Sunday, March 29, 2015

Still Dylan After All These Years

Strange shadows in the stranger night ...

There he is, the inimitable face peering out of yet another magazine cover, announcing an article about his latest album. Only this time it's the publication of the AARP, and the album consists entirely of classics from the American songbook that were all recorded once by Frank Sinatra.

Say what? Yes, it's true. We have entered a time warp where the most shocking thing the perennial iconoclast Bob Dylan can do is to slap us upside the head by crooning songs our parents or grandparents (or even great-grandparents) listened to. Then again, why should we be surprised? He's been doing this for about fifty years, continually evolving and moving on just when we thought we had him pegged.

After reading the article I went straight to Amazon to download the album, Shadows In The Night – $1.00 off with a coupon code for AARP members. Yes, he's giving out senior citizen discounts. And he actually says in the interview that if it were up to him he would give the album away to all their readers. Shades of the old Bob, impossible to say how sincere or sarcastic this was.

At first hearing it may be a shock. He's put together yet another unorthodox band with a unique sound. This one features pedal steel guitar, acoustic bass – often bowed – and a soft horn section. “No drums, no piano,” he brags. And the tempos are so slow that even as a fan I'm tempted to ask them to pick it up a bit. That would probably be a mistake, though. As so many before have done, the album grows on you with repeated listening until you understand the wisdom of it and how it is likely just right.

Dylan's voice is less raspy than on the previous album, Tempest, which was sold in Starbucks throughout the land. But his world-weary vocal cords lend a heartfelt air to the collection of songs about love, loss, and yearning with an ache of spiritual overtones. You can hear inklings of his classic whine in lines like “lift me … to Par-a-diiiiiise.” It starts with the title lyrics to the opening song, “I'm a Fool To Want You,” and ends with a plea to the Almighty in "That Lucky Old Sun:"

Show me that river, take me across
Wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun, give me nothing to do
But roll 'round heaven all day.
He didn't write this, or any of the others, but he says he knows them deeply because they speak to him, and he certainly imparts his own stamp to them. In all, it's a sound you can spend some time with, perhaps fortified by a bourbon or two to slow you down. Have a sip, settle back, and take it in.

The Long History

I couldn't possibly indulge this way if I weren't willing to get nostalgic. How could I not, after listening to this man since my early teens? I still remember my first encounter with him on the floor of the classroom where my age group met weekly at the Unitarian church. One of us, David P___, who hung out at The Flick, our local coffee house, had brought a little battery powered turntable so he could play the Freewheelin' album for us. The eight or ten of us clustered around it, straining to pick out the words from the tiny speaker.

Words. That's what it was about. At a time when pop music was nothing but shoo-be-do-wop and things even more inane (ie, “The One-Eyed One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater”), before even the Beatles had come along to up the ante a bit, here was this troubadour from the middle ages who'd traded his lute for a guitar and started emitting a torrent of poetry set to song that seemed to be exactly what we knew we wanted to hear, and to say what we knew we wanted to say. What an unexpected wonder.

As Joan Baez would later put it in "Diamonds and Rust:"

You burst on the scene already a legend
The unwashed phenomenon
The original vagabond
You stole into my heart

In a few years my music buddy and I had collected every subsequent album, along with the work of Joan Baez, while simultaneously discovering the literature of the Beats. We went to see Joan when she came to Miami, and got to shake her hand afterwards back stage. Alas, I missed Bob when he did the same, but none of his songs escaped us.

By the senior year of high school I had my own record player on the floor of my own bedroom entertaining some friends with illicit wine and Bringing It All Back Home. The words – he had gone electric, but it was still about the words.

In rapid succession came Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde. Then there was The Motorcycle Accident, and The Change. At the peak of his visionary productivity came this sudden hiatus, followed by the folksy and almost comical John Wesley Harding, and then the country-style Nashville Skyline. What in the world was going on? Nothing new, really. As he had been doing all along, he continued going where he wanted and doing what he wanted to do. There were people he left behind from the moment he struck up "Maggie's Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival with electric guitar in hand and the blues-band army of Paul Butterfield backing him up. Others no doubt fell by the wayside when he wandered into born-again gospel. But for many of us he remained one of the background tracks of our lives, even if he receded further into the background.

In my case my close friend Richard was one of the most stalwart faithful, the one who kept insisting that I listen to each new album, and who continued to find revelations in each one. I confess I stopped collecting them all, but several of them made me sit up and listen again. Like the opening of “Hurricane” on the Desire album: “Pistol shots ring out in the bar-room night” – a line worthy of Jack Kerouac, using one of his favorite poetic devices to co-opt an unlikely noun as an adjective – which goes on to warn you, “Here comes the story of the Hurricane.” On top of that it was a return to a classic protest song, one which was instrumental in the retrial and eventual release of the unjustly convicted boxer. Great stuff.

There are too many other twists and turns in this long career to mention them all in anything shorter than a book. And if you're so inclined there are plenty of books to consume. Amazon even has a page called The 20 Best Bob Dylan Books. But the one I recommend is Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz. This work focuses on the evolution of his work more than his life and places him in context, beginning with the origins of folk music and blues and the hymns of the Sacred Harp, working through union and folk songs, tin pan alley, and so on up to date. What comes clear is that not only did Dylan grow out of this rich American loam, but he was completely aware of it and avidly absorbing as much of it as he could at every stage.

Which brings us right back to the kind words he has for Frank Sinatra, and the deep feeling he brings to the songs of a bygone era in the middle of the last century. Once you understand the context it all makes perfect sense. After all this time, he's still Dylan.

Don't take my word for it ... listen to the NPR review.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Aereo and Beyond

Now you see it, now you don't ...

Back in 2009, only five years ago, traditional broadcast TV fell off a cliff when the FCC mandated transition to digital took place. Mine was one of the homes "unprepared" for the change. (See here for the gory details.) Since I didn't subscribe to a cable service or have a digital TV I had to buy converter boxes that would feed an analog signal to my two dinosaur TVs that still used cathode ray tubes for a screen. 

This solution worked well for awhile and even provided additional channels that became available because the new format allows broadcasters to put out multiple feeds at slightly different frequencies. Then something else happened. The converter boxes killed my TVs. 

I can't prove it, but first one died, then the other, within months of each other. The circumstantial evidence was compelling. It's possible that the voltage of the output signal from those cheap and federally-subsidized boxes was too high and caused component failures in the TVs.

Well, it wasn't a bad thing, because it gave me an excuse to buy a new flat-screen TV with a picture as good as my computer monitor. With a digital compatible antenna I was pulling in beautiful HD video. What remained was the age-old question of what to watch.

The Wasteland

Broadcast TV was long ago dubbed "the vast wasteland," but we should face the fact that cable TV only differs in the extent of its vastness. A cartoon in the New Yorker once portrayed a man in a living room with a vast array of electronics, huge screen, and satellite dish visible out the window. With remote in hand he complains, "There's nothing on."

I had already tried DirecTV back in the '90s but eventually canceled it due to its inability to function during the frequent tropical overcasts that keep South Florida wet. Now I gave AT&T's Uverse a try, intrigued by the inclusion of a DVR.

Recording, of course, is supposed to be one answer to the what-to-watch problem. By browsing the listings and choosing what looks interesting in advance, you can build a collection of content to consume whenever it's convenient. No more missed episodes, no more “viewing by appointment” where you have to tune it at a certain time. You can even skip through commercials. What's not to like?

The price tag, for one. AT&T lures you in with reduced rates and cash rebates in hopes you'll get hooked on the service and not notice when you end up paying $160 a month or more once the regular prices kick in. $2,000+ a year to watch TV? Seriously?

First you realize that the base package of channels isn't so hot, so you have to go for one of the bigger packages. Then you realize that the default service is not even HD so you have to pay an extra $10 a month for that or else spend your time watching square pictures on your wide screen. Then you notice that the included local broadcast channels are fewer than the ones you can get over the air through your antenna for free – and the picture quality is not even as good.

Finally, to top it off, you pick up your cell phone or tablet to see what the new service offers you there, and discover that you can't access any live feeds or recordings without investing in some third-party hardware like a Sling box. There's a limited selection of movies you can stream, but you find you can only watch them on your phone -- not your tablet with the larger screen -- due to “copyright issues.”

With this litany of complaints is it any wonder that people en masse are cutting the cord that binds them to a form of distribution that may soon go the way of the video rental store? What else can a poor downtrodden consumer do?


For some time there has been Netflix, which was forward thinking enough to imagine Internet video distribution even before it was practical. Now that it's becoming commonplace they have really come of age. Their disc-delivery service is still the only way to get access to things that aren't available for streaming, but it seems only a matter of time before it will be possible to offer the entire catalog online, and those red envelopes will become a thing of the past. Like Blockbuster. (RIP)

The fact that Amazon has jumped into the game without bothering to start a mail-based rental program is a measure of the current reality. Of course if you want a disc they will he happy to sell you one, but they will also sell you a digital copy that will remain available in your “library” when you log into your account. I have not seen a guarantee that titles in your library will never expire, but if you consider that it will be the most popular titles that people will want to “own,” Amazon's storage problem is minimized, and putting a link to the video in your account incurs a cost with so many zeros after the decimal point that it can barely be measured.

The Set Top

Of course you need a way to access these services on your TV as well as on your computer. And for that one of the best solutions is also the least expensive. The humble little Roku, with a price tag well below a hundred bucks, has managed to sneak in under the feet of Apple and Google to claim a dominant market share of the set-top-box market. I've owned one since Netflix started to stream, but if you poke around in their channel store you'll find a wealth of other options – many of them free of charge. Things like the NASA channel, TED Talks, and PBS.

In my case I soon felt it worthwhile to shell out subscription money for some extra feeds: Hulu for old TV episodes (long live Rocky and Bullwinkle!) and Acorn TV for lesser known British TV productions. With my antenna still available for local broadcasts, I like my choices. And there will be more to come now that the likes of HBO have announced their intention to sell their services direct online, bypassing the traditional cable providers.

Enter Aereo

The only thing missing from this nirvana is the ability to record. Reluctant to shell out several hundred more dollars for something like a Tivo that was designed with cable in mind, plus a monthly fee forever, I thought I found the answer a couple of years back when Aereo came up with a novel scheme. Using a server farm equipped with thousands of tiny antennas (yes, they were really antennas), they offered to stream local TV for you over the Internet with the ability to make recordings. The monthly fee was less than Tivo wants for providing you with a channel guide, and amazingly enough the service worked great.

I signed up the instant Aereo went live in Miami and used it until their untimely demise (see below). I set it to record the PBS Newshour every night so I wouldn't miss anything if I got home late from work.. I could watch on my TV, phone, computer, or tablet. If I wanted to I could even watch remotely, though I seldom used that feature. It was Tivo without the Tivo, no box required.

Unfortunately the so-called “content providers” who are broadcasting this stuff all over the place took a dim view of Aereo's practices. Aereo argued their users had the right to use an antenna regardless of its location, and that they were not doing anything that the users could not do on their own if they bought the right – and legal – equipment. But the broadcasters managed to convince the court that Aereo was recording and subsequently re-broadcasting. In the antiquated parlance of the draconian rules that regulate this stuff, this constituted a new “performance” of the material, which is illegal except by arrangement with the original broadcaster.

Everyone watching this play out rolled their eyes, but it was clear enough what was really going on. The networks and local stations understood that there was money to be made from online streaming of their material, and they weren't about to let someone else do it just because they didn't have their act together to offer the service themselves. So Aereo went away, a perfectly good technology whose time came and went as quickly as those recordings.

What's really funny about this is that I now do exactly the same thing on my own – legally – thereby demonstrating that Aereo was perfectly right in their claims. With the acquisition of a Tablo DVR (legal) connected between my own antenna (legal) and my Roku (legal) I can watch, record, and playback – even remotely – content from broadcast TV. And I can of course view it on the device of my choice. In place of the modest monthly subscription to Aereo I have a fee for the TV schedule service that Tablo provides, which is comparable to the one Tivo has always used except that it gives me an option to buy a “lifetime” subscription for $149, which makes it far less expensive in the long run.

If you can find any difference between that and what Aereo used to do for me with less gear to manage, then you should probably seek employment with the FCC or in the legal profession. Actually, there is one difference. With my own antenna hooked up to my own DVR I'm not using the Internet while I watch “live” TV. So if anyone should have been upset with Aereo it should have been the Internet service providers who really don't want any more bandwidth hogs like Netflix and Youtube.

What's Next

The ball is really starting to roll now on “unbundling” cable channels. I'm doing this already with the specific services I've opted into, and if I add it all up it only comes to about $60 per month, which is a lot better than $160. And that includes an Amazon Prime membership to qualify for their free video streaming.

The latest wrinkle is Sling TV, which offers a small collection of formerly cable-only channels in a $20 per month package. You can use it with a Sling box to enable remote viewing, or just use the Sling TV channel on your Roku or the app on your phone.

But you can already see that Sling would love to grow up to be a full provider for all channels, in which case they would be hard to distinguish from the old cable companies, especially if they persist with the bundling model. The real way of the future is a service that would allow you to pick only the channels you want from the available array, with a small fee for each one.

As it is, even among the limited selection currently offered on Sling, there are a few I will never watch and would opt out of if given a chance. Which brings us back to the old problem:

There's nothing on.