Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

NaBoWriTwoMo

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 22, 2014

When I started the Cerebus posts on Mindless Ones, I hoped to get them finished by the Thought Bubble convention towards the end of November . The problem was, shortly after the fourth post, I got hit by every major life problem you can think of, and while I’ve been trying to make sure I get a blog post up every day (and have, I think, only missed three or four days since May) I’ve not had the mental energy to do the deep analysis stuff that I wanted to do with Cerebus.
I still haven’t, but there’s only two months to go until Thought Bubble, and I’ve realised that the two books of mine most like what I want the Cerebus book to be — Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and An Incomprehensible Condition — were both written in very short bursts of energy.
To get everything done before Thought Bubble would require me to write twenty essays ( fourteen on Cerebus itself and six “asides” on related subjects) in about fifty days (allowing time to get copies printed). I think I can do that, if I get myself into the right kind of mental state a few times. Anyway, I’m going to try. Two months to get it done.
I’ll publish most of them on Mindless Ones, but might move the “asides” here, so I don’t completely swamp MO with Cerebus stuff.
So starting tomorrow, expect quite a lot of posts about Cerebus…

California Dreaming: Along Comes Mary

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on September 21, 2014

[NB this should come before yesterday's post.

A note on sources -- for most of these essays I have used multiple sources. For this essay, I have relied more than any other on a single source, Steve Stanley's liner notes for the And Then... Along Comes The Association reissue, and I thought this should be noted. ]

Frank Zappa hadn’t only been listening to doo-wop and Edgard Varese as a teenager — he had also been a very big fan of folk music, especially Ewan MacColl’s recordings of sea shanties, and in 1961 he had been in a folk duo, with his friend Terry Kirkland. They played improvised pieces, with Zappa on guitar and Kirkland on clarinet and bongos, read beat poetry, and played blues songs.

However, Kirkland soon left to work in Hawaii, where he met Jules Alexander [FOOTNOTE Alexander used the name Gary Alexander on early Association albums, but later reverted to using his birth name, which I will use throughout this book for simplicity.], who was in the Navy at the time, and struck up a musical friendship.

Both men moved back to California in 1963, and there Kirkland had a musical epiphany after watching the Modern Folk Quartet — while the music he had played with Zappa had been folk influenced, it had been based on difficult, abstruse, folk, and Kirkland’s musical tastes had run more to jazz. This was Kirkland’s first exposure to the more accessible folk music that was becoming popular among college students, with lyrics relating to the concerns of normal people.

Alexander and Kirkland quickly became the centre of a regular amorphous folk jam session called The Inner Tubes, which at various times featured Roger McGuinn, Doug Dillard, Cass Elliot and David Crosby, among many others. This evolved into a thirteen-piece professional band, The Men (so called because there were no women in the band), and eventually this in turn became the six-piece The Association, with a line-up of Kirkland, Alexander, Russ Giguere, Ted Bluechel Jr, Brian Cole, and Jim Yester (brother of Jerry Yester of the Modern Folk Quartet).

The band became an instant live success, but their first single, a version of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, was a flop. A second single, One Too Many Mornings, was slightly more successful, but still not the hit they needed.

But then Curt Boettcher, a friend of the band who had been chosen to produce their next single, asked Alexander to play on a demo session for songwriter Tandyn Almer. Almer’s song had originally been intended as a ballad, but Boettcher had come up with a new arrangement of it, in an uptempo pop style [FOOTNOTE There is a possibly apocryphal tale that he also rewrote the melody, keeping just Almer's lyrics and chords.], and so he, Alexander, Almer, and session bass player Jerry Scheff went into the studio to cut a demo of Along Comes Mary.

Alexander was amazed, and asked Almer if his band could have the song to record in their next session. Almer readily agreed, and soon the band were in the studio with Boettcher and a group of session musicians (the band all played their own instruments on their first two singles, but the label insisted that they use session players for this session) recording Along Comes Mary, Your Own Love, Remember, I’ll Be Your Man and Better Times. After a consultation with the leaders of Subud, the new religious movement with which several of the band were involved, it was decided that Along Comes Mary and Your Own Love were the songs which best expressed the power of God moving through the band, and so they were chosen for the first single.

Your Own Love was chosen as the A-side, but DJs soon flipped the single and started playing Along Comes Mary, and its tumbling internal rhymes (“when fake desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks whose sickness…”), syncopated rhythm, and hints at a meaning just outside the literal meaning of the lyrics quickly drove it to number seven in the charts.

While the song was, at least on the surface, a love song to a woman, many people interpreted the lyrics rather differently, insisting that “Mary” was “Mary Jane” or marijuana. That may well have been the songwriter’s intention, but other interpretations were certainly possible, as the band found out when they read a newspaper report about the nuns at Loyola Marymount University declaring the song the best of the year.

A follow-up was obviously needed, and Cherish, written by Kirkman and with additional backing vocals by Boettcher, was soon released, and this time went all the way to number one. The team of the Association and Curt Boettcher was clearly going places — so it was all the more surprising when the Association decided to stop working with Boettcher, and to hire Jerry Yester to produce their next album. While Boettcher was a great producer, he was seeming more interested in just using the band as hired hands to realise his ideas than he was in collaborating with them as equals. The Association didn’t want to be a manufactured band…

Along Comes Mary

Composer: Tandyn Almer

Line-up:
Terry Kirkland, Jules Alexander, Russ Giguere, Ted Bluechel Jr, Brian Cole, and Jim Yester (vocals), Jerry Scheff (bass), James Troxel and Toxey French (percussion), Ben Benay, Mike Deasey, and Lee Mallory (guitars), Michael Henderson and Butch Parker (keyboards). Uncredited horns.


Original release:
Along Comes Mary/Your Own Love The Association, Valiant V-741

Currently available on: And Then…Along Comes The Association (Deluxe Expanded Mono Edition) Now Sounds CD

California Dreaming: Last Train To Clarksville

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 20, 2014

(note, I’m posting this and tomorrow’s post backwards — this comes after Along Comes Mary in the book, but I’ve not finished that essay yet and have done this one).

“Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll musicians-singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17 – 21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s-types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.”

In late 1965, when Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider placed that ad in Variety, the idea of a TV show about a rock and roll band, something like A Hard Day’s Night, had been in the air for a while. There had been talks with both Jan and Dean and the Lovin’ Spoonful about creating shows for them, but things had fallen through or stalled. Rafelson and Schneider decided they were going to just cast four actors who could also sing as their ersatz Beatles. They would work with Columbia/Screen Gems, who would handle the music side of things, and all their “band” would have to do musically would be to add the lead vocals. They would be in control, and not have to worry about the artistic temperament of a bunch of musicians.

As it happened, while the advertisement brought in hundreds of auditionees, including Paul Williams, Bryan Maclean, Van Dyke Parks, and Danny Hutton, only one person was cast because of the ad, and that indirectly. Steve Stills had auditioned, but (depending on who you believe) either told them he was more interested in writing songs for the show than appearing, or was turned down after the second audition because of his crooked teeth. He suggested that if the producers liked him, they might like his friend, Peter Tork, with whom he was in a band called the Buffalo Fish at the time, as many people said that Tork and Stills could almost be brothers.

Tork was hired, but the other three members of the TV show’s cast were known quantities. Michael Nesmith was a folk singer who had put out singles on ColPix, a label owned by Columbia/Screen Gems under the name Michael Blessing. Davy Jones had also put out an album on ColPix, and was signed to Columbia for development as a screen personality, as his show-stealing performances in the Broadway musical Oliver! and subsequent TV appearances had marked him out as precisely the sort of cute, wholesome, British teenager who would make a perfect teen heartthrob in the days of Beatlemania. Micky Dolenz, meanwhile, was a former child star who’d had his own TV series — and who had developed a seriously impressive vocal ability as he’d grown older.

While all four men could sing as well as act, pre-production on the series started before they were cast, and so in the pilot they mimed to tracks by the Candy Store Prophets, a band that were a side project of staff songwriters Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Once the show was picked up by NBC, though, they would be making their own music, or so they were led to believe.

In fact, Nesmith, the most insistent on having some musical input, was allowed to write and produce (but not play on) a handful of tracks, and to have Tork add rhythm guitar on his sessions, but for the most part the music for the show was to be written, produced, and performed by outsiders, and the band members were only to provide lead vocals. In fact the band’s first producer, Snuff Garrett, intended to have only Jones sing on the tracks, but within a few days Garrett was replaced by Boyce and Hart.

Boyce and Hart and the Candy Store Prophets (Gerry McGee on guitar, Larry Taylor, formerly of the Gamblers, on bass, and Billy Lewis on drums), augmented by session musicians, would create finished tracks to which Dolenz or Jones would add lead vocals. Nesmith only sang on his own productions at this point, while Tork wasn’t considered a viable lead vocalist, and neither man was especially happy about being squeezed out of the process of recording songs by a band they were supposedly in.

But at least at first it was hard to argue with the results of that process. Last Train To Clarksville, the Monkees’ first single, is based loosely around the Beatles’ Paperback Writer (Hart had misheard the title as “take the last train” when he heard it on the radio, and used that when he discovered the song’s real title) but with the addition of a variant on the Day Tripper riff and a train-blues rhythm that gives it almost the feel of Smokestack Lightnin’, if it had been recorded by LA pop musicians rather than Chicago blues ones. To top it off, and make sure the Beatles connection was obvious, it had a “no no no” chorus, apeing the Beatles’ “yeah yeah yeah”.

In keeping with the other musical trends of late 1965 and early 1966, the song was, to a first approximation, a protest song, sung from the point of view of a soldier leaving for the Vietnam war, wanting to meet his lover for the last time as “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home”. The need to make the song ambiguous (as the label and TV show certainly weren’t in the business of making political statements) worked to the song’s advantage, as did Micky Dolenz’s vocal, which played up the innuendo of lines like “we’ll have time for coffee-flavoured kisses and a little…conversation” rather than stressing the message, such as it was.

The end result was a song and performance that perfectly captured everything good about pop music in 1966, and when it was released (backed with the Monkees’ version of Take A Giant Step) it started going up the charts even before the TV series premiered. Once the series was on the air, the number one spot was as good as theirs…

Last Train To Clarksville

Composer: Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart

Line-up: Micky Dolenz (vocals), Bobby Hart (backing vocals), Tommy Boyce (acoustic guitar, backing vocals), Gerry McGee, Wayne Erwin, and Louie Shelton (guitar), Larry Taylor (bass), Billy Lewis (drums), David Walters (percussion)

Original release: Last Train To Clarksville/Take A Giant Step, The Monkees, ColGems 66-1001

Currently available on: The Monkees Rhino CD, plus innumerable compilations.

Linkblogging For 18/09/14

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 19, 2014

Sorry for the lack of proper content today and yesterday — yesterday I was functioning on only three hours’ sleep, and today I accidentally had a sip of lemonade (which had enough aspartame to give me a mild migraine and a major case of paranoid brain). Proper posts tomorrow and the weekend.

It’s possible that ADHD is both overdiagnosed *and* underdiagnosed

Jack Graham is worried by the opening of For Your Eyes Only

Who Killed Lard?

Nick Barlow on how many political parties actually matter in the UK

Permutation City, possibly the best SF novel ever, is back in print in the US

And microtargeted Facebook ads can be used to violate privacy or to play a trick on your roommate.

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Reading Heinlein: Blowups Happen

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 17, 2014

As part of my continued attempts to actually finish the series of blog posts I’ve started, here’s part three of my looks at Heinlein’s Future History work. For those who haven’t read them, here’s parts one and two.

Blowups Happen is one of Heinlein’s more acclaimed early works, but is interesting in retrospect for very different reasons than it was at the time.

It’s considered a classic largely because it was one of the first science fiction stories to take a technological innovation for granted and to tell a story about how that innovation affects both society and individuals, rather than directly about that innovation itself. In this case, the innovation is nuclear power — in a world where nuclear power is inherently much more dangerous than it is in the real world — but the story is actually about the effects of stress on people in dangerous but important jobs. The pulp SF plot (they discover that the power plant is so unstable that it would almost certainly blow up earth — JUST LIKE THE MOON WAS BLOWN UP BY ITS INHABITANTS!!!) is clearly just a peg on which to hang the ideas about pressure.

But it’s the source of those ideas which is interesting in retrospect. Heinlein here bases his super-scientist character, Lentz, who is both the greatest psychologist and the greatest mathematical physicist in the world, on Count Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics:

“I can’t help but be surprised that one man should attain eminence in two such widely differing fields as psychology and mathematics. And right now I’m perfectly convinced of your ability to pass yourself off as a physicist. I don’t understand it.”

The smile was more amused, without being in the least patronizing, nor offensive. “Same subject, symbology. You are a specialist; it would not necessarily come to your attention.”

“I still don’t follow you.”

“No? Man lives in a world of ideas. Any phenomenon is so complex that he cannot possibly grasp the whole of it. He abstracts certain characteristics of a given phenomenon as an idea, then represents that idea as a symbol, be it a word or a mathematical sign. Human reaction is almost entirely reaction to symbols, and only negligibly to phenomena. As a matter of fact,” he continued, removing the cigarette holder from his mouth and settling into his subject, “it can be demonstrated that the human mind can think only in terms of symbols.

“When we think, we let symbols operate on other symbols in certain, set fashions—rules of logic, or rules of mathematics. If the symbols have been abstracted so that they are structurally similar to the phenomena they stand for, and if the symbol operations are similar in structure and order to the operations of phenomena in the real world, we think sanely. If our logic-mathematics, or our word-symbols, have been poorly chosen, we do not think sanely.

“In mathematical physics you are concerned with making your symbology fit physical phenomena. In psychiatry I am concerned with precisely the same thing, except that I am more immediately concerned with the man who does the thinking than with the phenomena he is thinking about. But the same subject, always the same subject.”

This is, almost word for word, the argument of Korzybski.

Korzybski is one of those figures, like Buckminster Fuller, Wilhelm Reich, or Nikola Tesla, who anyone who spends a lot of time around science fiction fans, libertarians, or Discordians, will eventually come across, and like them he could perhaps best be described as a genius-crank.

There is a whole personality type, of which those three are perhaps the best known — very highly intelligent men (for they’re almost all men), who are trained in an area which isn’t scientific, but is science-proximate (usually engineering, but occasionally medicine or psychiatry), who have one or two genuinely useful insights upon which they then build a whole semi-mystical superstructure, usually involving the creation of a vast quantity of neologisms. The work of these people can be infuriating to read, as at times it can read like schizophrenic pressured speech, but then there can be amazingly lucid insights that make it worth ploughing through.

(Yes, I realise that many people who’ve read my more experimental work may think that the description above also fits some of my writing — it takes one to know one, and there’s a reason I’m so familiar with these people’s work…)

Korzybski’s main insight, described at great length in his book Science and Sanity, is that “the map is not the territory” — that human beings think using symbols, and that those symbols represent reality, but are not the same as reality. He goes on to claim that many problems with the way people think — mental illnesses, neuroses, and so forth — are caused by people using symbols that don’t match up to reality. In particular, he argues that the “is of identity” — the verb to be, used in phrases like “he is an angry person” or “my dog is fat” — makes people think that statements which only apply to a temporary situation (he may be angry right now because someone hit him, but he’s quite calm the rest of the time, and my dog may lose weight) instead refer to an intrinsic property of the thing being referred to.

This is actually quite a useful insight — or to rewrite that in E-prime, the variant of English some of Korzybski’s followers use, “this seems to me, in my present mixed state of ignorance and knowledge, quite a useful insight”. But note that in that last sentence I referred to “followers”. Korzybski’s work tends to appeal to the type of people who like either joining or forming cults, and while General Semantics is not itself a cult, it has had a huge influence on movements such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. But the biggest influence it had was on L. Ron Hubbard, who at the time Blowups Happen was written was a friend of Heinlein and a fellow science fiction writer. Korzybski also had a huge influence on A.E. Van Vogt, another SF writer, and on John Campbell, Heinlein’s close friend and the editor who bought this story. It’s not very surprising that when Hubbard founded Dianetics (the movement that would later become Scientology), Campbell and Van Vogt would be among his most prominent supporters.

This is important in our look at Heinlein because it’s the first sign we’ve seen in his fiction of his attraction to the more unusual ideas that will turn up when we get to the World-As-Myth books.

From a purely literary side of things, the story is relatively decent. The material about the moon seems to have been put in purely to make it more SF, and it has the same flaws Heinlein always has, of most of the story being people expositing to each other about stuff they already know, but it’s fairly readable. However, for modern readers, it still leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth. Except for one scene, every character in the story is a white male. In that one scene, set in a bar, we get a black character — a Steppin Fetchit caricature who talks in exaggerated dialect — and a woman — described as “something” rather than “someone”, so literally objectified, and implied as strongly as was possible in Astounding in 1940 to be a prostitute. Neither character actually plays any role in the plot.

So the story can feel unpleasant for those who are used to nonwhite nonmale people being treated as people, and given that it’s not a wonderful story on its own merits, and that it actually doesn’t fit very well into the future history chronology (the world in those stories doesn’t especially need nuclear power because of having free solar power, and the rocket fuel developed in this story has to be handwaved away in The Man Who Sold The Moon in order for that story to work at all), it’s probably one to skip if you’re only looking for the highlights when reading Heinlein…

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