Sparkle and Fade

It is late now. The house is quiet except for Sleater-Kinney abusing me through my headphones. Before that was Airbag, and before that, Hog. It will probably be the Raveonettes next.

Tonight, I can feel the glow of the monitor as I type. It almost hurts — it wants to, maybe, but it can’t.

Here and there, throughout my genome, there are genes that tell each of my cells, DON’T BE CANCER. You have them, too. In each cell, DON’T BE CANCER is a constant struggle between the interests of the individual and the interests of the whole. It is best not to forget that the alliance between the cells that compose our bodies requires billions of independent contractors to take the long view.

But if you take the brakes off, any of those little fuckers will run wild and consume you with their voracious hunger, forgetting their role in the greater organism.

It just takes one.

As we age, our cells are copies of copies of copies. Sometimes the copy isn’t perfect. Mutations creep in. If one DON’T BE CANCER gene is compromised, that’s all right, they come in pairs. But if in subsequent generations the co-pilot gene also mutates, then the cell throws off the shackles of civil society and Mad Max enters the building.

I am Thunderdome.

In my prostate, one goddam cell lost both sets of brakes. The odds of a mutation are tiny, but the number of cells is huge. I don’t even know why my goddam prostate exists, let alone why it should be such a hotbed of insurrection. As far as I can tell, it’s a janky-ass clamp. I should probably read up on that.

[Everclear is now punching me in the eardrums.]

But tonight the house is dark, except for the aggressive glow of the screen I’m typing this on, and quiet, except for Sparkle and Fade in my headphones, very loud, and I wonder, what the fuck? That is the question I have no answer for.

We are, ultimately, composed of billions of wild animals. These wild animals have accepted genes to enforce constraints that benefit the larger organism. But they are always pulling at the leash, and if one gets loose then, well, you have cancer.

I have cancer. Still working on figuring that out.


The Music in Our Heads

Recently someone in my orbit asked (something like), “Does anyone else have a song in their head every moment?” It had honestly never occurred to me before then that there could be any other existence.

It’s a tricky question to ask, I suppose, because if I ask you “is there a song in your head?” the answer will be yes. Even if there wasn’t one before, there will be one by the time the question lands down in the thinking-zones.

This question wouldn’t have stuck in my head so much, I think, if it weren’t for a comment someone made to me forty years ago. “You always have a song for the moment,” she said. Or something like that. Back then I would let my inner sound track leak out through my mouth, I think. I was not conscious of it before, but sure enough, for any dang topic I had a little musical quip.

The music in my head is situational and responsive, but given lack of stimulus will fall into a few deep grooves. As I type this, I am turning up the headphones to NOT THINK OF one of my most hated bonded tracks.

While I try to control what is playing in there, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, there is no off switch. I have always assumed that is the natural human condition. I’m pretty sure I’m right. I’m pretty sure the answer to this episode is “well, duh.” But I’d never even asked the question before, so I thought I’d say it out loud. Is it possible to live without a soundtrack?


Pod Life

It was in late 2001 or early 2002. I was on an airplane, and I pulled 1000 songs out of my pocket, was navigating to find the album I wanted, when a man in the row behind me leaned forward and asked through the gap between seats, “What is that thing?”

It was an iPod. Until its release, there had never been anything like it. The mechanical click-wheel of those early versions was just so satisfying and intuitive, navigating through a large collection of songs was simple, even with the tiny black-and-white screen. “It passes the blonde test,” a blonde friend of mine said after a few seconds with the device.

Part of the iPod of course was timing. Suddenly it was possible to fit a hard drive (yes, an actual spinning-disk drive) and a battery into a little case with enough storage to play music. But on top of that was the design. Anybody could make a music player, but only Apple could have made the iPod.

And only the iPod could save Apple. There was a huge battle inside Apple over whether the iPod would work with Windows computers. Steve Jobs was absolutely against it. Steve got his way most of the time, but in this case ultimately other voices carried the day, and while Steve was not the least bit gracious in conceding, he was later able to recognize that decision as a turning point for the company. It was the moment the gadgets were allowed to grow independently of Macs, and eventually the gadgets became the center of the Apple ecosystem. And here we are now.

Today (or, recently at least, I don’t pay close attention) Apple announced that they will not be making any more iPods. It’s just as well; the iPod is now just an iPhone without the phone. The iPod nano was probably the pinnacle of the “thing that plays music” Apple offerings, although it was not as viscerally satisfying to use as its clunky ancestors. I have one of those around here somewhere as well.

The only surprise I felt at the announcement was that the company I work for was still making iPods up until now. It seems like once the pod had to play video it wasn’t really an iPod anymore (says this grumpy old man).

But… the headphones I wear could fit a click wheel. A million songs in your ear. Anyone want to make that real?



When writing I used to listen to music much of the time, but not so much anymore. But for some reason tonight I was inspired to put the pods in my ears and fire up some Stiff Little Fingers, starting with Suspect Device, one of the best Punk songs ever, then through Alternative Ulster and Can’t Say Crap on the Radio.

For a band with such an incendiary start, they have stayed together for a long time, and they produced memorable music for a couple of decades (it seems they are still making music together, which gladdens my heart). But those earliest, raw anthems that sing about “them” are my favorites. Stiff Little Fingers are punk, but the musicianship is there, always twisting, sometimes surprising, never dull.

Like all true punk bands, they were political. As a band in Belfast during the Time of Troubles, they were playing in a war zone. Those early concerts must have been damn near riots. I wish now I could have been at one, but I probably would have shit myself.

I haven’t got much writing done tonight, but I’m not sorry. It’s been a long time since I performed Suspect Device at Punk Rock karaoke down in San Diego (Yeah, I fronted a band with Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) and Eric Melvin (NOFX) for one awesome and really loud three minutes. I’d like to believe Jennifer Finch (L7) was there too, but things are fuzzy), and it’s time to get back in touch.

Punk still lives today, but it’s not white guys with guitars who are making punk, it’s hip-hop and the countless variations I am not qualified to enumerate that carry that political torch of protest and disruption. But I like the guitars.

CODA: As I make my way through their catalog, I am reminded what pioneers that band could be on occasion. “This sounds like what <insert band here> did, only… [checks date] before them.”


Damn You, Bauhaus

I’m trying to write an episode that is actually interesting, but it hasn’t been going well. And that was before “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” came on the TV/Internet/Radio music distribution system.

It all starts with the simple bass line and the clock-ticking percussion, and I get sucked in. Then Peter Murphy takes direct control of my brain. It’s haunting, and even when it’s loud it’s all somehow far away.

It’s over now, and I just have to remember what I was writing about.


I CAN Hear Them

I’m at a bar that plays its music loud. I haven’t found a place like this since Tiki House down San Diego way. That bar is gone now, lamented by many. Tiki Dave was looking to hang up his spurs many years ago.

Anyway, I’m in a place called The Office in San Jose, and they keep the tunes cranked up. When I came in, there was some pretty serious hip-hop playing, confirming I’m an old white guy and I don’t really get it. But if I tuned out just enough to let the music happen to me, it worked out all right.

While I’ve been here the playlist has evolved, through some pretty sweet rock that I heard without hearing, until someone asked, loudly but in a sweet voice, “Can you hear the guns, Fernando?”

I could hear the fuckin’ guns. BOOM! When I was a kid I turned ABBA up loud. Especially this song. When was the last time you cranked up a purportedly easy-listening band like this, to make the listening not-so-easy? I was not the only person in this place singing along.

On a side note, this is a song an American could not write.


During the typing of this episode, I’ve heard John Denver loud and now it’s Bay City Rollers! S! A! T-U-R! D-A-Y! Night!


The Venues of my Youth: Tingley Coliseum

In this country, going to your first Big Show is a rite of passage. For a pair of decades at least, almost every youth in northern New Mexico passed through the gate and became Experienced at a crappy barn of an arena called Tingley Coliseum.

By John Phelan – CC BY 3.0

The building was not designed for music. It was a hollow box with a concrete floor surrounded by something like 10,000 seats not designed for comfort. In some arenas like that, the powers-that-be would hang fancy acoustic thingies that would mitigate the echoes. Other places would at least hang heavy tapestries from the rafters to catch some of the echoes. Tingley didn’t even bother to hang moth-eaten airline blankets. If you liked the note the guitarist played, you would have ample opportunity to experience it several more times, as it mixed with the following notes to create sonic quicksand.

But Tingley was (is? I have no idea) where the bands played. It was such an unquestioned truth that when the Thompson Twins played Popejoy Hall (a lovely place for music) I found it exceedingly strange.

Ah, Tingley. The Experienced among us know there are two ways to enjoy a performance in an acoustically-hellish barn: from the seats or from down on the floor. Some might say that you are not truly Experienced until you watch an act from the floor. I’m not that hardcore.

My first Big Show featured .38 Special and Jefferson Starship. It was, as the Arena Rock critic Charles Dickens said, “the best of shows, and the worst of shows.” It was loud. Oppressively, crushingly, my-ears-hurt BUT HOLY DANG I CAN FEEL IT loud. I was not particularly well-versed in .38 Special’s oeuvre, but a couple of the songs had been getting radio play and not long after this gig they were the main attraction, not the opening act.

Then Jefferson Starship played, and more than once I thought, “hey! I know this song!” Then I learned about the obligatory encore, after a suitable period of shouting.

Among my friends, opinion of the show varied. One friend said, “.38 Special was rocking so hard I didn’t know how Jefferson Starship would match it. But then they blew them away.”

Me, I think the Good ol’ Boys sounded better that night. From this distant perspective, I think their music was just better-suited for the venue. Simpler. Happier in the mud.

My next Tingley Experience was Kansas, the Point of Know Return tour – or maybe the tour after that. I was excited; but they canceled. Welcome to show biz.

In my college days, only a two-hour drive from the venue (welcome to the Land of Enchantment) I saw a variety of bands. Bands big enough to play in arenas but small enough to stop in Albuquerque. (I learned later that it’s really useful to have a connect-the-dots stop in the middle of nowhere to keep the tour generating cash.)

From the seats I saw Golden Earring (“Radar Love”) open for Rush; I saw two horrible choreographed bland-metal bands open for Aerosmith (who didn’t distance themselves from the opening acts that much) (an abbreviated version of the puking story you can find elsewhere); I saw Cindi Lauper pump her WWF connections while trying to keep those on the floor from killing each other.

But even by the hardcore definition, I am Experienced; I have been to the floor. I have been close to the stage, in the crush of sweat and anger. The funny thing is, I remember the sweat and anger much better than I remember the bands. Or it might be more correct to say, I remember the sweat and anger, and I remember the bands, but they are disconnected. I have no idea which band it was when the guy started to push his way in front of me and I resolved to make that as difficult as possible. Pretenders? Yes? Kinks?

Probably not the Kinks. That was an undersold concert.

Another show. Here’s where the sweat and anger is most disconnected from the band. I was on the floor. The crowd was rowdy. The obligatory encore was executed, including of course some Big Hits held back from the regular part of the show because the first encore is really just another short set. The band left the stage, and the shouting and chanting commenced.

Usually this is a staged drama, with each actor playing a part. The band was not inclined to do any sort of REAL encore, so the harsh stadium lights came on. The surge of anger at that moment was real, and thick; you could taste it in your mouth. People — all the people on the floor, as a single mass — shifted one way, then the other, and the noise rose. The lights went back out and the band played a couple more songs. You’d think I’d be able to remember which band that was.

Huey Lewis did their obligatory encore, and the crowd kept chanting. He stuck his head out from behind the curtain and spun his finger around his ear: “You guys are crazy!” They came back out and did another set, very informal, just playing around. It was a treat to watch. The pop stars were being musicians! One of my favorite Tingley moments. So don’t go talking shit about Huey where I can hear you. Dude loves to play; the fame and fortune are a side effect.

It was the Yes performance, which surprisingly included no potentially-deadly rush to the stage when the doors opened, and had no opening act. When they brought the massive light bars down over the stage while the bass started that hammering riff in Starship Troopers (am I mixing up my songs? I could look this stuff up but I’m not going to), that I got my first total rock and roll overload. Fortunately breathing and heart beat happen without conscious direction or I might not be waxing so pleasantly nostalgic right now.

There were other bands — musically, The Pretenders might have been the best show I saw there — but this is about the venue. A terrible venue. A seminal venue. The sort of place every First Big Show should be Experienced in.


Bandamax World

I’m at a local eatery that The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas and I have dubbed “The Office”. Mexican food and plenty of it; great quality for not much money. On the TV in front of me, inaudible, is a show called Bandamax. It is a music video show. Almost all the videos are date-night stories — heartfelt songs (judging by the facial expressions of the singers) where regular-guy men with unbelievable singing skills work out relationships with super-hot women.

They are romance stories, songs of regret, revenge, and remorse. Men with hearts on sleeve, women with bare arms and ample cleavage. And sousaphones. Sousaphones where you would never expect to see a sousaphone — on the beach, on a deserted island, at a late-night motorcycle rally. Bandamax world is a wonderful world, as long as you like sousaphones.


Looking for the Joke with a Microscope

I was thinking about the movie Repo Man the other day, and a song got stuck in my head. I mean, really wedged in there.

“It could be worse,” I hear you all say. “The soundtrack to Repo Man is epic.” And it is. I could have “TV Party” running circles in my brain, or “Pablo Picasso”. But no, the song that keeps popping back up in my head is not on the soundtrack, even though it is an integral part of one scene. Someone even gets beat up for singing it.

Yep, I’m Feeling 7-up.


Foreigner Live in Wendover

On one of my more recent road trips, I was a little saddened to pass a billboard proclaiming that the giant band Foreigner was playing in (I’m pretty sure) the border town of Wendover, NV. It seemed like a long way down from where they had been.

After some consideration, however, I realized that a group of guys still making a living doing what they love is in no way sad. Maybe they pulled all their retirement money up their noses, but I’d like to believe that even former superstars love their craft, and just want to play. They wouldn’t have reached the heights they did without that passion.

But then, after more consideration, I got a little sad again. When was the last time you heard a new Foreigner song? They’re out there, rockin’ the house, but creators have to create. Certainly the boys in the band have had new ideas in the last couple of decades, but nothing new has reached the masses. Have they ceased to be artists? Have they really been reduced to being a tribute band for themselves?

Open message to Foreigner’s agent (and the agents for countless other bands): Now is the time to strike. Let the showmen become artists again, and let them tell their story. I bet it’s a really good story.


Bowie Thoughts

Ziggy-Stardust-ziggy-stardust-8526918-497-584By now pretty much everything there is to be said about David Bowie has been, but sometimes sorrow, like wine, needs a little time to mature. David Bowie was never my favorite musician, and some of his songs don’t appeal to me much at all. Others, well…

I got Ziggy Stardust on cassette in the Safeway in Socorro, New Mexico, and while I’d heard plenty of Bowie before, and I’d even heard some of the songs on that album, I’d never immersed myself in his music the way I did as I played that tape at high volume while I drove across the desert. Big, buzzy guitars, lyrics that didn’t quite make sense in a poetic sort of way, all wrapped up in showmanship.

Many years later, I wrote a story that opens with a man in a spaceship, floating far above the world, a story I called “Tin Can.” Was I thinking of “Space Oddity” as I wrote it? Not really. But the song was there, part of my science fiction education, a story about loneliness as much as anything else. It’s a vibe that you can find in most of my favorite stories. There’s a little bit of Major Tom in all my favorite heroes.

My guilty pleasure: “China Girl”. I don’t hear that one mentioned in the eulogies that have sprouted up everywhere. Perhaps it just landed at the right time in my life, or perhaps I’m the only one on Earth with the taste and sophistication to appreciate it. That song’s kissin’ cousin, “Let’s Dance,” really doesn’t do much for me.

Recently, semi-accidentally, my sweetie and I watched Labyrinth. It’s… not very good. It sounds like all the dialog was re-recorded in the studio and without any regard for the environment the action was taking place in. Mr. Bowie, well, he does not succeed in rescuing the show. But I’m glad I watched. It was the last time I will experience David Bowie without the knowledge that he is gone, without wondering what he might do next.

And so we move on, flying through space, looking for something, not sure what, that was here a minute ago but doesn’t seem to be where we left it. That’s the hole we didn’t even know David Bowie was filling. He’s still here, of course, but everything he did is now tinged a little blue.


The Letter I Just Sent to emusic

The following is what I wrote at the end of the “why did you cancel your account?” survey at emusic:

I’ve been with emusic for a long, long time, and frankly I think things got worse as you succeeded in getting deals with major record labels. Prices kept going up, and the new pricing structure is frustrating. Necessary for getting the big labels, but then I discovered that I don’t much like the music the big labels are putting out. And when ’80’s arena rock bands show up in the ‘alternative’ section, you know that keyword pollution is starting to cause real problems.

So it has become harder to find actual good music (editorials are a huge help, so keep that up), and more expensive to experiment. I can’t take the risks I used to; downloading an album by a band I didn’t know is much more costly these days. So I’m not making as many happy discoveries as I did years ago.

emusic may still be the best online music service, but at this point the commitment to spend a set amount each month is just not justified.

Still, thanks for all the great tunes I’ve downloaded over the last decade-plus of membership.


A Message to Target

Tonight I discovered myself humming a Christmas song. ‘Tis not the season, but sometimes these songs get up in there. Notably, this was not a traditional Christmas song, but one that was on a Target ad a year ago. I’ve mentioned it before, but I really liked the album and I thought it was exploitation of artists done right. I was saddened that Target had not continued the tradition this year.

I’ve told a lot of people that, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t told Target. So tonight I set out to do that.

I’m pretty sure this message will not find the intended recipient. After a shit-ton of clicks, wading through a system that assumes that if I want to sent a message to the corporate monster it’s because I have a problem with a particular transaction, I thought I’d found the place for general observations. I left the following message (wretched capitalization preserved):

Man! Tough to get here. I just wanted to say that your 2011 Christmas album was awesome in a jar and I was bummed this year that you didn’t do it again. I sang the praises of the Target christmas on my blog last year, and when my sweetie played the songs this year I knew that the season was upon us. I’d be oh so grateful if next year you brought us another batch of fresh and clean christmas songs. I’m not blowing smoke to say that it could be part of a new christmas tradition. macy’s has the parade, Target has the christmas album.

In that context, Target wins. C’mon Santa, bring me the music!

I submitted the message and the reassuring message came back: Thank you. Your email regarding help with Store Email has been submitted successfully.


Apparently I had not found the right department after all. So now I say it here, as loudly as I can: Target, you have a shot at a really great holiday tradition with your name all over it. Don’t be afraid. Bring us the Christmas songs that would never be written otherwise. After a couple of the bands you feature go big, people will start wondering who’s going to be on the Target album this year. Buzz like that is magical, to you and to the musicians. Put your ads on them, but cover the musical spectrum, even more fearlessly than you did the first time. And have fun. Like you did before. Fun shows.


In Search of Ruby Tuesday

A couple of days ago I wrote a slightly-alcohol-inspired lament that there weren’t any good covers of the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, one of my favorites from the Stones, back before they turned into zombies and continued to shamble through the music scene for eternity. I had intended to do a little more research before that episode went live, but then I forgot about it completely, and out it came.

This morning I fired up eMusic and drifted through covers of Ruby Tuesday, and I learned a little bit; I now have a musing or two to share about music in general and covers in particular. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

It turns out there are a lot of covers of the song. It’s just that most of them suck. In my lament I asked where the guitar/folkie covers were, and I have since found the answer: “Right where they belong”. There are quite a few of these, and while some of them don’t suck, none that I found were particularly good. Overdone, overwrought, over-engineered. And while I applaud artists who change the original material to put their own identity into the music (fundamentally that’s the appeal of covers), those changes still have to make some sort of sense. Singing “When you change with every new day stillI’mgonnamissyou” with the last phrase crammed into the tightest space possible is jarring and doesn’t reflect the emotion of the song. Amazing how many times I heard this.

I suspect that one musician decided on this musical tic and then a host of others copied that cover, without referring to the original source material as well. So there was a lot of Band B covering Band A covering the Rolling Stones. It would be interesting (but not interesting enough to actually do it) to trace the family tree of the song based on mutations introduced along the way.

And thinking of songs going through generations and mutating, it would stand to reason that later mutations would be more fit to survive in the new market conditions. Darwin should totally work, here. As musical tastes and economics changes, the covers literally evolve with them, and songs diversify into different niches. Ruby Tuesday has certainly done that.

Take country music, for instance. A cat name Don Williams has put out several albums with his take on the song. It’s… OK, but it lacked a little something. Then I listened to a performance he did with Dolly Parton, and it was massively improved. It wasn’t necessarily that Parton was putting in the performance of a lifetime, but I realized at this point that vocal harmony on the chorus makes an incredible difference. You hardly notice it’s there in the original, but you would definitely notice if it wasn’t there. Without the harmony, it takes a great arrangement or a voice more versatile than any I sampled to pull off the cover of this deceptively simple song.

One of the tricky parts, and one that the Stones don’t do that well either, is handling how different the verses and the chorus are. Most of the guitar/folkies tried to manage that by adding a bunch of annoying stylisms. Yes, I’m talking to you, Jade Leonard.

On I searched. There were the inevitable elevator-jazz instrumentals and Philharmonic “do arrangements of pop songs to pay the bills” renditions. Lullaby versions so boomer parents (and grandparents) can indoctrinate further generations into “their” music. Single-synthesizer efforts programmed by some kid in his basement. Massive electronic efforts that sounded just like the one the kid in his basement did. There was one I was tempted to buy just for comedic value – I’d bet my favorite molar that it’s by the same guy who arranged William Shatner’s Mr. Tambourine Man, only on this one there’s no vocal and it’s 13 minutes long.

I heard a lot of vinyl pops while searching.

The first cover I liked enough to pay for was one of those impulse buys I’ll likely regret later. Sheena and the Rokkets is a classic bad-singer-in-front-of-reasonable-band outfit, with the added bonus that they are Japanese and Sheena has a tough time with a lot of English words. Words like, for instance, “Ruby”.

I came across a Scorpions cover that has its moments, and fits the definition of a “good cover” — there’s no doubt the Scorpions are performing, they do it their way, but they maintain the essence of the original that motivated the cover in the first place.

Momentum improved. I came across Don and Dolly as described above, and surprisingly, Twiggy, closer to the original but nicely done. Then the inevitable lounge versions started coming in, vapid and vacant. A modern-punk song called Jack Ruby Tuesday came up, and I simply could not tell if it was a cover or not, since I couldn’t make out a single word (or note, even) in the solid wall of fuzz.

After downloading the Don and Dolly version, I went back and listened to the whole thing. Ouch! Someone shoot the arranger and get the trumpets the hell out of there. Wow, what a difference between the 30-second preview and the entire song. There are times I really don’t miss the ’70’s.

Lars Brygdén did a reasonable country-ish cover on an album called “Songs I wrote”, which seems deceptive – I hope in the song data it gives proper credit to the actual writer.

Then there’s Melanie. She’s taken more than one crack at this tune, and one of them isn’t bad. Toward the bottom of the search list is the album “Pan Pipes Play Rod Stewart” in which we have the inevitable Peruvian interpretation, and the Young@Heart Chorus wheeze out a version in which the lead singer sounds like she has loose dentures. (Yes, that is mean to say, but it’s also true.)

No Hip-Hop. No Riot Grrl. A few that were labeled ‘alternative’ but really weren’t — this seems like excellent emo/shoegazer material, but none was represented. I despaired of finding a punk cover until Thee S.T.P. cranked out a definitive version that is two minutes of pure fun. We have a winner!

Ultimately, I have to conclude that maybe this is a tough song to cover, despite its surface simplicity (or because of it?). Bands with more instruments and voices seemed to do better, along with bands who are able to turn their amps up (and then turn them back down).


Genius Loves Beatles

My fruit-flavored music-playing device has a not-quite-as-intuitive-as-it-should-be feature called “genius”. The theory is simple. When you’re listening to a song you like, you touch a little fifties-era atom symbol and the machine will find twenty-four more songs that the genius inside believes are similar, so you can keep the mood going.

My first attempts with the genuis mix button were frustrating. I had the FFMPD set to play random music while I worked out. A song came on that helped fuel a second wind, so I hit the genius button. It glowed under my finger and returned to normal when I released my touch. The song ended and another came on, not dissimilar. But I couldn’t tell – was it geniusing? Another song came on, also similar, and I concluded that there was a decent chance that my music player was indeed genuising, but there was nothing in the interface presented to me to indicate that fact.

Then the player went from Blink 182 to a Beatles song. “Elanor Rigby”, if memory serves. Nope, I concluded, my music player was NOT geniusing; there’s nothing that song had in common with the one I had asked it to base the list on.

I went back to a particularly racous, up-tempo tune that had gone by (unsteady hands poking at the screen as I chugged along), and tried the Genuis button again. Three songs later I was treated to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Don’t get me wrong, I really like that song. Good for listening to in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of the stereo while sipping whiskey and wondering what the point of it all is, on those nights of doubt where inertia is your only guide. Not so good for working out, though.

“Fine,” I thougt, poking at the screen. “I’ll go through the interface and choose a particular song, while not on random play, and see if it geniuses for me.” Stabbing at an iPad while working on an elliptical trainer is not ideal; if you move your finger while touching the surface the machine assumes you mean to drag something. Which under any other circumstance is correct. I jabbed and poked until I came upon a tune (if I recall correctly, which honestly isn’t that likely) by Mudhoney, and pushed the little atom. “Not enough information to make a genius list,” I was told. Same story with Drill (whose eponymous and only album I once picked up used and remains one of my faves of all time). Maybe I should have started with L7.

My workout ended before I got a satisfactory answer to the genius problem.

Of course, I could have fiddled with the device while not working out, and possibly have found the answer sooner, but that’s not how I roll. After a little frustration at the start of the next workout I decided to turn to a playlist I’d already defined. There right next to it, was a Genius list based on “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” by Nirvana. “Sweet,” thought I, the genuis button had worked after all. I fired up that mix and started my toil.

And… after a few tunes had been pumped into my ears, a Beatles song came on. It was “Come Together,” which, yeah, I can see working with Nirvana. Nice work, Genius! I wouldn’t have gone looking for that one. A little Queens of the Stone Age, then Black Sabbath, followed by “Blackbird” by the Beatles.

What the hell? That is nothing like Nirvana.

I viewed the songs in the genius-created playlist. Three were by the Beatles. Out of curiosity, I geniused the Ravonettes. Three Beatles songs. Green Day? Three Beatles songs. I tried some other bands, sticking to what I thought the mainstream might be. Three Beatles songs each time. When I genuised ‘Holiday in the Sun” by the Sex Pistols, there were only two Beatles songs.

So it turns out the genius feature was working all along. It just wasn’t telling me it was, and it has a boner for the Beatles. It should be noted here that the Genius ex Machina has more than 10,000 tunes to choose from.* I promise you that fewer than 10% of those are by the Beatles.

The question, of course is, “Is this a conspiracy? Does the Genius get a kickback on Beatles albums sold?” Or are Beatles tunes the automatic fallback filler when the database that guides the genius is confronted with too much unknown?

You know where this is going, of course. I’m going to be hitting the genius button a lot, looking for The Tune That Has No Beatles Matches. I’ll keep you posted.

* I miss the unlimited legal downloads back when eMusic was young, which was when they hadn’t cut deals with major record labels yet. That might be part of the problem; my library is skewed strongly toward indie labels and obscure bands that I discovered by spending an afternoon sampling the used CD bins at Wherehouse. I contend that the only difference between a popular band and an obscure one is the marketing budget.

That is how I found Drill, sitting on a stool, headphones on, operating a CD player in a suburban music store. I had a system. I’d listen to the first track, and if it seemed to be going well, I’d skip to maybe the third or fourth. Also good? Sweet. Vocal power is absolutely required to get past this stage. Skip forward in the song. Does anything change through the song? Good musicians know how to find strength in softness as well as noise. The final test: skip around through several songs. If there’s not variety, then that sound they do every time better be awesome.

My original copy of Drill was badly damaged when I loaned it to a friend, and it took a couple of years on the waiting list at for me to find a replacement. Should I become president, I will track down the members of that band and have them play at my inauguration.

How many other Drills are out there? The chances of me stumbling on that band were remote, which suggests that there are many more waiting for me to discover them.

But the point of this giant footnote is that the genius don’t know Drill. Can we teach the genius? Broaden its horizons past RIAA-sanctioned muzic? I aim to find out.