“The Perfect Thing” – Steven Levy’s Gushy iPod History

perfectthingcover.jpgNot many gadgets are worthy of their own book, but the iconic iPod is no ordinary gadget.   Apple didn’t make the first MP3 player, but by transforming a good idea into what author Steven Levy calls “the perfect thing,” the computer company helped foster a revolution that is creating new industries as it disrupts and remakes old ones.

Levy’s history of the iPod is on firm footing when it studies the ways in which Apple helped legitimize a business model that the music industry viewed with a mix of suspicion and hostility.  But the company’s genius is in refinement, not invention.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a charismatic figure, and the best salesman of his “insanely great” vision.  Unfortunately, Levy seems willing to give him credit for things he had nothing to do with.

That’s a shame, because what Steve Jobs is good at – inspiring engineers and designers to perform fits of brilliance – is almost buried in hagiography.  Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” has drawn in many a journalist.   In this case, much of “The Perfect Thing” becomes a story of Jobs and not the candy bar-sized device he unleashed upon the world.

With the iPod, Apple created a product that was easy to use, powered by technology that was always two or three steps ahead of the competition.  They addressed the vexing problem of getting music from the computer to device by creating a trinity of computer, software and device.  Apple wrote the ITunes software to recognize and add music to the iPod automatically.  When the iTunes Music Store was introduced in 2002, it was built into the software.  Like the elegantly simple Macintosh computer, this integration and ease of use is the key the iPod’s charm.

The iPod’s cultural impact is undeniable.  “The Perfect Thing” provides a lively account of the myriad ways it has affected the landscape of music, television and, with the advent of podcasting, journalism.

Levy made the fanciful decision to let each chapter stand on its own.  Multiple versions of the book have been released, each with a different “shuffle.”

The first chapter of each edition, “Perfect,” paints Steve Jobs as a Pied Piper of the Apocalypse, trying to “bring a little joy in to people’s lives” during the product launch shortly after 9/11.  “Origins” recognizes the true pioneers in the field, from the Sony Walkman to, in the late 1990s, Compaq’s “Personal Jukebox.”  The latter most directly influenced the iPod.

“Personal” looks at the iPod’s tendency to isolate listeners into a self-contained musical world, and the sociological implications of “[making] everyone into an extra from Village of the Damned.”  The chapter also explores the evolution of personal audio cocooning, from transistor radios to Andreas Pavel’s “Stereobelt,” a shoebox-sized behemoth designed with two headphones for shared listening – a feature initially included in the Sony Walkman.

“Download” describes the way Jobs used his personal charms to persuade everyone from Sheryl Crow to Yoko Ono that the iTunes Music Store was the last best hope for digital music.  “Cool” is Levy at his gushiest, implying that only Apple had the foresight to dream up this wonderful device and an Internet store to feed it, even as the vast majority of music is today stolen online.  This is a situation with no clear solution, but Levy fails to point out business models like Rhapsody, which might provide better legal download solutions.

The phenomenon of “Podcast” provides the book’s best moments.  Sometimes whimsical broadcasts, distributed as MP3 files, have caused what Jobs rightfully would refer to as a “tectonic shift” in both radio and television.  Apple legitimized the technology less than a year after it was introduced by incorporating it into the iTunes Music Store, and when it began offering commercial-free network television shows a few months later, turned episodes of “Desperate Housewives” into podcasts.

“The Perfect Thing” offers a mix of myth and history with unbound enthusiasm, in a well-written paean to a little Lucite box that’s arguably the most important technology of the 21st Century.

At least that’s how Steve Jobs would describe it.

Local Rhythms – For Love Or Money

celiasml.JPGAdapted from an earlier post:

If I were a decent guitarist (not even close), I’d probably be like a friend of mine, who spends his every spare minute playing in a band. Most of the time, though, he can be found providing counsel on paint and caulk selection at an area building supply store.

That’s his day job. Darn near every musician I know has one.

I write about music, an avocation with a time-to-dollar ratio that’s likely on a par with the money my friend makes on the coffee house/private party circuit. Computer software consulting pays my bills, but music stokes the bank of my soul.

Looking at box office receipts from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith, you’d think the music business is an easy path to catered backstage parties, with overflowing bowls of brown M&M’s everywhere. The truth is that most musicians are like my friend, playing for love and barely breaking even after expenses like gas, meals and guitar strings are tallied up.

Thus, I was amused when asked recently why Chris Jones, the embattled owner of Middle Earth Music Hall, seemed content to operate at a loss. “What kind of person,” this person mused, “is proud that he’s never made money?”

This was no doubt in reference to news stories quoting Jones saying his club had “never been profitable.” Jones also said he viewed Middle Earth as a refuge for people who’d “given up on the bar scene” but still wanted to listen to good music.

Jones, for the record, began promoting shows so he could see his favorite bands locally. In the last four years, he’s presented some wonderful, often unheralded, talent to music lovers everywhere.

To its’ fans, Middle Earth is a church, and what emanates from it cleanses their souls. Jones may not be making money, but believe me – he’s turning a profit.

Al Kooper created Blood, Sweat and Tears and discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, but didn’t get rich in the process. “I came in for the love of music,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, “and when the sharks smell that, you’re through financially.”

Passion for music is all most would-be jukebox heroes need. God bless ‘em.

Now, what’s happening for music lovers this weekend?

Thursday: Open Mike Night – A place where many an aspiring musician begins, and more than a few practicing ones go to hone their craft, is the venerable talent night down at the local pub. Tonight, there’s Salt Hill, with Will Michaels (a/k/a “The Singing Bartender”) hosting, or the free-for-all at Royal Flush in Springfield. Firestones in Queechee does theirs later this month. Sunapee Coffeehouse, alas, is on indefinite hiatus while it looks for volunteers.

Friday: Madeline Peyroux & Jill Sobule, Lebanon Opera House – She channels the likes of Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn. A throwback to the days of smoky jazz clubs, Peyroux’s so convincing, the first time I heard her I thought it was a 78-RPM record with the sound cleaned up. Opener Jill Sobule deserves her own spotlight, with giddy, frothy thinking person’s pop.

Saturday: Stonewall, Royal Flush – Another CD release party from Exsubel Studios and producer Shamus Martin. Hopefully, they’ve worked out the kinks with their disc duplicator, which caused Ingrid’s Ruse (who Martin drums for) to hold a party two weekends ago without any product to sell. One of the tracks from Stonewall’s 3-song demo, “Blessings For Pearls,” is up on my blog for anyone wanting to give the band a listen.

Sunday: Celia Sings Sinatra, Canoe Club – Phil Celia led a spirited set the other night in Bradford, sticking to a funky groove some of the time, and mining his singer-songwriter heart of gold as well. Tonight it’s something completely different, when Phil joins the Bob Merrill Trio to play some silky smooth evening music, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Count Basie and others.

Tuesday: Peter Rowan & the Rowan Brothers, Iron Horse – Talk about genre hopping! This guitarist played with Bill Monroe early on, fronted a band (Earth Opera) that opened for the Doors in the 60’s, and wrote hits for New Riders of the Purple Sage, one of the first outlaw country bands. Tonight, it’s acoustic Americana with siblings Chris and Lorin.

Wednesday: Broken Social Scene, Lupo’s – It’s a long drive to Providence, but this Toronto collective is worth it. They remind me of a more upbeat Joy Division, if that’s possible. The personnel include core duo Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning and whoever’s in town. They closed the recent Virgin Festival with part-time members Emily Haines (Metric) and Amy Millan (Stars).

Finally: Two Claremont fine dining establishments now welcome every turning of the calendar page with the same familiar faces. Al Alessi handles first Friday chores at Sophie & Zeke’s, while Jason Cann greets each month’s leadoff Saturday at Bistro Nouveau.

Regina Carter – Guerrilla Promotion

carter.jpgYesterday I made my monthly pilgrimage to Newbury Comics, mainly to purchase Van Morrison’s first official DVD. It contains his 1974 and 1980 performances at the Montreaux Jazz Festival.

While there, I also snagged a copy of “Live Your Life With Verve: Fall Into The Groove,” a sampler of the latest releases from the legendary jazz label. Newbury typically gives away these label promotional collections, even if you don’t make a purchase.

I was immediately taken by “St. Louis Blues” as performed by violinist Regina Carter, with Carla Cook on vocals. Not being a jazz authority, I didn’t recognize the name. I did a lttle research and found that she’d played violin on Madeline Peyroux’s debut CD, and has worked with Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel AND Dolly Parton – not to mention brilliant (but usual suspects) Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson.

Talk about being unbound by rules. Here’s what Ms.Carter has to say about her instrument:

I think a lot of people look at the violin and they get a little nervous. They have a stereotype of what the violin is – very high, kind of shrill-sounding with long notes, and a lot of vibrato. It doesn’t have to be that at all, it can be a very fiery persuasive instrument and that’s how I like to use it. I don’t think of the music trying to fit the violin, or how to make the violin work in this music. For me, it just does. I’m not playing it as a violin. Instead of being so melodic, which I can be, I tend to use the instrument in more of a rhythmic way, using vamp rhythms or a lot of syncopated rhythms, approaching it more like a horn player does. So, I don’t feel that I have a lot of limitations – I feel like I can do anything.

I immediately went and got “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey,” her tribute to jazz’s foremost era of discovery and evolution. The 1920s through the 1940s were a time when performers like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong began defining an art form still in the process of being born.

What’s brilliant about jazz is that it’s still being born, as Carter’s reworking of W.C. Handy’s classic proves. With “St. Louis Blues,” she takes her fiddle on a hayride to the other side of the tracks, to a shotgun shack down by the river, and in the process inspires her accompanists to also take their instruments to uncommon places.

I’ve never heard a clarinet infused with old-time country, but Paquito D’Rivera sure does it well. Gil Goldstein’s spicy accordion is in entirely new territory as well. It’s amazing.

You’ve gotta hear it, so damn the consequences, here’s a link. If the copyright cops find me, I’ll take my lumps, but please understand this is music promotion in the era where the radio powers won’t touch an artist like Regina Carter. I’m doing them a favor, a virtual version of their neat little sampler. They should be thanking me.
Why can’t the labels get a grip on this concept and make it work?

Buy the record, which is filled with many more gems.