Category Archives: music

Story of the Ghost in the Machine

Ghost in the MachineI don’t ever want to play the part
of a statistic on a government chart

The first record I ever bought with my own money was Ghost in the Machine by The Police. I say “record”, of course, in the broad sense, because by the time I had money to buy records, they were passe — passed over by pre-teens with money to spend in favor of cassette tapes. So, “first tape”, then. Regardless, it had a profound impact on me as a young listener, which has only deepened over time.

Nowadays, the ritual of trying out a new record involves decent speakers, isolation from various forms of 21st-century distraction for long enough to get in at least one full listen, and, if I’m lucky enough to score it on vinyl, a turntable. However, I was nine years old when I purchased Ghost in the Machine, and had none of these luxuries available to me.

What I had was a skateboard, a fabulously-period-appropriate Panasonic boom box that was small enough to carry around without getting tired too quickly, and a crush on a girl who shall remain mercifully anonymous. The summer that I picked up Ghost in the Machine, as near as I can remember it, involved a lot of soundtracked meandering around the sleepy town in which I grew up, punctuated by rewinding to listen to Every Little Thing She Does is Magic again. And again. And again. It’s a wonder I ever got to side two.

Fortunately for my fledgling sense of music appreciation, Sting & Co. didn’t completely front-load Ghost, and I ended up hearing at least snippets of Spirits in the Material World as often as I obsessively replayed the more popular second track, owing to the inexact nature of pre-random-access rewinding. Quite the contrary, Every little thing is on the album, and placed towards the front, in what feels almost like a perfunctory nod to record company management I can picture saying “I don’t hear a single” upon being presented with the dark, beautiful, hitless expanse that Ghost would be without track 2. Sailing on past Every little thing into the rest of the album is quite impossible. Invisible Sun resets the clock in such a complete and utterly forceful way that I’m sure I wasn’t the only young pop listener thrown off by the transition.

But I was nine, so I latched onto Every little thing. In retrospect, it seems like a fitting theme song for a pre-teen preparing for a headlong dive into a rocky and alienated adolescence: the protagonist, too scared to call, stalks his would-be mate in secret, private, gnawing pain. I’m sure I wasn’t the only pre-teen who thought they knew a thing or two about what Sting was describing. My youthful underestimation of the full potential of scorned, lonely, brooding angst would reveal itself by turns throughout my actual adolescence, and this track would prove a welcome, familiar harbor for many years (until the cassette, tape stretched, wheels worn and plastic warped from too many spins in too many cheap decks on too many hot days, finally cried “uncle” and ground to a halt early in my freshman year in college).

Eventually, I managed to listen to the rest of the album, and it shares a spot (along with The Beatles “white album”, which I discovered in my parents’ record collection right around the time I bought myself Ghost) as the longest-running album with which I have not yet grown tired.

If the first third of the album is part warning, part warmup, and part perfunctory nod to the charts, the middle third of the album is all gut and gristle. Pumping, thumping, honking, and steeped in the musical culture of the island setting in which it was recorded, the horn-driven tracks at the center of this album are, I now realize, what kept me coming back. Kind of alt-rock, kind of ska, kind of punk, kind of funk (the horn break after the second verse of Too Much Information just might be the funkiest thing recorded in the eighties). But oddly cohesive. In the hands of a lesser producer than Hugh Padgham, it might have turned out a mish-mash. But it just rocks.

The closing third of the album — Omegaman, Secret Journey, and Darkness — provide a nice, expansive, brooding falling action to bring the listener down from the peak at the album’s midpoint. Like a futuristic train coming gradually to a halt in a deserted, post-apocalyptic station, the album strides, glides, and gently slides to a close. The pacing is perfect.

When Phish first announced this weekend’s Halloween festival, complete with a full-album “musical costume” as in years past, this was one of the first possibilities to spring to my mind. I quickly called it as my pick, and my friend Emily backed me up (after I convinced her I wasn’t crazy), playing a few tracks from the album on her radio show. Honestly, given a horn section, I think this could have been a huge crowd-pleaser. It even made the big list of possibilities on the Phish website. But alas, it was not to be — “ghost” got the axe the other day, and whatever they play tonight — whether it’s Bowie, Prince, the Stones, Jimi, or something else — “Ghost” will have to wait.

Dust off those rusty strings just one more time…

It’s been way, way, way too long, so once again I’m stepping out to lend a hand to Earl & the Reggae Allstars in Portland this Sunday:

Sunday, June 7 6PM-9PM
Thirsty Lion Pub, SW 2nd & Ash, Portland
Free, *All Ages*

As always, it’ll be an evening of good old fashioned reggae, dancehall & dub, and the kids’ll love it!

See you there!

Upcoming Gigs

Mark your calendars: Egon will be bringing our funky grooves to the venerable Jolly Roger not once but TWICE this summer — July 3rd and August 21st. Both are Thursdays, but — bonus! — the 3rd’s not really a school night, now is it? So come on out and boogie!

Jolly Roger
SE 12th & Madison, PDX
July 3rd & August 21st, 10PM

Take it slow…

This makes me smile — it could be the best tune Teddy Pendergrass never recorded:

Edit: just to be clear, in case there’s any confusion — that is, apparently, the *actual* Michael Jackson track, slowed down (which results in the soothing, soulful, downward pitch shift — not quite into Barry White territory, but there’s a *lot* of yardage between MJ and BW).

Playing with your betters

I have a trio of activities to which I am, with varying degrees of skill and regularity, devoted: playing music, skiing, and computer programming. I have developed each of these skills over the years, with a few exceptions, without a formal course of study. Sure, I took a few guitar lessons, and have fond, if hazy, memories of ski school as a kid, but by and large, I’ve come by the skills I possess via self-directed study, trial and (sometimes painful) error, and, most importantly, learning from those around me.

Exponents of the Peter Principle tend to see in every skilled human an ultimate, inevitable apex of their ability to perform increasingly complex, challenging tasks. The conventional wisdom is that hierarchies tend to promote individuals one step beyond their potential (to their “level of incompetence”), and that the incompetence displayed by each employee in their Final Resting Place is a matter of predestination, determined by the ultimate limit of their potential. The perfectionist in me, the relentless self-improver, is not quite ready to accept this fatalist attitude, and I’d like to propose an alternative explanation to ol’ Peter.

Everything I’ve ever gotten better at, I’ve done so in the tutelage, shadow, or grudging tolerance, of someone (sometimes far) better at it than me. Every time I play music with someone like drum kingpin John Lamb, I learn a little more about listening, and rhythm, and when not to play. Every time I ski with a good friend of mine with whom I had the pleasure of skiing last week, I get a little bit better.

It’s not easy to accept that someone is better than you at something, but once you swallow your pride, dig in, and try to play at their level, great things can happen. I think, perhaps, that the fact that it’s easier, and more comfortable, and more secure, to try to avoid collaborating with people who could dust you in a dogfight, leads many people to short-circuit the development of their skills. It’s not so much that they’ve reached their inevitable pinnacle of competence, but that they’ve put themselves there unwittingly — by being too shy, insecure, or falsely confident in the skills they already have to accept that anyone could teach them anything.

So, I try to remind myself of this every time I plug in my guitar, strap on my skis, or fire up the keyboard alongside someone who has something to teach me — and I try to remember to be grateful. After all, the perfection of character is never complete.