An End To Nightmares

Could technology bring about an end to recurrent nightmares? Scientists think they may have found a way to redirect the sleeping brain away from those disturbing bad dreams that cause the frightened sleeper to awake with a start, with their heart hammering.

The development came during a study of people, estimated to be as many as four percent of all adults, who experience nightmares at the “clinically significant” level. Nightmare issues are deemed “clinically significant” when they occur more than once per week and cause other symptoms, like general anxiety and daytime fatigue.

The study divided 36 participants into two groups. One group received imagery rehearsal therapy (“IRT”), an existing form of treatment where they were instructed to recount their bad dreams, develop alternative, happier endings to the dreams, and then rehearse those happy endings during the hours when they were awake.

The other participants received IRT treatment, with a twist: as they envisioned more positive scenarios for their nightmares, a major piano chord was played every ten seconds, in an attempt to have the happier endings associated with the sound. The participants then went to bed wearing headbands that were capable of detecting when the sleeper had entered the rapid eye movement (“REM”) phase, when dreaming occurs, and playing the major chord associated with positive outcomes. The sound evidently helped to generate the positive outcomes, because while both groups saw a decrease in nightmares, the results were significantly better for the headband-wearing group, both immediately during the treatment and for months thereafter.

My dreams are mostly a confused rehash of things that happened during the day, as if my unconscious brain is trying to sort diverse experiences and inputs into a narrative–and since the experiences and sensations aren’t logically connected, the dream ends up making no sense. Fortunately, I don’t have recurrent nightmares, other than the “I’ve got an exam and I didn’t prepare” dream that I still get occasionally, decades after my schooling ended. I can imagine, however, that people who do experience nightmares at the clinically significant level will welcome a therapy that works. Wearing a headband and listening to piano chords would be a small price to pay to avoid waking up in terror. And the results also provide interesting insight into the power of music and its impact on the unconscious brain.

ABBA Torture

The United Nations-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine recently concluded that Russia has committed numerous war crimes in its invasion of Ukraine. The Commission found evidence that Russian forces have engaged in summary executions, torture, and deliberate targeting of civilian areas for bombings and attacks.

Some of the Russian torture methods break new grounds of depravity and inhumanity. For example, a British fighter captured by Russian forces has reported that he was forced to listen to the Mamma Mia soundtrack of ABBA songs 24 hours a day, while also being beaten, stabbed, and given electric shocks. The British prisoner was later released as part of an effort to free international prisoners captured by the Russians, and he says, quite understandably, that he never wants to hear an ABBA song again.

An unprovoked invasion of a neighboring sovereign nation, bombing civilian areas, summary executions, and torture tell us that the Russians will have to answer for a host of horrific war crimes when their invasion of Ukraine has come to an end. But forcing a soldier to listen to ABBA music 24 hours a day reflects a special kind of cruelty that makes you wonder whether Russia should ever again be welcomed into the family of civilized nations.

The Monkees, Redacted

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has been in the news a lot lately. Many on the right think the FBI has recently become politicized–but the reality is that the agency has been involved in investigations of political matters for decades, ever since it was asked to look into loosely defined “subversives” back in the 1930s. Back in the J. Edgar Hoover days the FBI collected information on Martin Luther King, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, and . . . the Monkees.

What a second–the Monkees? The zany, made-for-TV rock band that had a brief but memorable TV show, produced a series of number 1 albums, were a sensation among teenagers, and incidentally recorded some great rock music that still stands up? The FBI investigated those guys?

It did. According to the FBI’s “Vault” webpage–which, if you’re interested, allows you to search for FBI records on line–the agency has two records about the rock band: “a 1967 Los Angeles Field Office memorandum on anti-Vietnam war activities and a second document redacted entirely.” The 1967 field office memorandum was released to the public about ten years ago, and is very heavily redacted. (You can see the original report, in its redacted form, here.) The unredacted portion reports on a concert the Monkees gave in which photographs were broadcast on a screen behind the band that a redacted informant considered to be “left-wing intervention of a political nature”–which in reality reflected what was actually going on at the time, like racial rioting and protests against the war in Vietnam.

Now Mickey Dolenz, the last surviving member of the Monkees, is suing to try to get the FBI to release the full records about the band. The lawsuit seeks “any records the FBI created and/or possesses on the Monkees as well as its individual members.”

In the grand scheme of what is going on in the world, trying to determine what information the FBI collected about the Monkees is a small thing, but it also raises a big point about transparency and getting a fuller accounting of the FBI’s activities over the years. It’s hard to believe that the document from the Monkees’ FBI file that was released in 2011 merited the heavy redaction it received; what kinds of information could it possibly contain that would reasonably need to be kept secret, decades later? Now that another ten years have passed, there is even less cause for continuing secrecy. I’m hoping the lawsuit is successful and we get to see what the FBI considered so important and secretive. Perhaps the lawsuit, and the reaction to any documents that are released as a result of it, will cause a reassessment of the agency’s actions and, particularly, its continuing, overly aggressive redaction of documents that the public actually has a right to see.

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Reconsidering Boarding Music

Recently I boarded a plane flight. As I put my carry-on into the overhead bin and settled into my seat, I focused on the music that was playing during the boarding process and found myself wondering who made the music selection . . . and why.

The music–if you can call it that–was a kind of tinkly, tuneless, ethereal background noise. It was the sort of allegedly “soothing” and “relaxing” (but in reality, kind of annoying) music that you would associate with yoga or a massage, rather than boarding a plane. As music goes, it was worse than the kind of generic offerings you hear on an elevator ride.

Why would you choose this kind of music to facilitate the boarding process? Are airlines worried that passengers these days need to be calmed down as they are grabbing their seats? I would think that the opposite is true, and it would be better for all concerned if we jettisoned the dreamy music and went instead with some sounds calculated to encourage boarders to move with a greater sense of urgency and get their butts in their seats.

I’d like to see some experiments done on this. Which music produces the speediest, most efficient boarding process: the tinkly random crap they were broadcasting on my flight, or, say, some selections from the early Beatles, starting with Twist and Shout? Playing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos might incentivize passengers to move with the clock-like precision conveyed by baroque music. Or if you really want to get people moving, how about the Bee Gees’ Staying Alive and K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s Get Down Tonight? And, just to make it interesting, why not test Deep Purple’s Smoke On The Water or Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused, just to see how some heavy metal affects passenger movement?

It’s well past time to get a bit more scientific about airplane boarding music, and to make some selections specifically geared toward the ultimate goal: an on-time departure. Dreamy massage music just doesn’t cut it.

Do You Recall What Was Revealed?

In January 1972, as I approached my 15th birthday, Don McLean’s American Pie stood at number 1 on the Billboard charts. A long song, even by the extended play standards that prevailed on FM radio at the time, American Pie was the kind of song that you talked about with your friends at school. We all wanted to know what, exactly, the song meant.

Because, if you are not familiar with the song, you need to understand that American Pie was written in a kind of cryptic code, Even by the standards of the time, in the wake of the late Beatles efforts when many songs were dense and mysterious and opaque (like, for example, Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale), American Pie set new standards in the enigmatic category. The tune was great, and the refrain–“bye, bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry, and good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die”–was killer, but you desperately wanted the key to unlock the true meaning of the lyrics. I remember listening to a program on WCOL-FM, the cool FM station in Columbus at the time) that tried to deconstruct the song. McLean himself didn’t give us much help.

Now, 50 years later, Don McLean is apparently going to share the truth about the meaning of American Pie, in a new documentary called The Day The Music Died. As the accepted views at the time taught, “the day the music died” was the day Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a tragic plane crash , , , but the rest of the prevailing wisdom evidently was misguided. According to the linked story in The Guardian, a lot of what people pontificated about (including the know-it-alls on the WCOL program way back when) may turn out to be wrong. Elvis Presley wasn’t “the King,” and Bob Dylan wasn’t “the Jester,” and Janis Joplin wasn’t the girl who sang the blues. Were the Beatles “the marching band that refused to yield”? And what did “fire is the devil’s only friend” mean? I guess we’ll have to watch the documentary find out.

It’s interesting to think that, 50 years later, the lyrics for American Pie remain tantalizing. That says something about the staying power of the song, doesn’t it?

Back To Comfest

Here’s another reason to celebrate the end of the COVID pandemic: Comfest is back, and celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend at Goodale Park after a two-year pandemic-fueled absence. Today was a beautiful day, and it was clear that a lot of people thought, as I did, that a trip to Comfest was a good idea. The event was crowded, which made me wonder just how packed it will get tonight, when the partying really begins in earnest.

I spent the morning and early afternoon at the park, joining hundreds of my closest friends for a classic Columbus event. Comfest—which is short for Community Festival—attracts people from just about every part of the Columbus community and from all age groups, too. Some bring their lawn chairs and blankets; others just plop themselves down on the grass in one of the shady spots near the center of the action. Some come for the free music, some come for the crafts, clothing, and “head shop” gear sold at the many stands set up along the sidewalks of the park, some come for the food, and some come for the beer.

Judging from the long lines at the beer trucks, one of which is shown in the photo above, I’d say that beer was the most popular item at Comfest today–which is no surprise, because it was a hot, bright day. The food options were out in force, however, as shown in the photo below. There were a lot of people chowing down on fair-style classics like french fries in a cup, barbecue sandwiches, hot dogs, and assorted sugary items, as well as on the offerings from food stands set up by local restaurants. I resisted both the beer and the fair food and just enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells of the Comfest. And the smells suggested, incidentally, that many of the Comfest attendees had medical conditions that qualified them to take advantage of Ohio’s medical marijuana law.

I like to sample the music being played, so I toured all of the Comfest stages, sitting down on the grass and just relishing the chance to hear live music in a crowd again. All of the bands were good, but my favorite was a power group that played on the Goodale stage, shown below, and sent out crushing waves of sound that left me and other audience members transfixed. With the Nationwide building and other downtown skyscrapers in the background and the music blaring, I realized once again that Comfest is a blast. If you are in town this weekend, it’s worth a visit.

The Piano Baseline

Many of the Italian airports we traveled through, including Rome and Palermo, had pianos in the gate areas. it’s a nice feature, I guess, but pianos can be intrusive, too. Some of the people who sat down to play weren’t exactly proficient, and listening to bad piano playing is much worse than silence. In fact, a crappy rendition of a favorite song is more annoying than the whine of a dentist’s drill. And some of the people who played also sang, which has its own issues.

Here’s a takeaway—don’t sit down to play the piano in a public area unless you’re really good at it, and don’t sing unless you’re in a bar.

Allora

I’ve been hearing a lot of Italian and Sicilian over the past few days. They are lovely languages to listen to, even if I don’t understand much: rhythmic, fast-paced, and almost lyrical. It’s like listening to a song where you don’t know what is being sung, but you really like the melody. If you like Louie, Louie by the Kingmen, for example, who cares if the words are so slurred and garbled you don’t understand any of them?

One word you hear frequently in Italy and Sicily is “allora.” It often appears at the beginning of sentences, such as when a guy sitting at a table next to us the other day began his apparent order by saying “allora” and then launching into the selections for his table. It seems to be sprinkled liberally into many Italian statements. What does it mean? The Capo dei Capi and the Swiss Shutterbug translate it as meaning “so” or “then,” and it also can mean “well.” It’s a kind of Italian gap filler that gets the tongue going while the brain is still considering exactly what to say.

Imagine how much more pleasant listening to the English language would be if we all were in the habit of saying “allora” instead of “uh” when we were a bit stuck on what to say next!

The ’60s Play On

As I was reflecting on what a great year 1972 was for albums, I realized that all of the albums I wrote about are still an active part of American popular culture, 50 years later. If you go to any large American city, rent a car, and then try to find a radio station, you’ll scroll past multiple options that play “classic rock,” where you’re likely to hear a song from one of those 1972 albums–and for that matter any rock ‘n roll songs that have been recorded since the British invasion in 1964. People of all ages listen to those stations, advertisers pay money to advertise on them, and the musicians who recorded the songs, in many cases, are still touring and playing those same songs, decades later.

That’s odd, when you think about it. Fifty years is an incredibly long time for a musical genre to remain at the forefront of American culture. If you went back to the ’20s, fifty years before that magical year of 1972, the dominant form of music featured crooners like Rudy Vallee, shown above, and people danced the Charleston to early forms of jazz. By 1972, however, you couldn’t find a radio station anywhere that played Rudy Vallee tunes, or ragtime, and Rudy Vallee wasn’t touring and playing to packed venues, either. The music of the ’20s had been relegated to the dustbin of history, having given way to “big band” music in the ’30s and ’40s, and lounge singing and early rock ‘n roll in the ’50s. You’re not going to hear those forms of music played on any on-air American radio stations, either (although Sirius XM has ’40s and ’50s stations, if you’d like to hear that music). But once you hit 1964, the ever-changing musical tastes of a considerable portion of the American public stopped changing and became locked in place.

To be sure, punk, rap, and hip-hop have come into being since the ’60s, and “urban” stations provide stiff competition for “classic rock” stations on the radio dial–but the fact that music that is 50 years old is still findable and regularly played on the radio is pretty remarkable. Does that mean that the rock era reached a kind of musical pinnacle and just hasn’t been knocked off the peak–or does it mean that the Baby Boomers and successive generations stubbornly refused to open themselves up to newer forms of music, as their parents and grandparents were willing to do? Perhaps many of us just lack the musical flexibility of earlier generations, who didn’t hold on to Rudy Vallee when Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington came along.

Great Albums Turn 50

1972 was a banner year for rock albums. It also happened to be the year that I started my sophomore year in high school and, not coincidentally, really began to seriously focus on music. Armed with the generous, slightly above minimum wage proceeds of my bag boy job at Big Bear, I began buying albums rather than 45s and played them on the crappy turntable in my room. The fact that great musicians produced great albums on the year of my musical album awakening was a very happy coincidence.

To be sure, 1972 was an exceptional musical year. Consider, for example, Deep Purple’s Machine Head. I bought it and played it endlessly, enjoying songs like Lazy, Space Truckin’, Highway Star, and of course Smoke On The Water, which is one of the greatest driving songs ever recorded. Then there was Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, with fantastic songs like You Are The Sunshine Of My Life, I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever), and Superstition, which became a kind of funky anthem for my sophomore year. And David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, one of the greatest concept albums ever recorded and chock full of great music from beginning to end. And Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, which marked the band’s emergence into the dominant creative force that it would be for the rest of the ’70s, and included classic tunes like Do It Again, Dirty Work, Midnite Cruiser, and the epic Reelin’ In The Years. And we mustn’t forget the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, or Close To The Edge by Yes, or Elton John’s Honky Chateau (which features my favorite Elton John song, Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters), or Rod Stewart’s Never A Dull Moment, or Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together. And finally, arguably the finest album of all of 1972’s offerings: Neil Young’s awesome Harvest, which seamlessly blended folk rock and electric rock and put Young at the forefront of the American music scene, where he would stay for years to come.

There were other great albums released that year, of course, because it was just an extraordinary year for music. I owned all of these records, played all of them, and loved all of them, and I listen to them still. But what really strikes me about these superb albums is two things. First, the variety of musical styles they captured, and how correspondingly broad the listening habits and musical tastes of kids of the ’70s were; in those days, radio stations played all of the songs from these albums, and we listeners weren’t confined to a single genre.

Second, can these albums really be 50? They sure don’t feel like it when you listen to them today.

Happy Bachday!

Today we celebrate the birth of one of the greatest composers in the history of classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach was an incredibly prolific musical genius who wrote many of the finest and most beloved pieces of the baroque era. His extraordinarily diverse output included the Brandenburg concertos, toccatas and fugues, brilliant works for solo cello, titanic passions, cantatas, and just about every form of music that was written during that era. Bach was an incandescent giant who was born 337 years ago, on March 31, 1685.

Or wait a minute–was it March 21, 1685?

Bach is one of those historical figures whose birthday (and the precise dating of other events in his life) was affected by the change from the Julian calendar–so named because it was adopted by Julius Caesar and had been used since them–to the Gregorian calendar. That change shifted calendar dates forward to account for deficiencies in the Julian calendar. Bach was born on March 21 of the Julian calendar, which equates to March 31 on the Gregorian calendar–which was the calendar that had been adopted in Germany when Bach died in 1750. So, should we celebrate his birthday on March 21 in the modern Gregorian calendar, even though he didn’t actually arrive until several days later, or on March 31, even though his recorded birthday is days earlier?

I suggest that we not worry about such trifles, and spend the entire period between March 21 and March 31 celebrating the brilliance of this true musical prodigy, whose music fills my playlists. To those who insist that March 21 is the correct day to celebrate Bach’s birth, I say fine: let’s call March 31 Bachday, instead.

Happy Bachday, JSB and music lovers everywhere!

Neil Young, Spotify, Joe Rogan, And “Censorship”

Neil Young made headlines recently by calling on Spotify, a music streaming service, to remove his music so long as Spotify offers the podcasts of Joe Rogan, a commentator who Young accused of spreading misinformation about COVID vaccines. Young’s music was then removed from Spotify, and a number of other artists have followed his lead and removed their music–all of which caused Spotify’s stock to take a hit and prompted Rogan, whose podcast has such a large following that he has a large contract with Spotify, to offer what has been called a “quasi-apology” in hopes of bringing the controversy to a close.

The varying responses to the Young-Rogan-Spotify dust-up have been interesting. Some have applauded Neil Young for taking a principled stand, whereas others, like Jon Stewart, have suggested that Young’s approach is akin to supporting censorship. Stewart is quoted as saying: “Don’t censor. Engage.” I suspect that Stewart’s position is based on a broader concern about efforts to prevent people from ever expressing unpopular views or forcing people to adopt only one viewpoint because some people find the opposing position too upsetting–efforts that are contrary to America’s traditional tolerance of a wide spectrum of opinions and that prevent the give-and-take that our political and social system is built on.

I’m a big proponent of free speech, and I get Stewart’s broader point, but I don’t think Neil Young’s position constitutes censorship. In fact, I think the opposite is true: what Neil Young did constituted speech in its own right. Young took an action that sent an unmistakable message about his views on what Joe Rogan was saying about COVID vaccination. Neil Young had as much right to clearly express his views as Joe Rogan has to express his in the first place. A boycott has long been recognized as a form of protest, and protests have long been recognized as speech. And there is a big difference, under the Constitution and in the law, between a private actor like Young making a decision about where his music is played, for example, and governmental bodies or public institutions acting to quash dissent or silence contrary views.

To be sure, Neil Young could have simply written a public letter objecting to what Rogan was saying, but it’s pretty obvious that it would not have had anywhere close to the impact that his public stance and boycott has produced. Young gets to choose his form of speech, and I’d say his chosen approach has expressed his position very powerfully and effectively. And his position has produced results: Spotify has now announced that it will add content advisories to podcasts that discuss COVID issues, and Rogan has been made aware that his positions are on the radar screen for many people who might not have been aware of them otherwise. That’s not censorship or anti-free speech activity–instead, that’s just being held accountable for your opinions and statements.

One important point in all of this is that both Neil Young and Joe Rogan continue to have forums where they can express their views on the issues of the day

Meat Loaf

I was very sorry to read of the death of Meat Loaf (the stage name of Marvin Lee Aday) last week. He was an accomplished actor–most memorably, for me at least, as Eddie in The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Robert Paulson, aka “Bob,” in Fight Club–and a great singer and rocker who sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.

Of course, one of those albums was Bat Out Of Hell, which burst onto the scene when I was in college. The album was a collaboration between Meat Loaf and composer Jim Steinman, and it was an immediate sensation that quickly entered the rotation of albums played on the stereo system in my college apartment. It was not a standard rock album of that era and didn’t really fall easily into any established category, and it was filled with great songs like Bat Out Of Hell and Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad and You Took The Words Right Out Of My Mouth. The real killer track, though, was Paradise By The Dashboard Light–the hilarious recollection of an older married couple about their night, long ago, when they went parking by the lake as high schoolers. The song had a great, urgent beat, and it featured a fiery singing duel between Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley. They both sang the hell out of it, and even crappy singers like me sang along. The song was so good that I promptly went out and bought Ellen Foley’s debut album, and it was great, too.

My college friends and I weren’t alone in our love of the Bat Out Of Hell. The album has sold more than 50 million copies and remains one of the ten top selling albums of all time. And, I suspect, Paradise By The Dashboard Light has found resonance with each new generation that has heard its timeless tale of love and lust.

Rest in peace, Meat Loaf, and thank you for your stellar contribution to my college music playlist. College wouldn’t have been the same without you.