Blair's Blog

Ring-a-Ding-Ding—The Kids Are Alright

Personally, I hate cell phones. Yeah, they’re occasionally convenient to have around and there’s a decent chance one will get you out of a crisis, but I don’t think having two-thirds of the civilized world blabbing away on the streets and in their cars and even in restaurants night and day is necessarily a great step forward for Western Civilization. When I remember to, I carry the most basic Nokia cell there is and its three years old, so it doesn’t have much in the way of bells and whistles. I never learned how to program it; I let my kids do it.

My wife, Regan, on the other hand, loves her cell phone. She got a plan with free nights and weekends, and she recently upgraded to one of those fancy little jobs with the full-color screen, text messaging and Internet capabilities. She spent hours going through the manual programming a zillion numbers and learning all the functions: It slices and dices! It removes embarrassing body odor! It makes your boring friends sound interesting!

And then came that point that arrives for every cell phone user: the ringtone choice. On my Stone Age model, I had a choice of maybe five rinky-dink tones that ranged from horrifically bad to merely annoying. I settled on something that sounds like a Bach riff played on a toy keyboard by mice. By contrast, Regan had all sorts of choices on her fancy phone. Picky sort that she is, however, she didn’t really like any of them. That’s when our kids sprang into action and introduced her to the exciting world of downloadable ringtones. No more “Pachelbel’s Canon” (the ringtone on her previous cell) or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for her. She was going to find something cool; ideally, something that reflected her personality and her taste in music. This turned out to be more difficult than it seemed.

Around the same time all this was going on, I learned that Ken, the father of one of my daughter’s friends, was now working as a ringtone licensing coordinator for a major Japanese company. It never even occurred to me that such a job existed, but I’m happy it does: It gave Ken his job, and it turns out the ringtone craze is also putting some money into the pockets of songwriters and artists. Ringtone royalties aren’t going to make up for all the bucks lost to illegal Internet file sharing, but hey, a buck’s a buck…or in this case, probably less than a buck each time that ringtone is sold. I sure wish I’d written that riff for “Smoke on the Water.”

Ken filled me in on some of the intricacies of the biz, explaining that his company negotiated with artists and/or their record labels for the rights to songs to use as ringtones. Some artists, he said, are not into the idea and won’t cooperate. Others are overjoyed to have a new revenue stream. No doubt every song ever recorded by The Who is available. They never met a deal they didn’t like.

One of the first things my wife and kids learned when they started trolling for ringtones on the Web is that actual sound clips from songs sound terrible. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. How big is the “speaker” in a 4x3-inch flip phone? And a decent-sounding MP3 file would require way too much memory for a phone like that. Maybe some larger model could handle it, but not hers. Nevertheless, we downloaded a clip of “The Middle,” that hopelessly infectious song by Jimmy Eat World, to check it out. Crap! It sounded as if it was being transmitted under the ocean through broken telegraph wires.

That meant Regan was going to have to go the MIDI file route: Places like Ken’s company have musicians on staff who re-cut songs using a synth, so that what you get is not the actual song, but a simplified version of it with more easily reproducible tones (and none of those pesky hi-hats to wash everything out). There are mono ringtones and polyphonic ones, the latter being much more sophisticated and cooler, of course. At first, Regan thought she’d check out what was available by her favorite band, the Grateful Dead. (Hey, keep that snickering to yourself!) Using Google, the kids dug up a leading supplier of ringtones, and sure enough, there were several Grateful Dead songs available. Unfortunately they were all awful. “It was like a cross between a calliope and an ice cream truck,” she reported. “It sounded like the Dead de-fanged. I’d be totally embarrassed if anyone heard any of those themes coming out of my phone.”

Ah yes, the embarrassment quotient: This should not be overlooked, because it’s not just you who’s going to hear the phone ringing. It’s everyone around you wherever you are when it rings. Isn’t that reason enough not to choose Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” or NWA’s “F--- Tha Police”?

After much soul-searching and listening to some really bad versions of both good and awful songs, Regan settled on a breezy version of Phantom Planet’s “California,” the theme song of the television show The O.C., the Fox network’s celebration of teen hormones, which we watch as a family. Kind of a commercial choice, I guess, and definitely not obscure enough to be truly hip—where’s that Pere Ubu ringtone when you need it? But it does sound good, and it brings a smile to my face every time Regan’s phone rings. It cost three bucks for two songs—downloaded from a URL directly to the phone. (No word yet on what her second song will be.)

The ringtone phenomenon seems to be growing exponentially right now, and to no one’s surprise, there are already plenty of sites on the Internet offering “illegal” ringtones—i.e., ones not authorized by or paying money to the artists and/or songwriters. Are they tryin’ to put ol’ Ken out of a job? Give the guy a break! And as phones continue to become more sophisticated and contain more memory, the ringtones will doubtless sound better, and more and more people will choose clips over synths. Then Regan can frighten everyone by using an actual Grateful Dead space jam as her ringtone. Very scary. As for me…well, I’d prefer it if you didn’t call. I left my phone on the dresser anyway.

And speaking of kids…

I’ve always tried to keep up with the current music scene, but it’s harder today than it’s ever been. Radio is hopeless—so narrow and stylistically segregated. MTV and VH-1 are even worse. Most of the music mags are directed at some specific niche. Record companies aren’t as forthcoming with the freebies for those of us in the biz as they once were (cue violins, please). And they also don’t seem to support their “product” (as they love to call it) with magazine or radio ads anymore.

When I was a teenager in the late ’60s, albums cost $2.94 on sale at E.J. Korvettes, so I used to do “guess” buys all the time. I would stare endlessly at the back cover info, check to see if there were a lot of long songs (guitar solos…yeah!) and if the band looked cool. I remember buying the first Led Zeppelin album by those criteria, and also the first albums by Free and what was then known as the Chicago Transit Authority (later just Chicago). Sometimes I got lucky, sometimes I didn’t. At three bucks, though, the “mistakes” didn’t hurt too much.

I still do that occasionally with CDs, though it’s rarely a purely blind buy. Usually, I’ve heard a track on the radio or checked the CD out at one of the Tower Records or Borders’ listening stations. A while back, I heard a fantastic song while I was browsing at Tower. I excitedly bought the CD—by a group called TV on the Radio—plopped it into my car’s CD player on the way home and immediately realized that the song I’d heard in the store, “Poppy,” was the only song I liked even remotely. Sixteen bucks down the drain; maybe I got five back the last time I sold some discs at the used-record store. Oh, well. As Steve Forbert once sang, “You cannot win if you do not play.”

These days, it seems as if a lot of the new acts I hear are ones that I’ve been exposed to by my kids—Kyle and Hayley, nearly 14 and almost 11, respectively. Now when I was 14, my parents definitely did not want to hear about the Rolling Stones or Donovan or Big Brother & The Holding Company or The Doors. But I’m still hungry to hear anything that has some passion and actually moves my soul. And my kids have pretty good taste, I’m happy to report. If they ask me to check something out because they like it, in most cases, I think it’s pretty cool, too. They’ll even turn me on to something they think I should hear—as someone who cares about trends in music—but which they might not like themselves. That’s how I finally heard 50 Cent…or “Fitty” as I like to call him, just to annoy my kids, who (rightly) hate any attempt by me to sound “hip.” While 50 Cent was not to my personal taste (to put it kindly), Kyle also turned me on to the Black Eyed Peas—who I love—and to a host of energetic young rock bands I probably never would have heard, much less seen, without his influence, encouragement (and sometimes begging).

So there we were a year ago tramping off to the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco to see OK-GO (a band he’d heard on a videogame soundtrack) and Rooney. Rockin’! Last month, he got me to take him to see the Australian band Jet at the Fillmore: Wow! They come off like a modern garage-band version of the early Rolling Stones or The Animals—all crashing guitars and a charismatic lead singer (Cameron Muncey) who sounds as if he’s just finished a carton of cigarettes and a fifth of whiskey. A great time!

But our most recent foray to the Fillmore, just last week, wasn’t to see some up-and-coming band. No, through listening to our local hard rock “classic radio” station—nicknamed “The Bone”—and hearing certain songs used over and over again in movies and on TV, Kyle had fallen in love with the retro stylings of George Thorogood & The Destroyers! “Bad the Bone” has been inescapable for years, but it was hearing Thorogood’s rambling take on “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” on the radio a few months ago that really put him over. With my permission—and credit card—he downloaded Thorogood’s recent greatest hits album, so it was pretty much a done deal that we’d see him when he came to the Fillmore.

I reviewed Thorogood’s first Rounder album for the San Francisco Bay Guardian way back in 1977 (I gave it an “A”), and on the tour to support that album, he put on what remains one of the most exciting rock ’n’ roll shows I ever saw—at the old Keystone Berkeley. But I’d lost track of old George; hadn’t seen him since he opened for the Stones at Candlestick Park back in 1981. I suspected he probably hadn’t changed much since then…and I’m delighted to say I was right about that.

Playing to an audience of mostly over-40 (plus Kyle), Thorogood and his band came out and totally kicked ass. They played every song I wanted to hear (’cept for “Madison Blues”) and George never let up for a second. Hard to believe he’s been doin’ his thing for 30 years! He’s got his schtick down, no doubt about it, but he still makes it sound fresh after all this time. He’s always gonna get bashed by the purists who think he’s stolen too much from too many greats—from Elmore James to John Lee Hooker to Bo Diddley. But here’s the thing: He’s the genuine article, too. I saw Bo Diddley perform in the ’60s and ’70s. Great innovative songwriter and singer; lousy guitarist and performer. Chuck Berry: a true immortal, but what’s with that bad attitude and even worse pick-up bands? Has anyone had less respect for his audience? John Lee Hooker at least had some serious swamp voodoo goin’ on live, but I always felt he was holding too much in reserve; he never cut loose. Thorogood reveres his elders, pays homage to them and still has a sound that is completely identifiable and original in its own way: an incendiary mixture of early rock ’n’ roll, Chicago and Texas blues that is outrageously bold and raucous. The guy is a great showman, a monster guitar player (particularly on slide) and his voice has lost none of its appealing, gruff character, even after decades of steady touring. More than some “oldies” act playing the same songs the same way every night, Thorogood and his mates sound as if they’re rediscovering their repertoire anew every night, and that’s nothing less than miraculous.

By the end of the night, I was sweaty from dancing so hard, hoarse from screaming out the words and delighted that I’d rediscovered Thorogood through a member of his next generation of fans. Remember, if it’s real, they will come.

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