We owe a lot to Mr. Edison

Thomas Edison - cylinder close-up

The man of the hour - Thomas Alva Edison

In 1877 Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph cylinder–a hand cranked cylinder covered with tin foil. It may seem unlikely now, but this simple invention would lead to the first commercial format for recording and reproducing sound. It is common knowledge that Edison was a visionary who created not only to fulfill a perceived need, but to fulfill needs no one had ever considered before. In this case, Edison foresaw many possible uses for his invention, among them letter-writing and dictation, audio recordings for the blind, education, music, and even the idea of creating “family records” (like recording the last words of a dying relative). Edison outlined his plans for his invention in an article called The Phonograph and its Future published in the The North American Review in 1878, which you can see here thanks to the lovely people at the Cornell University Library.

Edison knew the potential for his humble cylinder, but I wonder if he truly understood that by giving us the key to recorded sound that it would have such far-ranging and long-lasting repercussions. It’s true that the phonograph cylinder did not win the battle for format supremacy. But it was that all important first step down a long road that would influence not only music and popular culture for all time, but it also shaped one of the basic foundations of civilization: how to preserve and distribute information. Taken together with his motion picture camera and the light bulb, well… let’s just say that life would be a whole lot different without them. For one thing, you wouldn’t be reading this blog right now.

Edison has certainly had a significant, if indirect, impact on my own life. So in honor of Mr. Edison and his wonderful inventions, here is your chance to explore the lost medium of the phonograph cylinder!

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CCR for my father

When I was a little girl, I idolized my dad. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to be  6 feet tall just like him. I wanted to be an astronomer just like him. I wanted to get my PhD and be called Dr, (you guessed it) just like him. And in my six-year-old mind all of this was more than possible, it was inevitable. Obviously, things didn’t quite work out the way I’d imagined. For starters I’m only 5’2″ and at age 30, it’s pretty unlikely I’m hiding one last growth spurt. For another thing, I tried that whole science thing and the closest I ever got to being an astronomer was assisting an astronomy professor teach a gen ed course during my undergrad days. As for that PhD… well, that might still happen one day, but it won’t be for science. And it certainly won’t be on my dime. But I digress.

Where was I? Oh yeah. I was a fan of my dad from the word go. The fact that he wasn’t around to make me take a nap every afternoon (something I hated as a child) may have had something to do with my favoritism. It wasn’t fair, but well, little kids are biased. Go figure. As I got older though and started to figure out who I was and what I liked, the list of things I had in common with my dad seemed to get shorter. Don’t get me wrong, we had (and still have) a great relationship, with only a few of the usual issues faced by a father and his teenage daughter–in our case it was math homework and driving lessons. Poor Dad. Dealing with a teary-eyed daughter was sometimes hard, especially when trying to explain algebra or teach how to parallel park a car…

But music was not something we bonded on until my late teens. My father mainly listens to NPR or classical music. There’s nothing wrong with either choice, but for a Beatles-loving, rock-obsessed teenager, music was an area where it was sometimes hard for us to find common ground. I wasn’t a fan of his music and (predictably) he thought I listened to my music too loudly.

Side story: Blasting music was  something I picked up from my mother… or so I thought. Every year around Christmas, she digs out her Mannheim Steamroller albums and sets out to see if she can make all the windows in the house rattle. My dad grumbles and usually goes outside to put up lights, while my mother chuckles wickedly and proceeds to have a grand old-time inside. They do this routine every year, but when I was old enough to start borrowing the car I do seem to recall a time or two when I feared I might burst an eardrum to Beethoven simply by turning on his car.

It was probably around my junior or senior year that Dad and I finally found some musical common ground. As I’ve mentioned before, I went through a very big classic rock stage . It lasted for several years and for a while there I completely lost track of contemporary music. It was also around this time that my mother discovered the used CD racks at the local used book/music/movie/everything store and began bringing home bands that she and my dad listened to B.K. (“Before Kids”). Well, you must imagine my surprise when one birthday she gave him a copy of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits. I remember thinking to myself, “Hey! I listen to them! What could Dad possibly want with them?”

Sometimes I have to laugh at how silly I was then, even as an all-knowing teenager. Maybe especially as a teenager. Despite my tendency to roam through my parents’ vinyl collection as a young kid, I’d basically always assumed they belonged to my mom. It had never occurred to me that my father had ever listened to anything besides Bach and Mozart. Like every self-absorbed teenager, the idea of my father having a full and varied life before I came along never occurred to me. Yet here was evidence of rock music he liked. It was a novel experience, let me tell you.  Suddenly, I could talk about to my father about music. It wasn’t exactly a watershed moment. But it stands out in my memory.

So in honor of my dad’s birthday this week, here is your daily dose of CCR!

CCR always amuses me to no end because they cultivated this down home, good old boy, Southern swamp rock image, but they were really from Northern California! Most of their albums were recorded in a place called Cosmo’s Factory in Berkeley, CA. And lead singer John Fogerty sometimes pronounced words with something akin to a New Jersey accent. Just goes to show what an image (and the focus on an image) can sometimes do. This is not to say that CCR’s music wasn’t amazing. It was tightly crafted, raucous, and addictive. They’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a good reason, folks.

This first video is the iconic Proud Mary, a.k.a. Rollin on a River. If you think you’ve never heard CCR, I can assure you that you have heard this one. Here they are performing on the Johnny Cash Show, probably in 1969. Warning, Fogerty apparently could not lip-synch for the life of him. I looked at lots of videos, there isn’t a good one on YouTube right now. I checked!

The second video is a psychedelic little master piece. I don’t know who made it, maybe it was a student piece? Maybe it was just the 1970s? It does look like the band might actually have been involved though. 1970 was a pretty swinging time, so you never know. Either way, the song is beautiful and certainly worth a listen.

Happy Birthday, Dad!!!

To a sister

I was raised the eldest of three girls, my two sisters about 6 and 10 years younger than me respectively. My relationship with both of my sisters has always been… complicated. This was mostly because I was always old enough to be the babysitter. Later when the two of them decided they couldn’t stand each other, I also became the  family diplomat–a role both of my parents were more than happy to let me fill. When we went out for dinner as a family, I always had to sit between them to help keep the peace. It was a pain at times, but somehow we all managed to grow up without any visible scars.

My youngest sister and I have a wonderful relationship that has flourished in the years since she decided to stop being a brat (I love you, kid, but you know you kinda were one for a while there). The only problem we’ve really had to deal with has been making that transition from babysitter and babysat to adults on equal footing.

But my middle sister… well, as I said before, it’s complicated. We’ve both grown up, gotten through school, found our chosen mates, settled down on (almost) opposite ends of the country, and walked away from the religion we were both raised in (albeit, in very different directions). We’ve both made some unique choices, but we are happy where we are and both of us should be content with that. We had some tough years there. To be frank, I think we all had some tough years with her for a while, not all of which she can or should be blamed for. I don’t want to get into details in a public forum that she doesn’t even know about. But a lot of water has gone under the bridge, some things have been let go of, and all is mended these days… mostly. I see her roughly once a year–which makes perfect sense given the cost of plane tickets these days–and communicate with her… eh… maybe once or twice a year more than that? Maybe?

When I think about my sister, the first thing that usually pops in my head is the jumble of dramatic movie scenes that are all that is left from those years where we weren’t talking ( and I mean really not talking). Or I am just  filled with this sense of weighted silence and a stifling feeling of wistfulness. But when I get past all that…

I see a little girl who loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

You heard me.

Picture a short, skinny little girl about the age of 7. Now picture her with bright red hair–that shade I was always so jealous of–cut in to a boy’s bowl cut, which made my mother a little uncertain–but to her credit she went with it. And now add in a Ninja Turtles t-shirt and stick her in the middle of a rowdy pack of small boys. This was my sister.  At this age, she was obsessed with only two things: looking and acting as much like a boy as possible and the Ninja Turtles. She loved the tv show, she watched all the movies, and she had all the action figures. For Halloween one year, she even got me and two of our family friends to dress as the Ninja Turtles and go trick or treating. If I remember correctly, she was Leonardo (the blue one) and I was Raphael (the red one).  And before you ask, no, there are no surviving pictures and if there were you couldn’t see them! I also remember one evening where  a friend of mine met her (possibly for the first time) and asked my sister her name. Being young and obtusely obstinate (as we all were at that age), the only reply she received was a growled “PizzaFace!”

Of course she had the soundtracks to the movies, which were played often in my house, let me tell you. But there was one song in particular that I came to strongly associate with the image of my 7-year-old sister: Tarzan Boy by Baltimora, released in 1986. Having little to do with turtles, ninjas, or even pizza, why the song made the soundtrack for the third movie in 1993 I may never know. But it is a catchy song and the only one from this Italian New Wave band that ever made a dent in the U.S. charts. And after all these years (and the drama and trauma and crap associated with some of them), it still makes me smile and think of my middle sister as that bratty little tomboy who sometimes called a truce with me.

Do you have a song that you associate with someone (or a version of someone) that you once knew?

Best guest star in a music video

There is a long history of big name movie stars randomly showing up in music videos, usually years before they have made their reputations. It’s literally gotten so prevalent that you almost can’t watch VH1 these days without running into familiar faces. Some famous examples include Alicia Silverstone in Cryin’ by Aerosmith, Courtney Cox in Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen, and Hugh Laurie in Walking on Broken Glass by Annie Lennox. Haven’t seen these videos? Have you been living under a rock for the last 15 years? Any way, in each case a huge artist or band just happens to cast a great, if relatively unknown, actor for their video. Hindsight is 20/20 and eventually, often years later, someone digs up a copy of the video and starts yelling at the tv screen, “I know that person!”

It is less common for the opposite scenario to happen. But it does happen. And my favorite example has got to be Elijah Wood’s appearance in Dance Floor by The Apples in Stereo.  The album, Travellers in Space and Time, was released in 2010, years after Elijah Wood became a household name for portraying Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. For all that I happen to love The Apples in Stereo for both their quirkiness and their ability to make truly happy music and I honestly believe that they are a wonderfully talented band, their reputation pales against that of Wood. So how did they get him to appear in their video? Why, he’s a fan! That’s how! After what may one day become an infamous meeting between Wood and Apples frontman, Robert Schneider, at SXSW in 2003, led to Wood signing the band to his label, Simian Records, in 2006.  He also went on to direct the video for Energy on the album New Magnetic Wonder.

In Dance Floor, Wood pulls off an amazing performance and shows off a little-known (at least to me) talent for physical comedy. He is utterly adorable and invariably makes me want to smile and pat him on the head. The song is catchy as all get out, blending smart hooks with subtle auto-tuned backing vocals. It is happy and up-beat, but with a strong undercurrent of uncertainty. Schneider asks, “Where are we to go when our world is so confusing?” It is a message equally appealing to the angsty 14-year-old and the disillusioned 30-year-old alike. But Wood’s endearing performance proves the perfect bridge between the peppiness of the music and the sometimes dark lyrics.

And that is why he gets my vote for best guest star in a music video!

Do you have a favorite cameo in a music video?