Zen Bass Playing: James Brown and U2

As a bass player I am always listening to records, looking for new ideas.  I have mentioned that lately I have been listening to James Brown records.  What strikes me about the bass playing on them is how simple the parts actually are.  They are minimalistic, but played with great feeling that helps to give the tracks their earth shattering grooves.  Listen to this song The Payback:

Once you get past the intro, the bass plays a repeating two note figure repeatedly for a great deal of the song.  It struck me, that although the feel of the song is quite different, technically it isn’t that different from what happens in a lot of post-punk songs.  A lot of Cure records, for instance, feature simple repeating bass lines.

I am always interested in how different forms of music can often share common traits.  Although U2 would no longer really be described as post-punk, they definitely came out of and were influenced by that era.  I was struck by how similar the bass line in The Payback and their song Zoo Station was, at least while playing on the root, before the chord changes.  Here is Zoo Station:

James Brown features a more organic feel, while the U2 song has a more mechanical rhythm, but they both feature a simple too note figure that differs more in feel than in note choice.

My point is not that U2 stole from James Brown.  Anything so simple could easily be thought up by different people at different times.  Even if they did take Brown’s idea, and I have never read that to be the case despite reading a lot about U2, they did something new with it.

Anyway, what I find interesting is how a similar idea can be used so differently given the context and slight rhythmic changes.  I also think that simple musical parts have an almost powerful zen like quality to them.  Some people judge musicians on how technically they can play, but I am often interested in how stripped back you can make something and still create something with a great deal of power.

Both these baselines feature only two notes.  (U2 features more, but only once the chords change.  The chorus line is more complex, but again I am talking about the part played over the root or one.)  But they are both integral to the song and create a giant foundation over which the rest of the band can operate.

Shooting an Elephant: Donald Trump and George Orwell

Donald Trump's Son

Do Elephant’s Weep?

So much about Donald Trump is said in the above photo, which came out awhile ago, of his son smiling while holding an elephant tail.  Granted, people shouldn’t always be judged by their offspring, as sometimes children go wrong even with the best of a parent’s intentions.  However, Trump has come out in defense of his son.

My views on animal rights are evolving.  I am by no means on the far left of this debate, though I seem to be slowly drifting in that direction the more that I read.  However, it has been documented that elephants have complex emotional and social lives:

Elephants are highly intelligent animals that display complex social behaviors such as greeting ceremonies, group defense, submission, tactile contacts, vocal communication, scent communication, social play, courtship, mating, birthing, parenting, communal care, teaching, threat displays, charging, and fighting. 

I find the above photograph highly disturbing.  Here is a person with all the advantages of wealth, going to a foreign country, killing an animal that is thought to experience grief, and holding a piece of its corpse up while smiling into the camera.

The above photo is not only disturbing, but sad.  It’s sad that a human being would travel so far and spend so much money just to kill something so beautiful.  The life of an elephant is natural.  There is something highly unnatural and troubling about the actions of this human being, a person that if we were to trace our family tree far enough back in time we would be related to.

Writing is about coming to clarity, about being able to communicate something you are feeling in a way that others will understand it.  I don’t feel that I can yet explain exactly why I find the above photo so troubling.  Perhaps in time I will.  But in our country, when so many people are still suffering, the behavior above seems to display a great lack of empathy, a kind of moral stupidity, if not outright, downright cruelty.  With so much money, is this the best that you can do?  If someone says that being rich makes one superior in anyway, I will laugh in their face.

As a side note, one of my favorite pieces of writing is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in which Orwell had to perform the title duty while stationed in Burma.  As usual with Orwell, he is able to make a seemingly simple story communicate a great deal.  You can read it here.  It it possible that the above photo reflects upon our society in the same way that Orwell’s story reflects upon his own?  


Touring, True Detective, New Order

It is the second day of a Shinyribs tour that takes us From Texas to Idaho.  To see if we are coming anywhere near you check here.

I have brought my computer with me, to catch up on blogging.  As long as I have wifi I’ll be posting.

I have also brought with me a stack of books and albums to dive into.  I am hoping on my off day to finally catch up with the new season of True Detective.  I have only seen the first two episodes, but since I love noir in general and the films of David Lynch I have really enjoyed it.  I don’t understand the criticism as of yet that has been lobbed at it by many television critics.

There are many albums coming out in the fall that I am really excited about.  One of them is the new New Order album, Music Complete.  They just released the first single off it called Restless which you can listen to above.  Bernard Sumner, the singer of New Order, is one of the best vocal melody writers in pop music in my opinion.  He is now in his fourth decade of writing ridiculously catchy pop songs.

Finding Meaning in the Suffering of Life

One of the things that I really love about John Lennon’s Imagine album is the disparity between the emotions of the title track and the emotions of the song How Do You Sleep?  The first track is a utopian dream for a better world while the latter track is a diatribe against Paul McCartney.  Some might say that the latter cancels out the first as it shows that John Lennon wasn’t really as enlightened as some of his fans believe he was.  I have read other criticisms of the song Imagine that deal with the fact that it is utopian and in no way realistic.  I think both ways of thinking are wrong.

First, humans are complex and can hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.  Anyone that can think properly knows this.  In politics people often try to use straw men arguments to bring someone down, to say someone is a hypocrite.  You can see this easily with Al Gore.  people often attack how he lives in his personal life to show that his message on climate change is not true.   However, what Gore says about climate change has nothing really to do with how he lives his personal life.  The science behind something like climate change must be taken on in and of itself.  The same can be said of whether Gore lives an ethical life.  Someone can say that murder is bad and then end up killing someone.  They may be a horrible person for murdering someone, but this does not negate the idea that murder is bad.  So just because John Lennon attacks McCartney in a very angry and bitter way has nothing to do with whether the sentiments of the song Imagine are worthwhile.

But really I love the way these songs play off each other, but not because one cancels the other one out.  One is the dream and one is the reality.  One is a human being reaching out for the divine and the other is a human caught up in the mud of human life.

Perfection, in this world, is impossible.  Human life is too short, we must deal with physical and mental suffering.  Even if we ourselves might reach something close to perfection, others in the world, or nature itself, will stand in the way of true perfection being reached.  But the important thing is that we are reaching.  I think more important than judging someone for their faults is to try to discern if they are reaching to better themselves.  Everyone falls short.  Everyone starts at a different place.  Is someone, no matter rich or poor, no matter what race or nation, trying to make themselves and the world better?

So even if Imagine in utopian in sentiment, even if it is a perfect place that can never be fully reached, the idea of the dream itself is important.  It is a place to reach for.  Even if it is not reached, trying to get there can make the world closer to the idea of, “to live as one”, as the lyrics go.

To see that message carried by someone imperfect, like Lennon, who could still be bitter and angry, makes the message more powerful in my mind.  It’s like a conversation between the different sides of human nature.  To get to a better place one has to be aware of one’s own faults.  On How Do You Sleep? or Crippled Inside, another track from the album, Lennon is fully aware of the darker side of his nature, but that does not stop him from trying to dream.  He is dreaming big and failing on the same album.  Most people, in order to succeed at anything, must fail many times.  In some sense we all fail on our way to the mountaintop, but someone like Lennon, in spite of his own faults, saw somewhere worth trying to get to. And in that reaching, crawling, dreaming, he found meaning in the suffering of life.

Socrates, Philosophy, and Why What is Popular is Not Always Right

I have commented before that popularity has no connection whatsoever with with what is right, wrong, good, or bad.  I am by no means, by any stretch of the imagination, alone in thinking that.  Often we can feel things to be true often before we know them.  I’m sure many of you have felt that.  Socrates would call this the difference between true opinion and knowledge, the latter being far superior.  I was reading about all of this last night in an excellent book called The Consolations of Philosophy.  The book is by Alain de Botton.

My Dad has long preached to me the benefits of philosophy when trying to figure out an ethical argument.  However, as much as I have tried to read philosophy, it often left me cold and confused.  I have read almost all of Camus’ fiction, yet found The Myth of Sisyphus to be extremely challenging.  I took one or two philosophy classes and while I learned a little, there was much, as there still is, that I don’t know.  My Dad had the benefit of some really great teachers that helped guide him through the impenetrable language that philosophers often communicate in.

However, the book by de Botton is a great way to understand philosophy at a entry level.  He not only describes certain philosophers ideas in an extremely simple straightforward way, but also applies the ideas to problems that all humans suffer with.

In the beginning he uses the life of Socrates, and Socratic dialog, to make you understand that what is popular is not always right.  However, even if many of us know this, he again takes us from that place of true opinion to knowledge through his examination of Socrates.  The whole chapter is worth reading, but here is one example where the writer talks about how we should listen to those that criticize us, but we only let them affect our behavior if we work out with reason if they are right (I have cut out a very small example that don’t make as much sense without reading the rest of the text):

True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.  When we are making a ship, it is the verdict of those who construct triremes that should worry us;  and when we are considering ethical matters – how to be happy and courageous and just and good – we should not be intimidated by bad thinking, even if it issues from the lips of teachers of rhetoric, mighty generals and well-dressed aristocrats from Thessalay.  

It sounded elitist, and it was.  Not everyone is worth listening to.  Yet Socrates’ elitism had no trace of snobbery or prejudice.  He might have discriminated in the views he attended to, but the discrimination operated not on the basis of class or money, nor on the basis of military record or nationality, but on the basis of reason, which was – as he stressed – a faculty accessible to all.  

The idea, which is better demonstrated in the entire piece, is that many people have not properly thought through certain issues in any kind of thorough way.  Often things that we take for granted in society, laws or issues of common sense, are the products of tradition and have nothing to do with rigorous thinking about what is best.  Many people go through life without questioning why they are doing something.  So even if an idea or thing is popular, only if it can stand up to thorough reasoning should it be deemed good or right.  Often what is popular or deemed right is nothing more than the result of many people doing what has always been done, without questioning.  Slavery, during Socrates time and in the early history of the U.S., once had popular support.

The one other point that I would like to make, which the author also makes, is that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to outside criticism, even by those we don’t deem knowledgable about a certain issue.  Again, even a critic might know something is true through “true opinion” and not knowledge.  So we should again listen to criticism, but put it through the rigorous test of reason.




Bernie Sanders Calls Out Jim Inhofe

Bernie Sanders Calls Out Jim Inhofe

I think the above video is worth watching.  Bernie Sanders does a really great job at simply stating the facts about climate change.  What takes this video to a special place is the fact that Sanders acknowledges that Jim Inhofe is a complete shill for the energy companies.  Inhofe is not a serious person.  He isn’t interested in a serious debate.  He is simply trying to muddy the waters, spread misinformation, and do anything possible to confuse people over the facts of climate change. He has actually quoted the Bible in disputing climate science.  Look at where his donations come from to get an idea of why he takes positions that are in no way backed up by science.

The Greatest Funk Album of All Time?

Payback Cover

Julian Cope On James Brown’s The Payback

While on break from writing I have been diving heavily into the catalog of James Brown.  One of his greatest albums, if not his greatest, is the album The Payback.  I think this piece by Julian Cope, about The Payback, is not only great at describing why this piece of music is incendiary and important, but also just a great piece of music writing in general.

Up and Running

My friend Chris Saunders just help me put the finishing touches tonight on the new version of windupwire.com.   This site is now fully functional again, thank god as I missed writing this past week.  Now that everything is transfered over I am looking forward to taking on a full posting schedule.  I also plan on making additional changes to the way the site looks and functions, but this will be in the upcoming weeks and months as I head out on tour tomorrow.  For now I look forward to continuing the conversations here at windupwire.com.   Many many thanks for all of your continued support.

Status Update

Tomorrow night I will finally be transferring the rest of the information I need to get winupwire.com back to being fully functional.  I will still be making stylistic changes over the next few weeks and months, but after tomorrow I will return to a normal posting schedule.  Again, I can’t thank all of you enough for coming here in the first place.  Your patience while I am making changes to this site are also greatly appreciated.

In the future when all is well…


P.S.  On Thursday I will be going on tour with Shinyribs.  To see if we hit your area, we will be driving from Texas up through to Idaho, go here.



Changes, Travel, and Doug Sahm

Posting will be slow over the next few days.  I am finally making the changes to this site that I have spoken of over the last few weeks and months.  My good friend Chris Saunders is helping me transfer my content over to a new hosting site.  Although most of the content is already transferred, there are still some kinks we have to sort out.  Once everything is transferred I will begin to make other changes that will bring this site closer to the one that I have been imagining for quite some time.  I am hoping to expand the kind of content that I can post here.  I also want to eventually do a visual overhaul.  But this site should be fully functional within the next week, even though you will continue to see the other changes that I mentioned.  Because of the technical kinks that still need worked out, I don’t want to post much, as things are still kind of ping-ponging between the old site and the new.  Your patience is appreciated.  I can’t thank those of you that keep coming back here enough.

As well as working on the site, I am headed to Alpine, Texas tomorrow for the Viva Big Bend Festival with Shinyribs.  We are not only playing tomorrow night, but will also be taking part in a Doug Sahm tribute earlier in the evening, sharing the same stage with the Texas Tornados, which has me extremely excited.

The day after the festival I will be exploring Big Bend National Park for the first time.  I only have a day there (Not nearly enough time I know!), due to my schedule, but I am really looking forward to this as I have heard nothing but great things about the park.  Hiking has become one of my favorite pastimes over the last ten years.

Thanks again to everyone that has helped make this site a success.

In the future, when all is well…

Here is a clip of the last time I played live with Shawn Sahm, Doug’s son, tackling The Sir Douglas Quintet’s She’s About a Mover: