Remembering and Rating Pop Culture

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I began keeping a reading log back in 1983 where I record every book I finish reading. I wished I had started this log in the third grade when my mother read me Treasure Island. That was 1960, I was eight, and the first book I remember. The first book I read myself, was Down Periscope, but in an abridged version for kids. That was probably 1961. I figured I finished over a thousand books that I don’t remember between 1961 and 1983.

As you might guess, I’m hung-up on memory. Just remember, this blog is called Auxiliary Memory. My memory has never been great, and now it’s in obvious decline. My reading log has proved valuable on countless occasions and in many ways. Over the years I’ve often regretted not maintaining a movie log.

Recently I began a Pop Culture Log, where I record the short stories, essays, albums, TV shows, movies that I finish each day. In the sixties we had a phrase, you are what you eat. Well, I believe we are the pop culture we consume.

I keep my new pop culture log on a Google spreadsheet online. I now wish I had logged every pop culture work I consumed in my lifetime. Recording all my brain food takes a bit of effort, but is revealing. More and more when I tell my friends about shows or stories I enjoyed I can’t recall their titles. That’s very frustrating.

Aging and struggling with memory reveal details about my identity in those logs. In Westworld season 2 they show different approaches to creating artificial immortality. One method involves teaching an android all the memories and habits of a person until the android can’t be distinguished from the real person. Who we are, often comes from our attitudes towards the pop culture we’ve experienced in our lifetime. On Facebook, I see more and more groups formed around pop culture memories with tens of thousands of baby boomers participating in each. My identity can be partially defined by those groups I joined. (That’s why Facebook is so powerful to advertisers and political pollsters.)

Here’s a snippet of the last couple days. If I tried to record them from memory the day after tomorrow all of them would have been forgotten except maybe The Admirable Crichton. That’s the work that’s given me the most pleasure this week, but it would only take another couple days and I’d forget it too.

Pop Culture Log

 

I’ve tried to devise the most useful columns. I added a link column, something I don’t have on my reading log of books. That gives me actual details about the work, and is very educational, often expanding my reaction to the work.  Just collecting the entries for the spreadsheet helps me remember more.

My friend Janis recently gave me a box of vinyl LPs she had stored away at her father’s house for decades, mostly from the 1970s and early 1980s. I’ve been playing a couple each day. As you can see, I’ve rated them all three stars. But I wonder what I would have rated them back when they were new. Most stuff from decades ago seems kind of mediocre and blah, but I bet some of those albums sparkled when they first appeared. I know I liked some of them much better then than I do now.  I’ve decided to rate my current reaction rather than trying to discern absolute artistic quality, it’s context in history or its lasting value. The links do that. It would have been enlightening to see how my ratings changed over time.

Rating Systems

There’s all kind of rating systems. The classic school grade (A+ through F). The test score (0 – 100). The 10 scale (0 – 10). Various 3-star, 4-star, and 5-star ratings. I liked what Rocket Stack Rank uses, a 5-star system that’s less judgmental and more practical. I’ve amended their system for my use:

  • 1-star (*) – Technical flaws that annoy. Can’t finish.
  • 2-star (**) – Storytelling flaws ruin the flow. Can’t finish.
  • 3-star (***) – Average. Good. Competent. Even well done. Once is enough.
  • 4-star (****) – Will recommend to friends. Would reread/rewatch. Hope to remember probably won’t.
  • 5-star (*****) – Should win awards, be remembered, and become a classic. Would buy to have permanently. Would want to study and remember.

This system avoids judging art by objective criteria. A graph counting all the ratings should show 80% falling into the 3-star rating, 18% for 2-star or 4-star, and 2% for 1-star and 5-star. Because I only record what I finish, I shouldn’t be listing 1-star and 2-star titles.

The Admirable Crichton - 1957

Of the works rated above only the English film The Admirable Crichton (Paradise Lagoon in the U.S.) based on the J. M. Barrie play (he also wrote Peter Pan) is rated 4-stars. I gave it 4-stars because it’s one I’d recommend to my friends. It was so much fun that I’ve ordered two other film editions of the story, one a silent, Male and Female (1919) that stars Gloria Swanson directed by Cecille B. DeMille, and 1934 pre-Code screwball comedy starring Bing Crosby, We’re Not Dressing.

Rating a work is hard. Janis, who is also my TV watching buddy, and I, both greatly enjoy Glow, a show about lady wrestlers in the 1980s. It gets good reviews, and I know other people who like it too. However, the quality of streaming TV is so great compared to the older broadcast TV that it’s hard to say when a show is worthy of 4-stars. I would definitely say Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselThe Crown, Downton Abbey are 5-star shows. And I would say Anne with an E, Humans, FargoWestworld, The Duece are 4-star shows. But really good shows like Glow and Killing Eve aren’t in their class. A 3-star rating includes a lot of very entertaining shows because there’s really a great number of entertaining well-made shows. 3-stars doesn’t mean something isn’t very good. Well-made entertainment is very common today.

My concern is more about memory than artistic judgment. I want just enough information in my logs to trigger hidden memories. I’ve never been sure if bad memory is due to lost memories or poor memory retrieval. If I had kept logs of all the artistic works I consumed in my lifetime it would help me remember, but also it would also describe who I was, something I’m still learning myself.

JWH

 

 

 

 

Poor Man’s Time Machine

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 12, 2018

Some days you just want to live in another era. Statistically, we live in the best of times. If you’ve read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, you should feel safer about war, crime, and violence. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress promises to make us feel better about everything. Bill Gates is calling it his all-time favorite book. Yet, 2017 was a very depressing year for me because of Donald Trump. 2018 should be even more depressing because there’s no sign that Trump will be impeached or quit.

time-machine-steampunk-clock

Whenever I watch the NBC Nightly News it makes me wish I had a time machine. Sadly, I can’t afford one. When I read Global Citizen I feel like I should be doing something to help the world because that site shows how people can make a big difference. But to be honest, I’m old, set in my ways, and don’t want to get out in the world anymore. When I look at Congress I see a rabid pack of old white guys snarling and snapping at each other to shape America with their narrowminded beliefs. It’s time for women, youth, and diversity to take the reins.

I don’t think the world needs input from another old white dude, so I’m retreating from the rat race by reading books. What’s hilarious, those books are mostly by old dead white guys. Maybe it’s like the old Tarzan movies, and we’re like a dying elephant knowing where to go to our secret graveyard.

I’ve been time traveling back to the late 16th-century by listening to The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame. When Montaigne was still in his thirties he retired by retreating to a tower in his castle, bringing a desk, chair, and a thousand books. There Montaigne contemplated reality by comparing his personal experiences to what he read. Along the way, he invented the personal essay, which is why I consider Montaigne the Patron Saint of Bloggers.

Montaigne remains essential reading for jaded bookworms because he explains the usefulness of all those dead white writers of history, the ones remembered in The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Listening to Montaigne makes me understand why 19th-century intellectuals were so big on classical studies. By the way, if you have a detailed scholarly bent, love annotations, and notes on textual variations, you might prefer the M. A. Screech translation. Listening to the Frame translation makes me feel like Montaigne is talking at me. It’s very smooth.

And I highly recommend you listen to Montaigne on audio because he’s a rambler, and rambles on for over a thousand pages. But, if you prefer to hold a book in your hands, I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works, also translated by Frame. It’s easier to hold and has a nifty ribbon bookmark. However, you’re still holding a 1,336-page book. Because there’s no ebook edition with a Frame translation, I’d recommending getting older Cotton/Hazlitt translation from the public domain for your carry around everywhere on your phone edition. Amazon has many 99 cent Kindle editions, but I picked this edition because the text reformats nicely on my phone.

(By the way, I got turned onto Montaigne from reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.)

When I’m not back in the 16th-century I spend a lot of time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, either by watching old television shows and movies, or reading old books, or listening to old music. Recently I’ve been listening to a playlist of music from the 1920s and 1930s created from ten volumes in a series called The Big Broadcast.

I’m still having big fun reading through The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. These stories were from the great science fiction pulp magazines. It almost feels like I’m living in 1940 when I read the stories and play music from that year, especially when I get so deep into a tale that I forget it’s 2018, and a maniac runs the country.

I’ve fantasized about redecorating my living room so it only contains furniture and objects that could have existed before WWII. We bought the house my wife grew up in after her parents died, and left the living room unchanged with the old furniture, lamps, and pictures on the wall. I imagine smoking a pipe wearing a smoking jacket while sitting in one of the blue chairs reading a July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories.

Susan did add an antique floor standing radio she bought at an estate sale. We gutted the old equipment from it that didn’t work, but left the knobs and the frequency scale. I could build a computer to hide inside it that played pre-war radio shows and music. I could put mint copies of old books, slick and pulp magazines on the coffee table. Then play Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong while reading and imagine I’m back in the past.

I’d have to concentrate hard not to remember Donald Trump. Actually living in the 1930s would be horrible compared to today. I’m just nostalgic for its pop culture, well some of it. For example, I’d have to make sure I played “All of Me” instead of “Strange Fruit” when listening to Billie Holiday.

Sadly, there is no utopia to escape to. Steven Pinker is right, now is the best of time for humanity. The future is unknown. I hope trends continue and things continue to get better. But as long as Donald Trump is in the news I just can’t imagine it.

JWH

This Song is My Heroin

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 26, 2018

I’ll tell myself, “Just one more time,” when I hit the << button to re-play “Maggot Brain” by Lili Haydn. It’s already the sixth time. I know full well it might be another six times before I’ll actually start feeling like stopping. That’s close to the one hour mark. Sometimes the song paralyzes me for a couple hours. I haven’t been able to enjoy another song for weeks now.

Here are two versions you can listen to but they won’t sound the same as I hear them. I play this song while reclined in my La-Z-Boy in the middle of four tall floor standing Infinity speakers playing it at a volume that makes the vibrating air feel solid to the touch.

This is a live performance where you can watch Lili’s facial expressions. I wish I could feel what she feels. Is it the same as what I feel? If I could play this song maybe I could know, but that will never happen. I can’t even remember the melody.

I usually play her CD Place Between Places to hear her version of “Maggot Brain” in its highest fidelity. Sadly, this CD is out-of-print. I wish I had an SACD version to hear even more sampled bits. Here’s how the album version sounds from Spotify in case you’re a subscriber.

I don’t even know what her other songs and albums sound like. I can’t stop playing Haydn’s version of “Maggot Brain.”

I wish I could express in words what this song does to my mind. One of the best things about drugs was listening to music while high. I gave up drugs decades ago. But listening to Lily Haydn play “Maggot Brain” over and over again has a drug like intensity. Her high is emotional, philosophical, sad, wistful, aching, transcendental, longing, regretful, spiritual, thankful, and so many more existential settings.

What’s funny is I play this song for my friends and they don’t like it. Some even hate it. My wife tolerates me getting high on it for a few repetitions but eventually, it starts makes her want to run away. Only my friend Mike loves this song too. However, I don’t think he plays it over and over again like I do.

Ever since I got into music I’ve saught the songs that make me want to repeat them endlessly. It was a burden in the old days when I had to jump up every few minutes to reposition the tone arm on the record. CDs with remotes were a godsend for my habit. When I find a song I love I repeat it like one of those rats with a button that directly stimulated its own brain. I think some rats pushed their button till they died. I keep re-playing songs until the high wears off. I assume it depletes some kind of chemical in my brain.

The reason I can’t allow myself to do real drugs anymore is that I can’t make myself stop. I guess listening to music is my methadone or nicotine patch.

Peoples emotional levels very greatly. I’ve always been a rather reserved person emotional. I don’t get very excited or depressed. When I see people going nuts over a football game I wonder what the hell are they feeling. I never jump up and down and shout for anything. My guess is some pieces of music make me feel an intense joy that comes to other people in so many different ways.

And what’s weird is I’m not even sure I hear music in the same way other people do. I can’t remember melody or lyrics to a song no matter how many times I hear it. When “Maggot Brain” isn’t playing I have no memory of it other than a kind of withdrawal feeling.

When I was young I used to think everyone experienced the world the same. Over the years I’ve slowly realized that’s completely untrue. I now assume any taxonomy of mental states would be as varied as all the forms of mammals.

All I can say is I’m immensely grateful for this song and how it makes me feel.

Lili Haydn violinist

JWH

Christmas 2017 – Still Stuck in the 1960s

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 25, 2017

Much can be revealed about myself from examining my Christmas presents this year.

  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – Blu-ray
  • Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) – 2-CD 50th Anniversary edition
  • The Complete Monterey Pop (1967) – 3-disc Blu-ray edition
  • Trouble No More by Bob Dylan – live recordings 1979-1981

I already own various versions of these works. This is the fourth time I’ve acquired Sgt. Peppers (LP, CD, remastered CD, and now remastered again 2-CD).

beatles-sgt-pepper-50th-anniversary-2xcd_01

I wish I could say my wife knew me well enough to have picked these out, but they were all put on my Xmas-2017 wishlist at Amazon by me. Susan actually knows what I like, she just can’t keep up with what I buy. All the other items on my wishlist, except the Arduino starter kit, were pop culture items from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Is being stuck in the past a sad state of psychology, or just normal for a 66-year-old guy? One reason why I keep rebuying the past is to get higher resolution recreations of art  I resonated with from my teen years. I generally never got to experience the Sixties directly except for a few exceptions. For example, I got to see Cream live on their Farewell Tour in 1968 in Miami. I never got to see The Beatles, The Byrds, or The Beach Boys in the 1960s. I didn’t attend Monterey Pop or Woodstock. I got to see a lot of legendary bands in the 1970s and later, even ones who got their start in the 1960s, but that’s not the same.

Until I started getting Rolling Stone Magazine in 1968, most of my news of rock and roll pop culture was highly delayed. It was mostly gossip told by DJs or news items in Life, Time, or on television. The Beatles were always in the news. Most of my favorite bands didn’t make it to television except for cheesy fake performances on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971), American Bandstand (1952-1989), Shindig! (1964-1966), Hullabaloo (1965-66), The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (1967-1969). I remember one time catching a great segment on Jefferson Airplane on the Today Show, where they demonstrated the liquid light show. Made me want to run away to San Francisco.

In a way, buying these old recordings is like trying to return to the past. I know that’s impossible. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to say I admire artwork from a particular era. That too is revealing. I feel closest to all forms of pop culture from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. I also love work from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and stuff from the 1980s through today, but there’s a powerful affinity for art created for us Baby Boomers. I’m in-sync with modern television and movies but completely out-of-sync with the contemporary music scene. (Maybe I’ll catch up one day before I die.)

It’s interesting that one of my Christmas gifts is from the 1979-1981 era when Bob Dylan was going through his Christian phase. Back then I bought Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981) as they came out. I even saw Dylan live during this time period. But I didn’t feel for this era Dylan like I did for 1964-66 Dylan or 1961-1963 Dylan. Listening to this new bootleg series of 1979-1981 performances I realized I had missed out on something great. Dylan had left me behind, and now I’m catching up.

Am I really hearing the 1960s again? This time when I played the new version of Sgt. Peppers it was both the same and subtly different. In 1967 when I first heard the album, I played the LP on my little console stereo. That technology defined the sound for back then. Today I played it on a Denon AV receiver through four floor standing Infinity speakers. The sound filled the room and Susan and I felt like we were in the middle of the soundstage.

I’ve always admired Sgt. Peppers as a concept album, and loved many of its songs, but I’ve never played them heavily in repeat fashion like I do all my favorite tunes. Sgt. Peppers feels like a music hall performance that needs to be listened to from start to finish. It never sounded better than it did today. This remastered edition felt airier than the last remastered edition, and I thought in a few places I heard things that weren’t there before. Of course, that’s probably tricks of memory. I rediscovered once again what a wonderful work of art this album represents for The Beatles and the 1960s. Just buying Sgt. Peppers again and taking the time to listen to it intently with no interruptions makes it worth the dollars.

Merry Christmas! What did Santa bring Y’all?

JWH

How Could I Miss “Maggot Brain” for 46 Years?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 14, 2017

This morning my friends Mike and Betsy came by and Mike had me play “Maggot Brain” from Funkadelic’s 1971 album of the same name. The song is mainly a beautiful guitar solo by Eddie Hazel that covers most of its 10 minutes and 20 seconds. I was blown away. How could I have missed such a fantastic song for 46 years? It was a new discovery for Mike too, and he said he played it and covers versions over and over yesterday. I’m doing the same thing today.

I’ve known about Funkadelic and Parliament since the 1970s, but I was never into them. I should have been. “Maggot Brain” is often covered, and sometimes remembered on lists of top guitar solos, so why didn’t I encounter it before now? That’s one of the fun things about getting old and being retired, I have the time to revisit the past to look for wonders I missed.

I remember going to record stores two or three times a week flipping through the bins of albums and wanting to buy way more than I can afford. Even back then I bought two to four albums a week, but that was nothing to how many came out each week. Now with Spotify, I can go back and search for all those albums I flipped by but couldn’t buy.

Here’s is one of my favorite covers by violinist Lili Haydn where her scorching performance is mirrored by her facial expressions.

Of course, this begs the question: how many other great songs have I missed? Mike has challenged me to find another great song we’ve missed during our lifetime. It’s going to be hard to find something that tops “Maggot Brain.”

If y’all have any suggestions let me know.

Maggot Brain by Funkadelic

JWH

Why We Need To Share

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 7, 2017

This morning while I was eating my breakfast I played “Your Top Songs 2017.” This is a playlist Spotify generated for me by collecting the songs I listened to most this year. If you subscribe to Spotify you can play the songs with this embedded player immediately below. For those who don’t, I’m going to embed some YouTube videos to try.

I played this music very loud while I ate and because it’s the music I love the most. It moves me in ways I can’t describe. And while this music pushed my emotional buttons I wished I had someone here to share it with. My friend Mike was my last pal who would listen to music with me, but his hearing has gone downhill so he no longer likes to share music. Getting old is sad. I worry that my hearing is going too.

The past year, more than ever, I realized that friendships are based on what we share. I think this is why Facebook is so popular. We post something we like and then see who else likes it. It’s always fun to find a video or cartoon that many friends love too. I guess it’s a kind of validation of our tastes. But I think it also allows us to feel we’re existing close to someone.

We all live in our heads, and no matter how physically close we get to another person we don’t feel that closeness unless we psychologically resonate. The easiest way to achieve this is to do something together with another person that shares our interests. For example, it’s far more enjoyable to go to a movie and both people love it than to go and only one person love the show.

I love the Bette Midler song above. I will relate to you more if you love it too. Now “Do You Want To Dance” is an easy song to like so I should find plenty of friends to share it. And “The Other Side” by Michael Nyman easily admired by most folks because it’s so pretty. But what about “Moanin'” by Charles Mingus. Mike and I connected on this song, but I don’t think I have another friend that shares this particular love.

Probably somewhere in the middle, I can find more people who will share “I’ll Play the Blues for You (Pts. 1 & 2)” by Albert King. Bette Midler’s song was pop music, so duh, that stands for popular music. Jazz is esoteric for most music fans, but blues has a decent following. I share a love of the blues with my sister Becky. I almost can’t play this Albert King song too loud.

Susan, my wife have a lot of songs we love together, but our playlists of favorite songs are very different. When we’re in the car we have to choose who’s songs get played. When a song she’s crazy about comes on and I don’t love it back Susan’s disappointed. The same is true when one of my favorites is playing and she finds it annoying.

Susan works out of town, so in the evenings I have different friends over to watch TV in the evening. Each friendship is a Venn diagram where we find what to watch in the intersection of interests. What’s really difficult is to have 3-4 people all trying to agree on a film to watch. It’s a very satisfying feeling when the pick makes four people happy.

However, there’s a range of television shows and movies I want to see that I can’t find a friend to share. This makes me feel lonelier. Even Janis, my main TV buddy goes to sleep on a many of the shows I’m most anxious to see. Generally, I have to watch westerns, documentaries, and old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s by myself.

Some of my most intense feelings come from songs, books, movies, and television shows. Often these deeply aesthetic pleasures come late at night when I’m alone. Listening to these songs this morning is generating intense emotions that I wish I could describe, but can’t. And I think that’s the key to why we want to share. We can’t describe what we feel so we at least hope to find someone to experience the same thing with us. Unfortunately, we can click the Like icon but we have no way of knowing if what our friends are feeling is the same thing we’re feeling.

Do any of these songs resonate with you?

JWH

Best Music of the 1950s

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 22, 2017

If you use a subscription music service like Spotify you have access to tens of millions of songs, but there’s a Catch-22 to that wealth of music. You need to know what to try. I have tracked down a number of sites that use different methodologies to recognize the best music from each year, and below is a grid for the 1950s.

1950s-600px

To use this table effectively, pick a year, right-click on it, select “Open in new window.” That way you won’t lose this page, and you can have multiple windows open to compare each site. Those sites have their own methods of ranking the top album and songs for each year. Each site has different extras and unique values. For example, Discogs is best for record collectors. I like Best Albums for just finding albums to try. Tsort is great for its massive collection of hit music charts.

If you have a subscription music service start playing some of these albums. It’s like traveling back in time. When I was young, 1950s music was my parent’s music, the music I rebelled against. Now that I’ve gotten older, I’m starting to like what they liked, and like well beyond their limited musical tastes.

If you don’t have a subscription music service, click on Play Now which will take you to the Tropical Glen site. It’s a radio station based on years.

Discogs 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Best Albums 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Top Songs 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Challenges 50 51 52 53
Rate Music 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Play Now 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Tsort 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59
Wikipedia 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59

This is the second version of this post. I worked on it for days and the WordPress system swallowed it without a burp. I’ve done a quick recreation without all my extra commentary. I’m going to publish it out in stages because I fear losing it again.

For those of your with Spotify, here are some albums I’ve been trying. Leave a comment about whether or not you can play them. I’ve yet to determine if providing these links are worthwhile. It takes a fair amount of work to create them, but if no one is using them I’ll stop providing them when I write about music.

1950

1951

1952

1953

1954

1955

1956

1957

1958

1959

JWH