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Thursday, April 21, 2011


I was telling my friend Phil that I would like to throw a party and perform Stairway to Heaven, each of our friends playing a small part of the song, and never once practicing it as a group. After he called the police and I passed a sobriety test, I had the idea to record a version of the song as an exercise, to show what a piece of cake it is. As an exercise, doing 150 sit-ups would have been easier.

I started with the drums, which was the only part I was adept enough to play straight through. I have always been self-realistic about my own musical talents: mediocre bass player, decent drummer, on guitar I have an unhoned skill here and there. My voice is usually somewhere near on-key, with an almost uselessly limited range and horrible timbre. The one thing I do possess is a well-tuned musical ear, and I would rather have that than any of the other stuff. I can pick out each and every part of any arrangement, and hear thirds and fifths in my head for any melody line. Maybe all musicians can hear those things, I’m not sure.

I recorded the drums on a 4-track cassette deck with less than stellar microphones, and mixed them down to stereo on my 8-track digital recorder. Since the drums come in over halfway through the song, I had to keep a click track on the hi-hat for the whole first part of the song, and try not to make any noise while I read the NY Times. I had to base the click track on the song itself, since it increases in tempo throughout the song.

Then I recorded the acoustic guitar, and my fingers were close to bleeding after about a hundred takes.... As far as picking goes, guitar is the thing I have the LEAST success at.

I have a cheap MIDI keyboard that happened to have almost the exact flute sound at the beginning of the song (bassist John Paul Jones used real recorders, overdubbed). I had to record them one at a time- as a drummer my hands seem to have a supportive relationship, but using a keyboard they refuse to work together, and I end up playing the parts like a boss whose typist is out for the day.

Surprisingly, there is an electric piano in the song. My cheap electric piano, unsurprisingly, does not make a sound that sounds like an electric piano. So I had to play it on guitar, using a guitar synthesizer. I was spared the indignity of using the electric piano to play guitar parts.

I needed three spare tracks to deal with the guitar solo. Due to my prowess on the instrument, I had to play the lead break in a total of 16 different parts. Two of 16 consisted of only one note. Some of the fingering was so intricate that I had to try it several different ways, as I often do whenever fingering is involved. I did the slide guitar part using a small mayonnaise jar. I don’t know anything about playing the slide guitar, but thankfully I know quite a bit about mayonnaise.

Then it came time to sing the part at the end. Oddly enough I was able to hit most of the notes, fairly drunk, in falsetto by dropping a live hermit crab down my pants. On the minus side it hurt like hell, but on the plus side, the crab is no longer a hermit and seems to be quite happy there.

The vocal parts at the beginning and middle I recorded sober, without incident. The lyrics are sometimes unusual. The other day I saw a bustle in my hedgerow, and I got excited: It’s a spring clean for the May Queen! But it was only a raccoon. I was surprised that I knew all the lyrics just by osmosis. Although there is a note here and there off-key, I did not bother to fix them so that people would be able to tell my version from the original. Also I have some advice for all recording studio engineers: feed the cat before you record anything using a microphone. An unfed cat who, admittedly, sounded MARGINALLY better than I did in one small part in the second verse, was eventually edited out in the final mix.

Incidentally, what a pain in the neck is the part where a phalanx of 12-string electric guitars mark the end of the middle of the song, going into the guitar solo. A composition analyst in Wikipedia describes that the section’s “time signature switches between common time and several other time signatures: 3/4, 5/4 and finally 7/8.” In an interview in 1977, however, Jimmy Page says that, “for some unknown reason Bonzo couldn't get the timing right….”

PS: The song accompanies various random shots taken on vacation in Greece, California, Las Vegas and who knows where else. ~R

PPS: For some reason Google blogs cannot upload videos or MP3s, so here it is on YouTube:


Monday, April 4, 2011



They say that it’s better to be lucky than good. At least that’s what people say who aren’t very good at anything. My wife and I went to Empire City casino a couple weeks ago, as we do once in awhile if nothing else is going on. The evening goes like this: We enter the casino and have a couple of drinks near the bandshell. When we have drunk ourselves down to 20 bucks we head to the slot machines where my wife feeds the hungry maw. She presses the “play one credit” button five times, and gets three credits back. This goes on for about half an hour until she has one credit left, and when she presses that, she wins 40 credits, and I quickly press the “cash out” button, grab her by the hair and drag her from the area just as she is about to put the credit back in.

There used to be “one-armed bandits” that you had to pull a lever on to run the machine, but now there are too many handicapped people that need to squander our Medicaid money. People with one arm who were left-handed complained that they couldn’t lose money fast enough, and now the machines just have a button. Even if you are an armless, legless torso you can press it with your nose and cash out with your teeth.

Casinos don’t have gambling anymore, they have “gaming,” since they lost the “b” and the “l” in a card game. Empire City doesn’t have roulette or Baccarat, or anything that James Bond would play. If you look around the place, nobody looks a whole lot like James Bond. There are a lot of large people wearing plastic bedroom-slipper-looking footwear that look like they won plenty of money for food, but not for rent. They look very comfortably dressed, as though they may need to do some things that might require heroic range of motion, and therefore very unrestrictive clothing. Some even look like they may be wearing pajamas. I realized that the slot machines were only a penny. This seemed dumb until I saw a guy win 300 credits. A 300% return on your investment? Try that on Wall Street. So I took all the pennies that were underneath the seat cushions in my car, which turned out to be $8,149 dollars, and played them in the penny slots- I won 8 bucks, not bad!

I always make sure that my manners are impeccable when I am at a casino. I don’t want someone in the security room looking at me on a hidden camera slowing down the video going, “Did you see that? He just put his dirty Kleenex on the bar!” People who can’t afford a camcorder go to the casino with their kids and steal something so that they always have memories on tape to look back on when they get out of jail. If you misbehave in any way, the "eye in the sky" will find you, and when it does, the Pit Boss will be in your face in a second. I'm not sure what the Pit Boss does, other than quickly change all your tires and gas you up, unless I am mixing it up with a pit bull.

They don’t have poker or blackjack here at Empire City, not even craps. Who would name a game “craps” I wonder? Sometimes, depending on what I eat, it really is a crapshoot sometimes, but I wouldn’t go so far as to make a game of it or anything. In Atlantic City I used to try to play blackjack, but the game moved so fast, and everyone was waiting for me to add up the cards, pointing to each diamond, and carrying the one, etc. They were “counting the shoe,” and I was removing mine in order to count using my toes.

Empire City is also the old Yonkers Raceway, so we "played the ponies" for a while. They won of course, since they are good at poker, especially stud. During the race, the horses pull those little chariot carts. I'm not sure why they need the humans at all, I guess just to steer. In a dog race it's just the dog, and it's up to him to find the finish line. Horses only ever run around the track- why not a horse marathon? Anyway, you pick a horse with a name that either sounds really dumb, or relates to some uncanny coincidence in your life. When we looked at the card, ALL the horses had names that were really dumb, which seemed to me an uncanny coincidence in my life. So I bet on all of them, and just my luck, the race ended in a 9- way tie, all for third place.

So after my wife won her 20 bucks in the slot machine, I stuck in a $20. I won $405 dollars, which I do NOT plan to pay taxes on so HA! I immediately went over to the redemption window, expecting a religious experience. I did not find one, although I was asked what denominations I liked to receive money in (I said Christian only because I was born on Christmas). In the end I took the money in one $400 dollar bill and a $5.

Incidentally, to change the subject, a remake of the 1945 classic Mildred Pierce debuted last week on HBO. The mini-series was shot largely on location in Peekskill. When my wife and I went there for the Cinco de Mayo celebration, we realized one thing: If your town is chosen as a site for a depression-era movie, you should probably congratulate yourselves, and then schedule an emergency meeting of the town board as soon as possible. We were amazed at how they had transformed the shops into quaint facades with old-timey advertising slogans on them, until we discovered that the production had wrapped three weeks ago.