Category Archives: Rolling Stones

Revisiting “The Twilight Zone”

Zen PathReading, of late, about one Rod Serling. Writer. Producer. Creator. A man who seemed to have everything going for him. And then….

Yeah, well…and then shit happens. Apparently, he pretty much worked and smoked himself to death, and he died early. Just like his father. A fate that always haunted him. There’s an object lesson for you: sometimes you can’t see the obvious because you don’t want to see the obvious. Or because it scares you too much. And, because you can’t see it, you doom yourself to it. The kind of thing that happens in…the Twilight Zone.

Man. That’s one hell of a voice the guy had. Every writer follows a different process, but, once I hear a character’s voice, a door opens into the story. I can’t explain it—that’s just how it happens for me. And if you hear Serling or watch his work, that voice sticks to you. Pretty soon it won’t let you go. And then people wonder why you’re talking so weird. So ironically. Snapping off every word. Holding for dramatic effect. Like…this.

Which is a kind of genius. It’s a brand. If you like Rod Serling and the strange world he became associated with through his remarkable television show The Twilight Zone, then you know what you get when you hear that voice. The poignant side? With time, that’s all anyone wants to hear. You’re stuck with it. They won’t let you change it and grow. It can also become cruel when your audience tires of that voice. If it becomes too familiar. Some in the audience just wait for Dylan’s old songs. Some won’t listen to the Stones because they don’t sound as good as they used to. Why? They repeat themselves. And because the listeners themselves aren’t as young as their memories.

It’s a tough choice: give people what they want or risk repeating yourself and burning them out. It seems the artists who transcend that operate with very good compasses: they know who they are, and part of their brand is trying new stuff. You like them because you don’t know what you’ll get, but it’s likely to be good. It’s said Picasso could own anything he wanted if he could paint it, but he continually tried new forms, excelling at them and putting his “Picasso” stamp on them. Part of Tom Waits’ genius seems lie in the continual search for new sounds. It doesn’t always work, but, a lot of times, it’s very, very good. And there’s always that little bit of that Tom Waits DNA that keeps you coming back. There’s magic, and there’s tragic magic, and you have to risk one to achieve the other.

The Twilight Zone was wondrous. I don’t even think we knew how good it was at the time. I was too young to remember its debut seasons, but I grew up with it in syndication. I was not, however, too young for Night Gallery, Serling’s kind of reboot of The Twilight Zone. By the time that came out in the Seventies, Serling’s outlook had darkened, and the show reflected that darkness. He wasn’t entirely in charge of the program, as he was with The Twilight Zone, and sometimes it slipped into camp. But I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to Night Gallery evenings. (They always seemed to be rainy.) You didn’t know where you would go, and sometimes you went to very dark places indeed. Very dark. Which, to me were the coolest, most mysterious places to be, and very different than…than being a geeky kid in a small town. In the Pacific Northwest. Where it seemed some winters that the sun never made it all the way across the sky. Where the rain and the fog blurred the edge of everything. Blunted the colors. You didn’t realize how fabulously beautiful everything around you was until the sun came out, but sun didn’t last long. I came to like images with a little blur to them. Where you couldn’t quite be sure of what you were seeing. You had to guess, relying on your imagination to complete the picture.

What did the Night Gallery look like? Like an actual gallery, it varied. They hung a lot of paintings in three years. Sometimes, they didn’t turn out that well, and, looking at them now, you kind of shrug, shake your head. Yeah…well, they tried. And they were on deadline. Sometimes they retain their power and mystery. If that sort of darkness interests you (and it’s okay if it does), take a look.

Somewhere in there, Night Gallery stamped me with its mark, and I came to enjoy diving into that deep place where it really gets strange and frightening. I don’t give a damn about slasher pics or much of the stuff that passes for horror. But the fantastic, the uncomfortable, the…haunted, where the hero doesn’t always walk out in the sunshine at the end: it took ahold of me. In some ways, I’ve been writing about ever since. A writer friend says my work is haunted. (Maybe it’s me that’s haunted.) But that darkness, that blur, seems to distinguish my writing and photographs. Maybe that’s my brand.

To me, it just feels like beneath the surface of ordinary life, things remain hidden. Jung called it the unconscious—he was a scientist; so that’s kind of antiseptic. But there’s nothing clean or classifiable about the genuine intersection of the hidden and the ordinary, between dreams and reality. Some pretty good stories happen there. And maybe they show us that the world is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.

That’s paraphrasing Einstein, whose brand became synonymous with genius. He died four years before The Twilight Zone went on the air. Would he have watched it? I like to think he would have. Marking Twilight Zone nights on his calendar. We’ve come to find that when you take apart the smallest operating particles of reality, they don’t always act as suspected. Sometimes they’re here, but only for the briefest moments, and, in those nanoseconds, they don’t play by the rules. It appears that a twilight zone occurs within every thing. Within all of us. All the time.

There’s something to walk away with…Serling. You did good.

 

 


Vox in a Box

Paranoid VoxoidFirst, the bad news: the real thing will set you back at least $1,600 new. At the low end. A true, working, vintage model will cost considerably more. Much more. And there’s nothing like the real thing.

The good news: you can fake it for considerably less.

We’re talking about the Vox AC30 amplifier, particularly the Top Boost model. In a field that seems dominated by Fender, Marshall, and Mesa/Boogie (the sort of holy trinity of clean, crunch, and gonzo) and their “inspirations,” Vox amps kind of sit off to the side. Which is funny because if you run an AC30 light, you get the lovely, clear, chimey midrange and sparking treble associated with the amp. Turn it up, and you get a rich, soulful crunch. Crank it over, and you get this fantastic, singing overdrive. The trinity, all in one. And none of it sounds like anything else.

That’s where it gets tricky: what exactly is that Vox sound? You’d think you could nail it by listening to AC30 players, but the amp’s versatility and quirkiness complicates that. This is an amp serving the Beatles, the Shadows, the Stones (in the Decca years), Tom Petty, Peter Buck, Ray Davies, Radiohead (Jonny Greenwood, Ed O’Brien, and Thom Yorke), Matt Bellamy, Dave Grohl, Braid Paisley, Tom Verlaine, the Yardbirds, and Brian May.

If one player serves as a Rosetta stone, it’s The Edge. Famously he’s said to have played a battered, 1964-era AC30 (in a Seventies cabinet) on every U2 album and concert. Not every cut, of course. At this point, The Edge can pretty much own any amp made, and he’s known to use Fender Deluxes, Fender Blues Juniors, Roland JC120s (like that’s a surprise), and a 50-watt Marshall. But, if you say his name to a guitar freak, an AC30 comes to mind. And there’s probably no better example of the classic AC30 sound as “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

There’s the delay, of course—part of The Edge’s signature. I believe he’s playing a Fender Stratocaster: those single-coil pickups add to the chirp. But it wouldn’t have quite the same…shimmer without the Vox. Chime, jangle, ring—whatever you want to call it: it’s more than just a clear treble. There’s a fullness and a warmth to a sound that otherwise could prove piercing. Somewhere, there’s a piano hiding inside that box.

That broad, balanced clarity carries through to AC30 players who run their amps hot. Brian May runs a whole backline of them, and obviously he cranks the hell out of them for that overdriven, “violin-like” sound, but, despite the gain, you can still hear the notes. You have to work pretty hard, slathering on the effects, to blur the AC30’s crystalline qualities (that’s you I’m looking at, Kevin Shields…even though even Shields dirties it up with Marshalls).

And maybe it’s no surprise that “effects” and “AC30” go together: there’s something the amp loves about delays, tremolo, reverb, and other modulation effects. A touch goes a long ways, but the amp holds its sonic fingerprint even…if you’re The Edge.

The amp also weighs about 50 pounds and can get seriously loud—very likely more than you’ll need in smaller venues. So it’s not really the amp for open mic night.

The good news is that the modelers and pedal designers have long had their eyes/ears on the AC30, and digital approximations have been built into many multieffects units—high and low end. Ersatz, perhaps, but it’s a start, and the technology continues to improve.

A better option, especially if you already have a tube amp, is to set it up to run as clean as possible and add a stompbox dedicated to replicating an AC30. Tech 21 make a well-regarded Liverpool box, and similar boxes include: the Martin AC-tone , the Menatone Top Boost in a Can  (come on, that’s a great name), the Xotic AC Booster, the Catalinbread CB30  (note: one of many gifted Portland guitar effects companies), and the Joyo AC (which only runs about $40…Joyo’s a whole story in itself).

I’ve actually been pretty impressed with the Boss BC-2 Combo Drive. They seem to have bottled a bit of the AC30 mojo in a unit that rolls from sparkle to roar (with a sweet crunch in the middle), and I think I hear just a bit of compression to add a tube dynamic, because AC30s are known for their responsiveness. It works okay by itself or with a solid state amp, but pair it with a clean, neutral tube amp, and you might find yourself wandering down Abbey Road. For a couple of hours. This video from guitarist Pete Thorn lays it out quite nicely: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=nJZUU_ZJHzc (Hint: crank it up.)

Plus, you know, it’s hard to toss an AC30 in your gig bag. Your ears may be a little bummed, but your back will thank you.


365 Days of Being Experienced


It was almost exactly a year ago that, on a whim, I wandered into a Portland music store, saw a Fiesta Red Stratocaster, and went: I want that guitar.

Since then, we’ve been through some ups and down, Red and I. Some buggy electronics had to be fixed. The cord jack has been replaced. A tuner broke and had to be replaced, and eventually I may have all the tuners upgraded. I’ve switched to the marvelous Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings, who have allowed me to play some things I just couldn’t manage on middle-weight Fender strings. I added an effects box and a wah-wah pedal, and I’m thinking of buying myself a looper for my birthday. And I’ve gone from barely being able to play A, D, and E chords and not being able to strum to some facility in strumming and finally being able to play the dreaded B chord and some barre chords. And even eke out a little bit of lead. It’s been a journey.

Beginning around 1980, actually. I was in Southern Oregon for summer vacation between my sophomore and junior years of college, and a buddy of mine wanted to take a look at a Strat a guy in Gold Hill had for a sale. I offered to drive because I thought it’d be interesting (and to help a friend), and when we got there, the Strat was sitting on a stand in front of Fender amp (a Twin Reverb, I believe). When the guy plugged in and played what I now recognize as a minor pentatonic scale, my heart just turned over. That sound. As I recall, my friend passed on the guitar, but I thought seriously–seriously–about it. But I was a poverty-stricken college student and I just couldn’t let myself go for it.

The fork not taken. Now, I wonder how my life might have been different. Not that I’d be in a band or anything, but all the friends I might have made and good (or bad) times I might have had, because having a guitar–especially an electric guitar–changes you. It’s like the door to a another society. I never knew how many of my friends play guitars until I bought one, and suddenly people were saying, hey, let’s get together, man. And not just guitars, but drums, basses, keyboards. Having an electric guitar in your life becomes an organizing principle. Inevitably in life, you realize some things too late (about eight years ago, I realized another fork I missed, which was foregoing photojournalism for straight reporting, a choice that might have let me stay in journliasm while leaving my head free to write fiction). But then, as Tom Stoppard wrote, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Maybe one of those choices might have prevented me from becoming a playwright, which–as frustrating as that field is sometimes–I would very much regret not having experienced. The would-haves and could-have will only make you crazy, and there’s nothing you can do about them anyway.

As with any art, I’m finding that the learning process has slopes, plateaus, and downgrades. You work to achieve a certain facility, then you enjoy that awhile, and then you move on to the next step, only to find out the more you know, the more the complexity of your task increases. Next year this time, assuming I stick with it, I hope I’ll look back to now and shake my head at what little I knew. The current plan is to increase my facility in changing chords and learning some blues licks as to improve my meager lead vocabulary, along with the practicing required to actually play what I’m learning. Plus I’d like to spend more time playing with others because it exponentially jacks up the fun quotient (and makes you a better player, I think). Wisely, I think, I’m trying to keep my goals modest and attainable, because it’s failing to achieve those big leaps that can sometimes discourage you. Now, nearly every day I pick up the axe, I feel progress. That’s good for the soul

But the main thing is it’s still fun, despite some evening such as last night, when nothing worked and I was too tired to tune up properly, and it was just chaotic noise (as opposed to creative noise, which I’m rather fond of). And, unlike the kid who still kind of aches for that sunburst brown Strat with the white pickguard (I still see it in my mind’s eye), I have a lifetime of musical experience as a listener with broad and eclectic tastes to bring to the endeavor. Which is why I can have as much fun playing Tom Waits’ “Jockey Full of Bourbon” as I do playing the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”

So here’s to Leo Fender (and Les Paul, while we’re at it) and trying new (and old) things. I suppose this has been a year that’s changed my life, but, the truth is, they all do. Just some more than others. And thanks to the friends, family, teachers, and other compadres who have put up with my fumbling and stumbling and blown notes and excuses and apologies and who have graciously encouraged me, even when I was making noises that could cause small animals to shrivel and die.

S


Axe of Kindness

Last August, I was deep in the process of writing Bluer Than Midnight, a weird, noir-insprired two-act about The Blues, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Afterlife (no, really), when, taken with a wild notion, I went and bought a guitar because I figured, well, how can you write about the Blues from the inside without trying to play it? A quaint notion, but still….

Anyway, after a year of struggling with my Strat, I finally managed, this weekend, to play a Blues song above my usual profound level of lameness such that I enjoyed myself. It’s “You Gotta Move,” a Fred McDowell tune that the Stones covered on “Sticky Fingers.” I’d looked up the tabs on the Internet, but the key was a challenging one for me, so I actually, honest-to-God transposed it to a key I could play (that’s “A” boys and girls), and the pieces came together. Plus, the song’s within my extensive, five-note vocal range; so I could actually sing the goddamn thing without hellishly embarassing myself.

Afterwards, I kind of sat back in a fugue state, my left hand aching like hell because I ended up playing it nonstop for about a half-hour, and thought: “Damn…I really did it. I’ll be go to hell. I feel incredibly high.”

And then I tried to play something else and was immediately humbled.

The play’s more or less finished until it goes on to the next stage–a workshop or public reading–and I’m happy with it and looking forward to seeing where its journey next takes it. But whether it lives or dies, it’s given me a moment I’ll always remember.


Glacial Progress is Still Progress…or Butchering the Classics

So July is, mercifully, over. I knew it was going to be one of those months, given that I’d be wrapping up the End of the Pavement festival and participating in JAW. I did not know I’d being going half-mad and buying a guitar, but these things happen. The good news, for me–maybe not for the world at large–is I’m writing again. It just seemed like a few lines scribbled here or there, but I took stock today and realized I’ve written 40 pages on a new play, tentatively entitled “A Great Fear of Falling”; plus I started work on another, for the moment to remain secret, project.

The lonesome guitar strangling continues apace, but I’m happy to say that I’ve practiced every single day since I bought the damned thing, mastered a number of chords (even if I haven’t mastered changing smoothly from one to another), and last night I very tentatively played the lead line into the Stones’ “No Expectations.” That was satisfying. I love that blues-slide shit. It’ll even be more satisfying when I can actually play it.

Less satisfying but fun was playing perhaps the worst version of the Stones “Respectable” ever put forth. If you can imagine “Respectable” with psychedelic phase shifting played to a country beat…well, please don’t. But at least I hit all the chords and it actually sounded like the song, even if the song was never meant to sound that way.

That’s originality, right? Innit? Hello? I’m having much better luck playing the blues, which is what I bought the thing for to begin with. This week’s addition of an effects pedal has greatly broadened the palette of sounds with which I have to play, and I can now make godawful screeching noises that could paralyze cats and cause sparrows to stiffen and fall from the trees.

Like I said: progress.


Life with Mick & Keef

Thinking much of the Glimmer Twins of late, back when they were young and, as Gore Vidal said, so ugly they were pretty. Recently finished the first draft of a new two-act drama called “Next of Kin,” which has do with a family reunited for a medical crisis. Sounds pretty pedestrian for me, given my onstage history with characters spontaneously exploding, turning into insects, and having telepathically induced orgasms (and that’s all in one play), but the family patriarch in the new play is a totally whacked Vietnam Veteran, hardcore helicopter pilot, and rabid Rolling Stones fan who named his kids after the band members; so I’ve been listening to the Stones more than usual.

I guess anyone who gives a damn about rock’n’roll (or whatever myriad forms popular music has mutated into) hooks into a certain band, and that music comes to punctuate moments of their lives. It’s not necessarily transferable: I start talking about the Stones, and I can see my wife’s attention…drift…elsewhere. As well it probably should.

But there is one Stones memory that haunts me. It was back in the early 80s, wintertime, and I was driving by night to Southern Oregon. In a space of about 50 miles, there are four mountain passes and valleys one has to negotiate, and the driving can get a bit tricky. It had to be past midnight. I’d stopped in a little town called Canyonville, loaded up on coffee at a truck stop (and, perhaps, I might have had another, substantially more powerful stimulant in my system as well). Anyway, put on “Sticky Fingers,” took a deep breath, and began climbing the first of the passes.

It was going pretty well, but, as I started climbing Mt. Sexton, the final pass, it began to snow. Millions upon millions of thick, drifting flakes, immediately beginning to stick. I could feel my tires not quite connecting–this was in an old, heavy Ford with rear-wheel drive–and I knew I not only had the pass to cross but a long, steep grade down the mountain, probably into a blizzard. White-knuckle driving if there ever was one, and then the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” came on, it’s drifting, dreamy mood and rhythm seeming in concert with the snowflakes sweeping before my headlights, and it was like everything went…click. A perfect moment. Genuinely dangerous, stunningly beautiful. One you never forget. Forever, in the mind’s eye, the snow falling, the guitars keening, and Jagger whispering in your ear:

When the wind blows and the rain feels cold
With a head full of snow
With a head full of snow
In the window there’s a face you know
Don’t the nights pass slow
Don’t the nights pass slow