Friday, January 21, 2011

Songs I've Liked #2&3: Strawberry Fields & Penny Lane

I can still remember being down in the basement listening to a transistor radio when the DJ announced that they were playing, for the VERY FIRST TIME, the Beatles' new double-sided single. Then the world of musical possibilities exploded again as the first sounds of the fluty mellotron introduced Strawberry Fields Forever.

The mellotron has been a fascination of mine since I first heard it, and when first hearing actually occurred is debatable. It could be in February '67 when the Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane double-whammy-single dropped. Another big early proponent of the mellotron, after they dropped an actual orchestral accompaniment for the likes of "Tuesday Afternoon", was the Moody Blues. Later on, King Crimson brought a majestic and ominous use to the instrument. And then many more bands adopted the distinctive sound.

The mellotron simulates orchestral sounds (and choruses, too) by playing recorded tapes of strings, or flutes, or people, back and forth, one tape for each key on a keyboard. This very mechanical process lends itself to trouble and break-downs, and the temperamental instrument actually found itself in some legal trouble, too, when musicians claimed that it was putting them out of work. Although it has found its way back, most modern bands shelve the thing in favor of a digital sample on a modern keyboard.

Paul McCartney's mellotron work was but one source of fascination for me on hte new Beatles single. The disc showed pretty clearly the yin and yang between Lennon, who wrote the autobigraphical "psychoanalysis set to music", the "hazy impressionistic dreamworld" of Strawberry Fields Forever, and McCartney, with the easy melody and high brass of Penny Lane.
Both songs were nostalgic recollections of the songwriters' past, recalling places from the Beatles' Liverpool youth. And now the songs are drenched in nostalgia for me. In their time, they burst through the bonds of the basic pop tune, so much so that they purportedly led Beach Boy Brian Wilson to throw up his hands and set aside his "Smile" project, which only saw the light of day as a complete work in the last decade. Both songs were recorded along with those that made it onto "Sgt. Pepper", and some people (including George Martin) feel it was a mistake that the songs did not make it onto that landmark LP. Instead, here in the U.S., they were tacked onto the "Hits Side" of our domesticversion of "Magical Mystery Tour".
"Strawberry Fields Forever" took considerable work to record, and the production was about as high tech as things got back in the day. The Beatles recorded two fairly dissimilar takes, in different keys (like a C and a B-flat). John pronounced both versions worthy, and asked George Martin to fuse them together. And he did, by speeding one up a bit, slowing the other down a smidge. The artificial resulting tape speed added to the ethereal sound of the song.
For me, and really for about everybody I know, the era of the Big Release of a Single is long gone. This Beatles blockbuster was folliowed, pretty much the next week, by the Turtles rolling out "Happy Together", an eminently memorable ditty that was also, interestingly for me, on the first pop or rock album I ever heard in stereo. For me, really, another "big release".

Another interesting factoid about the Beatles' one-two punch: In England, they recorded sales for each of the songs separately, somehow, and while Penny Lane made it to number one, Strawberry Fields peaked in second place, nudged out by Engelbert Humperdinck's "Please Release Me". Some noted that the Beatles twofer, in total, sold nearly twice as many copies as Mr. Humperdinck's single.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


A little catch-up is necessary. I have been busy with this computer, but doing a variety of things. Facebook, for example. But also, I got this slick USB vinyl-to-MP3 player, and my latest project involves converting a lot of my hundreds of LPs in the basement to electronic signals and binary codes and all that stuff. The setup looks like this:
I am learning to work out some of the bugs, but it is coming along.

I need to update the wildlife report out in the back yard. Our new squrrel feeder pretty much fails to get any species to sit in a chair properly, but over the past few months we have had a few "customers", and the squirrels are warming up to the concept.
Then, late one night recently, my wife caught a flying squirrel at the feeder. This was after midnight, when that particular type of animal seems to come out to eat.
Took the ol' tree out Sunday. Figured it was about time, Epiphany over and all. Plus, this tree was ready. Check out the rich carpet of needles left behind. (And yes, the tree was replaced yesterday by the computer, etc., in the top picture). We have never had a tree give up the needles like this! And trust me, it was generously watered!
I have mentioned previously, I think, the seven dogs with which I spent some time over Christmas. Now there is an eighth. Our neighbors have taken on a new pup, a Rhodesian Ridgeback or some such thing, named Kenly or's an amalgamation of a couple kids' names. Anyhow, K. came over and had a bit of a play date with Ollie a couple days ago. She is substantially smaller than our dog...NOW.
I close with a shot of a botanical miracle. This is the mother in law's tongue, as they call it, that graces my windowsill at work. This thing has survived my care for maybe 15 years. I water it every Friday, and that's about the extent of my TLC. It is a fine example of perseverance, I guess.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Gathering No Dust

holiday self-portrait

Well, here we are nearly one whole percent done with 2011 already, and about three-fourths of the Christmas lights are already darkened in our neighborhood. We, however, are never willing to part with the festive spirit of the season, and our lights blaze on crazily, illuminating the dead pines gathering at the street's edge awaiting the final ride to the chipper.

The "holiday season", as some like to call it, was the usual whirlwind, but a very fulfilling one nonetheless. I did not capture it very well with a camera, or even the cell phone, and some of the pictures I did manage to take have little to do with the actual main events of the season. I tend to refrain from tossing up group photos without warning and first right of refusal to all participants, so you will not find any of the gatherings 'round the tree; at least not those involving humans.

I counted seven dogs that I spent some serious (or, better put, extensive) time with between Christmas and New Year's. That would be the Grand Dogs (Ana, fox terrier resembling chihuahua; and Lily; one of those Puggles where God broke the mold after this one was designed); sister's knucklehead dogs (Athena, a Boston terror...I mean terrier...really, she calms down and is pleasant enough after the initial bark-down; and Bella, a pure Pug - also Moxie, new Boston on the block owned by my niece); and Auggie, the schnauzer that we dog-sit from time to time. And, of course, our Ollie.

Saw a lot of people, too, including a third cousin whom I did not know existed until the wonders of Facebook brought her into view. It is pretty exciting and fun meeting relatives this far along in life.

Christmas itself was wonderful; our band played a Christmas eve service, the Sunday morning service, and a couple pieces leading into the more formal, later-in-the-evening Christmas eve service. Fairly rigorous, but really fulfilling and fun, too. Christmas Day itself was filled with my time-honored tradition of failing to get out of the PJs, and being extremely lazy.

We used to stay at my Dad's house when we went to visit my old stomping grounds. Now we stay with my sister and her family (and the aforementioned Athena and Bella, who many of you are familiar with courtesy of her blog, plus my niece's pup, Moxie). She and her husband are excellent hosts, and the arrangement has worked out well (we hope they feel the same...). However, there is some sense of loss and change as we drove by the old house and found a cadre of contractors hard at work, transforming it into a more salable property, which will end up being very little like the house in which I grew up. But it is all for the good, as no one in our family needs the albatross of a vacant property, and the rejuvenated house should make a fine home for its next occupants.

OK, here are some really random pictures that do not really lay out the feeling of holiday cheer and Christmas charm, but since we are already three days and one full work day (and counting) into this new year, who's looking back?
One of my introductions to the world of blogging was "Weird Object Friday", which was a lot of fun. This little stocking stuffer would be a good candidate. A group of us had a big laugh over this gift. I will not keep you in suspense - It is an egg cracker and separator. It does not work very well, at least in our experience as novices, but it makes a good conversation piece, and I am just glad it is not some sort of arcane medical device for poking or prodding...

That is pretty much a fail right there...

Here, below, is my favorite oddball shot. We have some fish in the basement that winter over down there because our pond tends to freeze all the way down. We brought the aquarium up near the back door so a neighbor could feed them easily while we were away. This shot is technically not very good, but for some reason, I like it. It looks like something went very wrong...

And let's bring on the Dogs of Winter...

Ollie and the Grand-Dogs, awaiting another handout.

I am pretty sure that bone chewing could, if harnessed properly,
provide one fine an alternative energy source.

Who can do this with their tongue?

The Dogs of the East: Moxie, Athena, and Bella, just hangin'.

Knowing how to show us a good time, my sister Margaret took us to the local Costco. Being a transplant flyover bumpkin, I had never been in one of these establishments. The enormity of the place, the size of the inventory, all stacked up to the warehouse-scale roof and gleaming brightly in those suspended industrial strength lights, was just overwhelming. I tell you, I was in awe. Judging from the bustle in that place, I feel emboldened to proclaim that we Americans just might be turning the corner, economy-wise. Way to go, consumers!

Finally, I end where we began. We kicked off the Christmas break with a visit to our daughter and son in law's, where we took in their church service and ate at one of those TGI Fridays. Partook of their special where for a decent price you get an appetizer, entree, and dessert. Now, I know the saying that presentation is everything, but if they really feel the need to bust out the large plates for my desert, it seems like they could toss a couple more slices on the plate in lieu of that artistic slime trail, eh?

I have no pictures of this, but I also got out to a (vinyl, old school) record store with my son, who swears by LPs as the only way to go, and a more contemporary independent CD shop with childhood bud Gerald (and with whom "flipping the bins" is a sacrosanct tradition going back to a long walk in the snow to E.J. Korvettes to purchase the Beatles' White Album, and even earlier), and the brother in law (who later on paid for the oven-fired pizza, for which I am grateful) and son (who is now back at his graduate studies and complaining about how, for the first time in his life, he has to suffer the indignity of not one or two or three, but four 8:00 a.m. classes.

Anyhow, all told, I hope you had a nice break, and that you can think back to some fond and lasting memories. However, we now return you to 2011, already in progress.