© 2005 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
Readers of this Diary will recall that on New Year's Day '05, David Crosby took a happy notion to try typing "www" in front of my name and see what happened. When it led to this website, he sent me a sweet letter praising my latest novel VERY BAD DEATHS. The result was what's looking like it will be one of the great friendships of the new millennium-see elsewhere in this Diary for more information.
But Croz's inspiration had an equally happy second-order effect: it caused me to start typing www in front of the names of musicians I've always wanted to meet. And the results have been so amazing, I feel compelled to recommend the scheme to you.
First of all, I got connected with the awesome Paul "Earthquake" Pena-again, see previous entry in this Diary-and not only did I thus meet half the Tuvan music fans in North America (Seth Augustus, Lemon George, Kerry Yackoboski, etc.), I had the great and rare privilege of spending nearly two hours on the phone with Paul, the week before he died. He thanked me for the audiobook of VERY BAD DEATHS I had sent him, and we talked music, and he promised to come visit me here in British Columbia one day. The day after he left the party, the Robert Heinlein audiobook I'd sent him arrived in the mail; Seth has it now.
Then good old "www" led me to the website of the great John Sebastian, one of the major exponents of Good Time Music, which has been so important in my life and that of a bartender named Jake Stonebender. I've been a fan of John's since he played harp on the original BLUES PROJECT album, with Bob "Landy"/Dylan on piano, back in the early 60s. I bought every album he made with the Loving Spoonful, and I managed to find a copy of his later solo masterpiece TAR BEACH. So I sent him a fan letter, telling him how much songs of his like "Jug Band Music" and "Younger Generation" have meant to me, and still do.
And there I found some terrific new music of his that I'll get to in a minute. But one of the links that http://www.johnsebastian.com offered led me to an e-mail address for Fritz Richmond, legend of jugband music, founding member of the legendary Jim Kweskin Jug Band (in which Geoff Muldaur met and married Maria D'Amato, and they went on to record two albums with a Canadian guitarist named Amos Garrett, and then they divorced and Maria Muldaur had a huge hit called "Midnight At The Oasis" which made superstars of both her and Amos-are you getting all this, out there?). Fritz is so cool, his jug and his washtub bass are both in the Smithsonian, no shit. Richard Fariña, dulcimer player/singer/songwriter and author of the landmark novel BEEN DOWN SO LONG, IT LOOKS LIKE UP TO ME, during the party celebrating its publication climbed on the back of Fritz's motorcycle; the crash killed him and nearly killed Fritz. Fritz played with everyone from Ry Cooder to the Doors to Bob Dylan, and as a recording engineer did sessions for The Doors, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and The Everly Brothers. You may have heard him on Prairie Home Companion, where he was a regular guest. He's the one who suggested the name Loving Spoonful to John Sebastian and the late Zal Yanovsky.
So I wrote Fritz, too, an enthusiastic fan letter, thanking him for a lifetime of life-enhancing, immune-system-strengthening sounds, telling him what an important contribution he had made to a bar called Callahan's Place. And I got a letter back from his wife Cynda saying that he was too sick to respond himself, but he had been really gassed by my letter.
God, I'm glad I didn't put it off!
Last Sunday, November 20, Fritz died at home in Portland OR, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. As his friend Geoff Muldaur reports on his website, http://www.geoffmuldaur.com, "He remained comfortable and very hip to the end."
I didn't find out until the following Thursday, November 24. On that day, I turned 57 myself. One of my presents arrived in the mail that day: a CD called CHASIN' GUS' GHOST, by John Sebastian & The J Band, ordered directly from his website. Guess who plays jug and washtub bass for the J Band? Fritz Richmond. Big picture of him in the liner notes. And as I was listening with immense pleasure to Fritz blowing a splendidly flatulent jug solo on track one, "Stealin'," I opened the e-mail from a friend that told me Fritz's cab had left four days earlier.
The last three tracks on CHASIN' GUS' GHOST happen to also be the last three recordings left by the late legendary jugband pioneer Yank Rachell, who is heard swinging his ass off in concert with the J Band.
Well, I tell you, ever since then I've been on a campaign. Every time I have a spare minute, I type "www" in front of the name of one of my musical heroes, and "com" after, and do my best to get in touch with them and TELL them how important they've been to me. Every damn time I do it, so far, I discover treasures I hadn't known existed.
At Tom Rush's website (if you don't know him: perhaps the quintessential cool cerebral Cambridge folksinger of the 60s-the kind they carefully left out of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN because he isn't lame at all, and would have refuted the hilarious premise that folk music sucks), for example, I found the coolest, hippest, smartest development in commercial music I've heard of in the last decade.
If you go to http://www.tomrush.com, you will be offered a chance to download several entire superb Tom Rush albums, for US$9.98 apiece.
Did that get through? Slip him a credit card number, flip him a sawbuck, he zips you a great plate. That's it. Downloads in seconds, unzips in a few more seconds-you're done. Import it into iTunes, transfer it to your iPod, good to go. Or, if you like, burn it onto a blank CD for another quarter, and now you have a Tom Rush album for only ten bucks and change. And Tom Rush gets to KEEP the whole $9.98.
Is that beautiful? You just did everything that a big record company does to justify keeping 90% of the money from a twenty-buck CD…and it cost you a quarter for a disc and however many pennies you spent being on the internet for five minutes. And, you didn't wait one minute for the package to arrive in the mail from amazon, or pay a penny in handling or taxes. An extra copy for the car stereo will cost you about a quarter.
It gets cooler: these particular albums are NOT AVAILABLE in any store or from amazon. The only ways in the world to get 'em are either to buy 'em at a Tom Rush concert…or to download 'em from his site and burn your own…at half the usual cost…all of which goes to the musician.
In the parody of a "legal agreement" window offered, Tom admits you can certainly rip him off if you want to, by burning fifty free copies for fifty friends, and he can't stop you. But he sure wishes you wouldn't, considering how cheap he's selling it, and he kindly asks you to just send your friends to his site instead, if you wouldn't mind.
I don't mind a damn bit.
Tom understands what I've been saying for decades: the only real answer to copyright theft is: don't rip people off in the first place. The real answer to piracy is: don't gouge. People would rather not rob you, unless you make it irresistibly attractive. Sell it at a fair price, and it's just easier for everybody to be honest.
I particularly recommend the album TROLLING FOR OWLS. It is a live performance, for a very merry crowd, what appears to be every single truly goofy song Tom knows. Examples: "Let's Talk Dirty In Hawaiian," and "The Cowboy's Paean." (Try pronouncing that last one aloud.) Best ten bucks I've spent this week.
Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is,
I wish to God there'd been an internet and e-mail in time for me to express my gratitude to people like John Lennon, or Paul Butterfield, or Jimi. I wish I'd had the wit to use it to send my thanks to George Harrison, or Jake Thackray, or Snaker Ray, or John Hartford, while I had the chance. I'm terribly glad I was in time to meet and get to know folks like David Crosby, James Raymond, Graham Nash, Jeff Pevar, to get to send heartfelt thanks to John Sebastian, Geoff Muldaur, Tom Rush, Janis Ian, Georgie Fame, Fritz Richmond, Paul Pena. I must remember to write to B.B. King, in whose band my ex-brother-in-law Ernest Vantrease is playing now that Ray Charles is gone. And Livingston Taylor. And Guy Davis. And the list goes on…
Let's all do more of this, is what I'm saying. Support the artists who've helped us get through some ugly years with a bit of style. Tell them. They could stand to hear it.
Back in the day, there came a time when I had to make a choice. Music? Or writing? Many things factored into it. Both professions work hard, for rotten pay.
But overall, there was no question: writers get more and better support from their audience than musicians do. You'd be shocked-I hope you would-to know how seldom good musicians hear from intelligent fans. Superstars, purveyors of mindless music, get tons of mindless mail. Quirky geniuses like Fritz Richmond or Paul Pena don't get enough mail: their fans are too quirky, their record labels too unreliable at forwarding letters.
But thanks to the Worldwide Web, we no longer have even that for an excuse. It's just too damn easy to cherish your quirky heroes now.
Now, how's this for eerie synchronicity?:
The same day that David Crosby's e-mail started this slow-building avalanche for me, New Year's Day 2005, I also got another e-mail from a friend-the man personally responsible for the whole thing, in that he created the graphic user interface subsequently stolen by all other computers which makes the internet not only endurable but easy: Jef Raskin, creator of the Macintosh. He sent a funny, clever little note describing the interstellar journey of the high energy particle which had come trillions of lightyears to trigger a cancer in his pancreas which was going to kill him within three months. And did.
So I barely had time and opportunity to personally thank the man who made this all happen. I can't tell you how glad I am of that. Check out his remarkable life and work-including a truly awesome thing: an operating system that isn't stupid-at http://www.jefraskin.com
Now I am determined not to waste any more time. I've made a list, and I'm working my way down it. Make up a list of your own, why don't you?
Eight keystrokes-how hard is that?
We are the luckiest generation of music lovers that ever lived. All the great music we’ve ever heard is available to us, in the best fidelity we’re capable of appreciating, and will be now for as long as zeroes and ones can still be grokked. Fritz is gone, now, but I’m digging his lick this minute. And the record will never wear out, the tape will never stretch, the four-track will never skip, the cassette will never break. Best of all, I’ll never ever run out of room to store it all. I’ve loaded most of my favorite music onto my new laptop—17 entire days’ worth!—and there are still 18 gigabytes of room left on the drive.
The way I see it, recorded music, sex, and chocolate sour cherry crême brulée are, taken together, God’s best apology for mortality.
I guess they’re sufficient.
I guess they’ll have to be.