What's the best thing about working at Harvard Business Review? Some days it's improving the practice of management. Other days it's discovering that one of your colleagues has a family with a history of creating gingerbread structures. This year: Fenway Park. (Thanks, Justin!) (more…)
Eric often sends me links that crack me up, so my first response on Friday when I saw he forwarded me a parody response by Mick Jagger to Keith Richards's recent autobiography was to prepare for a good laugh. The alleged response, called "Please allow me to correct a few things," is, in fact, written by ace rock critic Bill Wyman, who has the novelty of sharing a name with the Stones' two-decades-gone original bass player. Wyman, who once received a legal demand by the bassist to change the name he was born with, seemed uniquely positioned to write a cutting fake retort.
Then I began reading and realized this was No Joke. As a longtime Stones devotee (read Late night thoughts about the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world for one recent example), I've often wondered what the surviving original members really think about each other, how they work together, what their work means to them as they're aging. Wyman has clearly spent way too much time pondering this, too. I've never talked to Mick, but Wyman's faux-Mick response feels true to my imagined Jagger. The tone of the essay veers from hurt to self-righteous, apologetic to withering, the voice always taut. Fake Mick hates Keith as much as Real Keith hates Mick; this essay shoots down Richards's book Life but doesn't forget to point the gun inward from time to time.
Yet, more than anything else, Wyman's version of Jagger is full of love for Richards, regretful that money, drugs, and narcissism tore them apart, grateful for what they had together before they devolved into mere business partners. He knows how much he owes Keith ("Without him, what would I have been? Peter Noone?") and how Keith's work can still touch him, no matter how far they've both fallen ("When a song is beautiful — those spare guitars rumbling and chiming, by turns — the words mean so much more, and there, for a moment, I believe him, and feel for him.") This is idealized stuff. It's unlikely that Real Mick's response to Keith's book, if there ever is one, will be as tough-minded and vulnerable. Wyman conjures up the Stones as we want them to be at this late age, but even we diehards know that's just our imagination running away with us.
UPDATE: Wyman has written a postscript to his terrific piece.
Happy Monday. (Thanks, skgreen!)
Reader bklynchris noted the passing of Ari Up, lead singer for the Slits, a punk band originally known for being wild amateurs, now remembered as much for the inspiration they gave fellow young punks (mostly women, but men too) as for their their idiosyncratic, so-slightly-off-that-they-were-perfect songs and performances.
the effect The Slits had — visually and musically. I saw pictures of them for two years before hearing a note and was captivated — their messy hair, dark eye makeup, Ari with Jubilee underpants OVER leather trousers. There was no coyness. But it wasn't androgyny, the way Patti Smith could have been a girl or a guy — it was very female. Their album Cut came out sounding so accomplished and together but live at Tier 3 they still made enough of an ungodly racket to give us all hope.
Last time I was here, I speculated on how country blues genius Charley Patton held his guitar. Indeed, I'm a huge fan of pre-war country blues and that led me into an interesting (but failed) project a little while month back. I don't do much magazine work these days (except for the one that pays my mortgage, of course), but I had an idea for a magazine article that wasn't right for HBR. It went a little like this:
Robert Johnson isn't merely the best-known and most popular blues singer ever; he's the performer through whom millions of people have been introduced to the form. For most people who hear Robert Johnson the first time, it's the voice that grabs them. High-pitched, on the edge, filled with authority, lust, and fear, that voice inspired everyone from Eric Clapton and Keith Richards to generations of lesser performers and enthusiasts. There's only one problem: that voice might be a fraud.
Maybe it's the times, but I'm seeing references to Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince everywhere. Jeffrey Pfeffer's new Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't mentions him only briefly (in a section titled "Likability is Overrated," natch) but Machiavelli's notion that he's describing the world as it is and not as we'd like it to be is Pfeffer's point as well. (If you want to read the original, there are a zillion translations; my favorite is the one by David Wootton, with an introduction that kicks off with Machiavelli being tortured by Florentine authorities.)
Writers like Pfeffer are reinforcing how contemporary Machiavelli's ideas are, and now we have a new way to see Machiavelli, too. Artist Don MacDonald is working on a graphic novel that shows how the real mid-level diplomat in 15th-century city has no relation to the evil opportunist he's painted as in the popular imagination.
That's not the only reason I'm following Machiavelli as MacDonald is publishing it online a little at a time. Not only is MacDonald telling the story of the famed author in a new way, but he's using tools we don't often see (well, I don't often see) in English-language graphic novels. There's no superhero stuff, no manga influence. Indeed, it's influenced most by the pen and ink styles of artists in preindustrial Europe, especially the Renaissance and Mannerist artists. It tells an important story in an unexpected way; it's a fascinating project, expertly done. Look at it!
Last week, I posted about a New Order song. OK, I guess, but wouldn't a matrimonial law firm named after the band that yielded New Order be even better?
(Hat tip: 33 1/3)
My favorite part of The Promise, a documentary about the making of Bruce Springsteen's 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town that was on pay TV this month and will be available for sale next month, is when we learn that one of the many reasons recording took longer than it should have is that Springsteen felt he could hear the sound of Max Weinberg's stick hitting the drum. That ruined the sound of the song for him, and many hours were devoted to making the drum sound all drum and no stick. Springsteen sits in the control room, says, monotonously, "stick … stick … stick" as he hears the playback, and you can feel the whole recording operation grind to a stop.
There are two responses to this.
First, it's fascinating to watch an artist so dedicated to his work that he's willing to put everything on hold until a minor mistake, one few in his audience would ever suspect is there, is fixed.
Second, he's nuts.
Arrogance is an enormous turn-off in personal relations, but sometimes it's a pretty good motivator to do good work. It's what turned this music fan into a critic and producer: the (sometimes quite incorrect) belief that I could do something better. Arrogance is one of the two dueling ingredients of ambition, which is, after all, a combination of arrogance that you can do something better and humility in the face of so many people who inspire you.
One of the best places to witness that combination of arrogance and humility is TED. I've been lucky enough to attend the TED conference several times and I've been intrigued by how the organizers are trying to extend it via videos and independently organized events, collectively know as TEDx. (I've been thinking about both the elitism and openness of TED and will publish an essay on it early next year in HBR.)
This year I served as one of the curators of TEDxBoston, along with four tremendous colleagues. It was a chance to step out of the audience for a change and see what it might be like from the other side. Like many who spent a lot of time in a particular audience, I had ideas on what I might do differently if given the chance. It's the same impulse that leads people to call in to radio shows to say how they would have handled that 4th and 1 situation better than Bill Belichick did.
It was a thrill to help develop and organize the programming, but what struck me most, after we picked the speakers, all of them enormously ambitious, was how humble the best of them were. They inspired people by telling stories about what inspired them. Some of my favorite talks from the day:
Happy Monday. There are plenty of terrific songs about Mondays: Fela Kuti's "Monday Morning in Lagos," Marshall Crenshaw's "Monday Morning Rock," T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday," Fleetwood Mac's "Monday Morning." And then there's The Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," which captured a moment but hasn't aged particularly well.
Indeed, most synthpop from the early '80s has aged as well as the haircut from that guy in A Flock of Seagulls. It's cold, distant, more about technology and production than any human emotions. New Order, at its best, was as precise as the best synth-pop but almost painfully warm, playing tension-and-release games that were exciting, welcoming, and irresistibly danceable. Their top songs ("Temptation," "Age of Consent," "The Perfect Kiss," to name a few) didn't merely express emotion; they were all about expressing emotion: how hard it is, how rewarding it is, how scary it is. You could hear it in the approach/avoidance lyrics and the skyscraper-high wall of colliding rhythms. Synthesizers and drum machines sped up, slowed down, spun out of control, emerged from chaos right on the beat, as a very human voice teetered between revenge and regret. As singer Bernard Sumner asks here, at once both deadpan and ready to explode, mirroring another singer who liked to work the same fields: How does it feel?
Thanks for the welcome, Mark. It's good to be back. I hope to deliver posts with substance. This, though, won't be one of them.
The Internet loves lists and it loves witnessing people get embarrassed. So let me start my stint with a list about a failure of mine.
I recently got a new Mac at work, and since I'm one of those losers who needs to have everything he has on a local hard disk (you never know when you're going to have to watch a scene from This Is Spinal Tap right now), I ported everything over from my Mac (now my son's) to the new one. But the new one has a slightly smaller hard disk than the old one, so I had to go through some directories to purge some files. A few big files were easy to get rid of (I am never going to listen to Metal Machine Music again), but I wound up looking at some directories I hadn't seen in a long, long time. How long ago? Before Axl Rose started recording Chinese Democracy long ago. In one such directory, there was a file called SNL.DOC. What could that be? I double-clicked.
Those of you who read and comment on this website may suspect that the people who run it are the coolest people on the planet; turns out your suspicions are absolutely correct. This has been a wonderful place to blab on about all sorts of issues and I hope I get the opportunity to contribute again. Thanks in particular to Mark for helping me not get Boing Boing sued, and Xeni for turning me into a YouTube-embedding ninja.
In the unlikely event that you're still interested in anything I have to say after these two weeks, you can find me on twitter, my blog, and my website. You can also find me at my new job, which I'll be able to reveal in a week or so.
"Tulane" wasn't Chuck Berry's last great song — that would be "Oh What a Thrill," from Rockit — but it's awfully close. Recorded for Back Home, the 1970 album he recorded for his return to the Chess label after a few years at Mercury that we fans are still trying to forget, "Tulane" both sounds like classic Chuck (you have heard this guitar intro before) and completely up-to-date (it's about a head shop raid). On the album, Berry follows it with "Have Mercy Judge," one of his sharpest blues performances, the tale of what happened when Tulane got away from the cops but the singer didn't.
Like many in the insulated west, I've long been fascinated by North Korea, what life is like in there, and what will happen to the peninsula after the walls come down. (Of course, I'm half a world away, so I have the luxury of being fascinated with North Korea. Life inside the country, I suspect, is beyond rough and might get even worse in the first years of inevitable reunification.) I've read extensively on the country, enough so that I almost understand the concept of juche. And I've explored the country a bit in my fiction. My novel-in-progress has a sequence in which an over-the-hill rocker is invited to perform a goodwill concert in Pyongyang, although I'm not sure the subplot it's part of will earn space in the final draft.
My hometown website boston.com (disclosure: I used to consult for 'em) has a terrific feature called The Big Picture that tells news stories in photographs. A year and change ago, the section ran a gripping Recent scenes from North Korea, a collection of 32 photos, all taken in 2008, some from wire services, some from freelancer Eric Lafforgue's then-recent trip, some shot inside the nation, some shot across the border. And now you can see On the Spot with Kim Jong-il, 31 photos from North Korea's state-run "news" agency, showing Dear Leader, usually in a parka, inspecting various industrial facilities. It's an astonishing series of portraits of a man and a culture disconnected from reality, surveying an empire that does not exist.