BW31 - You Can Polish AC/DC All You Want

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

About John and his parents

A lot of their conversations like this one end because Merlin has to go and urinate and he imagines John need to do that, too. Either one of them needs to catch a flight, or one of them has to go to the bathroom.

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Whenever John says Merlin’s name when Merlin is not around, he does it to the tune or Nasty Boys by Janet Jackson. Merlin doesn’t care why John does this, but he is just glad John thinks of him. When Merlin thinks of John, he always does a Mercedes Boy: ”Do you want to ride on my John Roderick?” He never realized how dirty John’s name sounds, like Peter O’Toole. Merlin is stealing that from Groucho Marx. There are many ways in which John is like Peter O’Toole and a few crucial ways he is not. He is tall, slender, English, bashing, he is in that Pixar movie Merlin likes, drunk. Merlin really enjoys him. There is this show on NPR that is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation and Merlin laughs out loud every time he hears that name. He wants Robert to be a dick-name, too, just because that would give you the triple-threat, like Dick Wood Johnson. They couldn’t name the foundation after his lesser-known brother Richard, or the grants would be just disappearing.

John's bad luck with computers (BW31)

Merlin is not a physicist, but he wonders if John emits some kind of electrical charge that causes any electronic devices in his vicinity to fail. John doesn’t believe in curses and is much more inclined to attribute the failure of all his computers to the fact that computers, although we use them every day, are on the level of development the airplanes were when they were powered by bicycle motors and had to have 7 guys on each wing to get them aloft. John’s loves the very beautiful Apple computer in front of him, but it is utter horse shit and doesn’t do any of the things it claims to do and it doesn’t do any of the things well that John manages to eek out of it. It just sits on John’s table top like a talisman of all the potential. John can imagine that his children will love their computers, they will watch movies on them and do live streaming without any glitches, but for him it is all potential and there is no kinetic energy to these things. Merlin finds that baffling! John lives hard and plays hard on things, so Merlin is thinking if John might have some powerful sexual chemistry that doesn’t affect computers.

John was running connectivity diagnostics, but it was only telling him that the computer was having problems and couldn’t connect. The root of the word ”diagnostic” means ”diagnose”, which means ”to know what is the problem”, but the diagnostic program does nothing. Pretty soon John is walking around reading a book out loud and will be happier, frankly. John is not a willful luddite, but he seems to revel in the physical objects of life more than in the virtual things. He uses those tools for a purpose and is not only noodling around, although he is a MP3-tagger, so he noodles a little. John would dick around on the computer happily, but it doesn’t live up to John’s expectations. On second thought, John is going to look into that sexual chemistry thing, it is possible! It has caused him problems in other walks of life, but it also got him out of traffic tickets if the cop is a woman. Local Cinemax police department, John is going to the highly lauded sexual chemistry clinic at the University of Washington and there is going to be some lady who is doing her graduate degree, probably with her hair in a bun and big glasses and John will ask her what his problem is, but before she even gets the clipboard out, her hair is down and her glasses are off and she is up on the desk and then Alex van Halen plays a drum solo. This happens to John on a weekly basis and he has no idea how Alex always knows where he is. He seems to always know where John is going to be.

The old and the new way of recording music (BW31)

Merlin finds Alex van Halen to be really good at playing the nut song called Hot For Teacher with the double kick drum, but as far as John knows, it is done on a single kick drum and a single pedal. He is eventually going to get to an age where he is going to get one of those Def Leppard deals and is going to have everything triggered. John was a big Def Leppard fan back in the days before the Pyromania era, but Pyromania was the bridge that he had a hard time crossing. Everything before was solid gold. Nowadays he thinks that Pyromania is a great record. Their guitar player was like 15 years old. This was all before Shania Twain! Her record was produced by Robert ”Mutt” Lange who also did Highway to Hell and Pyromania. Even ”Bringin' on the heartbreak” has this certain polish glitzy shininess that you would not hear in Venom (band) or John’s beloved Slayer. You can polish AC/DC all day long, it is still going to be hardcore, rough and tough. For a post-Bon Scott-era record, Back in Black stands out pretty well which is partly because it is pretty listenable. What Robert did is what producers should do, which is to listen to the band and tell them that it is good, but did they think about trying a little harder on the next time? Sing it like you mean it and play it like you mean it!

During the last 20 years, every kid with a Macintosh computer and Garage Band calls themselves a producer, present company excluded (Merlin is a brilliant producer), but there are a lot of people out there who are actually selling themselves to bands as producers and the bands play their song and the guy turns some reverb on and says ”Sounds great!”. It doesn’t sound great, but the guy who is recording them doesn’t know enough to say one thing or the other, like ”kill that second snare hit” or some other of those little details that good producers add to make good records great. Nothing Merlin has recorded since 1986 has ever been as meticulous as John's albums, because John really has the ears for those little things.

Merlin really loves Garage Band, it is the difference between an etch-a-sketch and having a big box of paint. He knows the limitations of it and he loves it because it is so fast and he has gotten really comfortable using it. Merlin was listening to the band Cheer-Accident and it is just the way the singer bought. You can go back to any record, like Pink Floyd or anybody who is good, like Coulton’s record, and you will find so much personality in every song. They all sound different, it doesn’t just sound like somebody selected ”Stadium” in the output setting.

One thing that Merlin likes in John’s music and John’s records is that there is so much personality in them. Merlin and John did some interviews a while back about how John's process works on every level and it seems that there is a contrast, like John does not do 42 takes on every song. On the other side he is very careful in the editing and listening and he is definitely careful when it comes to the track-order process. He always seems to function more like an editor in some ways. In terms of how many passes he is willing to do on a vocal track, he won’t sit and work on it as the performer all day, but he will be super-meticulous about adding little surprise moments. It is the John Vanderslice:ization of Indie Rock. That stuff became more and more possible as John became of age in this industry. Nowadays you have the time, the resources and the inclination to put a 2-second keyboard part on a song that doesn’t appear anywhere else on the record but you feel like it is 100% necessary on this tune. If you think back to when they recorded ”House of the rising sun”, they got 4 guys in a room, they said ”roll it”, they ran the song and then they started drinking. They didn’t spend months and months putting little shit on there. Instead they spent months and months rehearsing, which they don’t do as much in Indie Rock.

Merlin says that this was certainly a time of more primitive recording conditions. In 1964 / 1965, Rock music was not taken as seriously and was not seen as an arty thing, but more as a commodity. The Beatles were starting it, but it wasn’t really until 1967 / 1968 that people took the time and the polish to really perfect their albums. Columbia records had this giant roster of producers like Phil Spector, they brought in a bunch of pros and they plowed through the stuff as fast as they could. They did not think that 50 years from now those tunes would still be not just relevant, but the underpinning foundation of what remains an entire industry of selling music and culture from 50 years ago. They didn’t even write House of the rising Sun, but it was a cover! They recorded it in one take, they thought it might go up and down the charts once and that would be the end of it. No one ever thought that 40 years later it would still be played on every Classic Rock radio station across the world 10 times a day. When we make music in the aftermath of that, we are conscious of the fact that we are potentially making it for history. One day a man will sit down in the library of congress, listen to all of The Long Winters records and identify the keyboard patches. It will be a matter of some importance.

Letting others tell you to get your record done (BW31)

We have all minutely dissected records from The Beatles and from Pink Floyd. We know every microphone they used on any single part and we know how many takes they did. When you are making music yourself, you almost can’t help it and if you are trying to finish a record, that is a pretty high bar. The great Indie Rock bands of today all have at least one guy on their team who says that this thing has to be done by Monday the 11th, while for the other guys who want to take all the time in the world to screw with the Tambourine part, Monday the 11th is a pretty hard date. John has lacked something like that as a sole proprietor and a free agent. No-one has the authority to tell him that his album is due on Monday the 11th, although many have tried!

John has even called some of his friends and asked them to pretend that they have some authority over him and they asked them to write him an angry letter or grab him by the shirt collar and tell him that his record has to get done by x-day. They have all been good sports about it and they showed up at his house in a nurse’s costume and it was like ”Nah, did I send that email to you?” The problem is that you can’t empower somebody else to have power over you. The power is still yours and you can’t give them the power and then have it have any effect on you unless you are really into role-playing. John has tried to get somebody to set a deadline for him, but up until now, none of it has worked.

Just recently, John got an email from his dear friend John Hodgman, saying ”Get your record done by labour day! Sincerely, John Hodgman” and in some way, the succinctness of it, especially when reading it aloud in his voice which brooks no argument. He has almost a headmaster quality! If John Hodgman tells you something in a definitive voice, you are not going to argue with him because you are just going to sound like you are whining. That email had actually some effect on John and he has been working and writing lately, probably because he holds John Hodgman in high esteem. John didn't task him with the job of telling him to do it, but he did it independently as a favor. As a writer who has struggled to complete his own work he knows that you need an artificial wall.

John Hodgman and people like him can not only have an effect because they are an expert and former professional letter agent, but John is otherwise surrounded by people who, while they are not exactly sycophantic, never really say true things or would never say anything to you that was too far at odds with what they perceive to be your thing. Having somebody who you really admire give you a note that shows they care about what you do and are interested in your output is a weird smack on the head. Sometimes it makes John want to finish things, while other times it makes him wonder why he has trouble finishing things! Maybe because he doesn’t think it is up to par for somebody like John Hodgman. To Merlin this is really complicated, because John is surrounded by people he thinks want to screw him over, like they want to steal his copper pipe.

Getting screwed over by interviewers (BW31)

The sycophantic nature of our culture is based on this false idea that nobody can handle the bad news. Nobody wants anyone to yell at them and so everybody works very hard to never say anything controversial or anything that might possibly inspire anybody to yell back at them. People are talking to each other in this language of completely vailed meaning all the time. It is happy, friendly talk all the time, specifically in arts in the West. Artists have a tendency to do it, because to a varying degrees they will all end up feeling screwed by an interviewer at one time or another. You say something you haven’t said before and by exposing yourself, you get some kind of sore reaction. When you say ”That guy’s a dick”, they make it the headline of the article. They are just waiting until you give them the quote they are looking for! In a couple of occasions, John has told them in at least a couple of occasions that the interview was over, he was going to write it himself and that will be the interview they were going to be publishing!

At one point, John got interviewed for a long feature in a national magazine about some other musicians that he had been on tour with in Spain, they were some sort of legendary characters. The interviewer was a super-nice and smart guy and they talked all day. It had been a very candid tour through Spain, John was just feeling lucky to have been there and by the end of the tour they were speaking to each other as old friends. The interviewer knew all about this tour, he asked John all these questions and because John had only been back for a week, he was still in the mindset that he was incredibly close friends with those guys, a bunch of nuts and drunks and dickheads. The interviewer wrote it down note-for-note and when this massive article about John heralding the release of his new record came out, all the pull-quotes were like ”These guys are all some dickhead drunks”

John got some angry phone calls from those people, like ”What the fuck? We let you into our little scene and you are shit-talking about us in this huge national article?” and John was like ”But no, I was doing it all Haha, and we were friends!” and they were like ”Booo!” The guys whom John was genuinely close to understood and it probably wouldn’t have happened to them, because they would never have let their guard down in an interview, but it did happen to John and it cauterized him a little bit, particularly when it comes to talking about other people. Those guys whom John respects are still mad about John for this! You can’t grab the guy every time and tell him that you are still very sorry you called him a drunk in this magazine even though he is a drunk.

The multitude of John's output (BW31)

Merlin knows how much John enjoys being the bull in the China closet, but the part that makes it complicated is not the bull, but the China closet! Sometimes John is just in the wrong store. Merlin considers John to be our generation’s Charles Nelson Reilly. John is the kind of person who would have been on the Mike Douglas show! John is a Bon Vivant or a Raconteur or some other slightly gay word. It seems like creating excellent Rock music is only one facet of what John does. There was a time when John poopooed that idea because he clearly considered Rock music to be his employment. While he has been putting out these great records since the late 1990s, Merlin also sees John as being a funny guy on Twitter. He reports from Bonnaroo and he had a column in The Believer. John is doing more stuff by virtue of being the bull in the China closet, because that attracts people who want him to put that voice somewhere that is not just a lot of don’t-yell-at-me music. John says that this is inevitable because he likes to talk, he likes the sound of his own voice and he likes to open up a newspaper and read the smart thing he said to someone, accurately transcribed with the correct punctuation.

Valuing the opinion of an artist (BW31)

A lot of people have arrived on the scene as makers of opinions. This is only appealing to some extend, because it begs the question why you would give a fuck about their opinion? Everybody’s got an opinion! What the world doesn’t have a lot of is people who have made enough stuff that gives you a sense of where they are coming from. They are a maker of things and when they venture an opinion about something else, you have some context to judge whether or not you consider that person an authority. For the Internet, John values the opinions about just about any topic from people who have done any work of any kind in their own venue. John used to write film reviews for The Stranger before he got his column at The Weekly. The Stranger would send him documentary films to review because John didn’t know anything about documentary films and they liked that his voice stemmed from being an artist. He wouldn’t have the language of a film critic, he wouldn’t sit there and say that this film was just a copy of this other French film that happened 25 years ago which negated the need for this film. John had none of that, he would watch the film and judge it based on his own taste and the merits of what he saw. John looks out on the Internet and sees Merlin, Aimee Mann, Paul F Tompkins or John Hodgman comment on something. Those are people who have been making art at some point or another in their lives and who had success based on the merits of the thing that they were compelled to make. All of a sudden, their opinion on any topic is like gold to John! He would listen to Aimee Mann talk about whatever is on her mind.

A lot of people say that they don’t even need to like or understand what someone does, but they are very interested in talking to that person about what they do especially if they are really good at it. They like to hear somebody speak in some specificity about things like contrast, distinctions, quality, or difference. There is a lot of stuff on the internet that is just about getting a thumbs-up and there is not a huge amount of nuance. John runs into this all the time on Twitter with very funny holocaust material. Part of what makes John so amusing to the people who think he is amusing is that there really is something very rye about it that is not going to travel well in a retweet to somebody who don't have English as their first language. John has a lot of curiosity about so many things outside of Indie Rock and Twitter and he is curious about people who are doing real things or saying real things instead of simply miming what other people seem to expect from them.

Merlin's and John's style of conversation (BW31)

This podcast surely burns a lot of people’s ears because they are not used to hear people talk in a contentious tone of voice without devolving into a fight. Merlin and John can talk for 6 hours and for somebody at the table next to them it would sound like they were having an argument the entire time. It is the Larry David problem: Everything out of their mouths supposedly sounds like they were making some kind of contention, but Merlin is not sure about that. Loudmouths like them might come out as judgemental in certain situations, but it is a judgement that demands a response.

There is this expectation of a certain kind of familiarity: It could be vanilla or french vanilla or vanilla with strawberries, but it still needs to be that one flavor! It is almost like somebody is expecting an iced tea, but you are handing them a Dr. Pepper and their palate is not ready for that. It is nothing wrong with them or with Merlin and John, but it is just not the way a lot of people talk to each other. These days it seems like there is a lot of advantage to fostering familiarity. That goes right back to putting out animal’s records, because we know they will sell!

Being controversial in times of the Internet (BW31)

There is a balkanizing, repackaging and fetishizing of really small cultures, a constant pandering by today's entertainment. There are very few challenges in the way of music-, film- or novel-writing. We are all pretty self-aware and we are all pretty cynical. We want to talk about Star Wars or read about the feel-good movie of the summer. There is no modern polymath, social critic and contrarian like Oscar Wilde. He was a contrarian even in realms that were truly dangerous and he was ultimately put on trial, convicted and imprisoned for that. None of those stakes exist in the same way today. Somebody can be a social critic, a polymath and a bon-vivant and either you like them or you don’t and you change the channel because you are going to listen to the polymath that you think is funny.

With this behavior you lose the frisson of being captivated by somebody you don’t like or who’s opinion gets under your skin. It also has an effect on creators! A lot of the people that John respects on Twitter are working so hard for a thumbs-up. Everybody on the Internet is just trying to get a thumbs-up! Frankly, John doesn’t give a fuck about a thumbs-up. He risks not having 250.000 Twitter-followers because a lot of people will give him a thumbs-down and say good-bye! Your relationship with them is over and they are never going to come back. They read one inconsequential thing you wrote that they misinterpreted in the first place because they don’t know you and they don’t know your context, and all of a sudden you are off their list. There is no room for ”Sir, I take umbrage at what you’ve said, but I admire the language you used, so carry on!”

It is almost like if The Clash started today and they wouldn’t be successful unless Joe Strummer followed you back. This was different even 5 years ago! Partly from market forces, partly from social media, partly from all of these submarkets John discusses, the consumer of tweets, downloads or anything now sets the expectation in a way that is really fundamentally different from what the producers have historically been used to. There was a time when, setting aside the economic conditions in England and so on, part of what made Punk Rock so bracing for people was the confrontational part of it. Marcel Duchamp is still mind-boggling to Merlin. More than even Picasso, everything he did was just a thing he did and he wasn’t worried about whether you got it. Almost anything in the Dadas is somewhat confrontational by design. New Wave movies were meant to challenge your expectations of the medium and to make you rethink at a pretty deep level how you see and process this stuff.

Seeing works of art in their original form (BW31)

There is an essay by Oscar Wilde called ”The Critic as Artist” (not ”The Soul of Man under Socialism” as Merlin first thought) saying that you will never see water the same way again after the impressionists and Merlin thinks this is true! Once you have seen a giant-ass Monet at MoMa, water will look like an impressionist painting to you. Part of the role of art has always been to help you reshape the way you see things. You are not going to fundamentally have an impact with people if you are mainly trying to iterate on something that won’t be too jarring. You will never see water the same way again after you have see the impressionists, but there was only one time in history where one minute there were no impressionist and then there were. Oscar Wilde was there for that. Today we are taken to see Impressionist paintings in museums on kindergarten tours when we are 5 years old which means that there never was a time where we saw water without also knowing about the impressionists. We see impressionistic paintings of water as a backdrop for a Coca Cola ad or whatever and it requires more work for those things to make an impact or create amazement, although it is absolutely still possible. You don’t just sit there and have you mind blown, but you have to stare at it and have to go back to a place where your mind is capable of being blown in order to have it be blown again, otherwise your eye will just see this stuff as wallpaper.

John’s good friend and musician John Wesley Harding who is also the novelist Wesley Stace, took John to the Philadelphia museum of art to see a collection of Duchamp earlier this year, and it took him 30 minutes just being in the presence of the work in order to reset his brain so he could even look at it without just seeing all the things that had been derived from it and without seeing it just as a bunch of construction paper or the result of somebody just trying out some ideas. This is true of any art: you have to sit with it for a while. Merlin’s 20th century painting teacher, the best class he took in college, put these slides of Helen Frankenthaler color fields up and said they look really faded on this old slide, you have to see one of these in person! When you see your first Van Gogh and you see the Impasto and the almost 1/2” of paint at some point, you get that this guy had a lot going on. It is more than just a blue and yellow thing of a field. You can really see his soul in these pointy bits of paint. The same is true of poetry: Hearing Richard Hugo read ”Degrees of gray in Philipsburg” is really different than scanning it on a Tumblr-page. It is very different!

John's way to listen to music (BW31)

Now extend that to a piece of Indie Rock music that took 3 years to write and record. Imagine how many people are going to rip it into their iTunes and give it not even 1/1000 that much attention. They are supposed to clear their mind, put it on, and not listen to it while they are surfing the internet or while they are doing the dishes. Merlin was sitting in John’s mom’s dining room in early 2006 and John let them listen to a new unreleased song. He has always been generous and would sometimes send Merlin things that were not out yet. He played Departure and Teaspoon and he would get pissed when Merlin would not just sit and listen to the music. John listens to music with his eyes closed, his head down and all you can hear from him is a little bleed from the headphones while he is breathing very loudly with 100% of his attention to the music. When John is committing something like ”The Commander thinks aloud” to tape or hard drive, he is not making stuff for somebody to listen to once on a jog in a shuffle!

When John is in the studio, he is absolutely making music for somebody sitting in a dark room with their headphones on and their eyes closed or driving in a car with their stereo on super-loud, driving through some vineyards in Northern California. No wonder it takes him so long to put out a record! John sometimes gets feedback from people like ”O my God, for the last 3 weeks every time I get on the stair master, my iTunes brings up one of your tunes and so I started thinking of you guys as my stair master band and that is so awesome!” While this is a massive compliment and he doesn’t take it the wrong way at all, it is so not how John consumes things he loves or media of any kind. Merlin’s stair master band has always been Interpol. When they first put out their Turn on the Bright Lights record, Merlin was exercising for a short window of time. John opened for them once and they were dicks. It was a long time ago and they were young, they might be total nice guys now, but they had their manager come and say that that bowl of corn chips is Interpol’s bowl of corn chips and John’s band should stop eating those corn chips. Merlin used to like them a lot better when they were called Joy Division. They did a thing with Peter Hook but now it is played out.

The bell (BW31)

John has two little bells on his desk that he uses when he needs to reset, but around the house he has probably 40. Melin has no context of wrapping his head around any of John’s bell-related activity.

Podcast idea (BW31)

Merlin has this idea for a podcast called ”Roderick on the Line”. It would be just him and John talking on the phone once a week. What they are doing right now is not exactly that, although they are on a podcast at this moment. John was on a podcast the other day called Air-Raid (episode #60, and talked with him for a long time. The recording setup was in such a way that every time you moved your chair, the microphone would vibrate for 30 seconds. The mic was on a shock-mount and the shock-mount was mounted to the table they were both sitting at. If you hit the table with your hand, it vibrated through the whole system. Merlin got a Rode Podcaster in a shock mount, those little crappy ones that you use to mic up a kick-drum with a little short boom. When Merlin bumps on his table, you can hear it, but it didn’t come through the mic at all. The real trick is putting it on top of the giant 2,5” X-Men book from the classic period of the X-Men. He hasn’t read the whole thing, but it takes away a lot of the vibrations. John has his monitor-speakers in his studio sitting on top of stacks of books about The Beatles. Merlin is the ”ON TOPIC!” guy now.

+Not encouraging your children to be artists (BW31)

Merlin has incredible chaotic drawings by his daughter hanging over his desk. He stares at them and they suck and he hopes she will get better some day! That whole thing that kids are natural artists, but their artistic impulse is being beat out of them by our patriarchic society is bullshit! Kids are terrible artists! Making art is hard work and you should discourage your kids in subtle ways so that they get out of the way of actual artists who are working hard. It is a signal-to-noise problem!

Merlin’s daughter goes to a very cool pre-school, a little co-op not run by jewish people or hippies or cultists, which is different from almost every pre-school Merlin has been to. In almost every other preschool when the children want to be on the same swing, they let them talk about it and write their names on a list. This place is very sensible, though! There is this thing on the wall about how to talk to your kid about their art or their drawings. It made Merlin angry at first, as so many things in his life, but then he realized it was awesome because it was so antithetical to the way Merlin was doing it. He was all like ”OMG, that is awesome, that is great! Is that mommy?” Instead of getting angry about a thing, take a minute and look at it and do not jump right in to making a remark about what it is, let alone making a value judgement. Instead, let them talk about it. At first, Merlin thought that this was very hippie and dumb, but then he decided that this is actually a very good idea, because often kids are just scribbling. It is an incredible idea!

John tries really hard not to say ”Goooood!” because why the fuck does she need him to? There are certainly 1000 people right now composing emails saying that it is important to say ”Good!” to your kid, but Merlin thinks that the conventional wisdom is increasingly to not do that because you can go too far. There are so many other ways John’s daughter knows that he approves of her and it is just a reflexive action if you go ”Gooooood!”. Merlin worries about raising a kid that just worries about trying to please him. As much as he is incredibly self-involved, he does not worry that it will crush her artistic ambitions, but he worries about her thinking that the only yard stick is whether or not other people think it was good. One of the things that John appreciates most about his parents and in particular his mother is that when he was working on something artistic, she would back out of the room and close the door. She didn’t sit there and ask what he was doing or what it is. When he was done, she put it up on the refrigerator. She recognized that this wasn’t necessarily another opportunity for parent-child interaction, but it was what John was doing and he was fine, so let it ride!

Missing the old times (BW31)

This is another segment Merlin calls ”Bizarre Marcia Roderick theatre”: (Knocking on door): John, is that song about a space shuttle crash? Is that about the Challenger? You are listening to John Roderick, who I will never admit is my favorite songwriter and artist today, because he is a dick! John: "Can I stay with you in San Francisco for several weeks for free, Merlin?" Merlin would love it if John’s mom would take care of both their stupid daughters and John would just come and hang out with him again! His misses that time so much! They should just put both of their daughters into a nice little box and put it in John’s mom’s living room. She has a room in the basement where she keeps the good boxes for friend’s kids. Merlin has a hard time convincing his wife to keep the perfectly good boxes. Merlin loves John's mom so much because she is so practical and so straight, even when she talks about how much she loves John’s kid. Merlin once accidentally called her number instead of John’s and she seemed very happy, but she was still her very practical self.

The Commander thinks aloud (BW31)

The song "The Commander Thinks Aloud" is about the space shuttle Columbia which is one of two space shuttles that crashed. The Columbia is the one that disintegrated on re-entry while the Challenger was the one that disintegrated shortly after launch. John had a very interesting relationship to this song just recently. You are lucky when you can write a song with the capacity of making you cry multiple times as you perform it. All song writers have one or two songs in their repertoire that can make them very emotional when they really dig into it while they are performing it. It does the same to the crowd. "The Commander Thinks Aloud" is a lot of people’s favorite Long Winters song. It is somewhat atypical because it doesn’t have any guitars on it and it has literally three chords 1-5-4 the whole song. It is about a real event that was on the news, which is not normally John’s wheelhouse.

John would otherwise use a metaphor to take small personal events and turn them into bigger things that he can then use to talk about real feelings. That is what metaphor is so good at: If you want to say that this girl stepped on your toe and you write a song that goes ”That girl stepped on my toe”, then it would be a Jack Black song first of all, but it would also not be a very interesting song for the long haul. When you utilize metaphor and turn the girl into Hungarians and you turn your toe into the great steppes of Central Europe, then all of a sudden you are writing a song that sounds very big and is coming from a place that is very small. The Columbia disaster was an actual big event and every metaphor for it would be smaller than the actual thing. As John was writing it, he realized that you could talk about in small discreet little scenes, but it also functions as a reverse metaphor about what happened to the astronauts on that spaceship and how that spaceship crash affected us all in little ways. It was like a relationship breaking up or one person’s life seen from beginning to end. It was sort of a reverse of what normal songwriting would look like.

The coda of the song is very memorable. The part that always gets Merlin is the ”Can you feel it, we're almost home” because it works on a lot of levels. America was so full of hope because of that impossibility of going from a John F Kennedy speech to being on the moon in such an unbelievably small amount of time. All the things on this timeline that they had to hit to make it happen and to bring people back alive from space! The song works on so many levels as a tragedy about so many things, the least of which is that you can do this most amazing thing in the world, but when you are so close it just blows apart! It is rooted in the argument that people use to justify space travel: Human beings are natural explorers and if we aren’t exploring and reaching out into whatever the next realm is, then we are not fulfilling or destiny.

The reverse of that is: It is encoded in us all to recognize and empathize with somebody who has left a village and has been out to the Oregon coast or has walked across Africa or has found Stanley in the jungle or whatever. We can relate to that person and to the idea of that person stepping off the train in their home town, falling and getting run over by the train while their wife and kids were standing there after having been gone. The Lewis and Clark Expedition is a kind of tragedy that certainly has happened a million times in human history and is something we all feel very personally about. You would think that writing a song about astronauts would be hard for people to identify with, but in fact what they were doing was incredibly human and it applies to each of us in a small scale way every time we leave the house, go to work and get home. That is what art is: It is metaphysical distance. A song like ”I’m so sad that the shuttle crashed” would only have limited longevity. It has much more depth if you abstract it a little bit. John had to educate Merlin on what so many of his songs are about and Merlin has listened to them a lot.

Teachers and school systems (BW31)

One of the reasons John comes across as so interesting to a lot of people is that he fakes it pretty well as a polymath (there is that sexual chemistry again!). He is clearly not only a student of history, but he is actually very knowledgeable about history. His major in college was Comparative History of Ideas which has the word ”History” in it, but history is just a component of it. John enjoys being an amateur historian and he feels like history is valid every day. There are a couple of topics that Merlin is really interested in, but he is embarrassed about how poorly he has absorbed them. Two examples that jump to mind are Mathematics and History. Merlin is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he finds it amazing that you can take something as interesting as European history and turn it into things like memorizing the date when the treaty of Versailles was signed without understanding what that treaty really meant looking backwards and especially looking forwards. There are not that many more interesting topics! The only thing Merlin remembers is that they signed it on a train car, and then Hitler used that same train car when France capitulated to him. Talk about a master of metaphor!

Merlin’s problem is true for everybody! John didn’t learn history in High School. High School actually deprived him of what had up till then been a lifetime love of Mathematics. He started 9th grade thinking that he was a math wiz, but by the end of 10th grade, he wanted absolutely nothing to do with Math. What is more interesting than Physics taught by a great teacher? That is the whole reason for going to school! Physics taught by a terrible teacher is like being waterboarded! They could sit here for the rest of their lives and talk about education and how they were wronged by the 1950s textbooks that were still being used in elementary school during the 1970s. It is probably not any better now!

The only reason somebody really, really dies is because of a lack of oxygen. Whatever is the cause of your death, the real reason you ultimately die is because of a lack of oxygen. In the same way, Merlin heard people say that everything is Physics. When you get really down to it, everything that goes on is some abstraction of Physics and obviously Physics itself combines different disciplines. Merlin is the armchair engineer, he doesn’t know anything about Physics and he never had Physics in school. He had Geometry when he was a senior. You couldn’t meet a more lamentable math-idiot than him and he doesn't know what things like fractals or set theory mean, he could surely figure it out if he had just the basic skills and that bums him out!

You can take classes online and there are even classes by eminent Yale professors that have been uploaded to the Interwebs, free to watch. John took a Physics class in college that was taught by one of the Physicists from Hanford, which is the big nuclear reservation in Washington state where they made the atom bomb. This guy was a real Fineman type of character, a brilliant Physicist who had been boots on the ground and up to his elbows in practical Physics for his whole career. He was teaching at the university just because he loved it. It was one of the best classes John ever took and it instilled in him a life-long love for Physics after having had a F in Physics in High School because his teacher was just some ding dong who didn’t know any Physics herself. From the first time that guy in college picked up a piece of chalk, John realized that it matters who your teacher is. That brings us to the topic of homeschooling which John assumes that Merlin is a major proponent of and John proposes that they start a charter school together.

Stories from Merlin’s High School (BW31)

Merlin’s Chemistry teacher in High School was a finalist for being an astronaut on the Challenger shuttle flight. She was on the news that night, a year after Merlin graduated. He was living at his mom’s house 1/2 mile away and his teacher was out on the lawn at the school watching it. She was a very taciturn woman, quite a kept-to-herself person and she watched what happened. It could have been her in that accident!

Merlin's college was a liberal arts school and most of what he did was literature, short stories, poems, novels, reading ”The Ambassadors” and so on. In his second year, he took a physics class for poets on a whim. It was called ”Nature of Modern Physics”, taught by a Physics teacher, but basically you would read Adolph Baker and Einstein. He read ”The Dancing Wu Li Masters” by Gary Zukav. The teacher was from Hungary, his name was Peter Kasacs and he seemed like a weird guy to Merlin. Merlin really thought of himself as a great writer because he was the features editor in High School which means that obviously he must be a great writer! He had only one failure during first year when he wrote a paper about Vonnegut and his teacher Mark Miller said ”Isn’t this part curiously like whipping a dead mule with misplaced rhetoric?”, which reminds John of a scene from ”Back to school” starring Rodney Dangerfield who hires Kurt Vonnegut to help him with his Vonnegut paper.

This Physics teacher tore Merlin’s paper apart and said ”There are all kinds of problems with this, there are grammatical problems and structural problems with building a case”. The writing just wasn’t good! Of all things he suggested Merlin to go to the writing instructor Jane Wheeler and get some help. Merlin was speechless! Don’t you know who I am? He actually went to her and she whipped him into shape. That was probably the severest lashing he got for his writing in college and it came from a Physics teacher. Maybe the other ones had just been too nice, but it wasn’t his stuff about Raymond Carver or Robert Lowell, but it was his stuff about Quantum Theory.

Actually there is a great quote from Vonnegut saying ”If you want to find the best writers at Cornell University, don’t go to the English department, but go to the science department”. Jane Wheeler made Merlin read ”On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Of all the educational stuff that Merlin thought he was going to learn in college, of all the classes he took, it was weird how all this stuff snuck in in places that he had never expected. He took the ”20th Century Painting” on a lark and it ended up being his favorite thing and one of the things that was most memorable. He doesn’t know how much he still remembers of Moby Dick, because he didn’t think it was that interesting, but he was just wrapped to tension during every single class in 20th century painting.

John doesn’t understand why our entire education from Kindergarten to graduate school isn’t treated that same way, because it is absolutely true of everything John carries with him to this day: None of it was on somebody’s syllabus or on the college prep course work. All of it was found by accident. During those classes when he was secretly reading a book propped within the textbook that he was holding up so the teacher thought he was studying, the Mad Magazine he was reading within his English book, is the stuff that made him who he is. It is the education he ended up getting!

Time Magazine then and the Internet now (BW31)

In 1976, John was 8 years old and he had a lot of questions. The Vietnam war had just ended and John was aware of that. Nixon had been impeached within a couple of years before and he was aware of that. In 1976 people still talked about Nixon! Ford was the president, Carter was running for president and John was aware of all those things and had a lot of questions about them. John’s mom got him a subscription to Time Magazine, back when it was a great weekly news magazine. It has always been a middle-brow magazine, but it was super-well written and super-well researched, perfect for an 8-year old. She said that John doesn’t have to read every article. If he starts reading an article and it doesn’t interest him, just move on and don’t read it. During the first year he got Time Magazine, he didn’t read most of the stuff, but he would flip through it, look at the pictures and read the captions. There was nobody there reading it over his shoulder or trying to read it to him or trying to explain it to him. Pretty soon he started reading the feature articles and if there were cool pictures, he would start reading the article to put them together. By the time he was in 6th grade, he was reading Time Magazine every week and that gave him a lot of education. It was almost entirely a process of self-selection that probably looked from the outside like he was given no guidance. Frankly, in the 1970s there were things in Time Magazine that were too sophisticated for John, things that shocked him because he was introduced to ideas that were above his pay-grade.

Time Magazine did not allow him to pursue threads that interested him, but they presented a dozen interesting threads for him to chose and also some that didn't interest him. It was like when you are at a dentist’s office and there is nothing there to read: You do read this thing that you don’t want to read and now you know something that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Surfing the web is a very different process. John can waste 4 hours on Wikipedia just clicking through while always pursuing the thread that is the closest to the bullseye of his own interest. Very rarely does he find himself on a page where he doesn’t know where to continue. He will find out where somebody went to college and then he looked at the college and then he looked at the dorm rooms and then he looked at the admission process. Why is he looking at the admission process for Yale right now?

John is following his own interests, but his interests have led him up a smaller and smaller tributary and now he is learning stuff that it is not producing any food for him. Broad, but shallow, that is what you need from the age of 5-15. That is why those history classes are so useless. Learning the dates of the French revolution? John studied the French revolution up and down and he can’t tell you any of the god-damn dates! 1789, that is the only date you need to know! In high school and in college he probably had to memorize 10 dates around these events, which is a degree of specificity that a masters student in the French revolution probably would have at ready hand. What you are losing is the story! Where did the French revolution come from and where did it go to? That is the only story that matters and until you have embarked on a PhD program, that is the only story that anybody should try and tell!

Where did the American revolution come from and where did it lead to? Where did the nation of Germany come from and where is it now? If you are a history teacher, you should be sitting Indian-style on the floor with your students, talking about this stuff. Storytelling! The 6-8 hours that kids spend in school today are 4-6 hours of keeping them off the streets. It is such a cliché, but it is true: They are learning how to stand in line. School is a socialization institute in a lot of ways. If John had a charter school, that is what it would be, too! You would be getting socialized in a very different way: With AC/DC! You would be getting socialized to fucking fear John Roderick first and foremost. More people need to learn that at a younger age. They could save themselves a lot of hurt going up against the big man!

You could learn more by picking up the Economist and reading those 5 pages called ”Week in Review”, which John sees as one of the best things in all periodicals. If you pick up a paper, even the New York Times, there is just so much stuff that has been chewed up by the news pipe, but if you pick up that Economist thing, it gives you the high level overview. It is going to be about countries you don’t know about, it is going to be about topics you don’t understand, but if your version of keeping up to date is watching the crawl on CNN, you can instead take 20 minutes and read that every week and you will be legitimately up to date on what is happening in the world. Merlin doesn’t want to say that he doesn’t care about the news, but it doesn’t have an impact on him in an actionable way like a lot of people pretend it does. Following celebrity deaths and who is mad about politics this is week, if that is really that important to you, why don’t you do that in a high quality way instead of reading Google News which is just a morass?

You have to add an extra 15 minutes to it and that is what Wikipedia is for. You open up the Economist, you read the first 5 pages of it in front of your computer and for every word you don’t understand and for every idea that comes about that you are even slightly curious about, you look the term up on Wikipedia and spend another 2 minutes reading a little bit deeper on that idea. The most common thing in the world right now is that everybody has an opinion about the Palestinians and the Israelis, but no-one has even a penny turned on its side worth of depth of understanding of the history of this situation. John is not saying that understanding the history of the situation helps you to know what the solution of the problem is, but it damps down your willingness to weigh into and argument in a bar about the Palestinian situation. You don’t know anything!

Knowing stuff and being educated is equated in popular culture of America these days with elitism. Elitism is just completely equated with a kind of activist liberalism that wants you to eat your beads and wants to teach sex education to 5-year old kids. It wants to force those kids to become gay and wants to have the school nurses do abortion. There is this cascading hatred for being informed. Emotionally, John absolutely understands. 50% of people in America have felt for a long time that there was some smug university administrator at their local high school telling them that they couldn’t spank their kids anymore. They resent it and they don’t have the emotional elasticity to weigh into it and deal with the grey area, but they just reject the whole concept that somebody from the local university should ever come to them and tell them how to do anything! This gives you a world of people who resent the idea that there is information that would help them clarify their thoughts on topics that matter to them. It is endlessly frustrating! John experiences this on Twitter when he writes ”Hey, go read a book! //John” and he gets 15 replies on why he won’t stop telling them how to live.

News stories always focus on conflict, because a story should be about conflict according to a lot of people. Many news are also about this constant dualistic approach to everything, where there are conservatives and liberals or this and that. Maybe Merlin is a contrarian, but this way of writing news stories is limiting in ways that most of us never really even completely thought about. Things happen in the world! For some things you can't really trace the provenance of an action and say that this is because a liberal wanted to do this thing. It is an incredibly narrow way to see the world! Instead you have to look at a story in context with other things. In Israel, you don’t have just two opposing sides, but you might have 19!

In the US we are always looking whom we are going to align ourselves with. That is fine if it makes you happy! You can pick whatever pro-wrestler you are really into, but it is extremely limiting when you are trying to see the world clearly instead of seeing facts and events in and of themselves. You have to really square them against the context of what else is happening. A big part of liberalist education teaches you how to wander around the library and wonder how something might not be how it seems to be.

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