Not What I Needed

I was lurking on Twitter this morning and saw the names Ric Ocasek and Tony Bennett trending and thought uh-oh. Turns out there’s some college basketball coach named Tony Bennett who turned down a raise because he wanted more for his staff. But who cares, college coaches are obscenely overpaid and that seems like the least he could do.

Unfortunately, Ric Ocasek was trending for the very last time. He died after having an unspecified surgery. My first thought was I never saw him live, only once in concert with The Cars. If you ever saw them, you’d know what I mean.

I saw them in 1984 in Indianapolis at Market Square Arena. Lionel Richie cracked the ceiling of that stadium earlier that year. He wasn’t dancing on it either, he played too loud apparently.

They opened with “Hello Again” and just played one song after the other. There was no banter or connection with the audience. In hindsight, it was kind of dull, but I remember thinking it was a pretty good at the time. I’d only been to one other concert before, and that was Rick Springfield, in Springfield, Illinois.

Over the years, I have seen a lot of bands live, and The Cars have sunk way down the list in terms of performers. At least they weren’t as bad as Ray LaMontagne.

He was more than a great songwriter, musician, and producer. He made it socially acceptable for people like Julia Roberts and Katy Perry to marry ugly, and yet stay together.

All joking aside, I loved The Cars, they were my favorite band for a while. My brother gave me “Shake it Up” for my birthday and I played it to death. Before that, the only album I owned was “Spirits Having Flown” by the Bee Gees. I only bought it for the first two tracks on side one; “Tragedy” and “Too Much Heaven.” I never even flipped it over to side two. By the time I was 11, I was sooo over disco anyhow.

“Shake it Up” was the first album I could listen to from beginning to end. I didn’t care that every track wasn’t on the radio. I’ll always remember the way “Since Your Gone” opened up with the heal clicks, guitar strum and then the bass and drum.

A couple years later, we were in Winnipeg, Manitoba – of all places – where I bought The Cars first three albums. It was like discovering a new band for me. They were all solid, but it took me a little while to warm up to “Panorama” because it didn’t have any songs I recognized.

The Cars were always pegged as New Wave, probably because of the ham-fisted keyboards. But they were the only band in that genre who weren’t afraid to have great guitar riffs and solos. Which is why they still hold up better than a lot of other acts from that era.

As a young hipster wannabe living in cultural wastelands like rural North Dakota and Central Illinois (long story, boring story), The Cars were a great gateway band. They were popular and accessible, yet weird enough, that I could still call them my favorite band and maintain some street cred.

So long iTunes

Last week Apple announced at WWDC that iTunes is going away. Supposedly, it’s core functionality of playing music won’t go away, but the standalone app will no longer exist. Hopefully Apple doesn’t make everyone’s music library obsolete, or a mess like iTunes Match.

I’m bummed to see it go because I was there at the earliest stages of the app’s life.

Back in late 1998, early 1999 I was the technology manager for the desktop line at Apple in developer relations. It was an awesome job because I got to work with some brilliant developers and play with the latest and greatest stuff. I was working on the first generation G4 Mac and in charge of loaning out pre-release machines (aka seed units).

Whenever we released new hardware, developers wanted to get their hands on these seed units as soon as possible. They wanted to test their apps and make sure it didn’t break on the new machines. Managing the seed units was fun. You got to make a developers happy, which isn’t very easy.

The G4 was different than previous hardware. The supply was extremely limited and because Steve Jobs was obsessed with secrecy, he didn’t want to seed developers at all. But, Steve wanted something shiny and new to show off the G4 at launch, so we had to make sure a few cutting edge developers got units.

As the gatekeeper of G4 units, I had to decide who would and wouldn’t get one for testing. It sucked because a lot of people’s livelihoods could be upset with broken software. And yet, there was political pressure to give ones to all the big companies – Microsoft, Adobe, Macromedia – or they’d threaten to drop Mac support. This left about 10 units left for hundreds of developers. I had to prioritize developers who could show more than just faster versions of their latest app.

There were these two guys, Jeff Robbins and Bill Kincaid and they had one app that wasn’t even released. Bill used to work at NeXt, so I think he used some of his own connections to reach me (coincidentally, we were neighbors and didn’t know it).

They created an app called SoundJam. It was an MP3 player that also ripped CDs. This wasn’t new, there were already apps like WinAmp on Windows, but it was the only option for Macs at the time.

Bill wanted a seed unit because he thought it would significantly speed up ripping. The G4 processor had a built-in DSP which could give a 10-20x performance boosts for a limited number of functions.

I couldn’t loan him a unit because they weren’t even the kind of developer we supported when we had enough, but I didn’t want to be a dick. So I told him I’d try it on my personal seed unit. Sure enough, it was a lot faster. Bill kept me fed with updates to SoundJam and I got hooked. I started ripping my personal CD collection and made a jukebox out of a spare all-in-one G3 (aka “the Tooth”). Bill gave me copies to share with colleagues and soon we were all hooked.

The G3 Tooth. When Steve was evaluating the product line, he saw this one and said, “Looks like I missed one.”

Eventually, I snuck Bill a seed unit, because he had a feature he wanted to add to show off the G4’s processing power. It was a cool realtime visualizer that responded to the music you were playing. This became the thing that got Steve’s attention. When we launched the G4, SoundJam was one of the apps they demonstrated in the keynote.

I left Apple to go work for a startup called eMusic because I believed digital, downloadable music was the future. I was right, but I bet on the wrong horse. Apple would buy SoundJam a month or two after I left and rename it iTunes. And the rest, as you know is history.

iTunes is one of my all-time favorite pieces of software. Not only because I love music, but because it was unlike any other program Apple owned at the time. It didn’t atrophy or languish at some dot release for years. It was always evolving and changing, mostly for the better. In the end, maybe it is time for it to go away.

All about the bass

I have been relearning the bass, or should I say, teaching myself. I used to take bass guitar lessons in high school. My first teacher was a guy named Tommy O’Donnell. His nickname was OD and he taught at Miller Music. It was one of those old school type of music shops that mostly sold pianos and organs. 

He was a heavy metal guitarist and would sit in the back of the store and shred. He took me on as his first, and only bass student. For lessons, I’d bring in a tape, listen to it, and he’d figure it out. The first song I learned was “Blood and Roses” by The Smithereens. 

While it was cool watching him figure out things by ear, he didn’t teach me how to figure things out on my own. Lessons were $5 for 30 minutes and I quit going to him after 4 or 5.

My next teacher was an actual bass player.  He worked at Guitar World, a “real” guitar store in Normal, IL. I can’t remember his name, but we all referred to him as “buddy”. He wore a denim vest and bell bottoms when it wasn’t ironic or fashionable. 

Buddy was way more academic than OD. Instead of music theory, he’d spend most of our lesson time on rock history. He spent at least four weeks on Jaco Pastorius. 

Jaco Pastorius or possibly James Franco.

After two teachers, and only learning a handful of riffs, I bagged lessons and just tried to figure out bass on my own. Eventually, I got bored with it and took up guitar.

Over the years I would take it out and tinker, but I never wanted to be a bass player. I only took it up because I wanted to be in a band, and that was the only opening. 

I have a renewed interest in bass because I recently sent mine into the shop for some basic maintenance. It had been sitting in the cases neglected for a few years and the neck started to curve. My local music shop sent it out to a guy in Berkeley. 

It should have been a simple one-day thing, but it was taking weeks. Then one day, the guy called me to let me know he was done. He also wanted to tell me how impressed he was with the guitar and the shape it was in. 

The bass is an ’87 G&L SB-1. I bought it brand new for $299. While I knew then, G&L was a quality guitar, I was disappointed that I couldn’t afford an Fender. Funny enough, G&L is the guitar company Leo Fender started after selling his namesake to CBS.

My 1987 G&L SB-1 Bass in extremely good condition. Back from the shop and sounding great.

I bought it to replace the cheap bass I originally bought because I was in a band with some friends, and wanted to look cooler. The band dissolved a couple months later. 

Today, I watch my kids figure everything out on the internet and I’m motivated to do the same. This time around, I’m actually doing what I wouldn’t do back then – read. I can still read music (because I took piano lessons before I took guitar lessons). Now, I can figure out a lot of things quicker, because I’m actually studying music theory as well as the riffs I want to play.

Q in my Queue

Quincy | Netflix Official Site

Quincy | Netflix Official Site

This documentary profiles music and culture icon Quincy Jones, offering unprecedented access to his private life and stories from his unparalleled career.


I started watching this last night on Netflix. it’s decent, as far as documentaries go. It’s worth watching just to see the depth and breadth of Quincy Jone’s work. His name is on everything from the 60s through 80s.

Concert Log: Neko Case & Ray Lamontagne at the Greek Theater, Berkeley, CA

I finally got a chance to see Neko Case live. It was a shortened set since she was the opening act for Ray Lamontagne. The show was at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. She sounded great, and played mostly new stuff from her latest album that coincidentally was released that day. Fortunately, she’ll be coming back on her own tour in the winter. I hope to see her then.

Neko Case by daylight.

As for Ray Lamontagne. I wasn’t there to see him but figured what the hell. I know enough of his songs and I’ve seen plenty of singer-songwriters types. I’ve been blown away by the power of a single voice and an acoustic guitar. So I was surprised to see him with a full electric band.

I know he has a reputation as a very private person, but it felt like the audience and his band were interrupting his set. We left early, so I don’t know if he ever interacted with the audience or his band. While we were there he didn’t.

Upcoming Summer and Fall Concerts

We’ve got a crowded calendar of upcoming live shows all at great venues:

Willie Nelson with Kacey Musgraves, August 19 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.
We were watching an interview of Willie on CBS Sunday Morning and I said, I really want to see him before he dies. He’s the last of the real country singers I remember listening to growing up. Lo and behold he was coming.  So we grabbed our tickets. Also, I’ve been wanting to go to the Greek ever since I missed seeing the Ramones there in ’92.

Dwight Yoakam with Los Lobos August 24 at the Wente Winery in Livermore.
We have seen Los Lobos so many times, I’ve lost count. I’m bragging not complaining. I love those guys. The concerts at Wente are a lot like Ravinia in Chicago – outdoors and classy.

John Mulaney October 5 at Symphony Hall, San Francisco.
One of the few standup comedians my wife doesn’t hate. John Mulaney is hilarious, plus this is going to be a gorgeous setting. We’re taking our daughter who loves John too. I’ve wanted to see the inside of Davies Symphony Hall, but not necessarily a symphony – don’t tell anyone.

Father John Misty with Phosphorescent October 7 at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.
This will be our second time seeing him. The first was in 2015 at the Wiltern in LA. By far one of the best shows I’ve seen in years (next to Mayer Hawthorne at the Fox). I love how people think he’s a prick and a pompous ass. It just shows that people don’t get satire. Kind of reminds me of Urge Overkill in that regard.

Hi Fi

Linda has been on the hunt for an old school hi fi since we bought our daughter a turntable for her birthday. The original plan was to check the Treasure Island flea market, but we didn’t feel like making the drive. So she hit Craigslist and five minutes later found the perfect match.

It’s a Magnavox with a tube amp. Judging by the style, I’d guess it’s from the 60s. It sounds pretty good. We dug out some vinyl from our vast collection and spent a good chunk of Saturday showing the kids what “real” music is.

IMG_4194 IMG_4195

"real music"
“real music”

Mayer Hawthorne tonight

We have tickets to see Mayer Hawthorne tonight at one of my favorite theaters, the Fox in Oakland. I’ve been dying to see him for years. I became a fan with his debut album, “Strange Arrangement” in 2009. I first heard him on KCRW’s Eclectic 24 stream and a free Starbucks download of “Maybe So, Maybe No”.


The show was excellent. If you get a chance, check him out.

It was a great evening all around. We had dinner at Flora in downtown Oakland, right across the street from the Fox. I’m loving downtown Oakland in general. Years ago, there was never any reason to go there, but now it’s happening. It hasn’t been totally updated like San Francisco, Chicago, or New York. There’s a still a good mix of old an new businesses.


The Grammys

Last night I caught the tail end of the Grammys. I must be a masochist, because I hate most award shows. Compared to most, the Grammys are the least authentic. That includes the Oscars, because I expect actors to be feigning sincerity.

Recognizing David Bowie’s contribution to music made perfect sense. I would have preferred someone other than Lady Gaga to do it. I think she’s talented, but let her Madonna’s tributes when she dies.

We really didn’t need another montage of his 10 radio hits. We’ve been hearing those around the clock since he died. It would have been more interesting to hear from the diverse range of people who worked actually knew him. I would have loved to see an uncensored Iggy Pop up there.

I liked the B.B. King tribute with Gary Clark Jr., Chris Stapleton, and Bonnie Raitt, because I like them. The Grammys tributes are such a conceit, not because they’re so mawkish and self-congratulatory. It’s because they’re obviously done more to promote the flavor of the day act.