From the Innovation Unit Vaults: "I owe my PhD to the Sherwood High School Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival" (January 19, 2010)

This summer, I'm re-posting some of the blog posts I wrote while I was working at the Innovation Unit in London, which disappeared when the Innovation Unit discontinued its blog: 

My High School, Sherwood, had an annual event called the Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival, a revue of about fifty songs, broken up by a single intermission – played, sung, and in many cases, arranged, by students (just shy of 200 in total, not including the ones who build the set, and run the sound and lighting). When I first auditioned in 1995, it had been going for 25 years. I started out (like everyone) as a backup singer, then played saxophone in the band, and sang the lead on ‘Money (That’s What I want)’ and the Guess Who’s ‘Shakin’ All Over’. But my favourite moment was playing the tenor sax solo on Louis Prima’s ‘Jump Jive and Wail’ – actually, that’s not quite true. My favourite moment – or at least the one that most sticks in my mind, was at the beginning of the show – standing in a row with the rest of the horn section, back to the audience, hearing the drummer’s count-off, spinning around as one (you had to have choreography) and kicking in with the horn line, greeted by a screaming, sold- out crowd of 1000... but I’m getting bogged down in nostalgia. It’s only since my colleague Dave Price started talking about High Tech High that I realised how much I owe to Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival. The title of this post is no exaggeration. I have a PhD in English literature (and I completed it on time), and the reason I was able to do it has more to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll revival than with any of my High School English classes.

This isn’t a slur on my English teachers, some of whom were great – but I already loved reading critically, and writing critically, when I arrived – and the curriculum felt like it was geared towards mastering concepts that could be demonstrated in exam conditions – not a skill that I ever drew on as a PhD student.* 

On the other hand, these are the skills I learned from Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival:

1. Hitting deadlines: There is absolutely no deadline like a performance: you get no chance of an extension, and no partial credit for late completion.

2. Working consistently, year-round, with no visible reward: When I was practicing saxophone in June, I wasn’t preparing SPECIFICALLY for Rock ‘n’ Roll, which wouldn’t take place until March – but I wanted to keep my chops up, and I knew I would be set back if I took a break. So I practiced all the time, whether or not I had a gig coming up. This skill is key, because when you do a PhD in the UK, you’re only assessed twice: at your upgrade viva, which happens at the end of year one, and at the final viva – when you go into a room and defend your thesis against two examiners for a few hours, at the end of which they decide whether you get a PhD or not. So if you can’t work for long stretches with no imminent deadlines, you’ll never finish. Those are the skills that applied directly to my PhD, but there are others whose significance is much wider:

3. Working in a heterogenous group: It’s no secret that when you segregate according to academic attainment, you segregate, to a large extent, by social class. This is not the case with singing and dancing – and as a result Rock ‘n’ Roll was very nearly the only time in high school that I didn’t spend surrounded by other middle- class people.

4. Working towards a publicly-validated result: I’m going to get very High-tech High here. Rock ‘n’ Roll revival is a venerable institution in Sandy Spring, Maryland: lots of people now performing in it are the children of past performers – and tickets for the six annual shows (over two weekends) sell out so quickly that many people who get in line before the box office opens leave disappointed. The upshot of all this is that I spent rehearsals terrified that I wouldn’t live up to the standards that the community expected – and I think this was good, productive fear.

5. Developing secondary skills that were unrelated to my primary skill: I was in Rock ‘n’ Roll revival because I could play saxophone. I also had to learn to dance – which I was less good at – and I needed to procure a set of vintage costumes for myself – which I had absolutely no skills or experience in. But I got it done, because I had to. It’s an important characteristic of projects that they force you to acquire skills that you came to the project with no knowledge of, or indeed interest in.

6. Accomplishing something that seemed impossible: At thebeginning of rehearsals, it’s impossible to imagine that you will accomplish what was accomplished the year before – a seamless run of songs, on a great-looking set – and in fact, I’ve never known of another school that has pulled off what Sherwood pulls off ever year. 

Now it’s always satisfying to achieve more than you thought yourself capable of, but what’s amazing about Rock ‘n’ Roll is that whatever role you have played in accomplishing it, almost all of the credit DOES NOT go to you. Everybody involved – musician, singer, dancer, lighting designer, carpenter, sound technician – has contributed only a fraction of the whole. There’s no question that playing music onstage to cheering crowds is good for the ego, but perhaps the most powerful lesson of Rock ‘n’ Roll revival is that it’s not all about you. 

*I should note that editing the school literary magazine, under the endlessly serene and compassionate supervision of Mr. Deitchman, DID provide me with some of the skills I needed... a pattern is developing here. 

This post got a bunch of comments:

From Annette:

Alec- I could not have said it better myself. It is amazing thinking back how much we would accomplish from the early December auditions to performances in March. These are some of my favorite memories in my life (so far). I got goose bumps thinking about that countoff at the beginning of the show- especially our very last one senior year- down on the corner. I'll add to the social aspect even more though- working alongside a dance partner for months on end, you grow to adore them! Some of my best memories from RnR were dancing with Afiba and Adam. I'll also always remember dancing with you during the bridge in "Money." It makes me smile just thinking about it! I also completely agree that RnR helped us with our skills for higher education. We all share such a special bond being alums of the show that no other high school students share. Thanks for sharing your perspective. Hope you are doing well, Dr. Patton! love- Dr. K.

From Holly:

Wow, well said. Thanks for sharing. I was in RRR from #19-22 and can say that doing that and the newspaper no doubt helped me gain skills to survive getting my PhD (especially when I lost an advisor to cancer and my co-advisor moved to another university at the same time). Sherwood was great to me.

From Dan:

This was a great blog post to read. I think back to those years fondly with vivid memories of so many of us dedicating our time to hard work for many months in the pursuit of putting on a great show. To paraphrase Jack Black - a great rock show can change the world. I'm not sure if the experience was as much of an obvious impact on my path in life, but Rock 'n' Roll Revival definitely shaped me on a personal level. The dedication that we all put in to this show with our time and hard work was for me probably the first of many times that I started on a path for what seemed to be an unobtainable goal. Standing on that stage in front of a thousand people night after night to dance and sing allowed me to learn how to put aside inhibitions and embrace a confidence in myself I never knew existed before, and that has continued to serve me well in my current career. I will always cherish the time we spent together working on the show, building friendships, building partnerships, making music, entertaining each other as well as the audience, and having more fun in a school sanctioned activity than most high school students will ever understand. Those 4 years went by quickly and I miss being a part of the show, but I'm grateful for the time I had and the role RRR played in my life. Alec - nice post, and Jump Jive and Wail was also one of my most memorable moments, but from the dance perspective.

From David Horwitz:

Written on behalf of us ALL -- thank you, Alec! It amazes my adult friends when I tell them that at MY high school, the football players were also dancers in the annual rock and roll show, students who could sing were given the chance to do so in front of seven sold out crowds of 1,300 people, and 15% of the entire student body was actually involved in this amazing production, year after year! Those of us who went to Sherwood definitely had a unique high school experience, one that will stay with us forever. Thank you to Bill, Gene, Joe, and everyone else over the years who made this time of our lives so special! - David Horwitz '85, RRR #12 and #14

From Afiba:

Well done. English class is only part of what makes a great Dr. Of English. This paper demonstrates that we are the sum of our experiences.

From Tony Jordan

I'm from your Dad's generation but we had Rock 'n' Roll too. I can't say it improved my school work but it sure was a gas. I used to go to parties and dances envious of the guys that played in bands. They had all the girls and seemed really cool. After all I played clarinet in high school band, not terribly glamorous. Then one day I accompanied a friend who was auditioning on tenor sax for a local rock band. He walked into the suburban church basement where they rehearsed wearing shades and a beret. He said "Lay some chords on me, man." and totally freaked out these suburban teens. Later after his audition, which hadn't gone too well I asked if I could try his sax. Since clarinet and sax fingerings are similar I cranked out a version of Night Train. The next day I was asked if I could get a hold of a tenor sax and my Rock 'n' Roll career was launched. Since then I've played in dozens of Rock, Blues and Jazz bands. After my having given your dad introductory sax lessons he and I went to Berklee for a summer course where I began to play bari in their sight reading band. I met your dad's teacher, the legendary Frank Foster from the Count Basie band. Well it's 40 years later and I'm still blowing horn in various big bands, combos, pit orchestras and my sax ensemble. Playing music has been spiritually rewarding and enriched my life immeasurably. Don't let your horn gather dust in the closet. You can always find a group to play with if you want to.

From C Madoo:

Thanks for the memories! I was in RnR #16-20 and there is nothing else like it. It prepared me a lot for the real world. I actually went back a couple a years ago and it broght back alot of memories.

 From Jim Hofman:

Hey Alec thanks for your great post as well as other who wrote in with memories--cool to read! I am with your train of thought on R&RR under the direction of Bill Evan and Gene Orndorff. Its been 30 years since my first time on stage at the R&RR and they are both still there. Amazing! I heard today one person in the musical dept was let go because of the States budget but that it was Not Bill. I`m wondering was in Gene? Well Alec, when I was in The R&RR, that was 12 years before you set foot on stage there. So yeah the memories last a life time :) I always have said: "These kids have no clue how much they will treasure the fun experiences by being a part of Sherwood High School`s Annual Rock and Roll Revivals. You don`t know it when you are in H.S, but later on in life, you definitely realize how BIG of a chapter in life H.S. and the R&RR was as for fun memories. Alec, you hit it on the nail about how it puts all "classes" of students together to create something--nerds, jocks, pompom chicks, teachers, musicians- whatever Ha, it was all good, and that was that. There was no Bullshit at SHS. Everyone mixed well there. I was not aware of any clicks of kids with nasty attitudes, black white, jocks, freaks, nerds--there was not much of that crap thank goodness. If there was I ignored it. I hated trends except tight Jordash jeans on chicks :) And Definitely was no attitude crap of any type is Bill Evan`s music classes or in his R&RR`s. Bill Evans would kick your ass with his vocal chords alone. He started teaching at Sherwood in 1979 and in March of 1980, which was Rock and Roll Revival #9, Sherwood was blessed with Bills talents as the new musical director. He had mega classical and opera vocal chops but for some reason used it to teach after not gettin the right gig. So, H.S got him instead to all the kids advantage. He would demonstrate how to sing from the lower gut, and the damn walls would shake. He was the force that the R&RR show needed. He was unSTOPable--30 years later he is still there-Ha wow Jesus what a long career. I know Bill was impressed with the talent at Sherwood in my days there. Music was so incredible in the 80`s. Top 40 music was more fun then for sure. Ok I`m STILL stuck in the 80`s according to my wife. I play 80`s at work in Sirius daily. Its fun and easy tunes, the Cars, the Police. I don`t get Boyance and today’s hip-hop craze. Don`t need it personally. Some cool cats I remember going down memory lane during Sherwood’s early 80`s alumni readers might know like Sean Whalen, Bobby Brooks. I know allot of cats from Sherwood that went on to become full time musicians to this day. Its reminds me of a sports team that works hard together at something and wins. The R&RR was a bonding project. I`m 45 Alec, and when I see my old HS pal Kevin Yorke here and there, we have the memories with us still like it was not that long ago. When I did the Rock & Roll Revival #9 thru #12 in the early 80`s, it was all a group thing like you said. It was never about one person. I envy all the people who work hard on Broadway because all those actors and dancers and crew experience tons of fun and bonding with each show. I guess it` probably the same way on a movie set for 3-4 months, and then BOOM it`s over. Does anyone remember Kevin Yorke as the master of ceremonies as a DJ one year I think 1981 I think, or Tom Musgrove as Wolfman Jack in 1980 What great cats. I always loved the shows when they had a DJ weaving things together. You are who you are, and the R&RR brought some of that out in us. Arif Durrani with his keyboard tie on always smiling--he still plays today. He was the keyboard king in HS. I remember thinking I need a keyboard player for my top 40 bank Eclipse. I asked Arif the next day, and then for the next 5 years into college even we did top 40 dances everywhere Exactly 100 gigs. Going back even farther was ninth grade asking my neighbor Tommy Dobridge to join my band with Jamie Fornatora and Paul Betances on drums. Well Tommy, he was always playing my favorite slow song "Stairway to Heaven" PERFECTLT on his guitar, over at Pete and Chris Benoits house. I asked him to play lead for Eclipse and the rest was history. I still have Tapes of Tommy solos from a bunch of our gigs and some back yard Parties. As far back as the 8th grade party at Tim Maddens back field playing Beatles and Van Halen. 

From Mindy:

I was so jealous of all those who had the talent and nerve to perform. I was SHS class of 1984. Looking back, I wish i was on that stage. I still have no talent but it looked like such a great time.

From Beth Miller Buckley:

Hi Alec... Beth Miller(Buckley) here :D I was in R&RR's 7-10!! and I remember when it all started (w/ Sam Andleman and Roger Oliver).. thanks to 3 older sisters that were at SHS before me...but I was the first in my family to be on the stage of the Ertzman...and I will never stop being proud of what we all did together back there...and what a great experience it was......I didn't go off to be anything major..just a mom and a Domestic Engineer..LOL BUT once Bill Evans came in and took over as musical director...the show turned into one of the most professionally done I had ever been in...the encouragement Bill gave to let our talents flow was off the charts...something time can never take... Since my time there..this show has touched more people than anyone can count..and I am so glad to see it is going as strong as ever! SHS was a safe place where we were all very close and to this day remain so....R&RR was an even safer haven...where when you think you're close with aren't until you do this thing together with them...then you are close...and with as much time that passes there has been no erosion at all....that's a good place to be.. Thanks for the great write up..I am sure you are probably one of my very good friends son/nephew etc...Olney itself is a great place to grow up.

From the Innovation Unit Vaults: "'Laughing at Shakespeare in the right places' - intellectual impoverishment in California" (February 10,2010)

This summer, I'm re-posting some of the blog posts I wrote while I was working at the Innovation Unit in London, which disappeared when the Innovation Unit discontinued its blog: 

I’ve just finished reading Caitlin Flanagan’s deeply misguided article, ‘Cultivating Failure’, in the Atlantic. The article is one long warning against the evils of ‘The Edible Schoolyard’, a California project spearheaded by the chef and gardener Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Foundation, which supports schools in developing gardens and connecting them to the curriculum. According to Flanagan, this is what happened in the pilot school: ‘In English class students composed recipes, in math they measured the garden beds, and in history they ground corn as a way of studying pre-Columbian civilizations.’ The result of this nefarious scheme was, Flanagan explains, that ‘students’ grades quickly improved.’

Those trying to grasp what, exactly, Flanagan’s problem with ‘The Edible Schoolyard’ is will grasp in vain. Her evidence amounts to this: in California, there is a huge achievement gap between Black and Latino students and their white peers. And she reasons that if students spend 1.5 hours per week in a garden (yes, that’s the amount of time we’re talking about here), that’s 1.5 hours that the Black and Latino students are spending doing the sort of manual labour that their forbears have been trying to escape. There’s a deep vein of snobbery here, thinly disguised as concern for the underprivileged. Contrary to what Flanagan seems to think, agriculture is a complex, multidisciplinary business. It requires careful planning, complex calculation, precise implementation, and continuing observation. If she thinks working in a garden is a waste of time because she doesn’t see how it will help performance on standardised tests (which she regards as the only educational outcome worth anyone’s attention), she might as well demand to know why chemistry students are larking about with test tubes when their laboratory experience will never be reflected in their performance on paper-based exams. But Flanagan won’t ask this question, because mixing chemicals in a lab is ‘real’ learning, while measuring the PH of a soil sample in order to grow food is what farmers do. It’s tempting to laugh at an association this facile, and I recommend you do so. It’s utterly preposterous. The subject of laughter brings me to Flanagan’s vision for education – or rather, the vision that she hears when she speaks to Michael Piscal, founder and CEO of the Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools, the White Knight that she sets against the ‘dowager queen’ (her phrase) Alice Waters:

“Look,” he said, when pressed, “there’s nothing wrong with kids getting together after school and working on a garden that’s very nice. But when it becomes the center of everything—as it usually does—it’s absurd. The only question in education reform that’s worth anything is this: What are you doing to prepare these kids for college? If I can get a kid to read Shakespeare and laugh at the right places, I can get him to college. That’s all that matters to me.”

This is as intellectually impoverished a vision for education as I have ever encountered. It’s straight out of My Fair Lady: 'let’s not teach kids to engage critically with literature, just make sure they can blend in with high society by laughing at the right spots.' The idea that we must choose between a generation of graduates who can grow food and a generation who can recognise an Elizabethan double-entendre is a false dichotomy – but if I had to choose, I know which skill I'd want them to have.

This post received one comment, posted by my brother, Andrew:

Excellent analysis. Looking at it from an outside perspective, I am amazed that Flanagan could interview Piscal, get that quote ("laughing at Shakespeare in the right places"), and not have the critical capacity to give more than a cursory glance to his '25 words or less' vision of what pre-collegiate education should be. Did she just hear the name 'Shakespeare' and figure that's what learning really should be? I can barely begin to express my frustration with Flanagan's thesis. And it's hard to know where to begin in breaking it down. When the foundation is built of paint, bread sticks, and shellac (Fat Tony's construction material of choice for Springfield Elementary), is their any point in trying to look at what was piled on top? It all topples down regardless. Even so, let me just point to one example of her rhetorical slight of hand. She puts the "Edible Schoolyard" educational program into perspective thusly: "If this patronizing agenda were promulgated in the Jim Crow South by a white man who was espousing a sharecropping curriculum for African American students, we would see it for what it is: a way of bestowing field work and low expectations on a giant population of students who might become troublesome if they actually got an education." Maintaining a garden of your own, then, is roughly equivalent to sharecropping in the Jim Crow South (i.e., "an economic arrangement that largely maintained the status quo between black and white through legal means" following emancipation, according to Wikipedia). Is that a fair comparison? Because it is, in fact, the basis of her entire thesis. Namely, that engaging in all of the activities involved in maintaining a small food garden at school (including 1.5 hours of manual labor a week) is roughly equivalent to working as a low-paid immigrant picking fruits on an industrial farm. If anything, that assertion trivializes the back- breaking labour illegal immigrants are forced to engage in to survive. Mostly, however, it is simply a false analogy. Flanagan's lack of self-awareness is breathtaking. She purports to be attacking those who would patronize, while simultaneously taking this view on what comprises proper education: "hours...spent reading important books or learning higher math" are hours spent "attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt." We must 'lift' these immigrants (though of course 'lifting' them in a totally non-patronizing way) out of the desperate struggle of agriculture, because obviously everyone knows that the only worthwhile life is one of reading and letters or math and science. This is the goal we should all be striving for. Flanagan clearly knows what is best for you, but that is not because she is being patronizing or condescending. I am happy to see that the "Edible Schoolyard" program is still alive and strong, and delighted to think that the children at those schools, aside from the many educational benefits of that kind of a program often enumerated in this blog, are getting at least an extra hour or two a week outdoors, working with the earth, getting exercise, being in nature. I just hope Flanagan's attack doesn't threaten that.

Cultures of Complaint in high school: FOGS (possibly the first in a series)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I performed a private ritual whenever I went to a show or movie, and found myself in a less-than-ideal seat: I would furtively look around until I found somebody in a seat that was unequivocally worse than my own. Then I would relax, knowing I didn't have the worst seat in the house. 

I don't remember when I stopped doing this, but at some point it just didn't matter so much anymore. I also don't remember when it peaked, but I now suspect it was tenth grade. This phenomenon probably has a name already, but since I regard it as the defensive sibling of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), I'm calling it Fear of Getting Shafted (FOGS). 

FOMO is a phenomenon that, at its best, drives discovery and adventure. At its worst, it leads people to take stupid risks ("If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump to?" is a question about FOMO). My favorite story about FOMO comes from cultural critic, university teacher and Vietnam Vet Henry Allen, who told me that he always felt like he missed out on the sixties because he was in Vietnam, but a friend of his who was a radical activist told him the thing about the sixties was that even in the midst of a riot, he'd be wondering if there was a better riot a few blocks away. Fundamentally, FOMO puts you on the offense - it sends you down the street searching for a better riot. 

FOGS, on the other hand, is a protective instinct. Ponzi schemes are driven by FOMO, and FOGS is what tells you that they're probably too good to be true. But at its worst, it leads to a joyless life of endless suspicion of other people's motives. 

My favorite illustration of FOGS is an economic exercise called the "ultimatum game". Here's how HowStuffWorks summarizes it:

You're standing on the sidewalk with a friend, minding your own business, when a man approaches with a proposition. He offers you $20 in one-dollar bills and says you can keep the money, under one condition: You have to share some of it with your friend. You can offer your friend as much or as little as you like, but if your friend rejects your offer, neither of you get to keep any of the money. What do you do?
According to the "rational actor" assumptions of classical economics that no-one ever follows, you give your friend $1.00 and your friend grudgingly accepts it. But what tends to happen (at least according to HowStuffWorks, Wikipedia, and this article I found on Stanford's website) is that people tend to offer about $8.00 to their friends, and that offers below $3.00 tend to get rejected, leaving nobody with any money. 

Now, there's a lot going on here, but I think FOGS operates both in the offer of $8.00 ("I don't want to be a jerk, but I don't want to be the chump who walks away with less money") and the rejection of low offers ("I'd rather both of us walk away with nothing, than me be the only chump here").

FOGS is also one of the most powerful weapons in the Trump campaign - Trump constantly claims not just that Americans aren't well off, but that other people are giving us the shaft and laughing at us (in fact, as this Washington Post article shows, he's been doing this since the '80s, and getting great results).

Where I'm going with all this is that while FOMO tends to be the frame of mind most often associated with teenagers, I think FOGS is much more powerful, especially in large heterogenous groups (such as, just to pull an example out of the air, classrooms). 

FOGS is the ingredient that gets left out in discussions about intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, because even if I feel intrinsically motivated to do something, a grade (or, even better, extra credit) is insurance that I'm not getting shafted, as well as (equally importantly) evidence to everyone around me that I'm no chump. 

A quote about coaching

At some point I attended a round-table, or panel, or training about coaching. It's probably obvious to you already that most of it didn't make much of an impression.

But I liked this quote a lot: "Coaching is giving a chance to examine what they are doing in light of their intentions", which appears to have been said by James Flaherty.

Some notes from the Project Zero workshop I attended months ago

I'm going through an old notebook, which included my notes from the project zero workshop. My awesome, heavily-annotated packet is lost forever (I took somebody else's packet with me) but the stuff that remains seems useful.

First, The Artful Thinking Palette

I haven't given any thought to this since the workshop, but I remember thinking that the thinking skills (or whatever one might call them) on the artful thinking palette seem useful, and (at least at the time) were coherent and instantly understandable in a way that I've never found our Habits of Heart and Mind to be. 

Here's a screenshot of the palette:

I feel the absence of a usable, easy-to-remember set of thinking skills in my teaching. My suspicion is that using something like this in my class (or, even better, across the school) would help kids to be able to identify how they are learning and growing, which would in turn make them both more confident that they are becoming more skilled over time (which I think is a frequent source of anxiety across the HTH schools) and more able to assess their own development and focus on areas where they most want to improve.

Next, and finally, the Triadic Model of Dispositions

The big insight here is that if you know how to do something, and are willing to do it, your mastery of that skill is incomplete until you are "alert to the opportunity" to use the skill. 

Track Exchange: "The Headmaster Ritual" by The Smiths

Wow, a song about Manchester schools! This is dear to my heart - when my dad was in high school he spent a year studying at Manchester Grammar School. His experience seemed to have been much better than Morrissey's, though. And he made a very good friend who became my honorary "English dad" when I studied abroad in England decades later. 

I know England has a history of institutionalized brutality in its schools (see Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall", and lots and lots of novels for more on this - I have a personal theory that Lord of the Flies would have turned out very differently if the kids stranded on the island had come from, say, HTHCV). But what really strikes me about this song is that it isn't about getting angry and fighting authority, it's about getting scared and wanting "to go home" (which, incidentally, pairs neatly with the line "Driving in your car, I never never want to go home", from another Smiths song, "There is a Light that Never Goes Out"). I can't think of a lot of rock songs written from the perspective of a scared, homesick kid. 

And, on the subject of the music - first of all, I love the ululating, and I want to point out a distinctive Morrissey vocal habit - starting a straight out of the previous line, as if it just occurred to him as he was singing - for example, "He does the military two-step down the length of my neck/I wanna go home." Finally, this has got me thinking about the outrageously clean, processed sound of eighties rock - the way the drums are recorded, they sound almost digital. I remember hating this in the nineties, a time when it seemed like every song was recorded entirely in the red, but I've come to love it. 

My Track for this Week:

"Waiting for the Man", as performed by David Bowie, live at Nassau. The reasons for choosing a Bowie song at the moment are obvious, but I also wanted to share this because it's such a great example of a cover song teasing out something from a great song that the composer himself probably doesn't realize was there. In this case, this is partly due to a chord substitution that gives it a kind of "Twist and Shout" build-up. When my band plays "Waiting for the Man" I normally advocate for these changes (and normally get shut down) but man, I love this tune. 

My track for next week:

I advise listening without the video first. 

Track Exchange: "The Age of Consent", by New Order

All right, a track from New Order - the band whose relationship to Joy Division I can never QUITE remember. I hadn't knowingly heard this song before, which is surprising since it's number two in Spotify's New Order Top 5, nestled between "Blue Monday" and "Bizarre Love Triangle." 

First Response:

First impression is that "Age of Consent" is vastly more human-sounding than either of those songs. When it opens with that guitar riff, it could be an Allman Brothers song. When the drum kicks in with that twitchy hi-hat it becomes clear that we're not listening to country-rock, but even so, the song's "electronic" elements are subtle - except for one singularly un-subtle synth line which sounds extremely 1980s - and the processing on that The processing on the "Oh-oh!" at about 3:20. Other than that, though, the song is electronic in form (it's structured in layers that come in and out rather than verse-chorus) rather than instrumentation. 

Now, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to criticize the "music for robots" style that I associate with New Order - I love that stuff. But the "humaneness" of "Age of Consent" is striking, especially because for much of the song the singer is audibly at the top of his range. I love this sound (when it works). The Four Tops used this to brilliant effect, pushing Levi Stubbs' voice absolutely to the top of its range (you can read about it here). Also, that distorted, slightly out-of-time guitar that drifts in and out at about 2:45. 

Next listen (the following morning).

As I type this, I'm listening to this again the following morning, and maybe it's because it's Friday, but all I'm thinking is "road trip." Or, more specifically, "road trip movie montage." 

Why I chose my song:

So my song was "Village Ghetto Land" by Stevie Wonder. I chose it because the end of "The Drugs Don't Work" reminded me of it. But there was no question that I'd be offering a Stevie Wonder song to Track Exchange before too long, because he's incredible. My brother pointed out years ago that it's a great instance of form and content clashing with each other really effectively - because it's such a pretty, delicate melody. But it's understated enough that it doesn't fall into what I think of as the "creepy nursery rhyme" cliche beloved of scary movies. The song is genuinely disquieting, because it's genuinely beautiful.

This week's track: David Bowie's cover of "Waiting for the Man", live at the Nassau Coliseum

Jose, I want to applaud you for writing a tribute to Bowie in which you acknowledged your uncertainty about Bowie's music. I personally find that with a lot of his music, I respect it more than I viscerally love it - though he's written some of my favorite songs of all time.

So, I'm choosing a Bowie cover of a Velvet Underground song. If you don't know it, you should probably listen to the original first.. It's here.

Track Exchange: "The Drugs don't Work", by the Verve

This is a weekly exchange of music between Jose and me. You can read Jose's response to my track (and find out why he chose this one) here

First Response

This week, Jose has taken a trip back to my adolescence, with "The Drugs Don't Work", by the Verve. I have to admit, I missed this song the first time around, though I definitely didn't miss "Bitter Sweet Symphony" (I don't think it would have been possible to miss Bittersweet Symphony as a fan of rock music in the nineties). However I definitely read a piece in a British music magazine declaring "The Drugs Don't Work" to be an anthem for its particular, rather brief era. 

Anyway, enough about that. On to the song itself:


The first thing I noticed was the strings - real strings, not like the Rolling Stones sample that cost The Verve their royalties on "Bitter Sweet Symphony."

Interestingly, my own memories of the Verve made it a lot harder to listen to THIS song "fresh" than it was to listen to Mac Demarco. For example, that article I said I wasn't going to talk about anymore, and don't really member, (almost) definitely said that the Verve's lead singer said the song was about his father's illness, not (as one might naturally assume) about substance abuse. Remembering that, and remembering my own father being in the hospital, meant that the line "The drugs don't work/they just make it work" hit me like a punch in the gut. But then, as the song went on, I started thinking "y'know, this really does sound like it's probably about substance abuse after all." So my relationship to the song was complicated. 

Enough subtext - on to the music:

The basic chord pattern of the song, though not groundbreaking, is extremely effective (it's a tiny little emotional journey - it reminds me of Leonard Cohen's description of "the minor turn and the major lift" in "Hallelujah").

Then there's the two extremely country-sounding guitars which are, in the best possible way, "noodling" in the background. A warm, reverby sound from one, the other one sounding like it's it's being played in an empty concert hall, a long way from the mic. I'm showing my limited guitar knowledge here, but is there pedal steel going on there?

Now, everything sounds like the Beatles if you listen hard enough, but the "Oooh, la la la la  - la  - la - la la la" backup vocals definitely reminded me of those great falsetto "ooh la la las" on "You Won't See Me."

My last, rather odd musical reference point is the final stab by the strings that ends the song reminds me profoundly of "VIllage Ghetto Land" by Stevie Wonder. And Jose, you should listen to that, so I'm choosing it as my next track exchange.

Why I chose my song

For reasons I can't explain, as soon as we started Track Exchange I thought "I've got to choose a song by Love. I wasn't even a fan of Love until my twenties, and I've never listened to any of their stuff besides Forever Changes, but that album is just fantastic. Even when it's ridiculous it's fantastic (and it's often ridiculous, just look at the track list). The reason I chose this track is the trumpet solo that the singer sings along to. That's one of my all-time favorite moments in popular music.

Next week's pick:

Track Exchange: "Robson Girl", by Mac Demarco

This is the first in a series in which my mentee, Jose, and I exchange tracks that are worth hearing, and write up our immediate responses upon hearing them. You can read Jose's first post here.

Jose's first entry is "Robson Girl", by Mac Demarco.

First response:

This song is definitely somebody's summer jam, meaning this is the first time since I moved to San Diego that it feels kind of unseasonable, but it provides its own warmth. 

It starts out with a jangly guitar riff that feels to me like driving to the beach. I was immediately reminded of "Steady as She Goes" by the Raconteurs. Most of the track stays mellow, but the guitar is shimmery enough, and Demarco's voice rough enough, that it avoids the soporific levels of mellowness that you get from, say, Jack Johnson or Jason Mraz. 

Then, after meandering through the chords for a couple minutes, Demarco takes it to the bridge, with what sounds to me like a heavily distorted slide guitar. Without this break, the main riff would get pretty old, but with it, it's a shimmery, summery treat. 

I don't know anything about Mac Demarco, but the whole thing has a very British feel - I'd go so far as to say a very "britpop" feel - as if Blur had stayed cheerful when they went lo-fi -which is no bad thing

Further research:

Well I'll be, he's Canadian! Wikipedia wasn't especially forthcoming about him, except to say that he's been critically acclaimed, toured with the Japandroids (who I've been meaning to listen to for a while) and has been on Conan. I'll have to listen to more of his stuff!

An inspection of the lyrics on Genius didn't give me any insight into what a "Robson girl" is, but it did make it obvious that the song has hardly any lyrics.

Why I chose MY track this week.

My contribution to Track Exchange this week was "Drive", by REM. I felt obliged to start with something from the nineties, since that's when I went to high school. I never became a huge REM fan, but there most atmospheric songs are some of my favorite songs ever, and it doesn't get any more atmospheric than "Drive". Also, the song's posture towards music (and life in general) could not be more nineties. I mean, it's got Michael Stype deadpanning "Hey, kids, Rock n' Roll, nobody tells you where to go" with about as much inflection as Daria (look her up, Jose), but the song builds to totally sincere, lighters-in-the-air emotional climax (it's got STRINGS, for goodness' sake). And if nineties rock is about ANYTHING, it's about pretending not to care, while actually caring SO MUCH it hurts. The video matches this perfectly, with Stype staring dead-eyed into the camera and singing while crowd-surfing. 

You can read Jose's response to my track here.

My next track: "Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale" by Love

The Tribes Project: Pictures from an Exhibition

On Monday, September 8th, the Tribes Project's final performance took place, in the Commons of High Tech High Chula Vista.

For our finale, students joined the stage saying "I belong to the tribe of ______". At the end, after I hit the cajón three times, the whole group said "We belong to the tribe of the new generation" (a phrase suggested by a student, and generally agreed on by the group - I think I was the only one who associates it with Pepsi). 

I like the dynamic of everyone streaming onstage, but one thing we never got right was the pace - a few people would trickle onstage, then EVERYBODY else came on at once, all talking. Getting a slow build (the "drizzle to rainstorm" effect) would have taken more rehearsal. And the final shouted phrase punctuated the show effectively, but I don't think anyone understood what they were saying. Maybe if we'd used a phrase that we'd introduced at the start of the show, and continued to return to at different times, the phrase would have been recognizable enough for the audience to understand it. Here are photos from the finale: