Sunday, 26 January 2014

Lennon vs McCartney: Why I Prefer Paul

Because I can be a little obsessive at times, periodically I like to go through my iTunes collection and listen to all of my music in order, from A to Z. For individual artists, I try and listen to their discography in chronological order, because I like to believe I can tease out some progression from earliest albums to latest.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I spent yesterday listening to a lot of Beatles albums, and was reminded of an idea I've long had, but rarely vocalized: Paul McCartney was a much more important member of the band than John Lennon.

In the UK in particular it seems to be fashionable to make fun of Sir Paul, possibly because he's seen as more slight (musically) than John Lennon. There's also the troublesome question of his post-Beatles output - while John was writing songs like "Imagine", Paul was coming up with stuff like "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey". Not that I have anything against songs like "Band on the Run" or "Live and Let Die", though.

But if you take the Beatles' body of work, I think he deserves a lot more credit than people seem to give him. The only greatest hits album I have by the Beatles is 1, the compilation of all their Number 1 singles in the US and the UK - the majority of the songs are Paul's, which suggests that he had a better ear for a winning pop tune. And it's generally accepted that as time went on, Paul became the leader, or at least the one cracking the whip and getting the others into the studio.

The other thing I was noticing yesterday was that John's lyrics, particularly toward the end of the Beatles' career, weren't particularly good - having read obsessively (there's that word again) about where the ideas for the band's songs came from, it's pretty clear he seems to have spent his time dashing off lyrics based on what he read in the newspaper. Listening to a lot of his songs on, for example, the White Album, there's a lot of deep-sounding lyrics that on closer inspection are actually pretty silly. At least Oasis was up-front about writing lyrics that didn't make sense.

I think the reason people so revere John Lennon - apart from the fact that he died too young - is that we're so much more attracted to the figure of the tortured artist. John Lennon clearly didn't give a fuck by the end of the Beatles, which is probably tied in with all the attention-grabbing stuff he and Yoko Ono would do, and that's what people respond to, despite the fact that (I think) Paul wrote better songs. Not only that, but the more avant-garde stuff - tape experiments and what-have-you - came from Paul rather than John (presumably because John was more taken with his various gurus and conceptual artists).

But more crucial, and what people seem eager to forget, is that the reason both Paul and John are so famous now is because they worked so well together. A lot of Lennon's most famous songs are heavily influenced by McCartney, and vice versa. But ignoring the partnership fits in with this slavish devotion to the tortured artist archetype - the artist labors, alone and unappreciated, in his garret and descends from time to time to show off his genius. The picture fractures a little when you consider that the artist was working with some other guy who's just as talented, and they bring out the best in each other.

I suppose the above may seem deeply scathing toward John Lennon, and I don't really mean to be. "Nowhere Man" is a great song, as is "Norwegian Wood" and a million other great ones John wrote and sang. But I feel like a lot of people dismiss Paul's contribution to the band without really thinking about how a lot of what we think of as archetypal Beatles music came from him. Certainly without him, the band would probably have broken up earlier, and more messily.

So let's hear it for Paul - poppy and bubble-gummy he may be, but those of us unlucky enough to have missed the 60s owe him some gratitude for having provided a great template of what music was like then.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Dude, Where's My Bookstore?

You know what's been a shock since moving back to the Bay Area from London? The lack of bookshops.

I can't say I didn't see it coming, of course - over the last few years, I've been watching with increasing trepidation as more and more bookshops closed around here. It's not a complete desert, but with all the closures and moves to less expensive environs, Palo Alto now has one used bookshop and one new bookshop within its borders (and then there's the university bookstore at Stanford). If I want to go to a nice, big, well-stocked national chain, I have to drive all the way out to Redwood City, or to San Francisco.

There are, of course, independent bookstores around here, and I'm happy about that - Kepler's in Menlo Park is good for setting up author events (or just passing on the news about them happening elsewhere), while I'm lucky enough to work in an office just a block up from Books Inc in Mountain View.

But indies can't really scratch my itch for an enormous repository of books, like we used to have when Borders occupied the old movie theater on University Avenue. Or like I had access to in London - throughout my time there, whether I lived in East London or West London, I was always a short tube ride from Foyles on Charing Cross Road or Big Waterstones on Piccadilly. And there were smaller versions of these stores elsewhere in the city.

I'm trying to put my finger on why this is, but can't really point to one single cause. Sure, the move toward buying on Amazon (and e-books in general) has hurt the physical bookstores a lot - Amazon is probably directly responsible for killing our beloved neighborhood bookstore, Printer's Inc, back in the 90s. The fact that Americans aren't big readers can't have helped either - but coming from Palo Alto, I really have to ask how a university town can exist without a decent array of bookshops.

I suspect the weird, techno-libertarian gentrification of my hometown also has something to do with it, incidentally. I don't have a clear idea of why Know Knew Books, a used bookstore, decamped to Los Altos before I moved back, but I assume it's something to do with the increasingly extortionate rents that landlords have been charging - not every empty shopfront is turning into a tech startup, but a lot of them are turning into things that cater to tech startups - or they put the rent up too high for any shops to stay there, and end up standing empty for years on end (this happened to our beloved Caffe Verona in the 90s, and it stayed empty for most of the 00s, because they couldn't find anyone who could afford to take over the spot).

Admittedly, I'm not sure how to stop this slide into shittiness - the only thing I can think of is buying up as much real estate in Palo Alto to keep it from falling into the hands of people like Marissa Mayer or Larry Page, but I think I need to save up a few more pennies before I can start doing that. But it'd be nice if Palo Altans could mobilize as a group and actually have a conversation about what kind of community we'd like to be - while we're still a community.

Friday, 10 January 2014

What Happens in Vegas Happens Everywhere Else, Too

I've spent the past week in Las Vegas for work, and ever since I touched down I've been trying to make sense of the city. Naturally the experience has been a little skewed by all the tech people running around the city, and the fact that most of the hotels I ventured into were catering to the tech show to a greater or lesser extent. But it was still pretty revealing, for what it says about what America wants in terms of entertainment.

This was my first visit to Vegas, which seemed to surprise a lot of people I talked to. My conceptions of the place have typically revolved around James Bond movies and gangster movies, although I'm aware that there's a different side to the city for the people that live there (for instance, I really liked that the original CSI was set there, instead of LA). But the city's status as "Sin City" also loomed large in my mind as I got there - Las Vegas has been promoting itself lately as the city where you go to misbehave, helped by movies like "The Hangover".

So I was a little disappointed to see how middle-of-the-road and Disneyfied a lot of it is. Most of the music on offer - whether live performances or piped into the casinos - hails from the last couple of decades, and I recognized almost all of it. The rest of it seemed to be weird light entertainment of the sort that you'd associate with Las Vegas and nowhere else.

The other thing about it was how it's turning into a high-end shopping destination: I heard two separate conversations on the same day about how people aren't coming for the attractions anymore (dubious or otherwise). It fits into this trend of filling every large American city center with the same luxury stores, and effectively cutting out people of more modest means. Just as in Times Square, Gucci and Prada shops may have crowded out the adult theaters and strip clubs, but it's also turned the Strip into something you could see pretty much anywhere else in the US.

Speaking of strip clubs, even that aspect of Las Vegas has been sanitized and turned into something "respectable". Before flying out I read an article in Time Online that said Las Vegas has finally realized that women exist for more than the pleasure of men; that may be true to some extent (and about time), but the strip clubs have turned into burlesque shows, because it's now considered empowering for women to get lap dances from (female) strippers. And the legit, gross strip clubs have just moved one block over, to the street behind the Strip.

I'm not saying Las Vegas should go whole hog and turn into Patong, in Thailand ("the most wretched hive of scum and villainy", as my friend Kyle once put it). But I did kind of regret that I didn't go visit the place back in college, before it got turned into Manhattan.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Giving Yourself a Break

Given that it's New Year's Day today, and that I've recently made the big move out of London and back to the Bay Area, where I grew up, I've been thinking lately about the year that's just gone, and what to expect from the year to come.

2013 was a great year for me – in some areas, it was my best year ever. My work life, in particular, went very well: I was promoted; my blogs and comment pieces got a lot of attention from the media, which got me quoted by various big news sources and resulted in me appearing on TV four times; and of course, I managed to get transferred over to the US.

I feel a little less accomplished in some other areas, though. I was a little less active in dating last year, although that's understandable, since I spent the entire year preparing for this move.

In terms of writing, I think I spun my wheels a bit when revising short stories, but on the other hand, I had some amazing bursts of productivity on my novel, and was able to start on my first new short story in three years. And as I've already mentioned, I spent a lot of time actually going out and meeting writers. Oh, uh, and I got published.

So the worry is, to some extent, whether 2014 will be as good as 2013 was. I think in some ways this is a holdover from my more difficult days of 2006-2008. At the time, I'd imposed a structure on the previous few years, in which my only "good" years were the even ones. This kind of fell apart when I realized all the ways in which 2008 was a really shitty year for me, but more importantly, from 2009 onwards, I started taking more responsibility for my health, my happiness and what I was doing at work or in my personal life.

Work, in fact, is where I can see the clearest progression. I didn't exactly start off amazingly in 2006, when I first moved back to London, but my work took a dip for a couple of years after that, and when I got made redundant from that job, five years later, it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me. I found myself in a new environment, where I had to work hard to catch up to my colleagues' level, and pretty soon realized it was all going pretty well. If nothing else, hearing "Well done" whenever I'd turn in a piece of written work helped a whole lot.

The conclusion I've come to, then, is that 2014 doesn't have to be amazing in the same ways as 2013 was. I think it's unlikely that I'll get promoted again so quickly, and appearing on TV will be difficult to pull off (though not impossible, since Bloomberg broadcasts a tech show from San Francisco). But I think the best thing for me to do is concentrate on the core competencies of my job, ie writing, and let everything else come in its own time.

The other conclusion is that I can probably excel in other areas of my life. While it's out of my hands whether I can get another story published, I can improve my chances by writing more stories, revising my existing ones, and being more proactive about submitting them. As for fitness, I think it's reasonable to expect that I can run another pair of half-marathons and finish at least one of them in under two hours, while improving my diet and general fitness level.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that whether a year is good or not depends on more than just one factor; it's an idea that I know I've had a lot of difficulty internalizing. Our culture is geared toward ever more, ever faster and ever better, which is probably an outgrowth of capitalist society in general, and of the rise of publicly traded corporations in particular.

We set certain metrics for ourselves to determine how successful we are – for many people this is money earned, but for me another is how successful I am with dating – and we tend to ignore successes in other areas. I suppose that's because of confirmation bias – if we're geared to think of ourselves as inadequate, we'll only pay attention to the areas in which we are deficient.

Chris Hardwick and his book The Nerdist Way do get mentioned a lot on this blog, but I feel that he makes an excellent point when he says to give yourself a break from time to time. We aren't machines that can constantly spit out perfect performances, however we choose to define them; sometimes things don't work out as expected, for reasons entirely out of our control.

But if we can focus on the things that we can fix, rather than stressing about the things we can't, we'll at least not expend a lot of energy telling ourselves how shitty we are.

So if you're still working on your resolutions for 2014, take a step back and think about whether they're all based around one goal, and try to think of all the good things you've done in other areas of your life so far. It might not be as sexy as getting more money, or buying a new house, or going out with increasingly attractive people, but it might spur you to continue the good work in those other areas.

Happy 2014!