Who Is That Masked Man?

One of the very best parts of my job is it not only allows me to listen to music all day it requires me to. The last couple of days have been wall-to-wall Lou Reed. Lou Reed station on Pandora. Lou Reed playlist on Spotify. Lou Reed 24×7. Vicious. A Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal.

 

As only music can, I was transported back in time…

 

In college there’d periodically be these gypsy-style (sorry, “Roma”) flea markets in the student center where you could buy and sell used records, posters, and assorted musical arcania. I loved them and bought tons of vinyl there (as well as some bitchin’ Echo and the Bunnymen posters.)

 

I vividly recall one disk in particular. The Blue Mask by Lou Reed. Truthfully, I knew next to nothing about Reed. I knew quite a lot about The Velvet Underground, but other than “Walk on the Wild Side” very little about solo Reed. It had a cool cover and was just a few bucks so I sprung for it.

220px-Bluemask

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What an incredible revelation. Like the Grinch whose heart grew multiple sizes when he learned the real meaning of Christmas, my mind grew exponentially with every scratchy spin of this album. Like so much of Reed’s work that I’d learn about on the basis of this album, The Blue Mask is no joke. It’s not easy. It doesn’t make good party backdrop.

 

But it’s so worth it.

 

Actually, much of it is really beautiful and melodic. There’s a really distinct production value to the whole album and the guitar parts in particular are sparsely beautiful. Until it sounds like the studio was swept up in the blitzkrieg and it becomes audibly terrifying.

 

Every track has something memorable. A line of verse, a guitar hook, or just a feeling it invokes. Here’s my track-by-track take.

 

My House

Aside from introducing me to the poet Delmore Schwartz. this sweet and plainly sentimental track is great poetry about a great poet and just happens to be set to a beautiful melody beautifully played.

 

The image of the poet’s in the breeze

Canadian geese are flying above the trees

A mist is hanging gently on the lake

Our house is very beautiful at night

 

Women

Always stuck me as a joke I didn’t get let in on. Could have been written by any boy between the ages of eight and eighteen. Aside from its contrast to the often obscure and usually gritty Reed lyrical style, this softy is an ode to all things female. Odd in light of Reed’s sexual palate. Lovely, though. Even bikers fall head over heels. This song is as unambiguous as Reed ever got.

 

Underneath the Bottle

This is where things get going. Brutally honest and self-deprecating, Reed channels his Bukowski and lays out the sadness of bars and booze when the crowds thin and the jukebox dies.

 

So long world, you play too rough

and it’s getting me all mixed up

I lost my pride and it’s hidin’ there underneath the bottle

 

The Gun

In just two songs and a little over four minutes we go from a nursery rhyme about women to a play-by-play account of rape and assault— told to the most languid and beautiful tune. The song makes me want to cry and vomit. It’s my favorite track on the album. So haunting.

 

Get over there

Move slowly

I’ll put a hole in your face

If you even breathe a word

Tell the lady to lie down

I want, ah, you to be sure to see this

I wouldn’t want you to miss a second

Watch your wife

 

The Blue Mask

All the beautiful guitar work and subtle rhythms go right out the fucking window. This is war. A war with words. A war with sounds. This song makes me want to hide under the bed. It’s an assault on all of your senses.

 

Spit upon his face and scream

there’s no Oedipus today

This is no play you’re thinking you are in

what will you say

Take the blue mask down from my face

and look me in the eye

I get a thrill from punishment

I’ve always been that way

 

Average Guy

You can tell by the thin, nasally singing that this is more parody of Joe Schmos than homage to them ala Springsteen. The fact that there is no lyrical content is the content. I think Lou liked the margins better than the middle.

 

Average guy, I’m just your average guy

I’m average looking and I’m average inside

I’m an average lover and I live in an average place

you wouldn’t know me if you met me face to face  

 

The Heroine

A clever play on words, this is equal parts Homer (of Greece, not Springfield) and Iggy Pop. Looked at through either prism, it’s a massive accomplishment. Looked at through both it is nothing short of remarkable in its small, fragile way.

 

The mast is cracking as he waves are slapping

Sailors roll across the deck

And when they thought none was looking

They would cut a weaker man’s neck

While the heroine dressed in a virgin white dress

Tried to steer the mighty ship

But the raging storm wouldn’t hear of it

They were in for a long trip

 

Waves of Fear

Another feel good number in the vein of “The Blue Mask.” Just say no to drugs, this song says. Compellingly.

 

Crazy with sweat, spittle on my jaw

What’s that funny noise, what’s that on the floor

Waves of fear, pulsing with death

I curse my tremors, I jump at my own step

I cringe at my terror, I hate my own smell

I know where I must be, I must be in hell

 

The Day John Kennedy Died

This song has a certain Norman Rockwell quality about it.  It’s a nostalgic and sad first-person account of the shot heard round the world devoid of any of Reed’s irony or gristle.

 

I dreamed that I could do the job that others hadn’t done

I dreamed that I was uncorrupt and fair to everyone

I dreamed I wasn’t gross or base, a criminal on the take

And most of all I dreamed I forgot the day John Kennedy died

 

Heavenly Arms

And it ends on a straight-up love song. This sounds like a track Reed may have written for someone else or for himself at a different time.

Heavenly arms strong as a sunset

Heavenly arms pure as the rain

Lovers stand warned of the world’s impending storm

Heavenly arms reach out to me

 

That’s all folks. An incredibly powerful roller coaster ride of an album through the highest highs and lowest lows. It’s guileless and unvarnished. Lou Reed may have been one of the coolest rockers ever, but he’s not cool on this album. Which is what makes him and it so fucking cool.

 

Do they make cool albums anymore? Albums that challenge, punch, confuse and confound? I’m not sure. But twenty-five years or so after I came to it, The Blue Mask has stayed with me.  I hope artists out there today have that kind of staying power.

 

How do you think it feels
when you’re speeding and lonely, come here baby
How do you think it feels
when all you can say is if only?

 

 


Whose Brain is This, Igor?

Dr. Joseph E. Murray died this week at the ripe old age of 93. Even in monster years, that’s a pretty good run. The good doctor found fame for having the audacity to believe that he could save lives by transplanting human organs from one person to another. As it’s been successfully done 28,535 times this year alone, I think the jury’s in. He was right. And oh so wrong to so many.

 

In his day, he was compared unfavorably to the first Doctor who “thought he was God.” In an NPR interview Murray recalled, “Well, they (were) saying that God didn’t want this to happen. It’s unnatural. The doctors are on an ego trip. Dr. Frankenstein stuff.”

 

If Murray thought he had a rough go of it, he should have had a Starbucks with Shelley. In her day she was crucified for being a discredit to her profession and her gender.

 

The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.”

-The British Critic (April 1818)

 

 

Cut to today where there’s actual debate about ‘shadow siblings’, where parents are essentially growing genetic clones of their children in case the first-borns ever need a lung or liver should theirs fail. The dilemma or strategy, depending on one’s point of view, is beautifully dramatized in the novel My Sister’s Keeper.

 

If there is such a thing as a line, this scenario seems to approach it to me. But, that’s the point. To me. Things I do or believe make no sense whatsoever to many– starting with my parents.

 

Transplants, like any major advance in technology, medicine, the arts, or any other facet of life, are not for everyone. That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla. Choice. Some would gladly take a kidney from a donor or bake themselves in chemotherapy and radiation treatment to wring even a few more grains out of the hourglass. Others, when confronted with their mortality, pour themselves a stiff drink and sit stone-faced waiting for their grim guest’s arrival. It’s a choice. Who are we to say?

 

Unlike the innovator’s dilemma, I think of this as the ‘Complacency Conundrum’. To keep calm and carry on versus trying something, anything quite literally, to change a fate which you don’t buy into. It’s not inherited or ordained. It’s authored to those who kick in the stall.

My father went apoplectic when I suggested Baseball was foolish not to utilize instant replay in limited cases. Cases like, I don’t know, when someone legitimately became the twenty-fourth human in history to throw a perfect game only to be denied by an umpire’s inexplicable mistake. We all make mistakes. Fix them when you can, I reasoned. “Mistakes are a part of baseball!” he stammered.

 

Fine. Baseball’s audience is what it is and is on the trajectory it is. Football, which has heavily leaned both into technology and culture in a way Baseball never would, is on a very different path. Watch whatever you want.

 

It applies to media in the same way. Accept a fate that’s clear or do something radical to alter it with assurance you’ll be killed for that as well– and not softly. Technology has provided us choice. In the case of Radio it allows us to listen to virtually anything we want whenever we want wherever we are. That’s pretty good, right?

 

Not to certain Traditional Radio stations. Their formula is DJ chatter, commercials (except NPR), and content– almost in equal measure. Pandora comes along armed with Stanford guys who say, “our data shows the only thing people hate more than idol chatter is farging commercials, so we’re eliminating chatter and shrinking the advertising elephant in the room to the size of a mouse.”

 

Heretics! Burn them at the stake! That’s crazy talk.

 

These are the kinder commentary.

 

I say let them compete. But let them compete on an even playing field. This week, in fact, the Internet Radio Fairness Act was brought before Congress. The old guard, super-heavy-users of leaches and hot toddies, will tell you this is an attempt by Pandora to seek relief from a reasonable burden of “taxation”, sorry, “royalties” they’re currently paying to rights holders. “Why can’t they just run a proper business model like we do?” they’ll ask incredulously, knowing full well they pay no royalties at all.

 

The real issue, in fact, is not whether online royalties should be lowered but whether over-the-air terrestrial royalties should be instituted.

 

It’s time.

 

A transplant is now possible. You don’t have to get one, but it’s not for us to prevent others from getting one. If people want to listen to terrestrial music, they should obviously be allowed to and encouraged to do so. But if they want to listen on their mobile or computer or Xbox or any of the myriad of devices digitally connecting content to ears on a seemingly daily basis, they should be allowed to as well. That means they shouldn’t be penalized for stealing the crumbs from Radio’s table.

 

A song is a song is a song. An ear is an ear is an ear. Whenever the twain shall meet an exactly equal royalty should be paid to the people who made the music (how it gets divvied up between writers, performers, labels…is a separate, unrelated matter).

 

Technology has fostered choice. People should have the right to choose. Without equitable terms, we are effectively eliminating choice and furthering a monopoly because Pandora and those like them cannot thrive when they’re paying more than fifty-cents of every dollar of revenue to royalties while Terrestrial Radio pays zero. Change that immediately. Let listeners branch out. Let artists get paid more than ever before. Let competition ensue and choice reign. It might not save lives, but it might just save something that the overwhelming majority of the population wants to see not only survive but evolve to thrive.

 

Radio. Broadly defined.

 

Ears don’t distinguish. Why should the law? While choosing Pandora or Slacker or Spotify doesn’t rise to the level of choosing to ask your sister for a kidney or “Abbey Normal” for her brain, it’s a choice all the same. When we stack the deck to prevent innovation for those who seek it from flourishing, we stop progress. Or witchcraft. It’s all in how you look at it.


What the Zuck?

Dear Mark Zuckerberg,

I know the stock price is way down and you just got married. Look, times are tough. I’ve been there. I was a young newlywed once too. So let me give you $10 to get you through. If things don’t pick up, no problem. Come see me next month and I’ll give you $10 more. Just ‘paying it forward’ as they say.

Let me explain a bit about myself first.

I never, ever wanted my children to be named after me. I don’t want them to go where I went to school. Most importantly, I don’t want them to follow in my professional footsteps. It’s not just that I want them to forge their own unique paths. On the professional front, I’m retracing my footsteps myself. They’ve lead to a cliff. Now I’m walking backward to try to find a way around.

The assumptions I held dear – like ‘good creativity trumps the interruption that is part and parcel of advertising’ – are becoming more and more patently false every day.

Pecked to Death by (Aflac) Ducks

Last week I was awoken by the vibration of my phone on the nightstand. It was 3:12AM. I had received a text. I had won a contest. I had never entered. “Winning.”

Charlie Ergen, former client, former professional gambler, current CEO of satellite giant Dish Network, recently launched a commercial-skipping service. Why? He had to. The jig is up.

“Ultimately, broadcasters and advertisers have to change the way they do business or they run the risk of linear TV becoming obsolete,” he told the Wall Street Journal. The same is true for Radio. Web. Mobile. Outdoor. You name it. I’d mention newspapers but that would just be piling on.

More proof: Pandora is lapping the traditional field on a monthly basis. If it was a fight, they’d stop it. Why? Either zero or very few ads. Ahh, the sounds of silence.

At a minimum, unchecked interruptive advertising is on its last legs. Not some slow growing cancer that folks used to call “old age.” Fast-moving, get-your-affairs-in-order kind of cancer. While it took me around the world, made me life-long friends with many great people, and treated me like gold, I’ll join you in dancing on its grave. Enough is enough.

“The dream is over.” – John Lennon

I remember vividly celebrating and even parroting Alex Bogusky’s proclamation (perhaps apocryphal), “Everything is an advertising opportunity.”

I wanted to believe it because that was my business. I was an ad guy. I wanted to believe there was nothing but blue ocean ahead.

Alas, like the ocean itself, we’ve polluted it to the point where prolonged exposure is dangerous.

Everything is not an advertising opportunity. I half expect to go to Mass Sunday and find the Host has a Nike swoosh and the Consecration sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts.

Let’s go back to Facebook for a minute. Unlike the haters, I love (the) Facebook. It serves an incredibly useful purpose. It connects. I value few things as I do connections. Sure, some are superficial at best. While I am connected to a girl I revered in the fifth grade, I’d hardly call that connection meaningful. On the other hand, I can keep apprised of the goings on of good friends near and far as we’re all running our separate courses. I can see their kids. I can share playlists like the ’80s never left. It’s useful and I’m grateful for it.

But it’s a failure, right? I mean, it sucks as an ad delivery venue. The little banner ads are lame. The “sponsored posts” by creepy anthropomorphic brands leave me either cold or enraged. (As an aside, I don’t care that “Dallas” is coming back with the remaining “living” cast. What did I do or say to lead Facebook to believe I would?)

Mobile is even worse.

So they’re failures, all those hoodied coders, because they built something that adds value to its users lives but sucks as an ad vehicle. Really? Is that where we are?

I hope not, but think so.

Ask for the (New) Order

Don’t get me wrong. If they want to collect a paycheck, they need a plan to make money. So here is my modest proposal.

Ask.

Go ahead, Zuck. Tell us what you must have known all along. People are gong to have to actually pay for a service or else live through a whoreified, horrifying user experience. We can take it. YouTube announced the other day they’re getting ready to ask for my money too. It’s OK.

Five bucks a month, no problem. Ten? Grudgingly. More than that? I’ll check out Path or any one of the raft of competitors you will be creating. You see, asking people to pay for quality goods in a free marketplace makes even Democrats and Republicans smile. It’s this faux free that is killing us.

There’s plenty of precedents. We pay for HBO. It has no commercials. We pay for apps. Same. I pay for Spotify. Ditto. I want to give you money. Please take it. Don’t compromise your vision or change my experience for Aunt Jemimah or Orville Reddenbocker.

Old Math Still Works

Here’s a little back of the napkin math: there are supposedly 835,525,280 Facebook users globally. Charge us each $10 a month and you get $8,355,252,800 per month! That’s $100,263,033,600 annually. Am I missing something? OK, there are a lot of “light” users in there. Lot’s of them just won’t pay. Period. So cut that in half and you get $50,131,516,800. I’ve never proclaimed to be a math wizard, but this seems pretty straightforward to me.

Everything Old is New Again

What would they do with all that revenue? It would be a little bit like the wayback machine. Monies now poured into catchy copy, peel-backs and jingles would actually be allocated to making products better and servicing them better. People would find out about products through friends and acquaintances, both in-person and virtual. I think Google would have a huge role, obviously, but I think peer-to-peer referrals and recommendations (Foursquare, Yelp…) would increasingly gain traction too. When people want or need something they’ll seek it out from both the ‘God’s Eye’ and peer perspectives.

Will we go through the looking glass and come to miss our ads? God no. But in the event we do, we can toggle the levers a bit. That’s the balance most of us will find. Pay less per month or per content chunk, get a few (more) ads. Poor people or tightwads? Sorry. Release the ad hounds.

For those who can afford to pay, content creators will compete for dollars not unlike in a grand European market. There’s a skinned lamb, beside a rutabaga, next to fresh-roasted almonds and cured olives. I’ve got a fixed budget, so decisions have to be made. I’ll end up buying less, but more purposefully. What I pay for I’ll invariably use, unlike the free stuff that usually ends up in the compost heap. I don’t know about you, but I think we need to move back to the time when we paid for things based on our perceived value of them, not our perceived value to the merchant. What’s been sold to us as “free” isn’t free at all. It comes at an immeasurable cost in terms of time and stress as we struggle to keep our noses above the junk (mail).

That Faustian bargain was no bargain at all as it turns out.

This article is available online at:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2012/06/26/an-open-letter-to-zuck-forget-ads-make-us-pay-for-facebook/