As my birthday week closes out with a whimper, here is what I saw these last 7 days:

the inevitable letdown
the city in miniature
commuter hatred
the digital sky shines at night
the soft lights of Radio City
the physical limitations of old media
good advice
the headless mannequin

And last but not least. For my birthday I went to see the legendary Les Paul. He’s the Thomas Edison of modern music, and of the two most famous electric guitars in the world[1], one bears his name: The Gibson Les Paul. He’s 92 and he still plays every Monday night in New York. He can still throw down some licks, too.

Oh, and i just discovered there was a pillow fight at Union Square yesterday and I missed it. Bummer.

1.) The other being the Fender Stratocaster, of course.

Saturday in the Sun

Finally the weather made it to the upper 50’s. I took a guitar and little portable amp to Tompkins Square Park to sit and play. I was only there for an hour or so; the fingers got a little cold. But I didn’t have to wear a coat! I also walked up Court Street and found some more gliders (cheaper this time, so I bought one). And thanks to daylight savings time, I can see the city better when I get home.

Lately I’ve been noticing things more on the ground – a dying flower, a spray bottle, and pairs of shoes and mittens. It’s rare that I find things left behind in pairs.

Also, a couple of weeks ago I got myself an early birthday present: I found a used Yamaha Ty Tabor signature model for just $300 at Guitar Center. Please, no one ask me how many guitars I already have. Tomorrow I’m 32. If I want to engage in excess, I’ve got an excuse.

My Father’s Son

I owe a great deal to my father: my obsession with music, my interest in theatre, my sense of humor, and several of my favorite movies are just a few things that I’ve taken from him. In fact, our similarities of taste are such that he requested a copy of one of my favorite movies of all time, Kicking and Screaming, for his birthday. While our tastes in music vary widely, there are some things in which we have a common interest, so I sent him Al Kooper‘s most recent CD as well. I would not be who I am today without him.

Happy birthday, dad.

Rainy Days Unenjoyed

I can’t hear the rain in this town. I have neither roof nor trees for it to hit. There could be a torrential downpour outside and I really wouldn’t know it unless I looked out the window. This is a strange, dissatisfying feeling for someone who enjoys a good rainy day.

And stress at work is amplifying. I’m going to get some work done from home on Sunday, so I’m trying to unplug it from my brain today. To do so, I spent some time this morning uploading some of my favorite older pictures to Flickr – pictures from Fayetteville, North Little Rock, Bryant, Harrison, and the Superflux studio sessions[1]. I also finally got around to posting the pictures of Last Chance Records, the place where music goes to die. I tell people to imagine the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with records, tapes and CDs.

1.) By the way, the eventual final tracks from those sessions featured the producer, Barry Poynter, on guitar. My tracks didn’t make the cut. Which I’m fine with. It’s Steve and Cara’s thing; my heart wasn’t in it.

Positively 30th Street

My wanderings on Saturday took me to 30th street, where Marty told me the best guitar shop in NYC is located. Sure enough, 30th Street Guitars was a very impressive store. Also located on that street were another great Japanese toy shop, and Waves LLC, a vintage audio store. They had the widest selection of old radios, microphones, victrolas, and other retro paraphernalia. They even had several dozen Edison cylinders, the earliest commercial audio format. And a badass 80’s boom box with turntable.

Saturday evening I walked down to Houston to meet up with my common-law sister Elizabeth, and along the way I met a sad little train, a baboon and uniformed corpse, and some decorative lights at Sugar Cafe.

Throughout the weekend several other things jumped out at me demanding to be photographed: Love, Heck, Nail, an important note, some 45s, and Friday’s snowfall.

Ode to Huey Lewis and the News

I was recently presented with a copy of The Best of Huey Lewis and the News. Before I go any further, I should say that my earliest musical influence, before I ever became a musician, was this group. I had all their tapes, and from about 5th to 8th grade they were a constant presence in my Walkman – as I walked home up Nicholson Avenue from Central Elementary, as I rode my bike or walked to the Quail Tree swimming pool, or just hanging out in my room at home. As I began playing guitar and buying CDs, though, I largely left them behind. My focus shifted to guitar wizardry and heavy rock. I never went back and bought their albums on CD, with the exception of 1991’s Hard at Play. I did write Huey Lewis a letter once, and he sent me an autographed picture.

Now I have the hits on CD, and a DVD of their best videos comes with the disc as well. Suddenly I am reminded how much their tunes are encoded in my musical DNA. They are the sound of summer for me. They were there at the swimming pool, on the TV in the snack bar, on the radio at the river, everywhere. Only now, as I’ve grown to become a musician who appreciates pure pop music composed with melodic elegance and recorded with a colorful balance of tones, do I realize that they were so much more than the 80’s cheese that so many people assumed them to be. Granted I may be painting with a rosy nostalgic brush here, but I really think this is a group whose music still stands the test of time. Here I am, 15 years later, listening to their tunes and marveling at the economy of language in the lyrics, the balance between jazzy tonalities in the sax lines and the post-punk guitar energy, and the not-too-glossy sparkle of the recordings. There are a lot of big acts from the 80’s whose songs I am no longer impressed with, who made crud that I feel like I could somewhat approximate on my own. By contrast, I find myself listening to the News and thinking, “how did they do that? I could never do that.” [1]

Their music is simple but not simplistic. Like another huge 80’s act from the Bay Area, Journey, the roots of the News lie in various jazz and funk bands. Critics love to dismiss jazzers who condescend to writing pop tunes[2], but there is an art to writing a succinct, economical pop tune. It comes naturally to some folks, as simple people can often write great simple songs, but I’m always more impressed by the artists who have everything at their disposal (canvas, palette, technique), and can still deliver something elegant and concise[3]. I just realized that this is particularly the case with yet another Bay Area band, a band who has gone on to become probably my favorite group of all time: Jellyfish.

It would seem I’ve come full circle, then, from one group who wrote sunny pop confections to another. Maybe I should move to the Bay Area….

1.) Other acts I’ve only recently come to appreciate in the same fashion: Tears for Fears, Hall and Oates and INXS.
2.) In fact, rock critics like to dismiss anyone who is musically smarter than they are, because the general profile of a rock writer is someone who couldn’t even succeed at making rock music, let alone jazz.
3.) As well as something grandiose and ambitious (Yes, Queen, Dream Theater).