Saturday, July 15, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (July 1987)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago", where I take a close look at the issue of Guitar Player magazine from exactly thirty years prior to discuss what I gleaned from the issue at the time and what I can learn from rereading so many decades later.  I also provide a Spotify playlist that includes music that was mentioned in the month's issue.

Before we start, I'm sad to say that one of the musicians I featured in the June 1987 lookback, South African guitarist Ray Phiri passed away this week. You can read that blog post here on the site, and I urge you to listen to the playlist--the live cuts from Phiri's band Stimela are really awesome.

Nationally, the seventh month of 1987 saw Oliver North testify in the Iran/Contra hearings, and Federal Appeals Judge Robert Bork was nominated for the Supreme Court. Also, while I didn't notice it then, Guns and Roses released Appetite for Destruction, one of the best albums of the decade and one that would soon play a major role in my life.  On a personal level, in July, 1987 I was getting ready to start my senior year in high school. I worked that summer at Jules Pilch Menswear in nearby Hatboro, PA, and continued my guitar lessons while watching lots of MTV. Around this time I was starting to get a lot more cognizant of different types of guitars, and while I was still super happy to be picking my Peavey T-15 I definitely began getting aware of other kinds of axes. By this time I was also getting heavily into the blues and listening to a Wednesday night blues show on local radio was a highlight of my week. 

Unlike some of the other issues I've written about in this series, the July 1987 issue doesn't have quite as many noteworthy articles or reviews. Interestingly, the cover features a "summit" of four outstanding Canadian guitarists, Rik Emmett of Triumph, Alex Lifeson of Rush, classical virtuoso Liona Boyd and jazzer Ed Bickert discussing a recording of Emmett's composition "Beyond Borders" that they made combining all of their styles. I say it's interesting because at the time my best friend was Canadian; Doug's dad was stationed at the local Naval Air base near my house and it was in July of 1987 that he was transferred back to Canada and Doug moved away. I remember that Doug had a record collection made up almost entirely of Canadian artists, but I can't remember if he and I talked about this issue or not. 

Other articles of note include interviews with Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets, Joe Diorio on creative improvisation, bassist Andy West on the virtues of the 6-string bass, and a feature on bass giant Brian Bromberg. There was also an informative article about custom colored Fender telecasters from the 1950s and one about Rickenbacker guitars that were sold in England (and bought by groups like the Beatles).

The two things that really mean the most to me in this issue are the announcement of the release of Tribute by Ozzy Osbourne in honor of his late guitar legend Randy Rhodes, who had died in a crash of the band's plane a few years before and a preview of Fender's Eric Clapton signature guitar. I couldn't have known this then, but the Tribute album has been hugely important to me. It turns out that Ozzy Osbourne helps me conquer writer's block--seriously! Ever since college, when I REALLY need to write something I put on the Tribute album and I can write fast and well. And in 1990 I bought my Fender Stratocaster which is not a Clapton model, but it is Pewter, the most common color of the early Clapton axes (and I've also customized it with Lace Sensor Gold pickups, so it is 70% of an EC)--you'll see much more on my Stratocaster in future blog posts!

That's about all for this month. My wife and I are packing up our things for our 10th move in our 24 years together. As always I'll grumble when packing the Guitar Players into boxes but I'm so glad to have these old issues!  I look forward to next month and having everything unpacked in our new home. Until then, keep on picking!

30 Years Ago Index





Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (June 1987)

Welcome back to "30 Years Ago..."  My personal collection of  Guitar Player magazines goes back to the fall of 1986, which is around the time I started playing.  Each month I write a new post looking at the issue that was published exactly 30 years ago; the goal is to try to remember what I learned from the issue at the time, but also what someone reading the issue for the first time today might notice. Each post features a Spotify playlist with some of the music from the issue.

Well without further ado, let's go back in time. In June, 1987 I was finishing up 11th grade and starting my job as a stock assistant at Jules Pilch Menswear in nearby Hatboro, PA. Guitar wise, I was still picking on an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt's, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. I was getting lessons from Jim McCarthy, a recent GIT graduate who was a good teacher and a great player.  As far as what ELSE was going on in June of 1987, Ken Griffey, Jr. was the #1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball draft (I saw him play the next season, the first in a Hall of Fame career) and Tom Seaver retired. In geopolitics, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the next day, Ronald Reagan famously urged Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down" the Berlin Wall (Germans saved him the trouble three years later). And in music/comestibles, Ben and Jerry's ice cream introduced Cherry Garcia to the world. 

The cover of Guitar Player promised a typically eclectic mix of subjects, from cover artist John Scofield (who had just begun a career as a bandleader after playing with Miles Davis), a 20th anniversary look back at Monterey Pop, a feature on the "guitars of "Graceland" (the latest from Paul Simon, who had, of course, played at Monterey) and a featurette on quirky husband and wife duo "Timbuk 3".  The cover also promised something called "In Color! Vintage Beauties", which may or may not have drawn my adolescent attention (it turned out to be about old guitars).  Elsewhere in the issue are articles about steel guitarist Steve Fishell, bassist Neil Jason and classical guitarist Jorge Morel (including a soundpage I have never listened to).  There are also some interesting product reviews and even a guitar focused review of "The Joshua Tree" the latest album from Irish rockers U2 which is now being celebrated for its 30th anniversary with a world tour ("youthful fire meets the wisdom of age on U2s most fully-realized studio album. The Edge reprises the propulsive rhythms that have made him one of the most imitated guitarists of the 1980s").


I was somewhat familiar with John Scofield at the time, as I used to listen to "Fusion Fridays" on WRTI, the jazz station out of nearby Temple University. I can't remember if I ALREADY had his album "Blue Matter", or if I got the cassette after reading this article, but I know that I found him and his music quite interesting, and the article had a lot to chew on. The title was "Miles Beyond" (get it?) and the crux was that Scofield was starting his solo career with the endorsement of jazz legend Miles Davis ("the legendary trumpeter's eye for talent is unquestionable").

While I didn't notice this at the time, it is clear on revisiting these old issues that the editors of GP  were eager to engage with their interviewees on a level much deeper than just "tell us about your latest release". In the previous month, editor Dan Forte tried to push bluesman Robert Cray about race, and in this cover story, the subtext was about jazz and whether or not it is "superior" to other kinds of music.  One of the first questions asked Scofield to categorize different types of music, and his answer was very thoughtful:

"Music can't accurately be described with words, but categories do exist, because people play out of certain idioms. When you categorize music, there's a danger of placing one form over the other. For instance, you can't say that jazz is better than rock, because there's always going to be some jazz that you don't like and some rock that you don't like. 
But don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to compare the Kingsmen with John Coltrane. For decades people have gone around and put down jazz on the basis that classical music is a higher art form. Musicians speak in terms of categories as much as writers do, but I try to be open to all kinds of stuff, although just because I like one thing doesn't mean I like all of it. For instance, I like Billy Idol, but I hate a lot of other groups. I've seen Billy Idol a couple of times and when I close my eyes and listen to what he's singing, I think that his phrasing is pretty good. I also sort of like his guitar player [Steve Stevens]. On the other hand, Twisted Sister has never moved me in any kind of musical way."
When you say that the Kingsmen can't be compared to John Coltrane, aren't you implying that only the best rock is better than the worst jazz?
"I'm not even going to get into it, because beautiful, poignant music--regardless of type--is all the same things. There have been periods where I've listened to lots of Ray Charles and Ornette Coleman, but I never thought "This is good, but it's not as serious as Bach". I love Duke Ellington, and his music has infinite mysteries to me, but I cant say that it's better than Howlin' Wolf, because I love both things in different ways. When you compare music, you lose the joy of listening to it."
I've always found Scofield to be a deeply thoughtful person and his music is widely varied; it's neat to see that he's always been like this.


As I write this, it's a week away from the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop festival, the first of the famous outdoor music festivals and a highly influential one, as the film of the event introduced acts like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding (not to mention Hugh Masekela, Ravi Shankar and the Jefferson Airplane) to wider American audiences. In this issue, Guitar Player included a five page spread by legendary rock photographer Jim Marshall, who shared some of the images he captured at the festival, along with his memories.  I was a big fan of what was even then being called "classic rock", so I totally ate up these pictures.  The caption of the photo at the bottom right is neat:

"Brian Jones walking around the Fairgrounds with Jimi. Here's a guy in the Rolling Stones, and people did not mob him. There was no threat, just a peaceful crowd. Can you imagine Sting doing that today? It just wouldn't happen--he'd get mobbed."  It's funny that the closest comparison 20 years later that Marshall could think of was Sting. It's also sobering that both men had already been dead for nearly two decades, and neither was older than 26 when the picture was taken. I'm glad we still have Sting in 2017!

One of the most interesting articles, both at the time and now was "The South African Guitars of Graceland" which profiled guitarist Ray Phiri and bassist Bahiti Khumalo, who added such wonderful African rhythms to Paul Simon's Grammy winning album. I heard the hits on the radio (and saw the video with Simon and Chevy Chase for "You Can Call Me Al" (one is short, one is tall, and that was funny in 1987) so I was quite interested in learning more. I also was a budding liberal teenager in the mid-80's which meant I was totally opposed to apartheid, without quite knowing what it was all about.

The article never alluded to the controversy surrounding Simon's decision to record in South Africa; I just thought it was a cool thing, and this article might have contributed to the reason why. Writer Jon Sievert says that when Simon won the Grammy for Album of the Year "he put the credit right where it belonged--in the hands of the South African musicians who helped create it." Sievert notes that "Simon drew upon some of that troubled nation's finest black musicians to create an artistic success that, uncharacteristically, also translated into commercial success." It was very interesting to learn about Khumalo and Phiri, and about the mbaqanga music they brought to Simon's attention. The article notes that Simon was well-known in South Africa for "Mother and Child Reunion" (another world music tune recorded with Jamaican musicians) and that Khumalo's trademark basslines in songs like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" were his own ("for the most part, Khumalo was given complete freedom to create his own lines"). Bahiti Khumalo was 30 at the time, and said that his hope was that "Graceland's" success would let him bring his band to the US "I think they will like our music. And back home it's not good, not good."

Guitarist Ray Phiri was 40 years old, and an established star in his home country; in fact, the article noted "at the time we spoke to Ray during Simon's US tour, 'Graceland' was the #2 album on the South African pop charts, topped only by Stimela [Phiri's band]."  Phiri's father was a musician until a work accident disabled him, and the article hints at the poverty experienced by black South Africans:
"By working after school as a gardener for white families at the equivalent of $1.50 per month, he was able to save enough money to buy a copy of Alfred's Guitar Chords. "I learned to play chords, but I had a problem because I didn't know how to tune the guitar," says Ray. "So I had to work another three months to buy the little tuner that sounds like a harmonica."
I would like to think that I had enough of a social conscience to be appalled that it took three months of hard labor to afford a pitch pipe, but who knows what 17 year old me missed in the obliviousness of youth? That said, what a difference technology makes--now if a young person has access to the World Wide Web, they can get all kinds of guitar instruction for free.

The article gave quite a bit of interesting insights into the music of "Graceland". Ray Phiri, who was a co-arranger on the album, says:
"I believe that Paul was looking for a tap that he could open and have ideas pour out. I was that kind of tap. He asked me to give him riffs and grooves, and that's what I did. From there, we started making songs....The album was done and mixed when we went to New York for the Saturday Night Live show. But when we started jamming around, out came "You Can Call Me Al" and "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and we went into the studio and recorded them....The album, to me, is the music we used to play in the late '60s and early '70s. "
Sievert says that "For the most part, Simon relied on the rich variety of traditional South African musical styles to build the songs on. To explain them, Phiri compares them with the 'juju' music of Nigerian King Sunny Ade, which has gained a certain amount of popularity in the United States in the past few years":
"Juju is very close to mbaqanga, but it's a little more monotonous. Once you've heard one artist playing juju, it's like you've heard them all. You'll find our music is quite different. We have mbaqanga, which is our township jazz. We also have our "jive" and Soweto soul music. It's all different. It never gets boring, because it's very much like jazz that relies very heavily on improvisation. Juju depends very much on drums and the drum patterns all end up sounding the same. I don't say that juju music isn't good, but I believe our music is much richer. It's more soul music coming from the heart. It's not easy to write mbaqanga licks. If you try to make a technique out of it, you lose the rawness. It's so syncopated, and you can play up to five guitars at the same time without getting into each other's way."
What an interesting counterpoint to the quote from Scofield in the same magazine!  Of course, that could also be due to Phiri needing to differentiate his music to try to get sales. The article noted that it was hard for them to sell their music outside of South Africa:
"Every time we get a chance to have our records distributed in the States, politics gets in the way," Ray laments. "It's very sad because I would really like my music to be heard around here. Perhaps there is a chance that Paul's album will help change that. But I'm still searching for the missing chord that will combine the Western influence and our traditional music. Maybe we can come up with a sound that will hit the world, and people will say "Wow! This is fresh."


I've already gone on long enough, but I can't let this issue go without showing the review of Journey guitarist Neal Schon's signature guitar. When I was a teenager, I thought this was unquestionably the most awesome guitar  in the world! The review is by Rick Turner (who among other things, popularized neck-through-body designs like the Schon's with his company Alembic), and it's a good review, I just wish it had been in color! Neal Schon has had LOTS of signature guitars over the years (from Aria, Gibson, Paul Reed Smith and others), but this is my favorite. Here is a webpage that gives more details about these axes--I wish I could play one someday!

As always, here is a playlist featuring music referred to in the issue. Whether in an article, or a review, or an advertisement, this was some of the sound of June 1987. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (May 1987)

Welcome back to the newest series here on the blog. I was incredibly gratified to receive so many positive comments about the first installment back in March on the guitar related blogs and message boards I frequent. To recap, I have been playing guitar since 1986, and I have a collection of Guitar Player magazines that stretches back to the fall of that year. Each month I will write a new post looking at the issue that was published exactly 30 years ago; the goal is to try to remember what I learned from the issue at the time, but also what someone reading the issue for the first time today might notice. Each post will also have a Spotify playlist with some of the music referred to in the issue.

Well without further ado, let's go back in time. In May, 1987 I was wrapping up 11th grade at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Guitar wise, there were no changes--I had an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt's, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. As far as what ELSE was going on in the spring of 1987, Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Gary Hart was up to some "Monkey Business" with Donna Rice, my Philadelphia Flyers hockey team advanced to the Stanley Cup finals against Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers (the orange and black lost in 7 games), Playtex was the first company to show women wearing bras on tv commercials, and more seriously, 37 sailors were killed when the U.S.S. Stark was attacked by an Iraqi jet during the Iraq-Iran war (during which the Reagan administration famously attempted to play both sides against the middle).

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In the pages of Guitar Player, blues musician Robert Cray (whose songs "Strong Persuader" and "Right Next Door" were radio and MTV hits) was on the cover, along with a small picture of roots rockers Georgia Satellites (whose "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" was a BIG video hit). The cover also told us that one-hit wonders David+David would be profiled, along with the highlights from the 1987 National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) tradeshow. Finally, the cover touted a free record of a live recording of Cray onstage with Eric Clapton playing Cray's song "Phone Booth". Back in those pre-digital download days, GP included a vinyl "flexidisc" record each month. I remember how excited I was to detach them from the perforations, carefully lay them on top of an actual 12 inch LP, and put them on the turntable. Fortunately for us, someone out there has saved his copy and posted it on YouTube. Sounds pretty good!


One of the things I want to try to do in these blog posts is try to remember what I learned from these articles at the time, and also to show what can be gleaned from them today.  The version of me who was around in  May, 1987 spent a lot of time listening to the radio and watching MTV. I was already really into the blues--I'd bought a few LPs by mail order from Alligator Records so I was excited to see Robert Cray on the cover. That said, the only thing that jumped out at me then was that he had played with Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland on a Grammy winning record, and that Collins had played his high school prom (and that Jimi Hendrix had played his high school as well). The coolest band to play in my suburbs was the Hooters, and even that was at the Catholic school, so I was probably jealous!

Reading the article now, I notice right from the get go that there was more going on--the title of the article was "The Great Blues Hope", and the interview with Dan Forte put a lot of focus on the issue of the aging of original bluesmen and the need for new (preferably African-American) successors. Forte's questions indulged in terms I didn't understand as a teenager, but can't miss now:

  • "It seems you haven't consciously compromised to cross over; you've always done the same stuff."
  • "When you hooked up with a major label, were there any commercial considerations when it came time to pick material?"
  • "None of the tracks on 'Strong Persuader' are really straight ahead blues....Do you feel comfortable with the blues label?"
  • "As far as your guitar playing much of what you do stems from straight-ahead blues and who are the other sources?"

and the big one:

"Since most of the young blues players coming up seem to be white, critics and writers and to some degree, fans...have been searching for a long time for some young blacks to carry on the tradition. With the kind of success you are having now, do you feel any pressure or responsibility in the fact that, whether you like it or not, you're pretty much thrust into that role?"

For the record, Cray answered the last question with "I don't even think about it", even though he acknowledged hearing it a lot. My thoughts on this 30 years later are that the focus on recruiting a black "young face of the blues" (presumably to contrast with Stevie Ray Vaughn among young blues guitarists) makes me a little uncomfortable. Also, I will confess that it took me a long time (decades) to really appreciate Robert Cray's music, and I wonder if Forte's questions implying that he wasn't "really" a blues traditionalist played a role?

The Georgia Satellites article was quite interesting--it was actually two separate short pieces on the group's two guitarists, Rick Richards and Dan Baird. I really loved the "Keep Your Hands To Yourself" video and the tune was on the radio a lot back then. 17-year old me didn't get all the references to artists who influenced the duo, but I do know that I used it as part of my research to find cool records! Back then I was quite methodical about tracking down influences; while I didn't "get" Robert Johnson (for instance), I knew what he'd meant to Eric Clapton so I bought his records. These interviews definitely helped point me towards records like Sweetheart of the Rodeo by the Byrds, the Mick Taylor era Rolling Stones, and contemporary artists like Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers and Pete Anderson of Dwight Yoakam's band.

David+David (Ricketts and Baerwald) were a duo that put out a very atmospheric record called Welcome to the Boomtown, and the title track got radio and video play at the time. I liked that song, and I have come to really like the album (I listen to it several times every year, usually when I want to experience 80's cocaine-fueled ennui and paranoia). The article is kind of interesting from a "LA Studio Guys" kind of way, but doesn't yield any clues as to why they never made another record. Interestingly, it takes a trip to Wikipedia to learn that both men were part of the Tuesday Night Music Club that led to Sheryl Crow's first major LP after she stopped singing backup for Michael Jackson.

The NAMM roundup is interesting in the way that it starts with what were probably rather esoteric products (signal processors and MIDI gear) and only talks about amplifiers on the third page. It's a bit boring due to the black-and-white pictures, but making me feel VERY old indeed is the focus on Marshall's 25/50 amplifiers, celebrating the company's quarter century of making eardrums bleed with special silver colored amps, cabinets and combos. These might be familiar to you as a key part of Slash's sound with Guns and Roses (maybe he ran out and got his after reading this issue?), or from the fact that the amps were reissued last year. In a fun twist, Mike Kapolka, a former student of mine, is the guitarist for upcoming band Down To Six, and he plays an original Silver Jubilee amp.

Another article that really stands out for me is the feature "Show Guitar: Playing The Pits From The Boondocks To Broadway", by Frank Jermance, a professor of music management at University of Colorado-Denver (who apparently had a background as a pit guitarist in road companies of Cats, Eubie, Annie, The Sound of Music, and other shows). I was a pretty serious theatre guy in high school and was seriously considering a career backstage; in the month of May I was also super interested in picking the brain of the professional guitarist who played my high school's production of The Music Man. I was the house manager, and I enjoyed talking to him--he played a headless Steinberger guitar, and told me it was because space in a pit was so limited. I remember talking to him about this article, in fact!

Jermance has lots of important advice, mostly about learning to sight read, and being able to follow a conductor's directions. But he also gets down to the nitty-gritty, with specific tips like:

  • "A competent show player should be able to manage styles from Atkins to Zappa".  This resonated with me, because my teacher at the time was Jim McCarthy who had graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology. He told me about the jazz classes, country classes, blues classes, and so on that he had to take to get a "Professional Guitarist" diploma.
  • "Your basic amp should be no larger than a Fender Twin Reverb...since the guitarist is often allocated a three-foot square space"
  • "You must have a good quality flat-top with a natural-sounding pickup, a nylon-string guitar with some kind of pickup, an amplifiable archtop, and a "hybrid" electric guitar that is capable of producing the clarity of a Tele and Strat as well as a "fat" Les Paul sound on demand. You'll also need a banjo and a mandolin, both of which can be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar."  That's quite a guitarsenal! And thus was my lifelong journey begun....


My favorite article on re-reading the magazine is the long feature on Nashville session guitarist Brent Rowan. Guitar Player was very helpful in introducing me to country music (which wasn't on Philadelphia FM radio in the '80s, but could be found on Cable TV on The Nashville Network and Austin City Limits), and esoteric treats like the Nashville number system of music notation, which has always made more sense to me than traditional music notation. Anyway, the article about Rowan was called "Brent Rowan's Nashville Notebook", and it is really fascinating. Besides giving a standard interview describing his approach to recording on Nashville sessions, and in doing so, reveals just how much pressure Nashville cats faced (emphasis mine):

"We are directly competing with New York and L.A. sound wise and player wise. I can't prove this, but someone at the union office told me that there are more records being made in Nashville than anywhere else. The guys doing most of the session work here can play anything that you want at anytime, in any kind of style. Part of what we're fighting is the image that the only thing that comes out of here are Mel Tillis and George Jones records. 
Country music has changed and broadened a lot. The more contemporary Christian things are some of the hipper stuff being done. Versatility comes into play here, because you may have to do an Albert Lee or Ricky Skaggs-type tune on the same session that you have to do a ZZ Top or Larry Carlton kind of thing. Players have to be able to do anything because the album budgets are typically smaller, so there are fewer spots. You don't have one date to do just one track, like you might in L.A. In two sessions--six hours--you may have to do two to seven master quality songs....For a guitar slot to be open you've got to be versatile. My record collection goes from Ricky Skaggs to Bryan Adams to Hendrix to Tina Turner to Timbuk 3. I need to be aware of everything, so if the producer says 'Make it sound like the new Pretenders album', I'll know what he means."
Pretty neat. Also neat to me is that Rowan's article makes several mentions to the musician's union, and Jermance also spent a lot of time talking about the importance of being in the union, and explaining union wages for pit musicians. I don't see that as much nowadays, perhaps due to the proliferation of "right to work" laws in the last few decades?

The highlight of the article was "A Week in the Life of Brent Rowan", where he detailed each of the sessions he played. Click here for a larger copy of the picture below that you can read:

One of the things that jumps out at me now is that twice in the week he did after hours rehearsals with a "writer for Tree Publishing..[who fronts] a Louisiana swamp-rock band, to help him get a record deal."  The name of that up and coming songwriter? Kix Brooks, who became part of Brooks and Dunn and has sold over 30 million records. What a great sense of being a fly on the wall this article provides!


The Spotify playlist below has some of the music referred to in the issue. I've also included jazz guitarist Larry Carlton's "Last Nite" for two reasons--first, the ad on page 138 (pictured at left), and also because my teacher was at the concert at Hollywood's Baked Potato club that made up the bulk of the record. It was really neat because he told me about what the show was really like--apparently the horn section on several songs wasn't actually there, but was overdubbed later. You can bet that I tucked that little tidbit away and have always been drawn to live albums with as little post production "sweetening" as possible. 

I hope you liked this look back at Guitar Player in the spring of 1987.  I'll be back in June with another installment. Until then, bass columnist Herb Mickman reminded his readers "If it sounds good, it is good!"

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My Back Pages: Thirty Years Ago in Guitar Player Magazine (March 1987)

Welcome to a new series here on the blog. As you might know from previous posts, I have been playing guitar since 1986, and I have a collection of Guitar Player magazines that stretches back to the fall of that year. I am missing a small number of issues, but in the main I have carried these magazines with me through eleven moves in five states over the last three decades. 

The 275 issues in my possession from October 1986 (which I bought in the music store where I had my first guitar lesson) through March, 2010 when I ended my subscription due to frustration with poor editing, shallow writing and unhelpful gear reviews have been my faithful companions--I've read every issue more than once, and several have been read more times than I can count. Especially in the days before the World Wide Web, Guitar Player ("The Guitar Player's Bible") was the most authoritative source of information about the instrument, its history, its players, and how to play it. Even through the 1990's, the magazine was the best way to stay current with gear, music, trends and topics related to the guitar.

I've decided to write a post each month where I will look through the Guitar Player from exactly thirty years prior. Each post will show the cover, describe the feature articles and highlight any cool ads, lessons or other content that stands out. I'll also try to discuss  what I learned from them at the time, and how they shaped my approach to music. Finally, I'll also point out what will now look like anachronisms: whether it's once expensive gear that is now obsolete, or the kind of content (such as explanations of digital music) that is now considered common knowledge.  Each post will also have a Spotify playlist with some of the music referred to in the issue.

I think that this will be a very interesting and educational look back at what was considered important, current, and popular music decades ago.  It will also frequently demonstrate that while times change, topics of discussion do not. I wrote in this space last year about the economics of guitar building, a topic which (like tropical trees) seems never to go extinct; topics such as "the future of guitar" will appear throughout the series--whether as comfortable bragging during the axe-heavy hair metal '80s or as fraught hand-wringing during the flannel-clad grunge '90s, and that is still a topic that causes people to wonder even now.

Well without further ado, let's go back in time. In March, 1987 I was in 11th grade at William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pennsylvania. Guitar wise, I had an old classical (nylon-string) acoustic of my aunt's, and a Peavey T-15 electric guitar (with Peavey Audition 110 amp) that my parents had got me for my 16th birthday the summer before at The Music Barn, a really nice little music store in town. As far as what ELSE was going on in the spring of 1987, the tv show "The A Team" went off the air, "Les Miserables" began its lengthy Broadway run and televangelist Jim Bakker left his show PTL after an affair with his assistant, Jessica Hahn (later the "star" of "comedian" Sam Kinison's music video for "Wild Thing"). In that year's Academy Awards, "Platoon" took Best Picture, and Paul Newman and Marlee Matlin won Best Actor and Best Actress. Interestingly, that same month, August Wilson's play "Fences" premiered in New York and thirty years later, Viola Davis won an Oscar for her role in the film version. Oh, and in actually important news, President Ronald Reagan went on television to "take full responsibility" for the criminal conspiracy known as the Iran-Contra Scandal

In the pages of Guitar Player, jazz musician Mike Stern (promoting his first solo record "Upside/Downside") and his uni-brow were on the cover, along with a small picture of bassist Bruce Thomas of Elvis Costello's band The Attractions. The cover also touted a "free record" inside from Adrian Belew. Back in those pre-digital download days, GP included a vinyl "flexidisc" record each month. I remember how excited I was to detach them from the perforations, carefully lay them on top of an actual 12 inch LP, and put them on the turntable.

Other highlights on the cover were an interview with the guitarists and bassist of then new sensation band The Smithereens, a new instructional article from bass superstar (and 1980's #1 go to bassist) Nathan East, and the usual reviews of new gear.

One of the things I want to try to do in these blog posts is try to remember what I learned from these articles at the time, and also to show what can be gleaned from them today.  The version of me who was around in  March, 1987 was totally absorbed by music, nearly evenly splitting his listening time between MTV, Philadelphia rock stations WMMR and WYSP and jazz radio station WRTI (especially their "Fusion Friday" show). I had just begun taking guitar lessons from a man named Jim McCarthy who had recently graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood and was eager to learn music theory, though I had no training and no patience to learn how to read.

With that in mind, the article about Adrian Belew's new record, Desire Caught By The Tail went almost totally over my head, dealing as it did with advanced technology like guitar synthesizers and sequencers, and the one about Mike Stern and his new album, Upside/Downside was also pretty hard to get through, as it was written for an audience that was familiar with jazz, jazz musicians, and record production. Having said that, looking at them now, what strikes me in Belew's piece was how fluent he was at embracing then "bleeding-edge" technology and making rigorous, challenging music with it. Similarly, what stands out in the Stern article is the frankness with which it approached the drug and alcohol use that had sidetracked his career throughout the early Eighties.

The cover story was written by GP editor Jim Ferguson, and he opens up the article by saying that "...for the past 10 years, he's been one of jazz' best kept secrets, largely due to his shy modesty and drug problems, which he has put behind him."  Later in the piece, Stern says "Only recently have I started to realize that there's a hell of a lot more to life than just drinking and drugging. But there's a lot more to life than just music and the guitar, too....It's nice to read a book once in a while, too, you know?"  I still read music publications today, and it seems that now it is much rarer to see people be open about their drug use.

The article with Bruce Thomas was probably of superficial interest to me then (not knowing much of Elvis Costello's work at the time, nor caring about bassists), but is fascinating now. Thomas describes life coming up as a musician in England in the 1960s (as a blues guitarist), and becoming a bass player for Costello in the early days of punk rock. At one point, he's asked if the band felt "out of place" being tagged as a "punk" band since so many of them (except for Costello) had so much experience in groups. His answer is worth quoting:
"Not really. A lot of the time we played too fast because we were nervous. And a lot of the time for more dubious reasons [laughs] that had to do with the era. We were working so hard, we used to basically drink a lot of vodka and take a lot of cocaine--it was as simple as that. So we played too fast. We were just doing gigs and getting on the bus and doing gigs. We didn't have five days off in the first two years. We were basically fried.
....I was never a person who listened to rock music at home; I always listened to Baroque or some sort of ethnic music. Steely Dan was about the nearest I got to rock, and Elvis thought I was a bit of a wimp. He was the guy who was champing at the bit and frothing at the mouth. He had never been in a band before, never been on a bus before, never seen a groupie before. Conversely,  I was playing in bands and was saying "Aww, for God's sake, you can't keep playing this lame sort of sub-California Eagles shit." The only exciting bands around at the time were...Dr. Feelgood. Let's get some good old British R&B; let's get the beat back into it! Never mind about this "Take It Easy" and "Trucking Down The Freeway Of Life's Stoned And Moody Mind With My Little Denim Lady in LA" I quite like redblooded music..."

What an interesting assessment of different musical styles and the appeal they had at the time (and what kind of groupie did Elvis Costello attract?). Now, I understand Dr. Feelgood and respect them as a solid "pub-rock" "good old British R&B" group, but in 1986 I would have probably bristled at anyone saying anything bad about the Eagles.  Plus ├ža change...

Another article that really stands out for me is the feature "Tax Tips for Guitarists: What the New Laws Mean To You", by Kent Klavens a "Los Angeles-based entertainment-industry attorney". Written after the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Klavens directed his advice both "to the richest and most successful among you, while other items are directed to the 'starving artist' types." This article is one of a kind that we will see over and over in this series--in the days before the internet, Guitar Player took its reputation as the "bible" for axe slingers seriously, and they often engaged with serious issues that would have been meaningless to 16 year old me, but of great import to my 25 year old teacher Jim, who was giving lessons out of his bedroom in Warminster, PA.


Gear wise, the magazine was full of advertisements for the latest and greatest guitars, amps and effects. Nowadays, much of the advertising for guitars touches on "vintage" and "familiar" styles, but in the mid-1980's eyes were firmly fixed on the future.  Needless to say, few people (besides rock stars) could afford a $10,000 "SynthAxe" controller--that would be about $21,400 now--but while it seems fascinating that they would advertise such an instrument, many people thought that they were the future. The fact is, the 80's were a heyday of synthesizer sounds in music, and if guitarists wanted to keep up (and couldn't play keyboards) they needed to find a way to contribute. No less a guitar hero than Eric Clapton had played synthesizer guitar extensively on his 1985 album Behind The Sun, and it seemed like everyone would be doing so soon. In fact, when I went to college in 1988 the lead guitarist in my band (more on that in future posts) had a Roland guitar synth controller, so they were definitely "out there" even for amateur musicians.

My teacher could play INCREDIBLY fast, and he told me that he'd played several guitar synths, but they could never keep up with him (so much for "lightning fast picking"), but he was convinced that all guitarists would be playing synths one day. I'm sure glad that hasn't come to pass yet!

Obviously if you want to be a rock star, you have to have records for people to listen to. Fortunately the mid-1980s saw a proliferation of relatively inexpensive recording technology that utilized then-common cassette tapes to allow a person to plug in a couple of microphones and record a demo tape or live performance. Nowadays, of course my iPhone can record lots more than four tracks, with studio quality effects, and can also export the music to YouTube or some other distribution modality, for free. It might be good for people to remember that the easy to use technology in their pocket is so much more capable than the portable studio that cost $600 ($1,285 today) in 1987. And it would be even better if it would encourage them to record something!


One of the things that set Guitar Player apart from other magazines back then was the breadth and depth of its lessons and of the musicians who wrote them.  Besides Nathan East's debut article "Bass Tracks: Creating the Right Part", the issue also featured Chet Atkins, Larry Coryell (who just passed away last month), Rik Emmet of the band Triumph (who was my favorite columnist--we will be hearing a lot about him in future posts); Howard Roberts (the founder of Musician's Institute), Tommy Tedesco (the most recorded studio guitarist ever) and classical virtuoso and professor Benjamin Verdery. Most of these articles were far beyond my comprehension at the time, but over the years I've enjoyed going back over old lessons and trying to use them to broaden my mastery of the instrument. 

One of the articles that I know that I read and took seriously then was by bass legend Jeff Berlin. Titled "Why You Should Learn To Read Music", it is full of valuable information and good reasons supporting it's thesis. Berlin writes :

"If you love guitar or bass, there is no reason why you shouldn't put in an hour or two every day and learn to read. First of all, your career choices rapidly increase....Reading music gives you authenticity in your playing. It makes information instantly available, plus it puts within your reach music that you would never have thought of, or worse, never thought of practicing and playing. Reading music makes as much sense as reading English."
In retrospect, this article goes very well with the cover story on Mike Stern. Stern had attended Berklee School of Music, and had played with Miles Davis and other jazz legends, but he talks about how a big part of his practicing involves transcribing solos from other instruments (which is impossible without knowing standard notation). I was far too lazy to take Jeff Berlin's advice (which my teacher was also giving me every Sunday), just like I was too lazy to learn how to program the computer my father bought me in 1981 (which is why I didn't become a dot com zillionaire), but it is excellent advice, and you should take it seriously!

Unfortunately I am missing the April, 1987 issue of Guitar Player, but I'll be back in May. Until then, as Rik Emmett used to say, "Keep picking and grinning"!

Spotify Playlist: Guitar Player March 1987

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Initial Thoughts on the Presidential Election of 2016

After what seemed like a four-year campaign, originally featuring over a score of prospective candidates from the two major parties, the Presidential election of 2016 came down to Donald Trump, a New York real estate mogul and professional portrayer of "Donald Trump" and Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, two-term Senator from New York and two-term FLOTUS (First Lady Of The United States). The election cost billions of dollars, spawned thousands of hours of radio and tv advertising, and generated countless exchanges on Twitter and Facebook.  In what came as a surprise to the mainstream media and virtually all pollsters, Trump won a decisive victory in the Electoral College, despite Clinton winning the popular vote (the second Democrat in the last five elections to perform this unlikely feat). As of this writing the Electoral College has yet to meet (that will happen in December), but it looks like Trump should claim at least 290 electoral votes, 20 more than those needed to become the most powerful person in the world. 

I have been a keen observer of Presidential politics since 1984 (I was 14 that year) and it is safe to say that I am a heavy consumer of news and opinion writing. That said, I have been gifted with a remarkable lack of insight and intuition and generally my prognostications are well off the mark. Such brilliant predictions as "Bruce Babbitt is exactly what America needs in 1988" and "Dan Quayle will be elected President in 2000--count on it" have cemented my reputation as the anti-Nostradamus, so my friends should have taken my 2016 prediction with a grain of salt when I confidently proclaimed that Trump would lose by a giant margin, and would receive fewer votes than any Republican in years. 

But as I stayed up until 3AM on election night waiting to see what would transpire, I realized that in a way I was on to something. Far fewer people voted this year than normally do, and while numbers have changed the picture somewhat from the tweet at left I stand by my thesis that "unpopular choices and negativity" resulted in the large number of non-voters in 2016.

To be sure, it's not like America is a place where most people who have a chance to vote actually cast ballots.  Our friends at Wikipedia have a nice page on voter turnout, and in the eleven Presidential elections in my lifetime, the average participation of eligible voters has been 53.4%. Every one of these elections came after the 26th Amendment expanded the franchise to include all Americans over the age of 18, and includes the pathetic election of 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected with 49% of the vote of the 49% of the voters who voted. The Pew Center shows us that Americans are not disposed to expressing their opinion at the voting booth, especially compared to other countries.
Answers to the perpetual question of "Why don't more Americans vote for President" range from dissatisfaction with the choices, to disfranchisement of people with criminal records, to feeling of disempowerment on the part of the poor and minorities, to the difficulty in taking time on a weekday to stand in line and vote.  I hinted at this in a more alarmist tweet as election night turned into a dark, rainy day:

If we take a close look at the results of the last five Presidential elections, we can see that things are actually a little more complicated than we typically think. My favorite "go to" resource for results of American elections is the wonderful "Dave Leip's US Election Atlas". You can see detailed breakdown of the elections here:

I have always used this information when refuting the myth that "Ralph Nader's voters threw the election of 2000 to George W. Bush". First of all, if Al Gore had only won his own state of Tennessee, the Supreme Court would never have gotten involved in the election. Secondly, while Nader received over 2.8 million votes that year (including mine), can you remember how many candidates received votes that year? Well let's see there was Gore, and Bush, and Nader. Oh, and Buchanan of course. Four, right? Wrong! Over a dozen other individuals received more than 1 million total votes in 2000. Why don't they get any blame? Probably due to the mindshare that America's "two party" system holds, that makes most people unable to cognitively recognize other choices, even as protest votes.

And if that surprises you, it will doubtless be quite a shock to learn that at least 14 people in 2004, at least 21 people in 2008 and over 25 people in 2012 received Presidential votes. But now that you are over your surprise, you won't even blink when you see that TWENTY-NINE people other than Trump and Clinton claimed at least 300 votes last week. For all of your friends who castigated you that a "protest" vote for Gary Johnson was wasted, you can point to the 702 people who voted for Rod and Richard Silva on the Nutrition Party ticket. He was ready to wage war on cholesterol, and now we'll have to wait another four fatty years until that scourge can be addressed.

If you look closely at the data you'll see that I was sort of right, in that fewer people seem to have voted this year than expected. The American population is constantly growing (in 2000 it was 282 million, this year it is over 323 million) and the number of eligible voters grows accordingly. As a result, the total number of votes cast has increased nearly every election of my life, with two exceptions. For the last five elections, the numbers are:

  • 1992: 104,426,611
  • 1996: 96,275,640
  • 2000: 105,425,985
  • 2004: 122,303,590
  • 2008: 131,473,705
  • 2012: 129,237,642
  • 2016: 128,928,498* (votes are still being counted)

So the only times that the number of voters did NOT increase were in the aforementioned 1996 election when people were not excited about Bill Clinton and Bob Dole seemed like a sacrificial lamb nominated for a lifetime of service, rather than for any new ideas; 2012 when the excitement about Barack Obama had worn off and Mitt Romney was nominated for a lifetime of service, rather than new ideas (except for Romneycare, which he ran AWAY from); and 2016, when the two major parties nominated the least popular candidates ever and Hillary Clinton seemed to be nominated for a lifetime of service, rather than new ideas (except for the ones she adopted from Bernie Sanders). The lesson here to me is that if you want to get people excited about their choices, they need to have REAL choices, who present specific, unique ideas that resonate with the public.

One more dive into the data should suffice to prove this point. If you look at the raw vote data, you'll see that Trump was elected with fewer votes than any winner since 2000 (whoever you count as the "winner"). Beyond that, you'll see that compared to 2012, the number of votes was down all over the country, sometimes by large amounts. Perhaps California was such a foregone conclusion that we can excuse 30% fewer Democrats voting for Clinton than voted for Obama and 38% fewer Republicans voting for Trump than voted for Romney. But what about the so-called "battleground" states?  Iowa flipped from Democratic to Republican, and 20.88% fewer Democrats voted for Clinton than did for Obama four years ago (GOP votes were up in Iowa by over 9%). The story repeated itself in other parts of Clinton's "blue wall": In Ohio Clinton got 18% fewer votes than Obama did (and Trump improved on Romney by 4%) and in Michigan, the Democratic candidate got 11.59% less votes than Obama and Trump garnered 7.75% more votes than Romney to turn the state red. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania saw similar numbers. In short, people who were "expected" to vote Democratic were not inspired to go to the trouble of voting for a candidate who didn't excite them.


Over the last few years, as the endless Presidential election wound its way towards last winter's primaries and caucuses I told anyone who would listen that Hillary Clinton would never get elected President. I said that she was too old (wrong--Trump is a year older and just became the oldest person elected President) and that too many people distrusted her. In that, sadly, I seem to have finally been correct. When in 1998 Hillary Clinton decried the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against the Clintons people laughed, as one does when one hears a conspiracy theory. The only thing is, she was right--the conspiracy was real, and it was totally successful. Friends of mine on social media who were adamantly anti-Clinton (if not pro-Trump) openly speculated about such ridiculous, proven lies and myths such as Hillary's role in the suicide (they said murder) of her longtime friend and business parter Vince Foster in 1993. Many of these people were old enough to know better, but others were young enough that the "revelations" were new to them. 

I don't know what is going to happen in the next four years, and based on my record, any speculation would be wildly off-base anyway. But if the Democrats want to try to regain the White House, they need to find a young, exciting person with new ideas. Trump shows that the person doesn't need to have (any?) experience, just a gift for self-expression and an aura of success. Time will tell...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"I Am Not Throwing Away My Shot": Thoughts on Hamilton

After putting it off for months, I finally listened to the soundtrack to "Hamilton: An American Musical" a few weeks ago and I was transfixed from the start. I've listened to it a lot more since then, and I can say that the awards and nominations are well deserved. For years I told my students that we study the past to make sense of today, and it is obvious that "Hamilton" creator Lin-Manuel Miranda agrees, having written a play that states unequivocally that "immigrants...we get the job done". I initially wanted to write two pieces, one discussing the art of this particular musical and another covering the historical accuracy, but it is impossible to separate the two, so I've put both things together below. Please note: the following will contain "spoilers", if there can be spoilers for something so plainly based on historical fact. But if you are waiting to see the play, you might want to stop here. 

As I've mentioned in previous posts (such as this one), I spent 12 years teaching history at the high school level (in fact, every year my final exam had a section of matching questions for which the right answers were the acrostic "HAMILTON"), and have been a serious student of American history for decades. Back in high school when I applied to Hampshire College, I had the idea that my Division III (think, senior project but really big) would combine my love of theatre and American history by writing a one-person play about the life of socialist labor leader Eugene Debs. Ultimately I went in a totally other direction (I studied labor-management relations in major league baseball) and decided that while it wasn't impossible to write a good play about American history (a classmate named Karen Sabo wrote a one-person play about Hollywood blacklisting and it was super), I KNEW it was impossible to write a musical about America that would be excellent artistically as well as historically. 

So imagine my surprise when I first heard about this musical. And not to pat myself on the back, but I am not a Johnny come lately to this topic, having read a long article about it in the New York Times four years ago, which referenced an even earlier public performance at the White House shortly after President Obama was inaugurated, that left me very eager for more. To that end, when I read this review of the play in its pre-Broadway run I eagerly petitioned to lead a school field trip to see the show. Unfortunately the history department head at my old school was a very hidebound person, and he rebuffed me, saying "I hardly think that there is any place for 'rap music' in a discussion of history."  

Well, let's just say that if I had a ten dollar bill for every time that guy was wrong about something I could afford to see "Hamilton" on Broadway! But there's no use crying over spilled milk.

Miranda has often told the story that, when reading Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton, he was struck by the contemporary relevance of the man and his times:

“Just the hustle and ambition it took to get him off the island — this is a guy who wrote his way out of his circumstances from the get-go. That is part and parcel with the hip-hop narrative: writing your way out of your circumstances, writing the future you want to see for yourself. This is a guy who wrote at 14, ‘I wish there was a war.’ It doesn’t get more hip-hop than that.”
I spent a long time teaching the Revolutionary War, the ratification of the Constitution, the Washington and Adams administrations, the election of 1800 and the Burr-Hamilton duel to hundreds of students, and all I can say is, Miranda sums it all up amazingly well. His musical numbers are not only tuneful, rhythmic and dynamic, but they also express the agreed-upon facts concisely and clearly. At this point, I think that any U.S. History teacher who doesn't play excerpts from the soundtrack in class is missing a great chance to engage with the students. 

The musical is divided into two acts, each of which has Aaron Burr in the role of a Greek chorus, setting the stage with laser-cut imagery that would give any attentive audience member the basic historical grounding to follow what is about to come next.  Act I follows Hamilton from his origin in the West Indies to his arrival in America as a talented, orphaned immigrant at the outset of the Revolutionary War. We meet characters like Burr, the Marquis de Lafayette, George Washington, and Elizabeth, Angelica and Peggy, Hamilton's future wife and sisters-in-law, the Schuyler sisters. By the end of the first half of the show, the Revolutionary War has ended, and both Hamilton and Burr (who in many ways are mirror images of each other throughout the musical) are new fathers, as well as fathers of our country. Act II introduces us to new characters such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Maria Reynolds, with whom Hamilton had a disastrous adulterous affair (in a "you can't make this up" twist, in real life Maria Reynolds later divorced her husband and her lawyer was---Aaron Burr). The second act gives us a great look at Washington's neutrality policy, at the debate over the assumption of state debts, and the Election of 1800, and culminates in the duel in which Burr fatally shot Hamilton. 

There is much that I'd like to say about this show, but in the interest of brevity and clarity, I've confined myself to four topics. Each of them will let me explain what I like so much about this musical while also sharing some reflections about the history behind the lyrics.

Alexander Hamilton: 

Miranda is best, in my mind, when dealing with the biographical and psychological aspects of the title character. Hamilton was a desperate young man when he came to America, who (in a society that was very stratified and inaccessible to a man without property) longed for a war in which he could make his mark. A recurring theme lyrically and philosophically first appears in the third musical number, "My Shot". In it, Hamilton and his young friends are eager for the opportunities war will bring, and repeatedly vow, "I am not throwing away my shot." Miranda's Hamilton shows that he identifies with the new country which he will help build with his own blood and toil when he says: "Hey yo, I'm just like my country, I'm young, scrappy and hungry, and I'm not throwing away my shot." 

The show is also great at expressing the idea that Hamilton was a ball of energy (his wife asks him "why do you write like you're running out of time?") and ambition due to the difficult circumstances of his youth. That said, while not masking Hamilton's flaws, the show does minimize them. While the show does note that "Martha Washington named her feral tom cat after him", it is presented as an aspect of his personality prior to the marriage with Elizabeth Schuyler that (in a day when a wife's property became her husband's) established him at the upper levels of New York society. In real life, Hamilton was a serial adulterer and probably what we would call a functioning alcoholic (though, so were a lot of people at a time when the average American drank seven gallons of alcohol yearly). I used to describe him to my students as "the most self-destructive person in American History", and that is somewhat minimized in the musical.

The arc of the narrative does a good job of mirroring the arc of Hamilton's life. At the end, after playing a key role in ending  his rival Burr's political career, and following the death of his oldest son, Philip in a duel over Hamilton's honor, the former Federalist firebrand retired to a quiet life in New York. His nearly ruined marriage is depicted as recovering slowly, but it's clear that the ultimate politician has no future in government. It is really left up to the audience members to decide if Hamilton accepted Burr's challenge out of pride, or with a death wish. We've heard throughout the play that "history has its eyes on" Hamilton, and there is no doubt that his everlasting fame (at least, before Miranda got a hold of him) was due to his famous death.

Aaron Burr:

In a lot of ways, Burr is the other star of "Hamilton", in the same way that Judas is the other star of "Jesus Christ Superstar". As in the famous rock opera, where it takes Judas to bring Jesus to his apotheosizing death, Burr played a similar role in the history of the Founding Fathers.  The musical does a good job of establishing Burr's reputation as a chameleon-like political figure whose ethos "speak more" conceals his true feelings. Burr was an orphan, but as the show makes note, he came from what at the time was American royalty. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, whose "Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God"was the prototypical "fire and brimstone" sermon of the Great Awakening, while his father was a founder of what became Princeton University, thus making Burr the perfect mix of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment; a sometimes incompatible mix that still causes conflict in our society today. I really like how the show seems to, in some ways, revolve around Burr's (remember, he's the narrator) frustration at having been passed in the race by a nobody. As Burr's character says at the start of Act I:

"How does a bastard, orphan, son of whore
And a Scotsman,
Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot
In the Caribbean by Providence,
Impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"

Not to take anything away from Aaron Burr. Burr was a legitimate war hero, having served in the doomed attack that was the Battle of Quebec, but he never reached the rank of general (compared to the younger Hamilton, who after years as Washington's aide-de-camp eventually rose (during the Adams presidency) to command the army of the United States.  In the 1790's Burr was a senator from New York (replacing Hamilton's father-in-law), and he became the third Vice-President of the US (and first to fail to become Chief Executive in his own right) in 1801. The play does a good job of showing how Burr and Hamilton had careers and lives in parallel for a long time, including serving as lawyers together, and having kids who (at least a little) might have humanized and settled them down. Tragically, both men outlived their oldest children.  

If Hamilton "wrote like he was running out of time", he wasn't alone. One of the great songs in the musical has characters marvel:

"Look around, look around at how lucky we are
To be alive right now!
History is happening in Manhattan and we just
Happen to be
In the greatest city in the world!"
and it wasn't just in New York that history was happening. For the first time, a small set of colonies overthrew the rule of the most powerful nation on the planet. A few years later, the people of France rose up against their rulers and literally remade the world. And after that, a smallish soldier born well but in a colonial backwater, rose up to become the Emperor of Europe. The example of Napoleon and his rapid rise along with the other titanic changes mentioned above must have made the similarly vertically challenged Burr (and Hamilton) believe that they lived in an annus mirabilis when dreams could come true. That gives extra meaning to the exchange at the end of Act II after Burr has defeated Philip Schuyler for the Senate:

Burr: ..Schuyler's seat was up for grabs, so I took it!
Hamilton: I've always considered you a friend.
Burr: I don't see why that has to end!
Hamilton: You changed parties to run against my father in law!
Burr: I changed parties to seize the opportunity I saw.
I swear, your pride will be the death of us all! Beware: it goeth before the fall. 
Of course, another of the many tragedies (both in the musical, and in real life), is that like Eliza Hamilton, Aaron Burr lived for 32 years after the fateful, fatal duel and never achieved what he must have thought was his destiny. 

The Duel:

I've been fascinated by the Burr-Hamilton duel ever since I was a teenager, when I first read "Burr: A Novel", by Gore Vidal, and when I saw the unrelated but visually striking movie, "The Duellists". One thing that makes me so interested is that there is no authoritative "truth" about the fatal gunfight between the sitting Vice-President and the former commanding general of the U.S. Army, therefore, it is the perfect example of how history can be whatever one wants it to be. 

I think it's important to remember that the age of Hamilton and Burr was one of short lives, quick death, and was in a lot of ways a small world. People didn't have long to make their mark, and in a small country, it was easier than it is now to rise to fame. The population of the United States in the 1800 Census (not counting Native Americans) was just over 5 million, and of them the following people couldn't vote:

  • men who did not own sufficient real estate
  • people under 21
  • all women
  • all slaves
as a result, in a close election like that of 1800, reputation mattered--there were only a few thousand voters in each state (even the bigger ones like New York) and a man's character was closely related to his honor, which at that time was the linchpin of his financial prospects. In a time when banks were rare and unstable, and when many people's wealth was tied to things of limited liquidity (such as crops yet to be grown, or slaves unable to be sold) wealthy men depended on their ability to borrow money from other men of the same social stratum. Many of the Founders spent their lives in debt to other wealthy men, and this was due to the fact that a gentleman would accept the word of another gentleman ("on my honor") that a debt would be repaid in full. In many cases, loans were made without collateral, because a man's honor was said to be enough. 

In the musical, as in life, Hamilton was brought down not by the adultery (and the related blackmail payments) of the Reynolds affair, but by his lengthy, detailed "Reynolds Pamphlet". In it, to show that he never abused the public trust, he told the world about his extra-marital affairs. Hamilton was so myopic that he could only focus on his reputation for financial probity and didn't care what he revealed about his shameful sexual behavior (and what it said about him as a husband)--after all, he wasn't looking for loans from women, was he?

No one knows what ultimately prompted the duel between Hamilton and Burr. As you probably remember from your history classes, the Constitution as written did not initially account for what was then known as political factions (we would say "parties"), and as a result the elections of 1796 and 1800 saw bitter rivals seeming to run together. In 1796, the Federalist John Adams became President while his Vice-President was Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. For the next four years, Jefferson did everything he could to weaken Adams (while Hamilton, who was also a Federalist, did the same). To avoid such a thing happening again, the parties tried to establish a clear candidate for President and a younger, dare I say "lesser" candidate for Vice-President four years later.

The election of 1800 ended in a tie in the Electoral College between Jefferson and Burr. Adams and his sidekick Charles Pinckney clearly lost, but who won? Elections took much longer to conduct back then, and for months Burr refused to do what many (certainly Jefferson) expected him to do and admit defeat. Imagine the recent tension between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but instead it's the actual election, and Sanders was young and refused to yield. Burr kept saying "as far as I can tell, I'm President", and he worked hard to get the House of Representatives to confirm it. When he finally lost to Jefferson on the 36th (!) ballot, he hoped that the Virginian would know that it had just been politics. Unfortunately, few people held grudges like Thomas Jefferson, and he made sure to ruin any chance of Burr ever rising to the White House.

Burr eventually accepted that he would have no place on the Federalist ticket in 1804, and instead sought to be elected governor of New York. Unfortunately a cabal including the unlikely partnership of Jefferson and Hamilton saw to his defeat. That same year, a letter to Hamilton's father-in-law Philip Schuyler was published in a newspaper in Albany, saying that at a recent dinner, Hamilton was heard to say "despicable" things about Burr. At this point, Burr had lost the votes of the powerful men in Albany, and he was probably in a vulnerable state. The letter said that Burr couldn't be trusted with power (which was bad enough)--what could have been more "despicable"?

We'll never know. But following the code of honor that made one accepted as a gentleman, Burr demanded Hamilton retract his statement and apologize. Hamilton essentially said that he was too drunk to remember what he said, and that he said so many things that he refused to apologize without Burr being more specific. The only result after that which would let Burr maintain face, maintain honor, and maintain status as a gentleman, was to challenge Hamilton to what they would have euphemistically called "an interview".

In my classes I would spend a day telling this story, and explaining the Code Duello, and how so-called gentlemen on both sides of the Atlantic would fight for honor. In typical fashion, Lin-Manuel Miranda does it better than I did and much more quickly, in the Act I number (reprised in Act II) "The Ten Duel Commandments". I would much rather play this recording than do my usual poor acting in front of the class!

Anyway, we know that Hamilton's pistols had a hair trigger, which would make them easier to fire. And as Miranda has Burr sing, "They won't teach you this in your classes, but look it up, Hamilton was wearing his glasses. Why? If not to take deadly aim?" Unfortunately, duelling was only quasi-legal then (in fact, it was against the law in New York, which is why gentlemen of the city rowed to New Jersey to fight), so there were not many witnesses. After everything was done, the two seconds (William Van Ness for Burr and Nathaniel Pendleton for Hamilton) issued a joint statement, but it doesn't say much. Basically, the men stood 10 paces apart; Hamilton's second would give the command to fire; the seconds disagreed over who fired first. Burr's papers from the time were lost at sea in the shipwreck that killed his daughter and grandson, so any contemporaneous record of his observations no longer exists. 

On the other hand, Hamilton (who always wrote like he was running out of time), penned a statement about the duel before he left for his rendezvous in Weehawken, in which he stated that his "religious and moral principles are strongly opposed to the practice of Duelling", and "I have resolved, if our interview is conducted in the usual manner, and it pleases God to give me the opportunity, to reserve and throw away my first fire, and I have thoughts even of reserving my second fire--and thus giving a double opportunity to Col. Burr to pause and to reflect." (italics in original) Basically, in a letter that was only to be read in the event of his death, Hamilton claimed that he planned to shoot his pistol in the air, to show Burr that he had "no ill will". But wouldn't it just have been easier to apologize then? Especially since to many, a refusal to fire at one's opponent was also a dishonorable act? 

In other words, at the end of his life, Hamilton would have us believe that he planned to "throw away his shot". This adds even greater poignance to the times earlier in the musical when he and other characters swear that they will NOT do so (in a different context, of course). 

At the end of the song "The World Was Wide Enough", Burr sings:

"Now I'm the villain in your history.I was too young and blind to see...I should have known.I should have knownThe world was wide enough for both HamiltonAnd me."
This is a great reference to one of my all-time favorite lines! Every year when I taught this class, I would have Burr's statement about the duel written on the board:

"Had I read Sterne more and Voltaire less, I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me." 

I love this quote. Not only is it a rueful acknowledgement by an old man of his previous lack of maturity, it also shows how books and authors can be so influential to our view of and conduct in the world.

The Music:

I am not a connoisseur of hip hop and modern R&B, so I will not be able to competently address the many references within Hamilton to music of the last few decades, though you can read articles that do so in what seems to be a very thorough fashion.  What I can do is write about how the music makes me feel. 

So many of the songs are so clever! I love how the character of King George comes off like the jealous ex-boyfriend par excellence in a song that sounds almost like '60s pop and sings, "when push comes to shove, I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love". I love how Lafayette sings in a silly French accent (and then the same actor plays Thomas Jefferson in Act II, newly returned from France). I love the feeling of pride that swells up in me when I hear "The World Turned Upside Down", which describes victory at the Battle of Yorktown, and conveys the feeling of limitless opportunity. 

It's important to remember that it's not just young men at pivotal points in history who believe that the world lies at their feet. That is a sentiment common with the young, especially the young of a relatively privileged background. I've previously quoted from the song "The Schuyler Sisters":
"Look around, look around at how lucky we are To be alive right now!History is happening in Manhattan and we justHappen to beIn the greatest city in the world!" 
When I first heard the recordings, and every other time since, hearing the characters sing of their joy and optimism has filled me with a deep sadness. Miranda is such a great writer, that he can accurately put his characters into an authentic state of self-awareness. To a young person, with the future yet to be written, such moments are genuinely exciting and full of limitless potential. But knowing as I do what is to befall the characters, and the country, I can't share their hopeful feelings. There is also the fact that I'm not 24 anymore, and I know how time can change people's lives. All of that comes through for me when I hear this song, and I tip my hat to Miranda for being such a powerful writer.

Speaking about sadness, I am not ashamed to say that parts of this musical brought tears to my eyes. Apparently I'm not alone, because if you Google "Hamilton makes me cry" you get over 2.5 million hits! Others have written about this ("10 Times I Lost My Sh*T Watching Hamilton The Musical"; Hamilton An American Musical Has Me Crying Nerd TearsThe Emotional Hooks of Hamilton, Why The Soundtrack Makes Me Cry Every Single Time) better than me. But I have to say that several parts of the show never fail to get me; I listened to the soundtrack on an airplane recently, and sat flying over Louisiana with tears streaming down my face.  Without discussing the music itself, the the songs whose lyrics have the biggest emotional power over me are:

  • A Winter's Ball and Helpless: "A Winter's Ball" shows when young, good looking (but out of his depth) Alexander is put into the orbit of the Schuyler sisters. Miranda is so good at using vocal style to convey young Alexander as being unprepared for what he sees in New York (but willing to learn how to succeed). After setting the stage that a good marriage can make a man, the show segues into "Helpless". I love the harmony of the three sisters, and when they sing, "Helpless! Look into your eyes and the sky's the limit I'm helpless! Down for the count and I'm drowning in 'em" I can't help but think of how I feel when I look at my wife.
  • Satisfied: In this song, Angelica Schuyler is at the wedding of Hamilton and her sister. She remembers falling in love almost at first sight with Alexander, but deciding that a match with him would be unwise, and passing him onto her sister, so "at least I keep his eyes in my life". Later in the show it is clear that Angelica has always had an affection for Hamilton, though when his infidelities disrupt Eliza's life, her sister is clearly on her side. I have always been deeply affected by stories of someone loving another from afar, and this song touches that nerve.
  • Dear Theodosia: I'm not a father, but even so, songs about fatherhood have always ripped me up. This one from the end of the first act is particularly moving; the song shows the humanity (previously unglimpsed) in Burr (who sings to his new baby daughter) and Hamilton (who sings to his new baby son). Knowing that both men would outlive their children adds poignancy to the music. What parent, or for that matter caring adult hasn't looked at an innocent child and felt "I'll make the world safe and sound for you...If we lay a strong enough foundation we'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you, and you'll blow us all away"?  This song is incredibly moving on its own, but it also lends power the the duel scene in Act II, when Burr swears that Hamilton "will not make an orphan of my daughter". 
  • It's Quiet Uptown: This song from Act II shows a despondent, broken Hamilton trying to recover after the death of his son Philip in a duel. The refrain of the song breaks my heart:
"If you see him in the street, walking by
Himself, talking to himself
Have pity, 
He is working through the unimaginable"
       I know that I can't imagine a sorrow deeper than that of a parent who loses a child. This song in         particular makes me think of someone close to me whose son (whose middle name was Philip)           died before his time, as well as all of the other people who have to get on with their life in the             face of incalculable grief. 

  • Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: Other than losing a child, losing a spouse is the other unfathomably horrible tragedy a person can face. In my own group of family and friends there are several examples of this, and it is my deepest personal dread. This song tells how Eliza Hamilton tried to carry on her husband's work (and posthumously burnish his reputation) for the decades after his death. She worries if "when my time is up, have I done enough?", and notes that her greatest pride is in founding an orphanage:
"I help to raise hundreds of children.
I get to see them growing up.
In their eyes I see you, Alexander
I see you every time."
      Having devoted my own life to teaching other people's children, this line really hits me hard. 


The night before the duel, among the many other documents Hamilton penned, he wrote to his wife:
"I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic lest it should unman me....Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.   Ever yours, AH."
I have no doubt that Alexander Hamilton was as I spent years describing him, a bitter, self-destructive man whose paranoia and hate led to a death before his time. But I am indebted to Lin-Manuel Miranda for his perceptive understanding of the man's personality, as well as for his brilliant, keen writing, which has helped me regain an appreciation of Hamilton as a person (as opposed to An Historical Figure) whose emotions I feel I can now touch and comprehend.  If you haven't seen Hamilton, I hope you will try to get tickets if it comes to your town or if you go to New York. If you haven't listened to the soundtrack, I hope the excerpts in this article inspire you to buy the album. And if you haven't studied this period of history since school, I hope this might make you want to go to the library to pick up some books; it will definitely be worth the trip.