Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

What do you to with your staged creations after you’ve shot your photos?

That’s probably the number one question I’m asked when people see my work in galleries. I’m asked if I ever sell the finished construction as a three dimensional sculpture, or if I have boxes of glassed dioramas littering my attic.

No, I take them apart and reuse all the figures and objects in future photos.

However, as many familiar with my work or YouTube channel know, I frequently take apart my constructions in very deliberate fashion, one component at a time, using this opportunity to shoot frames for animation — either stop motion or a “pan’n’zoom” technique I’ve developed that creates the illusion of a camera slowly moving throughout the composition as objects magically materialize into place. Creating animations is a lot of fun and provides insight into the three dimensional nature of my artistic process. And, as you would expect, the animation work has a process of its own, that (very loosely) looks something like this:

  • Develop a storyboard, in reverse, since I always start with the final image and work my way back to the start.
  • Capture all the frames, again, in reverse, as objects are removed from the scene.
  • Take all the captured frames, load them into my computer, and reverse them so that the animation will now run forward, from the beginning to the final image.
  • Add music and synchronize the action to the music I’ve selected. The end.

It’s that last step that is often the most difficult, as I attempt to choose music that fits the spirit of the final photo, has a complimentary tempo, and coincides with the loose running time of the captured animation frames. Even better if the lyrics or musical queues fit key transitions within the animation. It’s really not at all easy, as the animation is not created for the song, and the song is not created for the animation. When things work, it’s really all a matter of coincidence, a little bit of visual manipulation, and a whole bunch of luck.


You’re going to Hell if you use our music

A not-so-quick note about copyright
It’s about here that I should note that — apart from one instance where permission was secured (thank you, My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult) — I don’t have the rights to use any of the music included in my videos. Nope, it is totally illegal, though I shake a fist of Fair Use defiance at those who would suppress my creatively crafted mashup of audio and video. Still, technically, I don’t have the right to use Norman Greenbaum‘s Spirt In The Sky or my own slightly embellished extended remix version of The Globe by Big Audio Dynamite II to accompany my crazy animations. So each time YouTube flags the audio content of a video on behalf of Warner Brothers (bastards!) or Sony (cretins!) or Universal Music (despots!), I file a dispute to the claimed copyright infringement citing “fair use.” In most cases, the legal rights holders meet my dispute with some degree of kindness and allow the song and video to remain, albeit with the addition of a revenue generating ad. No big deal, the ad can be easily clicked away and viewers can still enjoy my creation. Other times, the legal claimants refuse my case for fair use, and the entire YouTube video is “blocked worldwide”, as was recently the case when I used the AC/DC song “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll).” Thanks for that, Warner Music!

Sybil leaves nothing to Chance, as she prepares for a romantic evening at 21

Sybil leaves nothing to Chance, as she prepares for a romantic evening at 21

As I set about producing the animation for the photo above (and discussed in Part Three of this update), I was able to quickly develop a visual storyboard that would run from an empty stage to the final shot focusing on a plastic heart lying in a pool of water. Part one of the process done, check! Likewise, shooting the necessary frames was a breeze. This was going to be one of my pan’n’zoom animations where objects are removed from the scene one at a time, with a single photo taken at each step. Where a full scale stop motion animation often requires thousands of individual frames, pan’n’zoom is much lighter weight in the frame capture department. For this project I needed around 120 frames, which I shot, loaded into my iMac, processed, reversed, and — voila! — I now had several minutes of silent video animation.

Now, to pick the music…

And there, I hit an audio roadblock. I wanted the theme to be fortune telling, with elements of palmistry, tarot card reading, and predicting the future. I scoured through my music collection in iTunes, where a massive library of 68,000 songs failed to satisfy (and, yes, I tried using Fortune Teller in all its various versions, but it really didn’t fit). I then went to my stacks of vintage vinyl, sampling dozens of LPs in search of something that could help bring some life to my soundless animation. Again, no luck.

Ah! But then, the proverbial clouds parted and I found the perfect piece of music to accompany my video. All I had to do was add it to the animation track, synchronize things here and there, and… Judge for yourself!

And there you go! A finished and complete video with music from… the… Vinyl Nightmare Orchestra? Ummm… yeah, who are they, again?

Actually… me. Just me. Yep, that weirdly hypnotic tune (good or bad) was completely created by me, on my iMac, to specifically accompany the action of the video. After flailing away so badly in search of the perfect prerecorded song, I was struck by a thought…

Really, how tough can it be to write a song?

The musical center of my brain

The musical center of my brain

Probably, pretty hard, as I’d never written a song, and I can’t even recall ever having aimlessly dreamed up a whistling, humming, toe-tapping original melody. Sure, my head is always filled with music, but it’s always music I’ve heard, either on the radio, in my music collection, in commercial jingles, or riding on an elevator. As far as I knew, the Musical Hall in my brain contains a very large and lonely jukebox, but there is no well of original beats, chords and lyrics. Would that stop me? No way!

So I started up GarageBand, an application I remember opening once before and thinking, “This is stupid; I don’t know what to do.” It still looked kind of useless. I guessed it could be used with a keyboard or a guitar (neither of which I own or know how to play) and I’d heard it could be used to record voices for podcasts using a microphone. Big deal, that wouldn’t help me write a song for my video.

My brain... now with Audio Production!

My brain… now with Audio Production!

Then I discovered… loops — and a long dormant second center of my brain suddenly sprang back to life! Back in college I spent unholy hours working in the production room of the campus radio station, KCPR 91.3 FM, cutting up and splicing together pieces of quarter inch reel-to-reel audio tape for special programs, commercials, and general on-the-air mayhem. It was incredibly fun, and to this day it remains the best “job” I ever had.

With GarageBand’s loops I could essentially do the same thing I used to do in the KCPR production room — though, now multiplied by a factor of about a million. I could lay down tracks of audio, string together tempo-independent beats, pan left, pan right, adjust volume, and add effects. Want some drums? There. Drums. Layer a tambourine on top of the bass? Shake, shake, shake; I have a tambourine. Congas? Sure! Guitar? Why not? Oh my… GOD! THIS IS EASY!!! (It is about here that I am tempted to go into a lengthy diatribe about the ease with which much of today’s chart topping music is made… but I won’t)

Yay! Music! But what about words?

Since most songs include lyrics, I figured mine should as well. Hmmm… I didn’t really want to write lyrics. And, besides, who would sing once these mind blowing lyrics were written? Me? No thanks — even with the help of Auto-Tune (which GarageBand can more or less mimic through pitch correction). Instead I thought it would be fun to chop up a bunch of existing audio sources and basically drop those samples into the instrumental track to “lyrically narrate” the animation.

The Strangest Secret — Earl Nightingale, 1956

I spent some time collecting sources and identifying samples that would fit the theme of the original photo, then constructed the song as a sequence of instrumental passages that could be synchronized to the animation — dropping in vocal samples as needed to punctuate visual transitions and drive forth a narrative. Basically, I was “scoring the film” and writing dialog all at the same time. The record you see on the right, The Strangest Secret, was produced by Earl Nightingale in 1956 as a motivational tool for salesmen (yes, men, the record is VERY misogynistic in its gender roles) in the midwest. It is Earl’s booming baritone voice you hear calling out to “Build! Work! Dream! Create!” throughout the track, and it is audio from this record that provides the bulk of the vocal samples used to construct the song.

Complete list of samples

Because I really, really like to put together lists, here is the full chronological list of samples (apart from those plucked from The Strangest Secret) used in Build, Work, Dream, Create — the first ever recording from the Vinyl Nightmare Orchestra (and, no, I don’t have the rights to use any of these clips, but when has that stopped me from making art?):

  • “Read my future” — Orson Welles, Touch Of Evil
  • “13” — Jo Morrow, 13 Ghosts
  • “13 what?” — Martin Milner, 13 Ghosts
  • “Ghosts” — Jo Morrow, 13 Ghosts
  • “21” — Grace Kelly, Rear Window
  • “It doesn’t matter if it can foretell the future” — Patricia Breslin, Twilight Zone
  • “You’ve been reading the cards, haven’t you?” — Orson Welles, Touch Of Evil
  • “Captain Howdy, do you think my mom is pretty” — Linda Blair, The Exorcist
  • “Will I ever be married?” — Patricia Breslin, Twilight Zone
  • “Captain Howdy, that isn’t very nice!” — Linda Blair, The Exorcist
  • “What it must be like to be able to look into tomorrow” — William Hansen, Night Gallery
  • “Tomorrow” — Clint Howard, Night Gallery
  • “The sun will be different” — Clint Howard, Night Gallery
  • Sequence Dies Irae — The Nuns of Avignon
  • “I don’t want to know what’s going to happen” — Patricia Breslin, Twilight Zone
  • “You may never know! Do you risk finding out!” — William Shatner, Twilight Zone
  • “If we all concentrate on it, and the Ouija will answer it!” — Donald Woods, 13 Ghosts
  • “Oh!” — Grace Kelly, Rear Window
  • “It will! It’s magic!” — Donald Woods, 13 Ghosts
  • “Magic!” — Donald Woods, 13 Ghosts
  • “Dinner at 21” — Grace Kelly, Rear Window
  • “The more things I know about, the more things I can predict” — Clint Howard, Night Gallery
  • “Concentrate now; no cheating!” — Donald Woods, 13 Ghosts
  • “This is the same genuine, magic, authentic crystal, used by the priests of Isis and Osiris in the days of the pharaohs of Egypt” — Frank Morgan, The Wizard Of Oz
  • “You really don’t think that that gizmo can foretell the future, do you?” — Patricia Breslin, Twilight Zone
  • “Okay, now somebody ask a question” — Donald Woods, 13 Ghosts
  • “What’s going to happen tomorrow?” — Ellen Weston, Night Gallery
  • “Captain Howdy!” — Linda Blair, The Exorcist
  • “It all depends upon your point of view” — William Shatner, Twilight Zone
  • “It’s not possible to foretell the future, is it?” — Patricia Breslin, Twilight Zone
  • “Your future is all used up” — Marlene Dietrich, Touch Of Evil
  • “This machine is predicting out future!” — William Shatner, Twilight Zone
  • “What do you think?” — William Shatner, Twilight Zone

And there you have it! Give the video another listen (and view!) and see how many you can pick out!

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Custom designed DIY album covers

Custom designed DIY album covers

It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my art that I like record albums. I’ve been collecting records since my earliest days of college and they became a natural fit when I began taking photographs of cool things like records, books and toys. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that one of my many “someday” projects would be a set of limited edition prints packaged in a real album cover. How cool would that be?!?!

(No, sorry, no such print set is being announced in this post. But… someday!)

Future plans aside, I recently did have the opportunity to create my own record album cover, and it came out great! So today I’m sharing my experience in a “how to” tutorial for others who may be so inspired to create their own record album packaging.

The Background

Years ago, I sent out an elaborate Christmas card package, which I dubbed, “It’s a Copyright Infringement Christmas!” The package included an 8 1/2 x 11″ card and a 110 minute cassette mix tape of the coolest Christmas music imaginable — Detroit Junior, James Brown, various Motown greats, etc.  I printed all the cassette labels and inserts on a (rare, for the time) color printer, and filled the envelopes with glitter, broken cassette shells, and tangles of audio tape pulled from the destroyed cassettes. The star, though, was the music, as everyone loved the selections I made (said the former college disc jockey with much modesty).

As the years have passed, with cassette players giving way to CD players and iTunes, fewer and fewer people have been able to listen to their hand-picked Christmas collection, but EVERY year since I’ve been encouraged by family and friends to make a new version. “If you ever copy Copyright Infringement Christmas to CD,” they would hopefully plead, “you’ll never have to give me another thing!”

Promising rewards aside, dubbing the collection to CD has always been something I’ve wanted to do, but year after year the project has been pushed way, way off onto a back burner without the time to do the project right — whatever that meant, as I had no idea how I could better the original package by just dumping the music onto CD.

I then realized that I’d made the original tape in 1992, and 2012 would be the 20th anniversary, so…

I  did it!

Where the original had filled both sides of a 110 minute cassette — 55 minutes per side — in the CD era I’d be able to fit 80 minutes of music per disc. Bonus tracks could be at play!

CDs? Dude. No one uses CDs. It’s all about streaming and downloads.

Well, yes, I thought about producing the 2012 version of my illegal Christmas compilation on a USB flash drive, but:

  1. A couple of the recipients (most notably, my parents) don’t use iTunes, iPhones or iPods, and would not know an MP3 from a hole in the ground.
  2. Handing someone a flash drive and saying “Merry Christmas” seemed like a hollow offering.

My plan, then, was to produce a set of 4 CDs. The first two would reproduce the 55 minute A and B sides of the original cassette, while the last two would be loaded to the digital gills with newly discovered (and equally cool) bonus tracks. The discs would be packaged inside an LP-size album jacket, with the CDs mounted on a full color cardboard insert. Rounding out the package would be a limited edition Christmas-themed print suited to the copyright infringing nature of the music.

Got it? Good! Let’s go to work!

Geography of an album cover

In order to design my album cover I first had to figure out how an album cover is constructed. Those of us who grew up around records have the basics: an LP is about 12″ in diameter and fits into a square cardboard sleeve that’s a little bit large. Easy! Take two pictures, glue ’em together, and — voila! — album cover!

Not so fast!

Careful attention to how an album cover is actually laid out and constructed will provide a guideline for generating a design template that can be used for applying art to the front and back covers, as well as the spine you’ll see on the edge when the album is stored on a shelf. Using this template, the cover can be printed on a single sheet of paper, then cut, folded and glued to produce the final sleeve.

Template of an album cover

Template of an album cover

The template for designing an album cover is shown above. Note that the image to appear on the front of the cover is on the right, while the back cover image is on the left. Designed in this manner, if you were facing the album in a sales bin, the spine would be on the left and the record (or in my case, CD tray) would slide out from the right. Virtually all album covers are designed in this way to be consistent and prevent dust from sifting down into the record jacket.

On occasion you’ll see variations on this design, with the jacket opening on the top, or the position of the front and back covers swapped. Usually, these are design mistakes that are sometimes corrected in later pressings of an LP.

The dimensions you see above are as follows:

  • The front and back covers are typically 12 ¾” tall and wide.
  • The top and bottom tabs you see on the back cover are folded over and affixed to the reverse side of the front cover. I chose to use 1″ high tabs, which seemed like a good size to get a good firm seal between the two covers.
  • Plus… the spine. Read on!

Does a record album have to have a spine? Well, no, not really. Vinyl records aren’t very thick and a 12″ LP will usually fit fairly easily into a simple spine-less (ha, ha ha) 12 ¾” sleeve. But that would be boring! After all, don’t we want to see the sideways title of our album when it sits on a shelf squeezed between other records? Sure we do!

Spine detail

Spine detail

So, between the front and back covers we also need to provide a bit of space for the spine, and the spine needs to be wide enough to accommodate whatever we plan to put inside the jacket. For an album that holds a single vinyl LP, the spine is usually 1/8″, varying slightly higher when the packaging also includes a booklet or other inserts. For my project the album needed to hold a CD tray, a limited edition print, and a very thin sheet of protective bubble wrap. I estimated that a spine of 3/16″ would be sufficient.

The image above and to the right is a detail of the spine measurements for my album cover. It is important to understand that an album cover is actually a box construction. So, if we provide a 3/16″ spine running up and down between the front and back covers, we must also provide a  3/16″ margin between the cover and the tabs, effectively forming the “sides” of the box we’re going to construct. The spine and the top margin are illustrated in the diagram.

Color note!
It’s worth noting that I chose to color the tabs dark gray, even though they were to be glued to the reverse side of the front cover. I used the color change as a visual clue when folding the tabs, and the dark gray color was close enough to the margin color (which in turn matched the front color) so as not to be visually distracting if the construction of the “box” was not precise.

Software note!
I used iDraw on my iMac to layout and design the cover you see above. Nice piece of software!

Printing the cover

Once the cover art had been designed it was time to print. Recall that we’re going to be printing everything — front, back, spine, margins and tabs — on a single sheet of paper. How big does that paper need to be? Adding up all the dimensions…

Height = 12 ¾” + 1″ + 3/16″ + 1″ = 14 15/16″
Width = 12 ¾” + 3/16″ + 12 ¾” = 25 11/16″

20 x 30" prints  on Kodak Endura photographic paper

20 x 30″ prints on Kodak Endura photographic paper

Okay, the total dimensions of a flattened album cover are roughly 15 x 26″, and that means we need to print on a big 20 x 30″ sheet of paper — 16 x 30″ if that odd size is offered by your favorite lab. While I suppose it would have been most preferable to print on lightweight cardboard to mimic the stiffness of commercial record jackets, I didn’t have that option, so instead decided to print my covers as 20 x 30″ glossy enlargements through my regular lab, myphotopipe.com on professional grade Kodak Endura paper.

Whoa! 20 x 30″ photo prints? Isn’t that, uh, kind of expensive?

Yes, it is. Making your own album covers is fun and amazing, but definitely not cheap!

Constructing the record album

Once the prints arrived (and after a few days of allowing them to lay flat), I used an X-acto knife and metal L-square to trim away the excess paper, as illustrated in the photo below.

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

Trimmed cover ready to be folded

On the right is the spine and the front cover, while the back cover, tabs, and top/bottom margins are on the left. Constructing the record album was then simply a matter of making the proper folds and gluing the tabs in place. I found it helpful to make my folds in a set order, with the printed side of the paper face down, and using the edge of the L-square as a sturdy guide to insure that the creases would be straight and square. In all, you’ll need to make 6 sharp, square folds:

  1. Left edge of the front cover where it meets the right side of the spine.
  2. Left edge of the spine where it meets the right edge of the back cover.
  3. Bottom edge of the top tab where it meets the top edge of the top margin.
  4. Bottom edge of the top margin where it meets the top of the back cover.
  5. Top edge of the bottom tab where it meets the bottom edge of the bottom margin.
  6. Top edge of the bottom margin where it meets the bottom of the back cover.

Photo paper is not generally meant to be folded, so — with a ruler or square edge in place along the crease line — go slow, and gently ease the paper up against the edge of your ruler or square edge, using pressure where you want the crease to form. Once a crease is in place along the entire width of where you want to make the fold, remove the straight edge, fold along the crease, and gradually apply pressure until you have a firm, sharp fold that is able to stand up on its own. Remember — photo paper will fight back!

After folds have been made

After folds have been made

Belated trimming tip!
Note in the photo above that the tabs, which were originally designed to be square, have been tapered slightly. This extra bit of trimming is done to allow greater flexibility while gluing, and will prevent any excess paper from from sticking out beyond the edge of the cover.

Ready to be glued!

Ready to be glued!

All that remains is to glue the front cover onto the folded tabs. I used rubber cement for this job, as it doesn’t bubble, provides a good solid bond, and is very forgiving and easily removed should you “over glue.” The tricky part of gluing the tabs is that the tabs are actually inside the cover and sit suspended in air at a height equal to the width of the spine. Yes, this is only an eighth of an inch (or, three 16ths, in my case), but still enough space to prevent a solid seal — especially at the edges — between the tabs and the cover. To workaround this problem I found magazines of the appropriate thickness that could be placed inside the cover and beneath the folded tabs to provide a solid surface upon which the cover and tabs could be glued with sufficient pressure. The magazines also made it easier to “square up” the corners where the cover, spine and top/bottom margins all meet. Once the glue had been applied, and leaving the magazines in place, books were used to weigh down the construction until the rubber cement had completely set.

That’s all there is to it!

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Thanks for coming back to read the third and final installment of my weekend journey to Los Angeles, which is now, technically, TWO weekends ago. Go ahead, swing your disapproving jaw back and forth, while I hang my head in shame.

Still there? Good!

Recall that Part One covered my train ride and the beautiful Shrine Auditorium, while Part Two detailed the pair of concerts I attended. Part Three is going to be a little less focused, so don’t be surprised if I bounce from topic to topic (shopping! architecture! turtles!) as I collect all that is left over in an image folder I’ve named “Other Stuff.”

CD Shopping

Most every trip to Los Angeles includes a stop at Amoeba Music on Sunset Boulevard. In fact, on drives up north, I actually time my departure so that I’ll swing into the underground parking garage right when the chain link gate rattles up at 10:30.

This was actually taken on a prior trip to LA while waiting for the garage to open

With no car available (recall, on this trip, I rode the train), I relied on my gracious hosts for transportation, and—luckily!—my gracious hosts are every bit the music aficionados as I. So, yes, though I didn’t have a car I still managed to make the pilgrimage and load up a basket with shiny new and used compact discs.

It’s about here that you would expect any blogger worth his or her keyboard to provide a colorful gallery of photos from inside Amoeba, noting every aisle of this famed Musical Mecca—or, at the very least, a cheesy snapshot of the overflowing basket I carted around for the better part of my two hour visit. But… no. Priorities being what they are, the camera slung over my shoulder was completely forgotten in my mad psychotic dash through the store. Oh, rest assured, I brought home many treasured titles, including a bizarre collection of garage pop songs from Thailand, a 3 CD celebration of the first Sugar album, and countless bargain priced used CDs.

You’ll also have to take my word for it that I made out like a bandit at a second music store—Rockaway Records in Silverlake where a tantalizing 20% off sale was in full effect on top of their already low prices. If you don’t know Rockaway, you really should. Their prices are more than fair, their staff is knowledgable, and surprises lurk within their inventory. I found some seriously good buys, like the 5 CD box set of remastered Dio-era Black Sabbath, The Rules Of Hell—new—for under $24. Deal!

The Biltmore Hotel

Downtown Los Angeles by night

In my last post I wrote about attending a free concert at Pershing Square in downtown LA. To the right is a photo of the downtown skyline from my seat at the concert. The glowing tower in the background is the Citibank building (recall… Independence Day… alien spaceships… laser beams… BOOM!). In the foreground is The Biltmore Hotel, a really great, elegant, upper crust of a lodging establishment built in 1923. The Biltmore is pretty fancy. Like, presidential fancy, having hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1960 (with John Kennedy’s acceptance speech), the Beatles during their 1964 tour, and several Academy Award ceremonies.

I had a chance to dash across the street before Gram Rabbit’s set to check out the inside of the hotel, and—being a fan of architecture from the 1920’s—pretty much went snapshot crazy—but I’ll only bore you with the half dozen shots below.

Yes, the interior is ostentatious, but in a Golden Age of Hollywood way, as opposed to, say, The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, which would be ostentatious in a Vomit of Kitsch sort of way.

The Pink and Gold dining room of the Madonna Inn — Yikes!

Street Shopping

How’s your liver doing? Inside Spitfire Girl!

Not all my shopping was limited to record stores. Contrary to popular opinion, I do have other interests, like toys. A couple of months ago I discovered a really cool online store called Spitfire Girl, and purchased a couple of small items for use in my photos. I didn’t know it at the time, but Spitfire Girl has a pair of retail outlets in the Los Angeles area: one in Echo Park, and the other in Los Feliz, not far from one of my all time favorite art galleries, La Luz de Jesus. Since a couple of highly desired items were out of stock online (pixies! gnomes!), and since I was going to be in the area anyway, a visit to my new favorite online store was certainly in order!

What a COOL, COOL place!! They carry all kinds of unique and interesting items, like the anatomical statue you see to the right. Actually, I’m not sure if he was for sale or just part of the decor, but it gives you a taste of the creative ethos you’ll find inside this awesome store.

Sadly, I learned that the gnomes and pixies I sought were available only online—or encased in super cool three dimensional “box cards,” but I didn’t want to destroy one of these cute little works of greeting card art just to get to the figures I desired, so I’ll patiently wait for individual figures to once again find their way into the online store.

Eating out in downtown LA

And now we get to the salacious part of my travelogue… food porn! It’s a well known fact that I am a shameless purveyor of delectable restaurant smut, slipping my sneaky little camera out of its case for quick shots of finely appointed appetizers and enticing entrées. It’s all so mouthwateringly erotic!

Hot and bothered yet? Are your taste buds in need of quenching? Well, sorry to disappoint, but in truth—though I ate well and often—I took only ONE photo of food during my weekend in LA. And here it is:

Green tea ice cream at Fat Spoon in Little Tokyo

Ice cream that glows! Okay, it’s doesn’t actually glow, but it is pretty vibrant, wouldn’t you agree? On the plate is a scoop of green tea ice cream—perfectly rich and refreshing, following a deliciously spicy curry entrée at Fat Spoon in Little Tokyo. This quaint little restaurant is outstanding, with great casual atmosphere, excellent food, and an awesome wait staff. Highly recommended for any trip downtown!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this (ahem) brief three part series on my recent trip to Los Angeles. I’m hoping to do the same with my next visit towards the end of September, so stay tuned!

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Let’s see… where did we leave off in Part One of my weekend travelogue to Los Angeles? Oh yes! We were just about to take a seat in the orchestra to see Jack White on his first of two nights at the Shrine Auditorium.

The Luke Winslow King Trio opening for Jack White

Opening the show was a folksy three-piece from Nashville known collectively as the Luke Winslow King Trio. They played a very entertaining brand of roots music with standup bass, guitar and washboard. Yep, no drums, but the woman on washboard sure did rattle up a storm of good percussion! They were quite engaging and a lot of fun.

Next up was Jack White with the mystery of the night being, which of his two touring bands would be called upon to play that night. He’s been touring with a pair of backing bands—one all guys (Los Buzzardos), one all girls (The Peacocks)— and you don’t know what you’re going to get until the lights go down and the band walks on stage.

Prior to the show’s start someone from the tour took the mic to welcome us to the show and to discourage people in the audience from using their cellphones to take pictures, promising that professionally shot photos from the show would be posted to Jack’s web site the next day for all the free downloads our computers could bear.

Back in the day…

Here’s where I wax poetic about the good old days before iPhones, cellphones, and the digital revolution that has put the socialization of every waking moment at your fingertips. Way back when taking pictures at a concert—unless you had a media pass—was really hard!  Equipment was big and bulky and the bouncers who frisked you on your way into a venue were specifically looking for cameras and recording devices (and drugs & alcohol—weapons back then were an afterthought). You had to be more than a little clever to get contraband into a concert, and just as daring to use your smuggled equipment without being eyed by security for a quick exit, confiscation or (depending on how paranoid the band might be) arrest. While in college I went to all kinds of elaborate lengths to sneak sophisticated audio equipment into live concerts: cassette recorders as large as a small backpack, external microphones, extra batteries and tapes, all cleverly hidden on my body or spread amongst friends also in attendance. Once inside, it was an exercise in paranoid terror to set up equipment and record the show without a single person around me aware that I was doing something that was technically highly illegal. I recorded some pretty incredible live shows and traded tapes with other venturesome audiophiles around the globe.

Today you whip out your iPhone, thrust it into the air, and no one seems to care. Well, no one except the people standing behind you who now have to deal with an illuminated 3″ version of the action on stage, now bouncing like an animated bubble beween them and a clear view of the “live” event. Likewise, the musicians on stage look out at a sea of outstretched arms, each waving a cellphone, the eyes of the audience strangely trained on the cell screen, rather than the eyes of the performer singing 10 feet away. It’s really weird!! And, annoying as can be.

The announcement from the stage that the show would be professionally photographed came as a welcome relief, and it did cut down on the concert cellphone phenomenon, making for a much more enjoyable show.

Smartly dressed pro photographer, stage left, snapping the show for Jack White’s website

True to their word, photos of the show were up the next day on Jack White’s web site.

Hey! Wait a second! Where did that photo come from?!?!?

Yeah, okay, so I took a few pictures…. But I don’t own an iPhone. I used a real camera, dammit! I just don’t know how to use it very well from the back of the venue under low light conditions. I also tate my shots through the viewfinder, so I’m not holding the camera over my head in the line of sight of others in the crowd. So there.

And here are a few more.

And… I juuuust may have run video on one of the songs during the encores, even though my little Canon SD1000 is not the best equipment in the world for recording concert video. I did clean it up a bit on my Mac. Old habits die hard!!

As you can see from the photos and video, on this night we were treated to “the guy band” who played with a pretty hard edge. Good show overall, in spite of a dense and overmodulated sound mix through the first 4 or 5 songs. The concert was also a meaty mix of songs from Jack’s recent solo album, Blunderbuss, along with a wide array of tracks from The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather. Also tossed in were a couple of fitting covers of songs by Hank Williams and Lead Belly. Here’s the full setlist:

Sixteen Saltines
Black Math
Missing Pieces
Hypocritical Kiss
Hotel Yorba
Top Yourself
The Same Boy You’ve Always Known
I Guess I Should Go to Sleep
I’m Slowly Turning Into You
We’re Going to Be Friends
You Know That I Know
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
The Hardest Button to Button
::: Encore :::
Freedom At 21
I Cut Like A Buffalo
Steady, As She Goes
Goodnight, Irene

The whole show clocked in at around an hour and a half. Not long, but considering that Jack had played a free 4 song set earlier in the day at Mariachi Plaza in downtown LA, I suppose he was entitled to a shorter performance.

Outside the Shrine after the concert

John Doe with Gram Rabbit at Pershing Square

By no means was Friday night the last of my LA concert experiences. Staying with friends in Eagle Rock I discovered that John Doe, one of the founding members of X, would be playing a free show Saturday night in downtown LA, and—if we so chose—could get reserved VIP seating. Uh… yeah! Opening for John Doe would be Gram Rabbit, one of the quirkiest bands in the land, hailing from the high desert country of Joshua Tree.

Jessika von Rabbit on stage and playing bass at Pershing Square

We were in the first row at the start of the show, which was close enough to compensate for my embarrassing inability to take decent nighttime photographs. Later, we moved back a little ways where the audio mix was a little better (and photography became a bit more challenging). The shot above is of vocalist Jessika von Rabbit. She had super glittery rock star eyelashes!

Here’s a shot of the whole band, which for this performance included only musicians. Gram Rabbit concert veterans tell wild stories of dancing rabbits and other on-stage cavorting during their club appearances.

Gram Rabbit at Pershing Square

Lots of video available from them online, so make sure you check ’em out!

John Doe center stage at Pershing Square 8-11-12

The evening’s headliner was John Doe, from X, who I interviewed back in college before an X gig at the main gym at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He was pretty cool then, and remains pretty cool now, mixing in a variety of rearranged X tracks (More Fun In The New World, etc) with solo material and covers. Very energetic set from him and his band, which he claimed had never all played together before. Didn’t believe him though, they seemed to be on the same page throughout.

After the show he was hanging out at the mercy tent, taking photos and signing autographs. I was tempted to ask him if he remembered the bad interview I’d conducted all those years ago, but refrained from the humiliation. Somewhere in my vast library of deteriorating cassette tapes I have the full interview and the show I produced that split clips from the interview with X material. One day, I promise I’ll dig it out of storage and post it to my blog.

And that concludes the live concert portion of my weekend sojourn to Los Angeles. Still more travel stories yet to come, so keep your eyes right here for installment number three!

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Amtrak Pacific Surfliner headed north

This past weekend found me on the train headed for Los Angeles to see Jack White in concert at the Shrine Auditorium. Usually, my mode of road trip transportation is my 1987 Honda Prelude Si, which is fun to drive and has plenty of room for hauling home bags of records, CDs and the occasional painting or two. The drawback to my Honda is the fact that the AC has not functioned during this century, and with temperatures in LA County projected to top 100 degrees… the train seemed like an excellent alternative!

I took the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner leaving from the Old Town Trolley station in San Diego, which spends a considerable amount of time hugging up the coastline between Del Mar and Dana Point. It’s a really beautiful and relaxing ride; perfect for reading and listening to music and you cruise by packed beaches and breaking waves.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back to the beginning. To Old Town and my wait on the platform for the train to arrive at the station.

Travel tip!
Always keep your camera handy, either in a pocket or around your neck. Your camera should always be a shutter click away. Otherwise, you may miss something like… this:

Accentuate your ensemble with a color that will POP!

Yes, this dapper gent in his little electric cart was waiting on the platform at the trolley station. Sadly did not board my train to LA.

Now, I ask you: going forward, will you remember to keep your camera close at hand?

Snce I have a ton of pictures (and video!) to share, I’m going to breakup my weekend into segments. And, we’re off!!

The Train Trip

This first segment of photos was taken from the relaxed comfort of my seat on the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. The first shot was taken as we were approaching one of the stations along the coast, though I can’t recall which one. In any case, there were plenty of people out enjoying a Friday morning at the beach. And who could blame them!

Next is the view of The Big A, which is apparently now called Angel Stadium of Anaheim. Not a bad name, I guess, but I prefer The Big A. I took this picture while we were stopped at the Anaheim train depot, so if you ever want to take the train from San Diego to see an Angels baseball game, this is where you hop off.

The first photo on the bottom row is the skyline of downtown Los Angeles as you approach Union Station. The building in the very center is the tower spectacularly zapped into oblivion in the film Independence Day. I’ll have another shot of that building later.

Jack White at the Shrine Auditorium

The main purpose of my trip was to see Jack White in concert. Apparently, he’s played several different LA venues during the past year, and on this time around he chose to play at the historic Shrine Auditorium, a building with a rich history dating back (in one incarnation or another) to 1906. The current facility was completed in 1926, and it’s a spectacular place filled with what I’ll call Arabian Night’s Opulence.

Outside the majestic Shrine Auditorium before the Jack White concert on Friday night

There is no shortage of chandeliers, stained glass, interesting architectural detail and—no doubt— secret passageways, spread throughout the Shrine. Living in an old house myself, I’m always interested to poke around inside structures built around the same time period, though my house is Spanish Colonial while the Shrine takes its cues from Yul Brynner in The King And I.

Here are a few photos from inside the venue…

Third Man Records 2012 Menu

Parked just outside the fence in the parking lot was the cute little van you see below—the Rolling Record Store from Jack White’s independent record label, Third Man Records. I would have liked to visit the tiny little store to see what vinyl wonders it held inside, but as the van was outside the iron gates, and I was inside the gates, this would be difficult. More so because the Gestapo-like security outside the venue that was very insistent about ushering people directly into the venue. NOW! Luckily, I was able to take this quick picture through the gate, and even more lucky that a kind woman shopping the store handed me the foldout catalog you see to the right, which is filled with all kinds of reasonably priced vinyl releases available on the label.

That’s going to be it for Part One of my LA travelogue. Tune in for the second part for photos (and videos) of the concert itself, plus continuing excursions throughout Los Angeles.

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I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t post new blog entries anywhere near as frequently as I would like. Ideally, I’d be blogging on a daily basis, sharing news about new photos and videos, art exhibits, great books, cool records, and posting articles that dive deep into my creative process. Trouble is… I have a difficult time churning out prose without laboring over every word, sentence and paragraph. Plus, just to make matters a little worse, I can’t… stop… writing. Simple topics—hey! I like this record!—turn into exhaustive (but still, of course, interesting) accounts worthy of a short chapter in a book.

Yes, it’s a problem, but now… a solution!

RIP Jonathan Frid—the “real” Barnabas Collins!

I now have a super cool Tumblr account where, throughout the day, you can find quick and interesting posts from me and the merry minions at Wind-up Dreams Central. Everything we post is, of course, Super Cool. Take, for instance this scary photo of the recently departed Jonathan Frid. Oh, sure… I could have dedicated a 4,000 or 5,000 word blog post on Dark Shadows (and, come to think of it, I may do that), but I could spend a week or more in Creative Writing Hell in an effort to produce a Pulitzer caliber post on campy daytime horror. Instead, as quickly as a vampire could sink his teeth into an alabaster neck… there it is on:

Vintage Vinyl

My official Tumblr site!

While the Tumblr focuses on cool vinyl records, in recent days we’ve also made posts on awesome art, vintage advertising, weird toys, pulp novels, and outer space.

I hope you enjoy this foray into more frequent sharing of interesting things, and if YOU have a Tumblr, don’t be shy… feel free to reblog any of the images you find on Vintage Vinyl. We’re scouring the universe for cool finds to share with our followers, so let us know about your interesting finds!

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Okay, so I think most people who know me are well aware that my favorite album of all time is London Calling by The Clash, rated as such for no better reason than it simply is the greatest album ever recorded in any universe known to humankind. There. That was easy; no question about it.

So what’s second on the list I’ve never actually taken the time to sit down and pencil out on the back of an envelope? Hmmm… Maybe something by Bruce Springsteen? Prince? David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Beatles or Pixies?


I gave this decision about 12 seconds of thought and quickly came to the conclusion that Ian Hunter’s 1979 slab of insanely great audio—You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic—is my second favorite album of all time.

You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic – Ian Hunter, 1979

Okay, full disclosure. I was motivated to arrive at this conclusion upon purchasing the 30th Anniversary Edition of Schizophrenic in a deluxe two CD set, and listening to the album all the way through for the first time since… When? College? In any case, I supposed you might judge my sudden proclamation of Greatness (with a capitol G) as being just a little less than thoroughly debated.

What?!?! Wait a minute. Second favorite? Of all time? When you haven’t even listened to the album in countless decades?

Well, yeah (and thank you for assuming that it’s been “countless decades” since I was in college).

And just why have you not listened to the album in all this time if you claim it ranks soooo highly on your list of all time favorites? What did you do? Forget it exists? Huh? Tell me that Blogger Guy!

Good question. Indeed, way back when I had the album on vinyl and (as was the case for every album in my cherished record collection) dutifully transferred the music to cassette tape on first play so as to not expose my precious vinyl to any unnecessary wear and tear. Horrors to have the grooves of my records touched by a diamond stylus more than once!

Me? Paranoid? Nah…
Let us quickly note that this first playing of the record took place with the volume of my stereo set to zero so as not to introduce any sonic vibration into my listening environment. So, basically, all of my many hundreds of vinyl records have been played exactly once. And, since the volume was set to zero… I’ve never actually heard any of my vinyl playing.

You do realize what a dichotomy it is to be soooo ultra paranoid about preserving the surface and sound quality of your records when you are transferring the music to AN INFERIOR FORMAT, right?!?!?

Yes, I do. Don’t bug me. I embrace my peculiar ways! Besides, I had very, very nice tape decks, and always used metal particle tapes. Now, will you please quiet down and let me get on with writing about Ian Hunter’s incredibly great album? Thank you.

But first, a retraction…
It’s not exactly true that all of my vinyl has been played exactly once. There are many LPs—especially live albums—that I’d haul into school during my disc jockey days at KCPR, San Luis Obispo. Though the station boasted a really great record library, mine was better. As such, my Play Only Once rule, was occasionally broken for the sake of Radio Excellence.

With Schizophrenic safely on cassette tape, I had the luxury of portability; something we take for granted in today’s digital age. Way back when, this was a really big deal. I could listen at home, pop the tape into my Sony Walkman, and keep the album in almost constant rotation on the tape deck in my car. When records gave way to CDs I told myself that I’d only buy CDs of music I didn’t already have, reasoning that I could still listen to cassettes (and car stereos with CD players were priced at princely sums). That promise didn’t last long, and today most of my vinyl has been supplanted by CDs (with all 60,000-plus songs now committed to the digital domain of iTunes).

Welcome To The Club — Ian Hunter, 1980

I have a big chunk of the Ian Hunter catalog on CD, but You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic somehow slipped through the cracks. With as many CDs as I own, I probably just naturally assumed that I already had such an important disc. Or maybe when in an Ian Hunter mood my mouse would dial-up his totally terrific double live LP from 1980, Welcome To The Club, which includes spirited live versions of many of Schizophrenic’s songs played in front of an enthusiastic crowd at LA’s Roxy Theater.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that it finally dawned on me that You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic is not, in fact, included in my gigantic hoard of compact discs. This sin was immediately rectified with the purchase of the aforementioned 30th Anniversary Edition, which expands the original LP with a nice collection of bonus tracks, PLUS a second disc filled with live recordings from the tour that supported the album’s original release. Yay!! Yeah, I already have most of these live recordings on concert tapes I’ve obtained through the years, but the sound quality of the CD is amazing, and it’s much more satisfying to hear Ian scream a choice obscenity during Mott The Hoople’s “All The Way From Memphis,” than the radio-friendly Beeeeep! that mired my previous recording.

Okay, this History Of Recorded Music Formats is nice and all, and I’ve read this far, but isn’t it about time you actually tell us why you like this particular album?

Well, first of all, it’s Ian Hunter, and Ian was the lead singer and de factor leader of Mott The Hoople. Points for that! The album also features the guitar work of Mick Ronson. You know… the guy from David Bowie’s Spider of Mars who was responsible for all the insane guitar craziness of tracks like “Jean Genie,” “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” Add to that the rhythm section of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band: drummer Max Weinberg, bassist Gary Tallent, and keyboardist Roy Bittan, who—oh yeah—had previously provided piano for David Bowie on Station To Station. Max, Gary and Roy had just completed Springsteen’s epic Darkness tour, and provide the drive and backbone to every track on Schizophrenic.

By the way, did I mention yet that John Cale (he of the Velvet Underground) plays keyboards on one of Schizophrenic’s cornerstone tracks?

And, just to keep the namedropping ball rolling…! The album also features background vocals from Ellen Foley (the woman with the huge voice on Meatloaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”) who was the subject of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” while dating Mick Jones of The Clash. Mick went on to produce Ian Hunter’s next studio album, Short Back ‘n Sides, and appeared in a memorable scene in Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy, alongside his girlfriend and three-quarters of The Clash, credited, simply, as “Street Scum.” You’ll also find Blue Oyster Cult’s Eric Bloom contributing backing vocals to the album, and right at the bottom of the liner notes on the back cover of the original vinyl 12″, Ian offers “Thanks to Bruce Springsteen.”

Ah! But can potentially great list of credits for an album suffer the same level of utter disappointment as so many star-filled Hollywood Holiday Blockbusters (i.e. New Years Eve, Valentines Day and any film where “big names” are shuffled in and out of cameo laden scenes like aces from a magician’s deck of cards)?

In this case, yes! The album holds up exceptionally well over the 30-plus years since its original release. The songs are well-crafted, and filled with excellent hooks and crisp playing. Standout tracks include “Just Another Night,” “Cleveland Rocks,” “Standing In My Light” and “Ships,” which Barry Manilow had the good taste to cover and take to the top ten—even though his interpretation was insipid, smarmy, and filled with enough rancid cheese to drive audiences across the globe into fits of auditory lactose intolerance.

So sorry about that…

And since I can’t come to you, live and in person, to properly eradicate the scourge of Barry Manilow from your brain with steel wool and Liquid Plummer, let me instead offer up vintage Ian Hunter from Cleveland’s Agora Ballroom during the summer of 1979 performing “Just Another Night” with Ellen Foley guesting on background vocals. The audio of this track (in much better quality!) is included on the live bonus disc that comes with the 30th anniversary set.

And, from the very same show (and, again, included on the 30th anniversary release), it’s “Cleveland Rocks” in, of course, Cleveland. Three! Four!

Ian Hunter is now, shockingly, 72 years old (!) an age I almost refuse to accept! He’s still touring and recording, most recently completing a 2011 fall tour of the northeastern US.

Man Overboard — Ian Hunter, 2009

In 2009 he released the nifty Man Overboard, but be on the lookout for Live At Rockpalast, a vintage recording from the vaults released this past year on CD and DVD, capturing a 1980 performance from Germany.

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“The Board” in the KCPR Main Control Room

Juuuust in case it completely slipped your mind to tune in to my return to the San Luis Obispo radio airwaves this past Saturday night (for which there is absolutely no excuse!), you’re in luck! I was able to capture a live stream of the entire “Dawn & John” show, and two hours of listening bliss is now but a click away.

Being on the air for the first time in 10 years, surrounded by all kinds of fancy modern technology was at first daunting and nerve wracking…. But ultimately, a blast! Oh sure, there was a little chaos right out of the gate, and at times the stubborn open/close button on CD Player One sent me into dead-air panics (which never actually happened), but those initial hurdles passed quickly and it was as if the clock had been wound back to a time when I spent more hours behind the mic than I did studying for class.

Teaming up with my good friend Dawn Roznowski, we filled our show with super cool music, occasionally witty banter, and a handful of requests from folks listening over the air locally, and across the country via the live internet stream. Two hours passed in a blink of the eye, and by the time our shift was ticking into the homestretch we pretty much wanted to bar the door and take the station hostage. Alas, good sense prevailed and we relinquished the controls to other alums anxious to relive their misspent music youth.

In any case, here’s a link to the entire show. Enjoy!

The playlist:

The Clash – Capitol Radio Two
The Replacements (with Tom Waits) – Date To Church
The Nerves – Many Roads To Follow
Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip – Thou Shalt Always Kill
Sugar – Man On The Moon
Thee Michelle Gun Elephant – Drop (alternate version)
The Corin Tucker Band – Doubt
Belle And Sebastian – White Collar Boy
LCD Soundsystem – Drunk Girls
Arling & Cameron – How About The Boys
The Kills – Fried My Little Brains
Billie Jo Spears – Get Behind Me Satan And Push
Negativland – Christianity Is Stupid
Iqbal Singh – Bombshell Baby Of Bombay
Goldspot – Ina Mina Dika
Gram Rabbit – Candy Flip
The Sonics – Psycho
Sleigh Bells – Rill Rill
Grand Ole Party – I.N.S.A.N.E.
Pavement – Unfair (live)
The Balancing Act – Searching For This Thing
Jenny And Johnny – Committed
Peter Case – Ain’t Got No Dough
LCD Soundsystem – New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down
T. Rex – Cosmic Dancer
Lewis Taylor – Stoned Pt. 1
Broken Bells – The High Road
The Ravonettes – My Boyfriend’s Back
Nick Cave & Neko Case – She’s Not There
David Bowie – The Jean Genie (live)

Now, to figure out how I can convert my guest room into a radio station so I can broadcast every night!

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Tuning in to Radio Wind-up Dreams…

Just a really quick diversion from my series on Really Really Scary Things to tell everyone about my upcoming radio appearance on KCPR 91.3FM in San Luis Obispo this coming Saturday night.

Years and years ago I had a series of interviews with Apple Computer (37, in fact!) and one of the questions I was asked went something like this:

Interviewer: This company has more money than God, and you’ll probably make a lot of money working here. If you suddenly had a million dollars, what would you do?

As someone who has quite literally interviewed thousands of engineering candidates, I knew this to be a completely loaded question, and the expected overly earnest answer goes something like this: Oh! Of course! I’d keep working and writing computer software, because that’s my first love, followed by several exaggerated nods of the head.

Not me. Without a moment of hesitation, my face lit up in a wide grin and I replied:

Me: I’d go back and work in radio, because that was the best job I ever had and I wasn’t ever paid a dime!

The last time I was on the air was 2001 when I shared a two hour shift with my friend Dawn Roznowski at a reunion of our old college radio station in San Luis Obispo, California. Since ten years have passed since that now legendary performance (he said with only a wee bit of exaggeration), this coming weekend I’ll be attending yet another alumni weekend. Dawn and I will be pairing up yet again for two hours of incredibly cool music and witty banter, and everyone out there has a chance to tune in over the internet to listen in!

Here’s the scoop!

Date:  Saturday, September 24, 2011
Time:  6:00 to 8:00 PM (that’s Pacific time, kids)

Link:  Listen Live!!

You’ll also be able to make requests by calling us live at  (805) SLO-KCPR, but be forewarned… Both Dawn and I are selecting hours and hours of music in advance that we’ll be hauling up to the station on CD, iPods and computers, so your best bet to make a request is to just post it in comments, below. Come on, give it a shot!

Hamming it up with my friend Dawn on KCPR in 2001

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Today, for the first time in many years, I was able to indulge myself in a great pleasure. I listened to a vinyl LP on a high end audio system. Cue sighs of pleasure and rapt enjoyment.

Once upon a time, back in the day when matters of quality over convenience were actually important, I suppose I could have been classified an audio snob. My stereo was the envy of everyone in my dorm.  It was the centerpiece of my first apartment.  I bought LPs imported from Japan pressed on the heaviest virgin vinyl, which I diligently cleaned before each playing. I owned an anti-static ion gun to ward off lint and other contaminants. On first listen, new albums were meticulously archived to costly metal particle tape to best preserve my audio investment, and all of my music was played  through speakers that would make any recording engineer proud.

Yes, that's a Japanese pressing of "London Calling" signed by Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon

It was an effort to play a record; something you “did” with a purpose — “I’m going to listen to records,” which entailed flipping through the large colorful cover in your collection (each a work of art in their own right) looking for just the proper selection, pulling the sleeve from the cover, sliding the record from the sleeve, and carefully cueing up the vinyl on your record player. Waiting, then, for the music to begin after the outer groove has completed a few scratchy revolutions. Playing music was almost a personal accomplishment, and you had the feeling that you had a role in making this glorious sound fill your room.

Way back when, audio equipment didn’t come built into your computer, and wasn’t purchased at Walmart, Target, or Costco. There were all kinds of places to buy stereo components: Pacific Stereo, Leo’s Stereo, Mad Jack’s…  Audio stores popped up in malls, hi-fi shops were scattered all over town, and — if you risked the ads found in the backs of audiophile magazines (there were once many!) — discounted audio equipment could be yours (sales tax free!) from retailers all across the country. Selecting audio equipment was a serious endeavor on the same scale as shopping for a new car. Research was required. Experts were consulted. Listening trips were scheduled. Each component was selected, matched, and integrated to provide the ultimate listening experience.

Then came compact discs. A job with superhuman demands. A 60,000-plus song iTunes library.

Ah, convenience! I could call up any song at any time with just the click of a button. Stream playlists from my office to the living room. Pause. Duplicate. Rewind. Yay!

Trouble is… for the most part, the audio quality of the music I was listening to was every bit as poor as it was convenient. Basically, the sound was “good enough” for the circumstances — listening at work, in a coffee shop, on the run. Busy, busy busy! Music to mask the rest of the day, no matter how thin and muddy that music might sound. How sad.

Yeah, yeah… I know, you don’t have to listen to digital music through substandard audio gear, but — let’s be honest — that’s how most people listen to music in our Brave New World of audio infidelity.

But let’s get back to the present and my blissful experience of listening to an actual record album…

About a year ago I left that “job with superhuman demands” and decided to embark on a career as an artist and writer. No longer would I be stuck in an office or a lab; I’d be free to listen to music in the comfort of my own home. For the most part, I split my work day between my upstairs office and the photography studio I’ve built in the guesthouse outside. Luckily, the quality of the audio produce by my iMac is surprisingly good (better, even, than “acceptable”). So, while I’m adjusting photos, working on videos, dashing off an email, or writing blog entries about classic audio, my ears are happy. Audio in the studio, however, has been another matter. Yes, I was able to get music into the studio via wifi from the iMac, but the equipment there to amplify and actually play the music was… woeful. And given that music is an essential part of my creative process… it suddenly became abundantly clear that my home was due for a complete Home Audio Makeover.

Bear in mind that I use the term “makeover” in the most literal sense. I’m not one to rush off to a high end audio shop (few that there may be left standing) and solve my problem by plunking down thousands of dollars on brand new equipment. Nay! Not when I have perfectly (?) good equipment sitting around the house gathering dust. So what if this equipment dates back to my college days and (in some cases) has not been powered on since the Clinton administration? Audio quality is one thing, but aesthetics is quite another, and — let’s face it — all this old equipmnet just looks completely COOL!! I could restore it! Rebuild it! Bring my audio equipment back to life!

Sansui G5000 Stereo Receiver

First on the agenda would be the stereo receiver I’d purchased as a college freshman — a Sansui G5000. The receiver is beautiful! Wooden case, brushed aluminum and glass… a wide, backlit tuning dial and glowing LED’s that look awesome in a dark room. Just the thing for listening to music in my bedroom. Alas, this wonderful piece of vintage audio had long ago been boxed and pirated away to the attic; the victim of newer technology when I “upgraded” to NAD separates (which are really great audio components, but visually have all the warmth of a Stanley Kubrick film).

To my great and immense pleasure, after hauling the box down from the attic and plugging everything in… it still worked! Yay! However, the FM tuner wasn’t at all accurate, consistently sticking on a local station that brought great offense to my ears, and — horrors! — the magical, twinkling lights were NOT working! Clearly, this was not acceptable. My beloved analog receiver deserved better.  Like a vintage automobile found in a dusty garage, it cried for restoration.

Unfortunately, audio repair in 2011 is not as simple as dropping your equipment off at the local high end audio retailer. Few repair shops exist, and most “repairs” amount to swapping out soulless printed circuit boards. I would need to find a true audio technician. A Leonardo Da Vinci of electronics. A Jonas Salk of capacitors and resistors. Luckily, in San Diego, such master technicians exist in a small shop called Classic Audio Repair in North Park along Adams Avenue. Each time I’ve been to the shop there has been a line of audiophiles waiting patiently for the doors to open at 10:45 (yes, 10:45 — not 10:30, not 11 o’clock), each lugging tube amps, turntables and speaker cones in hopes that their vintage piece of retro audio equipment can live a better life.

Does this scream "Hi Fi" or does this scream "Hi Fi"?!?!

The shop owner, Fred, liked my Sansui receiver and deemed it “a superior piece of equipment” before launching into a exacting soliloquy offering his opinion of the sad state of today’s stereo components. Two weeks later, my beloved receiver was back in my hands with the tuner spinning smoothly, the lights glowing bright, all the pushbuttons and knobs clicking just as I’d remembered in college.

I setup the receiver on a table in my bedroom along with a pair of exceptionally nice (and very affordable) Energy RC10 bookshelf speakers that deliver crisp, full sound — not that I’m actually delivering crisp, full sound to the speakers… to be honest, I’m mostly using the receiver to listen to the radio while I read, or to play music streamed to an Apple Airport Express from the iMac in the next room. Not super hi fidelity, but music played by a real stereo component instead of a box better suited to crunching numbers and browsing the web. Kind of the musical equivalent of burning real wooden logs in a fireplace, as opposed to flipping a switch and watching a blue flame of burning gas flickering over ceramic “logs.”

A real, live turntable. It plays "records". Really, really well.

Two weeks ago I took another piece of vintage college-days equipment into Classic Audio Repair: my Technics SL-1700 MKII direct drive turntable with an ADC cartridge. The turntable hasn’t worked for years, as the ON button had jammed and the mechanism that lifts the tonearm at the end of a record had quit working. The cartridge also needed a new  stylus, as the needle had been bent from my habit to “back cue” records from my days working as a college DJ (yay, KCPR!).

Unfortunately, as Fred explained, the automatic tonearm cueing function on these units had a tendency to wear out over time, and replacement mechanisms had long ago been discontinued. That said, he would be able to disable the automated cueing behavior and essentially convert the turntable to function manually.


Yes! This means that I have to place the record on the mat, physically lift the tonearm, move it over the record, and carefully set the needle down onto the grooves. At the end of the record, I have to listen to that beautiful end-of-the-record scritch, scratch of the inner groove, and lift the tonearm back to its resting point. Playing recorded music doesn’t get any more retro and hands on than that, and I love it!

And today the work was completed.

JBL 4311 Studio Monitors - the Holy Grail of speakers

I brought my trusty turntable home and set it up in the living room where the audio equipment is hidden inside a dilapidated green cabinet that looks as if it was rescued from a Burmese rainforest. That’s also where I keep the aforementioned NAD amp and tuner, along with a Sony CD player from the very dawn of the digital age, and miscellaneous other equipment that would be completely foreign to anyone born after 1990. The equipment from this room is connected to a pair of what quite possibly may be the best speakers known to man: JBL 4311 Studio Monitors in gorgeous mahogany cabinets. “Back in the day” these were the must-have speakers for every recording studio in the world. Radio stations used them in their sound rooms. Pete Towshend owns them and recently went to extraordinarily great lengths to recover his when they were stolen. JBL 4311s are like a one-of-a-kind vintage guitar or a pair of well broken-in running shoes. Once they are right, they are right, and there is simply no replacing them.

So that’s what I had at my fingertips this afternoon when I sat down in my living room with a stack of Record Day purchases to “listen to records”, something people just don’t really do anymore. More people should. It’s really fun. And music sounds so much more alive and “real” when a needle is gently settled into a groove and played through a a nice system in a big room.

I think I might open a record store. Wouldn’t that be fun?

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