Sunday, April 26, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 2: The Picker Goes Ghetto-Fabulous

Timeline: 1990 - 1993

Floyd Middle School, in beautiful Mableton, Georgia, was where I
discovered rap music.

Actually, let me correct's where I got into rap music. As any
self-respecting musicologist would know, rap music was around long
before 1990; in fact, it was over a decade old by that time. And to
be sure, I had heard snatches of it before---mostly MC Hammer and
those of his ilk (read: clean, relatively sanitized rap).

But at the top of the bleachers in the gym, I discovered the not-so-
clean, no-so-sanitized version...gangsta rap. An Asian-born friend
of mine (or maybe he just tolerated my presence) had a yellow
walkman and a pair of split-ear headphones, so that two people could
listen at the same time. And in that walkman, he had N.W.A.*

It's hard to imagine today, when regular TV shows, radio shows
and the Internet spew out all sorts of crude, crass, scatological
stuff, that things like N.W.A. records could actually be shocking.
But they least to the ears of a twelve-year old boy. The
same words that he had gotten his mouth washed out for saying
when he was in fourth grade were now coming through loud,
proud, and unexpurgated.**

Of course, it wasn't just four-letter words; it was other bodily-
related verbiage as well. But when you're twelve years old---
or, at least, when you're twelve years old in 1990---you don't
really understand the full implications of swaggering references
to freely committing sordid, carnal, animal acts twenty times
before breakfast. You have enough sense to understand that
it's willfully subvervise, to be sure, but not quite enough to
see how truly messed up it is.

And not quite enough to realize how messed up it is to laugh
at that kinda stuff as it streams out of the earphones and
into your impressionable mind.

Because most of it was, I'll admit, pretty funny at the time.

Due to my age, access to this wonderfully wicked music
was naturally restricted, commercially speaking. Listening
to it on someone else's walkman was one thing; getting my
own copy was another matter.

Fortunately, I had an accomplice: my older, cooler sister,
who had already blown my mind with the oddityy of playing
"Mr Roboto" at the wrong speed (see the previous post).
Sis was dating a football player at Osborne High School who
was into the same kind of music. Sis would also sometimes
insist that I accompany her to the store to buy various
things. And during these brief little jaunts into the countryside
(for the area around Milford Church Road, where I lived at
the time, was indeed countryside), she would introduce me
to the equally-hilarious obscenities and vulgarities of 2 Live
Crew. (She would also drive at least 15-20 miles over the speed
limit on each trip, yet was never pulled over by the police.
Some people have all the luck; nearly all of my speeding
tickets have been for 10 miles over.)

Somehow that 2 Live Crew tape found its way into my hands,
where it would remain for the next few years. (Apparently
the football player never asked for it back.)

From the Asian-born friend mentioned above, I got
copies of other 2 Live Crew albums, and a few from N.W.A.
These were copied onto clear plastic tapes with pastel-
colored geometric shapes and other late-80's frou-frou
on the sides. They were usually passed over underneath
a book or a stack of papers, to prevent discovery and
confiscation---a very real danger, I might add: another
girl in my eighth-grade class was caught with a particularly
racy rap tape, and after the teacher listened to it in her
own walkman, she had a ticket straight to the principal's
office (once considered a fate worse than death!)

Slowly I built up a collection, accepting copies when offered,
or else borrowing someone's original tape, smuggling it
over to my grandparents' house, and using my grandfather's
two-cassette copier to make my own (with the volume dialed
all the way down, of course).

Sis also bought me a few on the sly, such as Public Enemy's
Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black.

Again, I didn't understand most of the political
issues being discussed on that album; I just knew
it was something that would upset my folks if they
knew I was listening to it...which alone made it

Somewhere in the midst of this, I decided to take a stab
at "composition"---if you can call writing rap songs composition.
To accomplish this, I had an old tape recorder with a large
input speaker (Dad used it to record important meetings
at work, or Evangelism Explosion seminars), a late-80's
electronic keyboard with all the bells and whistles (a
Christmas '88 present, I believe)...and my own keen mind.

"Composition" usually consisted of filling a sheet of paper with
lyrics, using one of the keyboard's admittedly-lame tempo
settings (I didn't have a beatbox, so I didn't have any other
options, really), and rapping it out into the input speaker.
I might also throw in a few sound effects, usually the racing cars
or the gun shots. A friend of mine also showed me a cool trick
to get the sound of a slamming car door---essential for
replicating that genuine, just-robbed-the-convenience-store-
and-shot-the-clerk, now-let's-get-outta-dodge-sucka vibe---by
running one's hand along the serrated edge of the keyboard,
and then slamming it down quickly.

Sometimes I recruited a friend of mine, Johnathan, who used
to sleep over on weekends, as co-emcee. He'd do a verse, I'd
do a verse, and there it was. After a few songs, though, we'd get
bored and see what was on TV.

I stopped the recording part after about a year. I think I
wanted something more realistic, and I even asked a friend
of mine how much turntables cost---the kind you used to get
that scratchety-scratch feeling. (I had tried to do my own
scratching on my childhood plastic 45 rpm record player---
don't laugh, I'm being serious---but discovered that all I
could do was make the record slow down. I guess I didn't have
a quick enough wrist to do it right.) He mentioned a price,
but it was A) cost-prohibitive and B ) unlikely to fly with the
folks, since it would have blown my "cover", so to speak.
It never occured to me to use my parents' turntable, which
is just as well; if Paul Simon or Gordon Lightfoot had been
scratchety-scratched beyond the point of no return, I might
have been left without a hide once they found out.

But I kept writing. Lyrics poured out of me in the first
two years of high school, in the department store with my
folks (where I would find the typewriter section, sit down,
and start pecking away), and on the back of sermon outlines
at church (for which I ought to have been smote by the Lord,
given the content of my lyrics!).

Sometimes I was caught, as I was at Floyd when I left a
particularly nasty rap that name-checked several teachers
(in a not-so-complimentary way) in the metal book "cage"
below my desk. At other times, it jeopardized my school
work, as it did in typing class when I spent most of the allotted
time typing out lyrics, then couldn't understand why, when I
had no time left to type out the full, assigned work and turned
in something incomplete, that I got a bad grade for it.

No matter; the writing continued, through all of freshman year at Marietta High School, and half of sophomore year. All the while I was
listening to rap---N.W.A., Ice-T, Ice Cube, Naughty By
Nature, Cypress Hill, Compton's Most Wanted (I'm surprised
I can remember these)---24-7. I even took these decidedly
non-Christian tapes with me on choir tours...although in my
humble, ineffective defense, other guys in choir did much
the same.

Then, the spring of my sophomore year, my interest in
rap declined, and then disappeared. To this day, I can't
explain why it happened. I suppose it's no different than
falling in love with a particular band, then one day waking
up to discover that you don't really care for their music
anymore. ***

Some of these lyric sheets---banal, vulgar, and clueless
about the real world within "gangsta" chic---still exist.
My sister and my brother-in-law dug one out of some
papers a few years ago, and were amused/bemused at
what they contained. They asked if I wanted them back.

I didn't.

That chapter in my life was over. I had moved on to
different things.

Oh, in case you're wondering, yes, I did have a rap name.
It was...hold your applause...Ice-Box.

That's right. Ice-Box.

*If you don't know what that abbreviation stands for...look it up. For
most of you, it should be familiar enough.

**No joke; I dropped the f-bomb on someone who was annoying me
on the bus ride home, and got kicked off the bus for the next week.
When the folks found out, I quite literally received a mouthful from the
soap dispenser and a go-to-bed, go-directly-to-bed, do-not-pass go,
do-not-collect-$200 card.

***One of the last rap groups that I was into before I lost interest was Arrested Development. Looking back, I think this suggests a maturation in my musical tastes, since their albums were much more complex and thoughtful that many of their contemporaries. You might say they were a "gateway" group to other kinds of music.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 1: Portrait of the Picker as a Young Man

(Timeline: 1977 - 1990)

Before getting started, let me make a disclaimer:

A. This is the past as I remember it. Other people might remember
things differently.

B. My own remembrances are obviously clouded by 20-20 hindsight
and the perspective of a 32-year-old adult.

But that's the beauty, and indeed the very essence, of historical
"memory"; no two "memories" are the same, and no person's
"memory" remains intact throughout their life.

(If all of this sounds rather academic, it is. Can't help it; I'm in grad

I don't remember music in the womb. That's not to say that my
mother never sang while she was pregnant with me; she might
have. But I don't remember it.

Neither Mom nor Dad are big music people, at least not in the same
sense that I am. They both appreciate music, but that's about the
limit of it. Neither one of them plays any instruments today (Mom
played piano at one point).

When I was born (1977), 8-tracks were still "in", and my parents
owned a few. One was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.
The reason I know this is because when I was young, while waiting
in the car in some parking lot for Mom to come back out of the
store*, I watched the plastic cover for this 8-track start to bend and
warp in the summer heat.

Regular cassette tapes were rarely seen. Mostly my folks listened to
33-rpm vinyl records. Dad built a slide-out turntable tray below the
entertainment center cabinets in the living room. The turntable slid
out, the vinyl records went on, the arm came down, and out of the
speakers the music came forth.

Particular records that I remember were Jim Croce's You Don't
Mess Around With Jim, I Got A Name and Life and Times; Paul
Simon's Greatest Hits (his solo 70's hits, not his S & G hits); a
record by Harry Nillson that featured Ringo Starr; some record
by Cat Stevens; and several records by 2nd Chapter of Acts, a
fairly popular 1970's Contemporary Christian band.

About the age of 6 I was "dragooned" into church choir. This
would be a lasting committment, one that I would honor (usually
against my will) for the next 16 years.

The Picker in the kids' choir at First United Methodist Church of Marietta, 1988 (from a church member directory).

Sometime between the ages of 6 and 10 I got my first
record player. It was plastic, with a tan base and tan
flip-up cover, an orange needle arm, a white top, and a
dark brown record platform. Because of its small size it
could only play 45-rpm records, which I discovered when I
tried to play a 33 rpm on it. I remember it took quite a few
tries before I realized that the larger record wouldn't fit.
Most kids, eyeballing the record and the record player,
probably would have picked up on that fact and not even
bothered to play the 33 rpm. I must have been "slow".

This was the era of "play-along records". Remember those?
They were booklets with 45-rpms in the back-flaps that
contained narration. "You will know it is time to turn the
page when you hear (fill in the blank) like this (fill in the
sound)." My play-along record collection included all three
of the Star Wars films, several Indiana Jones films, and a
lot of Disney films. They might still be buried somwhere
in my folks' attic. I ought to find them; with a little
blowtorch action, they might be useful as snack bowls.

My older, cooler sister had already advanced beyond such
child's play. She had real 45 rpms, including the undisputed
gem of 1983, Styx's "Mr. Roboto". When she was in a
humorous mood (which I welcomed, because it meant that
she might not beat me up that day), she would let me listen
to it normally, and then at 33 rpm speed. I was much

My first musical instruction was about the same time,
between the ages 6 and 10. Mom tried to teach me piano; it
didn't take. Now, that's the simple, sanitized version. The
truth is a whole lot uglier, one of the most unpleasant
memories of my life, and I'd rather not discuss it in detail
(especially since I brought it up once to Mom and she
asked me when I was going to forgive her for past
offenses). Please don't ever ask me about it, either.

One of the piano books from this "unpleasant" time period.

At Birney Elementary School I took music class, which
was taught by the same teacher who taught art class. I
think her name was Mrs. Brown. Initially we got along
fine; later on we had some kind of falling out. Eventually
it got to the point where I hated going to either music
or art class, mostly because I didn't like Mrs. Brown.

We learned the usual patriotic airs ("My Country 'Tis
of Thee", "America the Beautiful", "God Bless America")
and some other really strange songs. One that stuck out
was an old folk song in a minor key, on a record that we
sang along to. The song was about a man who died from
choking on a chicken bone in his chicken soup. Even
today, I can remember that section of the lyrics:

A little bone, a bitty thing / No bigger than my pinky,
He swallowed hot, from out that pot / And quicker
than a wink-ee,
He swallowed that soup, let out a whoop / And fell
down choking on his stoop,
And he choked! And he sagged! / And he smothered!
And he gagged!
And he let out a scream! "Aaaghh"! / And he let
out a moan! "Ooohhh."
And he cried, 'cause he died / from choking on
a bone
On such an ordinary day / like today.**

Absolutely macabre. People would have a field
day with that kind of crap if we played it today in
elementary schools full of impressionable young

For my part, I wouldn't eat anything for almost a
week after hearing that song. I was afraid I would
choke on it!

A full band came to our school once and performed,
to show us what different band instruments sounded
like. Afterwards we took a spelling test, to show that
we could spell some of the instruments' names. I got
every one right except "percussion". I had spelled it
"percution". For this, I blame The Electric Company.
One of their songs was about the suffix -tion, and that
song went:

T-I-O-N! / Shun-shun-shun-shun-shun!
T-I-O-N! / Shun-shun-shun-shun-shun!

I remembered this song, and figured that the "shun"
of percussion was spelled in the same way.

MTV came into being about this time. We didn't
have cable, but my aunt & uncle did. I can remember
actually watching videos on MTV at their house. The
whole matter of MTV finally doing away with its initial
reason for existence could fill countless essays. I've got
my own theories, but I guess in the end, television
networks have to give the people what they want, or
else go out of business. And apparently what the people
want---or at least, what the young people want---are
reality shows.

Up until the time I entered middle-school in 1988
my relationship to music was that of a listener, not
a performer. But in seventh grade, my introduction to a
new, subversive form of music (listened to clandestinely
at the top of indoor gym bleachers while other kids played
kick-ball below) would inspire my first bursts of creativity.

* This was before the days of Public Service Announcements warning of the dangers
of leaving children/pets in locked cars in the heat. I'm surprised my mind didn't bend
and warp as well.

**Update (04/27/09): This song was actually from a 1970's cartoon illustrated by Maurice Sendak (best known as the author/illustrator of Where the Wild things Are), sung by Carole King (who wrote "You're So Far Away", "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,", "It's Too Late, Baby", and other radio hits in the '60s and '70s). What would we do without the Internet? Forget everything?

An ongoing chronicle...

Today at work, while trying to make it through a mind-numbingly-
boring day (the usual), I got an idea for an extended series of posts.

These posts will chronicle my musical progress through the years,
from the earliest times that I can remember music being around,
all the way to the present.

Several facts and considerations prompted this:

1. I'm an amateur musician.

2. There's nothing better to do.

3. What can it hurt?

4. It's not an exercise in egotism, I assure you; I ain't
that good, as you'll discover.

5. I just think it might be interesting.

6. I've always been fascinated by famous musicians talking
about their early days, before the big fame and the big gigs
and the big bucks (and the big divorces, and the big drug
busts, and the big headaches, etc.).

7. You might look at #6 and say, "Aha! 'Famous musicians'!
You are an egotist!"

8. I promise you, I'm not.

9. You might find some of it interesting.

10. Even if you don't, I'll keep doing it anyway.

11. In one of my classes at University of West Georgia---Introduction
to Archives---we've been talking about archival theory: how
materials are selected, how they're preserved, and what the
upshot of all that is for popular culture and "memory".

12. I'm not talking about "memory" as in "Where did I put my car keys?"

13. I'm talking about "memory" in a historical sense.

14. "Memory" is a big thing nowadays in academia. Basically, it's the
study of how people's remembrances of events change over time.
People consciously preserve some things (and discard others) in
order to "remember" the past in a certain way.

15. You may as, "What does that have to do with
this series of posts?"

16. Well...I dunno....other than I might someday be asked to share
the details of my musical journeys with an aspiring historian...and it
would be good to remember what they were.

17. "The odds of that happening are of so slight," you may
comment, "that even Vegas doesn't want a part of it.

18. Well then, my children (if any) might want to know...and it would
be good to remember for them.

19. You may look bemused, sigh, and say, "They'll probably run
away screaming the minute you open your mouth."

20. Bottom line, I'm just bored and stubborn.

So, here we go, with "Picker's Progress"!

21. (I know; it's a lame, deritative title. Get over it.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Ye shall Know the Truth...

...and the Truth shall take ye to court."

As a grad student in history, I find this absolutely fascinating. It seems that history is being drawn and quartered by two forces: academia and pop culture. Academia says, "Get the facts right, even if it's boring, disappointing, or confusing! Otherwise it's not history!" Pop culture says, "Make it appealing, colorful, and scandalous, even if it's not 100% acurate! Otherwise why should people want to know about it?"

Personally, I think there's enough interesting and accurate stuff out there, without the need to inflate, deflate, revise, amend, spin or fabricate for the sake of popular consumption.

Yet some people do prefer the inflations, deflations, revisions, amendments, spins and fabrications over the real deal. Go figure.

The Betsy Ross thing is especially poignant. While the educated adult in you is approving of "setting the record straight" about who actually did (and didn't) sow the first American flag, the little ten-year-old kid in you is sniffling in despair because his fourth-grade American History teacher was putting him on. It's sad and necessary at the same time.

Right now in class we're reading Lee Considered, a controversial book that blows great holes in the mythology of Robert E. Lee (whether he was really anti-slavery, whether he was all that great a general, etc.) I think the author makes some good points and misses a few others, but I can understand why people cherish the "traditional" Lee. It's painful to let go of your idols...

Friday, April 3, 2009

21st-Century String-band music... alive and doing very well, thank you.

These guys have been coming through my earphones at work a lot nowadays.

Nice video work, too; kinda reminiscent of the 1960's folk festivals. Even the film
color suggests an older time.

And a great closing line, although I can't tell if it's meant to be ignorance or sarcasm
(either way, it's pretty freakin' hilarious).