Monday, August 31, 2009

Some Tribute!

I first saw the following video clip a couple of years ago, but I just stumbled across it again the other day on YouTube. It is one of the most impressive tributes I’ve seen or heard. (I’m sure there are more monumental ones to figures like Gandhi or Mother Theresa, but I haven’t heard them. I’ve heard this.)

“What is it?” you wonder. It’s Robert Plant’s 2007 tribute to Jimmy Page on the occasion of the legendary guitarist receiving yet another lifetime achievement award from some British music magazine . Only someone as close to the source as Plant was could have so precisely articulated the scope of Page’s brilliance.

Despite his notable shortcomings (e.g., sketchy song attribution on a few occasions and years of severe drug addiction), Page has long been a musical hero of mine. His considerable catalog of great work represents an unparalleled mixture of songwriting brilliance, guitar technique (not always masterful, but ever inspired and charismatic) and mastery of the recording studio. With Led Zeppelin, he conceived and directed the greatest rock band of all time.

Whatever your field of endeavor, you could only hope that one day someone might say something akin to this about your vision, commitment and accomplishments.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Making Journalism Better

Matt Thompson’s site features a very astute analysis of the shortcomings of journalism today and highlights a few fundamental shifts in thinking and approach that would make journalism better and more vital.

Thompson is a strong believer that the web offers opportunities to redeem traditional news organizations, but his outline of the key news elements that are all-too-often missing in journalism applies to all platforms, as do his recommended corrections.

In agreement with Thompson, I have long held that media today fails to present meaningful context to readers (or viewers, for that matter. As a result, it lacks credibility and usefulness. In short, it does not facilitate genuine understanding of the important issues of our day. All too often we miss (or forget) the forest for dissecting the needles of one tree.

A key part of the credibility gap in journalism today, Thompson argues, is the need for more transparency in the process: Media must do more to let people in on “the details of their quest to uncover the truth.” This would enhance the audience’s understanding and enjoyment, he writes.

I agree that journalism needs to be more entertaining and, like Thompson, emphasize that that can be done in conjunction with – rather than at the expense of – providing more substance, too. Context helps to engage readers and retain them beyond the basic details of the headline and the lead.

As basic as it may seem, journalistic organizations – be they newspapers, magazines, websites, TV or radio – must refocus reportage beyond “What just changed” to the essential questions of:
• What we know
• What it means
• Why it matters
• What we don’t know
• Where do we go from here

In a world increasingly inundated with information and sensory overload, it’s more important than ever for journalists to connect the details back to the big picture.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Was Radio to TV as Print Is to Digital?

Here’s another recent Wall Street Journal column that offers an interesting historical anecdote to provide some perspective on today’s media industry struggles.

There are those who believe that history is cyclical, almost repeating itself every now and then. Maybe we are reliving “The New Media Crisis of 1949” in 2009.

Now That Would’ve Been Something!

In my reading about the state of the media industry (critical perspectives on how we got where we are today and myriad hypotheses on how we might find our way to a new sustainable model), I came across this interesting Market Watch column on The Wall Street Journal’s site. In it writer Jon Friedman discusses the state of the newspaper business and interviews San Francisco Chronicle and Hearst Newspaper Co. editor-at-large Phil Bronstein.

While there are some interesting, if not entirely new, points raised through the course of the column, what I found most interesting was Bronstein’s tale of how in 1994, as the executive editor of the San Francisco Examiner, he attempted to hire renowned gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson to cover the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Imagine that! Thompson would’ve had an absolute field day with that one. He had gone to town covering the Pulitzer divorce trial that rocked Palm Beach in the early 1980s for Rolling Stone (lots of skeletons shakin’ out of socialites’ closets in that one). One can only begin to imagine the scathing wit and satire Dr. Gonzo could’ve applied to the O.J. debacle – the camera-hungry attorneys, the L.A. police dept., the Brentwood celebrity crowd, the delusionally-egotistical-and-not-so-smart former athlete ... the whole lot! HST was a master of social commentary, after all; the more twisted the better.

Bronstein had somewhat of an “in” to hook the good doctor for the assignment because Thompson had recently been writing a regular (well ... frequent, not much regular about HST) column for the Examiner.

During the negotiations between writer and editor, HST had the cojones to demand a satellite dish, two suites at the Chateau Marmont (long L.A.’s notoriously decadent playground to wanton stars of all pursuits and persuasions), and, last but not least, an unlimited expense account! Alas, the poor (literally) Examiner didn’t stand a chance. Thompson wouldn’t cave. He didn’t need the gig and he had nothing more to prove to anybody.

Maybe it’s better that it didn’t happen. By the 1990s HST had, for the most part, become a parody of himself. Like many great talents and artists, he failed to rise above his own best clichés ... instead resorting to simply replaying them with different names and places. I prefer to remember him fearing and loathing what he saw in Las Vegas and haranguing Nixon until he left D.C. with his tail between his legs.

Res ispa loquitur.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Passing of a True “Political Presence”

There have been many touching and well-deserved tributes to Ted Kennedy today in the wake of his passing – most far beyond what I could offer on the subject. Suffice to say, he was a great public figure whose heart was always in the right place even if (in earlier years, at least) his brain and body might not have been.

One can’t help but be moved by the many testimonies today to his dedication and compassion as a legislator, as well as to what a genuinely personable and caring individual he was – especially in his last two decades.

I met Massachusetts’ senior senator in person only once , back when I was a community newspaper editor and he visited our offices during a 1990 campaign tour – he must’ve been hitting every podunk borough in the commonwealth! At that time, my main impression was less about his policies and politics than about how bad he looked. He was, I recall, a bloated gin blossom in a fancy dark suit. Obviously, this was before Victoria Reggie cleaned him up and seemingly overnight turned him into the respected old political lion he is immortalized as today.

However, then and now, I have great respect for his tireless work on many important issues during his half-century of public service. And I especially admire both his willingness and his ability to build bridges across that wide aisle of partisanship in D.C. and beyond. In that regard at the very least, we need more like him.

R.I.P., the last prince of the Camelot. (What’s left are mere squires and handmaidens by comparison).

Dylan Croons Christmas Tunes?!

I’m not sure about the idea of Bob Dylan doing a Christmas album. There was a certain charm, I suppose, when ol’ Bob croaked his way through “Froggie Went a-Courtin’” and other traditional country-folk classics on his underwhelming 1992 release Good As I Been to You. But the idea of the Gravel-Voiced Great One grinding his way through “Silent Night” and “Good King Wenceslas” is a bit disconcerting.

You never know, though. Given Dylan’s skill for surprise and reinvention, along with his encyclopedic (Carl Sandburg-esque) knowledge of and respect for the traditional musical lexicon of our culture, he might just stun us all with his yuletide offering.

At the very least, Dylan does get kudos for the charitable gesture behind the effort. All of his profits from the album will go to support charities to feed the hungry here and abroad. (Savvy man, he, to make it clear that U.S. sales will support programs to feed the hungry here in America and international sales will support international charities.)

He is on the mark supporting this particular cause when there are so many to choose from these days. He is rightly attuned to the gravity and ramifications of the fact that one in five U.S. children today is being raised in poverty (not enough food or health care, inadequate housing). This unconscionable situation precedes our current recession and will surely continue long after economic recovery without these kinds of efforts – and many more – to remedy the poverty problem.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Future Brain

This (below) is an interesting, albeit somewhat lengthy (13 min.) and far-ranging, NPR podcast about technology, brain development and social relations. It focuses primarily on how internet technology affects cerebral functioning (specifically attention and comprehension) and social interactions and attitudes, but it bounces around quite a bit. Stick it out, the first couple of minutes is not all it covers in terms of content or perspective.

I have to believe that our brains are significantly affected, and sometimes changed, by intense and chronic activities, such as extensive use of the internet ... or pretty much anything else for that matter. And like most things, it’s seldom all good or all bad.

Is the fact that, thanks to internet-facilitated accessibility, more info is available at our fingertips today than ever before a bad thing? I think not, as long as we develop the means and skills to filter and deal with the heightened potential for distraction. (And that’s where the real hand-wringing and striving for solutions should be focused, because not enough seems to be happening there, educationally and otherwise.)

Is today’s technology stunting social development, or just fostering a new kind of social development – one more suited to the likely demands of the future? We seem to have an impulse to quickly judge all changes in social interactions to be wholly bad, when, in fact, social interactions have been changing in many ways (subtle and profound) for many, many years (i.e., since the dawn of man).

Yes, we do live in a world of less depth and more breadth, and that is disconcerting on some levels. But that too has been going on for a long time. I don’t think it can be blamed primarily on computers, the internet, cell phones or even TV.

Anyway, the neurological and social sciences examining all these things are still works-in-progress. Regardless of where the yet-to-be-realized essential realities lie, it is thought-provoking stuff. And that’s never a bad thing.

Long live the info omnivores!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fiddlin’ About

I suggested to the fiddle-playing wife that this might be the next thing to add to her repertoire. But, given that I haven’t heard any sound of breaking glass yet, I don’t think she has taken me very seriously.

Video Mag ... Literally!

I’ve been scratching my head over this one since seeing mention of it on yesterday. CBS and Pepsi have teamed up to create a video ad in select issues of the upcoming Sept. 18 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Yes, an embedded video ad in print! This takes those annoying greeting cards with the sound chips to another level entirely. While I get the novelty factor – and the hoped for accompanying buzz – I can’t help but wonder why we (people and businesses) insist on forcing square pegs into round holes.

You’ve got to find some humor in watching the media industry stumble its way into the digital future like a drunken Frankenstein: First, creating web-based digital editions that lamely mimic print magazines with print-page design and virtual turning pages, etc. – (Do media execs really think that’s the best way to present content on the web or mobile devices? Do they really misunderstand the medium that much, or do they simply have that low of an opinion of their print readers’ ability to adapt to the digital domain?) – and now, creating ads that pretend to be TV on the printed page.

It’s an interesting experiment, no doubt, but to what end? Does anyone really think there’s a commercially viable future (or purpose beyond the buzz of precedent) in delivering video on a paper page?

In a related note, while I give points to CBS for its creativity in “placing” its marketing messages (as detailed toward the end of the AdAge article), I’m also kind of repulsed. It’s bad enough that we’re now smothered in advertising messages every which way we cast our eyes, do we really need to see ads for the latest TV shows on the shells of our eggs? Where does the madness stop?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

R.I.P., Renaissance Man, All Around Good Guy

Given his advanced age (94), it’s no great surprise to hear of Les Paul’s passing earlier today, but it does mark the loss of a genuinely gifted and hard-working gentleman who bridged several musical generations, as well as the art and science of recording.

Les Paul was a truly unique guitarist who started out playing country music (under the nom de guitare Rhubarb Red) in the 1930s before really making his mark with a jazzy pop style in the ’40s and ’50s. He played with such innovation and fluidity that not only did he go on to become an outright star in the 1950s (even having a TV show with his wife/singing partner Mary Ford), but he also become a huge influence on many of the famed rock guitarists that followed a decade or two later. He was hip enough to keep up with musical trends and developments even late in his life, and he befriended many of the notable “guitar heroes” of successive generations, as well as continuing to show off his jazzy licks during weekly gigs in New York clubs into the 21st century.

Beyond his guitar playing, Les’ appeal and renown among musicians was also driven by the many technical inventions he was personally responsible for: from being one of the creators of the solid body electric guitar (and later the inspiration for the iconic Gibson Les Paul line of guitars) to his numerous innovations in multitrack recording and production techniques.

But technical, guitar geek accomplishments aside, anyone who appreciates good melody and impeccable phrasing can appreciate Les’ pop hallmarks like “How High the Moon,” “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” “Vaya Con Dios,” “Mockin' Bird Hill” and “Nola” to name but a few. Whether they know it or not, virtually anyone who has picked up and played an electric guitar in the last half-century owes something to Les Paul.

The above may seem somewhat old hat now that Boss/Roland et al have cheap and readily available stomp boxes that can do this, but when this clip was recored no company had anything to match the “Les Paulverizer.” Les always seemed to be a step ahead of everyone else on the technical developments. Eventually, he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – undoubtedly the only one with membership cards to both of those!

• Les Paul has a huge catalog of recorded music. A good brief overview of his career-defining 1950’s era hits is The Very Best of Les Paul & Mary Ford.

• I highly recommend checking out a DVD of the documentary film about Les Paul, Chasing Sound, that came out a few years ago. Here’s a brief clip from it:

Monday, August 3, 2009

The “Say ‘Heyday’ Kid” *

My teenage daughter and I were having a conversation the other day and I mentioned the word “heyday.” To my surprise, she had never heard the term before (doubly surprising considering what a voracious reader she is).

Striving to give as precise a definition as possible off the top of my head, I explained that it was a person, entity or organization’s “glory days” ... the period of greatest success, happiness, prosperity, etc. A peak of something that has had some degree of duration.

“Oh, like ‘Golden Age,’” she said.

“Yes, very similar,” I replied, “but with a subtle difference.”

I stopped there, not sure that on the spot I could explain exactly what that subtle difference is. Even after consulting the dictionary later to check my assumption, I’m still a bit tongue tied in articulating the subtle distinction between “heyday” and “golden age,” though I’m still convinced there is one. From what I can surmise from Webster’s, which was not wholly explicative on the subject, “heyday” seems to refer to the experience of a smaller or more specific entity (person, organization, etc.), whereas “golden age” tends to be a more universal experience, or at least that of a much larger entity. For example, one might say the “golden age of Rome” or the “golden age of television,” but refer to “CBS News’ heyday with Walter Cronkite” or reference the “band’s heyday” when citing The Rolling Stones’ 1968-1972 period.

Today, I ran across a bunch of live clips of The Waterboys from throughout their career. One of the best was the band performing their simple, but poetic folk song “Fisherman’s Blues” on BBC-TV in April 1986. It struck me that while The Waterboys have had a substantial and lengthy run of it, with some truly outstanding high points, this was the heyday of the band’s career.

Glory days, indeed. Enjoy!

You do have to wonder what’s up with the studio audience, however. They look near catatonic. Despite the vigor of the band’s performance, the TV studio crowd may well not have even really known who they were. Maybe theses folks were expecting Duran Duran or something!

* Apologies for the tortured – and most definitely dating – Willie Mays reference.