Tag Archives: USA

With a Little Help from My Friends

The recent shameful departure of my country on the Paris Agreement on global climate change is the dominant story in the news and the most pressing issue on my mind, but I just don’t have the energy (and that is not a pun) to restate the same facts about how we humans, and especially me and mine in America, are responsible for rapidly heating up this one habitable planet we have always known, and until the ignorance of greed consumed too many of us, has been a world we loved as well. I love it still, and the billions of humans and wildlife that live upon it, which is why I worry so much. In the interests of not wishing to belabor a point that needs to be repeated, but not so much to my audience who already understands its severity, and for the sake of not wishing to deviate from my original plan for this post, I will not personally cover (at least for this week) the Paris Agreement tackbacksies that my poorly-led nation idiotically enacted, however, my favorite late night host and his team have put together another fantastic segment this time covering just that:

Thank you, John. You make it easier to endure this madness, and though I’ve never met you, I feel like you could be a friend, which is precisely what we all need through hardships and celebrations, and as it happens, it was 50 years ago last week The Beatles taught the world to cherish friends, as well as to embrace the nature of change for the better and the mixing of culture and art in one of the grandest musical contributions of all time.

On May 26,1967 in England, and June 2 in America, the greatest band to ever play music released one the greatest records ever cut. The Beatles were already at the top of the musical world as they had been for a few years thanks to their tremendous popularity with young pop rock and roll fans. Yet the group felt tired of playing music for screaming girls and wanted to make some “serious music”. They stopped touring concerts to ease their exhaustion and focus on their music. Some people were pissed about this, but regardless of those frustrations from fans and the members of the band itself, all were rewarded with a masterpiece set into motion with about 11 seconds of orchestral warm-up and ambient crowd chatter eagerly awaiting a show that strikes out of the theater noise with drums and guitar that instantly grab our attention so that we are all ears when Paul McCartney starts singing in the fabulously fictitious Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Sgt. Pepper’s remains one of the most influential and unique albums of all time for a variety of reasons. It was pioneering, not just for rock and roll and pop music, but for all music, containing an assortment of instruments and musical styles that culminate in one of the most masterfully varied records, but one with a terrific flow, thanks in large part to the first time omission of the few seconds of silent space between songs. On Sgt. Pepper, Beatles producer George Martin was once again the man behind most of the technical effects that lend a certain feel to the album as a whole. The band had been experimenting with new sounds for their last few records, like Rubber Soul and Revolver, records that really allowed The Beatles to rise above the pure pop that many desired them to be. Sgt. Pepper’s was not the first instance of The Beatles breaking away from the mainstream – honestly, I’m not sure they ever were in the mainstream as much as they were paving the way for it – yet the discography of the band truly took off into an unforeseen level of the musical and cultural atmosphere with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles were essentially the first band to walk on the musical Moon. They had been approaching their desired destination with their previous work, but Sgt. Pepper’s was their Apollo program, and led them and many, many others to a new world of musical production.

One fascinating example of this is in the lively album cover that depicts a wealth of celebrities from many walks of life and eras. The Nerdwriter declares it to the “Holy Grail of album covers”, and he is not wrong as the artwork is multi-layered with meaning and references to the essence of the band and its members. He explains this in one of his excellent video essays:

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is revolutionary in many respects, but chief among its merits is the quality of its songs and their arrangement. Rolling Stone considers it to be the best album ever made, and while its influence is undeniable and a major reason for their favoring of it, the great music and lyrics that defined The Beatles better than anything else ever could are exceptional throughout the record.

Starting off with the opening I mentioned earlier, the titular “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” provides a terrific introduction both as a song and the theme of the journey we are about to take. It also provides a bookended finish with a short reprisal of “Sgt. Pepper’s” as the penultimate song of the record. It was Paul McCartney’s idea to make the album’s premise be a concert sang by a fictional band. This fit his and the band’s characteristic whimsy, but also allowed them to push the envelope a little further with the safety of being able to let any controversy fall back upon the fictitious group in place of the real one. Oh that wasn’t us; that was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club.

The title track segues perfectly into what is probably the most popular song on the album, and is certainly one of the band’s best songs. I mean, I did name this post after it. After his alter ego Billy Shears’ introduction at the end of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Ringo Starr begins to sing the classic “With a Little Help from My Friends”. This is one of my favorite songs for its joyful melody, harmonious vocals, and encouraging message that friendship is the key to enjoying life through the good and bad. Despite their differences and the trials each of them were going through at the time, it is clear that The Beatles worked so well, not just on this record, but throughout the years because they were friends. This song is the epitome of that love for one another. It’s all you need after all – wait, that’s the next record.

From the epitome of friendship we roll on to the epitome of psychedelia with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. There are many references to drug use on featured within the album, including an overt one in the previous song, but John Lennon always maintained that this song was based on a drawing his son made of a girl in his class named Lucy. As one radio host on the newly launched Sirius Beatles Channel said, Lennon never shied away from discussing drugs and did write “Cold Turkey” in his post-Beatles career, so even though the nouns in the title begin with the letters LSD, drugs did not inspire this song. However, that does not mean they did not influence this song, which they almost certainly did, although not just in the trippy description of Lucy’s land as the song (an album entire) serves as an allusion to the flower power movement that saw the cultures of East and West blending together like a tie-dye T-shirt. This is certainly apparent on the one song on the album John Lennon and Paul McCartney did not write, George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” which is driven by Harrison’s sitar and other Indian instruments.

The highlight of the album for many is the closing orchestration that is “A Day in the Life”. I say orchestration because Martin and The Beatles brought in an actual orchestral arrangement to play the unnerving transitions between the two wildly distinctive tones of the song. The reason for these drastically different pieces from Lennon and McCartney is simple as they began as two different songs. Lennon needed something to connect his song that was inspired by stories in a newspaper, and McCartney offered a separate song he had been working on and they sandwiched it in and spread the orchestra to make it more cohesive. The final piano note was actual multiple pianos played simultaneously and then stretched out by Martin in the sound mixing booth. The end result is a slightly disturbing note of finality to a slightly disturbing song that perfectly punctuates the album.

The album has a perfect transition from song to song which is all the more impressive given its great variation of styles. This could have been a magnificent failure for a lesser group, but as I’ve said before and will say again, The Beatles are the greatest band of all time and they managed to make a clash of genres and technical trials (Paul McCartney is credited with playing a “comb and tissue paper”) into their defining work… until next year’s release of their best album, but we can talk about that next year. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a massive success from the start and continued to establish The Beatles as the master musicians they were and deserve to be recognized as. I encourage you to listen to this and all their other albums. It’s easy to call The Beatles great, and not hard to recommend such a well loved band, but these guys are in another league. Remember when I said Sgt. Pepper’s was like The Beatles landing on the Moon? Well, their continued career took them across the universe to places other musicians can only dream of. That pun was absolutely intended, but also absolutely true. The Beatles are not my favorite band – anyone who’s read my previous posts knows that honor belongs to another British rock band – but I will defend until my dying breath that they are the best band because they are. No one is more varied, talented, and has such an extensive body of work that is as high quality as The Beatles’ discography. Also, they are my second favorite band, so it’s not like it’s hard for me to admire them, but it helps that they’re really, really good.

Thanks for reading, watching, and listening! Be sure to check out anything you can from The Beatles even if you’ve heard it all before. They certainly are worth listening to more than once. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please send them to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Be sure to revolve back here next week for more hopefully good news or fun topics. Whatever I write about, I promise I’ll throw in a joke or two.

I hope you have enjoyed the show,

Alex

Never Forget Our Heroes

Happy Memorial Day, everyone. This holiday may be the unofficial start of summertime in America that allows us an opportunity to get together with friends and family for burgers and beer, as well as the harsh realization that no, it’s not warm enough to go swimming yet, but while it is good that we can observe this lighthearted enjoyment in the company of loved ones, Memorial Day has a somber reason for its existence. Memorial Day was created to recognize those who lost their lives in America’s military.

While the exact date that Memorial Day was first observed is not easy to pin down, it is apparent that it became nationally prominent in the late 1860s following the American Civil War. Since then, Americans of all ages have paid their respects to their fallen military men and women in a number of ways. Typically parades, visits to cemeteries, and the aforementioned cookout with friends are common occurrences, yet today I am turning my focus to a specific group of aides to the American armed forces who deserve our thanks and are still living, although their lives are in serious danger and we need to help them to survive as they helped our service members to survive.

Since the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq began, there have been translators who have served as the necessary communicative link between soldiers and engineers working for the military and the native people. These translators have helped to save countless lives and now deserve to be returned the favor, however, this is far from the case as you can learn from this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

Translators, even if they were not born or even set foot in the United States, are American heroes and deserve the easy opportunity to become U.S. citizens. We should be fast-tracking these guys and their families on that course of action if they desire it, especially considering the imminent danger most of them are in. It is inexcusable, criminal really, to force them to jump through bureaucratic hoops to realistically attain the goal of citizenship. They deserve to be recognized for their service to America by being welcomed into America. We should be raising a toast of honor to these men and women on Veteran’s Day, not a toast of remembrance on Memorial Day because the United States government did not act as valiantly to serve and save them as they did to serve and save our soldiers and engineers.

The truly frustrating thing is that this episode aired in October of 2014 but things have not vastly improved in the application process. In fact, they have only become harder. Perhaps this is something your local representative should hear about.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions please send them to monotremadness@gmail. com.

Alex

Just Let Me Hear Some of That Rock and Roll Music

All due respect to Elvis Presley, we lost the true King of Rock and Roll this past Saturday, March 18th. Charles Edward Anderson Berry, better known simply as Chuck Berry, graced this Earth for 90 years during which he helped create and refine Rock and Roll music by combining the best the blues, R&B, country, jazz, and swing had to offer and throwing in plenty of his own energy and electric guitar to boot. The primary influence to the first round of rock and rollers the world over, Chuck Berry was a force in the genre throughout his life, even completing another album that he announced the release of on his 90th birthday last October. This album, Chuck, will be released in the near future, but Berry’s already cemented legacy will live on forever as a rock pioneer, guitar god, and crowd pleasing entertainer. We’ll miss you, Chuck.

Berry attributed his success and the peak of the growth of rock and roll to greater radio playtime throughout the country reaching a wider audience. Indeed, Berry had a grand appeal to many whites which helped to connect black and white culture during a time of racial turmoil. He ushered in an era of vibrant new music that was infused with the essence of the genres that came before it and in doing so provided something that everyone of all walks of life could love. He especially found a following in America’s youth, who serve as the subject matter of many of his songs. Young Americans flocked to the fast-paced, guitar and piano-fueled mania of early rock, and Berry and his fellow first generation rock and rollers like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis. Of course it was not just Americans who raved over Berry and his buds as every major act of the British Invasion was heavily influenced by them, with many scoring hits of covers of Berry’s songs. Ever heard of these guys?

It did not stop there either. The years went on, rock and roll evolved and incorporated new sounds and sensations, branching off into styles like psychedelia and birthing other genres like hip-hop, yet artists continued to aspire to follow Chuck Berry’s shining example of how to capture the essence of rock and roll. Just as every test pilot wanted to be Chuck Yeager, every girl and boy with a guitar wanted to be Chuck Berry. The greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix, played some Berry tunes, most notably Berry’s best known hit “Johnny B. Goode”. AC/DC covered “School Days” and called for all of us to Hail Hail Rock and Roll in their own brutal powerchords. George Thorogood and the Destroyers did a rollicking rendition of “It Wasn’t Me”. Softer acts like Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt gave some of Berry’s songs a go, and ELO had a hit with their always inventive style worked into Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” featuring some of the eponymous composer’s own opus. Rod Stewart made his own version of “Memphis, Tennessee” with The Faces. Hell, even Motorhead paid their dues to the man and brought Berry into metal with “Let It Rock”.

Berry’s riffs may have been basic in composition, but the now familiar formula they follow make it so that his music serves as the building blocks of rock and roll music. Furthermore they are easily transferable to any style of music, as you can hear from any of the aforementioned covers (and any of those not mentioned). Nowhere is this better proven though than in the classic scene from Back to the Future (1985) that has been the source of many amusing musings on Berry’s life. Through an enthusiastic Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox (and Mark Campbell who is doing his singing, and Tim May with the guitar) show us the 30 year evolution of rock and roll in three minutes complete with a clever time travel related reference to the man who made all this music possible.

Honestly, he was doing everything Chuck Berry would have done up until he starting leaping and shredding like Eddie Van Halen, but hey, Chuck Berry’s indelible impression is found in that joyous noise from the 1980s too. Through his long and illustrious career, Chuck Berry made a name for himself not only as a great musician, but as a stage presence who demands to be seen as much as heard. He was natural at engaging an audience and entertained all with his humor, honesty, and signature duck walk – the oft copied, never duplicated solo strut that is synonymous with Berry. You can see it and his many other exploits on display in these clips from live performances over the years:

You know you are popular when everybody wants to play alongside of you. Over the years, many who grew up loving Berry were able to share the stage with him at one point or another. Keith Richards got that wish granted much to his excitement considering he has said that Chuck Berry made The Rolling Stones. He was the one who got to induct Berry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986. Chuck Berry was actually the first person to be inducted into the vaunted Rock Hall, and his legacy shows why. He shared the honor of being in the inaugural class with Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmy Yancey, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Robert Johnson, Sam Cooke, talent scout (and not dinosaur park owner) John Hammond, producer Sam Phillips, and disc jockey Alan Freed. That’s quite a class to be at the top of!

The Rock Hall wrote a great biography of Berry, including a clip of his induction which I encourage anyone who enjoys Keith Richards high to watch.

Beyond his influence on other artists, Berry had some scintillating songs that are essential for any rock and roll fan to hear. In addition to those already mentioned, be sure to check out these terrific tunes:

“Maybellene” – One of the first rock and roll songs, Berry’s first hit was a reworking of  a song called “Ida Red”. Berry livened it up with music and lyrics that became the standard for other rock songs of the early rock era.

“Brown Eyed Handsome Man”

“I’m a Rocker”

“Woodpecker” – This instrumental piece takes an easier pace than most of Berry’s lightning striking introductions and riffs and remains one of his more jazzy and unique song.

“No Particular Place To Go” – I first heard this as a kid in a commercial for a Power Wheels car. You remember those toy cars that kids could drive? Those were the envy of every child’s eye when I was a wee lad, and I was fortunate enough to get one for Christmas one year… until the goddamn battery died and the electric system fizzled out and I was left with a oversized Hot Wheels car too heavy for child me to push out of the garage. Anyway, I grew to love this song which details an evening of teenage love that never really gets anywhere because the narrator cannot unbuckled his date’s seatbelt.

“School Days” – Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Nobody said that Chuck Berry was a widely varied artist, but when you invent the go-to licks for rock and roll, you can run through them as much as you need. I mentioned the AC/DC cover earlier, but this song bears repeating for its encapsulation of the musical zeitgeist of the days of early rock.

“Run, Run Rudolph” – One of the few songs that I look forward to hearing every Christmastime, this original seasonal song has stood the test of time as a classic in both rock and holiday music.

“Shake, Rattle, and Roll”

“Soul Rockin'”

“Little Queenie” – If you’ve heard T. Rex’s hit “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” then you’ve heard a part of “Little Queenie”. The riff is taken from Berry’s song, as are the closing lyrics, “Meanwhile, I’m still thinking….”

“Almost Grown”

“You Can’t Catch Me” – I love The Beatles, but I do not love all of their songs. The most played of their that I just cannot get on board with is “Come Together”. You may feel differently, but no matter what you think of the song, it has some Chuck Berry influence. Like some of their other non-sequitur songs from the era, The Beatles drew upon many pop culture references to fill the cryptic lyrics, and “Come Together” has some of “You Can’t Catch Me” in it, namely old Flattop.

“Back in the U.S.A.” – The Beatles once again drew upon Chuck for inspiration when they twisted this song’s title to be a little more Russian. The lyrics of their superior “Back in the U.S.S.R.” are mostly a parody of The Beach Boys though. Then again, where did The Beach Boys get their soul-of-American-youth-summer-jams style from?

“Thirty Days”

“Route 66” – Being a native of St. Louis, Missouri, Berry undoubtedly took a few trips down the legendary highway that runs from his hometown to Los Angeles, California.

“You Never Can Tell” – Who knew this would be a hit that would be covered by numerous artists and danced to so successfully by Uma Thurman and John Travolta? C’est la vie say the old folks….

“Reelin’ and Rockin” – This song makes for great rock and roll and the title makes for good fishing advice.

“Johnny B. Goode”– The song that is synonymous with Chuck Berry and early rock and roll. Covered by countless individuals, professional and amateur musicians alike, and brilliant featured as one of the most memorable movie moments ever, Berry’s song about a little country boy with a natural talent to play the guitar is one of the greatest songs ever made. Originally, the lyrics were going to be “little colored boy” but Berry changed them to avoid it being shunned by disc jockeys afraid of potentially poor or angry reception. the song is partly about Berry himself, but mostly based on his bandmate Johnnie Johnson, who gave Berry his big gig and eventually let Berry take charge of his band since he recognized the natural talent he had not just at playing and writing music, but at energizing the crowd.

This song also has the honored distinction to be the only rock and roll song on the Voyager Golden Record. The phonographic record included on both Voyager spacecraft features a selection of images and sound recordings, with music from around the world to showcase the varied cultures on Earth to whomever finds the records. Whether it be intelligent extraterrestrial life or humans in the far future, the recoverers of the Golden Record will be able to hear Chuck Berry’s best song. This opportunity almost did not happen though, as many on the selection panel that decided the Record’s content thought rock and roll was “adolescent”. Fortunately Carl “Sick Burn” Sagan pointed out “There are a lot of adolescents on the planet.” Damn Carl, that’s you tell ’em!

Chuck Berry left a lasting legacy of music, but his impact on others both musically and culturally, especially in helping incorporate harmony in the diverse youth of America, is what really raises him up to the level of icon. His death was not by any means sudden, and he certainly lived a full life, but he will still be missed by his many adoring fans. Thanks for the music and memories, Chuck Berry!

Thanks for reading and listening! Please send any questions, comments, and requests to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Rock and roll on back next week for what will hopefully not be another eulogy for one of my heroes.

Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!

Alex

 

A Super Show of Support

Boy, those birds sure can blow it against the Patriots! Last night, the same old stuff from New England won the Super Bowl once again, this time in the championship game’s first ever overtime contest at the expense of the shoulda, coulda, woulda Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons had the Pats dead to rights, leading by 25 points in the second half, but they just could not put the game away. The ending of the game may have been rougher for the Seattle Seahawks to see, as the Patriots won by handing the ball off to their reliable running back at the goal line to score the game-winning touchdown, something every team’s 12th man knew the Seahawks should have done against New England just two Super Bowls ago.

Last night’s game had one the most incredible finishes in football history, let alone Super Bowl history, but overall it still ranks behind the big game from nine years ago. The monumental stakes of the 2008 Super Bowl XLII matchup of the we-do-this-all-the-time Patriots and the New York Giants were greater than any other. The Pats were undefeated at 18-0 and looked like they could steamroll anyone, and they had already beaten the Giants to add to that reputation. However, the game was close the whole way, and the Giants put together a bonkers final drive highlighted by this unbelievable play and ensuing touchdown:

But I didn’t come here to talk about the game, oh no. I came here to talk about the halftime show and the commercials! Just not in the away I normally would. Instead of watercooler talk of what commercials were the funniest (not really any of them) or which part of the halftime festivities featured the weirdest wardrobe (or lack thereof – thanks Janet!), today I want to discuss a bit about the tone of the these forms of entertainment. The normally routine chuckle-worthy advertisements and spectacle-centered singing show were still present, yet mostly set aside to profess a message of peace, equality, and inclusiveness.

Coca-Cola, Budweiser and most poignantly, 84 Lumber of all merchandisers, all pressed points for the importance of opening your arms to people. These points were further exemplified by halftime performer, Lady Gaga whose rooftop diving entrance kicked off with an extremely abridged version of “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land” and an excerpt from the Pledge of Allegiance,

One Nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.

We Americans have really put that “indivisible” part to the test over the years – if you thought last year’s election was bad, you wouldn’t believe what we did in the 1860s! The American Civil War was fought for everything else in that back half of the pledge: keeping the US as one nation, with liberty and justice for all, including the people who had been wrongfully considered property for too long. We have come a long way since then, and while freedom has been extended to many more than before, we still have trouble keeping the whole New Colossus theme that is emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty. The famous sonnet from poet Emma Lazarus features the memorable declaration from Lady Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Thankfully, in the midst of fear pointed in the wrong direction, there are many who stand with smiles of welcome to people whose only real difference with them is where they were born. We are all humans, and we are all deserving of the rights granted by the United States’ Constitution, not by virtue of having filled out forms, or by having been lucky in where your mother gave birth to you, but because every human is worthy of those rights. There is nothing more elaborate to it. All people deserve respect and the opportunity to make this world a better place. I know not everyone chooses to do this, and I’m not saying that people desiring to be American citizens should not bother with applying for citizenship. By all means, I encourage you to go through the necessary channels to officially be recognized as a citizen of this country because you, the persevering immigrant are what continues to make America great, now as ever. Nevertheless, under no circumstances should you be denied the chance to apply for citizenship. There is no need to make the process more tedious with the aim to weed out certain groups, and an all-out ban is damnably unconstitutional. That is not America, because we are the nation that opens the door, not slams it shut.

Thanks for reading! Direct any comments or questions to monotrememadness@gmail.com, and be sure to rappel down this way again next week.

O beautiful for spacious skies,

Alex

Consider Again That Dot

Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust. We are all part of the same pieces that exploded into existence as we know it with amazing energy 13.8 billion years ago. From that magnificent beginning of this universe, everything within it has grown and evolved. And that’s even before life on Earth formed. The ideas we study today regarding the Big Bang and what has occurred in the expansion of the cosmos since are relatively new, having come into scientific understanding during only the last century or so, however, the study of the stars and the infinity beyond has existed for millennia. Astronomers have long impacted our knowledge of our world and what exists beyond it, helping to pave the way for other subjects of study. We remember and revere the names and lives of many such people who helped teach us more about our place in the universe. Today, I am writing about a hero of mine and many others who did this in more ways than one, showing us just how small and special we are as a planet and a species.

Tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of one of the saddest days in science education history. On December 20, 1996, the world lost a man who saw its incredible beauty and recognized how infinitesimally small we are on it and in the grand scheme of the cosmos: Carl Sagan. Sagan was an inspirational figure whose efforts to educate are still felt strongly, especially in the medium of television that he utilized so perfectly. His studies and insights also continue to be prevalent in his many books, as well as the lessons reiterated by his students who teach us today as he did decades ago.

Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York to a Russian immigrant father and a native New Yorker mother. He and his sister, Carol, were raised Jewish, but not with a great emphasis on religious practice and teaching placed upon them. His parents not only allowed him to question everything, but encouraged it, something that he stated aligned perfectly with the scientific method and his quest for knowledge.

Sagan was smart from the start, thanks in large part because of his many interests in many subjects, such as astronomy, biology, and chemistry to name a few awesome ones. He frequently read about the wonders of the natural sciences, and visited the world-class museums that New York had (and still has) to learn as much as he could. It paid off for him as he attended college early, studying at the University of Chicago when he was 16. There he encountered some of the preeminent scientists and teachers of the era, including geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller and chemist Harold Urey (remember the latter). Sagan’s dissertation was done under the tutelage of Gerard Kuiper, for whom the Kuiper Belt (where Pluto and two other dwarf planets live) is named. From Chicago, Sagan went on to the University of California at Berkeley in 1959.

Sagan became an assistant professor at Harvard University at 1963 after his peers in academic astronomy were impressed with his work, specifically his Science article regarding Venus’ atmosphere. However, even after years of teaching at the university and working at the nearby Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Sagan was not granted tenured status. In fact, numerous members in the academic community voiced their concerns with Sagan’s wide window of study as opposed to the traditional finer focus on a specific pursuit of study. The strongest voice against him, and the greatest dagger to his tenure hopes, came from a former advisor at the University of Chicago, that’s right, Harold Urey. Urey was a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and had worked on the Manhattan Project, so he had authority in the scientific community. He argued against Sagan becoming a full-time professor, and Harvard listened.

Sagan was understandably disappointed, but where one Ivy League door closes, another gets to say “Suck it, Harvard!” today as a reward for not being overly concerned with the comprehensive interests of its professors at the time. Sagan had actually had an offer from astronomer Thomas Gold and Cornell University to come to teach prior to this decision from Harvard. The outcome of that decision made it easy for him to take his talents to Ithaca. He became an associate professor in 1968, and just two years later a full professor. His educational efforts were not confined to the classroom though, as in addition to continued research in astronomy and other fields, Sagan worked with NASA to prepare the Apollo astronauts for their lunar missions and to develop robotics. Sagan is also the man responsible for the creation and inclusion of information regarding humans and the Earth placed on some deep space probes sent out in the 1970s and 1980s. The first of these is the Pioneer Plaque which was attached to Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 launched in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The plaque depicts a naked human man and woman and an illustration of our solar system and other items used to indicate the origin of the spacecrafts in the event that they are found by intelligent extraterrestrial life. An explanation of the illustrations can be found here.

carl-sagan

The two Voyager probes launched in 1977 contain an updated plaque, called the Voyager Golden Record. Like the Pioneer Plaque, the Golden Record was attached to the spacecraft with information pertaining to humans and the Earth.

Sagan was all about finding other forms of intelligent life and making contact with them. He encouraged search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, projects and co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980 with SETI initiatives in mind. In 1985 he published the novel Contact about making first contact with intelligent alien life. The book was made into a movie of the  same name that was released in 1997, a year after Sagan’s death. The story is representative of many of Sagan’s ideals, especially where the relationship and often duel between scientific fact and religious faith are concerned. Contact provides intelligent insight into the relationship of government and science as well. All of these are themes that exist in other popular science stories like Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life that was recently released as movie called Arrival, which has many similarities to ContactInterstellar does as well, including Kip Thorne’s input regarding wormholes and Matthew McConaughey being all right, all right, all right.

Sagan had other (non-fiction) books and many published papers and reports, but undeniably his greatest impact was through his television program Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. With Cosmos, Sagan took his grand encompassing interest in the big picture out of the classroom and into our homes. The show was superbly received and is one of the most watched series ever to air on PBS. Sagan was successful at inspiring everyday people into asking “Why?” and helped to make scientific ventures popular. Two of Sagan’s most notable students at Cornell would go on to have similar success with similar programming on TV. From 1993-1998, Bill Nye was the titular science guy in his show aimed at teaching children the basics of science. Nye was a senior at Cornell when he took Sagan’s underclassman course for easier credits, but he has stated that the class was a critical building point in his life that helped him to realize his potential and shape his life. Neil deGrasse Tyson did not attend Cornell and take Sagan’s class as Nye did, but he was a student of life of Carl Sagan’s and kept close ties to him from his teenage years. Tyson has hosted the StarTalk podcast (and later show) since 2009, and in 2014 he made another Cosmos series called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. In the opening episode, Tyson explains how he first came to know Carl Sagan. Tyson had sent an application to Cornell, and the admissions office had forwarded it to Sagan. Sagan then wrote a letter to Tyson inviting him for a visit. Tyson was impressed to say the least with Sagan’s knowledge, but mostly his character. Of his mentor and friend he said, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”

Cosmos was good for Sagan as well, as his co-writer, Ann Druyan, would within a year become his wife. Druyan was Sagan’s third wife, but she and he remained happily married until his death. Near the end of his life, Sagan suffered from a myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer in which the blood cells in bone marrow does not develop properly. It often leads to leukemia. He was able to keep it at bay with bone marrow transplants from his sister, however he developed pneumonia which took his life on December 20, 1996.

Carl Sagan was exceptional at presenting simple and complex information alike in an easy and enjoyable way to the public. Whether or not you are young or old, or as wild about science as Carl was when he was younger or not, then you can learn and love what Sagan has to share in his show and books. He had many famous musings in his beautifully poetic presentations, but the most renowned is his “Pale Blue Dot” speech given at Cornell, in which he ponders on the whole of human existence while observing a picture of Earth taken by Voyager I from about 6 billion kilometers away. This may be the most important speech I have ever heard or read. It summarizes the actions of our species so perfectly and presents us with a spectacularly humbling realization that we are so, so small in this enormous universe. However, this makes us and our planet so incredibly special and grants us the wonderfully privilege to make our world the best it can be. I hope that it moves and inspires you as it does me.

Thanks for reading and watching. If you have any questions, comments, or requests for future topics, then please email me at monotrememadness@gmail.com. Orbit back here next week for some more out of this world fun.

Science shed lights on the unknown,

Alex

Godspeed John Glenn

The term “American Hero” is thrown around a lot in today’s society. This is not to say that the many police, firefighters, soldiers, survivors of serious medical ailments and inspirational figures who have contended with adversity of any sort are not heroes, but the great number of them can dilute the importance of the designation. However, some men and women are without question rightfully admired by all others. John Glenn was such a man. As a pilot and astronaut, Glenn literally rose above the Earth and often found himself in the wondrous gaze of all those looking on from below. A few men and women have also had this rare honor to be at the forefront of the zeitgeist, and it is what they do in these moments that determines how they are perceived over time. Some fail us, either unable to handle the pressure we put on them, or they are exposed as being someone much less worthy of our veneration. Occasionally though, some people set the bar far higher than we ever imagined it could go. John Glenn is a true American Hero because whether or not the spotlight was shined on him, he always did what he felt was right and best for his state, his country, and his world. John Glenn earned the respect of everyone with a kind heart, good morals, and the drive to succeed to help others. I am not the first to have revered John Glenn, and given his incredible legacy, I will surely not be the last, for his works will echo through the annals of human history.

The class act of a man that was John Glenn died last Thursday, December 8th at the age of 95. He was the last of the Mercury 7, NASA’s first group of astronauts, of which he is most well remembered, despite the fact that he was not the first of the team to go into space! Glenn was in fact the third, behind Alan Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom in the Mercury program, but his was the first orbital spaceflight for an American. Nevertheless, cosmonauts Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) and Gherman Titov each orbited the Earth prior to Glenn, so how did he achieve greater recognition in a world where not being first might as well be last? For one, Glenn outlived all of these men, but more importantly he kept active throughout the entirety of his life. His space-based popularity kept his activity nationally and occasionally internationally relevant even long after he was back on the ground (although that didn’t last forever as we’ll discuss later), and as I have already explained, his time in the limelight was spent trying to make the world a better place. Not to mention, Glenn was a lovable personality. He always had a smile on his face and was an excellent speaker who could win over most any crowd.

Always rightfully associated with piloting planes and space capsules, it was John Glenn’s character and work outside of the realm of flight that truly helped him endure as a living legend. From his early days in his birthtown and hometown of Cambridge, Ohio and New Concord, Ohio respectively, Glenn exhibited the kind of devotion to family and country he would be praised for later. He was at Muskingum College when the attack on Pearl Harbor sent his nation to war, so he stepped out of school and into the the Army Air Corps (which later became the Air Force), but they never called him up to service. Thus, he entered the Navy to become an aviation cadet where he further trained on flying planes, something that had started back college for him. Finally Glenn served in the Marine Corps as a pilot making bombing runs in the Pacific in WWII, and doing just about everything aerial in Korea. After his decorated war service he became a test pilot and worked with a variety of aircraft and continued to rack up achievements, including making the first supersonic transcontinental flight when he flew from Los Alamitos Army Air Field in California to New York in 3.5 hours while reaching speeds of up to 726 mph.

Nonetheless, John Glenn’s greatest success in this span of his life (and I’m sure he would say in the whole of his life) was marrying his high school sweetheart, Anna Castor. John and Annie Glenn were married in 1943 and had two children together. John was devoted to her despite teasing that she and he received due to her stutter, a condition she dealt with until she was 53. She easily could have been lost in the shuffle of his increasing fame over the years, or worse pushed to the front with too much focus placed on her condition, but the Glenns balanced their family life perfectly with his rise to the stars, even once refusing excessive attention from then-vice president Lyndon Johnson (this moment is hilariously represented in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, which also features an excellent portrayal of Glenn by the ever great Ed Harris). You’ll be hard pressed to find any image of the Glenns together without smiles on their faces. Together John and Annie left an indelible mark on their community, especially in their home state where The Ohio State University has named a street after the pair of them and had them both dot the “i” in “America” in a special ceremony put on by the marching band during a football game to honor John’s service to the state and the nation.

John Glenn’s most memorable service is his time in NASA where he was one of the Mercury 7, the pioneering team of astronauts for America. His orbital flight was a major victory for the blossoming program, even in the wake of continued success by the Soviet Union’s cosmonaut program, however the reentry of the historic flight was harrowing for NASA’s Mission Control. Glenn’s Mercury spacecraft, of course named Friendship 7 by him, indicated that the heat shield was damaged. This led NASA to order Glenn to keep the retrorocket that is normally jettisoned on his craft on landing approach so that the shield would stay on. His reentry appeared to be an excessively violent one with pieces of the craft tearing off and flying by his viewport. Glenn touched down all right, and later it was determined that there was no problem with the heat shield, but the indication system had malfunctioned in alerting a problem that was not there. The fiery debris Glenn saw was the remains of his retrorocket pack.

After his retirement from NASA, Glenn served as a senator for Ohio from 1974-1999. This was certainly not surprising to his fellow Mercury astronauts who, along with NASA, always perceived John as the most senatorial of their bunch. Hi gift for public relations clearly paid off. While in office, he pushed for big issues, key among them the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978 which sought to discontinue the creation of nuclear explosives. This is also not surprising, given that many astronauts often return to Earth professing the need to work more peaceably with other nations and set aside tools of conflict. Glenn also tapped into his faith to keep his morals, but he did not let it blind him. He was religious but encouraged the study of evolution in schools, citing that belief in God and scientific fact are not mutually exclusive.

When you’ve lived as full of a life as John Glenn had through the mid-1990s, you probably do not think, “Hey, what if I did that space thing again? That’d be pretty cool.” Then again, you’re not John Glenn. Glenn went back into space on space shuttle Discovery in order to test the effects of space travel on seniors, and to get his orbital kicks again. He remains the oldest person to ever go into space, at 77 years old in 1998.

John Glenn lived a hell of a life, from being in the heart of the Space Race, to serving in the United States military and Senate, to remaining a devoted husband and father, and always a source of inspiration. He kept in the company of the likes of the Kennedys, Ted Williams, and a whole lot of astronauts and NASA personnel, including another Ohioan astronaut pioneer, Neil Armstrong, who is probably the only astronaut to exceed his fame.

Here is a compilation of photographs of Glenn through the years, as well as information on his memorial service from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

By his family, many friends, and admirers around the world he went around, John Glenn will be missed. Godspeed, Mr. Glenn.

Thanks for reading. Please send any questions or comments to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Take care, and swing around back here next week for another appreciation of a man who saw our place in the stars, but from a different vantage point.

Fly on,

Alex

Get the Led Out

Tomorrow is a momentous occasion for my fellow Americans and I, but not one that all of us are enthused about. It comes as no surprise that many people, including myself, are looking forward to this 2016 election day to be over and done with so that we can finally be free from the flurry and fury of political projectile vomiting that has consumed our major media sources over the last… uh, it feels like this has gone on since I first started forming memories, actually. I’m not sure what I remember existing in my life before this election started winding up, yet I do remember a happier time, even in the political process. I think regardless of your general governmental sentiment, you probably agree that this presidential election is, putting it mildly, a rough one.

As unbelievable as it may seem, there is hope on the horizon. My friends! We are at the precipice, ready to cast our vote and finish this dreaded decision and all the others listed with it. Let us not allow tomorrow to be remembered as the day America had to pick between a Douche and a Turd Sandwich, let us remember it as the 45th anniversary of one of the greatest compilations of eight of the greatest songs ever produced. Enough with the election from Hell, let us climb the Stairway to Heaven!

Tomorrow, November 8, 2016, marks the 45th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin IV, universally regarded as not simply one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time, but as one of the greatest albums of all time. Dropping into record stores in 1971, this was Led Zeppelin in their prime. Okay, Led Zeppelin was in their prime for a few albums, which is a major reason why they are my favorite band, however, this album is generally considered the best and most complete of their works, and it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. It has a seamless flow from one song to the next, and features many of Zeppelin’s best songs ever recorded. A perfect balance of power and calm, with poetic lyrics, intricate musical styling on multiple instruments, especially Jimmy Page’s always brilliant string work, this was the album that brought Led Zeppelin back to and propelled them beyond the acclaim they received for their first two albums. Like most Zeppelin fans, I love their first six albums, and greatly appreciate much of their final three, but many critics were underwhelmed by Led Zeppelin III. They felt differently after hearing IV.

While commonly referred to as Led Zeppelin IV, the album is actually untitled. Partly in reaction to the lackluster critical reception of III, Jimmy Page – who in addition to founding the band, playing guitar, and writing or co-writing most of the music, produced every album – wanted to leave a title off of the album cover. And the band’s name. And everything else. The tracks aren’t even listed on the cover! A painting of an old man carrying a bundle of sticks on his back hanging in a dilapidated shack of a house is the only thing that graces the front and back of the album, thereby giving no indication of what it is beyond an enigmatic record. (Atlantic Records, the company that released the album, had to slap a sticker on the back plastic covering listing what order the songs were in.) Ironically, nowadays this image is synonymous with the band’s, and it is instantly recognizable. Everybody who has listened to Led Zeppelin knows that somewhere in that ramshackle house is the grandest rock and roll song ever made, along with its friends who are magnificent company. The bandmates chose this cover art to not only throw those who were critical of their art off the scent until the album established itself, but to also capture the blend of influence from the city and county that they felt in their creative process, especially on their previous album, Led Zeppelin III.

A couple of years ago, I was going through a stack of my parents’ old records from over the years because my mother had purchased a multimedia music player that is able to play vinyl records. I was beyond overjoyed when I found two Led Zeppelin albums. The first was my favorite album ever, Physical Graffiti, the double album that I wrote about last year. The second was Led Zeppelin IV, still unopened and wrapped in plastic. I almost screamed like I was watching The Beatles step off a plane in America for the first time (I was also quite happy to find a few of their records!). On the back was the aforementioned track listing sticker; on the front a price sticker declaring the album to be a whopping $4.99 (I’m sure I could resell it for more today, but NEVER will), and a bright, yellow sun of a sticker that announces “Contains ‘Stairway to Heaven'”. Looking at this for the first time with a widely open jaw, I’d felt like I’d just ascended that stairway.

Now, let us walk up it together as we listen more closely to each of the eight incredible songs that fill this classic piece of rock history.

Side 1

“Black Dog” – Obviously quite a salacious song, the meaning of the title is less apparent. Story goes that it was inspired by a black Labrador retriever that was old yet active in a way that matches the tune. Robert Plant explained at a concert how everyday at their recording studio at Headley Grange Mansion the band would watch this dog make its way to its girlfriend’s place, do its thing, and be so worn out on its return home, that occasionally the band members would carry him back to his dwelling.

The song endures as one of Led Zeppelin’s most well known and often played tunes, and just might be my favorite on the album, although it has some competition from the next song….

“Rock and Roll” – If you’re going to name a song after the most popular music genre of the day you’d better make sure it nails everything that genre stands for. Mission fucking accomplished. “Rock and Roll” is just that, a great rock and roll jam that stands at the top of a long list of songs that makes you subconsciously accelerate irresponsibly on the highway until after it ends and you scream out, “Holy shit! I was going how fast?!”

The song is a send up to early fast-paced rock and roll hits like the ones Little Richard used to wail, but not one that took a long time to craft. In all, the song was laid down in about a half hour with credited composition contributions from all four members of the band. When they recorded it, they enlisted Rolling Stones pianist Ian Stewart to accompany the almost pure jam on the ivories.

“The Battle of Evermore” – Tapping into their Tolkien influence and Jimmy Page’s enjoyment of John Paul Jones’ mandolin, this song brings our racing hearts down from the previous explosion of adrenaline to a manageable level to hold us captivated as if we are hearing a song retelling a tale of medieval heroes fighting dark forces. Some specific mentions of beings such as ringwraiths tie directly to the band’s favorite fantasy book, The Lord of the Rings, but other pieces were made up by Page and Robert Plant. Plant felt he needed an additional voice to help him properly convey the storytelling theme, so they brought in folk singer Sandy Denny for the only duet the band would ever record.

The song serves as a perfect return to calm to prepare us for the build back up to full on rock and roll we will get with the next song, which is for many people the greatest song ever made.

“Stairway to Heaven” – This song sends chills down the spine with its first acoustic notes, especially if you’ve heard it before and are anticipating the guitar solo ahead. This song better than any other builds anticipation for what is coming, and then executes it perfectly as it shifts gears from easy acoustic with other instruments chiming in, to full on power electric as it blasts the greatest guitar solo ever played. If someone asks you what the best rock and roll song of all time is you probably will think of this one first. Even if you pick something else (“Purple Haze” for me), “Stairway to Heaven” will enter into your mind and it is thanks almost exclusively to that brilliant guitar solo. The solo works so well because the build to it works so well, and the faster pace and louder vocals that follow it work so well. The whole song is a symphony of Led Zeppelin’s design that is so masterfully put together that it’s easy to overlook how empty the lyrics are at times because who cares when the music sounds so good? I mean, John Bonham is playing a recorder and making it fit the theme like the perfect flavors intertwining in a cake. Yes, the first instrument you and your fellow first-grade music class horrendously butchered “Hot Cross Buns”, a song made to be butchered by children, features in one of the greatest rock songs ever made.

Side 2

“Misty Mountain Hop” – I just wondered why the recording on this link was so loud before I remembered that I cranked my headphone volume all the way up during “Stairway to Heaven.” Which begs the answer to the question, how do you follow “Stairway”? Why not finish with that masterful piece? We will get to the latter question in due time, but the answer to the former is you follow “Stairway” the same way you followed “Rock and Roll”, a lighter song, but this time the bouncier “Misty Mountain Hop” is the perfect following course to the meal that was “Stairway”. Didn’t I just call it a cake? I’ve got to keep my food metaphors consistent. Man, I must be hungry! Maybe a reason why is because in addition to the even more obvious Tolkien influence of this song is the lesser known toking influence. The narrative within the song is a loose description of the goings-on of marijuana legalization rally in Hyde Park in London in 1968. Robert Plant invoked memories of the friendliness of that day that was quashed by the authorities  in the hope that someday we wouldn’t worry about silly little things like pot. Spirit of the Sixties Led Zeppelin style.

“Four Sticks” – Another unusual rhythm for another unusual title. The unique timing on this track wreaked plenty of havoc for the band. Page at one point during recording went off script and improvised a riff that they would later turn into “Rock and Roll”. The signature role of time issues for this song though no doubt came in the form of repeated screw ups from drummer John Bonham. Okay, not screw ups, but takes that he was not satisfied with because the drum sound just was not right. He eventually grabbed a second pair of drumsticks and pounded the living hell out of it, and that is the track they kept. Because he had double the drumsticks, they called the song “Four Sticks”.

“Going to California” – After the mild pickup with “Four Sticks”, “Going to California” keeps it mellow with a fairly self-explanatory song about longing for escape from the wildness of life as a rock star. Not sure if 1970’s California is the place to go for that, but then I’m not the rock star. Robert Plant apparently was pining for folk singer Joni Mitchell and wrote the song with her in mind. Plant said in an interview that the song was a bit embarrassing at when looking back at it, but he is still proud of it as it “did sum up a period of my life when I was 22.” I don’t know about you, but I like it and how it melds into the end of the album which is capped off excellently with a classic Led Zeppelin hard rock infusion of the blues.

“When the Levee Breaks”Originally a blues song written and recorded by  Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie  in 1929 about the 1927 Great Mississippi Flood. The husband and wife duo’s song has been covered by many artists over the years, but none as iconically as Led Zeppelin, whose retooled version is frequently assumed to be an original song. I guess you could say they made it their own. The pounding drumbeats, warping harmonica, and heavy metal guitar. The song’s tempo was slowed down post-recording to give it a slow churning sound reminiscent of an overflowing river. The drumwork is what is most notable and sets it apart from other versions. The characteristic sound of the drumming came from an inspired idea by sound engineer Andy Johns to set Bonham and his set at the base of a stairway and the microphone on the floor above. After adding an echo, it gave the track its signature percussive sound.

I’ve said it a lot with this album, (on half of it, in fact) but this may be the best and my favorite song on the amazing album. I remember hearing it for the first time early on during my freshman year of college and thinking that I had better dig deeper into Led Zeppelin’s discography. I’m glad I did, even if my personal discovery of most of Led Zeppelin’s works took precedence over my studies. How often do you use differential calculus anyway?

Thanks for reading and listening! If the election gets you down, just remember you can always give a listen to this masterwork from four men across the pond to help you take flight up above the shitstorm. Not to mention, you can always write-in the candidate who is as mellow as a glass of bourbon. And you can always reach me via email at monotrememadness@gmail.com with any questions or suggestions.

Rock that vote,

Alex

P.S. I understand that differential calculus is exceptionally important and actually rather enjoyed derivatives. It even plays a role in recording the same music I just discussed. I hope any mathematicians will understand my desire to end on a spirited joke. I will not, however, under any circumstances, now or ever, apologize for my disgust of logs. Fuck you, logarithms, and your inverse operation to exponentiation!