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Adele – “Someone Like You” live video + download free mp3Last night, at bedtime, I put the new Adele album 21 in my headphones and settled down to sleep. Within three songs, I was crying hot tears, my face scrunched up so I couldn't see. I couldn't stop. I didn't want to. I sobbed silently through nine more tracks and 40 minutes in the dark (weeping with laryngitis is one more weird experience), enough that I was worried I'd short out one of the earbuds.

Music, that most human of instincts and inventions, can do that at its very best: reach past our rational minds, through any analysis or cynicism, beyond any physical pain or discomfort, directly to our emotions. Then it can draw those feelings out and tap them to the surface, even (especially?) when we didn't know just what was in there. I've had it happen: listening to the astounding student choir in the auditorium at the high school where my wife works, hearing Stevie Ray Vaughan play "Little Wing" by Jimi Hendrix, a few transcendent moments onstage with my own band in front of crowds big or small.

But Adele's "furious tornado of a voice" (as Pitchfork's Tom Breihan called it) pierces me. She's half my age, British, and likes to hit the pub with her friends, but that voice and the conviction behind it are why she's also a number-one selling artist in countries around the world right now. She's the queen of heartbreak. Every time she comes on with little but piano as backing, like on "Turning Tables" or "Someone Like You," and "Hometown Glory" or Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" from her previous collection, 19, I completely lose it...

Hang on. Have to take a break here for a second...


Sheesh. It's like I'm a mopey '80s teen wallowing in my room to Robert Smith and Morrissey (and, back then, I wasn't). The funny thing is, Adele has a Cure cover on the album ("Lovesong"), and while it's very good indeed, it doesn't have the desperate edge of the original. I don't know whether it's the riff, or the way Smith sang "I will always love you" in 1989, but he made it clear that the love wasn't coming back, and maybe never got there to start with.

Adele's own songs often do accomplish that, in spades. Let's take one. At the end of her staggering BRIT Awards version of "Someone Like You" (the live recording went straight to #1 on the British charts), the announcer says something like, "You don't need dancers and pyro and lasers, do you?" Basically he's telling all the other acts at the awards, from Rihanna to Arcade Fire, "This girl can kick your ass any day of the week." And he's right. I'm sure she knows it, but whenever I've seen her end a song, she appears like she has to shake it off a bit, then she looks off to the side slightly, as if thinking, "Was that me?"

But there's a more subtle part of the performance that's worth examining. Here are the lyrics for the chorus:

Never mind, I'll find someone like you,
I wish nothing but the best for you, too,
Don't forget me, I beg,
I remember you said,
Sometimes it lasts in love,
But sometimes it hurts instead.

At the BRIT Awards and at every other live performance I've heard of that song, Adele sings the first four lines in the same, strong, high part of her vocal range, then pulls it down a little for the last two. It works great.

The moment

But listen to the version on the album. I think it's slightly too fast, but here's what I guess happened: producer Dan Wilson asked Adele to try something different in the chorus, to sing the third line ("Don't forget me, I beg...") higher than her normal range, where it almost cracks. It's not an unusual technique for even great singers to try straining on purpose, maybe creating some of the finest moments in popular music. (Think of John Lennon on the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," Roger Daltrey on the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," or the entire careers of James Brown, Janis Joplin, and AC/DC.)

For Adele, that moment, right there, the one line—"Don't forget me, I beg"—is the focus of the song, the crux of the album, the very keen point of the ice pick when it first hits the diamond and shatters it, the moment of heartbreak.

And here's why it, and the rest of Adele's songs, made me cry like that last night. There's the heartbreak of rejection, of unrequited love. There's the heartbreak of breaking up, of losing love. There's the heartbreak of getting dumped, of not being loved anymore. They ache, they seethe, they're horrible. That's what Adele makes her business singing about.

But worst of all is the heartbreak of having been in love, for years, and both of you still being in love. But one of you is going to die. And no one, neither of you, not anyone else, can do anything about it.

That's not what Adele is singing about, not directly. I hope she never knows how it feels, or if she does, that it's many, many years away. I didn't invite her voice there, but it seems to know, so when it breaks down my barriers and taps the depths, that's where it goes, and what comes out.

My living wake

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A "Living Wake" for Derek K. MillerA dying man can wish for many things, but one of them might be to have a party with many family and friends: like a funeral, memorial, or wake, but actually being able to be there, before he dies. That's exactly what my wife Air put together for me a couple of nights ago, on March 3. We had a "living wake" at the newly-renovated Waldorf Hotel in East Vancouver, with a couple of hundred of the people in our lives joining us for a great Lebanese buffet, lots of mingling and chatting, and some fine live rock-n-roll music from my old bandmates and me, as well as my friends in Vancouver's legendary group Odds.

We couldn't throw the invitations wide open because fire regulations restricted how many people were allowed in the grand tiki-themed room in the Waldorf's basement—and we wanted to make sure that the people who came really were those I knew, and didn't get crowded out. After all, it was a wake, not just a party. Luckily, we didn't have very many uninvited door-crashers (and a few guests missed out because of flu and other illness), so we stayed within the limit, and it all worked out.

A dress-up crowd

Amazingly, in fact, few people I wished I could have invited if I'd had contact info, and others I never expected to make it, showed up anyway. Some I hadn't seen in many years, or came from very far away, so that was a nice bonus too. There were family members I've known my whole life, and friends I've had for 10, 20, even close to 30 years. I think I had a chance to say hi to almost everyone. My apologies to the few of you I missed.

Most of them had their pictures taken in the photo booth set up by the awesome Miranda and Reilly of Blue Olive Photography. There are other pictures appearing on Flickr, YouTube, and elsewhere (such as blog posts) with the tag penmachine, with more to come (if you have any from the event, please use that tag yourself). You can also tag pictures and videos with my name on Facebook. We had this slideshow projected on the wall all night too:

I was shocked at how well I survived the evening. I did plan carefully: I took the right combination of medications at the right times, napped in the afternoon, avoided eating too much during the day, and simply ran on endorphins until almost the very end of the evening. During dinner I went upstairs and ate in the hotel room we booked, lying on the bed, to recover some energy. Then, after far more stints on the drums than I thought I'd be able to tolerate, I finally burned out and announced to everyone that I needed to lie down, then disappeared to let them wind things down. I paid for it afterwards, and all the next day, but it was entirely worth it.

Speaking of that announcement, yes, I still had (and have) complete laryngitis. Through the PA system, I rasped out a very few words, sounding like Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight. Out on the loudness of the floor, I was completely inaudible unless I whispered directly into people's ears. I sometimes resorted to typing stuff out on my iPhone for them to read. It was bizarre and frustrating, but somehow appropriate—it was like being a speechless ghost, drifting in the semi-background at my own wake. It also kept anyone from trying to monopolize my time, since I couldn't engage in any serious conversation.

The thank-you brigade

Others made up for it. My wife Air coordinated the evening (and avoided crying, somehow), the guys in the band cracked the usual jokes, and there were four extremely short and touching speeches from those close to me: my friends Tara, Dennis, and Johan, and my (pregnant!) cousin Tarya (MP3 files, between 1 and 4 minutes each). We had tremendous help from my parents Hilkka and Karl (he made the slideshow too), our friend Steven, current and former members of The Neurotics and other bands I've been in, Pat and Craig and Doug from the Odds, the staff at the Waldorf, and our kids Marina and Lolo, who couldn't come because of B.C.'s stupid liquor laws, but who kept themselves and another friend's daughter entertained at home until we got back late.

My biggest thanks, of course, go to Air. It was all her idea, and her work that made my living wake happen. She has kept our family going through my four-plus years of cancer, through surgeries and fear and chemotherapy and a prognosis of death. She made this party happen now, while I could enjoy it and join my friends and family, instead of after I die when I can't. We've been married more than 15 years, and I've said before: that is not nearly enough.

Thank you, too, to all of you guests who could come. I'll remember it my whole life. I hope the rest of you will remember it even longer.

Hear me from Mongolia

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My free music has been used all over the Internet since 2004, so I usually don't point out new sites or podcasts that feature it. However, this one is worth an exception: Yakky Man's "Chewin' the Yak" podcast is, as far as I know, the first site to make use of my tunes from Mongolia!

Back in October I mentioned two of my favourite podcasts, which I listen to every time there's a new episode. Now there's another.

CBC's "Age of Persuasion" is in its second season as a radio program, but only this year is it also available as an official podcast. (If you hunt around, there were some rogue ways to get subscribe to it podcast-style last year.) It's Terry O'Reilly's excellent documentary series about marketing and advertising.

It's interesting enough that even my 12-year-old daughter listened to it whenever she could last year—which is something to say about a show on advertising. I recommend you give it a try too.

If you'd like some other stuff to listen to, last week we released our first episode of Inside Home Recording for 2011, my co-host Dave Chick appeared on the now-annual audio recording podcaster roundtable, and I was also guest co-cost on the Canadian Podcast Buffet with Bob Goyetche and Mark Blevis.

Back in 2007 and 2008, my then–co-host Paul and I at Inside Home Recording (IHR) regularly appeared on Leo Laporte's Lab With Leo TV show, made here in Vancouver. My final couple of 2008 segments are now available online, and are still useful:

The Lab #187 had me talking with Leo about MIDI drums, featuring a Yamaha DTXpress electronic kit I borrowed from a couple of friends:

Episode #190 focused instead on different types of headphones for use in the studio and with iPods and other devices, including in-ear monitors from Etymotic and Shure, open-back headphones from Sennheiser and AKG, and closed-back reference monitors from Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, and Ultrasone:

More info at the IHR site...

Sometime during elementary school, more than 30 years ago, I decided to start using my middle initial, and calling myself Derek K. Miller. I'm not entirely sure why. I was probably inspired by science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Ursula K. LeGuin, as well as my dad, who signs his name as J. Karl Miller but goes by Karl as his familiar name to everyone. And I was starting to be asked for my signature on documents: the extra K. added some flourish.

It seems a little snobby and effete to choose to lengthen your name as a prepubescent kid—and I suppose it was when I did it. But that is the age where we start to establish our own identities apart from our parents, and manipulating the names they give us is one means to that end. (My younger daughter is seriously considering having everyone address her by her middle name, for example.)

My decision turned out to be handy a few years down the line, however. When I needed my first university email address, dmiller was already taken, but dkmiller was free, and I've used that as part of almost every email address I've created since, sometimes to my detriment.

In the early days of the Web, my site was the first one you'd find searching for Derek Miller, but that didn't last. Today there are quite a few Derek Millers out there in the Google database. And to find me, you not only have to get past them, but also two separate ones who are musicians like me—though much more famous. One is a new indie sensation, the other is even Canadian (and performed at the Olympics Closing Ceremony here last year). But look for Derek K. Miller, and you still get me.

There's no way I planned that back at the turn of the 1980s, however. Some things just work out.

Lennon and McCartneyWhenever I talk to one of my therapists or counsellors about my cancer and impending death, I mention how I can't predict what will make me cry, though it happens most often when I'm alone. I don't cry as regularly as you might expect, maybe because I've been thinking about it all for several years now. And the things that set me off are usually unpredictable and weird.

Like Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live last week. At first, when he played slightly-wobbly versions of "Jet" and "Band on the Run," I wondered why he was the musical guest at the moment: most guests only play two songs, he wasn't plugging a new album, and if he were promoting the Beatles on iTunes, I figured, you know, he'd do some Beatles tunes.

But then he turned up for a third performance, and from the first quiet acoustic guitar chords, I knew why he was there on the stage in New York City, and my eyes watered up. The song was "A Day in the Life," and he was playing it 30 years to the week after its primary composer, his long-dead childhood friend John Lennon, was shot not far away. Those two were the greatest songwriting team of the 20th century, the song one of their most spectacular collaborations (John wrote the beginning and the end, Paul the middle), from Sgt. Pepper, their most groundbreaking album.

When McCartney and his band turned it into an audience-singalong medley with one of Lennon's most lasting anthems, "Give Peace a Chance," I completely lost it, bawling (once again) by myself on the couch. Now, he said nothing about Lennon, neither before nor after the performance, nor later when, over the end credits, he performed a fourth number, his own Beatles classic "Get Back." But those few minutes of McCartney playing Lennon were the best tribute to the 30th anniversary of John's death that I saw.

On the actual anniversary, December 8, I was interviewed briefly by reporter Ian Hanomansing on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's "The National" TV news, about Lennon's day-to-day influence on my life as a musician, listener—and father of Beatles-fan daughters who were born decades after the band broke up. (I was less than a year old then myself, and 11 when Lennon died.)

In part of the interview that didn't make it to air, I told Ian that from what I knew, John Lennon was a complicated character, not a simple emblem of peace and love, but an acerbic personality whose personal relationships were often fraught, whose life was often not happy, and who frequently contradicted himself, consciously or unconsciously. No doubt Paul McCartney knew that better than anyone, but last weekend, he didn't try to sum it up by talking about John Lennon. He let the man's music speak instead, and that's as classy a tribute as you can get.

Sean, Derek, and Paul, musical elvesLast night my friend and former podcast co-host Paul Garay (who plays piano) and his wife Kelly held a little pre-Christmas party at their house in the Silver Ridge neighbourhood of Maple Ridge, near the snowy peaks of Golden Ears east of Vancouver. A few friends and family dropped by, including my pal and bandmate Sean Dillon (guitar), and Paul's cohorts Renée Cook and Steve Bulat (violin and guitar), to add to my slightly mad drumming skillz. My daughters, Paul's children, and other kids dropped in, plus my in-laws (who live down the road) and parents came too.

We planned a Christmas carol jam session in Paul's basement, where he'd set up a drum kit and PA system. Sean brought his Stratocaster and amp, I brought my snare drum and some extra percussion to share around, plus my bass and amp for someone to use.

We called ourselves the Maple Ridge Three, and since it was in Paul Garay's house, the session became "Rated PG with the Maple Ridge Three." For the first few songs, our featured guests Renée brought her violin, and Steve had his acoustic guitar, though we never ended up using it since he took up the Fender bass instead.

The songs

Guess what? You can hear what we played, because I also brought my Zoom H4 audio recorder, which I simply plopped on a shelf and let run for an hour or so. Here's what we hacked together, without any rehearsal, planning, or any real idea of where we were going with the tunes. All are MP3 files you can play on any modern device (composers are in parentheses):

  1. "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (Traditional, public domain)* - 4:20, 6.4 MB
  2. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Johnny Marks) - 5:14, 7.5 MB
  3. "Silver Bells" (Jay Livingston and Ray Evans) - 6:47, 9.6 MB
  4. "Secret Agent Man" (Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan) - 2:47, 4.1 MB
  5. "Jingle Bells" (James Pierpoint, now public domain)* - 5:27, 7.8 MB
  6. "Nights on Silver Ridge" (Dillon, Garay, Miller)* - 3:04, 4.5 MB
  7. "Roxanne" (Sting) - 7:16, 10.3 MB
  8. "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" (Bill Withers) - 5:33, 7.9 MB
  9. "The Bed's Too Big Without You" (Sting) - 4:29, 6.4 MB
  10. "One-Minute Coffee Break Blues" (Dillon, Garay, Miller)* - 0:56, 1.6 MB
  11. "The Thrill is Gone" (Rick Darnell and Roy Hawkins) - 5:42, 8.1 MB

Sure, we veer away from Christmas tunes pretty quickly, the performances are fairly sloppy (especially vocals, where we forget most of the lyrics), there's occasional blip-bzzt-bzzt crosstalk from a nearby cell phone, and much of the time we're not even sure what song we're playing until we're well into it. But there are some nice moments. I particularly recommend our original jazzy instrumental "Nights on Silver Ridge," our Latin-influenced take on the Police's "Roxanne" (at the end, you can hear Sean call out my parents for their excellent dancing), and Paul's soulful reading of Bill Withers's "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone."

The four *asterisked songs are fully free, podsafe, and share-able MP3s using a Creative Commons Attribution license: since they're either public domain or our own compositions, you can do whatever you like with the recordings, as long as you note who wrote and performed them. The other tracks remain someone else's copyright as compositions, so they're in more of a grey area. Enjoy, but please don't try to make money with them or anything.

The musicians

The Maple Ridge Three are:

  • Paul Garay - keyboard (piano, organ, etc.), vocals
  • Sean Dillon - guitar, vocals
  • Derek K. Miller - drums, vocals

Our guests:

  • Renée Cook - violin (tracks 1 and 2)
  • Steve Bulat - electric bass (tracks 3, 4, and 5)
  • Various kids and relatives - tambourine, shakers, cowbell, triangle, background vocals, dancing

Techie nerd details

These recordings are completely live off the floor, in the order we played them, recorded to 320 kbps stereo MP3 using the default equalization on the Zoom H4, which was positioned on a shelf at about head-height for a sitting audience member in Paul's basement.

The only production I did was split the one long MP3 into individual uncompressed AIFF-format song files, trim out in-between chatter using Rogue Amoeba's lovely, minimalist Fission sound editor, and convert them to MP3 again via iTunes. Despite having the live limiter and a low-cut filter running on the H4 recorder, I did have the levels for the built-in stereo microphones set slightly too hot, so there's a bit of distortion here and there.

The band portrait comes courtesy of JibJab's Elf Yourself.

Afro-Cuban memories

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art blakeyMy dad loaned me his new CD copy of Art Blakey's Drum Suite album, which I wrote about the other day, so I've had a chance to listen to it in full for the first time in 25 or 30 years. (His old LP record was so scratchy he had to replace it.) It showed me how selective memory can be.

My deep childhood recollections are entirely of the first three songs—side A of the LP—"The Sacrifice," "Cubano Chant," and "Oscalypso," which are all pulsating slabs of delicious Afro-Cuban jazz rhythms. I must have heard side B before, but none of it sounded familiar. Even of the three initial tracks, there are big chunks I don't remember at all, like the piano parts in "The Sacrifice." But with other bits, like the Swahili gang vocals at the beginning, or the bizarre, semi-atonal cello strumming in "Oscalypso," I could sing or hum along seamlessly.

UPDATE: Reading the liner notes, I discovered that the original LP version of "The Sacrifice" had the piano and bass solos edited out for length, so I remembered correctly that they hadn't been there. Or, uh, when I didn't remember the piano, that was correct. Or something like that. Anyway, the CD re-release restores the full recording, so the piano and bass solos were new to me.

In keeping with my Beatles discussion recently too, there's a possibly-apocryphal story that John Lennon derided jazz, saying that it "never goes anywhere, never does anything." He had something of a point if you listen to side B of Drum Suite, which is full of more typical late-'50s swinging bebop improvisation, with noodly horns and tubby bass solos and the whole shebang. It's very good if you appreciate the genre, but I could see why a teenage Lennon in Liverpool might have hated the style, because it's intellectual, complex, grownup music. If you're a bag of raging hormones, rock-n-roll like Elvis and Little Richard and Gene Vincent would deserve to kick it off the pop charts.

Lennon and his fellow Beatles, of course, made sure that happened: as far as I know, Louis Armstrong's version of "Hello, Dolly!" was the last unequivocally jazz Billboard #1 hit, in 1964, the year the Fab Four took over the charts in the name of rock.

But while it's also certainly jazz, the Afro-Cuban percussion ensemble on side A of Drum Suite has a different emphasis. It's driven neither by melodic improvisation nor by chords, but by the endlessly inventive, interlocking rhythms. Two drum kits, congas, bongos, shakers, cowbells, timpani, piano, cello, vocal shouts, and more. I've speculated that the sound of those three tracks subliminally influenced my decision to become a drummer 15 years or so after I first heard them. Either that, or I had some predisposition for rhythm even as a very young kid, which is why I wanted to hear those tracks over and over. Perhaps a bit of both.

In some ways, the story of twentieth century popular music is the story of melody being taken over by rhythm. In America, and then throughout the world, Western concepts of harmony and composition were permanently altered by the pulse of Africa and the Caribbean. Blues and ragtime became jazz, and filtered into R&B and rock-n-roll, then soul and funk, disco and reggae, then dance, hip-hop and electronica. As a result, the songs on today's pop charts have more in common with southern prison work songs from 100 years ago than with the polite popular ditties of the same era.

The dark, scary interval of the final vocal at the end of "The Sacrifice" draws on those same work-song traditions, and still gives me freaky shivers. Here, listen to the last 20 seconds (MP3 audio) to hear what I mean.

The Pre-Beatles, 1958Saturday would have been John Lennon's 70th birthday (his son Sean turned 35 the same day). Lennon was shot dead in New York City a couple of months after his 40th birthday in 1980. As a lifelong Beatles fan, a musician who played a lot of his songs over the past couple of decades, and someone facing my own mortality—and despite all my health problems over the past few days—I've been listening to some of my favourite songs from the band.

As I mentioned recently, that set included Revolver, as well as Rubber Soul, and the album (not EP) version of Magical Mystery Tour. What John Lennon songs do those discs include?

  • "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)"
  • "The Word"
  • "Girl"
  • "In My Life"
  • "Wait"
  • "Run for Your Life"
  • "I'm Only Sleeping"
  • "She Said She Said"
  • "And Your Bird Can Sing"
  • "Doctor Robert"
  • "Tomorrow Never Knows"
  • "I Am the Walrus"
  • "Strawberry Fields Forever"
  • "Baby You're a Rich Man"
  • "All You Need is Love"

Of that incredible batch of songs, I think only "Run for Your Life" is a weak one (weak for the Beatles, anyway), and "Doctor Robert" is merely rather good. The rest are in varying parts genius, groundbreaking, soporific, anthemic, bizarre, sexy, psychedelic, touching, classic, and inspiring. Surprisingly, in my particular list there are no flat-out rockers like "Twist and Shout" or "Revolution." My favourite? Probably still "Strawberry Fields Forever," followed by "She Said She Said" and "I Am the Walrus." (Hmm, the druggy ones.)

However, in the full listen through, I rediscovered a Beatles favourite of mine that I hadn't heard in years, and didn't realize how much I missed: Paul McCartney's "Got to Get You Into My Life." In it, the Fab Four manage to out-Motown the horns-and-tambourine trademarks of Motown itself, with a song that Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder or the Supremes could easily have made a #1 hit. But for the Beatles it was only an album track (until a 1976 re-release that took it to Billboard #7).

Now, I'm not a famous or influential musician, but despite my perhaps bleak prospects, I've already lived longer (at 41) than many such entertainers (like Lennon) who accomplished quite a lot: Buddy Holly, Hendrix, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Mozart, Mama Cass, John Coltrane, the Notorious B.I.G., Marc Bolan of T-Rex, Charlie Parker, Kirsty MacColl, Duane Allman, Jaco Pastorius, Sid Vicious, Jim Croce, Randy Rhoads, Keith Moon, Tim and Jeff Buckley, Michael Hutchence, Janis Joplin, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Tommy Bolin, Tammi Terrell, Robert Johnson, Nick Drake, Bon Scott of AC/DC, Selena, John Bonham, Kurt Cobain, Charlie Christian, Karen Carpenter, Bob Marley, Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur, Sam Cooke, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Honestly, I think I've lived a better life than many of them did. John Lennon, for all his success, rarely seemed genuinely happy, except perhaps near the end. I've been lucky to grow up my whole life in Vancouver, with good friends and family. I've never really worried about whether I'd have enough to eat, or a place to live, or interesting things to do. Yes, having metastatic cancer sucks big time, for all of us here. It's made the past few years hard, and things would be far, far better without it. I wish I could live longer than I probably will. But I have a wonderful wife and great relationships with my daughters.

Would John Lennon have envied my life? Likely not, but maybe. Maybe.

Gear purge time

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Neurotics in Tsawwassen - Sticky 2One year ago today, October 3, 2009, I played guitar and drums with my band out in Tsawwassen. I had a feeling (though I wasn't certain) that it might be the last proper gig I would ever play, and now, in retrospect, it seems that was indeed the case.

Whenever the possibility of a show has come up in the last year, my health hasn't been good enough, and that situation isn't improving as time goes on. I'm not well enough for the packing, transport, setup, sound check, playing, breaks, teardown, re-packing, and traveling home, even for simple local performances. Tremendously fun as it is, it's also physically and mentally exhausting. After that final show last year, I was wiped out for two days.

Heist at Cloverdale Pub 2So, I made money as a gigging musician for 20 years, and now it's over. And that's okay, because 20 years is nothing to sneeze at as a musical career. It's been my entire adult life, and half my life overall! (I haven't held any other job nearly that long.)

A benefit now is I can now decide what musical gear is worth keeping and what I can give away to my family, friends, and colleagues, or sell:

  • I'm still storing some amplifiers and speakers in the basement, whose owners I can ask to take them back before I attempt selling them.
  • I have two complete drum kits with hardware and cymbals (a set for playing at home, another packed up for gigs), one of which I can purge, either by selling it or by finding a drum-playing friend or family member who might like it.
  • My computer/recording desk holds more keyboard controllers than I know what to do with, especially since I'm not a keyboard player.
  • I've already started giving away and selling parts of my way-too-large collection of guitars.

Sticky NeuroticI don't plan to get rid of everything. My two daughters are quite musical, studying piano and voice and now playing in the school brass orchestra. (They've each had far more formal musical training than I ever did.) There's a decent chance they might want to put a band together in a few years, so it might be wise to have the minimum roster of gear available to do that. Plus, for now I still like noodling around and recording the occasional tune, in addition to co-hosting Inside Home Recording.

I've purged out old computer technology from that office/studio a couple of times in the past five years. This is the next obvious step.

Why I chose those 16 albums

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A few weeks ago I joined a Facebook trend and posted the first 16 music albums (rather than 15) that came to mind as influential, and that will "always stick with me." But, given how quickly I posted them, I didn't say why, or think about it much. So I might as well explain them now. Again, I'm listing the albums alphabetically by artist:

Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers - Drum Suite (1957): This first choice is also perhaps my oddest, since I'm not much of a jazz listener, I don't own this album, and I haven't even heard it in full for at least 20 years, possibly 30. But it—and especially the first track, "The Sacrifice"—are embedded deep in my childhood subconscious. My dad owns the LP, and as a very young child I used to ask him to play it from time to time, both because it was exciting and energizing and because it freaked me out a bit. "The Sacrifice" begins with a distant, spooky chant in Swahili, then launches into an intense seven minutes of African drumming, punctuated by Blakey's full-tilt accompaniment on his drum kit. The rest of the album includes more excellent Afro-Cuban jazz, as well as some straight-ahead bebop in Blakey's more usual style. Back in 1957, it was pioneering, World Music long before the term was coined. But I simply loved (and feared) the sounds and the rhythms, and now that I think of it, Drum Suite is probably a major reason I like much of the other music I do (including some below), and might be part of why I became a drummer myself many years later. I need to go buy it again.

The Beatles - Revolver (1966): No mystery here. The Beatles were the greatest rock-n-roll band of all, and once I became a drummer, I played a lot of their music in concerts for 20 years, so I got to know it very well. While I love their brash and exuberant early work (from "I Saw Her Standing There" to "A Hard Day's Night"), as well as much of their later material (including "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Hey Jude," "I Am the Walrus," and "Get Back"), I've always preferred the band's 1965–66 middle period. With the albums Help!, Rubber Soul, and Revolver, the Beatles took the basic concept of the pop song as far as it could go. And whenever I play Revolver (and Rubber Soul too), I'm astonished that all those great tunes appeared on a single disc: it's like a Beatles Greatest Hits record, except it was simply what they managed to record as their new material from April to June 1966 (plus a little single featuring "Paperback Writer" and "Rain" too), before embarking on their final concert tour. Almost 45 years later, it remains a landmark and a masterpiece that can inspire (or depress) any songwriter or musician who hears it.

Crowded House - Woodface (1991): From 1986 to 1996, Crowded House were the best pop band in the world, I think. And while the band's 1988 predecessor, Temple of Low Men, is probably overall a stronger collection, showcasing the always-brilliant songwriting of leader and singer Neil Finn, Woodface is more sprawling, more interesting, funnier, and includes its own roster of supremely written and performed songs, featuring Neil's wonderful harmony singing with his brother Tim, who was a member of the group for these sessions only. "It's Only Natural," "Fall at Your Feet," "Weather With You," and "Four Seasons in One Day" are compositions even Lennon and McCartney might envy. Plus my friend Alistair had the cassette of Woodface as the only music on his car stereo for at least a year, yet somehow we never tired of it.

James Brown - Star Time (box set, 1991): Maybe box sets are cheating in a list of albums, but I don't care. You can't contain James Brown in a single disc anyway. Here's what Rolling Stone said about this set: "James Brown can seem like an insufferable braggart. He makes no bones about his greatness, proclaiming himself not only the King of Soul but the inventor of funk and the progenitor of rap and disco—not to mention a leading exponent of black pride. To hear him tell it, James Brown is one of the most dynamic and visionary musicians America has ever produced. After examining the evidence set forth in the seventy-two songs on Star Time, however, only one conclusion is possible: James Brown is far too modest." I was no Brown expert at the time I first picked up the box when it was released, but I played its tracks over and over again for years afterwards. Presented chronologically, they show how Brown took his manic R&B stage show of the 1950s and stripped it down into a series of the tightest, leanest, most cutting bands in history, creating funk and transforming songs and music and voices into pure rhythm. Music (and, after listening, my sense of it) hasn't been the same since.

Led Zeppelin (1969): All the bluster and bombast, instrumental and vocal skill, unabashed musical thievery, heavy-metal invention, explosive sexuality, and blues–folk–Eastern mashupness that Led Zeppelin would unleash over the next decade are there in their first album, recorded with minimal equipment after these four British youths had discharged their obligations touring as the final incarnation of the Yardbirds. With it and Led Zeppelin II, they put the exclamation mark on the unequalled musical and cultural transformations of the 1960s. And the first track, "Good Times Bad Times," introduced the world to the terrifyingly excellent drumming of John Bonham. Most drummers, myself included, still can't play it properly.

Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998): My friend Tara bought me this album, from a group and a trip-hop genre I knew basically nothing about, and I was instantly hooked. Everyone has heard tracks from it now, with "Teardrop" becoming the theme for the TV series House, and other tracks being used in The Matrix and The West Wing. But potential overexposure hasn't depleted the dark power of these songs, and the extraordinary production that makes them entirely immersive, especially in headphones with the lights low. Mezzanine also finally convinced me that music driven by samples and loops wasn't a cheat of some kind, and could truly be newly creative.

Midnight Oil - Scream in Blue Live (1992): I'm not sure why my two favourite bands of the '80s and early '90s (Midnight Oil and Crowded House) both formed in Australia. Crowded House had more finely crafted songs, but the Oils were by far the most powerful live act I've ever seen. While a Crowded House performance was (and is) full of jokes and silliness and fun, witnessing Midnight Oil and their spastic, fearsome lead singer Peter Garrett was more like entering a war zone. (Less fearsomely, Garrett is now the Education Minister in Australia's federal governemnt.) This disc documents that assault, compiling live tracks from 1982 to 1992. Live albums are often money-grubbing afterthoughts, but not Scream in Blue: more than any record except perhaps Live at Leeds (see below), it captures all the force and passion that an unstoppable freight train of a rock band can muster with some guitars, drums, and singing. Released at the height of the distortion-heavy grunge movement emerging from Seattle, this CD prompted another gem from a Rolling Stone reviewer: "Never mind the Puget Sound, this is real guitar nirvana."

Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era, 1965–1968 (box set, 1998): Another box set, this time four discs of one-hit wonders and other oddities from one of the golden ages of popular music: the DIY American garage-rock 1960s inspired by Beatlemania. You've got the extraordinary Fab Four knock-offs the Knickerbockers and "Lies," Todd Rundgren's original band Nazz and "Open My Eyes," "Incense and Peppermints" from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, "Woolly Bully," "Louie Louie," Creedence Clearwater Revival when they were called the Golliwogs, and dozens and dozens of other bands made up of usually barely competent musicians who somehow stumbled their way (for a song or two) into genius and then stumbled back into real life (perhaps Vietnam), inspiring countless other punk and New Wave and garage bands for decades to come. "Buy some cheap gear at the pawn shop and start rocking!" they beckoned. And many of us did.

Odds - Bedbugs (1993): One of the bands inspired by those '60s garage rockers was Vancouver's own Odds, formed in the late 1980s and supporting themselves as the classic rock cover act the Dawn Patrol for years before backing up Warren Zevon, releasing four great albums in the '90s, and then folding (and reforming a couple of years ago). I like Bedbugs best, with the singles "It Falls Apart" and "Heterosexual Man" being hits in Canada, and the rest of the tracks simply being great big slabs of clever guitar-powered pop-rock. I became an acquaintance, sometimes bandmate, and friend of these guys (especially bassist Doug Elliott, who over the years played on and off with my cover band the Neurotics and even helped me create a short little instrumental tune for my podcast), but I started as, and remain, a fan. They're a great live band too.

Peter Gabriel - Peter Gabriel 4, a.k.a. Security (1982): I didn't realized it until I made this list, but this album's first track, "The Rhythm of the Heat," bears a strong resemblance to Art Blakey's "The Sacrifice," discussed up above. There's no jazz drumming and it's loaded with bizarro electronic noises from the Fairlight CMI sampler, true, but Gabriel's song skeeves me out in a similar way and ends with an African percussion freakout that would fit right in on Drum Suite. Of course I came to Security by seeing and hearing "Shock the Monkey" on TV (recommended on Canadian VJ Terry David Mulligan's TV show by Duran Duran, of all acts), so I already knew Peter Gabriel might be a bit insane, but I fell in love with it because of that insanity, and the strange, shivery, hacked-together feeling of the music. In fact, it was one of the first discs to be recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely on digital equipment, so many of the tracks were assembled rather than really recorded, and Gabriel took full advantage of that technology to create something that sounded genuinely new. Plus the cover art remains scary and entirely incomprehensible.

The Police - Synchronicity (1983): The unavoidable monster hit album of 1983 and 1984, and the one that finally sent the Police on their separate ways until the reunion tour of 2007. I was 14, and I listened to it so much that I can still pretty much replay the whole LP (plus the bonus track "Murder By Numbers") in my head from memory, something I sometimes did while riding my bike to UBC years later, before the era of the iPod. Even though much of the reggae stylings and silly humour of their earlier work were gone by this time, Synchronicity was proof that the best bands really are alchemy. Sting wrote and played bass and sang the songs, but he was never again anything close to as good as when Stewart Copeland was drumming and Andy Summers was playing guitar and they all hated each other and got into fistfights and arguments and yet crafted gorgeous and memorable recordings like "Synchronicity II" and "Every Breath You Take" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger."

Robert Johnson - The Complete Recordings (box set, 1937/1990): One more box set, okay? Pioneering blues-rockers like Eric Clapton and Keith Richards had been raving about Robert Johnson since the 1960s, so the man wasn't obscure. Cream's "Crossroads" is a Johnson song, after all, and so is "Sweet Home Chicago." But Johnson himself died before either of my parents was born, in 1938, at age 27, likely poisoned. The set encompasses pretty much everything he ever recorded, in 1936–37 playing acoustic guitar and singing solo, and dominated by Delta blues, but veering into uptempo pop in songs like "They're Red Hot." Among early blues singers and players, Johnson is like the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix all by himself, writing and performing timeless, classic songs with almost supernatural (some claimed underworldly) guitar skills. Anyone who plays any style of music that came out of America in the 20th century should knows these songs and the man who created them.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble - Couldn't Stand the Weather (1984): The blues had its ups and downs during that century, of course. The mid-'80s heyday of synth-pop and post-Halen hair metal was definitely a down time for gutbucket guitar-slingers and juke-joint howlers. Yet sometimes someone is simply too talented, too good, too explosive to be held back by musical trends, and Steve Ray Vaughan was certainly that. I'd heard him on the radio and seen his music videos, especially the funny "Cold Shot," and he seemed out of place carrying his beat-up Stratocaster and wearing a huge Texan hat. I didn't yet know he'd played the huge-toned solos on David Bowie's "Let's Dance" and "China Girl." Then I heard the title track from Couldn't Stand the Weather, with its stop-start tremolo guitar introduction and Stevie's skittering, fleet-fingered lead lines, and something switched over in my mind and heart. I loved that sound, and I had to hear more of it. I bought all his albums, and he taught me about Buddy Guy and Albert King and Otis Rush and the blues roots of Hendrix and ZZ Top. He became a superstar. Twenty years ago when I heard he'd died in a helicopter crash, I was working in the Student Union Building at UBC and I stumbled out of my office in a daze. That was my JFK or John Lennon or Kurt Cobain moment: no no no, I thought, SRV couldn't be gone. Yet he was. I bought my first Stratocaster that year.

U2 - The Joshua Tree (1987): When I bought The Joshua Tree, compact discs still came in cardboard "long boxes," so they would fit into the record-store shelves that used to hold LPs. The photo of U2 on their long box was black and white, and stretched and distorted, but they were still standing stoically in the desert, staring off into the distance, obviously a Very Important Band with a Very Important Album inside. It was the biggest record of the year, and it was also a Very Important Year for me, when I turned 18, when my parents moved (temporarily, it turned out) to Toronto, and when I started a somewhat grown-up life of my own with roommates, and summer jobs, and bills to pay, and university to manage on my own. The Joshua Tree was my soundtrack. My favourite song on it, though it wasn't a single or a hit, is "In God's Country." It's a short, beautiful, evocative tune you could bang out on an acoustic guitar, elevated to greatness by the interplay of The Edge's guitar and Larry Mullen's drums.

The White Stripes - Elephant (2003): If anyone's the definition of an old soul, it's Jack White. I described him before as "a pasty-faced ghost from the 1950s or earlier, wrestling with his ravaged and literally thrift-store Kay guitar, wearing a bowtie and a hat and smoking stubby cigars, channeling Blind Willie McTell and Elmore James, building a slide guitar out of some planks, a Coke bottle, and a metal string, assembled with hammer and nails." The White Stripes had been around for a few years before they released their big breakthrough Elephant, but I didn't know about them. Yet when I heard "The Air Near My Fingers" on the radio, it grabbed me instantly. Meg White is a less proficient drummer than me (and that's saying something), but nothing else would do to hold up Jack's guitar-and-vocal maelstrom. The band, and the album, are like a peanut-butter-and-chocolate collision of the British Invasion, Delta blues, and Nuggets spewed out of an indie-rock candy-confection marketing plan. With the other albums on this list, you can see why I liked it so much.

The Who - Live at Leeds (extended version, 1970/1995): I mentioned that my parents moved to Toronto for a few years in the late '80s. I was visiting them there when I turned on the radio and heard the end of the Who's fifteen-minute version of "My Generation" and nearly eight-minute version of "Magic Bus" blast out—the station was playing the second side of Live at Leeds. I'd already been a classic-rock junkie for awhile, and in fact I'd taught myself the original, acoustic-based version of "Magic Bus" on guitar. But what the hell was that? It wasn't the jangly Who of "The Kids Are Alright," or the majestic, synth-driven Who of "Baba O'Riley," or the bouncy late-period Who of "Squeeze Box." This was pure, overdriven heavy metal music before such a thing was really supposed to exist, a broadside against Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and the other candidates for World's Heaviest Band at the turn of the 1970s. When I bought the original version of the album, with only six songs, they were all like that. I'd heard legends about Who concerts, and now I finally understood what the fuss was about. Alas, by the time I finally got to see them play in 1989 (without the late Keith Moon, of course), it was a much more polite affair. Pity.

I'm not religious, so many of my transcendent and spiritual experiences have come through music. I suppose, then, that these albums form part of my canon, and now you know why.

Jimi Hendrix ArtThe electric guitar is the key instrument of rock and roll music, and by consensus, Jimi Hendrix is its most important player. Born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest, he died 40 years ago, September 18, 1970, in London, of an accidental overdose.

After so many decades and so many experiments in the sound of the guitar, it's not easy to recall how revolutionary Hendrix was in the mid-1960s. Yes, B.B. King and T-Bone Walker had helped create single-string blues-based solos, while Les Paul had altered the guitar's sound in the studio and onstage. Yes, Ike Turner and Link Wray had introduced amplifier distortion, and the Beatles (and the Who) had worked with feedback and recording effects. But no one made sounds like Jimi, and in some ways no one has quite done it since.

Legendary guitarist Steve Vai once claimed to have been able to figure out much of how Hendrix did what he did—"but," Vai wondered, "how did he think of it?" Without Hendrix and his Stratocasters and Marshall amps, it's hard to imagine how we could have gotten Vai, or Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, or Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Eddie Van Halen, or Prince, or John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Jack White, or Eric Johnson, or The Edge, or anyone who's played electric blues, heavy metal, progressive rock, jazz fusion, or any other genre that uses the instrument.

Plus he was a gifted songwriter and producer, a compelling singer, an unmatched showman, a fashion innovator, a civil-rights and anti-war activist (he had a brief and inauspicious Army career in 1961), and an enduring sex symbol. Hendrix's career as a rock star lasted less than five years—it's a profound shame we'll never know what else he might have accomplished.

Fifteen albums in fifteen minutes

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This is one of those Facebook memes. I bent the rules a little: (a) I posted it here on my blog instead of on Facebook, (b) I included 16 albums instead of 15, just because, and (c) I didn't tag anyone except those who already tagged me about it. If you want to make your own version, go ahead—you don't need my permission!

Anyway, the "rules" were: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen albums you've heard that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what albums my friends choose. Or just comment here with them. (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your Facebook profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note—upper right hand side.)

So, my list, in alphabetical order. I get a small cut from the links to Amazon if you buy anything (which need not be what I link to, by the way):

You might also like my 2003 list of top albums to listen to in headphones.

The Gnomedex Song 2010

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So here's the song I sang yesterday, updated for 2010 (sort of like "Don't Stand So Close to Me '86," I guess):

There are also a few photos of the experience around. Notice my Seattle-approved lumberjack shirt:

The Last Gnomedex Song

My original recording of "Tell Me About Gnomedex" (a.k.a. "The Gnomedex Song") from 2006 is still online too.

File:BBKing07.JPGThe one time I've seen B.B. King play live, more than 20 years ago, he didn't even have one of his famous Gibson guitars, nicknamed Lucille. His then-current Lucille was held up in transit somewhere, so for his gig at the 86 Street Music Hall in Vancouver, B.B. used a Fender Stratocaster rented from Calder Music (now Tom Lee Music) in North Van. As far as I know, they still have a photo on their store wall of him with that guitar.

King is one of the best-known guitarists of all time, and almost certainly the most influential one still alive today—maybe only Chuck Berry can compete. B.B. started his career in the late 1940s, and has largely outlived and outplayed his influences (such as Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker), contemporaries (Les Paul, Muddy Waters, Albert King, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins), and even many of his musical descendants (George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Mike Bloomfield, Stevie Ray Vaughan).

If you hear someone play an electric guitar solo—whether in rock, jazz, country, R&B, even metal and punk—B.B.'s tone and approach are almost certainly in there somewhere. Horn-like phrasing, artfully bent notes, and a wide, liquid vibrato, as well as a full yet piercing tone tinged with overdrive, sometimes verging on feedback: those are the sounds of electric blues music, one and the same as the sounds of B.B. King's guitar playing. The sound extends to every player who's ever sustained a note with a wiggled fretting hand while holding his or her picking hand to the sky.

That influence is entirely aside from King's also-substantial legacy as a singer and relentlessly-touring live performer. When I saw him in Vancouver, B.B. had already been on the road for over 40 years, but his infectious energy and obvious joy in playing to an audience were still fresh, and taught me how to put on a good show during my own 20-year live-music career that followed.

B.B. King is still playing a show almost every day, and he'll be back in Vancouver in November, a couple of months after he turns 85 years old.

Thirty-one air guitar solos

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Rock out!Monday was the last full day for my kids this school year and, as you would expect, there wasn't much schooling going on. In fact, my older daughter Marina organized an air guitar contest for her class, and asked me to put together a CD of appropriate heavy-shredding music that they could wail away to. When I mentioned it online, some of my friends asked for the list.

Here it is. I didn't put the whole songs on CD. Instead I excerpted just the appropriate guitar solos, or edited down a shorter section. They're listed in order from shortest to longest solos:

  1. Takin' Care of Business - Bachman Turner Overdrive (Randy Bachman)
  2. Get a Leg Up - John Mellencamp (David Grissom)
  3. All Day and All of the Night - The Kinks (Dave Davies)
  4. You Really Got Me - The Kinks (Dave Davies)
  5. You Shook Me All Night Long - AC/DC (Angus Young)
  6. Beat It - Michael Jackson (Eddie Van Halen)
  7. Even Flow - Pearl Jam (Mike McCready)
  8. Are You Gonna Go My Way? - Lenny Kravitz (Craig Ross)
  9. Hard To Handle - The Black Crowes (Rich Robinson)
  10. Heartbreaker - Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page)
  11. Peelin' Taters - Junior Brown
  12. Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes (Jack White)
  13. Back in Black - AC/DC (Angus Young)
  14. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana (Kurt Cobain)
  15. New Year's Day - U2 (The Edge)
  16. Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page)
  17. Sultans of Swing - Dire Straits (Mark Knopfler)
  18. Scuttle Buttin' - Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble
  19. Oye Como Va - Santana (Carlos Santana)
  20. Oh Well - Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green)
  21. La Grange - ZZ Top (Billy Gibbons)
  22. Mississippi Queen - Mountain (Leslie West)
  23. Crossroads - Cream (Eric Clapton)
  24. All Along the Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix
  25. Time - Pink Floyd (David Gilmour)
  26. Sugarfoot Rag - Junior Brown
  27. My Sharona - The Knack (Berton Averre)
  28. Eruption - Van Halen (Eddie Van Halen)
  29. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen (Brian May)
  30. Blues Jam - Greg Koch
  31. Free Bird - Lynyrd Skynyrd (Allen Collins)

I've listed the guitarist in parentheses. Notice that all but two of these tracks were recorded before any of the kids in her class was born. Nevertheless, they know many of them from "Rock Band," "Guitar Hero," and retro video shows on TV.

Sure, there are some famous solos missing, from the likes of Guns 'n' Roses, Metallica, Aerosmith, and the like, but I think it's a pretty decent list anyway. And of course I included "Free Bird" last.

My co-host Dave Chick and I have posted the latest episode of our podcast Inside Home Recording, which is number 81. This one features:

  • Listener Paul Hogue talking about the Big Ears Music Festival in Knoxville, TN.
  • Dave and, from the Home Recording Show podcast, Ryan Canestro talking about audio phase.
  • Me discussing the merits of small guitar tube amplifiers.
  • An editorial on whether audio mastering is... a scam?

You can get our show in two formats: Enhanced AAC (with pictures that appear as you play on your iPod, iPhone, iPad, or in iTunes), and audio-only MP3. This is our first episode in a couple of months. Hope you like it—if so, you can subscribe.