Confession: I was never that big of a Prince fan at his peak of popularity in the ‘80s. I watched MTV incessantly, so I had plenty of exposure to most of his big hits. But I was a repressed small-town midwestern Protestant white kid. I thought it was cool when I learned he was from Minneapolis, but I didn’t see that connection as an opportunity to liberate myself from my fear of everything; I was still freaked out by his uninhibited, guiltless sexuality. That’s probably the biggest reason I didn’t pay very much attention to him, if I’m honest with myself about who I was as a 10-year-old.
But even though I didn’t consider myself a fan, and never owned any of his music until I was much (much) older, I still heard his music all the time. Because once MTV realized it was not only OK but necessary for them to play black artists, Prince was on there a lot. Videos like “1999” and “When Doves Cry” are burned into my memory. And honestly, even if I was a little sheepish about it, I liked them. As time went on, my appreciation grew. And so, as my small tribute to the Artist whose music touched so many people, here’s my list of 5 Prince songs. Not necessarily my “top 5” Prince songs, but 5 that have made a big impression on me, in the order that they did.
“1999” from 1999 (1982)
This song was my introduction to Prince. It was probably 1983 when I first saw it, so I would have been 9. I was fascinated by this song and the video. As a kid, I was always interested in the future. I wanted to get there, fast, whether it was a paradise or (as this song suggested) something more ominous. I’ve never paid as much attention to lyrics as to music, but the lyrics of this song definitely got my attention even back then. It was my first exposure to the idea of an apocalypse. And it made a huge impression on me that Prince would sing about confidently, defiantly celebrating in the face of doom. The other thing that impressed me about the video was that it showed Prince’s band performing, and he had women in the band. The music industry is still far too male-dominated today, but back then I didn’t even think to question things like that. So to see a band with both men and women, playing music together, struck me as something unique.
“When Doves Cry” from Purple Rain (1984)
Whoa. This video. The Rorschach-like mirror image effect had me transfixed from the first moment I saw it, but what really struck me was the sound of this song. It was sparse and futuristic and weird. I’d never heard anything like it, and probably still haven’t. As a kid, this was definitely my favorite Prince song. And it was made even better for me as a nerdy college student in the early ‘90s when it was referenced in a Simpsons episode where Milhouse meets his Shelbyville doppelganger.
[Much time passes…]
“Let’s Work” from Controversy (1981)
I spent most of my adult life not really thinking all that much about Prince. As I became more of an accomplished musician myself, my appreciation of his immense skills grew considerably, but I still was not really that engaged with his music. Then, one day in 2010 I was listening to The Current on the radio, and this incredibly funky song came on. I wasn’t really familiar with any of Prince’s pre-1999 work, so I had no idea what it was but I thought, “Oh, that sounds like Prince. I wonder if this is something new.” (Yeah, I’m not proud of that… but I do think it shows how we’ve come full circle that the dry, immediate sound of Prince’s early ‘80s recordings sounds contemporary again today.) I fired up Soundhound on my iPhone to identify the track, and before the song had even finished playing, I’d purchased and downloaded the entire Controversy album. Thus began my exploration of Prince’s early work. I bought all of his first four albums and listened to them — especially Dirty Mind and Controversy — incessantly for the next several weeks. Finally, at the age of 36, I really “got it”. Prince was a visionary genius, virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, and all-around legend. And he was from Minneapolis and stayed here.
“Uptown” from Dirty Mind (1980)
As I delved into the early work of Prince following my “Let’s Work” epiphany, I realized that Dirty Mind was really the album that defined Prince, the Minneapolis sound, 1980s pop music, everything. “Uptown” quickly became one of my favorite tracks on the album. I loved the upbeat funk groove, and the fact that it was a song about a neighborhood I used to live in. In 2011 I decided to record an album as a tribute to Minneapolis, the city where I was born and have spent most of my adult life. I had to include a song about Uptown, and I took inspiration from this Prince track.
“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)
The more I’ve listened to Dirty Mind (which has become my favorite Prince album), the more I’ve grown to love this song. It’s really kind of a weird song. It’s very poppy, with catchy hooks, but it is driven by strummed chords on an electric bass. And the lyrics seem, at first, like a typical pop song about a lost love, but as you listen closely you realize there’s a bizarre undercurrent to the story they tell that can only come from Prince.
I never was the kind to make a fuss When he was there Sleeping in between the two of us
I figured my appreciation of this song was a bit unusual; it wasn’t a single, it was from before he really hit big. But in the days following his death, I discovered on Twitter that a lot of his fans cite it as their favorite Prince song. To me, it kind of symbolizes what Prince was all about: showing us that we’re all a little weird, that’s OK, and we’re not alone.
In the summer of 1984, I was 10 years old. I spent most of that summer the way I had spent the two previous summers: playing a lot of Atari, and watching a lot of MTV. My ultimate favorite band at the time was, without a doubt, Duran Duran, and “The Reflex” was my favorite song. (My family had just gotten a VCR, and I had a tape that was the video for “The Reflex” over and over, filling up the entire tape. I had sat for days watching MTV with the VCR paused, ready to record as soon as it came on.)
The “Fab Five” aside, I had two other favorite songs that I had seen on MTV but that were a lot harder to find, by two “new” bands I’d never heard of before. The first was “That’s All” by Genesis. The other, and my new elusive favorite that threatened to nudge out “The Reflex” — if only I’d gotten to hear it more often — was “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. The video was surreal and the song was the most amazing thing I had ever heard.
It’s funny that, at the time, I thought Yes and Genesis were “new” bands, and “progressive rock” was a term I’d never even heard. At some point over the next couple of years I saw the Rush Grace Under Pressure concert video (on MTV or HBO; I can’t remember which), and then my mind was really blown when (again, on MTV or HBO) I saw a Genesis documentary that revealed to me how, in the 1970s, Genesis (which had existed in the ’70s!) had been fronted by Peter Gabriel (seriously?!) and they had performed insanely complex 20-minute songs with Gabriel acting out characters while wearing bizarre costumes. It was all too much for my young mind to take. But I had no idea what was just around the corner.
In 1988, when I was a freshman in high school, U2 and R.E.M. were my favorite bands. That is until one night at a sleepover when my friend Mark played me a tape of A Show of Hands, the new live album by Rush. This. Changed. Everything.
The next summer, now firmly ensconced as a hardcore Rush fan, Mark played me another tape. This time it was Classic Yes. I will admit I couldn’t get past the second track, “Wonderous Stories,” to hear the rest of the album, but it didn’t matter. “Heart of the Sunrise” was the most beautiful, bewildering, mesmerizing piece of music I had ever heard, and it immediately became my favorite song of all time.
It still is.
As amazing as I found that song to be in almost every way, the part that was most compelling to me was Chris Squire’s bass. I had already started developing a fascination with the electric bass from listening to Geddy Lee with Rush, but Chris Squire took it to a whole new level for me.
I had been playing clarinet since 5th grade, but I almost quit band before I started high school. My mom convinced me to give it one more year. That was the year that changed everything. My high school band teacher inspired me, and I became obsessed with music. That year he let me borrow a saxophone from the school (a soprano, of all things, but that’s all that was available), and I taught myself to play it so I could join the jazz band. The following year (now doubling on clarinet in concert band and tenor sax in jazz), I branched out yet again and borrowed another unused school instrument, a sickly green colored Fender Precision Bass. I didn’t have an amp, but that was no problem, because I learned to pluck the strings hard enough that I could hear it as I played along and learned the bass parts to songs like “Cygnus X-1” by Rush and “Perpetual Change” by Yes. That hard plucking style worked perfectly for someone trying to imitate Geddy or Chris.
As high school wore on, Mark and I explored the Yes catalog about as thoroughly as our limited budgets (and the limited availability of “obscure” CDs in a town with one small Musicland outpost as its only record store) would allow. I special ordered the mysterious Tales from Topographic Oceans album and called Mark to come over for a special listening when it arrived.
He later did the same for me, when he acquired Relayer.
This was seriously weird music. And finding it on our own felt like exploring an alien world. Roger Dean’s phantasmagorical cover art only increased the sense that we were tampering with forces of nature that the straitlaced world we were growing up in didn’t want us to know about.
Then came Yesyears. A huge boxed set and documentary video that peeled back the layers of mystery and wonder shrouding the 5, 6, 7, 12 37? people who had been in this band. They became real, and messy, and mockable. The real life Spinal Tap. Mark and I still loved them; if anything we loved them even more. And we watched the video again and again, cracking jokes like our own rockumentary version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, much to the dismay and confusion of Mark’s girlfriend who was unfortunate enough to sit through one of the viewings with us.
Mark and I went to separate colleges, but we kept in touch over the nascent Internet, discovering new prog bands — and new prog fans — via the alt.music.progressive Usenet newsgroup. We even made our own music, bizarre and inept but occasionally inspired free-form improvisations, with Mark on organ and me on electric bass. We called ourselves Bassius-O-Phelius, after the instrument Rockette Morton was credited as playing on a couple of Beefheart albums.
But always I kept coming back to Yes, and to Chris Squire and his punchy, in-your-face “lead bass” playing style. Although I was a music major in college, the web hit in a big way during my years there (I graduated in 1996), so I ended up pursuing a career as a web developer. But music never left my life, and though my interest in prog rock waned, I never lost my love for Yes, even as their off-stage drama continued to become more absurd and mockable.
In 1997, while living in Southern California, I got to hear Yes live for the first time, on the Open Your Eyes tour. I saw them in Los Angeles, and was so blown away that I immediately got a ticket for their next show in San Diego and drove down there two nights later to hear them again. (Interesting side note: the audience at a rock show in San Diego is way different than in Los Angeles, something that Jon Anderson made note of from the stage. Specifically, he mentioned how… “aromatic”… shows in San Diego always were.)
I saw Yes again the next summer in Las Vegas. At least, part of the show. I was seated in the balcony for their show at the Hard Rock Hotel, with a great view for the opening act — Alan Parsons Project. But when Yes took the stage, their lighting guy came into the booth that I hadn’t noticed was right in front of me, and completely blocked my view. I stood up, which led to an argument with an usher over the fact that I was supposed to be in the SRO area (even though I had a ticket for the seat), and after bickering futilely with him for a few minutes, I ended up leaving early. Walking back in the dark from the Hard Rock Hotel (which is, emphatically, not on the Strip) to where I had parked by Caesar’s Palace was harrowing, to say the least. This was in the days before smartphones with GPS. I had relied on a tiny Las Vegas city map in my road atlas that made it look like the Hard Rock was on an adjacent road to the Strip, whereas in reality there are about two miles of desolate wasteland between them.
Around this time, in the spirit of “lovingly mocking” this lovable, mockable band, I started a website wherein I attempted to review their entire catalog, album by album, song by song, in a somewhat sardonic tone. I was surprised by how many people the humor was lost on, but it didn’t stop the band’s fan club from approaching me at the time, asking me if I would be interested in becoming the “webmaster” (as we were called back then) of the band’s official site, yesworld.com. I politely declined, in part because I felt it would only be fair to take down my own website, but more because it sounded like it was going to be a lot of work for the foreseeable future, and I would only be compensated in VIP passes and band merch. Do I regret the decision? Somewhat. But although it meant I never got to meet the band or become involved with them in an official way, it probably would have been a lot of work that I would have come to resent. C’est la vie. I eat at Chez Nous.
I saw Yes live three more times in subsequent years, after moving back to Minneapolis. A highlight was definitely getting to see them with the classic lineup including Rick Wakeman reunited, and hearing that lineup perform a song I never thought I’d hear live: “South Side of the Sky.”
But although I had endured many tribulations of the band over the years, I vowed never to see them live again after they unceremoniously kicked Jon Anderson out in the late 2000s over his respiratory health problems. Yes with a cover band impersonator of Jon Anderson singing lead vocals is not really Yes, even if the other four guys on stage are long-time (or not-so-long-time but long-ago) members of the band.
Refusing to see them live didn’t stop me from buying their new music though, and I have to say, I was actually somewhat impressed with Fly from Here, the album the band released in 2011 sans Jon Anderson. They even released a music video that seemed to be in much the same spirit as that of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was what drew me to the band in the first place, so many years earlier.
Unfortunately I can’t offer similar praise for last year’s Heaven and Earth, which sadly now will be the final new Yes studio album to feature Chris Squire. What can I say? It’s really, really awful. Oh wait, I already said that. But, when you’ve followed Yes for as long as I have, you realize that there’s at least as much bad as good, and being along for the ride is part of what it’s all about.
Lately my Yes fandom has taken another unexpected turn, as I’ve become most intrigued with a couple of albums that, while I have certainly listened to them plenty of times (after all, I’ve listened to everything they released up through 1999’s The Ladder plenty of times), have never been favorites that commanded a lot of my attention: 1980’s Drama and 1983’s 90125.
Yes, 90125. The album that introduced me to the band. Although I loved that one song, for whatever reason I never owned the album as a kid. And by the time I was in high school and approached the Yes catalog from the other direction, the Trevor Rabin years were to be ignored at best, ridiculed mercilessly at worst.
But life throws unexpected surprises at you. And in this case it comes in a very convoluted fashion. I have a Raspberry Pi-powered arcade cabinet at the Room 34 studio. A couple months ago, I reprogrammed it to also be a jukebox. It was originally just playing ’80s music, to go with the era of the games it runs, but eventually I loaded it up with all of the MP3s in my music library. The thing is, I don’t have many MP3s in my music library. Most of my music lives today in my iTunes Match account, so even if it originally came from a ripped CD (which I always do in MP3 format), I now only have ready access to most of those songs in Apple’s AAC format. But any albums I’ve purchased on Amazon (CD or MP3) are available to download through Amazon Music Player as MP3s. So naturally, I downloaded everything I could from my Amazon account and loaded it up on the arcade cabinet. As it happens, for Yes that means Drama and 90125, which are apparently the only studio albums by Yes that I bought on CD through Amazon.
Anyway, I’ve been hearing those two albums a lot lately.
In fact, last month I ran in a 10-mile race, and I decided to set up a playlist that just “felt right” to me that day. It was three full albums. The first was my own 5mi. (Yes, I listen to my own music a lot when I run. Don’t ask.) The second was Drama. The third was Van Halen’s 1984. The playlist was awesome, and now I have vivid memories of running along the banks of Lake Waconia in the western exurbs while listening to “Tempus Fugit.”
I was deeply saddened to learn last month that Chris Squire had leukemia, and I knew from that point that his prognosis was not good. Michael Brecker (the jazz saxophonist who inspired me to play, in much the same way as Chris Squire had with the bass) succumbed at a relatively early age from the disease, as had a coworker and friend from my time in Atlanta.
So it was with sadness, but not surprise, that I learned this morning of Chris Squire’s passing. I may have poked fun at him and the band over the years, but I loved his bass playing, and I loved their music. This digressive personal recollection of my life through his music is, in my own weird way, a tribute to Chris Squire and the music that he made, in his own weird way. It has meant more to my life than I can say. So, after all of the above, I’ll just say: thank you, Chris.
Last night was the end of an era, David Letterman’s final Late Show.
Late Night with David Letterman premiered on NBC when I was 9 years old. I remember quietly staying up well past my bedtime on many school nights in the 1980s to catch Letterman’s crazy antics. It turns out I had a penchant for absurdist humor of a kind that I may never have known existed until I saw David Letterman. Growing up in a rather socially conservative small town in the midwest, Letterman was one of a few key figures in opening my growing mind to the possibilities in a larger world. That sounds a bit overblown, but really, it isn’t. Letterman’s show on CBS has become such an institution over two decades — something that I’ve taken for granted, really, and not watched much in years — that it’s easy for me to forget just how huge David Letterman was to me in my formative years.
All of that came into sharp relief for me last night as I just barely managed to catch Dave’s final show. I knew he was retiring, and I had been reading enough about him lately to know that his final show was coming up sometime soon, but I didn’t know it was going to be last night until about 20 minutes before the show came on the air.
I found out about it because my college jazz band director mentioned it on Facebook.
I was lying in bed a little after 10 PM, idly checking Facebook on my iPhone, intending to set the phone down and settle into a crossword puzzle before going to sleep. Seeing that Letterman’s finale was imminent, however, I quickly changed my plans and turned on the TV. This was probably only the third time our bedroom TV has been turned on since we moved into the house last November.
There’s a lot packed into that last paragraph. The futurism of constant communication and instant access to the world of information via the ubiquitous pocket computers we call smartphones. How old I sound when I think of myself sitting in bed doing a friggin’ crossword puzzle. The shifting (and diminishing) cultural significance of broadcast television.
When Carson retired, it was a momentous event. It seems like from the ’60s to the ’80s, everyone watched — or at least had on the TV — The Tonight Show, on a nightly basis. As much as David Letterman revolutionized late night television and shepherded in a new era, he also came at a time of change he couldn’t control, and was both a victim and agent of a cultural shift that ensured his legacy would never be as great as that of his hero and mentor.
And yet, Letterman is the Carson of his generation, at least as much as anyone could have been. (Leno? Give me a break!)
Without a doubt my most vivid memory of Letterman, and honestly one of the most vivid memories of my youth, altogether, was Crispin Glover’s notorious, possibly drug-fueled, appearance in 1987 when he tried to kick Dave in the face.
I was delighted to see that moment in the rapid-fire montage of stills from 33 years of Dave’s show at the end of last night’s finale. It just wouldn’t have been complete without it.
That montage was a nearly perfect conclusion to a lifetime of late night TV. According to some reviews I’ve read this morning, it was the main portion of the show that Letterman had direct involvement in producing. And it was apparently Dave’s personal wish to have the Foo Fighters perform “Everlong” behind the slideshow, because that song touched him personally in his recovery from open heart surgery 15 years ago. (Fifteen years ago!) It occurred to me that this conclusion was almost like Dave’s life — his television life — flashing before his eyes. But not just Dave’s life, our lives, as his audience. Even though I haven’t watched his show regularly since I was in college in the mid-’90s, there were so many familiar sights in these final few moments that I realized that in a way, this was all of our lives. For 33 years millions of Americans have invited this weird guy into their homes on a nightly basis, and he has shared moments of absurd delight with all of us.
I was thinking about my grandparents this morning. In particular, I was thinking about how both of my grandmothers had some interesting idiosyncrasies in their respective vocabularies: things I heard each of them say all the time, but have never heard anyone else say, ever.
I was fortunate as a kid to live in the same town as both sets of my grandparents. I got to see them a lot. My dad’s parents watched me daily while my parents were at work, from the time I was a baby until I entered sixth grade. And we saw my mom’s parents at least weekly.
As many kids probably do, I identified my grandparents not by name, but by a distinguishing characteristic that resonated with my developing brain. In this case, the colors of their houses. So my dad’s parents (the Andersons) were “green grandma and grandpa” and my mom’s parents (the Madsons) were “white grandma and grandpa.” I realize now that a stranger hearing me talk about “white grandma” out of context would probably interpret the meaning in an entirely different way.
I lost all four of my grandparents within a decade, from 1991 (when I was a senior in high school) to 2001. But their memories live on in all of the experiences I shared with them, and especially in the quirky ways that my grandmothers used to speak. Here are some of my favorites. (I’ll probably revisit this post over time and add more as I remember them.)
Bourgeois — a euphemism for “bullshit.” My grandma’s father was French, which is probably where she picked up the term. I had no idea what she was actually saying, but whenever someone needed to be called on their BS, she’d give them a nice friendly “bushwa.” (Grandma Madson)
Breakfast food — cereal. All cereal is breakfast food, but not all breakfast food is cereal. Except to my grandma. (Grandma Anderson)
Davenport — a couch or sofa. I know my grandma was not unique in using this term, but “davenport” is definitely the “RC Cola” of names for this particular piece of furniture. (Grandma Anderson)
Forth and back — back and forth. I have to admit, my grandma actually had a pretty compelling argument for this one: “You have to go forth before you can go back.” Indeed. (Grandma Anderson)
Frigidaire — a refrigerator. There are plenty of brand names that become synonymous with what they are (Kleenex, for instance), but my grandma was one of the few people who did this with kitchen appliances. (Grandma Anderson)
House slippers — umm… as if you’d wear them anywhere else? Strangely, both of my grandmothers used this phrase, so maybe it was a generational thing.
Parasol — an umbrella. Once upon a time people used parasols on a regular basis, and they actually did differ from umbrellas in construction, if not so much in design. But as the parasol has fallen out of favor, I would guess that most people now use “umbrella” as an (excuse me for this) umbrella term for both. But for my grandma it was the other way around. (Grandma Anderson)
Warsh your head — again, I know my grandma was far from the only person to say “warsh” instead of “wash,” but I don’t know anyone else who would say “head” instead of “hair.” She also said “warsh your teeth” but considering she wore dentures it probably made a little more sense. (Grandma Anderson)
Wrath of God — unsightly physical appearance. As in, “I look like the wrath of God,” said when my grandma did not feel that she was properly made up to leave the house. (Grandma Madson)
I’m currently at Part 8 of my Raspberry Pi Arcade project. That is, my own Raspberry Pi Arcade project is at the point of what I have planned as part 8 in the blog series. The blog series itself is stalled out after Part 3. And while the risk of getting too far ahead of myself is there — I don’t keep copious notes, so by the time I write a blog post my own project is so far removed from the topic of that post that I may forget key details — the real threat to the project is coming from what I’m experiencing around my own “Part 8”: polishing the user experience.
I’ve come to realize that while the Raspberry Pi is unequivocally an awesome piece of technology — a complete computer that fits in an Altoids tin, runs on a cellphone charger, plugs into your TV and costs less than $50 — it’s not a powerful computer.
Yes, I always knew it was not a powerful computer. And for a lot of applications it doesn’t need to be. But the main thing you gain by sacrificing that power is its diminutive size. It fits anywhere.
The thing is… for some applications you don’t need a computer to be tiny. And if there’s any application where you can afford for your computer to be huge, it’s a full-size arcade cabinet. I originally had visions of opening up my X-Arcade Tankstick and mounting the Raspberry Pi inside it. That would be cool — amazing, in fact — if I weren’t also mounting the Tankstick onto a full-size cabinet.
So… as I struggle with tweaking settings in my advmame.rc configuration file at the command line, trying to eke every last bit of processing power out of the Pi just so it can render simple early ’80s video games at full screen, I begin to wonder why, and whether or not it’s worth it.
Clearly my emulation dreams would be better served by powering my cabinet with a more robust PC. And the whole thing would probably be a lot easier to set up.
But as I stayed awake last night until well past 1 AM, sitting in front of my living room television, typing arcane commands on a black screen in that classic ’80s DOS font, I realized that this experience is part of what it’s all about. Not just having an arcade cabinet, but hardcore geeking out on Linux. Using a computer the way I used my first computer back in the 1980s.
As much as I’ve embraced the “it (usually) just works” ethos of iOS and modern mobile computing devices, app stores and touchscreens and nary a file system or command line in sight, sometimes I miss computing the old way, when it was a tinkerer’s hobby.
That’s what the Raspberry Pi Arcade project is really about. And maybe it will be the stepping stone to even more creative electronics projects with the Raspberry Pi as their brain. I could see, at some point in the future, replacing the Raspberry Pi in my arcade cabinet with a more powerful PC running Ubuntu Linux, and finding a new, even crazier project where the Pi would be right at home.