wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: July, 2015

lastpush freewrite coffeestart rockmiles

finished the miles thing and put it out, having long since forgotten i’d written it in the first place. forgot about BIG FUN and didn’t wanna split hairs about the BREW sessions box using ‘brew’ as an umbrella for material that made it onto a whole bunch of albums. basically what people care about is BREW, JACK, CORNER, and…the mid-70s live stuff? no great reputation for the other material. two of those are extended ensembles, JACK is streamlined rock. reputations. i wonder if i’ll ever have one, outside of the niche of phish fandom. (i doubt i have one in phish fandom anyhow — i’ve either got zero or several.)

maybe you need to be big enough for a single reputation, a single idea of you, to act as a kind of gravity well into which other opinions fall. that’s your ‘legacy’ or i guess ‘history.’ written by the gawkers.

hell with this. remove head from ass, time to work.

Quick 70s electric Miles notes.

Miles’s 1970s electric material generally moves further and further from ‘jazz,’ though by the early 70s ‘jazz’ had come to mean something complex and multivalent and both rock and jazz critics seem to’ve been busy missing its new identity, or in any case mischaracterizing it, for a variety of reasons. Though his 1970 and 1975 bands have lots in common, it’s certainly possible to dig one mini-era from that decade and not respond so much to the others.

Bitches Brew Live contains tracks from both Miles’s Newport 1969 show with the Corea/Holland/DeJohnette quartet, and his landmark Isle of Wight show nearly 14 months later, with Moreira/Jarrett/Bartz augmenting the 1969 quartet. The Newport set is fascinating: if memory serves, Miles didn’t cut any studio tracks with that 1969 touring quartet, and their 24-minute distillation of Bitches Brew-era Miles is a lot less likely than the studio album to transport you to interstellar darkness, but has a visceral funk intensity all its own. I tend to think the music loses a lot by this drastic stripping-down; when Miles lays out it’s basically a piano-trio-but-with-Rhodes-instead, which is a whole category of music that I mostly don’t have time for, even if it’s Corea on the Rhodes.

The Isle of Wight band, meanwhile, was frighteningly intense and just as dense as the Bitches Brew studio ensemble. With Corea and Jarrett around, there’s more coloristic organ happening, more electronic texture, and Moreira further complicates DeJohnette’s already busy percussion attack (without ever stepping on anyone’s toes). Jarrett has said that Miles never again played with such a sophisticated band, which is fair — this was the last moment when the harmonic intricacy of jaaaaaazzzzzz was a top-line characteristic of Miles’s electric music.

Miles at the Fillmore 1970, from the Bootleg Series, gives a complete account of the music edited into suites for Miles at the Fillmore. It’s incredible. Miles hasn’t yet entirely subsumed his trumpet playing in the evolving groove (little or no wah pedal from him, if I remember right, though everyone else is going crazy with the things), and he even breaks the groove down entirely to offer solo readings of ‘I Fall in Love Too Easily’ — moments of unbelievable beauty and emotional power, connecting the band’s beastly psychedelic rock to Miles’s earlier work. This might be my favourite of Miles’s 1970s bands, though it’s not my favourite of his 1970s albums, if that makes sense.

Even on the 1970 Cellar Door collection (recorded later that year, minus Corea) you can hear the music bifurcating somewhat, between the Free catholicism of Jarrett’s organ fantasies and Miles’s aggressive funk/blues attack. My favourite moments from the Cellar Door box are the hybrid jams like ‘Honky Tonk,’ with Bartz, Jarrett, and Miles blowing triumphantly over a perversely steady I-IV for fifteen, twenty minutes per track. The solo features are clearly defined, but you can hear the seams stretching a little; it sounds to me like Miles is looking forward to something more purely rhythmic/atmospheric.

The Cellar Door box is one of the best things I know, less sense-deranging and cacophonous than the Isle of Wight set — it’s not party music — but still possessed of an intense collective (and individual) intelligence that would be replaced, in Miles’s mid-decade music, by something more purely somatic…

Big Fun contains a mix of tracks from several turn-of-the-decade projects, including a couple from the Bitches Brew Sessions box. I love the pairing of the astringent ‘Great Expectations’ and Zawinul’s expansive subcontinental psych on ‘Orange Lady’: together the tracks build from a brisk sidewalk beat to a vision of the outer/inner cosmos, a narrative arc characteristic of many longform improvisations of the post-Trane/post-LSD era. Still, it’s not an essential purchase if you have the constituent tracks, which you absolutely should — with the possible exception of the Jack Johnson Sessions, which contains multiple versions of most tracks (which can be trying even when the tracks are absolutely killer as they are here), every single one of Columbia’s huge sessions boxes is must-hear.

The On the Corner Sessions are an amazing resource: because the box includes material from 1972 through 1974 and the tracks are sequenced chronologically(!), you can hear Miles’s conception changing track by track, session by session. ‘On the Corner’ itself is among the most primitive material in the set, repetitive and somewhat aimless; it avoids boredom by dint of its timelessly filthy street-corner groove. ‘Jabali’ and ‘Ife’ point the way forward to the thick atmospheric fog of Miles’s mid-decade stuff, and two tracks (and three months) later, the well-titled ‘Rated X’ codifies the recipe, layering Miles’s horror-sex organ textures atop a roiling rhythmic bed. It’s an unremittingly weird vampire-honeymoon track that doesn’t sound dated; after that, ‘Turnaround’ sounds like a stroll through the park in the fresh air.

A few tracks from the On the Corner box (e.g, ‘Ife’ and ‘Calypso Frelimo’) provide the raw material for performances like Miles’s 1973 Montreux set, in which the mix of organ and guitar creates an atmosphere of intense insinuation. The studio ‘Calypso Frelimo’ breaks down into a harrowing, arrhythmic ambient space reminiscent of (no really) the underground music from Super Mario Bros.; onstage in ’73 there’s a bit of an international-black-man-of-mystery vibe to it, and the set’s quieter moments feel poised to do violence rather than content to echo eerily as the studio tracks do. I like the Montreux ’73 set a good deal, but I listen to the studio ‘Calypso’ and ‘He Loved Him’ all the time — their sonics signify (for me) in a way that the live atmosphere of the Montreux set doesn’t quite.

That said, as you get into 1974-75 Miles, live albums are the way to go. The final disc of uncut studio jams in the On the Corner box showcases a three-guitar attack that already seems somehow rock’n’roll, essentially but indefinably, rather than jazz. A lot of that is down to Pete Cosey, who sounds like the living Hendrix and who still hasn’t gotten the mainstream attention he deserves. Astonishing player — the linchpin of Miles’s 74-75 sound, really.

Dark Magus is a 1974 Carnegie Hall gig. Partly due to differences in recording quality, but owing much to the evolution of the band over a couple of years, there’s a surprising amount of difference between this album and Agharta/Pangaea (both recorded on a single day in Japan, 1975). All three albums mix avant-garde jazz flights with spine-crushing hard rock — the kind of stuff you’d never, ever expect from a ‘jazz’ group led by the trumpeter who did Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain and Kind of Blue, and worlds away even from his initial electric forays on In a Silent Way and the definitive work of jazz psychedelia, Bitches Brew. But Dark Magus features a couple of additional players (sax and guitar, with the sax appearing on a tryout basis, only to be canned after the show), altering the balance of the sound somewhat. It’s dangerous music, but not the deadly assault of the latter two albums.

Moreover, by the time of the two Japan shows, the band had spent years perfecting their unique jazz-funk-rock-psych fusion, and Agharta (recorded first on that fateful day) in particular showcases a tight touring band at absolute peak proficiency. The shows do incorporate preplanned structures, to a point, but the overall flow is seamless, and if you’re not paying close attention you might not even notice Miles’s subtle signals to move between grooves.

Agharta is one of the high points of 70s rock. You have a moral obligation to hear it.

That said, there are limits to the music — or rather, caveats. There isn’t a casual or even calm moment in the whole of Agharta‘s 90+ minute running; the quiet bits are just momentary ceasefires. They’d perfected a sound, and just kept on making it without taking a breath (track lengths: 32, 12, and 51 minutes). Even when things got more intimate, as on ‘Maiysha’ or the final 15ish minutes of ‘Jack Johnson,’ Miles’s sleep-ruining Yamaha organ is around to poison the wine. Danger lurks. And the overall sonics are deliberately murky, with the two guitars and organ creating a kind of distorted antiparallel to the keyboard-heavy soup of Bitches Brew. That never lets up, really, so if you like the sound of the first ten minutes you’ll like the rest of it, but if you can’t go an hour and a half without a few moments of austerity then Agharta will wipe you out — though the sexier Pangaea might do you right, especially the 50-minute ‘Gondwana,’ one of the culminating achievements in all Miles’s electric discography even if Miles himself is largely out of the action by that point.

There are some 1975-76 recordings floating around which were made during Miles’s retirement — I have a little less than an hour of such stuff, intriguingly gnarly funk-rock mixed with more structured grooves that sound for all the world like ‘jam band’ stuff (check the ‘Latin’ groove in the ‘more 75/76 sessions’ compilation available online). But the Japan shows represent a peak for Miles, and for jazz-rock fusion.

(There are other proper LPs from the period as well, but if I remember right, if you get your hands on the big session boxes — at your local library, say — and the live albums, you should have it all.)

The upshot: all of Miles’s pre-hiatus electric music is worth hearing. He didn’t invent jazz-rock fusion, but several strains of that hybrid genre find perfect expression in his 70s experiments.

I’m not the guy to write about Miles’s 80s music. Maybe you are?

Polite bigotry.

[Attention conservation note: here come a few hundred words about xenophobia-by-proxy and the fate of polite bigotry, in the form of a dollop of bile spat at the idiot Donald Trump, who’s not interesting in himself but who’s a useful example of something very interesting, not to mention horrible.]

Just now I saw, on CNN (at a restaurant; I’d never choose to watch CNN), a panel of three or four ‘political consultants’ including Paul Begala. The pretend-journalist Wolf Blitzer moderated; the topic was Donald Trump’s recent remarks about John McCain’s ‘heroism.’ (The content of the remarks doesn’t matter.) The question before the panel: is this curtains for Trump’s ‘run for president’?

Donald Trump’s ‘candidacy’ shouldn’t be referred to without scare quotes. He can’t win, but even if he could, he’s not interested in actually being president. This isn’t hard to infer.

Still, it bears repeating: Donald Trump is less qualified to be President of the United States of America than is, say, LOVE-22. (Whom I’ve met, by the way; he’s a swell guy.)

The CNN panelists all nodded and gesticulated and looked serious (or in Begala’s case, exasperated in a good-natured ‘Once I mattered as a human being but I’m getting paid mountains of money for this so fuck it’ sort of way) and mouthed variations on ‘This weekend marks a change for the Republican Party'(!!) and ‘Trump’s done, time for serious business.’

The panel was, of course, a stupid waste of time and energy, though none of the well-coiffed idiots involved deserve to get that time back.

Here are two better questions:

Why is Trump so popular right now?

Because he’s not really running for President, so he can say what he feels, or more to the point, what millions of other Americans also feel.

Trump speaks for a large number of people — your neighbours, coworkers, friends; your parents (not mine, I’m happy to say) — who feel confused and angry (resentful) at a moment of extreme reaction in a rapidly ‘liberalizing’ country.

The word’s out: some kinds of xenophobia will now be punished by public shaming, and because speech is now more public than it’s ever been, you’re likely to be sideswiped by criticism (mostly online, people are still cowards) for ‘saying what you really think’ — if what you really think includes (e.g.) the stuff Donald Trump says about immigrants.

This doesn’t stop, say, the Stormfront folks from telling each other what they think — quite the contrary. It’s ‘moderate’ speech that gets crowded out in moments of extreme cultural reaction. ‘Polite racism,’ for instance…because the polite thing is to keep it to yourself, and when the cost of saying awful things increases, politeness dictates that you hold your tongue. It’s less safe than it was a generation ago to speak up for Bernie Goetz or George Zimmerman, so only the extremists (of every stripe, including 2nd Amendment extremists and ‘free speech’ extremists and so forth) will do so.

In that environment, with fewer polite outlets for ‘inappropriate’ speech, the folks who fill the void are…you guessed it. The impolite.

Idiots like Trump serve two purposes:

  • They serve as an outlet, an outboard id, for folks who want to express anger about The Way They’ve Taken Over Our Country but don’t wanna risk it — so they take the much smaller risk of ‘Liking’ someone like Trump.
  • As a fun knock-on effect, they expose people to more extreme speech than they’d otherwise hear in public, polarizing not only their audiences’ affiliations but their actual beliefs.

Trump is popular because he’s a proxy xenophobe at a moment when owning your xenophobia is seen as socially costly.

So why is CNN covering him?

Because CNN’s job is the same as Trump’s, in the long run: to make sure America is a safe place for people like Trump (or Ted Turner, or Marc Andreessen, or Nick Denton, or Larry Page and Sergei Brin, or Tim and David Geithner) to do business.

Trump sells (whatever trash is for sale today) by the truckload. The idiot Wolf Blitzer isn’t a journalist, he’s a wooden TV actor who plays a journalist for the camera. The only reason they haven’t replaced him with a Teleprompter is that the generation of screen-addicted victims of alternating overparenting and ‘well-meaning neglect’ hasn’t yet aged into CNN’s audience. CNN’s ongoing project of corroding the national ‘political discourse’ for profit needs benign nonstories like ‘Donald Trump makes a dumb crack about John McCain’ in order to move product.

(Don’t pretend that a downed Malaysian airliner is ‘news’ the way, say, the fact that the Marshall Islands are going to disappear into the sea as the water levels rise is news. If CNN had mentioned that the plane had disappeared and then moved on, the only Americans who’d’ve cared would be the Forteans and the conspiracists; Chinese-American followers of the story would surely have been getting their information elsewhere, regardless…)

Why so angry?

Good question. Why aren’t you?

DPS is not a unit of happiness.

This post is tangentially about roleplaying games.


Reading forum.rpg.net — rarely a good idea — you come across an odd sentiment, never stated outright but always floating around: the ‘better’ an RPG character is, the more fun it is to play.

And ‘better,’ in this usage, always means ‘higher damage output.’

The guys (it’s always guys) who seem to hold this weird belief paint a picture of D&D as a competition in which numerical superiority is a win condition rather than (as in old-school games) a strategic consideration. If your character ‘build’ is capable, even in a ‘white room’ test scenario, of inflicting massive amounts of damage per round in combat, then you’ve won the character design minigame. And yes, that game does in fact have winners and losers.

Daft, isn’t it?

I bring it up because this is only one (pathetic) specification of a general tendency that adolescents and overgrown adolescents have: to turn areas of negotiation, compromise, uncertainty, collaboration, free exploration, improvisation, into rigidly defined competitions which reward ‘creativity’ only in a narrow, employee-of-the-month sense.

(MIT’s biggest spectator sport is a robotics competition which is won as often by inelegant ‘degenerate’ strategies as by robust mastery of design art.)

D&D culture has shifted dramatically over the years; there’s been an element of PC/DM competition since before the game’s first appearance in the mid-70s, but the idea of the ‘character build’ and the charop (character-optimization) subgame truly came into favour in the new century — not coincidentally, the era of (online) video games — along with the 3rd edition of the game, created by Magic: The Gathering publishers Wizards of the Coast. There’s a bitter irony there: the lead designer on D&D 3e was avant-garde RPG designer Jonathan Tweet, the man responsible for Over the Edge and Everway, games which radically streamline character design and lean heavily on dramatic play and free-interpretive collaboration. (Everway ingeniously uses tarot card interpretation for both character creation and task resolution.)

It’s not just about mainstream influx into the precincts of ‘geek culture’ diluting the gene pool, either. There are clear generational shifts going on in RPG culture(s) which echo more general shifts toward learned helplessness and reliance on corporate creativity-by-committee. Just yesterday I saw forum posters insist that, because there’s no official WotC Warlord class for D&D 5th edition, there’s no such thing as a 5e Warlord — despite the existence of more than a half-dozen homebrew 5e Warlord classes of varying levels of sophistication. The ‘it’s not legal for organized play!’ canard is the equivalent of ‘Mom won’t let us’: an excuse for not doing the work.

Lego Stockholm Syndrome (Ages 4-99!)

There will always be kids who are temperamentally inclined to make their own fun, to ‘violate warranties’ (as the fashionable stickers say). Some kids are content with plain Legos, and don’t need every single Ninjago or Chima set. But those kids cut into corporate profits, and so everything about corporate culture is arrayed against them. Which is what you’d expect, of course, from a zoo full of sociopathic predators.

But the deep problem, as the rpg.net forum unpleasantly shows, is that kids learn to identify with corporations, and dismiss the folks who know better (or more diplomatically, never develop that defense mechanism). Everyone who refuses to do creative work because it is the domain of committees with budgets is part of the problem. And the problem extends far beyond buying toys games and gadgets.

Because the suits you trust with your leisure time run everything else in the world too.

And they hate us and everything else except money.

Roleplaying games, aleatoric creativity.

The standout feature of ‘old-school’ roleplaying games is the random table — the Referee reaches a decision point such as ‘What kind of monster wanders the tor at this godforsaken hour of night?’ and rolls on the table for the answer. Random tables leverage the ‘oracular power of the dice’: they function almost as divinatory devices, revealing the shared fantasy world in ‘realistic’ fashion (bit by bit, bottom up) and granting the Referee the creative benefits of being taken by surprise.

Random tables have fallen out of favour in mainstream tabletop roleplaying, where ‘story’ (variously, and for the most part poorly, understood) is the central focus rather than the similarly devalued term ‘simulation.’ And their decline is directly tied to other movements in (predominantly adolescent male) pop culture — from the ascendancy of sharply constrained video games, to the end of synchronous TV and other shared realtime media experiences, to instant-satisfaction parenting, to the none-too-subtle devaluing of DIY creativity in the era of cheap plentiful Chinese consumer goods. (The ‘”maker” movement’ is a local reaction to these shifts, particularly the latter, though it’s unsurprisingly a lot less radical than its poponents and cheerleaders claim.)

I have no overarching thesis here. I just see a big thing reflected in a small thing.

When the work works —

When it’s working, my experience of my own writing is similar to my experience of someone else’s. Eerily so, as I wonder how in the world I could’ve written this or something like it. Surprise, delight.

Immediately rereading your first draft is often a mistake, because you recognize its inner contours too readily. It all makes (too much) sense to you, you can fill in What That Person Meant without actually reading it on the page. And anyhow That Person is basically you-right-now. Not yet a stranger.

You have to forget working so that you can encounter the work on its own terms. Much of it will be terrible, but not all. And some of it’ll strike you much better than you were or are capable of, will alienate you because it reflects an alien consciousness, the form you took in an instant you wouldn’t now know how to recreate. That’s the very best feeling. In that case: Surprise. Delight.

When the work’s working, it will seem — it will be — impossible.