Monthly Archives: September 2013

Keeping Those Lighters Aloft: Lynyrd Skynyrd 40 Years After “Pronounced”

Skynyrd Album

By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review Contributing Editor

September 9, 2013: They were known for songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” but it all started back at Robert E. Lee Senior High School in Jacksonville, Florida. In the 1960’s, Coach Leonard Skinner told the boys they needed to cut their hair to meet school regulations, and instructed them to show up for gym class on a regular basis.

We all know that dog wouldn’t hunt. They got tired of the same old message from the coach and other teachers, and one day they cut down what kids at the school dubbed “the alley,” a narrow utility path adjacent to the school’s parking lot which ran behind a few small retail stores. They kept going, and soon walked into history.

Ronnie Van Zant. Allen Collins. Gary Rossington. The names just roll off your tongue, but nobody knew them back in the summer of 1964. The same year Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, they formed a rock group called The Noble Five, changing the name to The Backyard the following year with the addition of Larry Junstrom and Bob Burns. It was another reference to their school. The football field behind Lee High was known as The Backyard, because the football team had lost only a scant few home games since the school was built in 1927. The band kept playing and practicing. The boys won a battle of the bands contest in 1968, along with the opening slot on the southern leg of a tour with the California psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock.

Around 1970 they began billing themselves as Leonard Skinnerd, as a kind of mocking, irreverent tribute to their nemesis, the former high school coach. Ronnie and the band juggled a few players through the years until 1972, when the line-up settled into the familiar team of Van Zant, Collins, Rossington and Burns, along with Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell. That was when the group was discovered by musician-songwriter-producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears fame. Kooper, who had worked with greats Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan and B.B. King, was at a nightclub called Funnochio’s in Atlanta when he saw them perform, and he quickly signed them to his MCA Records-backed Sounds of the South label. Shortly after that, they officially changed the spelling of their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and with that they were poised for their upward trajectory.

Their career exploded from 1973 to 1977. Their debut album, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, included four especially potent songs, “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man,” a particularly strong set of tunes for any debut record. Indeed, many rock music fans regard Pronounced as one the greatest debut albums of all time, ranking it closely behind Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut, and on a par with (or better than) Boston’s namesake first release and The Eagles’ debut record. Then came their next album, Second Helping, which included “Call Me the Breeze,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” and “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe,” songs which solidified their base of followers. Other albums followed, including Nuthin’ Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets and Street Survivors.

The group had their share of good fortune in the early days. In 1973, not long after their debut had already begun its upward climb, Lynyrd Skynyrd was selected to be the opening act for The Who on their Quadrophenia tour of the United States, and Skynyrd’s appearances alongside Pete Townshend and company garnered rave reviews, helping to spark constant radio air-play far outside their native Deep South and exposing them to rock music lovers across the country.
The year after The Who tour came that follow-up, Second Helping, which was a break-out success. Like their debut, it contained no musical duds, but it featured what would become their biggest song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The catchy, infectious “Sweet Home Alabama” was a direct response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” a song in which Young had called to task the notion of a clear conscience for The New South. Skynyrd’s own response was a cultural and political retort, and an open challenge to Neil Young to face the fact that hypocrisy existed in places like California and New York, and that unresolved issues of race were not limited to the South.

King, Collins and Rossington collaborated on the songwriting for the album. Burns left the band in early ’75, and was replaced by Kentucky native Artimus Pyle. In ’75 and ’76 the band released the albums Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets, respectively, with fair results. In the meantime their live shows were becoming legendary, and “Free Bird” had already become their signature crowd-pleaser, arguably the greatest anthem in rock history.

But the modest success of Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets sparked a desire to jumpstart their portfolio, and they decided a third guitar player was needed to give performances and recordings a stronger sound. Backup singer Cassie Gaines told the others that her brother was fronting for a group called The Crawdads and could really play guitar. He was invited onstage and auditioned at a Kansas City show in May 1976. He immediately got the job and it looked as though he would be a large part of the band’s future. Van Zant told his band mates Collins and Rossington—no slouches on the guitar themselves—that someday they’d all be playing in Gaines’ shadow, because he was that good.

Street Survivors, released in 1977, was his showcase. The mix of the three guitar players worked well, and Gaines’ powerful style meshed easily with the other guitar sounds. An oddity about this album is that it was recorded twice from start-to-finish, the first time in Florida with producer Tom Dowd, then again in Atlanta with the band members’ own hands on the studio controls. A few songs were dropped, a few were added. Gaines infused their sound with bulk and power, just as they had hoped, and the band made a conscious effort to polish the otherwise raw sound, adding horns, additional keyboards and layered vocals. The result was an album which looked to transform their trajectory yet again. The songs “What’s Your Name?” and “That Smell” became instant hits. The band was on top of the world and tickets for the upcoming tour were selling fast. And then came the plane crash.

There is nothing like death to take you from being a great band to one of mythical status. It was October 27, 1977, a date that all Southern Rock fans will remember forever. Late that night, following a show at the Greenville, South Carolina Memorial Auditorium, their chartered airplane crashed en route to the band’s next tour date at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The Convair CV-300 ran out of fuel and went down in a swampy pine forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi, about 60 miles west of Hattiesburg and a scant 40 miles from their destination. The pilot and co-pilot had apparently attempted to divert to a small rural airfield for an emergency landing, but had fallen short after the plane’s fuel was exhausted.

It was three days after the release of the Street Survivors album and only five days into what was shaping up to be their most successful tour to date. Among the dead were Van Zant, along with Steve and Cassie Gaines, the two pilots and the band’s assistant road manager. Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, backup singer Leslie Hawkins and tour manager Ron Eckerman were all badly injured. Pyle was the only band member able to walk from the crash site, though he had sustained multiple broken ribs and severe lacerations.

The band was scheduled to headline New York City’s Madison Square Garden in November. It was Van Zant’s lifelong dream, and the one which was never to come to fruition.
Between the plane crash, too much partying and numerous well-publicized personal problems (Van Zant could take credit for almost as much damage to hotel rooms as Joe Walsh and Keith Moon combined), things would never be the same. They were one of the greatest bands of all time, but the music world and outside influences kept them from their rightful place in history for decades. They were nominated seven times for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the voters would not let them in. Folks just weren’t ready to glorify the sort of unrepentant party animals who were proud to play in front of the Confederate battle flag.

Following the crash, Skynyrd broke up for 10 years, although they kept performing and touring individually and in various pairings. The band reunited officially in 1987, but there was plenty of animosity and a legion of lawyers involved. Accusations of broken promises and exploiting the group’s name were at the top of the litigation list. Legal documents were signed and agreements made, and the group performs and tours to this day despite the high attrition rate among the 1970s members. Rossington is the only original member, although several of the other musicians have performed with the band on and off for decades. Rickey Medlocke has been with the band off and on since 1970, and today you can hear him on vocals, drums and mandolin.

In the wake of their huge success in the 70s, the sub-genre of Southern Rock reached maximum output. Bands like .38 Special, Blackfoot, The Outlaws and Molly Hatchet followed the wide path blazed by Skynyrd.

Lynyrd Skynyrd finally joined the Hall of Fame at the 25th annual induction ceremony in March 2006, along with Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis and the Sex Pistols. What a lineup. But, of course, there was certainly controversy again. The inductees included Ronnie Van Zant, Rossington, Collins, King, Steve Gaines, Wilkeson, Pyle and Burns. The post-crash members and the Honkettes (the backup singers) were excluded. The new Skynyrd, along with King, Pyle, Burns, Hawkins and former Honkette JoJo Billingsley performed “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird.” Judy Van Zant Jenness (Ronnie’s widow) and her two daughters, Teresa Gaines Rapp and her daughter, Collins’ daughters, along with Wilkeson’s mother and son, were in attendance at the event.

Recent album releases include God and Guns (2009) and Last of a Dyin’ Breed (2012). The group recently announced it’s headed to New Zealand for a summer concert tour in February, along with Starship and 10cc. Stops include Taupo, North Auckland, and Queenstown. Meanwhile, if you can’t get enough, you can always hit up Skynyrd on its Twitter account, “High on the Hog.”

And when you hear “Free Bird,” just keep your cigarette lighter aloft.

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Beware the Siren Servers: book review, “Who Owns the Future?”; Jaron Lanier

Jeron Lanier book

Book review by R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor

September 3, 2013: Our relationship with technology has taken a few turns toward the surreal lately.

A few months ago a recently-hired mid-level NSA computer geek named Edward Snowden used flash drives—sometimes called thumb drives (and the sort of thing you can buy at Target or Office Depot for $9.99)—to steal what amounted to thousands of pages of evidence which showed that the National Security Administration had a program in place, using a secret court to validate its authority, which collected and collated data about virtually every transaction in our lives—from emails to downloads, from purchases to browsing history, from phone calls to text messages. Simultaneous that that event we learned that almost all of the major companies in the business of providing us with computers and communications have been sharing information the NSA, and the list of those companies was staggering: Verizon, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, AT&T, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Apple and dozens of other data giants.

Data libertarians and privacy advocates were outraged—perhaps rightly so—at the Big Brother intrusions into our lives. The controversy was morally complex, and full of overlapping issues. Some called Snowden a hero; others a traitor. Liberals were angry, but so were plenty of conservatives (see “Your Best Secrets Worth Tracking, and Keeping,” June 9, 2013), and in revelations since that story broke we have learned that the NSA’s activities went far beyond what we imagined possible even months ago. Taken in the context of Army private Bradley Manning’s vast theft of hundreds of thousands of secret military documents, and in the wake of recent revelations about the IRS’s political overreaches and the Justice Department’s seemingly casual surveillance of reporters for the Associated Press, it all added up to what seemed like Geeks Gone Wild, or, in the more sinister view, government clearly overstepping its constitutional role.

But what, in fact, do we fear from government and its snooping agencies that we should not already fear from a world in which our every move has been tracked by businesses and their increasingly hyper-accurate and seemingly omnipotent servers? In a digital age, whether we like it or not, for better and often for worse, the value of information easily trumps the presumption of privacy.

Perhaps more importantly: what should we expect in the accompanying economic reality of a shrinking employment, devalued skills and cloud-based productivity?

In his new book Who Owns the Future? computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier asks these questions and many more.  He makes perhaps his most central point on page 53. The problem societies now face, Lanier suggests, “is that a particular way of digitizing economic and cultural activity will ultimately shrink the economy while concentrating wealth and power in new ways that are not sustainable.” Lanier calibrates this theme with an example he uses several times in his book—the collapse of the once mighty Kodak, and its replacement by tiny online start-ups like Instagram. Kodak was once a blue chip firm worth billions and employing tens of thousands of people; today stock in Kodak, now bankrupt, is worthless. By contrast, the photo-management and sharing service Instagram employed only 13 people at the time of its sale last year to Facebook for $1 billion.

Thus Lanier offers a challenge to readers to begin to come to terms with an uncertain future in which vast swaths of skilled jobs are eliminated—in some case almost completely—by the forces of cloud interventions, digitization and largely self-service applications (Instagram being a case in point).

Wikipedia has largely—some will argue completely—made the notion of the encyclopedia obsolete.  Wikipedia’s hive of intellectual volunteerism means that the thousands of people once employed in the business of publishing reference materials are now out of work, replaced by the “free” labor pool of participants in the construction of content found online.  The music industry’s near-total collapse was halted only by an unhappy marriage of sorts to the very technologies which brought it to the abyss.  Musicians have lost most of their control over own royalties and copyright protections, just as the retail “store” side of the music business has vanished completely (perhaps save for Wal-Mart).

In the newspaper business, the downslide has yet to reach the valley floor, and the case of Instagram’s sale to Facebook begs for a comparison to put the dollars into perspective: a few weeks ago Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, agreed to buy the venerable but struggling Washington Post from the Graham family and other stockholders for $250 million. The Post has been around for a century and in the stewardship of the Graham family for over 80 years. Instagram, a typical garage start-up built upon improvisation, social media and resource sharing, was formed three years ago near San Francisco, yet it had already joined the Billion Dollar Club at the time of its sale in 2012.

It would be a strained case to make, even by the most ardent acolyte of the web, to suggest that Instagram could be worth four times the value of the Washington Post—but, that is indeed what the market has decreed with these two defining transactions.

In an announcement of the Washington Post deal, Donald E. Graham, Post CEO and chairman conceded the future is unclear for newspapers, and declared that Bezos’ “proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach, and his personal decency make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post.” The newspaper business model was a reliable fixture in almost every American city and town throughout the 20th Century, producing jobs for writers, reporters, photographers, artists, printers, salespeople, and vast delivery and distribution systems. Now that formula has been eroded and damaged, perhaps fatally, by an online marketplace which declares that the information Americans once gleaned from their daily newspaper is “free,” and not subject to the old system where readers would “pay” for news.

And though the Washington Post sale concluded months after Lanier’s book went to press, Lanier would see these events as indicative of the one of the core truths he explores. Data libertarians once saw the web as a way to democratize information, and their quest was to anthropomorphize data as having an inherent desire for freedom. In this context, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and others are engaged in a sort of liberating process which aligns them neatly alongside Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt and other giants of connectivity, community and data retrieval.

But opposite argument can also be made: that ever-increasing ocean of data contains hundreds, in some cases thousands, of bits of information about us, and can be easily used widely and openly to track and scan our every movement. Most of us freely and routinely post information about ourselves on web, often daily, even hourly, using a variety of all-too-addictive tools: Facebook, Twitter, Google +, My Space, Tumblr, Linked-In, Deviant Art, and a list of other applications and social media too numerous to list here. That this data can be easily harvested by commercial entities is an open secret. Each time a Facebook user clicks “like,” that preference is tracked. Each time a person purchases a book or music CD or MP3 download from Amazon, the file servers at Amazon add a little more to their understanding of that person as a customer.

Example: a few weeks ago, when I was in the process of ordering Lanier’s book online for review in these pages, Amazon quickly and efficiently suggested that I also purchase Evgeny Morozov’s recent book To Save Everything, Click Here. Amazon customers are accustomed to this friendly goading. The baiting can be useful, even helpful at times. And indeed after a moment of consideration, I did order Morozov’s book (which we will review here in a few weeks), and I took no immediate note of the delicious irony of coupling these two books together on the same order. Only after diving into Lanier’s book did I realize the comic and cosmic connection to one of his central themes. Amazon’s smart server knew me better than I knew myself, and it added to its file on me: the heavy reader of politics, biography and contemporary history who also buys the music of Green Day, Smashmouth and The Strokes and whose favorite films are from the 60s, 70s and early 80s.  Information has value.

Lanier posits that there are alternate forms of currency and trade, our 100 year fetish for expensive, often overpriced art being an example. Andy Warhol and many of his followers in the art world proved themselves especially gifted at raising the value of art to the point that it becomes a rich man’s stand-in for cash. Similarly, Lanier suggests, information is now even more valuable, and in a digital economy data becomes currency. Some will profit from the management and exchange of this elite currency, while many more will watch as their skills become irrelevant and their career path vanishes.

Lanier also suggests that the rise of big data—especially in the form of algorithms and formulas used by banks, lending institutions, mortgage companies, and insurance agencies—increases the chance of economic instability by removing the thousands of eyes otherwise trained to intervene at a human level. Siren Servers seem able to make things more profitable in the short run by reducing a particular company’s labor cost, but in the long run contribute mightily to unemployment, or at best, under-employment, thus lowering the potential output of the larger economy.

Our central concern, as Lanier points out frequently, is that the Internet, through its processes of draconian leveling, may have “killed more jobs than it has created.” In this sense, Lanier is not alone. The question then becomes: what can be done to reverse this trend? Throughout his book, Lanier offers small, sometimes tentative antidotes, including the possibility of micropayments to individuals each time their personal information is used by the servers for larger, collective transactions.

First, let’s get it out there: Lanier’s book is all over the map. However, this turns out not to be a complaint, per se. He does not ramble, nor does he wander aimlessly. Once the reader realizes that Lanier’s talkative, easy-to-follow approach will be sustained throughout, one quickly accepts the highly fluid nature of his explorations and even begins to sense that his free-flow of philosophical outpouring is meant to help us see more clearly the possibilities—especially the economic dangers—of a world economy embedded deeply into one vast digital mainframe.

Lanier refers to what he calls Siren Servers (a reference to the Sirens of Roman and Greek mythology–beautiful, seductive figures who sang enchanting tunes to lure sailors and travelers astray), the mega machines which accumulate and track data in ways that would have been science fiction to the computer designers and programmers of the 1950s and 60s. And today’s machines, as Lanier points out, often amass that data without having to pay for it, then, redeploy that accumulated information to manipulate markets, increase customer traffic or manage profitability. Lanier cites all the high-profile examples: high-frequency trading firms, mortgage institutions, information search engines, social media networks, even modern intelligence gathering; for better or worse, benign or hostile (think of the recent NSA examples). If we can only design a machine powerful enough to track activity that looks like terrorist activity, then we can catch terrorists—without risk and with no strings attached. But, as Lanier points out, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone has to pay, or something has to be traded.

Lanier points out that a common dictum of our time is the one which encourages people to gain the skills and training which will place them, they hope, close to the Siren Servers. But the problem is that the nature of the space around the Siren Servers means that only the tiniest fraction of those people will arrive in those jobs. Think again of the Instagram example. Think again of the demise of the great American newspaper. Despite their many millions of “users,” Facebook, Google, My Space and Linked In employ relatively few people.

Lanier embraces capitalism (and rejects other experiments in mandated leveling, such as Marxist-Leninism), but he fears that our multi-directional addiction to server-driven economics will undercut the basic market forces which gave rise to large middle classes in the developed world, and lifted many underdeveloped nations into the mainstream of the global economy. In his worst-case scenario, the world would be populated by a few hundred billionaires—at the top—and the rest of humanity, numbering in the billions, struggling to find work. He sees this as obviously flawed and self-destructive, a kind of deconstructionist marketplace in which almost everything is “free” but in which little economic activity flow in either direction. Without millions of middle class people working and thriving, there could be no billionaires.

Conversely, Lanier sees flawed reasoning in the utopian visions. On the surface each new innovation seems like an example of democracy in action through market forces and people power. The cost of using a travel agent to help plan a trip could be costly. Why not find a way in which people can reserve hotel rooms, book airline flights, obtain passes to national parks, and even buy theme park tickets–often with the help of hundreds of other real world customers who offer up ratings and reviews. Viola! Online travel booking, once a novelty, is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Consumers save that middleman cost; in the process, travel agencies and their employees have been rendered irrelevant. Who gains from this, and who loses? His book offers dozens of similar examples, but we can easily think of even more examples in the brief period since his book was published.

Lanier recognizes, as many of us do, that there are at least two sides to each of our points of interaction on the Internet. For example, there is our routine, daily activity on Facebook—our posts about ourselves and our families, our photos, our likes and dislikes, our “shares.” But then there is that behind-the-scenes file on us—invisible but perhaps more important, the data about us being fed into the server and which can be shared with the other servers which do business with Facebook, directly or indirectly. You can never “see” this dossier, even though it is your own information, nor would the data make any sense even if you could hold it in your hand.

Lanier offers numerous Swiftian examples—ranging from outlandish to seemingly right-around-the-corner—of Siren Server distortions. Even his most outrageous scenarios seem less like sci-fi and more like something we can expect within our lifetime. What makes these parlor games effective are his constant reminders that recent many of the services we now take for granted were themselves once deemed improbable. Who would have predicted 25 years ago the demise of the household or office encyclopedia, now retained only for their nostalgic elegance on bookcases? Napster and other tools so radically altered the business model for the music industry that CDs themselves may go the way of the 8-track tape. Borders, Circuit City and other major retailers could not survive the onslaught of Amazon. Lanier points out that in the libertarian take on capitalism, such trends and transitions are necessary, even healthy. After all, Amazon and Napster seek to save the consumer money, which ought to be a good thing (in the same way that we often thought of the Wal-Mart business template—despite its lowering of expectations and diminished employee value—as providing low cost goods to shoppers).

Toward the end of the book, for example, Lanier takes on the notion of books and publishers. If large-scale industries like newspapers and music can be upended by the Siren Servers and the advanced algorithm, what makes books special? Nothing. And Lanier suggests that books themselves might soon be channeled through this same gauntlet of market constriction, leaving consumers with only electronic books and little else—a seemingly “green” solution, but one prone, like in other areas of internet activity, to control by the mighty servers and their seductive powers. Like the other narrow, tall pyramids, there will be only a handful of genuine “authors” being published; offset by millions of self-published writers with virtually no access to the top of that business model. Like TiVo, Google, Yahoo and Amazon, books will be largely self-selected for each potential reader, based entirely on their past preferences. The content of books will be churned out in cloud mills, in much the same way content on Wikipedia is harvested and managed.

Lanier is, if nothing else, something of an optimist about all of these processes and developments. There are solutions, perhaps hundreds of them, waiting to be deployed—but only if people are willing to take control of that uncertain future and assert their humanity.

On the readability scale from zero to ten, Who Owns the Future? is a 9.5 or better. It moves quickly, so fast that its 365 pages of text can be easily and comfortably digested even by those with only a marginal understanding of the internet, beyond, say, their Facebook password or their Linked-In username. In fact, if those are the limits of your online challenges, this book is even more important.

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