In the Midcourse of Our Life

I'm sorry, I seem to be having a midlife crisis. The kind with faintly nonsensical but obsessive regrets, that could lead to tedious rambling blogposts if I let it.

I'll try to shake off the emodaddy thing, but in the meantime, here's some music - from my latest synthpop squeeze, Foretaste:

Not Happy, Not Clappy

After a fortnight of feeling more rubbish than usual, a week of painful peeing, two hours in a hospital waiting room, and half an hour of tests, I now know two things.

The good news: I almost certainly do not have a venereal disease.
The bad news: I almost do certainly have diabetes - and may have had it for years.

Okay, not all the tests are back yet, but it fits. Age, family history on both sides, weird patterns of lethargy and hunger, results of the urine-sugar test and the, uh, opportunistic infection which is currently smothered in anti-fungal cream.

I'll know more in a few days, but it looks like my attempts at a sensible, healthy diet are set to become a little more urgent.

Oh, and if you see me turning into one of those bloggers who write about their own health problems for the pleasure of people with the same condition, tell me, so I can shoot myself instead.

I See Fields of Dream

MJ asked that I review The Best of WC Fields. Considering that it was the one I wanted to see least - including the option I forgot, The X-Files: I Want to Believe - I'm treating it as a history homework assignment.

There's three films coming in total to less than an hour and, well....

The Golf Specialist

A manipulative cheating wife goes golfing with a rich-looking older man (Fields), while her thuggish and (justifiably) suspicious husband looks for her. You can predict the rest of the plot already can't you?

Except that isn't what happens. Instead, we get fifteen minutes of Fields trying to play a shot, while his dimwitted caddy persistently distracts him with increasingly surreal noises.

Then the police arrive and arrest the golfer. The End.

Oh, other things do happen. A manipulative little girl with a voice like an air raid siren with adenoids fails to get 'charity' money out of him. The hotel desk clerk is probably gay, and there's a rolling contortionist.

But none of it amounts to a story - just a loose bundle of set-piece jokes. Which is...fine. I liked the police's list of crimes:

The Dentist

This is a sketch set in a dentist's practice, right? An incompetent dentist gets high on his own laughing gas, or a patient tries to do the surgery himself while the dentist's back is turned, or there's a stream of bizarre patients.

Um, no. Because this is a golf-playing dentist, and when he's not doing it, he's talking about it at work. There may be a theme to this 'best of' collection.

Eventually, a woman with toothache arrives at the surgery.

We get the obligatory racist joke - "I don't believe in doctors. The doctor down the street treated a man for nine years for yellow jaundice, then found out he was a Jap." - followed immediately by one which, anachronism aside, has a surprisingly modern form:

Dentist: Can I use gas?
Patient: Well, gas or electric lights.

A man in the waiting room overhears the woman's cries of nervousness, plus an industrial drill outside, puts two and two together, and decides he doesn't need treatment that badly.

Fields drills a second woman's tooth with sawing, grinding, howling sound effects...and is interrupted by his daughter who wants to marry. He locks her in an upstairs room, and her angry stamping on the floor makes the surgery ceiling start to fall in.

Fields asks his patient "Have you ever had this tooth pulled before?", and proceeds to pull...and pull.

A man with a beard provides the challenge of locating his mouth...then we rush outside and we get a rather sudden romantic ending.

The Pharmacist

Fields won't let his daughter eat at the table because she chews she eats the canary and coughs up feathers. Oh...kay.

A customer shows how some political categories haven't changed:

Fields: Can I interest you in a stamp?
Customer: Yeah gimme a stamp.
Fields fumbles with the stamps.
Customer: No, give me a purple one.
Fields: I'm sorry we don't have any purple ones. I could paint one for you?
Customer: I don't want a painted one. A person hasn't got any rights in this country any more. The government even tells you what colour stamps you've got to buy. That's the Democratic party for you.
Fields: I've written to Washington about it?
Customer: What do you want to write to Washington for? he's dead.

The customer buys a single stamp and wants to pay with a hundred dollar bill. He gets the stamp on credit...and a free ming vase with every purchase.

The mob and the police start shooting at each other, and hiding under the counter as his stock is destroyed by bullets, Fields takes a phone call complaint about the late delivery of some cough drops. The End.

I think WC Fields works best if you treat him as the nominal protagonist of a feverish dream. Just let it wash over you. You could try watching his films while stoned - it won't make them seem like there's a coherent plot, but it won't matter that there isn't.

Most of the jokes are based on repetition and/or people misunderstanding what's going on. Just occasionally, it even made me laugh.


I feel like crap.

I've got one of those low-grade persistent illnesses, my latest employment prospect just went down the U-Bend when the employer turned out to be full of crap, there's crap on TV and I just turned down an offer of oral sex because, the way I'm feeling, my contribution would be a bit crap.

So what can I do but sit and watch a crappy movie while munching on crappy junk food? Ah, but which movie? This is where you come in. I've got five films to chose from, and I'm asking you to chose one of them for me to watch...and review for you in my next post.

Here's the crapfest:

* Anatomy of a Psycho - A film I know absolutely nothing about, except that someone thought it worth putting on youtube, together with classic crap like Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The Brother from Another Planet

* Fight Club - Crap about bullshit-masculinity in bullshit-crisis.

* The Evil Dead - I thought this was a satire on how empty and crap our lives are, as shown by the zombies in the shopping mall. But apparently that was a different zombie flick.

* The Human Centipede - A film which is basically on with other people's crap.

* The Best of WC Fields - A crapilation of short Crap-and-White comedy films.

Over to you, my gentle readers. Choose my crap.

(I've just got to, uh, visit the bathroom first.)

In No Sense? Nonsense!

Some time in (I think) 1980, Phil Collins had some chords and a drum pattern, but no vocals to go over them. So he played the first chord on a piano and sang the first thing that came into his head: "I can feel it coming in the air tonight".

It didn't mean anything at the time, but was a springboard for suggesting other lyrics, and even made it into the finished song. People are still getting married to it today, which show you how little attention usually gets paid to song lyrics - it's about a failed relationship.

Still, people are getting married to "Every Breath You Take", which is about a stalker, and to "Moments in Love" which...I don't think is about anything at all.

Phil Collins has now officially retired to be a father, Sting was last heard being atrociously sampled by P Diddy, and I've seen Anne Dudley conduct a full orchestra in the ambient classic she wrote 25 years earlier. And I still don't like writing lyrics.

Sometimes it's a matter of finding a singable melody and trying to forcefit an intelligent sentiment into it. And sometimes it's a matter of having a page of notes and trying to find a melody to fit them into. Annie Lennox uses the latter method, and the Black Eyed Peas use the former, though they don't bother with the intelligence part.

But a lot of songs I listen to are in languages I don't understand. And this one gave me an idea to avoid spending a day banging my head against sentences till they fit a rhythm. It's in German, und Ich spreche nur Deutsch genug zu Kraftwerk Worte verstehen.

So instead I've spent a day writing a program (which I'll post as a comment) to make random sort-of-german words, sorted by syllable count. My not-language is called Doitschish because it's Deutsch...ish.

Here's a selection from the first run:

Words with eins syllable: Ech, Prif, Zo, Push, Az,

Zwei: Avach, Drazeis, Eshon, Auba, Roshta

Drei: Kluzutchai, Undentach, Aukodi

Veir: Reshkotchinteul, Akaupoiplen

Fünf: Jekauveulueusctitsch, Vandunginushez

I think they look and efficient. There's a much simpler Polynesian alternative, and (who knows?) maybe an English version in the pipeline.

So now I can avoid worrying about meaning at all, and one more form of writers block is circumvented. Just don't ask me to try rapping in it.

It's Not What You Think

At college I struck up a friendship with a fellow eccentric. One afternoon we skipped classes and went on long, long rambling walk - with lots of philosophical chatter and the promise of a cup of tea at the end.

After about two hours, the last twenty minutes on a winding maze of side streets, we came to a block of flats. We went in through the gate, walked to a door...and stood for ten seconds staring wordlessly at each other.

Eventually he said, "What's the matter? Have you forgotten your key?"

I blinked. "What? Why should I have a key?"

"This is where you live isn't it?"

"Um, no. I thought it was where you lived."

"So...why did you come here?"

"I was following you."

"But I was following you."

"Oh. Where are we?"

"I don't know."

A year ago I knew someone in the same line of work as myself - ESL/EFL teacher. Like most TEFLers, he into travel, cheap living, red wine and cannabis resin. Laid back, bohemian, and not terribly knowledgeable about his subject.

And also, like a lot of TEFLers, a bit vague on which countries he'd taught in at what time, and completely unreliable in getting me information he'd promised on golden job opportunities.

He went away suddenly, having found a last minute vacancy - as often happens - in Barcelona. After less than a month he phoned a mutual friend in a panic, saying he'd been mugged in the street and all his money taken - and he didn't like to ask, but could our friend lend a hundred pounds into his bank account, which he'd pay back in a week when he got paid. This our friend did.

After two weeks, there was no sign of repayment and no contact. And he wasn't answering his phone - though that wasn't exactly unusual.

Then another mutual acquaintance spilled the beans. He hadn't been mugged, hadn't lost his money, probably wasn't even in Barcelona...but was rather into harder drugs, enough to tell lies to get the money for them.

Losing a dozen friends for a hit or two obviously didn't bother him. At least, not as much as missing the hits would have.

I slightly knew a lady who worked as a freelance cleaner. I also knew a man whose house was a mess - which he was vainly trying to clear, some time after the death of his wife.

So I suggested that he give the lady a wad of cash to do the work, because he had money but no time, and she was short of work. He thought it was an excellent idea, and soon all the rubbish was thrown away and all the books and papers were in neat piles.

Today I discovered something. When she said she was a freelance cleaner, she'd actually said 'carer' and I'd obviously been wearing my cloth ears that day. She says she utterly, utterly despises housework, and only did it out of sympathy because the mess was obviously the result of grief over his wife.

Except I'd known the couple for several years...and the house had always been a tip.


Um. Sorry.

Bash Wednesday

A combination of mild illness, mild depression, mild lack of focus and mild not-having-much-to-blog-about...means I haven't had much to say for a week.

So NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month) joins NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and FebAlWriMo (February Album Writing Month - FAWM) on the list of month-long creativity-based projects with impenetrably abbreviated names that I'm just not very good at. There's also NaSoAlMo (National Solo Album Month) to be added to the list in November.

I have to say I'm not too impressed with the NaBloPoMo community - seeing as there doesn't seem to be one. But if I want to read faux-introspective poems about having a personal relationship with Jesus, I now know where to go.

Anyway, I'll copy my NaBloPoMo posts here and backdate them...and continue trying to bash ideas together until they turn into pop songs.

Just as soon as I find the right settings for generating snare drums from high-pass filtered two-level white noise. And iron out the bugs in the algorithm for germaically morphophonemic nonsense lyrics.

Yes, there's three things I'm very good at:

* Obscure technical projects
* Starting stuff
* Promising to do things
* Being distracted

(Not so good at counting.)

But first, it's time to squeeze a lemon over a circle of batter, as is traditional.

NaBloPoMo: Sick Beat

Whenever you plan to do something over several days or weeks, include some slack for sick days.

You don't know when you'll have that bad cheese sandwich, or contract a 24 hour headcold, but the chances are you will, and your timetable will get thrown off.

And that's the advice from my sickbed today. [Cough cough].

NaBloPoMo: Let There Be Drums

If creation is all in preparation then...I'm good at preparing.

The drums are synthesised, their EQ settings and variations set and defined, their reverb settings similarly set and defined, as are their decay parameters plus their individual and group compressor settings.

In other words, the drums are all taken care of. It might take 10 seconds to come up with a beat, but it takes a day to get the knobs twiddled the way you like them, so the beat doesn't sound like porridge. Unless you want a degree of porridginess, for a 'live sound' or you want a few instruments to make a thick sound a la Portishead.

Odd how painting buffs understand the difficulty in getting the right colour, but music buffs think the colours of sound come automatically and magically. I think most snobbery is inverted.

It takes months to make a pop song in the studio - and most of that doesn't involve the band. Sometimes it involves a session band re-recording the bits the band couldn't get right - which has been known to be most of the song - and sometimes it involves hundreds of minute adjustments to timing and frequency of samples.

The Beatles used to record their early albums live. They'd write the song, practice it a few times, go into the studio and press 'record'. Which leads to the question of whether or not their greatness (assuming you believe in the greatness of The Beatles) is in spite of, or because of, their early albums sounding like demo tapes.

I'm all for a little tasteful imperfection in music. That's why I set some of the parameters to vary semi-randomly but subtly within limits. A perfectly autotuned singer doesn't produce an inherently good or inherantly bad sound - just a perfectly autotuned one, and all the criticism of T-Pain for using autotune is a criticism of T-Pain's way of using autotune, as opposed to his use of it at all.

Except for those who criticise any use of autotune, who're just silly. And inverted snobs.

I don't personally get why The Beatles were (and are) loved so much. Probably because I was born in 1972 and not 1952. I'm sure most of those born in 1992 don't get what made the Eurythmics or the Pet Shop Boys exciting - or even interesting - in the 80s.

There were plenty of musos who objected to the 'cold, soulless' sounds of CDs when they first appeared. They genuinely thought hiss, crackle and distortion was part of the way James Brown should sound - as though his band came with hiss and crackle built in.

There were also those (including modern bands like The White Stripes) who thought analog tape gives a 'warm' sound. As indeed it does - by the interpolation of harmonic partials by saturation, soft knee compression, low frequency red noise in the background, and more extra frequencies created by wow and flutter in the drive mechanism.

The Brown fans were like those who see an old painting after cleaning and declare the dirty version they saw for decades was better - because that's the version they'd got used to. And the analog fans pretend not to know you can get the same effects, but usefully controllable, digitally.

Digital recreations of analog imperfections really are better than the real thing. Provided you're not in a nostalgic mood, of course. I used to work with warm analog tape. Most of the time, I wanted less of the warmth and more of the clarity.

So anyway, I have drums. Tomorrow...I shall have instruments.

NaBloPoMo: You Don't Want to Do It Like That

"Learn from my fail." - Failblog Site

Here's my quick list of things I do, which I know I shouldn't, when trying to be creative. Three bad habits to avoid.

1) Force it. If you've got no inspiration for the words, but you need some words before you go any further, then staring at the screen until your head starts to bleed in the hope the drops of blood will spell a genius line...won't work.

If you've been trying to do something for an hour, and it's just not working, then doing it for another hour probably won't help.

2) Permature perfection. The lyrics you use when constructing the song don't need to be the final ones. A simple dumb bassline can stand in for the killer one you haven't quite worked out yet, while you're working on EQing the drums.

And if you're recording the guitar part, you only need a rough mix - or a guide track - not something close to the finished product.

If all you've got is a rhyming couplet, sing that until you need more. If you've got a hihat you don't like, use that one till you're in the mood for tweaking hihats. Or...don't program the hihats yet.

3) Skip sleep. I'm a night owl. I often work best at four in the morning. But if I go to bed at five and wake up at nine, I will be rubbish for the whole day. And if I can scrape together the will to write something, it will be rubbish.

If you skip sleep, you might get two good hours done - and lose all of the next 24. It's bad economics.

The reason I had to hastily cobble this post together instead of presenting you with the fruits of my creativity is...I stayed up all last night failing to find inspiration, and as a result, was an uncreative zombie the whole day. I will now sleep, even though I'm not tired, so I can hopefully make something tomorrow.

NaBloPoMo: La La La

I can't waffle.

When there's nothing to say, I find it extremely difficult to say anything. And when there is something to say, it's usually one sentence.

As someone who's trying to be a blogger and a songwriter, this is a problem. Here's what I have to say on the great issues of our times:

* Love: It you like it, fine - I don't have the patience.

* Sexuality: Everything human is coloured by it, but no one knows just what it is.

* Television: We only watch it because we like to confuse it with reality.

* Religion: The wishful thinking of the oppressed, usurped by the oppressors. Creationists are cretins.

* Prejudice: A need to scapegoat converging with willful ignorance.

* Obama: Bush Junior Junior (with education).

* Lady Gaga / Justin Timerlake / Michael Jackson: Not important enough to get emotional about.

If you think this post is just waffle, then I stand corrected. But I've spent the last 48 hours trying to write rap lyrics (because my singing voice isn't very good at the moment), and coming up with a dozen couplets that Eric B might write before breakfast - before throwing in the bin.

I just don't have anything I want to communicate at the moment - I just want to write a song.

But there is an alternative which has been kicking around my head for a few months now: Phonetics. In the late 70s, David Bowie experimented with abandoning words as such, instead just using vocal sound. I think I can be a little more systematic.

My background in linguistics gives me enough knowledge of phonetics and morphophonemics to put together a 'pretend language' - a series of rules about vocal sound concatenation which result in 'words' and what sounds like a human language, but with no grammar and no meaning.

Here's a verse:
Ma, 'o, zu
Ko, xo, yoku
Neku, neku, to'u

It's a simple, Polynesian-like system where each syllable is consonant-vowel, and odd-numbered syllables are stressed - giving a trochaic metre.

I come up with the melody, then use a little program to generate the syllables, fitting them to the tune.

Hey, why force yourself to say something when you've got nothing to say, just because you need a vocal line?

The system is called Zilo (from the first two syllables it ever produced), and I'll probably talk some more about it tomorrow.

NaBloPoMo: Intro

"I wanna be a rock star" - Nickelback

When I was a child, I thought I wanted to be a pop star. Then I thought about it, and realised I wanted to be a musician, which is completely different.

Then I thought about it some more, and realised I didn't want to play a musical instrument - I wanted to be a composer. Then I thought about it some more, and decided I wanted to mess around with anything which made a noise, turn it into a different noise, and record the result.

So I suppose what I really wanted to be...was Brian Eno.

Or Alvin Lucier, Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Russolo, John Cage, Delia Derbyshire, Robert Moog, Ralf Hütter and Trevor Horn. Or Alex Patterson.

But then I turned twenty-something, life got in the way, and I haven't done much music since. I spent a while waiting for life to stop getting in the way, but now that I'm in my late thirtysomethings, that strategy doesn't look like it's going to start working any time soom.

Patience may be a virtue, but I'm not feeling very virtuous anymore. So I'm going to record an EP over March, or at least try, and blog about it.

Oh, My Word

NaBloPoMo is National Blog Posting Month. The idea is simply to pick a topic, and make a blogpost once a day or more - on their site and/or your own - on that subject. The 'main event' is in November each year, but it runs every month.

They give you an optional theme for each month, and this March it's "In a Word". I don't have a single word to describe why I got the impulse to participate, but I've had trouble finding anything to blog about lately, and I've had zero success in putting together any music. So NaBloPoMo seemed a good opportunity to push myself in both.

My month-blog is here, and I'll mirror the posts here, together with any actual music I manage to come up with.

So far, after the first day I can report I've come up with a dozen dull rhyming couplets and some generic beats. So right now the word is: Uninspired.