Story: Erika Soliven // Illustration: Chris Zajko
There stands the object of my affection. Her hair starts from a beautifully contoured scalp, erupting into thick waves that cascade around her face. The heavy brown strands gather and spiral to the lengths of the ground below her feet. Her hair wraps around her face and body like the most magnificent and elaborate ribbon of a birthday present. Shining like the sickest diamond, my fingers feel too callous to run through this most natural thread. But, they are drawn to it. This ribbon needs to be undone. The beauty that must lie beneath this thick auburn mane needs to be revealed.
I made it my mission to see what these pretty ringlets obscured. Nervously I reached for her hair. In response, a few strands gently wrapped around my finger. It was delightful, and as silky as I had imagined it to feel. A lock of her hair glided along my hand, over my arm, reaching around my shoulders, and tickling my neck before sliding down my chest. Goosebumps covered me as I began to swim in her hair, and her hair swam around me. My blood rushed through my veins, pulsating through my skin in its hasty movement. I was close to her. I could feel an intensity of thousands of heartbeats!
“Who is that?” I felt another warm body next to mine.
“Eh. It’s another one.”
Someone lit a match, revealing hundreds of men. Some bored, some hopeful, some exasperated. They lined a corridor that faded into darkness.
Lightheaded, I leaned against a wall, soft to touch but unrelenting in its build. I ran my fingers along the wallpaper of strands and strands of gorgeous auburn.
I felt it, her hair, faintly but distinctly exhale in satisfaction. Then the small little fire attached to the matchstick wavered one last time.
The Spectre of Spector
by Mike Verdone
Illustration by Chris Zajko
Last week at a Beatles: Rock Band party I observed, loudly and to anyone who would listen, that if you wanted to love the Beatles all you needed was a copy of Let It Be and some time to listen to it. The next day I put on the album and realized I was lying to everybody. Let It Be is a mediocre album at best marred by terrible production. I hastily told everyone I'd talked to at the party that I was wrong. Let It Be... Naked is the album one needed because the original Let It Be was ruined by one man: Phil Spector.
First of all, let's not talk about Phil Spector murdering his wife. The guy has problems, obviously. Just look at his hair. Incidentally let's not talk about his hair, either. Let's talk about his work.
Phil Spector casts an impressive shadow over the history of popular music. In 1960 at the age of 19 he came to New York as an apprentice to songwriters and producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. By 1961, records he produced were charting in the top ten. Between 1962 and 1966 the man could be found on every record that mattered: he played guitar on the Drifters' hit "On Broadway"; he produced the original version of "Twist and Shout" by the Top Notes, later appropriated and best remembered as a Beatles tune; he worked with Ray Peterson, The Paris Sisters, The Ronettes. The man is a legend and his work changed the history of pop music and pop culture in general. Did you know he plays a drug dealer in Easy Rider? (Seek to 2:41, he's wearing yellow-tinted aviator sunglasses and he snorts a spoonful of coke.)
Spector's style, the sound that makes listeners go "oh, that's a Phil Spector record" is the Wall of Sound. The idea is quite simple: take whatever pop tune you got and build it up. Layer on more instruments, track upon track. Mix everything louder. Use compression, saturation, and reverb to give everything a fuller, bigger, louder, brighter sound. Phil was one of the first to maximize the potential of the new eight-track mixing equipment of the era. (The Beatles only needed four to produce Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.)
The reason the Spector sound works is that it is suited to cheap listening equipment: AM radio, car stereos, cheap jukebox turntables with ground-down needles. A record produced "properly" with lots of dynamic range will sound thin and reedy on cheap equipment, but a Spector record will sound full no matter where you put it. A blessing and a curse because when played on a good sound system it will sound no better. It will in fact sound worse. An audiophile with a pile of hi-fidelity gear will hear a blaring wave of tones. As if all of the instruments were impossibly placed in the exact middle of the room and all playing as loudly as possible. The volume level rarely changes. This is truly the wall of sound, and the listener's head is banged into it over and over again.
The wall of sound technique influenced other producers (Brian Wilson was obsessed with it and sought to replicate it on Pet Sounds in the midst of spiralling into madness) but this was just one sound available at the time. On the opposite end of the spectrum The Beatles produced remarkably crisp and spacious records under the gentle guidance of George Martin. Going back as far as the first Beatles album, 1963's Please Please Me, there is an airy openness to the recordings. Even on loud songs like "Boys", "Twist and Shout", and "I Saw Her Standing There" the mix is warm and wide with delicate echoes and harmony.
George Martin shepherded the Beatles through almost the entirety of their career. His production style can be heard through the entire Beatles catalogue. From rock 'n roll to psychedelic, the records sound understated and precise. Even on much "thicker" records like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, making heavy use of layered tracks, distortion and effects, there is still a lot of space. Listen to the way the handclaps float high above and to the right in "Getting Better" (on the Stereo mix).
It shouldn't surprise us that records produced by an Englishman in London should sound very different than records produced by an American in New York, but what's important is that each production style is suited to a particular kind of band. Wall of Sound and Martin's crispy cleanness are aesthetic choices that showcased the artists they respectively produced in the best possible light. When production styles and artists collide the results can be disastrous, as they were when Spector produced the Beatles in 1970.
By 1969 George Martin was in high demand as a producer and for one reason or another was unable to produce the Beatles' final record. Let It Be was rather a mess, anyway. Based on recording sessions from early 1969 it was recorded before Abbey Road but not mixed or released until after (leading to a bit of a spat amongst Beatles fans as to which album truly is the last Beatles album). The concept was a "back to basics" record with a live feel: less multi-tracking and overdubbing, just some straight recording and phenomenal performances. The playing was great but the relationship between the Beatles was strained and much bickering and sarcastic talk was recorded on the master tapes between songs and during rehearsal sessions. By the end of recording they were sick of the project and of each other.
The tapes were given to EMI engineer Glyn Johns to produce and in May of 1969 the first version of the album, called Get Back, was completed. Its release was pushed back and then it was shelved because nobody really cared about it. Glyn Johns then produced a second version of "Get Back" which was also not released.
Not certain what to do, the tapes were given to Phil Spector and his productions of these tracks were released as the Let It Be album, much to the chagrin of Paul McCartney who was pushing the stripped-down sound. Spector applied his trademark sound to the record and the result is, frankly, appalling. Orchestral and choral backing tracks were recorded for songs like "Across the Universe" and "The Long and Winding Road". Songs that do not have additional tracks, like "Get Back", are still mixed with the wall of sound style with all instruments front and centre, compressed blaringly loud.
Let It Be was a commercial success and many of its songs went on to win awards, but I would argue this was in spite of their production not thanks to it. Rolling Stone panned it at the time.
Of course we can't go back in time and prevent Phil Spector from producing Let It Be, but we can hear what Let It Be could have been thanks to the 2003 release of Let It Be... Naked. This little album presents a version of Let It Be without the influence of Spector. Based on the original tapes and with the financial help of Paul McCartney who was never terribly happy with the album in the first place, the orchestral tracks are gone, the compression is reduced, and the reverb is stripped back. The results are stunning.
With "The Long and Winding Road"'s orchestral shmaltz stripped away we can hear a plaintive piano melody. No longer bombastic, the song sounds honest and heartfelt. "Across the Universe" has also been de-orchestrated revealing some raw beauty and showcasing Lennon's vocals.
While its more modern production style is still far away from a George Martin record, it is a lot more airy and limber than Spector could ever dream of. It also has a Paul's vocals mixed a lot louder. Remember, he paid for the thing. I may be crucified for saying it, but Let It Be... Naked is simply a far better record than Let It Be.
We are still dealing with the state of affairs that gave Spector his success: shitty equipment. Modern pop records are targeted towards modern equipment which includes poor MP3 compression, earbud headphones and ambient noise. Records as sparse and clean as was common in the early 1970s are not produced today. The producer's toolbox has been upgraded for easy Spector-ization of records with brick-wall limiters and compressors that ensure the loudest sound all the time without distortion. Even the 2009 remastering of the Beatles catalogue suffers from modernized mixing. While much improved over the 1987 mixes found on CDs up 'til now, the sound is fat to the point of obesity. (Collectors looking for the truest sound should seek out the 2006 and 2008 DESS Blue Box series mixes which are digital recordings of original Beatles vinyl LPs played on a very nice turntable.)
Producers call this the Loudness War and a Google search of the term will lead to dozens of stories on the topic containing quotes by artists and producers bewailing the state of affairs (Robert Levine; The Death of High Fidelity; Rolling Stone Dec. 2007). The point, though, is that louder is not always better. More sound is not always preferable to less. Hopefully one day the Beatles will be re-remastered properly, and perhaps Let It Be... Naked will be accepted as Beatles canon over Let It Be. Until that long off day, though, save your vinyl. It's the truest mix there is.
And don't let Phil Spector produce your records. No matter how much he begs you to let him.
Mike Verdone is a writer, musician, and computer nerd from Calgary. His current projects include the electronic-noise group Post Post IDM.
Ziggy Stardust and 2012
Preparing for the End of Days
by Kenna Burima
Illustration by Chris Zajko
The first time I heard David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars in its entirety I was already in my mid-20s, lying on the dirty, carpeted floor of a friend’s apartment. By the time the final violin strains of “Rock 'N' Roll Suicide” faded away, I was hooked. I was pretty much hooked in the eighth bar of “Five Years”, but didn’t realize it until “Starman”.
I had stumbled onto something I couldn’t fathom, something I couldn’t understand but felt. Ziggy Stardust was something I couldn’t analyze away, like when I was told that the reason I cried every time I heard the opening chords to the prelude of Richard Wagners’ heartbreakingly beautiful opera Tristan und Isolde was because the it was based on the augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented second above the root.(1)
Ziggy wouldn’t go away and the apocalyptic message embedded in the album didn’t hit until well after its entirety had embedded itself into my subconscious. By the time I was aware of the fact that the world was ending in 2012, every song I had tried to write was a rip off of “Starman”. Every piano part I tried to play was a reminiscence of Bowie’s exuberant piano chords of “Five Years” and every song opening started with a “Ziggy Stardust” guitar lead.
Then, in the span of two days, I ate some mushrooms, watched An Inconvenient Truth and started reading Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. It was the beginning of the end and, in truth, as the time moved past those first fateful days I began my struggle with 2012.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse
It wasn’t the studying of Ziggy Stardust that was interesting, at least in and of itself. It was where it led me… and then where it didn’t. I was completely convinced that if I poured over lyric sheets, analyzed chord progressions and song structures I would come upon the grand secret; the plan, the message that would tell me what to do, how to prepare and how to survive.
But Ziggy Stardust wasn’t the message or even the end. It was then means to the end. Ziggy Stardust was my door. I opened it and whole dark world of possibilities laid themselves out before me. It was the apocalypse in its many ludicrous manifestations. It had become apparent that if I was going to continue in my search for apocalyptic meaning, I was going to have to let go. If the world was going to end (and I can’t shake the feeling that it may end as we know it), then I had to be okay with that. Because I wasn’t moving back to the farm in Saskatchewan like my father said I should if shit should go down. No fucking way in hell.
We’ve been worrying about the end of the world since it started and we’ve documented our obsession with predicting its coming since at least 2800 B.C.(2) We study it fanatically from its Biblical beginnings to its Biblical proportions. There’s even a name for it: Eschatology, the theological and philosophical study of the end of the world.
In my lifetime alone I have lived through at least 93 apocalypses. There’s been a prophesized doomsday at least three times a year since I came into this world. 1980 was a popular year for Armageddon. The Jehovah's Witnesses predicted the end on October 2, 1984. In 1992, popular belief dictated that Halley's comet was the harbinger of doom. Eschatologists’ favourite prophet Nostradamus made multiple predictions and through various translations of his quatrains, scholars and kooks alike gravitated towards 1999 and Y2K.
But no planes fell from the sky December 31, 1999, and if we survived the ending of the millennium, I don’t see why we won’t continue to do so for millenniums more. Chances are we’re going to be fine, but I can’t ignore the niggling feeling that shit is going to go down in 2012.
But I Don’t Even Have My 72 Hours Worth of Water
Our Canadian government has laid out what the potential apocalyptic risks are for my area. According to the Government of Canada, a variety of events could have dire consequences if I’m not prepared; an avalanche, earthquake, flood, infectious disease outbreak, landslide, power outage, severe weather, tornado or wildfire can all happen in my community.(3)
Though not necessarily 2012-centric, these hazards are part of a larger doomsday picture when viewed through the lens of climate change. We have our very own doomsday brewing through global warming. Still, all of these potential hazards seem rather mild. In actual fact, they seem positively sedate in the face of (and in no particular order): a black hole, a cosmic dust cloud, a nuclear, chemical or biological war, the collision of the large planet Nibiru with Earth or any of the countless meteoroids plummeting towards earth, the eruption of a supervolcano (Yellowstone seems pretty close), geomagnetic reversal (often incorrectly referred to as a polar shift by proponents of this theory) which could be triggered by a massive solar flare(4), a hypernova (a sci-fi geek’s wet dream of a gamma ray burst or other devastating blast of cosmic radiation), the death of the sun, a zombie apocalypse, and possibly the most unsettling of the bunch: a sudden change in the physical constants governing the universe created by a vacuum metastability event.(5)
Little did I know that the apocalypses I could imagine were far more sedate than the ones I couldn’t even conceive. Quantum physically speaking, there is a possibility that we are living in a false vacuum.(6) For some reason the improbability of these inconceivable events are less of a concern to me than the ending of the Mayan calendar and a 26,000-year cycle. It brought down Atlantis. It could bring down us.
The Mayan Calendar and the Pretention of Pinchbeck
I was convinced that all I needed to prepare for the apocalypse would be found within The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. I was sure that Bowie; a precocious 25-year-old at the time had channeled the album as a message. It was a warning of the coming end of days that was not meant for his screaming teenage fans of 1972, but rather for us, for 2012.
I almost loathe to admit how much Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl influenced my early conceptions, but there’s no denying that even now, I still gravitate to the theories put forth by the precious greasy-haired poster child for 2012. Through the frequent and academic use of psychoactive substances, Pinchbeck formulated his theory and entertainingly put it to paper that 2012 will bring about a global shift in consciousness rather than an apocalypse. This, and other mind-bending theories such as UFOs and alien abductions being humanity’s personal manifestation of all of its fears, wasn’t a far stretch for someone who consider themselves a purposeful psychedelic adventurer.
Still, Pinchbeck is infinitely cooler than cab driver George King and even French racecar driver Claude Rael. And do you know who’s cooler than all of them? Bowie.
In the 1975 February issue of Creem, writer Bruno Stein captured a possible coke-fueled tirade of Bowie’s regarding a global media conspiracy, the Mayan Calendar and his multiple UFO sightings. It was rather informative. "I used to work for two guys who put out a UFO magazine in England,” said Bowie. “About six years ago. And I made sightings six, seven times a night for about a year when I was in the observatory… And they would be stationary for about half an hour, and then after verifying what they'd been doing that day, they'd shoot off.”(7)
He went on to describe an elaborate mind-based web of cultural manipulation coordinated through the media, a process that he claimed had been used by the 2012’s favourite ancient civilization, The Mayans. “That's how the Mayans were ruling South America thousands of years ago,” Bowie continues. “That's what the media is. That's how it works. The Mayan calendar: they could get the crowds to go out and crucify somebody merely by giving them a certain definition, two or three words, primed in terms such that they could tell what day the people would react and how they would react.”(8)
Coke-fueled or not, this brief glimpse is an enlightening look into the belief systems that drove Bowie to create and ultimately musically manifest an entity such as Ziggy Stardust. In actual fact, Ziggy Stardust is Bowie’s Gesamtkunstwerk. His universal artwork not only synthesized multiple art forms (fashion, music, literature) but also uncontrollably began to synthesize his entire life.(9) The question became this: Did Bowie create Ziggy Stardust or did Ziggy Stardust create him?
Nowhere are Bowie’s intentions as and for Ziggy Stardust more clearly and somewhat ironically laid out than in his 1974 interview with William S. Boroughs for Rolling Stone magazine. Facilitated by writer Craig Copetas, the article is simultaneously a voyeuristic excursion into the minds and interactions of two egomaniacal artistic visionaries and a passing of the flame from one fervent nonconformist to another.
An obviously perplexed 60-year-old Burroughs asked for an explanation of “this Ziggy Stardust image” and what “this being had to do with the eve of destruction within five years.”
Bowie waxes eloquent:
- The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There's no electricity to play it. Ziggy's adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, 'cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. 'All the young dudes' is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.
- Ziggy is advised in a dream by the infinites to write the coming of a starman, so he writes 'Starman', which is the first news of hope that the people have heard. So they latch on to it immediately. The starmen that he is talking about are called the infinites, and they are black-hole jumpers. Ziggy has been talking about this amazing spaceman who will be coming down to save the earth. They arrive somewhere in Greenwich Village. They don't have a care in the world and are of no possible use to us. They just happened to stumble into our universe by black-hole jumping. Their whole life is travelling from universe to universe. In the stage show, one of them resembles Brando, another one is a Black New Yorker. I even have one called Queenie the Infinite Fox.
- Now Ziggy starts to believe in all this himself and thinks himself a prophet of the future starman. He takes himself up to incredible spiritual heights and is kept alive by his disciples. When the infinites arrive, they take bits of Ziggy to make themselves real because in their original state they are anti-matter and cannot exist in our world. And they tear him to pieces on stage during the song 'Rock 'n' roll suicide'. As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill.(10)
But since the world didn’t end in 1977, what does that mean? We’re on borrowed time? I highly doubt it would be as clichéd, but for some reason I still gravitate towards the Mayans more so than the Jehovah’s Witnesses.(11)
Kenna Burima, meet Terrance McKenna
Throughout 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Pinchbeck referred to the work of author/ explorer Terrance McKenna. A brilliant theoretician on universal matters, McKenna was like the icing on my I Heart Huckabees personal philosophy. Apparently our reality is attracted to whatever is happening at the end of time that is increasing our interconnectedness, whereby we will eventually reach a singularity of infinite complexity on December 21, 2012, at which point anything and everything imaginable will occur instantaneously. Quote McKenna:
- What it's been characterized by is the dissolution of boundaries between classes of people, bodies of knowledge, pools of capital, language groups, and so forth and so on, and so it seems to me ultimate novelty must be a situation where all boundaries are dissolved. And of course, what that looks like, I don't know.(12)
So he doesn’t know, but what he does know he’s gleamed off his computer program Time Wave Zero. He’s admitted that we’re moving into new territory as we reach 2012 particularly in reference to his Novelty theory that explains the movement of time and the existence of our universe as based on how much “newness” exists or is created as we move through time linearly. His Time Wave Zero has calculated the ebb and flow of novelty in the universe as an inherent quality of time and we reach an end point, 2012.(13) By lining up the linear map of human history with McKenna’s novelty graph created by using his Time Wave Zero, McKenna claimed that he had discovered the structure of time itself and everything, everything is moving towards the most significant event in human history. Coincidentally, it turns out that the Mayan’s Mesoamerican Long Count calendar coincidentally ends at roughly the same time, December 21, 2012.
We’re Banking on the Norwegians
I could almost say that if wasn’t for the Norwegians and their seed vault, I’d be worried.(14) But I even get worked up about the end of the world. Call it skepticism, call it good old optimism, call it whatever you want, but I think it may be Ziggy Stardust that is comforting me. Ziggy Stardust isn’t a shrouded set of directions for surviving the apocalypse, nor is it even the cumulative human expression of the end of the world. It is a message, but a message that says that it’s OK to be who we are; fucked up, unbalanced, and selfish (except for the Norwegians).
Sure, strive for enlightenment, but not because in three short years its all going to end. The apocalypse is always coming and just as humanity continues through whatever cyclical shitstorm we continue to create, it’s always going to be a ride — and for that matter, it might as well be a rock and roll ride. Ziggy has comforted me:
- No matter what or who you’ve been
- No matter when or where you’ve seen
- All the knives seem to lacerate your brain
- I’ve had my share. I’ll help you with the pain
- You’re not alone
- Just turn on with me and you’re not alone
- Gimme your hands cause you’re wonderful
- Oh gimme your hands.
- 1-Thanks Professor Bell for depriving me of my ignorance in Music Harmony 301.
- 2-Nelson, Chris (2002), "A Brief History of the Apocalypse"
- 3-Get Prepared (2009) Government of Canada document
- 4-Apparently Earth's magnetic field is weakening which indicates an impending reversal of the north and south magnetic poles.
- 5-Thanks Wikipedia.
- 6-Leslie, John, (1996), The End of the World, p. 180. Upon further reading, I learned that even vacuous states decay. According to physicists S. Coleman and F. De Luccia, there is a possibility that the decay of our vacuum would change the very constants of nature our universe is built upon. I don’t even want to think about the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Not only do I have to consider black holes “out there,” I now have to consider man-made black holes created under my very feet. It’s mind-boggling.
- 7/8-Stein, Bruno (1975), "Flying Saucers, Hitler, and David Bowie: World problems solved in U.S. hotel room"Creem, February
- 9-Koenig, Peter-R. "The Laughing Gnostic: David Bowie and the Occult"
- 10-Copetas, Craig (1974), "Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman" Rolling Stone 155
- 11-Have you heard the one about Prince coming to my front door preaching the Watchtower gospel? That’s all kinds of awesome.
- 12-Bell, Art (1997), "The brilliant Terence McKenna, interviewed on the Art Bell Show"
- 13-History Channel’s Doomsday 2012 Decoding the Past
- 14-The end of the world is nigh and the only country that seems to be taking this seriously at all is Norway. As long as someone’s taking the world’s food source into consideration I can rest a little easier because if global catastrophes like asteroid impacts or disease pandemics were to strike, seeds stored in their "doomsday" vault would ensure that humans could re-grow the crops needed for survival. "Doomsday" Vault Will End Crop Extinction, Expert Says.