Saturday, December 19, 2009

Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City

On the charts for June 20, 1987, five of the top six albums were by Whitesnake, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Poison, and Ozzy Osbourne. If this means nothing to you, move along; nothing to see here.

For those still reading, need I even mention Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot, Ratt, Cinderella, and Warrant? Author Chuck Klosterman wants you to remember and care, even if the music was as disposable as the hairspray.

His 2001 book Fargo Rock City salutes the 1980s era of hair metal as something important. He provides a somewhat chronological, sometimes autobiographical, mostly unapologetic tour of topics in his theme’s general vicinity. If that sounds loose, it is.

Klosterman is often funny, and occasionally philosophical, in his defense of musical acts that were critically maligned in their day and have not fared better since. He gets most of his laughs acknowledging, in detail, the ridiculousness of it all (his description of Poison: “three lovely ladies who were actually three guys from Pennsylvania and a dope fiend from Brooklyn”). Yet he saves his true ridicule for those elitists who turned up their noses when teenagers like Klosterman turned up the volume on the likes of Shout at the Devil.

This is where the philosophy comes in. Klosterman thinks that:

[P]op music doesn’t matter for what it is; it matters for what it does. The greatest thing about rock ‘n’ roll is that it’s an art form where the audience is more important than the art itself. Whether or not [Mötley Crüe’s] “Home Sweet Home” was terrific is almost irrelevant; the fact that a million future adults believed it was terrific is what counts.

Klosterman never confronts the question of why 1980s hair metal counts any more than other music that was popular at a certain time. For example, were boy bands of the late 1980s and 1990s (New Kids on the Block, ‘N Sync) equally important to Mötley Crüe because they too held sway with millions of teenagers?

Although you may not be convinced by Klosterman’s larger point, Fargo Rock City is still a rich grab bag of riffs about the significance of stupid stuff. The only catch is, you need to have experienced enough of the subject matter to get the jokes. If not, you’ll probably just find Fargo Rock City sophomoric, without realizing how fitting that is.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

“The Bloomberg of Wind” (Wind Pole Ventures)

Per our occasional theme of doing data better, a company called Wind Pole Ventures wants to be the “Bloomberg of wind.” It has acquired the rights to mount wind-speed sensors on more than 1,000 existing microwave towers across the United States, creating a “wind analytics data network.”

From a CNET News story on the company:

Gathering data at 100 meters (328 feet)—about the same height of wind turbines’ towers—delivers far more accurate information than getting a reading at 10 meters, which is how data is typically gathered now, [CEO Steve] Kropper said.

“Ten states have more than 3 percent wind power in their state and because it’s intermittent, it comes and goes. So wind has the capacity to provide the grid or destabilize it,” he said. “Since there is not storage yet, all we can do is have better predictions for when it blows and when it stops.”

Wind Pole Ventures plans to sell its data and analytics to power companies, wind farm operators and developers, power traders, resource analysts, and government.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Full-Circle Guitar

I got my first guitar when I was nine years old. It was a $25 acoustic cheapie, made with with woody-looking plastic. Or maybe it was plasticy-looking wood.

The instruction book tutored by way of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” and “The Streets of Laredo.” I later found that the fingerings the book demonstrated were needlessly difficult for a beginner, like a G chord that required splitting one’s ring finger and pinky across five strings. At the time, I had grave concerns about the physical impossibility of such things. But I persisted, driven by an urge to somehow make sounds like I heard on KISS Alive.

A few years earlier, a babysitter inadvertently introduced me to KISS Alive. It was a two-record set of bombast that I didn’t understand but instinctively liked. I didn’t realize the band had the makeup-wearing, fire-breathing shtick until later. I just remember being drawn to the big, distorted guitar sound.

The closest thing my parents’ record collection had to the KISS guitar sound was the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the first few seconds of which dangled a morsel of that distorted guitar. I played it again and again, not bothering with the rest of the song.

At some later point, my parents reluctantly sanctioned the purchase of KISS Alive, on sale for $4.99. And yet later came the cheapie guitar.

Somehow I taught myself to play the cheapie well enough that my parents indulged me what I really wanted, an electric guitar. It was a no-name Les Paul copy, a budget knock-off of the legendary model used by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and The Who’s Pete Townshend, not to mention KISS’s Ace Frehely. It came with an amplifier modestly larger than a loaf of Wonder bread. Turned all the way up, helped along by a distortion pedal, the dwarf amp—its brand name was in fact Dwarf—could achieve a junior version of that big guitar sound.

I and some like-minded sixth-graders were in a band that went by many names. A parade of names was inevitable because we spent at least as much time contemplating band names and logos as we did playing music. The name that stuck longest was Zodiac. The logo projected the bottom of the Z under the rest of the letters, terminating with an arrow. It was a classic kid thing, that logo: We took forever creating it, only to end up with a minor variation of The Who’s logo circa 1965.

Our one gig was a Halloween party in 1979. As aspiring crowd-pleasers, we attempted the hit of the moment, The Knack’s “My Sharona.” It was an easy song to play except for the guitar solo, which was almost two minutes long. I could only play the first 15 seconds, so I just repeated that snippet with increasing fervor. The audience, fellow sixth-graders plus siblings, gave it a polite A for effort.

By this time I had gone beyond KISS, graduating to what today would be called classic rock: The Stones, The Beatles, The Who. Although less of the big-guitar sound was required, we’d nevertheless find occasions for heavy power chords, as with The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”: Imagine a prepubescent singer yelping about “teenage wasteland” while guitar and drums rendered the song’s signature riff in rickety blasts. Despite wreaking havoc on the details, it got an essential something right.

Thinking back, I don’t remember anyone wanting to be a rock star. There was no master plan for fame and fortune. The planning horizon was more like, “Let’s play ‘Barbara Ann’ for thirty minutes, then the last one to the swimming pool has to be Marco in Marco Polo!” There ensued much duck-walking, jumping off chairs, and other theatrics to accompany thirty minutes’ worth of the same three chords.

Through junior high and high school, such jam sessions continued in a slightly more mature manner, with an evolving group of friends. Along the way I ended up with a real electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster, and a decent amp. I got good enough that most people would come away impressed with my chops. However, I had enough encounters with real musicians that I knew I wasn’t in their league. Those guys loved music, but it was also their job, and I didn’t want that. So music remained a hobby for me.

In college my interests evolved from band jams to electronic music and studio recording. Although I still used the guitar, the center of gravity had migrated to computers and the studio itself as instruments. For variety, I rotated through a few obscure guitar species like an electric 12-string, a fretless bass, and a guitar synthesizer. I also contributed goofball guitar licks to a series of home-recording adventures undertaken by my college housemates and me, wherein various styles of music were plundered for laughs.

But after joining the working world, and especially the start-up world, time for making music evaporated. My gear found its way to friends or was sold. These days, all I have is a single acoustic guitar, a better version of the long-gone cheapie. I’ll occasionally pull it out if I can think of something that might make my three-year-old daughter smile. Usually, that’s something closer to “How Much is that Doggie in the Window?” than anything I later played. It’s an oddly fulfilling way to come full circle. Maybe as she gets older, there will be another loop around.