Saturday, July 29, 2006

Simon Bikindi Trial Watch

I noted that Simon Bikindi's name popped up last month as a trial motion was published. The UN wheels of justice are turning with excruiciating slowness. Bikindi is a rare case in that he is a musician charged with crimes against humanity because of his role in the geniocide in Rwanda. As a reminder of his case, here's this from the BBC:

Saturday, 30 March, 2002, 11:22 GMT
Rwandan singer faces genocide trial

One of Rwanda's most popular singers has been transferred to the International Tribunal for Rwanda after losing a fight against his extradition.

Simon Bikindi is charged with six counts of genocide and crimes against humanity for having composed and performed songs demonising Tutsis, and inciting Hutus to kill them.

He was arrested nine months ago in the Netherlands, but battled against his transfer to the tribunal in Arusha in Tanzania. He is expected to appear before the court in the near future.

Mr Bikindi said in a recent interview that he was innocent, and that the songs he was writing in the 1990s merely reflected the mood of the time.

Music ban

He rose to fame singing of love and the beauty of the Rwandan countryside.

But in 1990, the tone of his songs changed.

His music has been banned in Rwanda since the end of the genocide.

A total of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists between April and July 1994.

Slow procedures

The transfer of the singer comes as the war crimes tribunal is under huge pressure to speed up its procedures.

In the seven years since its creation, just nine people have been judged. Eight were convicted and given long sentences, and the ninth was acquitted.

The trial of one of the two others detained at the same time as Mr Bikindi, former Finance Minister Emmanuel Ndindabahizi, is already under way.

Mr Ndindabahizi, who was arrested in Belgium, has pleaded not guilty to charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

An army chaplain, Emmanuel Rekundo, was also arrested in Switzerland in the same series of European arrests.

So far, more than 50 of those indicted by the Arusha tribunal for war crimes in Rwanda have been arrested.

Iranian leader bans usage of foreign words

Iranian leader bans usage of foreign words

Sat Jul 29, 9:31 AM ET

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered government and cultural bodies to use modified Persian words to replace foreign words that have crept into the language, such as "pizzas" which will now be known as "elastic loaves," state media reported Saturday.

The presidential decree, issued earlier this week, orders all governmental agencies, newspapers and publications to use words deemed more appropriate by the official language watchdog, the Farhangestan Zaban e Farsi, or Persian Academy, the Irna official news agency reported.

The academy has introduced more than 2,000 words as alternatives for some of the foreign words that have become commonly used in Iran, mostly from Western languages. The government is less sensitive about Arabic words, because the Quran is written in Arabic.

Among other changes, a "chat" will become a "short talk" and a "cabin" will be renamed a "small room," according to official Web site of the academy.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Salsa Pioneer Willie Colon

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Jul. 28, 2006

Salsa pioneer still hearkens to a rebel beat


They were rough, untrained kids from the slums, improvising streetwise rhymes, horrifying the musical and social establishment with their vulgarity and menace. They mixed traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican music with rock, funk, R&B, jazz, and a jumble of Latin American genres to come up with a new kind of Latin music that spoke for a new generation of Latinos growing up in the United States.

Before reggaeton, before Latin alternative, there was New York salsa. And one of the men who created it and changed the course of Latin music is Willie Colon, who plays the West Dade club La Covacha Saturday night.

He says it will be his last tour after 43 years of performing. Maybe.

''I had planned to stop touring in November,'' Colon, now 57, said recently from his office in midtown Manhattan. But we've gotten so many calls to please just come here.''

After a lifetime of musical revolution, it's hard to stop.

He was a short skinny kid from the South Bronx raised by his Puerto Rican grandmother because his father was in jail and his mother wasn't much more than a child herself.

Puerto Ricans were the newcomers in a Bronx still full of earlier immigrants, Irish and Italians who might give a dark-skinned Latino kid a ''wood shampoo'' -- a beating -- if he walked down the wrong street.

''You got to remember this was the 1950s and good old American apartheid was in full swing,'' Colon says.


Colon's grandmother worked in a sweatshop, but she managed to buy her 11-year-old grandson a trumpet. Colon started playing on the street with his buddies, passing the hat and picking up enough change to inspire him to continue in music.

By 13, he was playing in a professional wedding band. At 14, he switched to trombone. But he couldn't get an audition for the high school band. The frustration drove him to drop out. ``I became self-righteously indignant and just said screw them. I said I'm gonna make it on my own.''

It was a classic start to what usually turns into a road to nowhere. But for Colon it launched him into what would soon become an incredibly vibrant and creative music scene.

Latin music was about to come out of a fallow period in the mid-1960s. The mambo heyday, cut off from Cuban music and musicians after the revolution of 1959, was over, as was an early-'60s craze for a Latin/funk hybrid called boogaloo. But in the late '60s and early '70s, something new began to percolate: Cuban and Puerto Rican music mixed with jazz, R&B, and rock, with a wild improvisational edge and the driving energy of New York City.

It was called salsa, a term that old school Latin musicians often hated but gave a catchy ring to a style that pushed social and musical boundaries. The civil rights movement was inspiring the Young Lords and a movement for Puerto Rican rights. Black jazz musicians would sit in with the Latin musicians at clubs all over town.

Musically and politically, salsa was hot.


''You could compare it a lot to rap and reggaeton,'' says Colon. ``It was rebellious music. We were watching Martin Luther King walking into Selma and the dogs and water cannons. The music wasn't explicitly political yet, but the music was a magnet that would bring people together.''

Ed Morales, Latin music critic for New York Newsday and author of The Latin Beat, a history of Latin music, says the salsa scene's rough-and-ready vibe spoke to the exploding population of Puerto Ricans in a city that was rapidly becoming a much tougher place.

''It coincided with the formation of these hardcore urban slums,'' Morales says. 'The audience was mainly the people from the barrios. Willie said we invented gangster rap, and he sort of has a point. There's a lot of that transforming the elegant energy of the mambo dance halls to `this is the hood.' ''

Colon quickly became one of salsa's stars, largely because of his partnership with Hector Lavoe, a Puerto Rican country kid with an outsize voice and genius for improvisation. They recorded some of the biggest hits of the genre for Fania Records, the label for the burgeoning genre.

Records like El Malo (The Bad Guy, released when Colon was only 17) and Lo Mato -- Si No Compra Este LP (I'll Kill Him -- If You Don't Buy This Record, with a photo of Colon holding a gun to a man's head) featured a swaggering bad-guy image -- but laced with the substance of Lavoe's gorgeous voice and Colon's gift for musical innovation.


Unfortunately, Lavoe had a drug problem that soon overpowered his talent, and the pair split in the mid-'70s. But Colon became even more successful with his new vocalist, Ruben Blades, a charismatic performer and gifted songwriter. Together they were the Lennon and McCartney of salsa.

Blades' songs like Plastico and Pedro Navaja, from their 1978 album Siembra, the bestselling salsa album of all time, had a seriousness, political consciousness and lyrical and musical complexity that make them classics of Latin music.

But as record companies turned their attention to the new genre, they began emphasizing radio hits instead of innovation, and pretty faces over skilled bandleaders.

''When the corporations came in, it naturally turned into something else, because they need formula and dependable product,'' Colon says. ``The genius of salsa was the freedom -- there were no rules.''

Reggaetoneros often claim early salsa artists as their godfathers in speaking for the streets, even as many critics and old school Latin music lovers deride what they call reggaeton's simplistic rhythm and violent, vulgar lyrics. But Colon sees a connection between the scene he grew up with and reggaeton's young guns.

''[Reggaeton] came in under the radar because it came from the streets,'' he says. ``I identify a lot with it. The beat is original and funky, and some of the things they say are worth repeating.''

And he thinks reggaeton shares early salsa's willingness to break with musical forms. ``It might have been said about some reggaeton beats that it's wrong you can't do this. But if it feels good musically, you do it.''

The popularity of reggaeton may be reawakening interest in classic salsa, which has become hot among young people in Puerto Rico. There's a buzz around Emusica's re-release of Fania Records classics. And Daddy Yankee sports a Willie Colon T-shirt and a social message in his latest video, Gangsta Zone, with Snoop Dog, playing on MTV.

Colon warns that vitality might not last long. ``After the corporations get a good grip on reggaeton, they should be able to sanitize it and kill it also.''

Colon's career took a downturn after he and Blades split up in 1982, and as record labels focused on the formulaic ''salsa romantica'' style of the 1980s. His last big hit was 1989's El Gran Varon. A groundbreaking song about a gay man who gets AIDS, it tackled taboo subjects in the Latino community.


Though he has never stopped making music, in the last 15 years Colon has focused more on politics and community activism. He ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 1993, and serves on the boards of a variety of Latino, arts and political organizations. He heads New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Latin Media Entertainment Commission, and helped bring the Latin Grammys to New York this November.

Still, Colon hasn't quit music yet. He hopes to release an album of new songs this fall, spanning the gamut from roots music to social commentary, and enjoys the idea that new technology will allow him to record and release it without the support of a major label.

And he's looking forward to performing Saturday night in South Florida.

He will be the oldest guy onstage with a group of hot younger players, but it doesn't phase him. ''I really love that hour and a half that I get up on the stage,'' says Latin music's original hoodlum.

``I'm 57 years old now -- you're not gonna rattle me. So I do what I want to do.''

The Heyday of the Dead

July 27, 2006
The Heyday of the Dead

YES, it’s July. The sun’s shining. People are heading to the beach or just out, to catch some UV, drink some Mountain Dew and indulge in some good clean summer fun.

But what is that little black cloud drifting across the sun? Will it ruin our picnic, like ants or a motorcycle gang? Heaven protect us ... a skull? Not one, but a sea of them! Ah, but ere it comes near, it is clear: it will barely cast a pall.

If it was not clear a year or two ago, when the skull motif cropped up on battered Herman-Melville-meets-Edgar-Allan-Poe T-shirts made by Rogues Gallery, on costly cashmere sweaters by Lucien Pellat-Finet, on the perforated uppers of the wingtips made by the men’s wear line Barker Black, it is now. What only recently seemed clever and stylish — I’m wearing a skull! I’m baaaaad! — has shifted into overdrive, if not overkill.

Beyond the sea of skull wear — belts, T-shirts, ties — there are umbrellas, sneakers, swimsuits, packing tape, party lights, even a skull-branded line of hand tools. One company has made a skull toilet brush and caddy (with a molded-plastic femur bone for a handle). This summer Damien Hirst announced that he will make a life-size skull, cast in platinum and adorned with 8,000 diamonds.

If it seems harmless, well, there you have it. With the full force of the American consumer marketing establishment behind it, the skull has lost virtually all of its fearsome outsider meaning. It has become the Happy Face of the 2000’s. When the mid-1980’s proto-Goth group the Ministry sang “Every Day Is Halloween,” this was not quite what they had in mind.

“This is such a huge gripe of mine,” said Voltaire, a musician in New York and the author of “What is Goth?” (Weiser Books, 2004), a kind of “Preppy Handbook” for the living dead. “Throughout hundreds of years of history, what the skull has communicated is, ‘I am dangerous.’ That’s where the irony is. You can buy dangerous for $11.99 at Kmart.”

For years Voltaire was the happy owner of several skull-motif sweaters hand-knit by an eccentric Englishwoman. He recounted that a woman stopped him the other day on an East Village street to admire the one he was wearing. “She said: ‘I love your sweater. Is it Ralph Lauren?’ Then I found out that Ralph Lauren has a whole store that sells skull stuff.”

Well, not for long he doesn’t. At Rugby, the chain of collegiate-style stores Mr. Lauren rolled out only last year, the shirts are embroidered not with a polo player but a skull. However, the logo is already being scaled back (though not dropped entirely), a spokesman said.

“It’s a pity it’s so commercial now,” Mr. Pellat-Finet said. For more than five years, he has splashed oversize skull graphics — sporting, say, Mickey Mouse ears — on his sweaters. “Maybe Wal-Mart will replace their smiley-face with a tête de mort,” he added, using the French term for skull. “It’s lost its meaning.”

Well, it still has one meaning for Mr. Pellat-Finet, whose latest skull sweaters are embellished with Afros and top hats, among other images. Asked if he will stop using the motif, he responded with a chuckle: “No, no, no. It’s my best seller!”

Other designers appear to have similarly mixed feelings: on one hand, they are confronted with skull saturation; on the other, skulls are ringing the dinner bell louder than ever. Alexander McQueen’s fall men’s wear show did not play up skull imagery on the runway — surely the critics would be bored — but there are plenty back in the showroom, on sports coats, polo shirts and trousers. His $210 skull-print silk scarf is one of the best-selling items on the men’s designer floor at Barneys New York.

“We’ve sold 400 since May,” said Timothy Elliott, a Barneys spokesman. “We sell them as fast as they come in.”

Many people point to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise as fuel for skullmania. But the skull’s ascent to the logo throne has more to it and behind it than a Disney marketing campaign. Reminiscent of the vogue for angels a decade or more ago — remember how the little winged creatures were everywhere? — the skull neatly encapsulates a cultural moment in terms both precise and vague.

It is also the product of potent economic forces. The proliferation of skulls has paralleled the rise of the Hot Topic clothing chain. Begun 17 years ago in Southern California, Hot Topic is a 680-stores-in-50-states phenomenon based on the simple idea of selling music-related clothing and accessories — punk studded wristbands, heavy-metal T-shirts and lately, lots and lots of skulls — to suburban teenagers who would otherwise have to visit an urban clothing boutique for such goodies.

“Have we brought skulls to the mall?” said Cindy Levitt, the vice president for marketing at Hot Topic. “Absolutely. But skulls are a rock icon. We’ve always had them. We see this as more of a fashion trend.”

Still, Ms. Levitt agreed that the skull is not what it used to be. “It’s no longer threatening,” she said. “Anyone will wear a skull now.”

The inventory at Hot Topic, which caters to music fans of all stripes, points up another facet of the skull’s allure, its vagueness. Cherished as an icon by several rock genres, it communicates many potential meanings without specifying any single one: the skull as style hedge.

“The skull is all-purpose,” said Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic at The New Yorker. “It simultaneously refers to horror movies, to the Misfits and, by extension, all punk rock, and to a generalized culture of blackness and spookiness and the larger, mall-Goth culture.” So, he said, “if you’re really at heart a Goth, but you have friends who are into metal and punk, you can rock the skulls and be friends with all of them.”

Or in fashionspeak: skulls — fun, flexible, easy, breezy!

It is a different way of thinking of one of history’s most formidable images, seen in thousands of years of art and a symbol integral to Mexican culture. Robert Rosenblum, a professor of fine arts at New York University, explained that the skull is central to the vanitas, a genre of still-life painting in which temporal pleasures are juxtaposed with a skull. “The vanitas includes the skull as a reminder that death is everywhere,” he said, “as a cutting edge to too much contentment with the here and now.”

Perhaps the Manhattan hostess who bought a $4,140 set of 12 sterling-silver skull place-card holders by the jeweler Douglas Little wanted to convey that message to her guests. (Supercute touch: the place cards are clenched between the hinged jaws.) Or maybe not; she declined to be interviewed.

The skull as memento mori is important to Philip Crangi, a fashionable jeweler in Manhattan known for a pared-down modernized take on 19th-century morbidity. “I use it in a Victorian or Latin sense,” he said, “where it meant that life is short and death is the great equalizer, so stop your whining and get on with it.”

In his view skulls are not less threatening because a chic jeweler is casting them in precious metal but because, in an age when slasher films are top grossers, death itself has become less threatening. “In the 19th century, when people died, they were laid out in the living room,” he said. “I think we’ve lost that connection to death.”

For others, the skull is about youth, not death, losing its sting. Banks Violette, an artist whose fascination with heavy metal imagery won him a show at the Whitney Museum last summer, is never happy to see cherished symbols of teen angst treated blithely.

“It’s always an inward flinch,” he said. “People create this little world where they try to negotiate their own sense of alienation, then it gets pulled apart.” He added that because such symbols are associated with youth culture, they are often viewed as superficial and treated cynically by companies that market to young people.

Yet as consumers young and old tire of being marketed to, the skull appears to offer a kind of antidote: the ultimate unbrand, one that belongs to no one. Curiously, then, what began as an outlaw anti-logo may as well be viewed as the death rattle of an underground aesthetic.

“The skull was one of the last frontiers,” said Rick Owens, the designer known for his glamorized Goth style. “There’s no way to make yourself edgy anymore.”

Even so, he is planning on selling skulls — real ones — in “natural and black” in his new Paris boutique. “Skulls are kind of timeless,” he said, deadpan as it gets.

Ah, well. Eat, drink and be trendy. Tomorrow we die.

Artificial intelligence interprets Mozart

Artificial intelligence interprets Mozart

By VERENA DOBNIK, Associated Press Writer 19 minutes ago

It was a 21st century Mozart moment — the music of a genius from the Age of Enlightenment interpreted by the artificial intelligence of the Digital Age.

The 2006 Mostly Mozart Festival on Thursday night unveiled an outdoor artwork that uses artificial intelligence in a visual and aural play of the composer's last symphony — the "Jupiter." In a city that never sleeps, it's a 24-hour-a-day performance for the duration of the month-long festival that marks the 250th anniversary year of the composer's birth.

The 40th-annual festival, which offers a free preview concert Friday night, officially opens Tuesday night. Wednesday night's concert — featuring conductor Louis Langree, pianist Garrick Ohlsson and singers Hei-Kyung Hong, Susanne Mentzer, Matthew Polenzani and John Relyea — will be broadcast nationally on PBS-TV.

The night before the preview concert, the 198-foot-wide digital installation was turned on to illuminate the facade of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

"Enlightenment" was commissioned from artists Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, with help from Columbia University's Computer Music Center. Langree, Mostly Mozart's music director, supervised the musical process.

The aim is to link Mozart's Age of Enlightenment to our Information Age by using artificial intelligence to interpret the final 30 seconds of his last symphony — an intricate fugue that plays around with five themes.

"Mozart composed the contemporary music of his time. So a way to pay homage to him during this anniversary year is to keep the creation of new works alive by commissioning today's artists," said Langree. "Even centuries later, Mozart's genius still speaks to today's world and today's creators."

The artists spread their multicolored creation across 10 high-resolution screens with speakers, each representing a different orchestra section. In the interplay between sound and image, Mozart's music is taken apart, with computers searching for the right sequence of notes that was recorded by real musicians — even making mistakes and detours — before reconstructing the final, perfect end to the masterwork.

Each 25-minute performance is different. The work will generate 125 million frames of animation by the time the festival ends on Aug. 26.

"Enlightenment" is one of four Lincoln Center commissions for the festival anniversary.

The others are a staging of Mozart's unfinished opera "Zaide," directed by Peter Sellars; the evening-length "Mozart Dances" choreographed by Mark Morris; and a new violin concerto by the contemporary Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

The festival's 40 events — centered around Mozart — include music ranging from the Baroque and Classical styles to contemporary and world music. Performers include pianist Emanuel Ax and violinists Joshua Bell, Gidon Kremer and Sergey Khachatryan making his New York debut.


On the Net:

Mostly Mozart Festival:

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Obit.: Dika Newlin, 82, Punk-Rock Schoenberg Expert

Now THIS is an interesting bio.

July 28, 2006
Dika Newlin, 82, Punk-Rock Schoenberg Expert, Dies

Dika Newlin, who composed a symphony at 11, became a distinguished composer and musicologist and emerged, in her 70’s and 80’s, as a most unlikely punk rocker, died on July 22 in Richmond, Va. She was 82.

The cause was complications of a broken arm she suffered on June 30, said Sabine Feisst, a professor of musicology at Arizona State University who is writing a book on Dr. Newlin.

“It is hard to find out about me because I’m involved in so many different things,” Dr. Newlin said in an interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1996. One continuing thread: she was a professor at various universities, until her retirement from Virginia Commonwealth University two years ago.

Her latest incarnation was as leather-clad, bright-orange-haired punk rocker and occasional Elvis impersonator, belting out songs like “Love Songs for People Who Hate Each Other,” which she wrote herself. Her flamboyant image was not exactly dulled when she posed in her 70’s for a pinup calendar.

Dr. Newlin’s earlier prominence grew out of her studies as a teenager with the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Dr. Newlin, among the last surviving pupils of Schoenberg, wrote the entry on him for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Dr. Feisst called Dr. Newlin “one of the pioneers of Schoenberg research in America.” Dr. Newlin’s doctoral dissertation was published as the book “Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg” (1947, 1968). She also translated Schoenberg’s works from German to English, and her publication of diaries she kept as his student provide some of the most intimate glimpses of him.

Dr. Newlin’s own compositions reflect Schoenberg’s innovative approach. Those works include three operas, a chamber symphony, a piano concerto and numerous chamber, vocal and mixed-media works. In 1999, she sang in a costumed performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” in her own English translation, in Lubbock, Tex.

In her punk incarnation, Dr. Newlin appeared in horror movies produced by Michael D. Moore in Richmond. In “Creep” (1995), directed by Tim Ritter, her character, clad in a leather motorcycle jacket, poisons baby food on a supermarket shelf.

Dr. Feisst confessed to finding this sort of thing “puzzling and disturbing” but said she came to view it as “all part of the package.”

Mr. Moore also directed “Dika: Murder City’’ (1995), a documentary about Dr. Newlin.

Dika Newlin, an only child, was born in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 22, 1923. Her name, chosen by her mother, refers to an Amazon in one of Sappho’s poems.

Her parents, both academics, soon moved to East Lansing, Mich., to teach at what is now Michigan State University. Dika could read dictionaries at 3, played the piano at 6 and began composing at 7.

She entered grade school at 5 and finished at 8. At 11, she wrote a symphonic piece, “Cradle Song.” Three years later, it was performed by the Cincinnati Symphony, with Vladimir Bakaleinikoff conducting.

She finished high school at 12 and was accepted as a college student by Michigan State, where, The New York Herald Tribune said in 1939, she had the highest I.Q. score in the school’s history. At the time of the article, she was in New York to hear one of her compositions performed at the World’s Fair.

After graduating from Michigan State at 16, she settled with her mother in Los Angeles so that she could attend the University of California at Los Angeles and study with Schoenberg, who taught there. She kept a diary, which she published as a book, “Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-76),” in 1980.

Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Joan Peyser marveled at its “absolute ingenuousness,” saying Dr. Newlin seemed to have censored nothing.

In one entry, she tells how Schoenberg, an Austrian émigré she called Uncle Arnold, criticized her string-quartet style as “too pianistic.” She replied that she knew it wasn’t the best writing. The entry continues, “He replied, ‘No, it is not the best, nor even the second best — perhaps the 50th best, yes?’ ”

She earned her doctorate in musicology from Columbia at 22. She studied piano with Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin and made a half-dozen piano recordings in the United States and Europe. Many years later, in 2004, some of her punk numbers were released on an album called “Ageless Icon: The Greatest Hits of Dika Newlin.”

Dr. Newlin, who never married, leaves no immediate family members. She has a surviving cousin and was close to her cat, Spot. She once kept eight or more cats. Reporters noted that she slept on a mattress on the floor with a medieval suit of armor dangling above.

She told The Richmond Times-Dispatch that she had always wanted to have a rock band, and hers surely carried her own brand. Who but Dr. Newlin could have taken the text Schoenberg used for the fourth movement of his second string quartet to use as punk lyrics for “Alien Baby”?

“I feel like a child more than I did as a child,” she said in an interview with People magazine in 2003. “I try more and more to live day by day, to do something because it feels good.”

Life after the 30-second advertising spot

Christian Science Monitor

from the July 21, 2006 edition -
Life after the 30-second advertising spot
In response to ad-skipping technology, advertisers are turning ads into a storytelling medium.

By Gloria Goodale | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Network television has always used its shows to sell the sponsor's soap. But as audiences find more ways to zap those commercial messages (think TiVo) and spend less time watching TV overall, networks are scrambling to find new ways to make shows sing for their supper.

In a recent episode of CBS's "CSI: New York," a cellphone rings with the song "Talk" by Coldplay, which the characters discuss. At the next commercial break, the audience is invited to download the ringtone for $2.49. Over on NBC's "Las Vegas," sports fans en route to the Winter Olympics join the story line. The episode, which aired just prior to the Turin Games, then follows the group to Italy.

Welcome to life after the 30-second TV spot. These examples are a tiny glimpse of what one media pundit calls "desperation marketing" - advertisers going beyond simple product placement to capture the hearts and wallets of increasingly ad-wary consumers who are spending more time online and on cellphones and less watching TV.

While the traditional commercial is not extinct quite yet, it's on the endangered list. "That ship has sailed," says Joseph Jaffe, author of the book, "Life After the 30-Second Spot."

Dollars spent on TV advertising have been declining since 2004, when revenue hit $9 billion. "We've witnessed the peaking of TV," says Mr. Jaffe. "We're incrementally dissipating that spending on TV as the number of viable alternatives and substitutions continue to proliferate."

The average American spends more than 15 percent of his media time online, as opposed to virtually zero 15 years ago, says Steven King, senior adviser for the Institute for the Future, a nonprofit research group in Palo Alto, Calif. But it's not just the outlets that are changing, says Mr. King; so is the consumer. Americans, he says, have long prided themselves on being nobody's fool, but customers are now pickier than ever.

Today's consumer, especially the under-35 generation raised on computers and cellphones, demand interaction with a product and prefer to do their own research prior to purchase. Advertisers are scrambling to adapt. "All of these things are an attempt to sneak by the commercial sniffer in the average consumer," says King. As a result, the line between content and ads will continue to blur, producing what he calls "deeply commercial" entertainment.

The online "digisodes" for Snickers candy bars are one example of that phenomenon. A series of digital films about hip-hop factory workers who gain superpowers after eating Snickers bars was created by ad agency BBDO, targeting the teen market. The series launched in June ( and is meant to be watched like videos, not commercials. "This is a good example of the ad as a story line," says Jimmy Smith, who created the campaign. BBDO chose the hip-hop music and comic-book style to reach teens who get most of their information online, he says. "It's the kind of entertainment and product help that our product's target audience will enjoy," he says.

Cellphones are also being mined for their ability to leverage a consumer's lifestyle. A surfer on his way to the beach in Malibu can now use his phone to check wave activity. As he does, he logs into an online surfing community run by a local retailer, Beach Bum Surf Shop, and supported by AirG, a mobile service provider. He swaps tips with fellow surfers and, more important, maybe buys a board and hat during the call. Up in Palo Alto, a new company named Mozes has made it possible for phones to be used "almost like a remote control," says CEO Dorrian Porter. Users can save and retrieve a TV show or any other digital information from businesses that partner with Mozes.

Ads designed for commercial breaks are being retooled as well. A company named 1800GotJunk recently launched a national campaign for its junk-removal services. But it was not particularly successful. That's because it was driven by what ad maven Simon Sinek calls legacy-thinking. "It was full of information about their services, but nobody really cared about big shiny trucks and junk removal. They didn't understand what that meant for them," Mr. Sinek says.

Sinek worked with the company to create a campaign from the consumer's perspective. Instead of a standard "informational" ad, he turned it into a lifestyle question and came up with what Sinek calls the "nagging" campaign. "We had to re-create the spouse saying, 'Get that junk out of here,' " says Sinek, who teaches marketing at Columbia University in New York. Four single-screen, five-second ads said simply, "Did you clean the attic yet?" Each popped up once throughout a standard commercial break, concluding with a fifth screen that simply said, "Just Get it Done," with the 1-800-GotJunk phone number.

But while consumers may be getting savvier about skipping the 30-second spot, "smart targeting" and the saturation of commercial messages comes at a price, say some observers. "We're living in a prechewed world," says Matt Felling, media director of Center for Media and Public Affairs in New York. In the fight for our dollars and eyeballs, he says, the media has turned us into commodities. Mr. Felling says we're all being categorized and then directed toward thinking that reflects our own. "Don't know what to think about the world? Just turn on cable news," he says. "Americans are being called upon to fight for their own independent thought. We need to get back to kicking tires on everything."
New network, new ads

The CW, a merger of the soon-to-be-defunct networks The WB and UPN, kicks off on Sept. 20 with a two-hour special episode of "America's New Top Model," introducing what executives call the next wave in TV ads: "content wraps," which are sponsored minimovies that both tell a story and push the sponsor's product.

The "cw's," as entertainment president Dawn Ostroff calls them, will replace the regular 30-second spot and appear sequentially so that viewers must stay tuned to the end of the hour to get the whole story.

"We've had a great response from the advertisers," says Ms. Ostroff. "They're always looking for new ways to engage viewers and get their messages across."

Guggenheim Study Suggests Arts Education Benefits Literacy Skills

I am tired of the utilitarian argument towards the arts in school (that is, the intrinsic value of the arts is dismissed in favor of their value in boosting test scores in "real" subjects), but that is the current public mindset. This is an interesting study nonetheless.

July 27, 2006
Guggenheim Study Suggests Arts Education Benefits Literacy Skills

In an era of widespread cuts in public-school art programs, the question has become increasingly relevant: does learning about paintings and sculpture help children become better students in other areas?

A study to be released today by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum suggests that it does, citing improvements in a range of literacy skills among students who took part in a program in which the Guggenheim sends artists into schools. The study, now in its second year, interviewed hundreds of New York City third graders, some of whom had participated in the Guggenheim program, called Learning Through Art, and others who did not.

The study found that students in the program performed better in six categories of literacy and critical thinking skills — including thorough description, hypothesizing and reasoning — than did students who were not in the program. The children were assessed as they discussed a passage in a children’s book, Cynthia Kadohata’s “Kira-Kira,” and a painting by Arshile Gorky, “The Artist and His Mother.”

The results of the study, which are to be presented today and tomorrow at a conference at the Guggenheim, are likely to stimulate debate at a time when the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind has led schools to increase class time spent on math and reading significantly, often at the expense of other subjects, including art.

Yet the study also found that the program did not help improve students’ scores on the city’s standardized English language arts test, a result that the study’s creators said they could not fully explain. They suggested that the disparity might be related to the fact that the standardized test is written while the study’s interviews were oral.

“We purposely chose to have students talk to us instead of writing because we thought they would show language skills, not purely reading and writing skills,” said Johanna Jones, a senior associate with Randi Korn and Associates, a museum research company conducting the study over three years with a $640,000 grant from the federal Department of Education.

Ms. Jones said that the study, which graded students’ responses as they talked about the painting and the passage from the book, found essentially the same results during the 2005-6 school year as it did during the 2004-5 school year. “We really held our breath waiting for this year’s results, and they turned out to almost exactly the same — which means that last year’s don’t seem to have been an anomaly,” she said. “That’s a big deal in this world.”

While it is unknown exactly how learning about art helps literacy skills, she said, “the hypothesis is that the use of both talking about art and using inquiry to help students tease apart the meaning of paintings helps them learn how to tease apart the meanings of texts, too. They apply those skills to reading.”

The categories of literacy and critical thinking skills were devised by the research company with the help of a group of advisers from Columbia University, New York University and the city’s Department of Education, among other institutions.

The Guggenheim program, originally called Learning to Read Through the Arts, was created by a museum trustee in 1970, when New York schools were cutting art and music programs. Since it began, it has involved more than 130,000 students in dozens of public schools. The museum dispatches artists who spend one day a week at schools over a 10- or 20-week period helping students and teachers learn about and make art. Groups of students are also taken to the Guggenheim to see exhibitions.

Officials at the Guggenheim said they hoped the study would give ammunition to educators in schools and museums around the country who are seeking more money and classroom time for arts education.

“Basically, this study is a major contribution to the field of art and museum education,” said Kim Kanatani, the Guggenheim’s director of education. “We think it confirms what we as museum education professionals have intuitively known but haven’t ever had the resources to prove.”

Kazaa settles music industry lawsuit

July 27, 2006
Music Industry Announces Settlement With Kazaa
By ERIC PFANNER, International Herald Tribune

LONDON, July 27 — The music industry said today that it had settled its lawsuit against Kazaa, the digital file-sharing service that it accused of encouraging illegal copying and distribution of copyrighted music over the Internet by its users.

Kazaa’s Australian owner, Sharman Networks, agreed to pay more than $100 million to the major record companies and to transform itself into a legitimate, royalty-paying online music seller, according to the announcement from a record-industry trade group.

Kazaa also said today that it had agreed to settle a separate but similar lawsuit filed by Hollywood studios, which accused the service of aiding the illegal copying and distribution of movies. Details of that agreement were not immediately available, but Kazaa said the two settlements clear the way “to enable distribution of the broadest range of licensed content over Kazaa.”

“All the parties involved now recognize the time is right to work together, and we are looking forward to collaborating with the music and motion picture companies to make P2P an integral part of the future of online digital entertainment,” said Nikki Hemming, chief executive of Sharman Networks, in a statement.

P2P is shorthand for “peer to peer” network technology, which allows users to share computer files with one another over the Internet, including things like music and movies stored in digital form. Kazaa was a pioneer of peer-to-peer network software.

Record companies, film studios and others who sell copyrighted material say peer-to-peer services promote widespread piracy, which they say costs them billions of dollars in lost sales, and they have sued companies that build peer-to-peer services over the issue. An Australian court ruled against Kazaa last year in such a suit.

Under the agreement announced today, Sharman Networks will pay the major record companies — Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, EMI Group and Warner Music — “in excess of $100 million,” according to John Kennedy, chief executive of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the London-based association representing the record companies.

“We are under no illusion that this solves everything,” Mr. Kennedy said, noting that other file-sharing services continue to thrive. “But this is very encouraging.”

The federation said that Kazaa agreed to license music from the record industry “majors,” which control most music copyrights. In making the switch to a licensed, royalty-paying business, Kazaa would follow Napster, one of the original file-swapping services, which was reborn as a music seller after an adverse court ruling in 2001.

Mr. Kennedy said that Kazaa executives had not said whether the company would now sell digital music through a flat-rate subscription arrangement or song by song, as other sites typically do. Kazaa now offers users free music downloads and makes its living from advertising on its site; Mr. Kennedy said the recording industry would not object to Kazaa sticking with that business model, as long as it pays royalties and stops illegal sharing of music files among users.

“The model going forward will be for them to decide,” Mr. Kennedy said. “But they now have an obligation to keep their network clear of any unauthorized files.”

Though the settlement does not call for the major music companies to buy a stake in Kazaa, it does entitle them to receive 20 percent of the proceeds if Sharman Networks ever sells Kazaa, Mr. Kennedy said, a provision that gives record companies an incentive to help Kazaa succeed.

Mr. Kennedy said the industry would continue to go after digital piracy in the courts, where it has already won legal victories against other peer-to-peer sites like Grokster and Morpheus. Still, he said he hoped that the deal with Kazaa would serve as a model for deals with other file-sharing services.

Music company executives welcomed the settlement with Kazaa.

“While the award may seem like a vast pot of money, it will merely offset the millions we have invested — and will continue to invest — in fighting illegal pirate operations around the world and protecting the works that our artists create,” said David Munns, vice chairman of EMI Music, in a statement.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mid-year Music Tour figures

Check out the list. Other than Coldplay, we are talking veterans (if not senior citizens).

Rolling Stones Lead Mid-Year Tour Figures
July 21, 2006, 12:40 PM ET
Ray Waddell, Nashville

Touring is a global business and the Rolling Stones are, predictably, the top touring band in the world for the first half of 2006. Based on figures reported to Billboard Boxscore from Nov. 1, 2005, through mid-May, the Stones' Bigger Bang tour, produced by Michael Cohl, reported $147.3 million in grosses from 45 shows in U.S. arenas and international stadiums.

While it's doubtful U2 would have passed its elder brethren, the band, which is at second for the mid-year, would have improved its already hefty take of $73 million for the period had it not postponed dates because of a family illness. As reported today, those shows have been rescheduled for later this year.

Bon Jovi is the third-highest-grossing act for the period, reporting more than $65 million and 866,873 in attendance, selling out 54 of 57 shows. Rounding out the top 10 are Billy Joel ($47.4 million), Cirque du Soleil's Delirium ($38.7 million), Aerosmith ($35 million), Coldplay ($29 million), Luis Miguel ($25 million), Trans Siberian Orchestra ($24 million), and Paul McCartney ($17.6 million).

In general, the touring industry is maintaining a healthy pace. Gross dollars for January-June 2006 are up 24.6% from the same period last year, driven mostly by the tours cited above. High ticket prices help boost the increase, however, because attendance is up just 5.4%.

How baseball cards lost their luster

sports nut
Requiem for a Rookie Card
How baseball cards lost their luster.
By Dave Jamieson
Posted Tuesday, July 25, 2006, at 6:31 AM ET

Last month, when my parents sold the house I grew up in, my mom forced me to come home and clear out my childhood bedroom. I opened the closet and found a box the size of a Jetta. It was so heavy that at first I thought it held my Weider dumbbells from middle school. Nope, this was my old stash. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of baseball cards from the 1980s. Puckett, Henderson, Sandberg, Gwynn, and McGwire stared back at me with fresh faces. So long, old friends, I thought. It's time for me to cash in on these long-held investments. I started calling the lucky card dealers who would soon be bidding on my trove.

First, I got a couple of disconnected numbers for now-defunct card shops. Not a good sign. Then I finally reached a human. "Those cards aren't worth anything," he told me, declining to look at them.

"Maybe if you had, like, 20 McGwire rookie cards, that's something we might be interested in," another offered.

"Have you tried eBay?" a third asked.

If I had to guess, I'd say that I spent a couple thousand bucks and a couple thousand hours compiling my baseball card collection. Now, it appears to have a street value of approximately zero dollars. What happened?

Baseball cards peaked in popularity in the early 1990s. They've taken a long slide into irrelevance ever since, last year logging less than a quarter of the sales they did in 1991. Baseball card shops, once roughly 10,000 strong in the United States, have dwindled to about 1,700. A lot of dealers who didn't get out of the game took a beating. "They all put product in their basement and thought it was gonna turn into gold," Alan Rosen, the dealer with the self-bestowed moniker "Mr. Mint," told me. Rosen says one dealer he knows recently struggled to unload a cache of 7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards. He asked for 25 cents apiece.

For someone who grew up in the late 1980s, this is a shocking state of affairs. When I was a kid, you weren't normal if you didn't have at least a passing interest in baseball cards. My friends and I spent our summer days drooling over the display cases in local card shops, one of which was run by a guy named Fat Moose. The owners tolerated us until someone inevitably tried to steal a wax pack, which would get us all banished from the store. Then we'd bike over to the Rite Aid and rummage through their stock of Topps and Fleer.

Card-trading was our pastime, and our issues of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly were our stock tickers. I considered myself a major player on the neighborhood trading circuit. It was hard work convincing a newbie collector that Steve Balboni would have a stronger career than Roger Clemens. If negotiations stalled, my favorite move was to sweeten the pot by throwing in a Phil Rizzuto card that only I knew had once sat in a pool of orange juice. After the deal went through, my buddy wouldn't know he'd been ripped off until his older brother told him. He always got over it, because he had no choice: Baseball cards were our common language.

In the early 1990s, pricier, more polished-looking cards hit the market. The industry started to cater almost exclusively to what Beckett's associate publisher described to me as "the hard-core collector," an "older male, 25 to 54, with discretionary income." That's marketing speak for the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Manufacturers multiplied prices, overwhelmed the market with scores of different sets, and tantalized buyers with rare, autographed, gold-foil-slathered cards. Baseball cards were no longer mementos of your favorite players—they were elaborate doubloons that happened to have ballplayers on them. I eventually left the hobby because it was getting too complicated and expensive. Plus, I hit puberty.

It's easy to blame card companies and "the hard-core collector" for spoiling our fun. But I'll admit that even before the proliferation of pricey insert cards, I was buying plastic, UV-ray-protectant cases for my collection. Our parents, who lost a small fortune when their parents threw out all those Mantles and Koufaxes, made sure we didn't put our Griffeys and Ripkens in our bicycle spokes or try washing them in the bathtub. Not only did that ensure our overproduced cards would never become valuable, it turned us into little investors. It was only rational, then, for the card companies to start treating us like little investors. The next wave of expensive, hologram-studded cards didn't ruin collecting for us—we were already getting too old for the game. It ruined baseball cards for the next generation of kids, who shunned Upper Deck and bought cheap Pokémon and Magic cards instead.

This year there are 40 different sets of baseball cards on the market, down from about 90 in 2004. That's about 38 too many. When there were just two or three major sets on the market, we all had the same small pool of cards. Their images and stats were imprinted on our brains. The baseball card industry lost its way because the manufacturers forgot that the communal aspect of collecting is what made it enjoyable. How can kids talk about baseball cards if they don't have any of the same ones?

Seeing as the cards I once prized now fetch a pittance on eBay, I decided not to sell my collection. I figure my Boggs rookie is worth more as a keepsake of my card-shop days than as an online auction with a starting bid of 99 cents. The worthlessness of my collection gave me an idea, though. The card manufacturers and the Major League Baseball Players Association have launched a $7 million marketing campaign to remind a generation of children that baseball cards exist. Instead of spending all that money to tell kids that cardboard is cool, Topps and MLB should convince everyone that cards are worthless, suitable for tacking to the wall, flicking on the playground, or at least taking out of the package.

In that spirit, the other day I opened three Topps packs that I'd stowed away as an investment in the late 1980s. I even tried the gum, which was no staler than I remember it being 20 years ago. And as I flipped through my new cards hoping to score a Mattingly, I felt that particular tinge of excitement that a generation of kids have missed out on.
Dave Jamieson is a writer for the Washington City Paper.

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Copyright 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC

Monday, July 24, 2006

PBS kids' show host fired for video

PBS kids' show host fired for video

Mon Jul 24, 7:25 PM ET

The PBS Kids Sprout network has fired the host of "The Good Night Show" after learning she had appeared in videos called "Technical Virgin."

The host, Melanie Martinez, had alerted network officials about one of the videos late last week and she was immediately taken off the air.

"PBS Kids Sprout has determined that the dialogue in this video is inappropriate for her role as a preschool program host and may undermine her character's credibility with our audience," said Sandy Wax, network president.

Airing for three hours each evening, "The Good Night Show" airs soothing stories and cartoons designed to get an audience of 2-to-5-year-olds ready for bed. Each night, Martinez guides a puppet character into dreamland. Martinez is a stage actress and mother of a toddler.

In the two "Technical Virgin" videos — made before she landed the children's show job — she spoofs PSAs about how young women can keep their virginity.

PBS Kids Sprout airs children's programming 24 hours a day and is seen in about 20 million of the nation's 110 million television homes. "The Good Night Show" has been temporarily replaced by cartoons while a search is conducted for a new host.

Too bad; my daughter liked her. Here are links to the videos in question, you can see if you think the firing was warranted. See as the target audience of the show is 2 to 5-year-olds, I don't know how they would stuble onto the videos, which are basically like a SNL of Fox TV skit. PBS seems to be paranoid after the REpublican drive to change their programing plus the fines for decency standards. See for yourself:

Secrets of the Singing Sand Dunes

July 25, 2006
Secrets of the Singing Sand Dunes

The dunes at Sand Mountain in Nevada sing a note of low C, two octaves below middle C. In the desert of Mar de Dunas in Chile, the dunes sing slightly higher, an F, while the sands of Ghord Lahmar in Morocco are higher yet, a G sharp.

Since at least the time of Marco Polo, desert travelers have heard the songs of the dunes, a loud — up to 115 decibels — deep hum that can last several minutes. (You can listen to them here. **check out the video at the NYT page--good example) While the songs are steady in frequency, the dunes do not have perfect pitch. At Sand Mountain, for example, dunes can sing slightly different notes at different times, from B to C sharp.

Scientists already knew that the sounds were generated by avalanches, but were not sure how. One thought had been that the force of an avalanche could cause an entire dune to resonate like a flute or a violin. But if that were true, dunes of different sizes and shapes should produce a cacophony of notes instead of one characteristic tone.

Now, after five years of research, visiting sand dunes in Morocco, Chile, China and Oman, a team of scientists from the United States, France and Morocco say they have the answer.

In a paper that will appear in Physical Review Letters, the scientists say that collisions between sand grains cause the motions of the grains to become synchronized. The outer layer of the dune vibrates like the cone of a loudspeaker. The particular note depends primarily on the size of the grains.

Indeed, no dune was required at all. The scientists shipped sand from a Moroccan desert to a Paris laboratory and reproduced the singing by pushing the sand around with a metal blade.

“It’s not at all like any other instrument we know,” said one of the scientists, Stéphane Douady of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris.

The most beautiful dune tune comes from the sands of Oman. “Very pure sound,” Dr. Douady said. “This one is really singing.” The least musical bits of silicon were those from China, which hardly sang at all.

2003 Steely Dan Interview

It's long, from a San Diego appearance:

Steely Dan Q&A with George Varga



By George Varga
September 26, 2003

Here is the complete text of George Varga's interview with Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. His Steely Dan feature story appears on the cover of the Currents section in today's Union-Tribune.

QUESTION: Just as kind of a backdrop, since we're here at a hotel in Santa Monica, could you recall coming out to California --I assume it was after your brief tenure touring with Jay & the Americans -- to work on staff for ABC Records in 1971. What, at that point in time, did Los Angeles mean to you, to two East Coast guys?

FAGEN: "Well, it was an enormous relief on one hand. New York was in a really bad period at that time. There was nothing much happening in the period between the end of the `60s and before the Concorde dance movements. So, it seemed that most of the recording studios, in place of the certain professional recording studios you had previously, there was also springing up a lot of recording studios run by drug dealers.

"Some of which were perfectly good recording studios, but there was nothing much to record and the drug dealers were just recording their friends. Just nothing much was happening. It also was a very, very cold winter. So, it was good to get to L.A. As to the negative side of it...."

BECKER: "Well, I think Donald had maybe been in L.A. on a pit stop maybe one time before we moved out here. I had never been here, or given it much thought. And so we sort of arrived in this milieu; we're plunked down in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Our soon-to-be-producer (Gary Katz) was living in Encino, and Encino had apparently been built sometime in the previous two weeks.

"So, there were three long avenues full of brand-new apartment houses with empty apartments. And we didn't know how to drive, we didn't have any drivers. I guess you (Fagen) knew how to drive, but you didn't have a driver's license."

FAGEN: "Yeah, I'd let it expire."

BECKER: "And I didn't know how to drive, so for the beginning of the time we were here we had to drive around with Gary. So he would drive us to work; we'd go with him and, at the end of the day, he'd collect us and drive us back and drop us off at our houses, around the corner from him."

Q: Gary had a lively social life at the time?

BECKER: "Yes, but not for us. I'm sure that other people were having...."

Q: I mean that you were dependent on him....

FAGEN: "We lived right up Ventura Boulevard, which is essentially built only for cars. And, in fact, most of the services along Ventura Boulevard were for cars -- muffler repairs, gas stations...."

BECKER: "The social center of our lives was the craftmart in Encino, the little booths of people selling crystals and handmade medieval jewelry, and potent dusts and potions."

Q: Was the upside to this that you had no recourse but to do a lot of songwriting?

BECKER: "Well, that had long been the case long before that. When we met at Bard College (in New York), that was already the case. So, we just continued in that vein. The difference was that now we were being paid to do it -- or we at least were theoretically being paid to do it, because it took us many, many weeks to get our first check. But on paper we were now employed."

Q: You were "staff writers" at ABC Records?

BECKER: "Yeah, we were sort of pretending to be staff writers, and they were sort of pretending to consider (using) the silly songs we were writing."

Q: Pardon my ignorance, but were you simply writing at will, or were they telling you, "Oh, we've got this act that's doing an album and would you write a song for...?"

FAGEN: "Well, Gary would say, `Yeah, so-and-so is doing an album. We want to do a demo with such-and-such.' But we were just essentially writing pop songs, with someone in mind or without someone in mind, it didn't matter."

BECKER: "All of their acts at ABC-Dunhill Records were essentially the same anyway. They had the Grass Roots, Tommy Roe, Hamilton, Joe, Frank & Reynolds..."

FAGEN: "Three Dog Night."

BECKER: "Three Dog Night. They were the same; it was sort of the lowest common denominator."

FAGEN: "But we couldn't write pop songs very well, anyway."

BECKER: "So we were just writing whatever -- we were marking time; we knew and they knew..."

Q: And did what you were writing become fodder for (Steely Dan's 1972 debut album) "Can't Buy a Thrill?"

BECKER: "No, we wrote a bunch of `as-if' pop songs, that they would politely listen to and then never do anything with them."

Q: It might be a poor analogy, but I was talking to Burt Bacharach about the kind of subversiveness of what he was writing in the 1960s --it was pop but he was throwing in jazzy harmonies and classical-inspired counterpoint that you wouldn't find in conventional pop songs. So, when you were doing these `as-if' pop songs, were you in fact injecting your own...

FAGEN: "The problem with the pop songs we were writing is, we would sabotage them beyond where anyone would do them. Burt Bacharach wrote perfectly usable pop songs, even though they may have been more complex. If we had to come up with some good music that might have had a chance at radio, we would spoil it by putting some lyric to it that couldn't possibly be played on the radio."

BECKER: "Or else (something) slightly funny, or too obscure...."

FAGEN: "Too obscure, songs that made fun of themselves. We had a demo recorded by Denny Dougherty of the Mamas and Papas."

BECKER: "What did he do of ours?"

FAGEN: "The Mamas and the Papas had shut down and he was looking for a (solo) career at the time. I think it was the same song that John Kay put on...."

BECKER: " `Giles of the River' -- that was the one song we wrote that snuck through. That'll give you some idea of what the ones that didn't make it through the filter were."

FAGEN: "John Kay did do it on his, I think it was his first solo album after he left Steppenwolf. It was different for people whose bands had just broken up and they were trying to get a career going and needed some songs."

BECKER: "That's right. As it turned out, when we got to ABC Records, they were falling apart, too, in a funny kind of way. In other words, their first wave of successes were more or less winding down -- Three Dog Night...."

FAGEN: "Three Dog Night was in its `Boogie Nights' stage."

BECKER: "That's absolutely right. It was perfect timing for us!"

Q: So, now fast forward. You've come back here, a little over three decades later; does L.A. have any resonance for you at all? Does it have any resonance beyond that you worked here and lived here back then?

FAGEN: "It actually gave us something to write about. When we moved here, I guess we started writing a lot of sort of `New York songs,' about New York. I guess you do that once you get some distance from it. And then when we left L.A. in `78 (and returned to New York), we started writing songs about L.A.; it definitely gave us some material."

Q: I don't know if you're familiar with the gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama...

BECKER: "I know them; I worked with the Blind Boys. I'm a personal friend of (group leader) Clarence Fountain."

Q: Lucky you. I was interviewing Clarence about 10 years ago and their guitarist, Sam Butler, had just left the band and they were auditioning new guys. I asked him what the criteria to be in the Blind Boys was, and he said: `Well, you have to be able to play lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously; you have to listen really well; and you have to be a great harmony singer. But the most important thing is, you have to be able to drive!' I'm curious about the criteria for being in Steely Dan. You've had great players over the years...

FAGEN: "Have you seen Sam Butler recently?"


Q: You've got Bill Charlap who's a great, young jazz pianist on your new album, and you've always had really good people in your touring band. But is there a criteria beyond being a great player?

BECKER: "Well, I think we tend to -- there is definitely a consideration of people's personalities, and to some extent it's directly related to if they are or are not a great player, or if they are or are not going to play great on your record. But above and beyond that, you want people that you want to hang out with, because you're going to be hanging out with them (on tour).

"So I think it is true that we hire people that we sort of like, that laugh at our jokes or whatever, as well as people who are great players. I think everybody does it to some extent. As far as the driving thing goes, we take cabs in New York, so that's not a big factor for us. We do love personable, what we consider to be personable people."

Q: So if it's a brilliant player who's sort of a stick-in-the-mud, you're not going to be inclined to hire...

BECKER: "Well, it's not so much if somebody is a stick-in-the-mud."

FAGEN: "It's more the opposite, really. If they're wild and undependable..."

Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, but your new album, `Everything Must Go, set a near-record for you, in terms of the quickness with which it was made...

FAGEN: "It was certainly quicker than the one before it (2000's `Two Against Nature')"

BECKER: "Well, in the `70s we used to pop them out every year."

Q: So is it almost coming full circle and now it's becoming more of a streamlined process?

FAGEN: "Well, (with) the first one in 2000 (which was the first new Steely Dan studio album since 1980), we were kind of getting started again, kind of gearing up. And then with this one, we already had a backlog of material, and so in a sense it was a little easier."

BECKER: "We had songs, we had resources, we had players."

FAGEN: "We had met some musicians during the making of the previous album that gelled nicely into a band. And we did go back to -- we finally found some players who were able to (musically) negotiate anything we wanted to do, so we did do all the songs with one band. It made it much quicker; we didn't have to go around looking for other musicians."

BECKER: "We also had sort of figured out how to confine the (recordings, geographically). Eventually, everyone who worked on the record were New York people. So, where as in the past we had people flying back and forth -- and this guy's schedule would be matched up with that guy's schedule -- this album was pretty much done with just call these guys up and we could arrange a (recording) date pretty quickly. And that was nice. That helped."

Q: I've learned that, often times, the things one thinks are autobiographical in a song rarely are. And, conversely, that things that seem impossible to be true, actually are. So I'm just curious:

Without prying into anyone's personal life, I'm wondering if either of you went through any kind of emotional upheaval before or during the making of the album, or it's merely the tone of certain songs that would imply that?

BECKER: "Our life has been one continuous emotional upheaval."

FAGEN: "Yeah. The World Trade Center (terrorist attack) did happen during the recording. We had a few tracks (completed), and we had just started to write."

BECKER: "We'd just started, really."

FAGEN: "I'm not saying it had that big an influence on what we did, but it was an upheaval of some kind."

Q: Did the recording come shuddering to a halt after 9/11?

FAGEN: "Briefly. You know, we were working on 32nd Street originally."

BECKER: "Everybody was walking the other way that particular day."

FAGEN: "We were ready to go downtown to work and there was no traffic going that way anymore. Everyone was coming uptown. So, it was pretty strange."

Q: It might be a corny question but, post 9/11, did music in general -- and your own music, specifically -- mean more, less, or just the same to you?

BECKER: "The same."

FAGEN: "I would say it took me a while to get back into the mindset to record and write and so on. After a while, your life just has re-ssert itself in some way."

Q: Musically speaking, Walter, I think your guitar work is at a new level on "Everything Must Go."

BECKER: "Oh, thank you."

Q: I don't know if you've been woodshedding, per se, but it just seems that the on last two albums the quality of your playing has gone up...

BECKER: "I guess actually playing on the records and touring is a great forced practice regimen for me. And you learn a lot playing with people. So I think that helped a lot, just doing it, really, and ending up doing as much -- I think when we started the last record, I didn't particularly intend to do that, and in the course of doing it, I played so much."

Q: Given how well you know one another, how important is it -- and how easy or difficult is it -- to surprise each other in the studio or on stage?

FAGEN: "I don't think we try to surprise each other."

BECKER: "Certainly not on stage. On stage we're trying to..."

FAGEN: "We sometimes try to surprise some of the other players on stage. When that giant moth came down from the lighting rig, down on Ted (Baker's) piano, I think it surprised them all."

BECKER: "By the way, you know what I discovered? Ted is very afraid of insects. It turns out that we tapped into something."

Q: Hopefully you won't exploit that...

BECKER: "Well, we already have. We have elaborate plans to...."

FAGEN: "That's part of why we switched to this coyote, though" (he motions to a ceramic coyote with a $39.99 sales tag, which is perched on a nearby table).

BECKER: "But when I go back to Hawaii (where he lives), there's no coyotes but there's a lot of bugs. So, if I'm going to find something really special for Ted, for example, my choices are constrained to our little six-legged and eight-legged friends primarily."

Q: What I was getting at when I asked about the importance of surprises in your work is that, to remain vital, it seems artists have to in one way or another reinvent themselves. Not a total 360-degree turn, but obviously you're going to get into diminishing returns if you're simply reiterating what you did before.

FAGEN: "Reinventing oneself is a mythic..."

BECKER: "Mythic or a myth?"

FAGEN: "A myth. It's not something I've ever -- what's all so amusing is that, lately when you hear that, you hear that in connection with Madonna, which makes it especially laughable. She puts on a new hat and she's `reinvented' herself."

BECKER: "Hah!"

FAGEN: "As if there was anything to reinvent in the first place."

Q: I was thinking more along the line of Miles Davis. Or was that a natural evolution in your opinion?

FAGEN: "Miles Davis, I think, and Bob Dylan are exceptions. They obviously think a lot about the past and how to kind of annihilate it. It seems to me, our whole thing has been sort of bridging to the past and trying to perhaps engender something different out of the past without throwing it (away). We don't want to throw away the baby with the bathwater."

BECKER: "Because there are a lot of really great things that haven't really been explored in the past that -- in fact, part of that is, if there's anything unique about it, it's just that we know more music and go further back than most people."

Q: I remember from an earlier interview that you told me you had certain phrases to describe your methodology of making music. For instance, a reference to (jazz saxophonist) Jackie McLean, "McLeaning it" meant someone was playing a little sharp. So I'm curious about some other terms you might use. It seems to me that the musicians you have now would automatically know what you meant, since they come from a jazz background, but maybe in the past some of them might not have.

BECKER: "You mean vocabulary, musician slang?"

Q: Yes, a code word or two that you guys kind of developed along the way.

BECKER: "Let me think. Well, you know the expression `B flat.' OK, you know most of it. There's probably a lot of them, but they're just not arising right now."

Q: You are both longtime jazz devotees. Does it cause you any consternation that Steely Dan has been embraced in recent years by "smooth jazz" radio, one of the most vapid formats extant?

BECKER: "In a way it's ideal. The more of what our music does violates the premise of its format that it's presented in, the better. So, hearing our music in the supermarket, a Muzak version, is great. Don't you think? I always feel fulfilled by that."

FAGEN: "No one I know likes that music. It mainly serves as a basis for people's silly remarks."

BECKER: "Smooth jazz?"

FAGEN: "Yeah, it's like, `That's hilarious'...."

BECKER: "It's a kind of ambient music, it's like Muzak."

FAGEN: "Yeah, I know, I'm just saying that people think it's funny."

BECKER: "Yeah, yeah, it is."

FAGEN: "I assume it maybe doesn't seem funny to the people who like it, or elderly people, who actually experience it as soothing music. It puts me on edge."

Q: I see it as more insidious, I guess, because in talking to teens or young people in their 20s, I keep hearing them say how jazz is `the most boring music' they've ever heard. And then they say that the only jazz they've heard is on the radio, which is "smooth..."

BECKER: "But they don't like the other (real) kind of jazz, either."

FAGEN: "With the other kind they'd say that's the most irritating music, so it doesn't really matter."

We talked when you reunited in 1993 and then again when your last album came out in 2000 about how established artists have this dilemma, this conundrum, they face. Namely, that their core audience would be happy not to hear any new music, that they're thrilled to just go back and relive....

BECKER: "Yeah, that's right."

Q: But to do that is death to the artist. How do you address that?

BECKER: "We're going to die. We do a few new songs in our show. I count four or five new songs, or songs that are from a recent album."

FAGEN: "I think part of the reason we're doing this tour is we have an album of stuff to play that's new, so we don't want the show to be any kind of nostalgia show, or anything like that. In fact, when we do older things that seem stale to us, we try to vamp them up with a new arrangement or a new concept, or add horns or do something to it to make it interesting to us."

BECKER: "Or rotate them out."

FAGEN: "Yeah, we rotate them out."

BECKER: "It's sort of interesting for us, because when we started playing again in 1993, the old songs that we were playing, many of them we had never played on stage, never played since 1976 or something like that."

FAGEN: "We have many songs that we would be happy to do that we've never done, because we just weren't touring during those years. So they're sort of like new songs, as far as live performance goes."

Q: When you go out on tour now and perform the title track for "Everything Must Go," which begins with the saxophone intro, that `Trane meets Pharaoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman fanfare, would that be expanded live, or...?

FAGEN: "I don't know, maybe. It's kind of a pretty good arrangement, so... But it depends on how the show is set up, where it appears in the order. It's all different things."

Q: To what degree do you get feedback from younger listeners that aren't considered the so-called Steely Dan core audience, either through their parents or on the Web or whatever? And how important is it to reach a different generation than the people who grew up with you?

FAGEN: "I'm not really a Web person, so I get zero feedback."

BECKER: "We get feedback at the Web site, though."

FAGEN: "I know. I just don't look at it."

BECKER: "People write (to) it. It's good, it's great when somebody who is 20 years younger than you comes up and says, `Wow, we just got turned on to you guys and you're really great,' or something like that. I like that. But, you know, that's sort of out of (our) control -- like all the rest of it, really."

Q: (To Becker) You're a father?

BECKER: "Yes. My son is 18, my daughter is going to be 16."

Q: And what do your two teenaged children think about the music that you do?

BECKER: "Um, they seem to think it's okay, as an exemplar of an antique form of music."

FAGEN: "Well, music with singing to them is kind of...."

BECKER: "Music with musicians..."

FAGEN: "Music with singing or musicians is kind of strange to them."

BECKER: "Well, my daughter likes kind of singing-dancing, dance music. And my son when I was in Tower Records with him the other day, I said, `Let me see what you got. And here, look at mine.' And looking at his things, it (was) all rappers and stuff. And he's looking at my things and he's saying, `Oh, these guys are all musicians. What the f--- is this?' "

FAGEN: "My stepson is pretty much of a fan. That's the thing, he's about..."

BECKER: "Forty-eight."

FAGEN: "Forty-eight. No, he's 36, actually."

Q: I'm assuming Eminem did not send you a Christmas card.

FAGEN: "No."

BECKER: "He usually sends one of those Harry & David fruit things, you know. Pears and oranges."

Q: Reflect, if you will, on the Grammy Awards ceremony in 2001 (when Steely dan scoured an upset victory over the heavily fabored Eminem for Album of the Year Honors). I honestly didn't think anyone in their right mind thought Eminem would win for Album of the Year because given the conservative nature of the average Grammy voter...

FAGEN: "I think both of us thought he would win."

BECKER: "Everybody thought he was going to win. It was more or less..."

FAGEN: "I know I did. I figured he was so hyped and was having such a good year."

BECKER: "Even though he didn't win, he sort of won, because it was presumed in advance that he was going to win. And the story at the end of the day was that he didn't win."

FAGEN: "Yeah, the story at the end of the day was that he was robbed."

BECKER: "He couldn't possibly lose. And why not? It was his to take. It was an interesting clerical error that we got it, anyway. It's the kind of thing that would have meant more to him than to us, probably."

Q: Did it feel odd coming at that point to earn your first Grammy, like maybe the Grammy voters were a little late in recognizing you and that was a factor?

BECKER: "There was something gratifying that we got it at all. I don't think that the Grammys are in any way a just way of grading music. It was really kind of a `go, go' for me (event)."

FAGEN: "No one there has anything in common with us anymore, if there ever was."

BECKER: "Tony Bennett was there. Hugh Hefner."

FAGEN: "Hugh Hefner, I saw him with all his girls. So, you know, I suppose on some level there is some kind of ego stroke that happens, but as Walter says, Eminem would have gotten a lot more out of it."

Q: When you're as established as you are and then you get that (Grammy-win) recognition, well, it might be a poor analogy but I remember speaking with Tito Puente years ago. He'd won plenty of Grammys, but he said it really didn't make any difference at all. His (concert fee) price didn't go up, he was already a known entity.

FAGEN: "Exactly. We did get a little bonus from the record company, though. not a large one, but we get a little they called it a Grammy Bonus. Like 50 grand each."

BECKER: "It was not inconsiderable, but not a huge sum of money. But it was better than a cheese sandwich. It was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."

Q: In making `Everything Must Go,' how similar or different is the process of making an album now from the past. I recall one of you saying that each time you go into the studio, it's almost like you've forgotten what came before and you're starting anew.

BECKER: "That's true. I think maybe that was less true in this case, because we had it done it so recently and at such great length and toured as well. So we were sort of building on what we knew from the last time, to a greater extent than perhaps we have in the past. And so that wasn't as much true with this. I think one of the reasons it went more quickly is because we didn't start off experimenting, really. We started off just recording songs with this bunch of guys. We were lucky and everybody clicked, musically it clicked.

"It saved us some of the exploration stage that usually goes along with what we're doing. I know in the past we think about a few albums we made in the `70s and you think, Oh, yeah, here's a song from the `Aja' album, yeah, I remember we cut this with this band, and then we cut it with that band, then we tried it... So, this was a little more streamlined than that."

Q: When people read that an album took one year or took three years to make, I'd want to disavow them of the notion -- if it's incorrect -- that it took that long. It's not like you were in there day after day, week after week, month after month.

BECKER: "No, that's right. Although we have done that in the past. I think (with) the previous album, we really were in (the studio) most of the time for a big, long stretch of time."

FAGEN: "Yeah, this one was a little easier."

BECKER: "(With) this one we took a few breaks. We went back and forth to Hawaii (Becker is a longtime resident of Lahaina, Maui), we had some time off. We had a break right at the beginning, I guess, as we discussed before. It was a little more compartmentalized."

Q: "We" meaning you, or you and Donald?

BECKER: "We both went to Hawaii, and we did some work there, for a couple weeks."

Q: Having vacationed with my fiancee in Lahaina, which is such a gorgeous place, I wonder how much more difficult or not is it to work in that kind of a setting?

BECKER: "Oh, you mean because of the distraction of the Hawaiian [natural beauty]. That's not a problem."

FAGEN: "It's actually harder because you have to drag up through the hills to get to the studio."

BECKER: "It took up about the same amount of time to get up the hills to the studio as it used to take me to get to 32nd Street (in Manhattan). You're traveling 150 times a greater distance, but it actually takes about 35 minutes."

FAGEN: "The idea of having to concentrate on driving, but I don't usually drive anyway."

BECKER: "And I don't drive, I don't concentrate."

FAGEN: "There you go."

Q: You talked about how you left L.A. in `78 and then you wrote about it and when you got here to L.A. in '71 you wrote about New York. I haven't seen anything to overtly reflect the reality of life in Lahaina or Maui in the songs. Is there in fact anything directly or indirectly...?

BECKER: "Well, a song like `The Last Mall' is -- mall life for Donald is certainly somewhat associated with being in Hawaii. If you live in New York, there are no malls in New York City. And Hawaii, as you know, is kind of a quasi-suburban environment with a few curves thrown in, in the middle of the ocean, as it is. But basically, a lot of this sort of textural stuff of contemporary American life -- that non-urban, non-New York, non-L.A. kind of reality -- is something that we both see there."

FAGEN: "It's funny, Hawaii has become kind of a..."

BECKER: "Middle America."

FAGEN: "If you need to do research for suburban America, do it in Hawaii. I have occasionally tried to encourage Walter to draw more on the musical environment, but he doesn't seem to have that much interest in it, really."

BECKER: "Well..."

FAGEN: "I think you've lived there long enough so that, you know, you could maybe..."

BECKER: "Well, mostly what happens in Hawaii now is reggae music."

FAGEN: "Well, I know, but just like we go back into the jazz of the `20s and `30s...

BECKER: "Yeah. Well, I think it was Groucho Marx said it best: `All Hawaiian music was recorded on the same day.' That's the thing.

Q: Actually, I was walking in Lahaina on a Sunday morning and a church door was open, and I heard a form of choral music unlike any I had ever heard. It was mesmerizing.

BECKER: "Oh, there are some interesting things, some Polynesian choral musics and stuff like that. I actually have a couple ideas for things I might do with Hawaiian music, but it doesn't really translate that well with what we're doing."

FAGEN: "Once I saw Bette Midler on the street in Manhattan. And we had a conversation about the same thing. I was also encouraging her to draw on her Hawaiian roots, since she was born in Hawaii and grew up there. She got all excited about it and everything, and she never called me back. It was really beating a dead horse."

Q: If you take yourself back to the advent of Steely Dan, it seems to me that most bands from that time and a little earlier, no one planned to be here now in terms of being the same band; no one thought it could last more than a few years. Did either of you at that point think: `We're in this for the long haul -- 30 years from now we'll still be Steely Dan?

BECKER: "No, I don't think that was part of..."

FAGEN: "I don't think we calculated our lifespan past a certain point."

BECKER: "We didn't really have a game plan that extended beyond the middle of next week, basically."

FAGEN: "We're `Cuban Missile babies.' It didn't seem like things would be sailing along that long."

Q: So what role do you see for Steely Dan in an age of `American Idol,' an age where your son makes a comment like, `Oh, those are albums by musicians.' Is it a double-edged sword? Dp you get good and bad out of it?

BECKER: "I think we've gotten mostly good out of it."

FAGEN: "I tuned out. What are we talking about? Bear with me for a minute."

BECKER: "Is it a good thing or a bad thing that we've survived to the present day?"

FAGEN: "Well, we've been out of harm's way to a certain extent. I think we live in very interesting times. It all depends on whether you have the happy ending or not."

Q: Back in the 1980s I interviewed (jazz drum pioneer) Art Blakey the day before he turned 65. And his wife I don't know what number wife it was was pregnant with his eighth or ninth child, so I jokingly asked him: `Since tomorrow you qualify for Social Security, are you going to slow down?' And he laughed, and said: `The day I slow down is the day they pat my face with a shovel.'

Anyhow, there's an intersting dichotomy, in that that no one looks at B.B. King or Sonny Rollins -- who are both in their 70s and both going strong -- with anything but awe and admiration. There's nothing wrong with their continuing to work and create music and it's great that they continue to do what they do...

BECKER: "Yeah, that's right."

Q: In jazz and blues, it's a given that the older you get, the better you get. In rock the perception is: `Well, that you shouldn't or oughtta not."

FAGEN: "I think that really applies mainly to acts that have based their careers on a kind of adolescent philosophy or adolescent audience. There is something embarrassing about seeing the Rolling Stones they seem to play pretty much like they used to."

BECKER: "I think not. I think that they have tremendous credibility for a bunch of older guys."

FAGEN: "They do, because they keep going musically --"

BECKER: "And they pull it off."

FAGEN: "They write songs, but when I see them -- when I hear them, it's fine, but when I see them, like on this TV thing I saw part of it, I was kind of embarrassed. But I realize I've been embarrassed by their stage act since ..."

BECKER: "Since the `70s."

FAGEN: "In the `60s they had a beautiful act, and it was just like seeing a Motown act or something like that. But Mick has been doing this thing with capes and stuff, and to me there's a real dissonance between what I'm seeing and the music I'm hearing, in their attitudes, in the poses they assume. It just always seems wrong. But that's true, it's been forever, almost. It's these kind of exaggerated poses, grimaces. It doesn't match what I'm hearing. I'm hearing some good rocking music and they're acting like ass----s."

BECKER: "There's a thing that they do in the middle of their show where I think they still do this -- in the concert I saw in Honolulu, where they have a second (satellite) stage, like out in front of the big stage, and the five of them go out and they start playing just like a club band, with little amplifiers out in the middle of the audience."

FAGEN: "Oh, yeah, they're a little garage band."

BECKER: "And it's f---ing great. I mean, they play just as well when they're on the big stage, but suddenly you look at this and you realize..."

FAGEN: "They're going through these very strange gyrations and so on, these really forced expressions. There's something very schizophrenic, that to me is really hard to watch."

Q: So is Steely Dan overqualified for rock `n' roll?

FAGEN: "No, I don't think so. Because as you say, it's a labeling thing. You say when you see B.B. King, that's fine; he's playing blues. Blues, I think, has always addressed adult concerns, concerns of age and everything. I think we do the same thing. In that maybe we're closer to Rhythm & Blues or a blues sensibility, a jazz sensibility."

BECKER: "I think we're more out of tune with the way music is marketed and presented to the public, it's commercial manifestation, than we are with the actual music part. I think the music part works out fine. We're a little bit of an anomaly..."

FAGEN: "Yeah, just (compared to) the sort of teenage ghetto that everything's in. I think everyone else is out of tune. How is that (youth) culture adding to the life? That's the problem."

Q: You did recently go to Las Vegas and make a video with that (ceramic) Coyote on the table over there. Are you a video act?

BECKER: "We didn't make a music video. We did a digital press kit type of thing."

Q: Okay, last question. And not to intimdate you, but the best answer i ever got to this question was from Miles (Davis): How would you like to be remembered?

FAGEN: "I don't care; I'll be dead."

BECKER: "I don't know."

FAGEN: "My stepchildren aren't embarrassed by my memory, I guess. So it isn't a problem for them."

BECKER: "Fondly. What did Miles say?"

Q: He said, and I quote: "For not being white."

(Becker and Fagen look at each other in stunned silence.)

FAGEN: "We should've said that, too."

BECKER: "Can we change our answers?"

Friday, July 21, 2006

Duplicating LP viynl records?

I don't know if this works but check it out:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Beirut's Party Goes Poof

From the Los Angeles Times
Beirut's Party Goes Poof
Just a few weeks ago, Lebanon's capital was a post-apocalyptic playground for rappers and ravers. So long, 50 Cent.

By Brian Winter
BRIAN WINTER is the coauthor of "The Accidental President of Brazil."

July 20, 2006

'THE HEAD OF Hezbollah sends his regards," the note read, "but he will not be able to attend your book signing." Bummer, I thought. What else could he possibly be up to?

I figured he might be at a rave, or maybe watching the World Cup on one of the big-screen TVs at the sidewalk cafes in Solidere, the heart of the city's stubbornly-won rebirth, where teenage girls in tank tops and women in black burkas mingled well past midnight, casing the jewelry stores and lining up at Dunkin' Donuts. This was Beirut only two weeks ago, when it still seemed like a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Enough time had passed since the civil war that the handful of battle-scarred buildings that we saw seemed almost quaint. "That's where the Green Line used to be," my guide gushed. "Those are real bullet holes!"

The city pulsed with that giddy, heartbreakingly innocent feel of the early stages of youthful revolution. "SEX!" blared the cover of the June issue of Time Out Beirut, bearing a racy photo of crossed legs with black panties around the ankles. A bullet-ridden water tower downtown had been converted into a discotheque; at the plaza where in 2005 thousands of Lebanese protesters demanded Syria's withdrawal, there was an outdoor jazz festival. Just two weeks before my visit, the rapper 50 Cent had played to a packed house; surely he found it infinitely less threatening than Queens.

For my book signing at the brand-new Virgin Megastore downtown, I was assigned two bodyguards; fewer than 50 Cent, probably, but I still felt positively gangsta. For laughs, I went to the bathroom just to see if the guards would follow me. They did. Apparently, American journalists hadn't enjoyed the best safety record in Lebanon two decades ago, but now I was armed with a white flower bouquet and a good-luck letter from the Lebanese prime minister. Besides Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah (smiling posters pasted all over Beirut made him look like such a pleasant man), the guest list included diplomats and uniformed representatives of the Lebanese armed forces. They each bought several copies of the book for me to sign. One was for a general whose name I couldn't catch. "Verrrrry important man in Lebanese army," one of the soldiers purred in halting English. "You sign now."

It was only on the last night of our visit that we caught a glimpse of a long-ago past, as if we had stepped into a time machine. My mother-in-law, a Brazilian diplomat stationed in Beirut, threw my wife and me a party to celebrate our recent wedding. Within half an hour, the subject turned to politics. Everybody at the party, we soon discovered, was Christian. "The Muslim neighborhoods here, they are all so dirty, full of trash," spat a young woman who had been sugar sweet until that point. "They're all like that, everywhere in the world. Why would you visit a Muslim country? They are awful!"

When I told another guest that we had driven to Baalbek, a site of spectacular Roman ruins deep in the Bekaa Valley, he was horrified. "Are you crazy?" he shrieked, nearly dropping his champagne. "That area is controlled by Hezbollah!" But that guy Nasrallah is my homey, I replied, not believing the hype.

We left the next morning for the airport, where my last images of Lebanon came from an exhibit inside the terminal. There, someone had proudly hung before-and-after images of Beirut, with black-and-white pictures of bombed-out buildings and streets next to shiny, colorful snapshots of the same spots after years of rebuilding. The centerpiece was the $500-million reconstruction of the Beirut airport, which in the 1980s had been obliterated by Israeli bombs. Isn't it remarkable, I happily mused as we boarded our plane home to Washington, how quickly countries can change?

Ten days later, the airport was bombed and Beirut was a devastated war zone — again. I watched on TV as entire buildings were raked with fresh bullet holes, the cafes of Solidere were shuttered, and Nasrallah, not smiling any longer, vowed to make the streets of Israel run red with blood.

Meanwhile, as Israeli bombers roared overhead, my mother-in-law, her 87-year-old mother and their Yorkie puppies set out for the northern border with Syria, desperate to flee the onslaught. The rest of us were left to marvel again at how, in the Middle East, countries can change so quickly — or, perhaps, how they never really change at all.