Monday, January 23, 2012

The Greeks Had a Word for It, Dept.

"CHORUS: So that one should wait to see the final day and should call none among mortals fortunate, till he has crossed the bourne of life without suffering grief."
Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus (Hugh Scott-Jones, trans., screenshot Loeb Classical Library edition) © 1994 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

In reading about the death of Joe Paterno, I saw someone posted the short version of the preceding, "Count no man happy until he is dead," which is Herodotus, from his Histories (I.32)  And very much so in Paterno's case.  Never thought twice about him till the paedo story broke.  Discussing this yesterday, I was hard-pressed to think of someone who went from the top of his or her profession to disgrace then death in such a short period of time.  Not even Michael Jackson, who was, after all, acquitted, even though the stink of suspicion lingered in the nostrils of those who weren't his devout fans.

We take the ancient Greek word "hubris" to mean a downfall following arrogance, particularly by the powerful.  The original, according to the hive mind at Wikipedia, referred to the gravest of crimes in Greek society and included "sexual crimes ranging from rape of women or children to consensual but improper activity, in particular anal sex with a free man or with an unconsenting and/or under-aged boy."

A bespoke term could not have been better crafted than "hubris" in its multiplicity of meanings to describe the rise and fall of Joe Paterno.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Fruit a Short Distance from the Tree,  or I Pee, You Pee, We All Pee for IP, Dept.

Shuggie Otis, Freedom Flight

Johnny Otis, the Greek-American bandleader, singer, musician and silver-eared A&R man, the "godfather of R&B," who died two days before one of his greatest discoveries, Etta James, wrote "Willie and the Hand Jive," some good video of which is on YT here.  He was also the father of Shuggie Otis.  Who wrote, sang and played an orchestra of instruments on this his second album, best known for the later Brothers Johnson smash "Strawberry Letter 23."  Which he recorded when he was 17.  Justin Bieber would have to demonstrate an ability to understand human speech universally or outline a convincing unified field theory that succeeds where Einstein fell short, to even be allowed in the same room with him.  Shuggie Otis isn't as well known as he should be.  Nor, among most Americans, are his late father and the first-tier musicians his father promoted or employed and with whom Shuggie played hot blues guitar as an adolescent.

Go to MOG or Spotify or whichever service you frequent, and check out this album if you're unfamiliar with it.  The Johnny Otis talent tree stretches through his progeny to the many stars he first boosted.  Little Esther Phillips. Big Jay McNeely. The aforementioned Miss Etta James. Jackie Wilson. Hank Ballard. Little Willie John.  And it's all out there.

Oh, and you'll pry my Internet out of my cold, dead hands.  If SOPA and PIPA can even potentially threaten my ability to link to someone else's intellectual property in a way that honors and promotes the original work, then they and their lineal descendents in Congress must be attacked by wolverines with migraines.  The people whose work I enjoy on Tumblr, for example, thrive on access to other people's intellectual property, as well as work in the public domain, to create recontextualized worlds.  Worlds that use the words and works of other to express an individual sensibility, personal and private, serious or giddy.  It would take a narrow view indeed to view the survival of an outmoded business model as more important than the public's ability to freely display consumable copies--that horrible word--of cultural artifacts.  Not to profit from the act, but to share the work in a way that introduces others to one's passions and inspires them to learn more about a thinker or artist or relief worker or honest politician.  I can't count the number of bands, films, strips, books, poets I've been introduced to in the course of years on the Internet.  Many of whose work I've then obtained at my own expense.

How is this not considered valuable and real for an industry, compared to the imaginary billions claimed to be lost that never existed in the first place?  If you tell someone, here's a dump of a new album by band X, free, and that person says, sure whatever and listens to it or not, it's not at all the same as that person counting as a lost sale.  Were it not free, most people would not be filling their hard drives with five thousand songs they'll never hear.  It's the opportunity, not the desire.  Yes, some artists lose money because of their popularity.  That's unavoidable.  But the others cannot be counted as lost sales.  To legislate on the basis of those imaginary economics is disingenuous beyond the horizon line.

So, yes.  Fuck that noise.  Keep the Internet free.  Keep its users free to reshape the notion of "intellectual property" into as-yet-unknown formats that will honor creator and empower consumer at the same time.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Baby First, THEN Bathwater, Dept.

SOPA/PIPA?  Fuck that noise.  I believe in intellectual property rights and would not want my shit being peddled for fi' dolla' by a Nigerian on Canal Street either.  That said, the Congress is--mirabile dictu--entirely wrongheaded in its approach to piracy prevention.  Break the Internet rather than have the entertainment industry adopt a 21st-century business model?  Well, heck yeah!  I mean, Sen. Patrick Leahy can't yawn without us seeing Hollywood's waggling fingers (three of his top five contributors? Time Warner, Walt Disney Co., Vivendi).

Call your senator or representative and tell them to pull their snouts out of the trough and do so some serious thinking about legislation that protects IP rights without shutting down the principal medium of dissemination for the same assholes who are serving them their slop.

Here are Google's talking points, and here's the Electronic Frontier Foundation's info on the 1/18 blackout and other topics.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Domino Theory, Dept.

And hot on the heels of my report of Melody Records' imminent closing, your sobsister learned this morning that the last decent Barnes and Noble in town closed over the weekend.

Me, I'm not generally a fan of B&N.  The stores tend to stock the obvious and not very much of anything else.  The difference between B&N and the late, lamented Borders always seemed to hinge on selection.  Both had wi-fi and coffee bars and a high degree of tolerance for people with ample leisure time and little inclination to pay cash money for their reading material.  But only Borders seemed to take time and care in its selection, going beyond the lazy man's "five Shakespeares and a Mamet and call it a theater section" to offer what FM radio calls "deep cuts."  With the exception of the Georgetown B&N.  Motivated perhaps by its proximity to the university and by its literate, affluent neighborhood clientele, the Georgetown store stocked its three floors thoughtfully, so that poetry and essays and theology and all the other categories that don't have a Stephen King or Nora Roberts to keep the pot boiling weren't shunted off to a corner with a few lonely specimens to represent them.

So, D.C. is now down to one-and-a-half B&Ns for its chain bookstores (and, no, I don't count "Books-A-Million"--which offers a selection that crosses the county line from "Pathetic" to "Insulting"--unless you're a real big fan of the "Left Behind" series, in which case you're shittin' in tall cotton, cousin!) and one decent indie bookstore, Politics and Prose.  Oh, and good luck if you don't live in Northwest D.C., hon.

But the upside?  We've got more cupcake and frozen yogurt outlets than the Duggars have neglected children!  Sometimes you can even buy them both in the same store!  Can you stuff froyo inside a cupcake?  Dibs, I thought of it first!  Excuse me, what's that now...? Books? Music?  We're talking about never having to walk more than two blocks in any direction for froyo!!  Honestly...

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Day the Music Died, Dept.

D.C. is diminished now, in a way that speaks to unwelcome but, perhaps, inevitable change.

The last good record store in this minor-league town is closing.  Melody Record Shop, just north of Dupont Circle, is shutting its doors after 34 years as a family-run business.  And as they say on their Web site and on a sign at the store, which I passed today, "While we wish that we could continue indefinitely, technology, the internet and the economy has taken its toll, and we have concluded, unfortunately, that it is not possible to survive in this environment."

A few years back, I started shopping at Melody after a long hiatus shopping, first, at Tower Records, during its years here, then online and in second-hand stores and shows.  I was working in the neighborhood and had a bit of extra change for an occasional CD buy.  I was instantly reminded of the serendipity of the well-curated record store.  How you might find this that you'd been looking for, but then see that that you'd read about in a music magazine or online, oh, and I didn't know this compilation existed...

It's just not the same online, and I don't know if some upcoming online retailer will be able to provide as satisfying an experience as a good record or book store visit.  I can't imagine that, outside a holodeck, one ever could.  Sure, you can have predictive algorithms that guess, based on your buying/viewing patterns and those of others with the same taste/income/location as you, similar but yet slightly different selections that you might find enjoyable and why don't you just click through and prove us right, okay?  But it's not at all like walking into, say, a good book store and feeling the cool weight of all those fresh pages behind crisp covers in a slight mantling of seasonally appropriate indoor temperature and maybe some inobtrusive-but-really-cool music playing in the background.  Scent of well-brewed coffee optional.  The preceding hits the customer on so many different cognitive and sensory levels, that she or he wants to embrace the book store experience and is lubed to look for something to take home.  Compared to the customer sitting on her living room couch staring at a screen, maybe the same screen she stared at for nine hours at work.  Not even vaguely comparable, even if Jesus crafts your online customer environment.

But I can see why Melody Records will close, probably by the beginning of February.  I use MOG and Spotify to listen to almost anything I want.  I have to really need the physical package or its superior sound before I'll buy the CD.  And I'm a minor collector, at least for certain artists and styles.  So, there aren't that many classical music shoppers in D.C., I guess, or of show and film music or of international music, to name three of Melody's strengths, to support a store.  And the store has always had good buyers.  If I saw something in MOJO, there's a decent chance that Melody might've had it.  Or, of course, they'd've ordered it.

I'm not one to say that it's the customers' "fault" that a store like Melody fails.  Not enough people saw the benefit of what it offered, despite the store's efforts.  It was hit hard after the world markets crisis, or so it seemed to me, as it appeared to resist carrying any kind of inventory despite its shelves looking a bit bare.  But it built back up in the intervening three years, if inventory is any measure.  It expanded its vinyl selection considerably, to where, any given week, they had a fine and sizeable selection of new and catalog discs.  I guess there just isn't that much disposable income out there.

Or maybe its time has simply come and gone.  Vinyl and box sets will be available in a smaller marketplace, direct order or boutique retail, but the broad-gauged music store may really be on the downward slope to extinction.  To join "software stores" and "virtual reality arcades" as business environments of a bygone era.  The publishing industry might've gone this way, except there was never a big enough market or an easy enough system of content extraction to have a Napster of novels, besides even short stories aren't singles.

In 1982, I saw my first CD, a Fleetwood Mac disc, in a longbox, on a small display with some other titles, visible as I walked into Melody, then half a block south.  I'd heard, maybe read, about CDs, but this was the first time I'd seen one.  I picked up the longbox, turned it around, saw its price (expensive) and put it back down.  Interesting but by no means compelling enough as a concept to carry me to inquire regarding this new format and its players.  But like most of the unfortunate crewmen aboard the Nostromo, Melody Records already carried within it the thing that would eventually destroy it.

And, so, adieu to this minor D.C. institution.  I'll miss that blind date with serendipity that was every visit to the store.  A Miles set I'd never heard about or that Nigerian compilation I saw advertised in The Wire or a Busby Berkeley DVD set.  The tangible has its charm.  To lose the tactile pleasure of possession is an unfortunate and incidental cost of our progress.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

PSA, Dept.

In writing a friend to offer her my New Year’s greetings, I used a phrase along the lines of wishing you a happy '12 that I slowly realized is perilously close to wishing you a happy 12”.

So, please, as you send out your New Year’s messages, particularly to older relatives, members of the clergy and prospective employers, double-check to ensure that you are not wishing any of them a happy/enjoyable/fruitful twelve inches.  Unless that is, in fact, your intent.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
Dragging Charlie over the Cold Cuts, Dept.

A new year, and the opportunity to walk down Memory Lane.  Hey, who remembers Plato's Retreat?  C'mon now...New York City's leading on-premises (hetero) sex club in the late '70s?  No?

Well, as a wee child, I remember two things about Plato's Retreat, a place that vanished after the city closed down sex clubs post-AIDS: (i) their TV commercial (below), which I can only imagine aired late at night on one of the local channels in the middle of '30s musicals and Japanese monster movies (my staples) and (ii) the fact that they served a hot and cold buffet.

As you view the commercial, tell me you would even vaguely consider eating in a place like that.  "Hey, cocktail franks! Whoops, sorry, buddy..."  There is so much about that place that fascinated/repelled me then and now.  Netflix carries a documentary titled American Swing that chronicles the rise and fall of Plato's.  Should I watch it, I will report on my findings.