Archive | March, 2014

Wheels

28 Mar

Well, last weekend, I finally got to do what I’ve been wanting to do for ages, and that is buy my oldest son, Joel, a car. Which is only the ending part of the story. As I mentioned in my story from last spring, when we bought our twin sons a car to share, we’ve always been in the camp that kids don’t need their own cars. Neither my wife nor I had our own cars until deep in college, and so we never bought the kids cars when they turned 16. Is it more convenient for them to have their own at that age? I’m sure it is – but it just wasn’t how either of us were raised, and therefore, it wasn’t how we were going to proceed. But at some point, necessity wins. For the car we bought for Alex and Brian, it was Brian heading off to community college every day this year that forced the hand. And for Joel, well, it was landing the coolest summer internship we and he could possibly imagine.

In case you’re living somewhere under a rock, Tesla Motors is the “it” car company right now.  It has been compared to Apple computer in the mid-80s – it is inventing the future as we speak, and that future is electric cars with rapid charging ability, high performance (rather than the whiny little golf-cart-esque things that other car companies are putting out), extreme luxury, unimaginable features, best-in-class-safety and incredible beauty all in one.   They are inventing a nationwide rapid charging network just for Tesla owners, they are building a battery plant that is 10X the size of anything around today to serve the industry, and again, they are inventing this category.

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And they hired my son, Joel, as an intern this summer in their paint engineering department at their production plant in Fremont, CA, in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area.  Wow. So suddenly, the necessity requirement for the car purchase is being met.

This story wouldn’t make sense without getting to know my son a bit. This little boy has loved cars and everything to do with cars since he was old enough to make the Pbbbbbbbbbbbb sound with his mouth – and would push around non-car objects like they were cars – that at 7 months old. His favorite toys were all cars. At the ripe age of 3, he had the starting lineup of the NASCAR Winston Cup series committed to memory, and I’m not talking about just drivers names, but their sponsors, their numbers, their engine builder, their owner, the whole shebang.  I could have won bar bets with him, and when I took him to his first NASCAR race (a Busch Series race at the Milwaukee Mile) just after his third birthday, he demonstrated that prowess and got people to buy me beers (“Buddy, you’re raisin’ that boy right, lemme buy ya a beer.”).

He would watch NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula 1, World Rally Car (WRC), Super Bikes, etc. etc. non-stop on Speed Channel (RIP!), ESPN, national TV, etc.  He cried his eyes out when Dale Earnhardt was killed.  I bought him a pedal-powered Indy Car and a little play helmet and he’d strap that helmet on and race around the driveway, and then declare himself the winner, stand up in the car and conduct a winner’s interview with himself, perfectly mimicking the winner’s speech of “Well, the DuPont Pepsi Hendricks Chevrolet was just awesome today, and the work of the crew is what got me here.”

He would hold races of his 1/64th scale Indy and NASCAR toy cars on our dining room table, carefully logging the starting positions, the ending positions, the series points and more in notebooks. As he got older and got into video games, he would consistently completely ace the latest computer or console racing games. Right now he’s in the top percentiles of all registered players on some of the best/hardest racing games like Forza and others.

Most kids, when they get their licenses, do stupid things, get tickets, wreck cars, etc. Not Joel. Not at all Joel. He guards his driving privilege closer than anyone I know. Other than one unfortunate encounter with the corner of our garage and our minivan’s bumper a week after getting his license and one scrape of a mailbox a couple of months after that, he’s not had any accidents driving. He went five years with his license before he got his first ticket and that was driving back and forth from his internship with Nissan in Detroit last year.

He went to school to get a job with a car company. He started out as a mechanical engineering major and during his junior year, he realized that wasn’t for him and changed majors to his current one, Technology Systems Management, which, is really the applied side of engineering. Everything he’s done at school has pointed to that – the biggest of which is Formula SAE.  FSAE is a racing program sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. FSAE teams design and build from scratch a “formula-style” race car (picture below) every year.  They then compete in FSAE competitions where they have a business proposal competition (how much does it cost to build it and what are the projected production costs in a volume run), a design competition and competitions in a variety of tests of the car itself – static tests where the car is still, and dynamic tests like acceleration, braking, skidpad, and then autocross and endurance racing. He started as a freshman apprentice, being a general go-fer, and has worked his way into the team leadership this year.

Here is Joel at the wheel of the 2013 Illini Motorsports FSAE car in a testing session last summer:

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So, I guess I’ve set the stage for “Joel is a car guy”. As part of his run up to a career in the automaker business, the next stage is interning – and last summer, he hit a great one.  He interned at Nissan in their technology center in Farmington Hills, MI. Nissan paid well, provided him a company car to drive (and damn nice ones too) and he spent the summer kart racing with an old friend of mine from high school who works there too (and helped foam the runway).  Unfortunately, Nissan wasn’t able to pick him up for this summer – with his change from Mechanical Engineering to Tech Systems Management that took him out of contention. He had fairly well planned on going back to his old summer job of being a camp counselor at a local day camp (which is a great job, so don’t take that the wrong way), when out of the blue, the dream internship happened. He got a call from Tesla Motors where someone that knew him from FSAE had recommended him. After a very short interview period, he got the job and he’s headed to California for the summer.

As a car guy myself (the Brits call it being a “petrol head”), it has pained me that I haven’t been able to buy my petrol head son a car, but it just hasn’t been a necessary expense. And when you’re dealing with five-figure expenses, it needs to be necessary.  But with the internship in California and all, it became time. So he and I started doing research – I should say he started doing research, with me sort of following. My wife was still pretty soft on the idea – she recognized the need but the expense scared her – and it does me.  But, we’ll manage. On Saturday, he came home for the weekend, and we set out to look at two cars, with no intent on buying either. But the second one we looked at, a pristine 2007 VW GTI just spoke to me.  Joel was meant to drive that car. The car looks and drives like new and had a perfect record on CARFAX with all service details documented.  Doesn’t get better than that. After much “gut wrenching” thought, and a quick phone call to Robin, much to Joel’s surprise, I said to the dealer “Ok, if we take it today, what can you do on the price?” I thought Joel’s head was going to pop. The look on his face was completely priceless. We did the deal and I thought the kid was going to do cart wheels on his way to the car.

One HAPPY kid:

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As I’ve mentioned before, my wife and I also have a VW GTI – a 2011.  It is the perfect blend of a performance car and practicality. Tons of room inside to haul people and stuff. And when it’s just you, a curvy road and the gas and brake pedals, it flat hauls ass.  So Joel and I have “dad and son VW GTIs.”  And while he’s over the moon happy that he finally has a ride of his own, I’d stack my happy against his and probably win that I was able to do this for him.

The boys with their toys:

 

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To him, I’ve said – “Have fun with it but drive it safely everywhere that’s not a race track.”  But I also said, “and when you do hit the track, look out for the guy in the midnight black GTI, because it’s going to be dear old dad who is not going to give an inch to you.”

As you were,

Stew

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“Tribute Band” music – my outing to see Brit Floyd

24 Mar

A ton going on right now in my life and much, much to write about, but I’m going to go a topic at a time, so today’s topic is my outing last Thursday night to see Brit Floyd, ostensibly a “Pink Floyd Tribute Band” play the music of Pink Floyd at the Chicago Theater. I’ve never been a huge Pink Floyd fan – and in fact, it’s a topic of humor with my wife of late – we both realized that with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and a few other major acts, there are a lot of songs we know and music that we like, but don’t ask us the names of the songs, and don’t ask us to name our favorites, as we won’t be able to tell you.  Now that said, it is a wee bit easier with Pink Floyd – there’s a couple of major songs from The Wall (Another Brick …, Comfortably Numb), from Dark Side of The Moon (Money, Time, Wish you were here), etc.  But even those, if you come into them in the middle of the song, we don’t hit right away.  The game we play now is if we’re in the car listening to Classic Vinyl on Sirius XM, and a Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin, etc. song comes on, is to cover the radio display and say “Ok name it” … and neither of us can.

ANYWAY (the linguistic version of when you realize you’re down a rabbit hole you didn’t intend to explore), my friends Beavis and Peter Pan started emailing when this show was announced, and I thought it would be a good way to both have a great night out with two good friends and also perhaps get to know this music better.

So, the whole “Tribute Band” thing seems to be something that has cropped up in the last 15 years or so – bands that specialize in the music of one famous act from the classic rock era – and now starting to extend into the 80s and 90s.  Most of these are bar bands, some of them go so far as to basically play characters that are intended to be the original members (can you imagine the arguments?  “I want to be Paul Stanley.”  “No, I do, I can do the New York accent better.”), complete with costumes.  And some even go further than that and play them in different eras.  A local Beatles tribute band, Modern English does that – starting out in classic “Ed Sullivan/Liverpool” dress of black suits and skinny ties, morphing into Sgt. Pepper costumes, and then into the White Album/psychedelic era wear and wigs, fake beards, etc.

As I said, for the most part, these are bar bands, or at best, are touring local festivals – like Modern English does all summer in Chicago doing every “Taste of” “4th of July Fest” etc. around.

That got me thinking – is this really a new phenomenon, this “Tribute Band” thing, or is it something that has gone on for a long time – and the analog to it popped up like stepping on a rake – for the most part, most “city symphony” orchestras (like the Chicago Symphony), are tribute bands but are tributes to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.  Now that said, really what they are is cover bands – playing  the music of others, where truly a “tribute band” does the music of one band/artist, etc.  But, it really isn’t something truly new.

So, on to Brit Floyd – so what makes Brit Floyd such a cut above other “tribute bands” that they sell out a 6500 seat theater in Chicago at ticket prices ranging from $45 to $120/seat?  Versus going and seeing “Journey to the 80s” an 80s tribute band with a hairy overweight guy screeching out his best Steve Perry falsetto?  Quality … and musicianship, through and through.  That and these guys WEREN’T playing characters.  Were they a band that only played the music of one artist/band?  Yes.  That’s where the similarity ends.

To give it an analog, Brit Floyd is the equivalent of seeing the CSO play Beethoven’s 9th symphony in its entirety, while some bar band Pink Floyd tributeers might be the equivalent of the local high school’s “B” level orchestra scratching out the first movement.  Unbelievably professional musicians, incredible staging and production values, and while they were faithful to the Pink Floyd music, they also made it their own by extending the songs deeply – “Another Brick In The Wall” goes from being a 4:15 album cut or a 3.5 minute radio play to an 8 minute jam with extended/expanded guitar solos, a unique ending, a deep/long beginning that worked into the start of the song, etc.  It was like that all evening.  And it was incredible.

That was some of the best rock music I’ve heard in a long time.  The guitarists were virtuosos – both playing and contributing incredible versions of David Gilmour’s soaring guitar solos.  They had two percussionists, an incredible group of female backup singers, etc.  And their vocals, while again true to the Pink Floyd genre and sound, were their own voices – they weren’t playing characters, or singing in affect accents or any of the other typical Tribute Band garbage you see in the bar bands.

As I age, and become more and more attached to music as my right brain outlet, both playing and listening, I have often wondered, “what is the future of rock music”?  An acquaintance of mine, Dean, who is a professional musician, playing everything from folk to rock to blues to jazz and multiple instruments, has of late been posing the question – “when did music make the turn from professionalism to production values?”  He promotes his gigs as “no auto tunes, backing tracks, loopers, or unnecessary electronics – just pure quality music.”  Versus seemingly anywhere you go to hear music these days, bands use backing tracks to add additional instruments, people, etc. that aren’t out there playing.

I’ve been thinking about that, and about, “what happens to the music we love when the artists die off or retire (or both)?”  Certainly there are these tribute bands in the bars, but I hope there is more “Brit Floyd” level acts forming up to cover and expand and interpret and make their own, the music we all know and love.  I, for certain, would pay to hear that.

Much more to come in the next week or two … lots happening.

But the train ride is at an end now, so …

(and pictures are below)

As you were,

Stew

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Sharpening the Axe

19 Mar

In Stephen Covey’s list of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he talks about “sharpening the saw” – which is his euphemism for actively learning.  He recommends continually putting yourself through education, training, reading books, listening to tapes, etc.  And while one most certainly could say that he included this one just to make sure his devotees had continued motivation to buy his stuff, nonetheless, I strongly believe that continual learning one of the keys to lifelong happiness as well as continued mental health and sharpness.

Which brings me to my topic – “Sharpening the Axe” – of late, I started taking guitar lessons again as part of my rededicated devotion and focus on playing my guitar (hence the “axe” reference) and music in 2014 that I shared in my post around the New Year.  Since the start of the year, musically anyway, I have …

– Rebuilt and reorganized my home-grown guitar songbook into something far more organized and scaleable.  I also printed 15 copies of it, with one designated as a gift for my pal Professor Troutstream, who is also getting his strum on again.

– Created a much more musically-inclined space for myself in our newly-remodeled basement, with all my guitar gear there, space to sit and play both by myself and with others, and also playing along with music on the surround sound stereo system down there.

– Bought one of my “dream guitars” – a candy-apple red Fender Stratocaster.  Now I’d love to say it’s an American Custom Shop Stratocaster that cost $2500 or more – nope, a Standard, built in Mexico. (For those that care about this stuff, maple neck, 50’s style headstock, three single coil standard pickups with a hot bridge pickup.) And red stratocasters have been played by my guitar idol/icons for ages – guys like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Looks perfect and plays like an absolute dream.  Best value in guitars around – great action, sound, sustain, etc.  Not sure why I waited so long to get this.  But I love it.  Here’s Pete with his:

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And me with mine as I was unpacking it from the shipment box:

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– And, in the last four weeks, I started back up with guitar lessons.

Over my lifetime, I’ve probably had 40 or so guitar lessons – I took guitar classes back in Jr. High from Mr. Elliott at Central  JH in Newton, IA – I think that was 7th and 8th grade.  Mr. Elliott taught me the basics but he also taught me to love the instrument and for that, I’m lifelong grateful to him.  After that, I took a handful of lessons here and there from various local folks, both officially and unofficially, and also my bandmates taught me stuff while I put down the rhythm with my bass guitar – amazing what you can learn just by watching.

About 15 years ago, when I picked guitar back up, I immediately started with lessons and quickly found that even though I was coming off a nearly 20-year hiatus from playing, that I was close to a better teacher than the teacher.  I gave that up, dabbled around in guitar books and such and online bits and pieces, then went through two more guitar teachers trying to find the right match.  One guy is a really accomplished Jazz teacher and well, he teaches Jazz guitar, which isn’t what I wanted, and another guy just really didn’t feel like much of a match.  A bigger issue is that I was struggling with articulating what I really wanted from this.

Finally, after thinking about it a lot, I figured it out – the handful of things I really wanted to learn were:

– finger style right hand picking on an acoustic guitar
– jazz and blues form rhythm guitar chord work and additional voicings and forms for chord work

But most important:

– how to solo as a blues and rock guitarist.

THAT, my friends is my holy grail.  I knew the basics – I had learned improvisation as a bass player back in high school at the hand of Mr. Omanson at Newton High Sschool.  It’s all just scales.  I even more or less knew several of the scales – minor and major pentatonics, minor and major straight scales, mixolydian scales, etc.  But I didn’t know how they translated to actually making a guitar solo sound good and sound coherent. Little things like root notes, bends, riffs, transitions from one pattern to the next, pattern extensions, etc.

I found a teacher near me by searching online, and read his website. Accomplished Blues and Rock player.  Good.  You Tube videos of his playing, great! Flexible schedules? Now we’re getting somewhere!  “I’ll teach you what you want to learn”.  Winner winner chicken dinner, ladies and gents!  I sent him an email describing my situation and he emailed right back – he thinks he could help – and the first lesson is free as he wanted to see if we had a match.

Well, happy to report we have a match. I learned more in that first 45 minute free session than I learned from all the guitar teachers I had since picking this back up.  I just had my third lesson last night and already he had me playing a solo over him playing along to a blues “jam track”.  DAMN!  Now this is progress!  I feel so energized by the learning, I’m having such a blast playing.  I play at least an hour a day as much as I can, and for the first time, I can hear the music in these scales. Blues songs are running on my mental iPod on a continuous 24 hour loop.

You know you’re primed for the learning experience when you can’t learn it fast enough.  That’s me right now.

Coming back to the central point and theme of the post here though – you’re never too old to pick up something and learn it.  Whether you’re just starting as a rank beginner, or you’re doing as I’m doing and going from a medium level to a more advanced level of knowledge or skill, there is no substitute for learning and for getting the learning from a competent educator or other source.  Your mind expands with every bit you learn.

Think about it.  What do you want to learn? Go learn it.

As you were,

Stew

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