Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Addendum to Lock-In Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on September 1, 2014

(several characters’ genders are only mentioned so fleetingly that I can’t remember what gender they were, and it didn’t really matter for story purposes), but the nature of the story means that a large number of the characters are disabled or Native American, and there’s also a general level of pleasing unemphasised diversity — only two long-term relationships are acknowledged in the novel, one same-sex and one mixed-sex, while the narrator is mixed-race (a fact we discover in an aside on page 330 — his race,

I was being more accurate than I knew when I talked about genders not mattering for story purposes, and less accurate when I referred to the narrator using male pronouns. Someone mentioned in another review, and I checked by doing a word search, that the narrator’s gender is never specified. I’d parsed the name “Chris” as male, but of course it can be used by women and people of other genders too.

I’m now slightly more impressed with the book, and slightly less impressed at my own assumptions.

California Dreaming: God Only Knows

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 31, 2014

Rubber Soul had been a shock to Brian Wilson’s sense of the music industry. When he heard the Beatles’ most recent album in late 1965, he realised for the first time that it was possible to do a whole album with a cohesive feel and no filler [FOOTNOTEIn fact the album he heard, the American release, was not the album the Beatles had put together -- four tracks were removed from the British release and two added from Help!, giving it arguably a more coherent style than the original album.]. He’d already started work on the Beach Boys’ latest album, having recorded a version of an old folk song, Sloop John B, and a new track he called In My Childhood, but hearing the latest work from his rivals pushed him on to decide that the new album would contain none of the joke tracks, doo-wop covers, or generic surf instrumentals that had been featured on the band’s previous records. This would be an entire album with only good tracks on it.

With the Beach Boys touring for much of the time without him, Wilson had to turn to different methods of making records. While up until early 1965 the band themselves had played on nearly every backing track, now the majority of the sessions were to feature the Wrecking Crew, and with Mike Love not around Wilson had to look for a different songwriting partner.

He found the lyricist he wanted in Tony Asher, an advertising copy-writer who had little previous experience of songwriting. What Asher did have, however, was the ability to understand and empathise with Wilson on an emotional level, and translate Wilson’s feelings into words he felt comfortable singing. In a period of a few weeks, the two had written Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me (based on the earlier In My Childhood), Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), Caroline No, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, Here Today, That’s Not Me and God Only Knows — the core of what would become the Pet Sounds album.

Of all of them, probably the most meaningful for Wilson was God Only Knows, one of several songs where, inspired by a suggestion of Asher’s, the two tried to craft a song that would stand up alongside standards such as Stella By Starlight and Stardust.

Taking initial inspiration from the melody of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s You Didn’t Have To Be So Nice, Wilson turned the initial melodic idea into possibly the most beautiful thing he ever wrote. There’s only twelve bars of actual musical material, other than the key change for the instrumental bridge, but those twelve bars have a wonderful harmonic ambiguity to them, full of minor sixths, diminished chords, and dissonant bass notes, with the song only resolving straightforwardly at the end of the verse, yet the whole thing feels beautiful, effortless, and inevitable.

Asher’s lyrics had a similar sense of simplicity, but were in their own way at least as experimental. Starting the song “I may not always love you…” and having the word “God” in the title of a secular song were both bones of contention between him and Wilson, but Asher prevailed, and his lyrics, which on the surface are a simple love song but in fact communicate as much about depression and insecurity as any of the songs on the album that are more explicitly about those subjects, remained intact.

The song took time to get right in the studio, too. Wilson’s original idea for the instrumental break — a lounge sax solo — was so bad it could almost have sunk the record, but thankfully he took on pianist Don Randi’s suggestion to play through the chord sequence staccato, and one of the most effective instrumental parts of any Beach Boys track was created. And while it was obvious from the start that Carl Wilson should sing lead on the track, as the youngest Wilson brother had recently blossomed into an astonishing vocal talent, what the rest of the vocal arrangement should be was less obvious. At one point during the sessions, all six Beach Boys, plus Brian Wilson’s wife and sister-in-law, plus Terry Melcher, were all singing “bop bop” backing vocals as block chords.

Thankfully, Wilson stripped this down, and the end result features just three voices. Carl Wilson sings lead, with Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston adding backing vocals in the middle section, while at the end there’s a simple call-and-response vocal round, with Brian Wilson taking the high and low parts while Johnston answers him in the middle.

The result is one of the most beautiful recordings in the history of popular music, perfect in every note from the French horn and flute on the intro through to Brian Wilson’s falsetto “What would I be without you?” on the fade. The song is one of the best ever written, and Carl Wilson’s double-tracked lead vocal is so astonishingly good that from this point on, for the next few years, he would be the band’s de facto lead vocalist, even though he’d only taken two solo leads before.

The only question now was how Brian Wilson could top an album many were already calling the greatest ever…

God Only Knows

Composer: Brian Wilson and Tony Asher

Line-up: Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), Brian Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Hal Blaine (drums), Jesse Erlich (cello), Carl Fortina and Frank Marocco (accordion), Jim Gordon (percussion), Bill Green and Jim Horn (flute), Leonard Hartman (clarinet, bass clarinet), Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman and Lyle Ritz (bass) Leonard Malarsky and Sid Sharp (violins), Jay Migliori (saxophone), Don Randi (piano), Alan Robinson (French horn), Darrel Terwilliger (viola)

Original release: Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys, Capitol T 2458

Currently available on: Pet Sounds Capitol CD, plus innumerable compilations.

Lock-In by @scalzi

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 30, 2014

Before I start this review, a brief note to say that the reason I am tagging the author is not some kind of ego thing, but because John Scalzi has said that he’s specifically interested in hearing some of the kinds of criticisms that I’ll be bringing up here. I’d normally just put the relevant bits in a comment on his blog, but he’s turned off comments this month…

As with all my reviews, there will be SPOILERS here. In particular, this book is at least in part a murder mystery, and I will be giving away the identity of the killer (though not mentioning the name) further down, so stop reading here if that kind of thing might spoil your enjoyment.

Lock-In is a rather simpler book than Scalzi’s most recent novel, Redshirts. Where that played various postmodern games with narrative and levels of reality, this is a straightforward near-future crime thriller, in some ways very reminiscent of Charles Stross’ Halting State and Rule 34, but told in a much plainer style. In fact, other than a couple of “fucks”, it could practically be a Heinlein juvenile or a Terrance Dicks Doctor Who book or one of John Christopher’s Tripods books — it’s written in the kind of prose style that people describe as “transparent”, told mostly in dialogue, and told in a linear fashion from the viewpoint of a single narrator who seems a thoroughly nice, decent person. It’s a light adventure story that would probably appeal to anyone who enjoyed Asimov’s robot mystery novels (though Scalzi’s prose style is much better than Asimov’s) more than to fans of dense, impenetrable, complex narratives.

That sounds like a harsh criticism, but it’s really not meant to be. This is a book that’s pure story, and from an entertainment point of view it absolutely delivers. In fact it’s precisely the kind of story that the “sad puppy” people like Larry Correia were insistent moderates like Scalzi are incapable of writing, and I would be very surprised not to see it turned into a film or TV series soon

I was also glad to see that Scalzi takes a decent attitude to representation in the novel. I can’t remember if it passes the Bechdel test (several characters’ genders are only mentioned so fleetingly that I can’t remember what gender they were, and it didn’t really matter for story purposes), but the nature of the story means that a large number of the characters are disabled or Native American, and there’s also a general level of pleasing unemphasised diversity — only two long-term relationships are acknowledged in the novel, one same-sex and one mixed-sex, while the narrator is mixed-race (a fact we discover in an aside on page 330 — his race, or the races of his parents, aren’t mentioned before or after).

But one area where I thought more could be done, and where I hope more will be done in the sequels Scalzi has suggested may happen, is in the disability politics that form part of the background for the novel.

Scalzi’s book is set in a time when a substantial number of people have succumbed to an illness that renders them completely paralysed but still fully compos mentis, “locked in” to their heads unable to communicate, but where brain-computer interfaces have been developed to allow them to control robot bodies — or even, for a price, rent another person’s body for a few hours and use that. They’re also able to go and spend time in purely virtual worlds, where they can interact with each other — some of them go so far as to spend all their time in them, and never to “visit” the real world at all.

Now, while HuffPost have described the book as being “about wheelchairs”, I’d argue that the locked-in people are as much a metaphor for autistic people as for physically disabled people, and in particular the way that non-verbal autistic people (I’m a verbal autistic person, and so don’t have quite the same communication difficulties as the people I’m talking about, though I have plenty of my own) have found themselves able, since the advent of communication-assistance technology and particularly the internet, to communicate with other people.

Now, I have very particular views on the subject of “curing” autism, and have had a lot of very emotional conversations on the subject in the last week or so, because there seems to have been substantial progress made towards such a “cure”.

My own feelings on this are roughly those you could imagine a gay person in 1950 to have about a “cure” for homosexuality, except if anything stronger — autism is a far more integral part of who I am than my own sexuality is, and I could imagine a “me” who is gay or bi but still me, whereas a neurotypical version of me would be so different as to be unrecognisable. And while I do not doubt that there are a small number of people who would benefit from a “cure”, for whom their autism causes such distress that they would rather be someone else rather than continue to be their autistic selves, I also have no doubt that in the current political and social climate there would be far, far more people on whom the “cure” was imposed against their will, either by parents wanting to have a more “normal” child or by healthcare systems that focus on profit more than on the patients’ needs. What I would like to see, myself, is a world where total social acceptance of people with autism spectrum “disorders” came first, and then (and only then) a “cure” was developed for those who it would genuinely benefit, but sadly far more money and effort is being put into the latter than the former, and I am horribly worried that this will lead to the effective eradication of people like myself.

Now this debate does, in fact, come up in the book, and both sides’ arguments are presented fairly well — there’s even a character who is roughly speaking an Amelia Baggs analogue (note that I’m not going to touch the ongoing arguments about whether Ms Baggs’ self-representation is accurate even with someone else’s bargepole). We get the following at one point:

“Bring us back from what, exactly? From a community of five million people in the U.S. and forty million worldwide? From an emerging culture that interacts with but is independent of the physical world, with its own concerns, interests, and economy?”

“No, making people change because you can’t deal with who they are isn’t how it’s supposed to be done. What needs to be done is for people to pull their heads out of their asses. You say ‘cure.’ I hear ‘you’re not human enough.’ ”

The problem is that these arguments are put in the mouth of the villain, who it later turns out is trying to suppress research into a cure in order that he can continue to profit from the other people with the condition, and whose profiteering leads him to commit a variety of hugely evil crimes, including controlling other people’s brains (which may be triggery for some people who find such things all too reminiscent of abusive relationships), bombings, and multiple murders and forced suicides.

While it’s made clear that there are other people in this world who agree with this view and who aren’t evil psychopaths, the villain of the piece is the only one who advocates this view at any length, and the person with whom he is arguing is presented as an entirely sympathetic figure — an employer who wants the best both for his employees and the world, and who attends a memorial services for the janitors who worked at the company he owned when it’s blown up. Putting the pro-cure argument in the mouth of a good, caring man while the anti-cure argument is being made by something close to a creature of pure evil does seem to be stacking the decks rather.

This is very much a background detail in the book, but I suspect from the way it’s brought in that it will be a theme in any future books in this world, and if so I hope a rather more balanced portrayal will be shown…

Linkblogging For 29/8/14

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 29, 2014
Tagged with:

California Dreaming: Take A Giant Step

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 29, 2014

Love weren’t the only long-haired multiracial folk-rock band inspired by the Byrds’ success. When the Byrds had toured in 1965, their residency at Ciro’s had been left vacant, and three new bands stepped into the spot. Love immediately made a mark, as did the Leaves, but the band who most impressed the other musicians in the audience was the Rising Sons.

While the other folk-rockers were taking inspiration from the white singer-songwriters of the time like Bob Dylan and Tim Rose, the Rising Sons were listening to the folk blues of Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis, as well as to the electric blues of Elmore James and Howlin’ Wolf. If the Byrds were the Beatles of the LA folk-rock scene, then the Rising Sons were its Rolling Stones, with a harder-edged, bluesier, sound rooted in emulation of older musicians rather than chasing current trends.

The band was led by Taj Mahal, a 22-year-old blues singer and harmonica player from New York who would often sit in with blues musicians from the previous generation, people like Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, and Ry Cooder, a 19-year-old guitar virtuoso who by his mid teens had already had endorsement deals from guitar manufacturers (he’d been playing since pre-school, having been given a guitar after an accident in which he lost an eye, as his parents understandably became protective and wanted him to have an indoor hobby). The original lineup was rounded out by bass player Gary Marker, rhythm guitarist Jesse Lee Kincaid, and drummer Ed Cassidy, but after Cassidy broke his hand he was replaced by Kevin Kelley, the cousin of Chris Hillman of the Byrds.

The Rising Sons quickly gained a reputation as one of the most exciting bands in LA. At their very first show, in fact, Don Van Vliet and Doug Moon of the Magic Band were in the audience, and Marker saw Van Vliet grab Moon, point to Cooder, and say “There! That’s the shit I’m talkin’about! That’s what I want you to play!” Vliet asked Cooder after the show to give the guitarists in his band some tips on bottleneck playing.

With such a reputation, it was inevitable that the Rising Sons would get signed to a record label, and soon they were in the studio, recording with Terry Melcher for Columbia Records.

Only two tracks from these sessions were released at the time — a single coupling Candy Man and Devil Got My Woman, and it’s clear to see that even though these were both traditional blues songs, Melcher was trying to mould the band into something recognisable to the pop audience of the time. Candy Man is done in an uptempo acoustic style that’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the “good-time music” of the Lovin’ Spoonful, while The Devil’s Got My Woman (as it was titled on the single) is very much in the same style as the Rolling Stones’ early, bluesy, work.

For many years nothing else from the sessions was released, and the legend of the Rising Sons grew, as the various band members all had successes with later projects, to the extent that it seemed astonishing that an album had never been released. When in the 1990s the sessions were finally released on CD, though, it became easy to see why they had been shelved.

Quite simply, whatever they were like on stage, in the studio the Rising Sons were a band without a style of their own, musical chameleons who took on the personas of other musicians. In some cases, such as .44 Blues, done in the style of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, this produced excellent music, while sometimes, as in Dust My Broom, they duplicate the original Elmore James recording so closely as to render their own version pointless.

And then there are the songs that were attempts at hitting the pop market — among them the Dylan trifle Walkin’ Down The Line, and several original songs by Kincaid — competent but uninspired songs given sub-Knickerbockers pseudo-Merseybeat arrangements which serve only to show how feeble a great set of musicians can sound when playing music they don’t like, and that this would never be a band known for its two-part Everly-style close harmonies. These are so utterly uninspired in both performance and arrangement that one is frankly amazed that the people playing them ever managed to get paying work as musicians, let alone become some of the most celebrated musicians of their generation.

The one time everything comes together perfectly is Take A Giant Step, a song that was clearly a Melcher suggestion, being not by Roosevelt Sykes or Willie Dixon but by the songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. This one was done in the style of Love’s amped-up, aggressive, take on folk-rock, and sounds like the work of a different band from anything else they recorded. While the song itself is not one of Goffin and King’s best, Taj Mahal in particular clearly enjoyed it enough to rerecord it as the title track of his third solo album, and the enthusiasm shows in the arrangement and performance.

Other than a couple of slightly stiff fills by Kelley, everything here is exciting, with multiple layers of Cooder’s bottleneck guitar giving a bluesy twist on the jangling arpeggios of folk-rock, playing a riff that seems like an Elmore James inspired take on the riffs of recent Beatles records like I Feel Fine and Day Tripper, while Kincaid alternately doubles the jangling and provides brutal slashing chords. The track is filled out by some genuinely great harmonies (which it’s almost impossible to believe are the work of the same people who sang on the Merseybeat-esque tracks). Everything comes together perfectly, and of all the tracks they recorded, it’s impossible to understand why this one, at least, wasn’t released.

But it wasn’t, and the song was eventually used in a very different arrangement, as the B-side to the debut single of a very different type of band.

Take A Giant Step

Composer: Gerry Goffin & Carole King

Line-up: Taj Mahal (vocals), Ry Cooder (guitar, vocals), Jesse Lee Kincaid (guitar, vocals), Doug Moon (bass), Kevin Kelley (drums)

Original release: Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, The Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, Columbia CD CK 52828

Currently available on: Rising Sons Featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, Columbia CD


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