear people unwrapping their snacks ten rows behind you, but that’s what was created with 1,300 fans, two guitars, and one amazing musician. It was intimate, it was immediate and it was delightful.

On The Burning Shore: John Perry Barlow

My mentor, friend, and confidante George Spehar used to describe himself as a “rancher and a banker,” re-investing his Wall Street compensation into his family ranch in Colorado, doubly reinforcing my first impression of him as a literal salt of the earth man. While handling billions of dollars a day, George was finely attuned to life with technology. When things broke, rather than slathering more technology on the problem, he had us pick up the phone and talk to someone in charge. Those calls to call were almost always punctuated with his “I’m freaking out” mantra, which impressed me as someone a Dead Head would say at the point of sensory overload. People, and the right answer, dominated his thinking and actions.

A few years earlier, long before “podcast” entered the vernacular as a way of connecting narrow audiences to quality content, Tim O’Reilly produced a series of technology interviews on audio cassette. One of them was with John Perry Barlow, with whom I was vaguely aware as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and through that decided non-digital introduction I learned of his non-standard introduction as a rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist and big thinker about what we now consider our digital identities. Like George, “rancher” had a high placement in the career ladder, and on a much grander and global scale Barlow insisted that we stay attuned to basic human needs even as technology encroached from all sides.

Much of what we consider as digital freedoms, the use of the internet as a level playing field, the removal of social, technological and regulatory barriers that would form impediments to speaking, being heard and creating engagement, stem from Barlow’s guide star manifestos. He showed us how to hold up the technology mirror to our selves, reminding us that sometimes the personal contact equivalent to a phone call was the most critical engagement.

John Perry Barlow died this week, and the EFF’s Cindy Cohn captures his influence on that body beautifully.

The story comes full circle as I began exploring the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station in more detail. Opening track “Estimated Prophet” was the hook that made me listen to the Dead beyond what was on rock radio, thanks to my roommate Tom. It’s one of 30 songs whose lyrics were penned by Barlow.

Laid down in a very funky, wah-rich 7/4, full of imagery of Moses and Ezekial, its lyrics have ended up in our Passover Haggadah. The wild-eyed prophet – whether he is (as Bob Weird once said) the crazy guy on the rail at a Dead show, raging on in his own bit of sensory overload, or a prophet of smoke and illusion who promises a future, fearful world – that’s the antithesis of Barlow’s work and intents. Re-read his calls for adult behavior, his belief in true digital freedom, and you see that the prophet isn’t a person, but technology itself. As a long-touring Dead Head might admonish, he wanted us to figure out how to be kind, in every way. While I never met him personally, that interview with Tim O’Reilly remains a foundation of my view of the socialization of technology, more than 20 years later, and his influence on people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting is immeasurable.

We are left standing on the burning shore, and now more than ever need to carefully weigh the words of our prophets.

Annie Duke’s “Thinking In Bets”

Annie Duke is best known as a professional poker player and author of poker oriented books, but in “Thinking In Bets” retraces her academic history — it’s a business book, a strategy book, a behavioral psychology book, an organizational effectiveness book and of course has residual elements of a poker book at its core. It is, quite simply, one of the best business books and actionable management books I have read in years — it’s up there with Peter Thiel’s “Zero to One.” If you’re wondering what Pete Carroll’s pass play call at the end of the 2014 Super Bowl, Steve Bartman’s interference in the Cubs playoff game that eventually forced him out of Chicago, legal strategists, poker professional Phil Ivey and corporate planning have in common, buy and read, then re-read Duke’s book.

I digested an advanced reader’s copy of the book, and it’s one of the few things I’ve annotated as I went, making notes that I’ve used in staff meetings and 1:1 discussions in the last few weeks. The whole thing reads the way you’d expect and want; it’s like talking to Annie Duke in your living room with the right blend of snark, deep insights wrapped in powerful examples, and force. I’ve read several dozen business and strategy books, and most of them paint generic pictures of leadership or organizational behavior – “Thinking In Bets” actually lays out a map for where your decision making processes (and as a result, leadership and organizational acumen) are deficient, and how to build a self-improvement plan to address those shortcomings. It’s a bit of personal coaching in a purely positive direction, which is as rare as it is helpful.

Here are just some of the things I took away:

  • Resist the urge to associate bad outcomes (Seahawks losing to the Patriots in the Super Bowl) with bad decisions (Pete Carroll’s play call was backing by solid data). My concern is that as we make continued investments in data science and analytics, we will tend to use that data for “resulting” rather than supporting the quality of decisions, and we’ll end up with many fewer aggressive or game-changing decisions.

  • We can improve the way in which we collect and vet data, and that process may challenge some of our assumptions (one of my immediate reactions was that adopting this line of thinking actually addresses the closely held belief firewall that Matt Inman addresses in his “belief” comic)

  • Finding a peer group that can help you build a non-confrontational, non-threatening decision review team will improve your executive function and “network leadership” (which explains why there are CxO councils, nerd exchanges, and even why hackathons are popular — they are immediate and safe spaces in which to share decisions ranging from corporate strategy to Javascript toolkit choice)

  • Some decision paths have hysteresis – even if you end up at the same outcome, the path you take to get there may be different and therefore your valuation of the outcome is different. The example Duke dissects is winning $1,000 and then losing $900 of it back, versus losing $1,000 and winning $900 back — you’re likely to be happier you “only lost” $100 versus the outcome where you “only won” $100.

  • We have to imagine the future impacts of our decisions, which involves scenario planning, careful consideration of risks and future inputs (information) we may or may not see, and some of that future-proofing involves changing our reward valuation such that we are able to break consistently bad or ill-informed decision making processes.

    Sound like a lot? It is. It’s a dense book. I read it in parallel with a some “lighter” science fiction because I found I had to turn over some of the ideas in my mind and think about both how I’ve personally exhibited some of the impairing behaviors, and how I could better use these strategies in my professional and personal domains.

    Full disclosure: My group in my day job has paid Annie Duke as a speaker, an event at which I first heard some of these ideas, and I have played in her How I Decide Charity Poker Ball in previous years, but I received no compensation or remuneration for this review other than a hardcover copy of this book.

  • 2018: Do More

    Usually I write up a little summary of the year just concluded, but in a lot of ways, 2017 was kind of ugly. So onto 2018 in which I have promised to “do more” – more time on self-care, more time writing, more time playing music and playing with the machinery of modern music (ie, pedals and amplifiers), more small scale direct investment (Lending Club, Kiva, Microventures) and more time with friends. The corollary to doing more is doing less — less time on LinkedIn and the derivative noise it generates, less time on Facebook, less time reading news or pseudo-news that reinforces what I think rather than challenging me to broaden my views.

    A few things on the rough goal list: play in another recital, something more complex than 16 bars of bass solo. If Phish decide to really do Watkins Glen, I will check off “Winnebago” on the bucket list and glamp it for a long weekend. Clean out all of the orphaned gear and audio equipment in the basement and set up a proper place to play music and with music gear.

    Jumper wire repair of a broken Boss TU-12H tuner

    Here’s the first step along the path to fulfilling that goal – periodically I troll eBay looking for broken guitar pedals that may have some value if the repair seems simple enough. Smoke stains, scorch marks, or a loose pile of parts don’t get a second look, but I found a Boss TU-12H tuner that merited attention. It was marked “not working due to a broken circuit board” – a pedal injury akin to catching your finger in the car door. A dab of Gorilla Glue, and three jumper wires (the green wires in the picture) to cross the split in the corner of the PCB (with an assist from a service manual I found online, showing the single PCB layer in detail), and I have a working old school tuner.

    Chickenman, Signing Off

    Two weeks of every summer of my pre-teen and teen years were spent on Long Beach Island, following a script that reflected the 1970s in so many ways: fresh pastry for breakfast, a quick jaunt off the beach for lunch, and before the advent of smart phones and digital music, entertainment in the form of magazines, books, puzzles, and broadcast radio. Each and every weekday — ten of the fourteen, the quieter days when most of the fathers you saw were truly on vacation and not shuttling back to a (hopefully foreshortened) work week — we tuned into WJRZ-FM at lunchtime, ostensibly to hear the news, somewhat ironically to hear Paul Harvey’s meta-news delivery and the ultimate entertainment, an episode of Dick Orkin’s “Chickenman”.

    Here’s what I remember about listening to WJRZ: It provided me a sense that radio could really be that “companion unobtrusive”, and yet the top-40 format left room for Peter Frampton and Genesis. I cherished the local ads (“the Ship Bottom Motor Lodge, the one and only circular motel on the island”) to the point that I believe many hours spent in the 1980s producing ads for WPRB-FM were the by-product of knowing that a 10 second intro could capture the sights, smells and tastes of a favorite place with description alone. Marking time through the wide range of music, syndicated news, national and local advertisements and relatively unknown DJs, for the extent of those summers, was the daily episode of Chickenman. Like clockwork, you could count it on for moving along a story that was basically about nothing — no super powers, no crimes real or imagined, no serious tension. It was Seinfeld and The Office before we knew that nothing could be funny.

    Listening to Chickenman, a campy send up of Batman and the radio serializations of a prior decade, my sister and I decided that we could write and record our own episodes and have some fun. So my love of recording and production began with a cheap cassette recorder and a pencil to precisely wind the tapes. Chickenman had a brief fling with environmental consciousness as the series wound down in popularity, but Benton Harbor (Chickenman’s Clark Kent) couldn’t make social justice trendy. And the next summer I brought a portable stereo to LBI with a milk crate of vinyl, choosing the music and the pacing and slowly fading WJRZ and Chickenman into the wonderful, sunset tinged memories of endless summers.

    But as the outro squawked, “he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere” and we never really forgot the feathered non-crime non-fighter, not until today when Dick Orkin died. Indirectly, those five minute intervals of his shared creativity — less than an hour of each summer — led me into college radio, music production, advertising, public speaking, sales, and through a transitive closure that would make Godel blush, these very blog entries.

    Last Bar for Walter Becker

    I’ve been musing about Steely Dan’s 1980 album “Gaucho” for nearly a year, and now with Walter Becker’s passing it’s time to actually commit to copying out the bits. “Aja” was (for most of my peers) one of the first vinyl records we purchased with money earned at some $2.65 an hour job (Great Adventure ftw), but “Gaucho” was squarely in the early days of college – not just money earned at summer job but my own timetable for going to the Princeton Record Exchange, deciding on a new versus used copy, and finally listening to it all the way through (by that point, about nine months after the album was released).

    “Gaucho” is seven songs about hipsters who fail in seventy different ways. At the time it was recorded, we didn’t think in terms of “bros” or “hipsters” or even “dudes” but the ugly undercurrents are there. You can see it as a running commentary on the filthy underbelly of Los Angeles, or you can abstract it out to all manners of bad behavior from drug use to a series of non-specific trysts to outright racism. I was discussing the basic funky riff of “Time Out Of Mind” with a friend when I mentioned that the song is basically about the fidgety craving for a time-dispensing heroin high. He had no clue. It’s a great song wrapping ugly truth. Creepy first-person intents in “Hey Nineteen” are veiled just enough that you forget he’s moving his agenda forward with an underage drinker. In a somewhat parallel construct, the final, polished, funky-yet-jazzy-yet rocking album obscures the fact that it was one of the nastiest LPs to produce, including over forty musicians, possibly clocking in as the most expensive LP ever recorded, and consuming about two years from start to finish.

    “Couch Sitter”, Meredith Gran, Octopus Pie
    The title track “Gaucho” has been the subject of mental disassembly for over thirty years. Like a densely packed tract in the Talmud, where you’re trying to dig into progressively more subtle and nuanced layers of meaning, the song offers tantalizing clues but no real direction or answers. Is it about a love triangle gone strangely? Is the title character someone picked up for amusement (how decidedly churlish) or the guy that everyone knows even though nobody knows him (especially in the mythical Custer Dome?). Neither first person nor the unnamed second person in the song seem to have any clue and are only mildly less panicked than the dealers in “Kid Charlemagne.” Comic artist Meredith Gran created what I felt was an analogous character in the Couch Sitter storyline, and it always reminds me of that guy who is there, but not there, and probably wearing your favorite shirt but maybe it was a little different, since you’d remember your own spangled poncho.

    That very song is the ethos of Steely Dan, through and through. A little dirty, a little creepy, looking past the beaded entrance and darkened windows to see things you probably didn’t want to, even with the nice musical interludes. Steely Dan managed to get studio musicians to sound like a band, and to bring out the highlights and strengths of every player, even if they appeared in fifteen seconds on just one track. Becker and Fagen were a songwriting and production team, perhaps not with the output of Lennon and McCartney but certainly with the long-lasting cultural impact. Everyone knows a Steely Dan song, but few appreciate the social skidmarks that deliver it to your earbuds.

    Thirteen Nights In The Garden Of Eden

    Phish’s Baker’s Dozen run at Madison Square Garden was musical history in the making. For those of us lucky enough to be there, it will be remembered not just for the incredible musicianship, jams, song selection and variety, plays on words, but for the sense of community that enveloped the entire Tri-State area like a fluffy towel. It was Chicago as the Cubs closed in on the World Series, the Olympics, and a double-dose of Hanukah all at once. Each night was a special treat, unwrapped gingerly but with intent for us to enjoy; the press and our friends and family and even people who “just don’t get Phish” seemed to know what was going on and why it was important. When the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 2003, I had complete strangers asking me how I felt after a tough playoff loss, and that sense of pop up community and genuine interest echoed and reverberated and found all of the highs (of all kinds) in the local area.

    The band showed how to play to a room – not just acoustically but emotionally as well. Sure people sing along at concerts, but 20,800 fans practically screaming “Fluffhead” makes the hair stand up on your neck. It was the energy and intensity of a small venue Coheed & Cambria show an order of magnitude larger and louder, but no less personal. The number of times Trey stopped to look around the arena and take in the fans, the emotions, and the love was remarkable. When your musical heroes allow subtle childhood nuances to peek through on stage, you have to fall in love with the band all over again.

    The room showed how to play to a band – from the security guards who were tolerant of fans of all ages, shapes and sizes (and costumes), to the concessions staff who worked at double speed during set break, to the ushers who made sure everyone had fun without being forceful about level crashers. I’ve never loved shows at the Garden due to what I felt was a bad echo problem, but the new ceiling seems to have addressed the issue. On night 3 I brought a human-sized inflatable donut into the Garden, and when one of the security guards went for a closer inspection, another told him “it’s an inflatable, they’re going to bring them in.” The entire Garden was a model for fan friendliness and creating an atmosphere where it was almost required to have a good time. And no, I never thought I’d write something good about the Garden where my previous experiences mostly revolved around sticky floors that seem intent on ruining my shoes within the first thirty minutes, people puking in the stands, and indoor air redolent of the men’s room.

    Phish got a banner, equalling the Rangers during the lifetime of the band.

    A Hammond B3 organ driven through a Leslie speaker brings back forty years of memories, from my Aunt May and Uncle Murray’s house that had a huge console organ (a Hammond of course, that they offered to let me both fix and keep – fortunately my father knew that the amplifier inside housed lethal voltages); the first peer who told me about Leslie speakers much to my disbelief, only for me to discover that the wonderful phased sound I loved was the product of the spinning cones; discovering the J Geils Band during my first summer in Boston cementing the association with large-scale concerts, heavy vibrato keyboards, and enjoying great music in the company of mildly crazy friends.

    In an age of spectacular stage production with moving platforms, confetti cannons, lasers and backup dancers, seeing what Chris Kuroda does with the lighting rig is itself a show-within-a-show. The true choreography of each night happened in the rigging and with the house lights, bringing not just color palette but literal shape to each song, each jam riff, each peak. One of the Garden executives told me that CK5 is one of the (fewer than three) people allowed to tap into the house lights. What he did with them made the room fold in on itself, so you were never that far from the spotlight even when the backup dancers were in the row in front of you.

    Had a number of “first” listens to various Phish classics, live, including “The Lizards.” In a complete plate o shrimp moment, the song opens with an oblique reference to a long corridor, much like Genesis’ “Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” which ostensibly was set in the same neighborhood as the Garden — and I happened to be reading Mike Rutherford’s autobiographical discourse about that very album at the very same time.

    Toroidal influences abound, and the theme was executed to perfection. It’s easy to be heavy handed and devolve into cliche when it comes to thematic elements, but Baker’s Dozen reveled in the slow reveal. It was, in the words of original Apple designer Tog, the progressive disclosure of what we needed to know – the donut themed promotional reel, the tickets in a donut box, the introduction of the flavor of the night, the Garden signage and “Glaze On,” song selection that walked the formation of a carefully crafted pun. “The universe is a donut” long form intro to “Harpua” (itself a “Jimmies” reference) is a template by which all other themes should be judged.

    At the conclusion of a run like this, of an event that transcends time and space and work and everyday schedules, you feel a bit deflated. The house guests have left, the Olympic torch is extinguished, Hanukah menorahs are de-waxed and wiped down and gently put away until the next celebration. And that’s precisely the point – we’re on to the next tour, the next nights vibrating with love and light with our friends and family and that slightly goofy person who just flew in from Tampa or Denver or San Diego or Birmingham (lot of bridges). The torch is on its way to the next stop, and in the mean time, we’ll take care of our shoes.

    Local coverage:

    Trey, post-residency.

    NY Times summary

    NY Time prelude

    New Yorker heartfelt piece on Phish community

    Donuts, Ice Cream and Phish

    I attended the opening night of Phish’s 13-night “Baker’s Dozen” run at Madison Square Garden last night. Despite its storied history, landmark concerts and self-proclaimed centerpiece status of the venue world, a jumping night in the Garden isn’t quite the concert-going Eden I’d prefer. Sometimes it’s the sound (cymbal reflection off of the back of the arena), sometimes it’s the lighting or sight lines, and sometimes it’s just the fact that it’s in New York and it’s at the epicenter of civil engineering that would make Rube Goldberg blush.

    Then I saw Phish at the Garden, something that has happened twenty-nine previous times without me, and suddenly I am converted. The entire four-month crescendo to last night’s opener has been the typical self-deprecating, insanely creative and genuinely fun experience you associate with Phish, from the residency announcement that featured donuts rolling down 7th Avenue to the donut-shaped tickets that came in a box to Ben & Jerry’s special one-night “Freezer Reprise” flavor (which of course we sampled pre-show, and then got the t-shirt to capture the remaining sensory memories, all the while supporting The Waterwheel Foundation). The day of the show, the “flavor of the night” was announced — coconut — with free donuts from Philadelphia’s Federal Donuts (part of the culinary mosh pit that brings you Dizengoff, Zahav and their self-titled donut stands in the city of Brotherly Love). Sprinkles on the sweetness of the event came in the form of a heartfelt New Yorker article about Phish and community and why we do what we do.

    With all of that foreshadowing, fanfare and dramatic tension, you had to wonder if the show would carry its weight. Carry it did, with the grace of picking up a beach ball (or donut shaped float) and tossing it back into the frenzied crowd. I’ve never seen a band play to the hall, to the crowd, and to the moment like that. Whether it was Chris Kuroda’s audience lighting at the tension and release moments of jams, or the audience’s pickup note of wild cheering that redirected the new light rig over the floor, the sense that the band and audience were locked in was palpable. Each jam modulated from minor to major, from earthy to just quite spacey and back to ground, the way you enjoy a fine tasting menu or — in my case — excavate the Phish food pint, savoring the fudge fish but tasting the caramel, the marshmallow and the chocolate with equal relish.

    Coconut themed songs bookended the sets, “Reba” made a lyrical nod to the beignet-du-jour, and on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a pair of lunar references (“Halfway to the Moon” and “Moonage Daydream”) reinforced the feeling that we were witnessing something of an entirely different plane of creativity. There were at least a few moments when Trey stepped aside the mic stand, looked around at the 200 and 300 levels of the Garden, and you could see the smile that meant “Hey, I’m playing at Madison Square Garden with my best friends.”

    It was, like the show in its entirety, pure joy. And there are a dozen more to go.

    Summer Tour 2017: Return To Chicago

    Phish Summer Tour 2017 kicked off in Chicago this weekend, and I was back for the first two nights at Northerly Island (versus last year’s Wrigley shows). The opening night of any tour is always a calculated risk, as the changes the band has rehearsed and managed, from the lighting rig to new songs to subtle routine differences finally get amplified, literally and figuratively.

    While the first night was careful, fun, and full of new songs for me, the second night showed what I hope the rest of the summer will be like:

  • The new lighting rig is outstanding. It’s back to being lights to capture rhythm and a bit of timbre, without the large LED panels that honestly I found distracting and seemed to require too much physical orientation. The new rig has mobility of the various spars to change intensity, direction and fills, but it’s “just lights” and so opens up (believe it or not) more creativity for CK5. The number of cans shot out into the audience was a nice touch as well; sitting in the back of the pavilion it was cool to see 20,000 (or more) people having an insanely good time.

  • The Type II jams were alternately paced by Trey, Page, Mike and Jon. At one point during the “tribal” riff in the 7/15 “Simple,” (maybe 12-13 minutes in) Fishman clearly picks up the syncopated lead and just powers into the next set of ideas. It felt like much less noodling and more carefully choreographed musicianship.

  • Page was on fire. Even without keyboard staples like “Suzy Greenberg” or “Squirming Coil,” he was taking leads on songs, paving the way for some great interplay with Trey.

  • First set of 7/15/17 is some of the tightest 72 minutes of rock and roll you will ever hear. After the TAB tour in the spring, I was hoping some of Trey’s soloing energy would carry on into the summer, and if anything my expectations were well exceeded.

  • “Northerly Simple” will be marked with the “Tahoe Tweezer” until something more epic comes along. That was the first long jam of the summer, and it covered all kinds of musical ground. Deep into the groove, it was easy to just listen to whatever themes they were exploring, and after five or six shifts, I realized they’d been buried in the not-so-Simple jam for close to half an hour.

    And so it’s a few days off for me; after swearing I would refrain from back to back shows after last summer, I hit both Friday and Saturday this year (newly repaired knee held up well!). Can’t wait to see what they bring to the Garden later this week and through the thick of the Baker’s Dozen.

    As for Chicago: What a great city. Walkable, fun, great food, architecturally stimulating, more great food, emergent neighborhoods that show what 10-30 years of careful curation and investment can do (think DUMBO but with lawns and less attitude), and now enough Dunkin’ Donuts to fuel my inner wook.

    As for Northerly Island: Reviews seem to be mixed on the venue. I think the lawn is a mess; it supposedly holds 20,000 people and it’s completely flat, so you see the band on a video screen, ideally get some phase-corrected sound delivered live, and get to spread out a bit. If it rains it’s a short extension of Lake Michigan and for only a few dollars under the pavilion pricing, it seems like an expensive ducat for three hours on your feet. Only one road in and out (and Saturday night, that road was closed early so getting to the venue via Uber was more of an adventure that you’d hope for pre-show). There’s no vending or tailgating allowed, so there’s no Shakedown, no lot, no fun pre-gaming. Water ran $5, as did soggy pretzels, and beer was $12-14 with premium drinks topping $20 each. That said – the sound in the pavilion was crisp and first rate (no echo, no weird absorption). The sight lines, even from the back, were great. Security was effective but mellow, and the people working in the pavilion were, to a person, friendly, accommodating and interested in seeing everyone have a good time.

  • The Rat, The Ox, The Fish and Me

    Saturday afternoon I concluded, rightfully and formally, if not a bit hurriedly, a forty year journey. I played bass, on a stage, in a club, with a small band. Never mind that my guitar player and drummer are teachers where I take lessons and that the stage setting was that of a the year-end recital. I took “play in a band” off the bucket list.

    Deep, networked appreciation of the journey of 10,000 musical missteps begins, as it should, with a piano lesson. It’s 1970, the Mets had won the World Series early in the school year, and I’m taking piano lessons from our next door neighbor. I barely made it a year, because I didn’t practice, and that’s probably why I still harbor a mild fear of the bass clef. Years later, her son would be something of an inspiration, gently letting me know it was acceptable to bury myself in the rhythmic and modal vagaries of British prog rock. Thanks, Mrs. Millering and Brett, for helping me identify with Chris Squire, my first bass hero, and essentially the root cause of what was to follow.

    Fast forward seven more years, to private clarinet lessons at Caiazzo Music in Freehold. Caiazzo’s most famous customer was one Bruce Springsteen, and despite never seeing him come up those few steps from South Street, I vividly remember a hand-printed sign on the cash register that read “When the bank sells guitars Caiazzo will cash checks.” A leading indicator about musicians, across multiple economic cycles. On either end of my 30 minutes with classical etudes, I explored the guitars and basses hung on the walls, a mosaic of colors and inlays and pickguards that awed me. Standalone, they made a tinny, tiny sound, but plugged into an amplifier the sound leaped out of them. For years I tried to decipher how an instrument with no power source other than a fast picking hand could generate a signal (more on this later).

    Middle school concert band. One of the most dedicated music teachers ever — Ben Webb, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Zoot the Muppet — and my first taste of public performance. What I remember more from the halls of Clifton T Barkalow, though, was a conversation at a lunch table one day about The Who. One of the cool kids — currently a performing guitar player, and a genuinely good guy — was in a heated debate about whether the Who were relevant. Someone asked me if I knew the Who. I did, and provided a reference (likely the fact that “Boris the Spider” was the B-side of “Pinball Wizard” on 45), and my 40-year admiration for The Who’s John Entwistle was cemented in the scree of Ron Howard movies.

    High school was clarinet, saxophone, concert band, jazz band, pit orchestra for school musicals, and a few years of marching band. During one particularly long rehearsal the pit orchestra broke into an extended jam, completely spontaneously, right out of the lunchroom scene in “Fame.” For six minutes, until the drama teacher coerced everyone back into whatever real life scene wasn’t working, it was the most fun I had had playing an instrument. By the early summer, I played my last high school concert, took a perfunctory saxophone solo with the jazz band, and effectively didn’t play “real music” again. Didn’t make the Princeton Jazz Band, didn’t want to march in the band again, had neither skill nor interest in concert band. But thank you Nick Santoro, and Jettie June, and several dozen band mates, for putting the performance bug in me.

    I met another crazy Springsteen fan from NJ, who was an amazing piano player, and he invited me to bring my saxophone over to the common room one night to jam. At one point he said “Listen to Bruce’s songs, Clarence is always playing something, but you don’t hear it up front, you have to listen.” Best advice ever about playing in a band. Thanks, Steve B (and Hillary who listened, politely, to the whole train wreck of staves and notes).

    Home on a break from Princeton, and after my first bit of delayed rebellion (I bought hockey skates and insisted on taking them on our annual winter vacation) I drove myself to Caiazzo and picked a Fender Squire bass off the wall, tobacco burst color, for just under $200. I didn’t buy an amp, deciding instead to use the Rube Goldberg sound chain: bass connected to Radio Shack cassette player with a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable, putting the cassette deck into “record” mode to use it as a notoriously noisy pre-amplifier, 1/8″ to mono RCA cable to connect cassette player output jack to tape deck input (with correct impedance and level matching!) on my stereo amplifier and voila! Bass sounds came out of my component stereo system, the “adult purchase” of the previous break. I bought a fedora (because, you know, the cover of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” had one) and had no idea what I was doing, until some sophomores from nearby Wilson College heard my thrashing about and invited me to sit outside and play with them. Not only did I not know how to find the roots on the bass, when they mentioned Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane” I had no idea who Lou Reed was. Thank you, Steve “Rat” for opening my ears and teaching me the first song I played (truly horribly) on bass. Every single time I hear “Rock and Roll” I think of that afternoon on the steps outside of Wilson Hall.

    Later that academic year, deep in the throes of Physics 106, I had an epiphany. I figured out how electric guitars work — the magic of pickups and inducted current and moving magnetic fields. It didn’t help my playing one iota but it convinced me that maybe there was something to my tone chain that didn’t result in electrocution. Some introductory electrical engineering, discovery of WPRB-FM, and new friends with diverse musical tastes. But my performing days — with an instrument, not just a voice — were done. I played other people’s music and told stories about and around the songs, a trend that lasted until 2015. I sold my bass to a fellow WPRB DJ, never playing more than one song on it. But thank you Matteo Cavelli-Sforza, Supersonic Surber, Bill, Alan, Brita, Chuck, Mark, Steve, Jordan, and Ray.

    After watching our son turn into an accomplished bass player, and applying that moldering but still useful electrical engineering knowledge to building guitar effects pedals, I decided it was time to really, truly, certainly learn to play the bass. Having won a month of lessons in a tricky tray auction (which I bid on only after discovering the offering new music school — So.I.Heard in Millburn — via a search for a pedal retailer), I bought my second bass — another Fender Squire, this time in Lake Placid blue, for only slightly more than I paid in 1980. Thank you, Ben, for being patient with me, teaching me about strings and tone and setups and technique and making sure my left hand was at least in the vicinity of correct position.

    Here’s the hard thing about picking up anything new after age 50: it’s really hard. Your brain isn’t as plastic, your reflexes aren’t as good, and new motions tend to tweak anything that was bordering on the arthritic. But patient, fun teachers with similar musical tastes produced a bit of deja vu all over again this spring: When Max suggested some recital pieces, he asked “What’s the best Who song with a bass solo” and my first thought was “Boris the Spider” (revisited, 42 years after 7th grade lunch table). He was aiming for the Ox signature piece, “My Generation”, 16 bars of bass solo recognized by anyone who has listened to a radio. And so my recital piece was selected. That was the easy part.

    Entwistle got that demanding tone out of his bass through pure physical effort. He played hard, he played dangerously loudly, and he was technically on another large-handed planet. Listen to the bass lines on “The Real Me” and you hear a jet engine, a blues scale, and a working class cry. Most of Entwistle’s lines are, it turns out, based on fairly simple blues progressions. Playing them isn’t nearly as easy, but that was my lesson in recital prep: play what you feel, play the song the way you want to perform it, and worry less about the notes and more about making music. My Caiazzo clarinet teacher, who later also taught me saxophone, used to describe a good solo as “Not a lot of notes, but the right ones.” Right is a many valued thing, always in the moment, but better when louder.

    Two days before the recital I was convinced I wouldn’t ever master enough of the song to avoid sounding like the punch line to every bass player joke on the internet. And Max and Fabian just had us trade four bar solos around the practice room, truly an etude in G, until I felt that I could play with confidence. If you want to know the difference between music education of the 1970s and the 2010s, it’s that – developing the confidence to own my own notes. Thank you Max, Fabian, and Sam.

    And so 37 years after stepping off of the Freehold Township High School stage, I strapped on the blue bass, turned up the volume (after plugging into the correct amp on the second try) and plucked out “My Generation”. I was, for two minutes, back in the pit jamming away, and it was insanely fun. Mike Gordon has nothing to worry about, and I’m more inspired than ever to lose another 20 pounds so it’s easier to see the frets when I play standing up, but I now feel like the story that began in Caiazzo Music (now, sadly, a condo building) has hit the dramatic climax. And no drummers exploded along the way…..