Saturday, September 23, 2006

I Knew This Day Might Come

Regular readers (all six of you!) will remember a couple of weeks ago when there was a little dustup around El Rancho Harpo with teenage drinking and one asshole dad. If you're a newer reader, welcome, you can do some catching up here if you're so inclined.

I went to my regular AA meeting here in my little town this morning at ten. I'm sitting, off in a corner having a cup of coffee, when who should walk in but the guy that had bought the beer for the kids in the first place.

He takes about two steps inside the door and stands there holding his "court card" which is a record of AA meetings attended. They are usually given out by treatment programs mandated by the court system. We get a lot of folks walking through the meetings that have those. Some people complain about it, how it degrades the quality of the meetings by filling them with people who don't want anything we have to offer and are just marking time. I take a slightly different view. I am all in favor of not allowing people to highjack a meeting or misbehave, but I have noticed that the people who get sent in on a mandate from the legal system have about the same rate of recovery as anybody else. I figure, hey, if they're in a meeting with us for an hour, let's make the best of it.

So homeboy's standing there looking around the room, not recognising a soul when he sees me. He turns a little pale and is looking like he's about to bolt. I get up and go over to him, offer my hand to shake and say "Must be a real bitch to go somewhere and I'm the only one you know." He mutters some stuff. I show him where the coffee is, introduce him to some other people and go back to where I was.

The meeting starts and since it's in a small town there aren't a whole lot of us there. We go around the room and introduce ourselves. It gets to homeboy and he tells us his name and says "but I'm not an alcoholic, my lawyer is making me come here." That's cool with me too. When it's my turn I say that I wasn't an alcoholic when I first came to AA either. I was firmly convinced that it was somehow more sophisticated and glamorous to be a junkie. And again, since this is one of four meetings that happen in town during the week, I figure it's cool to not do anything to rattle the cage. If he wants to give sobering up a try he deserves every chance in the world to make a success of it.

He launches into his version of the events that got him into trouble and has managed to rationalize a lot of it to where he is a victim of government oppression and creeping fascism where the police state has intruded on people's right to raise their children as they see fit. Oh yeah, I'm the self righteous asshole who called the cops rather than face him like a man.

After the meeting I go over and ask him if my being in the meeting makes him uncomfortable. He says no. I tell him that if it ever does to please let me know and I can easily find another spot to get a meeting in. I also tell him that the D.A.'s office has contacted me about his case and that I will testify in court if they ask it of me. He mutters something hostile and I walk away.

I remember what it was like to be newly sober and totally fucked.

Crossposted at Big Brass Blog

Friday, September 22, 2006

Scene from El Rancho Harpo (featuring my 10 year old piano playing niece)

Schoolday afternoons out here at El Rancho Harpo are fun because my niece stops by on her way home from school to practice the piano. She loves my piano. Even though I am not a piano player I have a very nice one. It's an old german Bosendorfer Parlour Grand (that's a bit smaller than a baby grand) with mother-of-pearl white keys and real ebony black keys. She says she likes the way the keys feel, and playing a grand makes it all seem more real to her. She loves it when we raise the top.

But that's not what this is about. She was over yesterday and while she was in the music room practicing I was in the kitchen with MSNBC on. She finished and came out with me to have a snack before her dad came over to pick her up. They were going over the controversy stirred up by the Pope, the reaction of the muslims, and then Hugo Chavez and his "devil" remarks.

This wonderful 10 year old girl said to me "Why are all these people doing this?"

I asked her if her mother had ever told her about the imaginary friends she had when she was growing up. They were called Wendy and Bigga. She said yes. I told her when I was a little boy I too had an imaginary friend named Bobby Kallapido. Then I said "Imagine that your mother and I decided to start a war over who had better friends."

She said "That would be silly."

I agreed.

(crossposted at Big Brass Blog)

Friday's Random Ten

Tipitina - - - Professor Longhair
St. John the Gambler - - - Townes Van Zandt
I've Just Seen A Face - - - Beatles
Volcano - - - Jimmy Buffet
Teddy Bears Picnic - - - Dave Van Ronk
Giant Step - - - Taj Mahal
Star of the County Down - - Johanna Mell
Ki Ya Gris Gris - - - Dr. John
Stag O'Lee - - - Mississippi John Hurt
Mr. Soul - - - Neil Young (live acoustic)

Bonus Track:

Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone - - - Billie Holiday

Bonus Bonus ('cause that other was just so damned good i feel lucky)

Stairway to Gilligan's Island - - - Little Roger and the Goosebumps

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Fact That We Are Debating This At All Makes Me Sick

That, in a nutshell, is my position on the whole torture, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, wiretapping, and every other liberty and right a bunch of frightened cowards have chosen to trample in their endless War on Terror.

I have tried being pragmatic, talking about how torture simply does not work. If your goal is to produce valid, actionable intelligence, you will not be torturing people. If you're a sick, twisted piece of shit who enjoys inflicting pain to make yourself feel omnipotent and stuff put on some leather chaps and chains, go to a bar where people think that kind of thing is sexy, hire a pro, and have at it. If you want to save the lives of our men and women out there on the fields of battle, you need to get the truth. Truth does not spring from torture. Even in the cases where almost by accident some bits and snips of truth fall to the floor of the torture dungeon they are surrounded by fantasy and lies which are produced by somebody in unimaginable torment in the vague hope that this will somehow fucking stop.

I have seen torture. I have seen it on the battlefield where the "ticking time bomb" was no mere philosophical conceit. I have seen wounded, frightened prisoners, bound and helpless in a group as an interrogator with a pistol in his hand shot the first one without so much as an acknowledgement that this was ever a human being. The next one was shot because the interrogator (an ARVN "officer") didn't like the look on his face. The third victim was crying when the torturer stood in front of him. He was the first one to be asked a question. It was a simple "How many of you are there?" He was too frightened to respond, he was choking on the snot and blood from his cut lip. He was pistol whipped and the question was asked again. Again, there was not an acceptable or understandable response. This might have be a result of his jaw now being broken too, but he might have been a hardened communist, that implacable foe we were all supposed to fear. The fourth prisoner didn't wait to be asked any questions, he told the man with the pistol that he was a member of the 4th NVA division, the name of the commander, the name of his lieutenant and where he had last seen all his comrades two days ago when they had been dropped off and told to hold their position in the city of Hue. I thought that this was going to be the end of the session. I was wrong. The man that just gave that information was shot in the kneecap. It kept going on. I couldn't watch anymore. When I was finshed thowing up I returned to my unit and told them that there was nothing to do here.

I asked my immediate superior why we were turning prisoners over to the ARVN. We knew full well what was going on. The VC shot on the street in Saigon in the famous picture got off easy. I was reminded that I was the only person in my unit that spoke enough Vietnamese to do more than find the nearest whorehouse and haggle over the price. Every time I brought things like that up I was told that if I wanted to become a full time interrogator that a billet would be found.

There was a successful intelligence program that worked very well in the south. It was called "Chu Hoi" which means "open arms or welcome home." The basic idea was to take a VC or NVA and tell them that if they gave up information that would be of use to us in an immediate, verifiable context we would take them away from all of this, give them a ticket to the big PX and make sure they had enough cash left over to open themselve a liquor store in Orange County. If you have ever eaten noodles in Garden Grove, had your nails done, or conducted business with a Vietnamese American in that area chances are you might have been dealing with someone who was a communist until the moment he was offered that deal. I have. They are some of the finest Americans I know. Usually once the words came out of the mouth of the interrogator there were no more communists in the room. The biggest problem that the Chu Hoi program faced was that it was no fun for the sadistic shitheels that were used to going to bed at night with a long lullaby of screams.

There are reasonable, veteran politicians who are right now sitting this out. They are perfectly content to watch the Republicans debate the finer points of torture and what is or isn't allowed.

I am officially and completely all out of fucking reasonable. Understand? TORTURE IS WRONG. WE SHOULD NOT FUCKING DO IT AT ALL. The fact that we are having this debate at all means that we have already lost far more than was ever imagined when the planes hit the towers. An analogy I used on an open thread at the Dark Wraith Forum was that it is akin to having to explain to teenagers that the acceptable way to dispose of unwanted puppies does not involve throwing them out of a speeding pick up truck at highway signs. The fact that you have to explain this kind of thing at all implies a high level of failure is already in place. The fact that the president has gone before the nations of the world and defended his policy of torture and cruelty shames us all. Maybe we deserve to lose this fucking war too.

Crossposted at Big Brass Blog

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Another Chantey (minus the pirate speak)

I love old sea chanteys. They were mostly work songs, and songs for hard work at that. Many sailing ships had a distinct billet for a chanter who knew or was able to make up words to the songs. Besides lifting morale and making the drudgery a little lighter the songs served an important purpose in focusing the efforts of the crew.

This is a halyard chantey. When sails were raised, lowered and trimmed it was important that it be done in rythym to keep the yard arms level. This was a song popular on slave ships. It shows a grim acceptance of their lot, and a proud assumption of a negative identity. The way the song worked is the chanter would set the timing by the verse, then the crew would join in the responsive line. They would pull on the words I have in bold.

You can hear the tune here

Another thing about chanters, mostly they were allowed pretty free expression. If talking trash about a mate or boatswain got the job done, so much the better.

Blow, Boys, Blow

There's a Yankee ship on the Congo river
Blow, boys Blow!
She's a three tall master shining silver
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

A Yankee ship slides down the river
Blow, boys, Blow!
Where the fever makes the white man shiver
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

And who do ye think is the master of her?
Blow, boys, Blow!
'Tis Bully Hayes, the sailor robber
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

And Bully Hayes he loves his sailors
Blow, boys, Blow!
He does indeed, like Hell and Blazes
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

And who do ye think is the first mate of her?
Blow, boys, Blow!
Santander James who's rarely sober
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

Santander James the sailing demon
Blow, boys, Blow!
Won't wash himself but his ship's a gleamin'
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

And what do ye think ye'll eat for dinner?
Blow, boys, Blow!
Eat monkey's butts and donkey's livers
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

And what do ye think ye'll load for cargo?
Blow, boys, Blow!
Tall brown-skin Ibos, damn embargo!
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

Blow me bullies while the sun draws water
Blow, boys, Blow!
Then cheer the cook and kiss his daughter
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

Let them all see our Yankee packet
Blow, boys, Blow!
Let them fear our guns and hear our racket
Blow, me bully boys, Blow!

I learned this from Skip Haynes of the good ship Balclutha.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the other strings)

Now we come to some other beauties. These are instruments that usually have a special and unique sound. Again, with a couple of them, I don't play them as well as I could if I were to devote all my time and energy to perfecting them. Except then I would starve and what fun would that be. Some of these are what I would call niche instruments. Or sometimes, the extras that someone gets when they hire me instead of a whole other musician.

I'm no Bill Monroe or Ricky Scaggs on the mandolin, but when one is needed for a song or two, I can bring along my Fender FM-63S, which is a medium price, yet totally serviceable instrument. It sort of matches my playing. Every now and then I'll be working on a song with someone and I'll just get this irresistable "go get the mandolin" moment. It's always nice to have one handy when that happens.

I'm about the same with the violin. I have one that was my Irish great-grandfather's. No labels, no make or model and stuff. It's just a totally servicable instrument. It has decent tone, would sound better if I was better. I got pretty embarrased with it a couple of weeks ago. We were doing "Garry Owen" to be a theme song for a show on NPR. The fiddler that was scheduled blew the session off and I tried to fill in on short notice. The upshot was that I sucked out loud. I was consistently flat with my intonation, couldn't finish a phrase strongly to save my soul and ended up having my fiddle lines mixed out, I should have known better than to try it on such short notice. With a couple days intensive practice I would have been able to put down something worthwhile. As it was the producer was pretty glad that I at least tried to give it a shot, didn't put up a fuss or pitch a fit when it wasn't up to standard.

My Da was a jass bass player, I have his old 1950's Kay 3/4. It still sounds great. I also have a 1968 Fender Jazz Bass and a Washburn acoustic bass guitar. I'm not Jaco Pastorious or Lee Sklar, but a lot of producers find that it's easier to have me lay down the bass lines before I put the guitar or other tracks on top of them.

My banjos are different though. I have two of them and they are totally different instruments. The 5 string is a custom job. Made by the Bowen Brothers in Mussle Shoals Alabama. They are a couple of old grits who make the finest banjos in the free world. To get one you send them a plaster cast of your hands and a 30 minute tape of you playing. They build you a banjo. The coolest part of this is that when they are finished they don't bother with giving it a model number or anything else that cliché instead, they name it. Mine's Susannah and I adore her. I am totally self taught on the 5 string, I don't play with picks and I am pretty adventurous when it comes to what I'll attempt on it. I even play Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. Believe me, it works. My tenor banjo is a big ass Gibson. I'm no hero on it, but I can damn sure anchor a Dixieland band without embarrassing everybody. Again, this is another one of those things where somebody I'm working with might want it one or two times a night and it's just nice to have the option.

I also will bring an Autoharp if they ask me. I play it Mountain style with fingerpicks and can do bass and melody lines. I think they sound great, so do most people.

That's pretty much the arsenal that I bring to the battle. I figured out a long time ago in this business that someone who can get the job done on a lot of instruments in a lot of styles would get more work than somebody who played one thing, one way no matter how good they are. If it's jingle work, I can get you the 20 seconds you need on just about anything with strings. If you give me a week and a chart, I can put down your track at any level you want.

A Pirate Chantey

Arrrrrr, an' when ye be t'inkin' o' the songs o' the Pirates mosta ye will start off wi' sum bilge goin' "yo ho ho an a bottle o' rum." Lubbers what be singin' that be too landlocked to be a realizin' that the song that they take fer the theme be over one hundred and fifty bloody years late fer the party!

The "Bottle o' rum" song was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, a fine writer an all that, but he was a scribblin away on Treasure Island in 1881. A full 150 years after the heyday of the Spanish Main. 'Twas in 1891 when another lubber, name o' Ellison scribbled more scurrilous twaddle for the amusement o' the lubber queen Victoria.

The forecastle (pronounced folksull ye bilge rat!) chantey is a song that was actually a favorite o' the fearsome Teach. The lubbers who feared him called him Blackbeard. The fearful swine what met him called him Captain. He larnt his trade o' freebootin' whilst in service to Queen Anne in her war wi' the Spaniard dogs. He revered his only acknowledged queen until the end of his murderin' days. His flagship "The Queen Anne's Revenge" was another small demonstration of his respeck.

Billy, get yer fiddle lad. Play us a wee bit o' the tune so's these lubbers can sing us sumthin ta make ol' Teach rest a bit easier today.

OVER THE HIllS AND FAR AWAY (a song of Queen Anne's War)

Hark now the drums beat up again
For all true sailing gentlemen
So let us list and sail I say
And go over the hills and far away

Cho: Over the hills, and o'er the main
To Flanders, Portugal and Spain
Queen Anne commands and we'll obey
And go over the hills and far away

There's twenty shillings on the drvm
For him that with us freely comes
'Tis volunteers shall win the day
Over the hills and far away

Come gentlemen that have a mind
To serve a queen that's good and kind
Come list and enter in to pay
And go over the hills and far away

And we shall live more happy lives
Free of squalling brats and wives
Who nag and vex us every day
So its over the hills and far away

Prentice Tom may well refuse
To wipe his angry master's shoes
For now he's free to run and play
Over the hills and far away

Never shall our colors strike
We'll fix them with a marlinspike
Lord Howe says that it's gold he'll pay
Over the hills and far away.

An' so me hearties, thus we be endin' the lesson. Carry yourselves proud an' saucy.
Today's a foyne day fer Piracy, an' the slappin' o' the odd Ninja.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the harps)

I'll start by saying that because of the work I have to put into staying on top of my game as a guitar slinger I am not as good a harper as I would be if that's all I did. But, when a harp is called for, nothing else will do. There's no faking the harp. There's also that whole thing of telling somebody you play the harp and then having to expain to them that "No, not the harmonica, the angel axe." Also people instantly assume that a guy that plays the harp is gay. This used to really piss me off. Then I realized that flying under the radar can be very beneficial. There have been more than a few women who went home feeling that they had totally "converted" me.

Most of the harp work I do is on Celtic style harps. These are smaller than the big, guilded concert harps with pedals for bringing accidentals into the equation. So let's start with the most basic harp I have. It's the one that's pictured here up in corner. Dark Wraith used the photograph to use in the logo on the masthead.

There are some things about that little harp that make it different and glorious. The first is that I built it. From scratch. I had been in Ireland visiting my family and I heard a woman playing the traditional Irish Harp. It's a small thing, sometimes called a "lap harp." 28 strings is what you get to work with, and the strings are brass. All brass. Traditional players grow their fingernails long enough to pluck the strings with them. I can't because that would screw up my left hand for playing my other instruments. So I make due with having longer fingernails on my right hand for doing the melody lines. The brass strings give the harp a brilliant and chiming sound. It sounds like angels. The reason I had to build it is that a modern harp made for the nylon strings wouldn't be sturdy enough to stand the tension produced by the brass strings. I checked around trying to buy one and was told that there wasn't enough demand for them to make it feasible for somebody to have them as a steady product. Anyway, I found the plans through a musicologist at Trinity College in Dublin. The wood is solid cherry. Playing it is different from the other harps because the strings have to be constantly damped. When I play chords or fast lines it can get pretty wild. With a chord there's a whole thing of sympathetic vibration that starts to happen. If I hit a C and a G in the bass tones, chances are all the other C's and G's on the harp will start to vibrate along with them. That sounds really nice, until it's time to switch to an F or a B. Luckily most of the older Irish stuff kind of takes that into account. They stay pretty much in the C, F, G, Am zone of things. Another drawback to the brass strings is that there is not a very good method for sharping a string to allow you to play in other keys. Regular Celtic harps use a lever up by the tuning peg that will raise the pitch of a string one half step. Without those you are restricted to an instrument which is voiced like a piano with only white keys. I figure what the hell. When I need to do that stuff I have other harps. For the older, simpler, more modal things, this is the baby I go for. I also use it for outdoor weddings. It is loud enough without amplification to carry the day.

Another Celtic Harp that I have is also a small one. 28 strings again. It's called a luteback harp. The body of the harp is a bowl shape. Even when I play it sitting down I have to use a strap over my shoulders to keep it in position. The upside of this is that I can also play it standing or walking. The volume produced by the shape of the body also is amazing. For a little harp this puppy kicks out some sound. The tone is mellow and gentle, but very rich. Sharping levers allow me to change keys with ease. This is a great little harp for taking to smaller venues to accompany singers and stuff.

For studio harp I have an old (1848) French Gothic Harp. It has 48 strings, nylon on the bottom and brass on the top 8. It's tall and slender. Very austere and simple in its lines. There's not a lot of frou-frou decoration and stuff. The sound on this harp is big and rich. The longer, deeper toned bass strings really boom. It also has levers for sharping to change key or play an accidental.

Then there's the big girl. It's not a full on concert harp. It's made by a company that builds them and it's called "The Daphne." It has the full set of strings which give it the same range as a piano. At the base of the harp there are seven three position pedals. This controls each tone of the scale. The top position is sharp, the middle is natural tone, and the bottom position is flatted. Using these takes a lot of practice, but you can achieve every style from jazz to reggae because of the variance you can get out of your strings. I have a friend in L.A. who can play Scott Joplin and Chopin transcriptions for the harp. I'm not that good, I don't practice enough. Usually if the full on concert harp is needed for a gig, I'll drop everything else long enough to bring my chops into line. I have the Daphne at home mainly to be able to practice setting and changing the levers. A concert harp is like a piano. If they want you to play it the venue usually has one there. Although I show up with my wrench and my strobe tuner long before the gig to bring the instrument into pitch.

I really love my harps. I wish I was a better player than I am. They deserve better than me.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tools of My Trade (the acoustics)

I love my acoustics. They are what I do most of my practicing on. I figure if I can get a line or phrase on the acoustic when I plug in the electric it will be there. Kind of like running with ankle weights.I have three categories of the acoustic end of the spectrum. They are my own categories and are completely arbitrary.

Studio and Home (never fly or ship, they ride with me or they don't ride at all)
Road Warriors
Double Duty

The main studio and home acoustic guitars are three Martin D28 models. Two six string and one 12. I love the D28. They are big, loud and ballsy. The sound from them jumps right out at you. When I am using them in the studio I sit about a foot from a good microphone and let them take that right into the board. Martins provide a sound that works well for me. They're expensive, but hey, so am I. I acquired my beauties at various times. One of the sixes was from an estate sale. The people really didn't know what they had. I took it to a dealer and he said that it was from the mid-sixties. The D28 style really hasn't changed all that much, there's really not a lot of difference between the years. I string them with D'Aquisto Brass Masters medium guage sets. The brass alloy in these strings gives a brighter more penetrating tone. The downside is that they wear out quickly. The upside is that I change strings very frequently. Like with the electrics, 20 hours playing time maximum. I always change the whole set. If one string breaks, I change the whole set.

The Road Warriors

When I have to travel any long distances over any great length of time I leave my beloved Martins at home and take a set of Three Ovations. Again, two sixes and a twelve. The sixes are both the 1778 LX models, I bought them at the same time, one in black, one in deep red. That way I can tell them apart onstage. I usually keep on tuned to a standard tuning, one in drop D. The twelve string is the Glen Campbell Balladeer model. Again, like with the Rickey 12 in the electrics I have the bottom two strings set for a 2 octave separation instead of one. I just like it that way. What completely sold me on the Ovation guitars happened at a trade show in L.A. I watched an Ovation representative take a 12 string guitar, tune it, play for a little bit and then walk over to a concrete pillar and smack it with the guitar. Then he went back to his seat and began to play again. The motherfucker was still in tune and from that moment on I was a fan. These guitars are perfect for a working, traveling professional because they are tough, durable instruments that have the added bonus of sounding damn good. They also are all acoustic/electrics so all I have to do is plug them in and rip.

The Double Duty Guitars are:

For the softer, more romantic sound, I use a Jose Ramirez S1. It works for a lot of the quieter folk and country stuff. It handles the Brazilian and Latin Jazz genre pretty well too. With a nylon string guitar you can afford to play the strings a bit longer, well, OK, twice as long. 40 hours of playing time. It also takes a full day of tuning, playing, and retuning to beat a new set of strings into submission.

For blues and bottleneck work I have two that I use. They are both resonophonic guitars. These were predecessors of the electrics. They have a big bell brass resonating disk in the middle of the guitar. They are loud, they also have a very distinctive sound. One is by the company that pioneered this type of guitar to where it has become synonomous with the type of guitar. Dobro. I use a Phil Leadbetter model. The action on this puppy is very high, so if I am going to be doing much fret work I switch over to a 1950's model National Steel Body. This one has a lot of funk and snap to it. There always seems to be a new buzz or rattle popping up for me to track down, but frankly, for the type of music I play with this instrument it's almost part of the charm.

So that's the full run down on the guitar part of the tool chest. Again, each of the individual guitars has it's own strong points and drawbacks. There's something to love about each one of them.