How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

The Beatles, Get Back

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

Tiffany at 50: She’s Not Alone Now

I had the pleasure of seeing 80s’ pop icon Tiffany (Darwish) perform in Melbourne, Florida, at the Iron Oak Post on November 21st. Her performance gained national attention through outlets like TMZ because she said to the audience, “F-you, guys,” after struggling with her singing during the performance of her hit song “I Think We’re Alone Now.” She later apologized for her behavior in a recorded video, saying she had a panic attack because her voice was failing.

As someone present in the audience, I’d like to give my own firsthand account of that night and correct some misleading impressions made by TMZ reporting.

Iron Oak Post is a bar that’s split in half between a drinking area and a performance venue. The bar itself stretches between the two. It’s a small venue that holds concerts regularly. For a bit of context, Melbourne has about as many heavy metal bands as my current town, Merritt Island, has turtles, and let me tell you–that’s a lot. The opening act was a great local band, DL Serios, who that night had Michelle Jones on glowy electric violin (check out the DL Serios Facebook page for additional video).

I’d seen DL Serios before, and they rocked, hard, closing with a cover of Kiss’s “Let Me Go, Rock ‘N Roll” that blew my doors off. I think they played it better than Kiss. The night they opened for Tiffany, however, they were more subdued, with their lead guitarist on acoustic and their drummer on a stripped down set he was playing with his bare hands, slapping the drums. He still sounded so big I couldn’t tell until I looked hard at his equipment. Frontman Chris Long was on point, energetic, and engaging, as always. They played acoustic versions of many of the same songs I’d heard cranked up loud and electric in another performance. Michelle Jones, who performed with the orchestra for the Page/Plant No Quarter tour in the mid 90s, sat in because she likes to jam with the band, and she did. Jam.

When Tiffany came out, there were sound problems right off, including some squealing feedback and a lack of reverb. I’d seen Ektogasm in the same venue some time back, and they had sound problems then too. The bass guitar sounded louder than the lead guitar that night, for example, at least to me. After two or three songs, however, the sound problems seemed to get worked out, and Tiffany and her guitarist Mark Alberici, sitting next to her on acoustic guitar, started moving through a number of Tiffany’s songs from her most recent album, Pieces of Me. I wasn’t at all familiar with these songs, but I was impressed with the songwriting, which in that format sounded like very well put together singer-songwriter pieces.

She also spent some time talking about a charity she was sponsoring on her tour, the Give Foundation, dedicated to poverty relief. It was clear from a number of her comments that she was at the end of a long tour and some fatigue had been setting in. Near the end of the night, Michelle Jones joined Tiffany and her guitarist onstage, unrehearsed, for a nice jam at the end.

And now we get to the “incident.” I initially decided not to write about what happened, because why draw attention to it?

But once TMZ covered it, why not?

A friend of mine in attendance that night sent me her video footage of “the incident,” which you can also see in the TMZ links. My friend’s video is immediately below.

Of the three Tiffany videos I posted above (gotta slide right from the first to the second in the first embed), the first was at the end of the night, once Tiffany quit singing and her guitarist and Michelle took over. It’s frankly hard to believe they didn’t rehearse. The second video (yes, slide right) was from very early in the night, Tiffany’s popular version of the Beatles’ “I Saw [Him] Standing There” from her first album.

TMZ accurately reports that Tiffany’s voice started giving out at the end. She sounded hoarse and like she was losing breath, and she was self-conscious about her fatigue and the sound quality all night. But TMZ gets a few things wrong in these sentences:

Tiffany was onstage Sunday night in Melbourne, FL with her band, belting out a few tunes including her hugely successful “I Think We’re Alone Now.” You can hear Tiffany struggle with a few notes, but fans help her out — singing along word for word.

However, near the end of the song, Tiffany apparently hears or sees something she doesn’t like in the crowd … telling them, “F*** You!!!”

Let me respond line by line:

Tiffany was not “onstage with her band.” She was onstage only with her guitarist Mark Alberici on acoustic guitar until the end of the night, when Michelle Jones joined them onstage.

Tiffany did indeed “struggle with a few notes,” and fans did “help her out — singing along word for word.” If you watch the video, the audience sang along loudly for a few lines. Right before she got frustrated, the audience stopped singing along because she’d quit singing lyrics.

Tiffany did not say “F*** You!!!” The typography here implies she shouted angrily at the crowd. She didn’t. You can see in TMZ‘s own video and the video I provided above that she didn’t so much sound angry as maybe a bit annoyed. She sounds like she’s talking to an annoying friend at a party. And TMZ didn’t report everything she said. What she said was,

“F- you, guys. I’m gonna f-ing… [I can’t make out what else she says.] This is my hit.”

When she said it, she was looking straight into the audience, slightly to her right, so TMZ is right in saying that something in the audience set her off. But she was talking to someone specific, maybe a couple people up front laughing at her for her singing.

By that point it wasn’t so much a concert as drunken karaoke with the original performer.

And yes, TMZ also reports that “there’s been some speculation alcohol played a factor…” From my point of view, that’s not speculation. If you watch to about 13 seconds into my first video, you’ll see a barstool slightly behind and between Tiffany and her guitarist populated with the contents of a minibar. That pint glass she was drinking from, I have been told, wasn’t Guinness, as I thought at the time, but whiskey, so she started out with a good 4-5 fingers in there, and I was told that there was some pretty hard drinking backstage too.

Yep, Tiffany was a bit lit by the end of the night.

But the biggest thing TMZ got wrong was this: “her latest show in Florida struck a sour note between the singer and her fans.”

No. There was no “sour note between the singer and her fans.”

When she told the audience, “F- you, guys,” the crowd cheered. Just watch the videos. That was their highlight of the night.

Her guitarist Mark, by the way, was a great stage partner. When he thought she started going a little off the rails he’d try to reign her in, tugging at her sleeve, and I think he and Michelle Jones started jamming together at the end to get her away from the mic.

But did I tell you this was a heavy metal crowd? Did you know there’s a Jim Morrison house not far away?

What I saw, and what I think most of the crowd saw, was a great moment in rock and roll. Morrison died when I was just a kid, so I’ve never been to a Doors concert. But that night with Tiffany, or at least that moment, felt like one. Most of all, it was a moment of reality instead of polish. That’s what made it great to so many people there. Five seconds of her real feelings were more important to the crowd than 90 minutes of polished self-presentation. Without necessarily encouraging that behavior in the future, we love you for that, Tiffany.

It was the death of a vapid 16 year old singing fun pop songs and the birth of our next Janis Joplin. She has the material. She has the voice. Just don’t die on us like she did.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking her 16 year old self. She was great when she was 16, 17, 18 years old for a teenager. She’s just better now.

What I saw was a 50 year old woman who has earned the right to be herself… being herself. It was Tiffany proving that one 50 year old version of herself is better than two 25 year old versions, even if they’re crammed into one body.

I don’t need to hear those 80s songs. I’d like to hear her sing “Honkey Tonk Woman” in the real voice she has today. Heck, that should be the title of her next album. I want to hear her next album, which she announced she’s delaying until 2022, and give her last album, Pieces of Me (2018), a good long listen, because the new music I heard that night was better than anything I heard from her in the 80s.

Miley Cyrus and Brittany killed their teen pop idol alter egos. Let Tiffany do so as well.

Tiffany is alive and well, and she proved it at Iron Oak Post that night.

Reflections on Twenty Years of College Teaching, Part 2: Pedagogy

Things I wish I’d learned my first year of college teaching that would have made me a better teacher:

First, the subject matter you’re teaching is indeed important. I already knew that. But you know what else is important? In fact, just as important to your students’ education as the subject matter itself? The instructor’s answer to the why question: why do I have to take this class?

I’ve spent enough time teaching non-majors that I simply accept the need to sell gen ed classes to my non-major students. Why do first year writing classes matter? Because oral and written communication skills have been among the top ten skills desired by employers in all employer surveys conducted over the last twenty years, usually in the top three. More immediately, because you need the skills you’ll develop in those first year writing courses in your upper division courses.

Why do your literature courses matter? Because you need narrative in everyday life: you need narrative to sell yourself to graduate programs and employers, to sell a product or service to customers, to explain the importance of a treatment to a patient, the guilt or innocence of this person, the history and intent of this contract. And you need character study as well for similar reasons. In addition to the fact that literature is virtually a lab for the study of the diversity of human experiences, feelings, and ideas, literary study teaches you that not everyone is like you. In other words, literary studies approximate real life: you’re observing people’s words and actions without being told what they mean, but you still have to make sense of them. You have to collect and construct evidence into a coherent argument about these very things. Welcome to everyday living in your personal life and in business and professional environments.

More of the why has to do with the purpose of college classes. Now more than ever, students and parents tend to think of college courses as job training, which is an understandable reaction to an environment of economic depression. But they can never completely be that. No college can update its curriculum to keep it current to the minute with the actual practices in any given industry, and if they tried, they’d have a schizophrenic, incoherent curriculum. The best a program of study can do is provide the background needed to make a graduate trainable in the current environment.

But even more than that, college studies develop student cognition. They expand the range and type of thinking available to students, which is vital to critical thinking, problem solving, and future educability. Arts and sciences curriculum especially serves this goal: math and philosophy expands student capability in abstract reasoning (of different kinds); art in visual literacy, creativity, and just helping you to see; music in creativity, audio literacy, and just being able to really hear; history in the construction of narrative out of disparate, incoherent arrays of facts; literature in many of these, often a combination of them, along with creativity. All of these are brought into upper division, more vocationally-oriented studies and into all future vocations no matter what the field.

But moving past the why into nuts and bolts? Just as important as teaching the subject matter is establishing the following connections:

What is being taught –> how you’re being assessed –> why you got that grade.

Yes, a student who has really learned the material knows why they earned the grade they did. Grading, or assessment of any kind, is as important a part of the learning process as the initial presentation of the material. It’s not an annoying institutional afterthought. In a sense, caring about these connections and making them clear is answering another kind of why question: why did I get that grade? Rubrics matter, actually. They narrow and focus the purpose of your assignments and should be used to direct student attention. You really aren’t teaching everything with every assignment. What’s the purpose of this assignment? The more narrowly and specifically you can answer that for each assignment, the better your assignment design is, and the more you can link assignments into coherent course goals, the better your course design is.

How would I sum all of this up? The most important question you can answer for your students, not just after the fact, but from the beginning, is why? Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer that question up front.

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