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Jambo Bwana 10: A Week With Elephants

Elephants love ... other elephants.

Friday July 1
Nairobi to Boulder

Just as we’re getting into the Land Rovers for the short drive to the airstrip, an elephant stops by as if to bid us farewell. And then, as we leave the compound, two more show up along the side of the road.

The take off out of Ithumba is spectacular, and we get to see Benjamin and Mondaii and Geoffrey waving to us as we pass Ithumba Hill and bank around north and west through the rest of the park and the countryside around Nairobi before landing at Wilson Airport, where Brian and Jambi are waiting. It’s mid-morning, and our flight doesn’t leave until midnight, so we’re staying at Peter and Jambi’s place for the day before we head for the airport.

We stash our gear, and then Stanley drives us out to Jambi’s mother’s place about an hour away tucked high in the hills of the tea plantations that surround the city. Her mother and sister serve us lunch. The food is great, and it’s fascinating to be at the very place where Jambi grew up. On our return drive, we get a sobering view of more Nairobi suburbs and the poverty that permeates much of the country.

Sundowner with Peter sitting at their dinner table before we head out to the airport, where we’ll sit for a few hours before boarding our flight to Amsterdam. We haven’t had internet access for the entire safari and know nothing about the attacks in Istanbul several days ago. Nor do we appreciate yet the fact that we’re coming into one of Europe’s largest and busiest airports from Nairobi, a known terror hotspot.

Our flight doesn’t leave until midnight, and from the terminal we notice the plane is really large, one of those with a second floor. But it isn’t until ten seconds before we get to our row that I realize we are going to be stuck in the middle two seats of a row with ten seats. (I read recently that they’re added an eleventh seat to that configuration – oh joy!) Even worse, the area where my right leg should go has a metal thingie there that doesn’t allow me stretch my right leg. Welcome to the real world again.

The Amsterdam Airport is a zoo–everything but an anal probe. But we finally get to Detroit, where there are more delays. Later, as we approach Denver, we see thunderstorms pounding the Front Range, and the plane slips in and out of the turbulence until finally landing, and then spends another half hour on the tarmac because it’s storming too hard to pull into the gate. By the time we get into Dr. Reptile’s car after a long wait on a busy night at DIA (it’s July 4 weekend), we’re nothing more than vegetables, talking gibberish and nonsense, and many thanks to him for coming out and picking us up and depositing us home safely. For two days I could still feel the motion of the airplane whenever I hit the pillow.

But who cares? It was just incredible. Those elephants rearranged my brain. Many thanks to Lois Hild, Jambi and Peter and Bustani Safari and our fabulous drivers for making it such a smooth and amazing week.

And thanks to everyone who’s read all or parts of this. If you have, don’t forget that you can foster one of these incredible orphans as they journey back to the wild for just $50 a year. You’ll get monthly updates on the work of the David Sheldrick Trust and watch your elephants as they progress toward freedom. The future of the elephant is in our hands, and anything we can do to save a species from extinction so people can have ivory chess pieces and trinkets is a good thing. Watch this video of these orphans running for their milk and make out your check. You won’t regret it.

Jambo bwana.

Watch videos of our Kenyan elephant adventure.

June 29, 2017   1 Comment

Jambo Bwana 8: A Week with Elephants

The older, wild elephants kept their distance. Some of these big tuskers were born in the 1960s. Wouldn't you like to get inside one of those brains?

Tuesday, June 28
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

Although it is hardly primitive, the Ithumba Camp is more the experience I had imagined. This is tent living. It’s great to get a hot outdoor shower and then stand in the sun on the stone floor next to a giant scarab art piece and let the sun dry you off. That just doesn’t suck.

We have noticed large anthills behind our tents, but when I go back to investigate, I discover they are actually camouflage for the solar panels that provide each tent with the hot water for those wonderful showers. And, like at Umani Springs, we throw our dirty laundry into the basket, and it comes back washed and folded in the afternoon. Did I say I could get used to this wilderness living?

We are up at five, so we don’t have to rush to make the 6 a.m. feeding. Watch the morning gathering here. The wild elephants aren’t anywhere to be seen when we arrive, and as the orphans are let out, one turns right at the gate, comes right over to me, touches me with its trunk and heads on over to the lucerne. It’s so magical, I can barely believe it. Did that really happen? High-fived by an elephant? Are you kidding? I’m higher and feeling more fortunate than I’ve ever been in my life.

High-fived by an orphan!

After the elephants and keepers head off, Lois has planned a breakfast at the Tiva River, which is about 20 miles south of the camp. The Tiva is one of the main rivers in Kenya and in this area, but it is dry most of the year, as it is today. It runs only for a few weeks, and though it flows toward the sea, like the Colorado River, it never reaches it. Even though it appears to be completely dry, there is lotsa water beneath, which occasionally appears as springs, and we can see instances along the dry bed.

Tiva Riverbed, where we had breakfast this morning.

That groundwater beneath becomes apparent almost immediately. Geoffrey manages to get his Land Rover into the dry bed of the river, but Mondaii’s truck gets stuck right next to it in wet mud. It’s serious enough that we all have to come back in the one Rover while Mondaii waits for somebody from the Trust to send out a tractor to rescue him. Despite the sinkage, we walk upriver, where breakfast is served, so we enjoy our boiled eggs and fruit and cereal sitting on what we think are rocks. When I push down to get up, the “rock” crumbles beneath me. It’s nothing more than sand and dust, the bottom of the riverbed and underwater when the river is full. “All other ground is sinking sand,” as the old Lutheran hymn goes. Pretty cool.

There is plenty of room in the Land Rover for all of us, and we head back to the mud hole and spend a long time there. See a part of our trip here. The wild bulls are over at the waterhole as the truck pulls up noisily and the attendant gets out to fill it up. We watch the red elephants again, putting on their warpaint like Comanches in Oklahoma territory in the 1850s. Watch the red elephants of Tsavo here and here.

The wild bulls are standing at the waterhole as the truck pulls up noisily and the attendant gets out to clean and fill it up. I wind up looking one of the bulls right in the eye for awhile while standing beneath a small tree. Lois comes over and points out that I am standing beneath an amarule tree, the fruit from whence we get Amarula, and a bush elephants will seek out – perhaps they get a Amarule buzz, too. Elephants everywhere, and so comfortable.

The Amarule Tree at the Ithumba waterhole

During our down time, we can sit in the assembly room and watch an array of monkeys, baboons, warthogs, mongooses, ground squirrels, hornbills, parrots and other birds make their way through the waterhole not far from the compound on their way someplace else. A male greater kudu, the distinctly striped antelope of east Africa, spends some time, and I get to see the markings on his back that almost seem like some kind of hieroglyphic. And we get seriously acquainted with the dik dik, the small antelopes that are everywhere. We literally see thousands during our time here; they are as ubiquitous as squirrels. And, we find out, even they are poached and the meat sold in local villages as a delicacy.

A hornbill stops by to peck at the ground and entertain me. They are like robins, almost tame and ubiquitous. Out of nowhere and right in front of us, a hawk swoops in and takes a smaller bird. A few guineafowl shuffle through before a large baboon troupe makes its way noisily to the waterhole, maybe 30 or 40 in all, with little squabbles and fights breaking out among the members all the time. They’ll fight about any little thing.

All in all, I feel better here than any time on the trip, and the simplicity and ease of our days is really easy to fall into. I love the rhythm of getting up early, spending an hour with the elephants, coming back for breakfast and break, returning to the mud hole at 11 am for another hour or so, coming back for lunch and a nap and heading back out at 5pm for another hour or so watching their return before returning for our Sundowner and dinner. Three-four hours a day surrounded by elephants. Who could ask for more? Watch the elephants, including a second baby, in this scene.

This evening the orphans are accompanied by a large group that includes wild elephants and ex-orphans, and there’s a lot of socializing going on. As the orphans make their way through the melee to their respective places, one of the wild elephants, probably an ex-orphan, gets inside one of the pens, and a keeper comes over and quickly extricates him. Watch a video of this here. Once orphans decide to go wild again, they are not allowed to return to the stockade. Another ex-orphan, his temporal lobe streaming liquid, is up around us later, obviously tired and in distress. Benjamin explains that he wants to return and will probably sleep up against the stockade tonight near the orphans. Tough love.

Along with the pellets, the orphans get stacks of acacia branches, from which they extract the bark, a particular delicacy. I spend some time watching and filming one work over her stack of branches, marveling at how she uses his mouth and teeth as well as the trunk to pull the delicate bark from these tiny limbs. Again, that trunk. Amazing how well it works.

Sakuta, a wild ex-orphan, is particularly friendly, and she touches me, grabbing my fingers for just a moment with her trunk, exhaling and leaving hot air and red dirt on my hands. On the way home for our Sundowners, Mondaii drives us down a road that takes us past the cell tower tree, where we can see its red beacon shining as a guidelight into the world, though it never gives us cell service of any kind. Then Mondaii drives us back out to the mud hole, where we find a couple of tardy elephants looking over their shoulders at us as they leave the area.

At sunset, Lois and I are both upstairs, but we’re a tad late for the sunset. It’s no less gorgeous, however. We’re looking down into Tsavo West and beyond to a long line of purple hills to the south and west above the park. I see a large blue prominence lurking above the line that I haven’t seen before. It’s a cone-like structure, with another smaller one to the south. Lois confirms that it is Kilimanjaro. Nice. Amboseli National Park is over there, and the Masai Mara.

Nancy arrives at the second-floor lookout area with another bottle of Amarula, and we refresh our glasses and continue to enjoy our view of the mighty volcano. Dinner is a wonderful chicken curry and rice dish with carrot soup and homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert. We got to talking about the reptilian aliens that reside beneath Denver International Airport when Lois brings up the legend about the hidden city beneath Mt. Shasta in California that houses Lumurians. Life is good!

I think I have mentioned the soups before. We have a bowl at almost every dinner, and all are pureed and served as cream soups. We have all sorts of veggie flavors, and each is really good. I’m not a big soup guy, but I inhaled every bowl I was served in Kenya.

We admire the immensity of the Milky Way without any light interference before we retire for the evening. Later, Lois takes a magnificent photo of our hazy galaxy, hardly visible at home, over our tent. Wow.

Lois Hild took this incredible photo over our tent at Ithumba Camp.

Our elephant journey continues here. Watch more videos here.

June 26, 2017   No Comments

Jambo Bwana 4: A Week with Elephants

Our first morning with the Umani Springs orphans was pure magic.

Friday, June 24
Umani Springs Camp
Chyulu Hills National Park
Kibwesi Forest, Kenya

People go on safari for different reasons, and there are enough to accommodate diverse palates. The most common and best-known are the “Big Five” or “Big Six” safaris. In Kenya, that means going to the savannahs of the Masai Mara or Amboseli National Park and spending the day in trucks marking off the Big Six list: generally, lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus. It’s similar to what we did in Yellowstone in the years we spent watching wolves and grizzlies.

(Mondaii tells us a great story about a group that wanted to see the Big Six. It took him less than an hour to find examples of each. They took photos and were ready to come back to the camp and hang out the rest of the day.)

This week is different. Instead of trying to see all the animals, on this safari we get the chance to see one species up close and personal. (The second week of the safari heads to Masai Mara, where you get those amazing photos of the sun setting with a giraffe or lion standing before it.) And when I first realized, while riding to and from the elephant stockades, we wouldn’t be going on game drives or seeing other animals, I was a little disappointed. But not for long.

We have done adventures before, with mind-bending results. In 1999 and 2000 we traveled to Brooks Falls and McNeil River, respectively, two areas in southwest Alaska where dozens of brown bears gather and tolerate each other and the humans gawking at them while they fatten up on the salmon bounty at both areas. We spent a total of eight days over two trips in the wild with the great bears in their native habitat doing what grizzlies spend most of the time doing, and I learned that it doesn’t include chasing and eating people – unless provoked by said humans.

We felt privileged to sit among brown bears at McNeil River and Brooks Camp in Alaska in 1999 and 2000.

And we spent half a dozen Octobers in Yellowstone chasing the wolves in the early 2000s after they were re-introduced into the park. We were able to observe animals in a pack and how they relate to their surroundings and each other. One incredible, cold morning, on a hill overlooking the Lamar Valley, we watched for an hour as a mother grizzly and two cubs overcame seven wolves and took over an elk kill site. Powerful stuff.

So the chance to see another species, especially the largest land animal, up close was persuasive. Like brown bears and wolves, elephants dominate their ecosystems. I had left Alaska understanding that humans, especially since the advent of the repeating rifle, are the apex species – no doubt about that – but that we might not be the smartest in the sense of how we have adapted to our environment, and we loved seeing that kind of thing in nature.

Brown bears just want to be left in peace. Any so-called “attack” is nothing more than a living being protecting itself and its family or near enough starvation to actually entertain consuming a human. Brown bears can and do kill people if necessary, and so do elephants, but both, for the most part, are pretty docile. And when there is conflict or competition, animals always pay the price for their actions.

The final reason why I succumbed didn’t dawn on me until later. It goes back to seeing those first films of those orphans run for their bottles and watching their absolute joy for life as they went through their day. It reminded me that I was orphaned young, too, and how much I hated that word, how much I wanted to rid myself of its stigma, of that dread feeling of not being part of something. Seeing them become reintegrated into society with family and friends is a big part of it for me.

We’re up early today, and I grab a quick cup of strong Kenyan tea Peter has ready for us so we can be out at the elephant stockade at 6am as the guys and gals are let out for the day to roam the forest with their keepers. Just before we get in the Rover, I notice that a bunch of ants had gotten into my left shoe. I spent a little time ridding myself of the intruders, and it was the last insect incident of the trip.

When we get out to the stockade, I notice that the bark has been perfectly stripped from every tree limb that was placed inside their enclosures last night. They head off in a line, and as we leave the stockade behind the elephants, they all turn left at the gate and head for a small clearing the keepers have filled with lucerne, or alfalfa, which has nutrients that the ellies love.

Standing there in the forest in the hay, we have our first experience actually up close and personal with them, and it is amazing. (Watch the scene here.) Dawn is creeping into the forest, and here we are, eight tourists, two drivers, six keepers and 11 elephants in a pretty tight area. And we just walk around among them in wonder, feeling their trunks, scratching their ears, looking into their eyes, watching and listening to them eat, asking questions, learning to stay out of their way and just marveling that we are actually in the wild more than 9,000 miles from home communing with another species. This is what we came to do, and it feels soooo good.

The keepers seem as gentle as the elephants, able to communicate with words and gestures, keep order and put up with our insistent questions, and we have many. They are always calm and collected; I never see one of them panic at any time. Philip, head of the Umani unit, is the first of two keepers to tell me that elephants are as smart as humans, maybe smarter, and yes, the keepers get very attached to the animals, and yes, the animals get attached to certain humans. These elephants have been traumatized. Some were rescued while circling their dead mothers and screaming, “WTF?” and then brought back to an unfamiliar place, the nursery.

Think about it. These animals have no good reason to trust humans, knowing our treachery, and here are these men who walk with them, talk with them, feed them, sleep with them, comfort them when they’re lonely in the darkness, in effect becoming their surrogate family. Keepers are moved around in sleeping quarters so animals, or keepers, don’t get too attached to each other. We are witness to so many instances of the marvelous interaction between these humans and animals. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I would seriously consider giving up the ghost right this minute if I could come back as a keeper in a green Sheldrick tunic.

By the time we return for breakfast, dozens of vervet monkeys have taken over the lodge area, playing and jumping around in the bushes, along the edges of the swimming pool and out on the lawn. Scientists have studied vervet communication, and the species, which is widespread in Kenya, has been found to incorporate extensive patterns of communication. Young ones learn vocalizations from older relatives and siblings, which one to use to say “watch for a snake,” for instance, or “watch for another predator.” No doubt all this is taking place, but for us, it’s just thirty minutes of sitting and observing the entire troupe, which must number at least fifty, sweep through the area, over the deck chairs and around the pool, often with little outbreaks of action, before finally dispersing into the trees.

After breakfast we take an hour-long hike to the actual Umani springs, the underground aquifer that supplies the water here, before heading over to the mud bath in an open area a short walk from the lodge at 11 a.m. Soon, we can see the orphans at the edge of the forest, each one spotting the keepers and beginning to run for the milk formula bottles.

I’ve said it before, but watching the pure joy emanating from every ounce of these creatures as they head for their prize is still perhaps the best part of the entire experience. It connotes unabashed, overwhelming enthusiasm for life itself, and it just overwhelms me. Some of them get the bottles from the trainers and then hoist them with their trunks, others pick them up themselves and suck in the full five liters – it takes about thirty to forty seconds to drain one — before trumpeting for another. Orphans finding their way back into real life. (Watch the orphans run for their bottles here.)

Then they make their way over to the mudhole, where the orphans step in and slap mud onto their bodies. One just splays himself out into the natural sludge and works his limbs clumsily while trying to cover his body. The hole is not that muddy, and it’s not easy for them to cover themselves. But once they do, they walk over to a pile of dirt nearby and throw it on themselves happily before disappearing with the keepers back into the forest.

One of the keepers mentions again that since these animals can be here for a few years, the keepers switch off so that the animals don’t become attached to one trainer over another, which can be dangerous for the animals and complicate their return to the wild. It’s hard on the keepers, too, to keep from becoming too close to the animals for whom they are father/mother/matron/friend/companion. When I ask about intelligence, he says, “very intelligent, more so than humans.” No arguments here, so far.

The cement pond: Did a crocodile or a monitor lizard slither into the cement pond? Inquiring minds need to know.

Back at the lodge, lounging around before lunch, I look up just in time to catch something slither into the little cement pond on the front lawn. Some of the others got a longer look and identified it as a crocodile. At lunch Mondaii argues that it was a monitor lizard, which I never knew would have existed here, but they do. Peter, the chef, contends that it was a crocodile, and at dinner it becomes a kind of meme for the group: Step up and give your opinion: Was it monitor or croc? Most are going with the latter. I’m not the only one to think Mondaii is putting us on.

One thing we notice is that Peter, besides cooking great food, also makes our napkins into animals, a new one each meal – he tells us later that he has 30 choices so he can do a different one for every meal for longer than a week. Lunch today is a ham sandwich, spinach lasagna and a dessert made of raspberry and mango with the same salty chocolate cookie we got yesterday with vanilla ice cream. Billie is a little tired and doesn’t come for lunch. Peter is concerned and takes her a plate of food.

The Kenyans’ general warmth, friendliness and gentle ways are infectious. We get the chance to really get to know Geoffrey and Mondaii, our two drivers. Geoffrey is 33 and has been a driver/guide since he was 19. Mondaii is 49, with a wife and four kids, the youngest about kindergarten age, and who he really wants to be educated in the United States. Since I’m the only other male in our group of eight, the three of us develop a pretty close bond, and I like them immensely. Miss them both.

Not a bad place for a shower.

There are a couple of swings hanging from the acacia trees that surround the main building, and I take advantage any chance I get to just swing. During the afternoon siesta, I keep hearing a loud male voice outside coming from different locations. I’m guessing that it is the caretakers keeping the elephants in line, but I learn at dinner that it was a large male baboon out near the mud baths trying to find his mates. On our ride out to Umani, we had driven past a small village that had a dozen baboons running through the area, and we are getting used to expecting animals to be around. Baboons are known thieves, and someone tells us that they will run from men, but not from women. Huh?

It still feels surreal to be in a place so nice and modern. Umani Springs was opened just a few years ago, and apparently one of the British royal family has stayed here. Lois says it’s nice enough that some people get here and don’t want to see animals just because it’s such a nice resort. I could see that. But the Trust runs this as an adjunct to the orphan rehabilitation area. In order to stay here, you must pay for the entire resort, which allows only eight people, and bring in your own food, which is prepared by a safari chef trained for this experience. In that regard, Peter is the best, serving us an array of dishes that are tasty and plentiful.

At 5 p.m we are back at the stockade for the arrival of the orphans. I spend some more quality time with Mwashoti, and he seems to warm to Lois and I, sticking his trunk out to check us and letting us pet him and talk with him. I get so caught up in filming him taking his milk, that I’m not paying attention and quickly turn around to another group coming in right behind me, passing on their way to their pens, milk and saplings. Two of the “troublemakers” follow the others into the wrong area, and the keepers bark at them and point him in the right direction while we scramble to stay out of their way as they find their own enclosures. (Watch the whole scene here.)

Our Sundowner tonight takes place on a wooden deck that faces the Chylulu Hills, a volcanic mountain range and national park that fills the sky to the south and west as the sun sets. The hills are volcanic and considered still active, the last eruption in 1856. The hills separate the Tsavo plain from the Amboseli plain to the west. We’re looking at the eastern flanks. The western side is operated by the West Chyulu Game Conservation owned by the Maasai.

The drive to the deck is brutal, even for Kenya. It’s almost straight up, with the Range Rover lurching and digging desperately for any traction during the first few minutes of the climb before it finally levels off nearer the deck, which is about halfway up the hill. At one point, the angle seemed so great, it appeared we might flip over. But Mondaii keeps the tires digging into the soil, and it’s worth it. The deck looks down into a gorgeous valley with the hills across from us, and the drama of the sun fading behind the hills as they turn different shades of blue and gray is just wonderful.

Peter has set up a table with snacks, drinks and ice that was packed in an old-fashioned looking wooden box. Very Out of Africa. What I called Amaret last night is actually Amarula, a South African liqueur with an elephant on the bottle, and it really catches on with everyone and becomes a big part of this trip’s lore. And we were so happy to find it’s available here in Boulder, too. Every time I sip it, I’m back on the deck here or on the second floor of the main building at Ithumba.

But the view also clearly shows that we’re not that far away from the rest of the world. As I find out later on Google maps, Umani Springs, as the crow flies, is only a few miles from the Mombasa Highway to the north and east. Giant power lines bisect the valley below, much as they do across the American West and many other wild landscapes we have visited, which gets the group into a discussion about landscape photography.

Lois explains both sides of the argument, how some photographers would eliminate the power lines from their shots, even by manipulation, to present a more wild picture, while others, like Edward Weston, would never alter a photo. I subscribe to the second view, since the power lines are important to understanding the landscape, too. But with cellphones and apps, that’s all kind of moot by now—people can modify their photos simply and instantly, so who cares, right? Later, we will find a poorly disguised cell phone tree on a hill overlooking Ithumba. And we’ll see more power lines bisecting the wilderness miles away on our breakfast trip to Tiva River there in a few days.

The Chylulu Hills are a perfect place for a Sundowner.

The drive back is sometimes almost straight downhill, but much more pleasant than the ride up. Dinner tonight is lamb with veggies, potatoes, green beans, carrots, all fresh and prepared perfectly. Dessert is a nice, fruit mousse, and afterwards, we sing quietly, with Mondaii and Geoffrey leading us: “Jambo. Jambo Bwana.” The crocodile/monitor meme goes viral with the group and will continue until we unravel the mystery of what’s lurking down there in the cement pond.

Julia took a photo at the mudhole, where you can sometimes get cell reception, and she showed us a leopard track that was yuuugggeee, larger than a human hand. Last night we heard lots of strange noises around the resort, including a couple of hyenas. We find out that someone watches the camp all night, both to make sure we are out of harm’s way and, perhaps just as importantly, to keep the roaming animals off the grass lawn, which they love and will destroy quickly if allowed to linger. Billie still isn’t feeling well, and Mondaii suggests we serenade her after dinner, which we do before retiring. It’s a nice moment to see her wave back at us while we’re singing.

Sunrise over the cement pond.

Our elephant adventure continues here. Watch videos of our trip here.

June 21, 2017   No Comments

Music in American Culture

Commonly known as "records" in their era of greatest popularity (c. 1896–1915), these hollow cylindrical objects have an audio recording engraved on the outside surface, which can be reproduced when they are played on a mechanical cylinder phonograph (below).

The first phonograph was used to play cylinders.

The phonograph disc record was the primary medium used for music reproduction until late in the 20th century, replacing the phonograph cylinder record–with which it had co-existed from the late 1880s through to the 1920s–by the late 1920s. This is the 78 RPM version.

Nipper contemplates the big sound of a record.

This is similar to my first record player. Albums hung over the side of the machine.

The MiniDisc was a magneto-optical disc-based data storage device offering a capacity of 74 minutes and, later, 80 minutes, of digitized audio. The Sony-brand audio players were on the market from September 1992 until March 2013.

Follow the Technology

Music in American Culture 8:00-9:15 am. C199.

Basic idea is that music ALWAYS follows technology.

1945, just more than $100 million worth of records on discs made of shellac were sold. 1958, with 45 rpm singles and some albums, reached $500 million. 1965 sales had rocketed to more than $1 billion. Music industry changes, multi-billion dollar cash cow.

Before recorded music, the only way to hear music was live.

Here’s where technology begins to change music.

1) Cylinders and 78s, then 45s

2) Vinyl albums, introduced in 1947, gone as major music storage source by 1985.

3) CD: 1985-gone by 2000.

33 1/3 vinyl album=The real breakthrough.

From a business point of view, it was simple mathematics: Albums generated a lot more money than singles. It upped the financial ante considerably.

Everybody bought into albums as albums. For record companies, it was a godsend, meant selling something for $2.99 instead of 79 cents. Artists could make music that lasted longer and told stories. Consumers bought into them because they were cool.

It was part of a new form of communication.

Changed the way artists approached music. It was an era when musicians toured to sell albums, completely opposite of today.

Advent of instrument and live music technology: electric guitars an synthesizers, speakers and equipment.

The Rock Era, roughly 1965-1995, as the exception, not the rule.

©Leland Rucker 2016

Sweet Lunacy: A History of Boulder Rock on Vimeo.

Coming on 420: Debut issue of Sensi magazine.

Leland Rucker on KGNU-FM, Boulder Community Radio.

March 30, 2016   No Comments

Bob Dylan’s Modern Times and Tell Tale Signs

We'll be celebrating Bob Dylan's 70th birthday (it's May 24) early on Roots & Branches April 3.

I just finished Sean Wilentz’s “Bob Dylan in America,” a series of essays that looks at Dylan’s career, many of them about the later parts of it.  Like Wilentz, I have been fascinated at Dylan’s reincarnation after a period of confusion that lasted through much of the 1980s as a kind of minstrel, performing regularly as well as becoming involved in other kinds of creative expression.

Dylan is marking 70 years next month, so I put together a special KGNU (88.5 FM) Roots & Branches show for Sunday, April 3, 9-11 am MT that will argue that the last twenty years of Dylan’s career will be a period that be considered one of his most fruitful. (Download the show here until April 17.)

Nothing could possibly match the evolutionary path Robert Zimmerman took from the moment he first stepped onto New York streets fifty years ago in January to the release of Nashville Skyline nine years later. But he hasn’t done so bad of late, either.

In Chronicles Dylan relates that he realized by 1987 that he had been coasting, riding the laurels of his legend, performing erratically and releasing albums that seemed little more than pale reflections of his glorious past. He minced few words about his predicament, which coincided with an injury to one of his hands that he feared might end his playing days. “Always prolific, never exact,” he wrote, “too many distractions had turned my musical path into a jungle of vines.”

At the same time he writes that he realized that he would have to change the way he wrote and presented his music. “By combining certain elements of technique which ignite each other I could shift the levels of perception, time-frame structures and systems of rhythm,” he wrote, “which would give my songs a brighter countenance, call them up from the grave – stretch out the stiffness in their bodies and straighten them out.”

He also describes a musical numerical system, which I still don’t understand, that he says the guitarist Lonnie Johnson taught him. But for whatever reasons, things began turning around for him.

In 20 years, he’s released two albums of traditional songs (Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, four albums of original material (Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life) and eight editions in his bootleg series that includes a couple of three-disc sets. He published the first of a three-part memoir, Chronicles, which offered his own memories of his early days in New York City and two other periods of his life where he felt at a crossroads. He let Martin Scorsese direct No Direction Home, a three-hour-plus documentary on his life to 1966, that included two more albums of outtakes and other interesting material.

He wrote, directed and produced Masked & Anonymous,  an apocalyptic film that starred some of Hollywood’s finest acting talent. He curated and was host of Theme Time Radio Hour for three years, producing 100 hour-long programs that featured his obvious love for all kinds of music and American history and featured his oddball sense of humor. He let Twyla Tharp try to adapt his music for dance.

He plays about a hundred concerts a year, which isn’t an unusual number of shows except, it seems, in Dylan’s case, when it’s called the Never Ending Tour. His paintings are now hung in galleries around the world. He made Christmas in the Heart, a fantastic Christmas album and donated the money to charity. You probably wouldn’t have called Bob Dylan charitable in 1965, but you might today. He seems to have grown comfortably into old age with the same instincts and curiosity intact that have, except for a period in the 1980s, always sustained him.

And his most recent work, as Wilentz relates, recasts him as part of a long American tradition. In many ways, it’s no more than an extension of what he has always done. In Chronicles Dylan relates, as a voracious reader from an early age, how he dug into historical texts in friend’s apartments and the New York City Library. Early on he paid tribute to his heroes by copying them – his own tribute, “Song to Woody,” steals the melody of Woody Guthrie’s own “1913 Massacre.” Today, he finds different ways to connect with music and literature from, as Greil Marcus once dubbed it, the old, weird America, and spit it back out at us in different ways.

I think I make a strong case for his recent success, but the proof is in the music. Time willing, here’s the playlist for Sunday morning. The show will stream from kgnu.org, and I’ll post the link to the podcast Sunday afternoon.

Introduction, Bob Dylan Concert 2009
Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 1, Disc 3.
Tomorrow Night, Lonnie Johnson Bluebird single
Tomorrow Night, Bob Dylan, Good As I Been To You
Money Honey (take 2), Bob Dylan Unreleased
Nashville Skyline Rag, Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline
Love Sick, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Not Dark Yet, Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind
Tryin’ To Get to Heaven (Oct. 5, 2000, London, England), Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Marchin to the City, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Things Have Changed, Bob Dylan, Wonder Boys
Having Myself A Time, Billie Holiday, Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia 1933-1944 (Disc 4)
Bye & Bye, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Po’ Boy, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
High Water, Bob Dylan, Love & Theft
Come Una Pietra Scalciata (Like A Rolling Stone), Articolo 31. Masked & Anonymous
Down In The Flood (New Version), Bob Dylan, Masked & Anonymous
Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking    Bob Dylan & Mavis Staples, Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs Of Bob Dylan
Spirit On The Water, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Beyond The Horizon, Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Cross the Green Mountain, Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs Bootleg Series Vol. 8
Checkers by Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour: Dogs
Sinatra and Kennedy, Theme Time Radio Hour: President’s Day
Dylan GPS rap, Theme Time Radio Hour: Street Map
Life is Hard, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life
It’s All Good, Bob Dylan, Together Through Life

April 2, 2011   2 Comments

Sweet Lunacy Comes to YouTube

It was ten years ago, on March 24, 2001, that Sweet Lunacy: A Brief History of Boulder Rock, was first screened at the Boulder Theatre, the opening act for the 25th reunion concert of Dusty Drapes and the Dusters.

Don Chapman and I had worked on and off for more than two years on the documentary, commissioned and funded by a grant from the Boulder Arts Commission for Boulder Municipal Channel Eight. We filmed a host of people who had been part of the music scene in Boulder from the 1950s, when Ray Imel Sr. and Rex Barker opened Tulagi, through the Astronauts, Flash Cadillac, the Dusters, Michael Woody and the Too High Band, Judy Roderick, Zephyr, Firefall, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and many others  into the 1980s, when the Fox Theatre began hosting live shows, and boiled down more than 30 hours of interviews into a one-hour documentary.

Don put the finishing touches on it that morning, and standing there watching it amongst my friends and more than a thousand people for whom it was made was one of the great hours of my life. It has been showing regularly since its release on Channel Eight.

But for ten years, that’s the only way people could see it. Because of budget and staff cuts, Channel Eight no longer makes copies of the film available. At present, it is only available if you have access to Channel 8, and it is not on a regular schedule, so it is truly accessible to only a scant few people.

Meanwhile, requests for it have remained pretty steady over the years. It was originally made for VHS (remember that?), and in a digital world many people who only have it in that format might no longer be able to access it. Others who were interviewed or played a part in the film have never seen it. I get emails inquiring about it, but beyond burning and sending a physical copy, there is no legitimate way for people outside of Boulder to see it.

The arts commission’s only charge to Don and me was to get it in front of as many people as possible, and the way to do that today is to make it available on YouTube. It needs at least the chance to go viral.

It’s now at sweetlunacyboulder, chopped into four easily digestible 15-minute segments, thanks to the lovely and talented Lauren Winton. I have added some notes so you know what’s in each segment, and I’m sure I’ll be playing with annotation and other stuff to make it more easily understood. More about Sweet Lunacy and its making here.

If you are interested in screening the film, please contact me at leland.rucker@gmail.com. But most of all, please, enjoy.

April 1, 2011   1 Comment

The Band: Roots & Branches 02-27-11

Here’s the set list for a special Roots & Branches look at one of rock’s most beloved and influential groups. Hope I can get through all these in two hours. I also direct your attention to a piece I wrote about Music From Big Pink that graciously wound up on the unofficial band website.

The house at Big Pink.

“Ain’t Got No Home” (Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry) Clarence “Frogman” Henry The Complete Buddy Holly, Vol. 10
“The Great Pretender” The Platters Rock N’ Roll Era: 1954-1955
“Saved” LaVern Baker Atlantic Rhythm & Blues Disc 4: 1947-1974
“The Third Man Theme” The Band Moondog Matinee
“She’s Nineteen Years Old” The Hawks A Musical History
“Who Do You Love” The Band A Musical History-Selections
“He Don’t Love You” Levon Helm & The Hawks Across The Great Divide [Disc 3]
“The Stones I Throw (Will Free All Men)” Levon & The Hawks A Musical History
“I Ain’t Got No Home [Live]” Bob Dylan & The Band A Musical History
“Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” Bob Dylan The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live, 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert [Live] [Disc 2]
“Orange Juice Blues (Blues For Breakfast)” (Outtake – Demo) The Band Music From Big Pink
“See You Later, Allen Ginsberg” Bob Dylan & The Band Genuine Basement Tapes Vol 4
“Yazoo Street Scandal (Outtake)” The Band Music From Big Pink
“We Can Talk” The Band Music From Big Pink
“To Kingdom Come” The Band Music From Big Pink
“The Weight” The Band Music From Big Pink
“Look Out Cleveland” The Band The Band
“Rag Mama Rag” The Band The Band
“The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show” The Band
Stage Fright
“Life Is A Carnival” The Band Rock Of Ages [Disc 2]
“The Last Waltz Refrain [Live]” The Band Across The Great Divide [Disc 3]
“The Shape I’m In” The Band & Friends The Complete Last Waltz
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”  The Complete Last Waltz
“Stage Fright” The Band & Friends The Complete Last Waltz
“Go Back To Your Woods” Robbie Robertson & Bruce Hornsby Storyville
“Ragtop” Danko Fjeld Anderson Ridin’ On The Blinds
“You Don’t Know Me” Danko, Manuel & Butterfield Lone Star Cafe, New York City NY, September 19, 1984
“Atlantic City” Levon Helm Band FestivaLink Presents Levon Helm Band MerleFest Ramble At MerleFest, NC 4/26/08 [Disc 1]
“I Shall Be Released” The Band Live At Watkins Glen
“Acadian Driftwood (Neil Young & Joni Mitchell)” The Band & Friends The Complete Last Waltz
“Theme From The Last Waltz [Live]” The Band Across The Great Divide [Disc 3]
Slippin And Slidin’ [Live]The BandAcross The Great Divide [Disc 3]

February 26, 2011   1 Comment

Morning Sound Alternative: Jan. 24, 2011

Here’s the playlist for the Morning Sound Alternative for Jan. 24, 2011 on KGNU. The only restriction for this show is that the singer is not the author of the song.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World    Patti Smith    Twelve    4:07    2007
Rebel Rebel    Seu Jorge    The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou    2:24    2004
Coffee, Coffee, Coffee    Freedy Johnston    Real: The Tom T Hall Project    3:02    1998
The Third Man Theme    The Band    Moondog Matinee    2:49    1973
It’s A Long Way To The Top    Lucinda Williams    Little Honey    4:56    2008
Angel Of The Morning    The Pretenders    Pirate Radio [Disc 3]    3:32    1994
Words (Between The Lines Of Age)    Chip Taylor    Harvest Revisted (MOJO )    5:09    2010
A Day In The Life    Jeff Beck    International Forum, Tokyo JP, February 6, 2009    5:14    2009
This Wheel’s On Fire    Neil Young and The Sadies    Garth Hudson Presents A Canadian Celebration Of The Band    3:28    2010
Lean On Me    Eric Bibb, Rory Block & Maria Muldaur    Sisters & Brothers    4:07    2004
Superstition    Old School Freight Train  Heart of Glass      3:23
Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky    Peter Wolf    Midnight Souvenirs    2:12    2010
Gonna Move    Susan Tedeschi    Wait For Me    4:26    2002
Never Gonna Give You Up    The Black Keys    The Black Keys (Brothers)    3:41    2010
Angel Dance    Robert Plant    Band of Joy    3:49    2010
Run Through the Jungle (Gunmen soundtrack)    Los Lobos    Rarities, Covers & Radio Shows    3:46
Garden Party    John Fogerty    The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again    3:51    2009
She Belongs To Me    Rick Nelson    Legacy (Disc 3)    3:03
Lonesome Town    Bob Dylan With Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers    Lonesome Town [Disc 2]    5:30    2002
Burn Down The Cornfield    Charlie Musselwhite    Sanctuary    3:30    2004
Louisiana 1927    Sonny Landreth        3:59
Losing You    Mavis Staples    You Are Not Alone    2:52    2010
Just One Smile    Al Kooper    Soul of a Man (Disc 1)    6:09    1994
Gone Dead Train [Movie-Soundtrack]    Randy Newman    CD 3: Odds & Ends    2:54    1970
Everybody’s Talkin’    Harry Nilsson    Greatest Hits    2:46    1968
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood    Nina Simone    Broadway Blues Ballads    2:48    1993
Hey Gyp    The Animals    Retrospective    3:50    1966
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)    Angelique Kidjo, Buddy Guy, And Vernon Reid    Lightning In A Bottle. A Salute To The Blues Soundtrack Recording [Disc 2]    5:17    2004
I Am Waiting    Ollabelle        4:15
Walk Away Renee Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy    Adieu False Heart    3:26    2006
When Doves Cry    The Be Good Tanyas    Hello Love    4:02    2006
Soul Serenade    Aretha Franklin    I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You    2:39
State Trooper    Deana Carter    Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska    3:46
Paint The Town Beige    Bill and Bonnie Hearne    Watching Life Through A Windshield    3:39    2000
Glad & Sorry    Golden Smog    Down By The Old Mainstream    3:34    1996
Don’t Knock    Tom Jones    Praise & Blame    2:15    2010
Perfidia (Guitar)    The Ventures        2:03    1960
Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power)    Tim O’Brien    Red On Blonde    4:03    1996
Al Vaivén De Mi Carreta    Afrocubismo    Afrocubismo    5:00    2010

January 24, 2011   No Comments

Television Time: No Boob Tube

After reading a recent series of posts on a KC music fan listserv about a concert at the Uptown Theatre April 1, 1977 that featured Television opening for Peter Gabriel, who was touring in support of his first solo album, I remembered this article, which was never published and now includes original photography from Darrell Lea, who must have been sitting over a few seats from me taking pictures that night (thanks, Darrell). And btw, it wasn’t a crime to do that back then — we took photos of many bands back in those days and nobody said a word. It was a different time.

April 1, 1977

Television at the Uptown (Photo by Darrell Lea)

Television at the Uptown (Photo by Darrell Lea)

Tom Verlaine is sitting across from me in a booth in a Holiday Inn coffee shop in downtown Kansas City on an especially overcast April Fool’s Day. Verlaine is the leader and songwriter for the band Television, which last month released its first album, Marquee Moon, on Elektra Records to critical acclaim. The band is in town today as the opening act for Peter Gabriel’s show at the Uptown Theatre.

Verlaine is 27 years old and has been playing since 1966, when he bought his first electric guitar, a used Gibson model. He is wearing the same shirt he is pictured in in stories I have read about him in New Musical Express and Village Voice and on the cover of Marquee Moon.

He grew up in Delaware with drummer Billy Ficca, and moved to New York in 1967 with vague hopes of putting a band together. He played mostly with friends until 1973, when he formed Television. The only change in band members since then is the bassist, which was originally Richard Hell, now of the Voidoids, who “didn’t practice enough,” Verlaine said, and was replaced by Fred Smith.

Verlaine is intense and quite proud of the album. I told him how much I liked it right from the first listen, and he could barely conceal his pleasure. “You thought it was pretty good?”

“I thought it was fucking great,” I said. “I don’t take it off my stereo for very long.”

Another concealed smile. I know it feels good to hear that.

I ask about the sound of those two guitars, so crisp and clear and strong, a Fender Telecaster coming out of each speaker like dueling cobras out of a charmer’s basket. He said that live it doesn’t sound that way except in a small club, because the air inside larger rooms muffles the crispness and sharpness that you hear on Marquee Moon. He said he has a new Plexiglas guitar to try and recreate that studio sound onstage.

Some songs have been with them since inception, the most prominent being “Venus de Milo.” That they have been together almost three years accounts for the tightness of the album’s sound. There was little overdubbing on Marquee Moon, he said, just some organ and piano that Verlaine, who produced with Andy Johns, added later. “We changed some of the parts as we went along.”

Tom Verlaine looking rather unhappy with the mix -- or something. (Photo by Darrell Lea)

Tom Verlaine looking rather unhappy with the mix -- or something. (Photo by Darrell Lea)

I asked if it worried him that bands that get high acclaim often crash and burn (thinking N.Y. Dolls), he replied that hype was just that, and that he was misquoted most of the time anyway. It could hurt or help them, he said, but that at this point he was just glad that he got his shot.

I suggested some influences that I heard on Marquee Moon. He said that, yes, he did like the first few Kinks LPs, and added that he really liked the Byrds, beating me to the punch, since a lot of the textures of his guitar style can be traced to McGuinn. But he said that he listened to a lot of tenor saxophone players, especially John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I mention that I hear some Tony Joe White on “Friction,” and said he hadn’t heard of him. I mention “Polk Salad Annie,” and he said he remembered that tune and that White played “some mean guitar.”

Was the music a reaction to the popular sounds of late, made with banks of synthesizers, mellotrons, keyboards and string sections? He said he wasn’t a synthesizer fan, but that the sound only reflected what he wanted to hear. Elektra gave him the freedom to work with a producer of his choice. Other companies, though offering more financially attractive packages, “wanted to stick us with a certain producer or put us in a certain category,” Verlaine said. “Elektra said they liked the group and would let us do the record the way we wanted.”

Peter Gabriel looks, well, young. (photo by Darrell Lea)

Peter Gabriel looks, well, young, doesn't he? (photo by Darrell Lea)

It’s pretty obvious later that night at the Uptown that everybody else is here to see the headliner. And Peter Gabriel does not disappoint. I was expecting the elaborate costuming and staging of his Genesis days, but he was in a sweat suit, explaining onstage that he had just seen Bruce Springsteen perform and that it made him want to work harder on his performances. The band makes the songs on Gabriel’s first solo album come alive onstage. The line-up is impressive: drummer Allen Schwartzberg (who I identified as Jim Gordon), legendary guitarists Robert Fripp (almost hidden stage right), Steve Hunter (that’s him on acoustic guitar on “Solsbury Hill”) and Dick Wagner, with Tony Levin on bass and tuba (!).

For Television, however, the sound is frightful and the band a knot of onstage contradictions. Verlaine seems impatient, like he’s on the verge of hitting someone with his guitar. When he cries in “Friction” that “you complain of my DICK–SHUN,” he accentuates it with little short bursts of guitar that emphasize the lyric.

Otherwise, he mostly stares down at the stage, venturing a look up every once in a while in the direction of Richard Lloyd, who along with Fred Smith, in dress and appearance, reminds me of what the early Zombies or Manfred Mann looked like in their Mod coats and suits. Lloyd stands motionless in front of his amplifier except to shake his head every once in awhile, like he’s just trying to stay awake. Then the lead swings over to him, and his body reels and staggers across the stage like a drunken marionette ash he picks out the notes as if in trance.

The set is chaotic and frantic, from the stammering chords of “See No Evil,” a song which seem to be on the verge of falling completely apart until they finally bring it to a finish four minutes later. But it’s also very exciting in its chaos. I am reminded of something that Verlaine said in the coffee shop, grinning widely, about how he can’t play a lead the same way twice. “My fingers just won’t let me do it.”

March 10, 2010   No Comments