Back to the Future


As you know, I have been in a rather sour state about digital culture in the past couple of months. I didn’t come to New York City with the express intention of taking the cure for that state, but I got it nonetheless. The first treatment was the opening night of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. Five solid hours of (mostly) blues played with both acoustic instruments and vintage electric guitars pumped through tube amps,  that mimicked the glorious Marshall’s and Fenders of the time when I was on the road.

There were moments that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Eric Clapton, Andy Fairweather and Vince Gill sitting down on acoustic guitars, trading incredible licks. A shuffle blues with Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughn, Gary Clarke Jr, BB King and Eric that just was extraordinary. That BB King can still swing at 88 is incredible. And Jimmy Vaughn played a solo that had Eric grinning from ear to ear in admiration. And then there was a whole new generation of players like Doyle Bramhall, Citizen Cope, Gary Clark Jr and a 13 year old named Quinn Sullivan who just blew us away. In the end, the Allman Brothers played the classic shuffle, Statesboro Blues with Taj Mahal and Los Lobos. What a gorgeous cultural stew celebrating this most American of art forms.

What is so important about the Blues is that it is a relatively structured form of 12 bars, but one that allows for the most ecstatic improvisation (think Jimmy Hendrix) possible. What was so therapeutic was that the night confirmed that the art form is alive and well–a deep relief from a frightfully inauthentic cultural period.

This morningI went up to the Gagosian Gallery, where my acquaintance Ed Ruscha has an amazing show of small books, curated by Bob Monk. Ruscha started making small books in  1962 with “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”. He continued to make these small editions of everyday sights like swimming pools, parking lots and even a wonderful “Royal Road Test” in which he and two collaborators fiendishly documented throwing a Royal typewriter out the window of his vintage Oldsmobile on a desert highway.  As clever as Ed’s books are, what is really amazing is the mini industry of copycat projects from conceptual artists all over the world. What Ruscha’s show poses is the same question I had from the night before. Why in an age of digital appropriation would you go back to making art that was proudly analogue? Why would you return to books when the Whitney Museum is filled with Video screens. Why make simple blues music when you could avail yourself of all the samples and beats from Pro-tools? These are important questions and I think they represent some sort of counter movement, what Marcuse would have called a Great Refusal.

Long live Books and The Blues.

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28 Responses to Back to the Future

  1. Rick Turner says:


    Just back from two days with my 17 year old son at the Julian Fiddle Camp in Southern California playing tunes like St. Anne’s Reel and Soldier’s Joy at contradances. He’s been playing five string banjo, mandolin, tenor banjo, guitar, and uke, and yet at home and in school he’s designing robots and musical instruments using the latest CAD software. He’s contemplating the sonic benefits of old-style calfskin banjo heads and the advantages of reinforcing instrument necks with carbon fiber-epoxy composites. He can’t quite decide whether he wants a Vega Little Wonder or a Dobson for his next banjo, and I can’t quite decide whether he should program my CNC machine for uke necks or guitar fingerboards first when he comes up for the summer.

    And now I have to decide on a nail salon to repair my split fingernail so I can try to keep up with him on frailing banjo…

    Paper or plastic?

    Choices, choices…

  2. len says:

    Standing in a music shop this morning, run by old friends, oldest one in town being put out of business by Guitar Center, and the friend behind the counter said, “It’s strange to live in a town that is afraid to applaud when the demographic isn’t right even if the music is better.” If our culture is in trouble, it is that we aref afraid to respect our own choices. A thirteen year old can play the blues because it isn’t that hard. Really. On the other hand, taste is strictly a personal choice and touch is a gift.

    I choose sweetness.

    “Sugar in the morning
    Sugar in the evening
    Sugar at suppertime
    Be my little sugar
    And love me all the time.”

  3. Rick Turner says:

    There IS a way to co-exist with a Guitar Center and that is to be located next door or across the street and carry NOTHING that they do…not even the same string brands if you are literally neighbors. Carry boutique brands, have a great repair department, have the best local musicians teaching guitar, banjo, mandolin, etc., and be able to clear out your room for small concerts as per McCabe’s. Then you ride on the advertising coat-tails of the big box and you co-exist and prosper. To even try to compete with them brand against brand is suicide. To think that your long term suppliers will NOT sell to a new GC even if you have had the “exclusive” franchise for decades in your area is a pipe dream. Music retailing has changed almost as much as the selling of music itself, and unfortunately, too many music store owners are not very sophisticated business people. On the other hand, my best dealers are thriving by A) doing whatever GC is not doing, and B) having strong on-line presence. For example, check out Gryphon Stringed Instruments or Mandolin Brothers.

  4. len says:

    All true but sad nonetheless. We’d rather do business with our friends. It’s about more than brands. We trade many services small and necessary to keeping the local tribe alive. The Guitar Center is to music what Wal-Mart is to groceries.

    I was buying a keyboard stand. If I can’t buy from friends, there is the web. :)

  5. Rick Turner says:

    You could have friends on the web…ALL of the successful independent music retailers have good web presence. And without brands, music stores don’t exist.

    One of the things that Gryphon does is to give a significant discount on repairs and service on instruments purchased at the store. Buy your Martin at GC and pay 25% more for that next fret job at Gryphon…which service is as inevitable as needing new tires on your car.

    There was a time when buying a new guitar meant going to a decently stocked store and choosing one of many. When I decided to buy a Martin D-28 in 1962, I had my choice of five of them at E. U. Wurlitzer in Boston. I spent most of an afternoon there playing them and found “my” instrument. Now it’s pretty normal to buy sight unseen; guitars are sold like household appliances. I don’t quite get it, but I accept it. I have to…many of my own customers buy expensive custom instruments from me on faith. Kind of blows my mind, but it provides a living…

  6. len says:

    I don’t quite get it, but I accept it. I have too many of my own customers buy expensive custom instruments from me on faith.

    Faith is in trusting that the quality perceived is available and depending on the ‘natch, price is not the first consideration. You are a Lord among luthiers. A Rick Turner axe will not let a player down in sound or reliability. Lindsay knows his stuff and when we hear what he gets out of the fretboard, we want to know who made it. Yes a great player can make a bad axe sound acceptable but guitar players are lazy dawgs and will not hunt harder than required.

    I do have friends on the web. When making the purchases that are low cost but necessary, I like to buy from local shops. Society is better maintained face to face so I went from shop to shop until I found what I needed. A web site won’t come to a gig and loan me an amp if one dies an hour before a gig. A local friend will. Because I so seldom buy expensive gear, I am like you say, only buying what I play first it being much like getting married and one should not get a spouse as a household appliance or a parcel of land.

    And so back to working on this Curtis Mayfield tune… I want to be extra special shiny next Friday evening.

  7. Rick Turner says:

    And yes, tube amps…

    Got a new one a few months ago…a Fender VibroKing. Fabulous in it’s own back to the future way. Great build quality, dead quiet when not being tickled by a guitar, quirky, and lovely rich tone. The best tube amps ever are being built right now. Too bad they’re so damned heavy!

  8. len says:

    Yes, tube amps. Full throated. Tubes ain’t cheap or light. My Twin needs a refurb. Fried power. The Showman was retired decades ago but I won’t part with it. I’ve a 30 watt Crate when I need an amp. I don’t do a lot of electric guitar work these days. Working with a fantastic electric player so I am doing the vocal, keyboard, and acoustic steel and nylon work.

    Boston. Crap. Guessing: someone(s) in the crowd put devices in trash cans not long before the explosions to avoid the cameras and hide in the crowd while everyone else was watching the street. Look for covered face(s) and holding a burger bag or something like it. They weren’t far away when they set them off and still aren’t.

  9. JTMcPhee says:

    Big meetings in DHS Zones all across the country. Wonder what kind of Rosemary’s Baby that will bear? There’s a “no-fly zone” over some large area, maybe the whole Boston slurb. Anyone who’s been inside the belly of the “security” beast want to venture a guess what the Cheney Fifth Columnists planted in that apparatus are rubbing their hands and licking their chops over, in this latest “opportunity to excel?”

    “Faith is in trusting:” The opposite of love is indifference. The opposite of trust is the security state.

  10. JTMcPhee says:

    …and for context and perspective, you can’t beat the indifferent reporting of Wiki:

    “List of Massacres in the United States”

    (Note the toll of “laborers” reported here, in “union violence”)

    Interestingly, I did not find a category there for “terrorist bombings in the United States.” Embassies, sure, but not here at home. This makes a good mindful read, though, including the “legislative responses.” Can you feel the screws tightening?

    “Oklahoma City bombing”

    Sorry, that’s all off topic and has naught to do with melody or harmony…

  11. Rick Turner says:

    My first apartment was all of two blocks from the finish line of the Boston marathon…on Blagden St. right behind the Boston Public Library in a building since torn down for urban renewal.

  12. len says:

    I’m waiting for the forensics. Planting two to three bombs over two blocks in precise positions in the middle of a security zone takes some moves (where are the trash containers, when was the zone swept, when was the garbage picked up, what kind of shrapnel, blast perimeter, etc). We don’t have a timeline except for the actual event and we don’t have a layout. If those were backpacks at say thirty pounds, I’d hazard a guess at multiple perps and a signal blast (not timers). They have an unexploded ordinance so they have quite a lot. The injuries are a lot lower extremities. If that is true of both blasts, it’s more likely a shaped shrapnel and in a soft container, not a trash can. Also, somewhere in the mountain of video are images of those being placed. One might think the perps know that.

    I respect ya, JTMc, but I’d like to not engage the politics of this. I don’t want to feed the haters who are coming out of the rocks as they always do. Say Westboro, etc. As for the Ill-umma-nutty, there isn’t a lot they aren’t already doing and that works in the favor of the investigators in this case. There is a very large amount of data in digital and physical forms to sort and correlate.

    So we wait and ponder.

  13. Hugo St. Victor says:

    “Why go back”, Jon? Because the musical and literary “delivery systems” we’re qualitatively superior. As you say, you can sense that, and I don’t think your sensations are nostalgia, except in the sensing of a lost immediacy, and a closer fidelity to the art, the artist and the event. I wouldn’t know but I have this trepidation that a generation of Americans has grown up listening to purloined simulacra. Like that phenom of people saving for years and traveling to The Disneyland Resort, in the actual California, for the pleasure of spending a chunk in viewing a plastic simulacrum, miniaturized, that Disney bills as The California Experience.

  14. rhbee says:

    My son, who makes music and instruments up in Santa Barbara passed this on to me, and it seems to hit your point in an oblique sort of way, Jon.

  15. Hugo St. Victor says:

    But rhbee how could we tell? How, given the medium, could we tell other than that the player is proficient? In 1980 a pianist friend and I, a sometime violinist, heard Jean-Luc Ponty in concert. Going in, we were so excited by the latest Fusion efforts; coming out, the mutual feeling was “sterile”. Something had been denatured and we couldn’t identify what or how. Probably several factors were in play. Some sort of mass production thing had taken over. Years later I heard a ridge runner pick Box Banjo from fifteen feet away and every hair on my body stood up. Such distinctly opposite yet ostensibly similar, aural experiences.

  16. len says:

    I spotted an old friend busking with a liquid violin in the mass-manufactured fake village mall last friday night. He had a rack of pedals and tracks. He also had a bowl full of tips and young girls were dancing in front of them as their parents sipped lattes and ate expensive ice cream. In the same week Huntsville was listed as one of the top ten smartest cities on the planet.

    He was supplementing his income as a health care professional. The irony needs no illumination.

    I’ll play Hey Jude for tips tomorrow night in a homebrew coffee shop in a converted old home on the other side of the county. In a room that sits maybe 25 if they get intimate I don’t expect much in tips but a fantastic sing along. My good friend, Captain Kidd, will play along on an old Strat and a tiny robust tube amp. My son, the Buddha, will bring his horn and sit in before leaving to go play the spring concert at the college.

    We create gigs in our own image, Hugo. Tools is tools. 😉

  17. rhbee says:

    And joy in what emanates from our efforts can be such a release.

  18. JTMcPhee says:

    In addition to len’s oeuvres, two other recent sources of joy (and tears) in the creation of others: Alexander McCall Smith’s “The Number One Ladies Detective Agency” series, full of the best of humanity, and “The Art of Racing In The Rain,” from the canine perspective.

    I’d almost forgotten there is a Literature of the Good out there, beyond the range and kill radius of the other things…

  19. len says:

    Had a wonderful gig tonight with special friends, my son sitting in, and Captain Kidd playing his magic electric guitar while I took my chances at a commercial gig playing piano. Santana, Stevie Ray, Elton, John C. Loudermilk, even Pink Floyd. It was …. fab.

    Music takes the pain away. Watching the slow moves in Boston while getting the gear together today I received word that my excellent friend and pastor, Michael Stewart died of a massive stroke. He made sure I had that six month gig last year that paid me to learn to play piano. I would busk chords while he prayed for the contemporary service. Mike prayed like a jazz musician, his ear would track my improv and he would pray along the lines, and around the notes bad and good.

    So it seemed terrible that I would have such a wonderful evening playing music on the day he died. And yet… that is what music does just as my brothers and I played in the next room while our father passed. Music takes away the pain. But the evening over and now there is time to grieve and my next gig will be to sing at his funeral. Lacrima mortis.

    There is a song of joy, JTMc. Even in the darkness. Don’t forget to sing. Tears in the rain. While the rain lasts. Because it will end. While there is still music, sing.

  20. len says:

    I was asked by a church member today to dub a cassette of his wedding vows me being one of the few folks around with a working cassette tape player and the mp3 conversion software. I took the old deck off the shelf and it had a cassette in it. On it the label read

    “4/8/07 Dr. Stewart ‘Things You Can Take Off Your List'”.

    and yes, it is one of Michael’s sermons, his bucket list sermon as he said. It’s been in the deck for six years waiting for today. His service is tomorrow.

    On my honor, true story.

    I am freaked. The universe is much stranger than we imagine and it sings to us.


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