Sunday, August 30, 2020

An Aquarian Exposition

Last week marked the 51st anniversary of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair held in Upstate New York in the summer of ‘69. The unprecedented event became a cultural milestone and a defining moment for a generation. Perhaps a topic of contention at the time, it has since developed a symbolic legacy, embodying the spirit of musical and communal harmony.

Conceived by a young promoter named Michael Lang, the undertaking began with a team of investors, organizers and workers who tirelessly assembled a roster of the era’s most prominent rock and folk acts including Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Ten Years After, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish, Janis Joplin, Sha-Na-Na, Ravi Shankar, The Band, Joe Cocker, Melanie and Joan Baez.

The festival was scheduled to run for three days and underwent a change in venue a number of times until a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur signed on to host the festival on his 600-acre farm in Bethel. By that point, it was too late to complete the building of fencing around the site and the completion of the stage became prioritized until the day of the festival.

As this happened, word-of-mouth promotion brought over 400,000 more attendees than expected, forcing the organizers to put the festival on for free and cope with what was then declared a state of emergency by New York’s governor Nelson Rockefeller. The resulting traffic jams, sanitation conditions, bad weather and shortage of food and first aid became the subject of national headlines. Nearly no news sources reported on anything related to music.

Early on, Lang and company realized they would lose everything but kept the show going nevertheless. The mammoth crowd too, endured the inconveniences, sharing in the challenge as a makeshift family unit, seeing the weekend as an opportunity to realize their ‘peace and love’ ideals.

Many there, in fact, seemed to know they were participating in something historic. Asked by a reporter why he didn’t seem upset by the financial calamity, one of Lang’s team members pointed to the positive happenings around them. It was all worth it to him. (Try to picture that spirit in today’s pop music industry.) Eventually, the losses were recouped by revenue from the festival’s documentary and soundtrack albums.

The organizers’ acceptance of government aid was particularly cited by Objectivist writer Ayn Rand as evidence of the ultimate futility of the love generation. To Rand, the Woodstock hippies were “Dionysian” nihilists who favored unbridled emotion and squandering over reason and productivity as seen in the festival’s chaos and depletion of resources and amenities. Without the establishment’s interference, she claimed, their utopian experiment would have been immeasurably more disastrous.

“Where would they be without the charity of the local ‘squares’ who fed them? Where would they be without the fifty doctors, rushed from New York to save their lives; without the automobiles that brought them to the festival?”

Rand may have missed something more poignant, however. The unprepared attendees likely descended on Bethel under the faulty assumption that their basic needs would be met by the festival’s organizers. The purpose of the weekend was to turn a profit for the investors, not to prove to the world that hippies could survive in a self-created microcosm. One half-million young people had endured unpleasant conditions in a disaster area for three days and there were allegedly no reports of violence. That’s a staggering fact, especially in light of today’s multitude of tiny street protests that invariably turn violent and incendiary. (Incidentally, those are the ones that we’re consistently being told are “peaceful.” So it’s okay.)

Max Yasgur had little in common with his young guests. He was a middle-aged working class conservative who supported the war in Vietnam but he strongly defended the hippies’ right to free speech.(That’s yet another irony considering that our contemporary voices of dissent will extend no such courtesy to anyone like him today.)

The Woodstock film featured a touching moment where Yasgur addresses the crowd.

“I think you people have proven something to the world... This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place... A half a million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music.”

At 49, Yasgur looked startlingly old for his age and two missing fingers on his right hand were a reminder of the hard and often dangerous life a working farmer leads.

Following the festival, he was boycotted, sued and shunned by his neighboring townspeople. He opted not to rent out land for more concerts and died only a few years later.

The concept of Woodstock was never successfully repeated. The record-breaking attendance was topped but no gathering could ever again unify a generation or capture the attention of the world. The sad paragon of that fact came in July of 1999 when a four-day show held in Rome, New York aimed to be another unnecessary new version of the famed namesake for ‘Generation X.’

Woodstock ‘99’s rampant commercialism, violence, arson, looting, rape and sexual assault confirmed the notion that the spirit of Woodstock can’t be summoned up for profit or cheap thrills.

Woodstock will remain in the hearts of many, not as an event, but a state of mind, representing music as a communal force and a universal identity.

“The one major thing you have to remember... is that the man next to you is your brother, and you’d damn well better treat each other that way because if you don’t, then we blow the whole thing, but we’ve got it right there!” 

--John Morris, Woodstock emcee

  • Have we blown it?
  • Can lessons be learned from Woodstock?
  • How can they be applied?

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    Christopher Robinson

    Sunday, August 23, 2020

    Leaving the Building

    Americans are beginning to see some of the effects that state lockdowns have had on local businesses. In many cases they either couldn’t adapt to the crisis for one reason or another or they lost too much time and revenue to pay their rent, utilities, workers etc.

    One of my favorite local diners looks to have been resolutely affected by this crisis and will probably not reopen as the business that it had been for thirty years or so. It’s one more sad and disappointing reminder of how the country has been economically devastated in a variety of ways.

    I can’t say that I have too many memories of the place but- wait! An odd reminiscence now comes to mind.

    A local detective once told me that she had recently responded to a police call at the diner because one of the customers thought they saw Elvis Presley there(!) I found this to be slightly perplexing since Elvis sightings would seem to be low in critical nature within my limited understanding of police prioritization.

    In any case, I don’t think the person in question turned out to be Elvis, nor did I believe it could even be possible.

    The site of the alleged incident boasted a decent salad bar and reasonably-priced lunch and dinner specials but no all-you-can-eat deep-fried starch-fest that one would logically expect to be fit for the King. Besides, if it was him, what exactly were they prepared to do?

    This, of course, is all in accordance with a notorious long-standing supposition that the 42 year-old star never passed away 43 years ago(last week)on August 16th, 1977. But- were it true anyway, could an out-of-state police charge someone with a felony for faking their own death in another place, twenty-five years earlier?

  • Do logic and reason become blurred when something fantastic is at stake?
  • Do rules often leave you confused?
  • How do you determine which to follow... and which to flout?
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    Christopher Robinson

    Sunday, August 16, 2020

    Coded Voices and Boxes That Talk

    Popular music has long boasted a fascinating arsenal of tools for the purposes of enhancement and experimentation in the recording of vocals and instruments. Two of the most groundbreaking and recognizable of these innovations were the talk box and the vocoder, both of which you’ve undoubtedly heard in countless songs, even if their names ring few bells.

    Contrary to popular beliefs, the talk box doesn’t enable one to talk through a guitar or amplifier. It merely allows a guitarist to create musical sounds while playing and moving their mouth as notes are sounded. A plastic tube connected to an effects box receives amplified vibrations in the same manner as the singer’s own vocal chords. As the player sounds notes, the open end of the tube within their mouth enables the guitar’s pitch to mimic the mouthed sounds.

    An iconic trend of rock in the 1970s made famous by Peter Frampton, it actually dated back to the late 1930s when jazz guitarist Alvino Rey recorded “St. Louis Blues” on his “talking” steel guitar, ‘Stringy.’

    Another steel guitarist, Pete Drake, an accomplished Nashville session player, used the invention to popular effect on his hit, “Forever.” It was actually Drake who introduced the talk box to Frampton although other guitar heroes like Jeff Beck and Joe Walsh employed it before him. It can also be heard on Rufus’s hit, “Tell Me Something Good”, Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” and Pink Floyd’s “Pigs(Three Different Ones).” The talk box’s later appearances included hits by Kix, Bon Jovi snd Alice In Chains.

    Often conflated with the talk box is the vocoder, a voice synthesizer used abundantly in popular music throughout the Seventies and early 1980s.

    Developed in 1928 as an experimental means of carrying voice communication across long distances by reducing its bandwidth, it was actually employed for coded communication purposes during World War ll.

    A vocoder essentially divides the voice into separate bands of frequency which are then sent through their own filters. The resulting sound occurs when each filter is adjusted to the frequency of the voice’s signal.

    Usually adopting a cold and impersonal ‘robot-like’ sound, the vocoder became a common feature of popular music in rock’s ‘post-punk’ years where ‘new wave’ and electronic artists like Kraftwerk from West Germany experimented with it as a supplement to synthesizers and an alternative to singing. It can be heard in various degrees of usage in the music of many artists including Blue Öyster Cult, Alan Parsons Project, Alice Cooper, the Cars, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Neil Young.

    Though the vocoder has inevitably dated somewhat since its heyday, its style and artistic influence are evident in the subsequent popularity of technologies like Auto-Tune, itself a processor whose initial purpose was to fine-tune singers’ voices in studio settings.

    Do you feel like you hear music in ways that it sounds as opposed to the ways it is sung or played? Does some music sound more to you like ‘signals’ that are ‘filtered’ rather than actual voices and instrumentation?

    “Just let the music speak for itself.” -Santana

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    Christopher Robinson

    Sunday, August 9, 2020


    Within a relatively recent historical period, modern society has achieved the luxury and benefits of viewing the world through the scope of a variety of media outlets including print, radio and social media. All of these technologies can connect us promptly yet vicariously to the stories and events we otherwise couldn’t share or experience.

    Undeniably, among the most revolutionary of these mediums was that of television.

    A technological marvel that was developed by a succession of brilliant inventors throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, TV’s aim was essentially to transmit images and sounds from a source to a receiver. Traditionally sent by radio waves(broadcasted), today it can also be received through cable, satellite and internet technologies.

    In short, the electronic television contained a cathode ray tube where electrons were beamed into an empty “vacuum” of the tube. The negatively charged electrons would then find their way to positively charged anodes on the screen. “Steering coils” would magnetically move the beam in various directions. Phosphorus dust on the inside of the screen would then emit light as the beams scanned across the screen in rows, forming the transmitted image.

    In the Twenties and Thirties, the first television stations in America were built with the first TV sets commercially available in 1938. The first TV program believed to have been broadcast was The Queen’s Messenger, ten years earlier.

    None of these breakthroughs occurred overnight and television’s subsequent advancements, color and increased sound and image resolution have continued in a similarly unmitigated manner.

    << This RCA Victor / radio / phonograph combination console was a wedding present to my parents from my uncle. As a toddler, my brother had watched the moon landing on this set.

    In 1961, Newton Minnow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission infamously declared television to be “a vast wasteland.” Unfortunately, I’d have to wholeheartedly agree although I think the denunciation might have been fifty years too soon.

    Newton Minnow receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016. >>

    TV from the golden age undeniably provided great value in entertainment and information. For many, television’s appeal was only as alluring as the programming of the moment. Perhaps the source of Minnow’s criticisms simply resulted from the cancellation of some of his favorite shows.

    Are there any great inventions you feel are ‘wasted?'

    How and what would you have changed concerning them?

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    Sunday, August 2, 2020

    Farewell, Green Manalishi

    This week the music world lost a seminal figure in rock and blues with the passing of singer, songwriter and guitarist Peter Green. Known peripherally to the average rock and roll fan, Green’s name might be more familiar than his body of work thanks to the subsequent stardom of the band he initially created.

    Fleetwood Mac began in 1967 as a follow-up to Green’s tenure as lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, the premiere British blues act of the era.

    With the Bluesbreakers’ John McVie and Mick Fleetwood on bass and drums, respectively, the Mac rivaled the popularity of their former group and showcased Green’s signature guitar approach in addition to his soulful interpretations of blues standards. Green also wrote original blues numbers, rapidly evolving into a progressive style that produced the fan favorites, “Albatross”, “Oh Well”, and “Black Magic Woman” which Santana famously covered in 1970.

    In Chicago, on a single day(January 4th, 1969), the band prolifically recorded two albums of blues recordings at Chess Studios with a group of their musical heroes that included Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and Buddy Guy. But in the Sixties, music and style were in a constant state of change and Green’s mind was in equal flux.

    He soon began a downward spiral of disillusionment and drug addiction, resulting in his decision to quit the band in 1970. Giving away his belongings and walking away from music at the height of his fame, he cited religion as one of the factors in ditching the band he founded four years earlier.

    Many point to a single incidental detour as the breaking point in Green’s life. During a tour of Europe, Green attended an LSD party at a commune in Munich. It was soon after this event and his sudden associations with the commune’s members that Green exhibited noticeable changes in his mental state and extreme ideologies (Fleetwood Mac’s guitarist Danny Kirwan was said to have been with him at the commune, experiencing a concurrent decline in his own mental health).

    Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Green dropped out of the music scene altogether, at one point finding work digging graves. By this time, his former band was enjoying a level of commercial success that couldn’t have been imagined ten years earlier.

    In time, Green triumphantly bounced back with the assistance of family and friends and he began playing guitar and recording again, much to the delight of his loyal fans.

    Recently, I had been thinking how time might be running out for the original Mac to reunite and perform again. It surely would have been an overdue occasion and an historical event to witness. Now, with Peter Green’s death it will never come to be. Are there any heroes you have missed due to the passage of time? Hopefully, you’ll still have some chances, but you might need to act soon.

    “‘Cause there’s very few of us left, my friend,
    from the days that used to be.” -Neil Young

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