John Lee Hooker – Burnin’ Hell (1971)

John Lee Hooker managed to be broadly popular but also enigmatic and inimitable. On this episode of the Escape Pod I look at a tremendous track from 1971’s Hooker ‘n’ Heat to understand what made John Lee so special and why his influence will never leave us.

As always, I’m talking all over the music and only playing snippets. That’s not how you experience music! So, after you listen to the podcast (or maybe even before), here is the playlist for music featured in the episode:

Boom Boom Boom – John Lee Hooker (1961):

One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer – George Thorogood (1977):

Wild About You Baby – Hound Dog Taylor (1973):

Boom, Boom, Boom (Blues Brothers movie) – John Lee Hooker (1980):

Bad Like Jessie James – John Lee Hooker (1966):

Burnin Hell – John Lee Hooker (1971):

Hello and welcome back to the MPOMY Escape Pod podcast. Today we are getting out the official Escape Pod magnifying glass to look ever-so-closely at just a few minutes of the genius of John Lee Hooker. It’s the 1970 recording of ‘Burnin’ Hell’ on the 1971 release Hooker ’n’ Heat with Canned Heat. It’s a great record all the way through, but we’re just going to get hyper-focused on this one track as a way to get into Hooker’s genius and connect some dots along the way. The Hook was such an extraordinary talent on vocals, on guitar, songwriting, the way he conducted his career – everything. AND he got to enjoy a lot of success in his lifetime, probably not as much as he deserved though. So, we’re getting into the Hook on this episode MPOMY Escape Pod podcast.

A few announcements first, I’m working on some playlists podcasts as a way to start talking about the role artificial intelligence in music listening (as opposed to production – which is probably more interesting, but that’s another podcast). I’m taking the shuffle and radio features of your favorite streaming services and potentially turning those into a way that we can live with technology by creating healthy relationships with AIs. There is a lot more research for me to do on this topic, but this new life form is here, so there is no time to waste.

The other piece of housekeeping is that another collaborative project is taking shape. It’s a literary conversation with societal implications and it’s also a game show / boxing match. More to come on that, but it should be pretty good and entertaining.

How did I come to John Lee Hooker? Very quickly, this goes back to high school, when I thought it would make me cooler than everybody else if I didn’t worship at the altar of Clapton, Page and Beck, but instead explored some of THEIR influences, which quickly brought me to Robert Johnson, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. Of course, I had already heard a pretty good rendition of the John Lee Hooker boogie by none other than George Thorogood. I didn’t really have a problem with his 80’s take on the Blues, just like I didn’t have a problem with ZZ Top or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Come to think of it, I was damn lucky to come of age as a music fan when blues was ascendent, a way for musicians to actually make money, sell records and have some financial success.

Now, you can get tired of George Thorogood’s recorded output pretty quick (whereas ZZ Top just keeps getting better and better the more you listen), but you have to give the Delaware Destroyer his due. [Because he paid his dues]. Before Thorogood sold millions with ‘Movin on Over’ and had hits with covers of Hooker’s compositions, he was acting as a roadie for Hound Dog Taylor in Chicago. Hound Dog Taylor is the reason Aligator Records came into existence and is a HUGE part of my personal Blues music education. He was a six-fingered slide player who sounded like Elmore James turned up to eleven. It was called ‘genuine house rocking music’ and there has never been a description so apt.


The article where I learned about Thorogood being Hound Dog Taylor’s roadie nicely points out that Taylor was a strong presence in the 70’s Chicago Blues scene, and that included playing in the open air market on Maxwell Street.

Why is that place important for this particular story? Because it helps answer the question of how I got to John Lee Hooker. Now, I never had the Maxwell Street experience, but the movie “The Blues Brothers” features a scene in that very market with a rocking band playing the Blues. It’s a great scene that really shows off the place and the music, but you can tell it’s not quite authentic. For one thing, it’s not Hound Dog Taylor’s band playing, it’s a musician who has comparatively little connection to Chicago. More like Detroit and then California. It’s John Lee Hooker.


The audio-only doesn’t do it justice. This is a feast for the eyes, with the band, the shops, the food and the people all making you want that Boogie so bad. If someone came up to me today and had never heard of John Lee Hooker and said, “I just have three minutes – Can I get an idea of what makes this artist so special?” I would show them that scene and they’d get it.

That’s pretty much what happened to me. The Blues Brothers is a movie that is light on plot but has one great musical performance after another. The scene with James Brown makes me cry, and getting to see Steve Cropper play in almost every musical number is a great treat. But when it came to that scene with John Lee, it literally felt like time had stopped and never wanted that Boogie to end.

Now let’s go back in time, back to Detroit where young John Lee Hooker is writing and recording under various names in order to not violate exclusivity clauses in his various record contracts. Somehow these shenanigans don’t get him in trouble, probably because the money is coming in fro everybody. Not tons, but with songs like Boom Boom Boom, Hooker is making a name for himself. Part of the appeal is that he is doing something no one has ever heard before – boogie. It let Hooker explore in any way that more strictly organized music would not have allowed. So, even if the song lacked repetition or predictability, it was anchored by his stomping foot and rhythmic guitar. The Bo Diddley beat is the closest thing I can think of for comparison, but it is so much more limited than Boogie. Hooker could write and re-write his songs while he was playing them, allowing the emotion of the moment to really take over. Songs, rather than a specific set of notes played over time, were more of a fluid accompaniment to that boogie beat where the story – the words – are expressed as part of the song’s organizing principal, rather than something that is separate from the music. Vocals and guitar can always vary depending on the need of the moment. For example, your could play up-tempo, like Boom Boom Boom, or something more like a salad – check out I’m Bad, Like Jessie James. Spontaneity is a way to access greater emotion. The same song is slightly different every time.

As you can imagine, this approach to music makes collaboration a littler tricky. The band has to be listening and anticipating. There has to be, on the part of professional studio musicians who don’t have a fraction of Hooker’s financial success, a decision about going against everything they’ve learned to be a success in their career. They are faced with the impossible question: “Are we going to try to fence him in or are we just going to go with it and see what happens?” Based on the recorded output, it was too often the former approach. Too often a producer or someone would be pushing the idea of having Hooker play more structured music. I think he even had some hits with this approach, and as much as Hooker was an innovator and a revolutionary, he definitely liked getting paid. So, there is clear evidence he was open to this idea.

When the Hook had his third great era of success, not coincidentally in the 1980’s, I think he perfected being able to meet in the middle. It doesn’t hurt that the person you are meeting is Carlos Santana. Starting in the 80’s Hooker was making these all-star records, with Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison. These were big money sessions where you couldn’t just hope for the best and see what happened. The results are good though. Some of the material is Hooker singing over more structured songs and he doesn’t try to get up to any of his old tricks. In a few cases things are more wide open, but Hooker clearly has the confidence in the collaborators to make it work flawlessly, like it was all planned out, when you and I both know it was a tightrope walk.

Those records are great, and the Detroit years are amazing, but the middle period, when John Lee went to join the hippies in California in the late 60’s, that’s a special moment in music and brings us back to the recording that is the subject of this essay.

BUT before we talk about this track, let’s just spend one minute on Canned Heat and, in particular, founder Alan ‘Blind Owl’ Wilson. This blue-eyed boy from Boston was so near-sighted that he earned the nickname from legendary guitarist John Fahey, who was also from Boston. Wilson’s contribution to the Blues is limited because he lived for such a short time, but all evidence points to Blind Owl being a very sincere Bluesman. He gets to San Francisco and starts Canned Heat, playing Hooker tunes and slightly reworked originals, in the classic style of Bluesmen throughout history. His knowledge runs deep, but the sound has a psychedelic tinge, almost like something to make up for Blind Owl being so awkward. Watch the Woodstock video – he’s unquestionably awkward. And that voice! How was that singing style ever considered OK?


It straight up doesn’t matter, because Woodstock made them popular enough to get a session with John Le Hooker in May of 1970.

Hooker ’n’ Heat is a double album where the first disc is classic John Lee Hooker, by himself (for the most part) playing guitar, singing and stomping his foot. He obviously is having a blast with Canned Heat, who are also producing the session. The next day, everyone takes up their electric instruments for some of that big boogie and the jams do not disappoint.

Canned Heat, and particularly Blind Owl understood Hooker’s foibles. This recording doesn’t sound like a dream team or a super session. On the contrary, this sounds like something that Wilson and Canned Heat had been getting ready to do for years in advance. Thy didn’t just KNOW ABOUT the Hook and his recording career. They GOT the Hook.

Which brings us to this tune – Burnin’ Hell. What a song! The lyrics are almost too much to get into, but it is intense! There are two characters, the singer and Deacon Jones. The singer is in some kind of a crisis of faith and is asking Deacon Jones to pray for him. Deacon Jones responds with the shocking statement that there is no heaven and that there is no hell. Ultimately, the Church offers NOTHING for the next life, but maybe there is comfort in this one. Hooker proceeds to stomp and howl with fear AND triumph. Death is a great mystery and no one, not the Church or anyone else, can say what happens after death, But one thing we can celebrate is that there is no Burnin Hell.

The song is amazing and Hooker’s performance at this session has all the things that make him perhaps the Blues GOAT – best singing, best guitar playing, best writing, best (uh…) arranging. But he is not alone in this performance.

For this one, he is joined by the Blind Owl on harmonica. Not on vocals, which I already mentioned, and not guitar, which was better, but also still a little quirky. Alan Wilson was a great Bluesman, but few would argue that he is one of the great all-time blues guitarists. For this track, he will just play harmonica and the result is transcendent.

But before the song even starts, there is some brilliant banter which is almost as important as the song itself. This stuff is priceless and we are so lucky to have access to this little conversation, and it is worth breaking down because a lot gets covered very quickly.

It starts with Hook saying that it doesn’t take him any time to make a record. Apparently he can just sit down and start cranking out tunes. There is even some joking that it should have been a triple (!) instead of double record. John Lee responds by saying that triple record would mean triple money. Canned Heat singer and (other) harmonica player Bob Hite tells Hook not to worry because it’s going to be a hit record (he was right!) and that money would just come rolling in. Then Hooker says that he has to worry about that money and utters the immortal phrase (a classic Hooker-ism) “Nothing but the best and later for the garbage. Natural facts.” Those are words to live by.

Next they talk about yet another harmonica player – the Grateful Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan. Hooker tells how his friend “Pig” lives on a farm with the pigs and the chickens. And that Pig says he’s a great cook, but his cooking is terrible, although his wife can cook. It’s brilliant to picture Hooker busting chops at Pigpen’s farm, and then later regaling Canned Heat with the story.

And then he mentions Blind Owl playing harmonica on the track they are about to record. He ADMITS that he doesn’t play any kind of “straight” Blues and says he doesn’t know how Wilson can follow him, but he somehow he can. And then the music starts. Here is that opening.

(Play up until the singing starts)

You know how I was saying before that if you only had a moment or two to learn about John Lee Hooker, you should check out that scene in The Blues Brothers. Well, this moment, which is only a little longer really gives you an even better insight, although it sadly lacks the all-important video content. But besides the Hook’s always dapper appearance, everything else is here, all the signatures rendered in unobstructed clarity. The beat of his stomping foot, probably mic’d separately. The sound of his hollow or semi-hollow body guitar, giving just a slight hint of feedback and acoustic-ness, but still very gritty and overdriven. It is a wonderful guitar tone.

But even more than the stomp and the guitar, even more than that Boogie that came as naturally to John Lee Hooker as did breathing, there is just a riveting vocal performance here. You can deconstruct and analyze these lyrics until they say and mean whatever you want. That exercise will end up telling you more about yourself than about the song or the singer.

But what’s actually in the lyrics is indisputably contradictory – a Deacon who says that there is no heaven and no burning hell. What kind of man of god is this? And how does the protagonist react? Is he happy that he’s not going to hell? Is he worried about the great unknown that lies beyond death?

It’s yes to all of the above. Fear and exhilaration and the infinite expanse of the unknown. You might say that’s pretty heady stuff for an old Blues song composed by a man who never learned to read or write. But then I would say that you haven’t listened to enough Blues music. If you think it’s not heavy, just listen to how the Hook belts this one out – “I DON’T BELIEVE…”


Adding to the legend and intensity of this particular track is the fact that it is the last recording Alan Wilson made. Before the record was finished, Wilson was found dead of a drug overdose. He was 27 years old. This ushered in a veery dark moment for popular music as, in quick succession, Wilson’s death was followed by those of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.

Wilson may not enjoy the same reputation as those other three all these years later, but he had an innate sense for Blues music, a special understanding that couldn’t be learned in books or put on like a costume. As much as this recording of Burnin’ Hell is a contradiction of power and beauty, The Blind Owl was no archetypical Blues musician and he really didn’t look the part. But to John Lee Hooker, who I believe could see just fine, that didn’t matter one bit.

Thanks for tuning in to the MPOMY Escape Pod. As I mentioned, some literary discussion coming up and lots of other good stuff. Thanks for listening and we will see you next time in the Escape Pod.

The MPOMY Escape Pod podcast is an MPOMY Production, written by Michael Pomerantz.

Mobile music apps

Two apps that allow arranging or mixing of pre-existing musical elements leads to a discussion of originality and composition. Only in the Escape Pod can you connect dots like this!



Hello and welcome back to the Mpomy Escape Pod podcast. My name is Michael Pomerantz and I am your host. Thanks so much to everyone who has been listening and giving feedback. Keep that coming, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

Today on the Escape Pod, I want to talk about some tools that I’m using for making music at home. I guess this is really more of a technology spiel, but it also relates to workflow and creativity, which are both issues that transcend technology. The overarching theme is finding the technology that fits with my preferred approach to making music. This is a tough area for technology, and I’ll explain. If you think back to the advent of the iPhone, none of us had ever used that particular type of device before because it didn’t exist. Oh sure, we can say we had used a camera and a computer, but the thing that makes the iPhone so spectacular is that we had never used that touch screen before. But the learning curve was easy enough to make up for the lack of familiarity. That’s a big part of why it caused such a revolution. Completely different PLUS totally easy EQUALS blockbuster.

But music making is something that’s been going on for millennia. And technology SHOULD make that easier, clearing a path (via disruption!) to remove friction and lubricate the creative process. But here’s the problem. There are a lot of different ways to make music. Which means that technology can embrace those legacy/analog procedures and approximate them as best as possible.

On the other hand, technology can introduce completely new interfaces and procedures (particularly this that use the touch screen) that will hopefully take us to the same destination of musical creation. In other words, a different path that would never have been available without the new tech.

And then there are approaches which try to make new modalities and traditional procedures happen in the same workspace. Basically a combination approach.

There are numerous apps that all provide some different combination of these approaches. Some are more limited than others, while some have all the tools to produce a professional sounding album – ON YOUR PHONE. And while that tech has now existed for a good little while, it seems more of a challenge or lark, rather than a way that albums will be made in the future. The point is that the tech is out there, but the interface – the way we go about the exercise of making music, is something with which creators are constantly tinkering. There is no consensus way of making music on mobile devices, even those with larger screens, like tablets.

So, with this background, I want to look briefly at two mobile apps for making music. They are called Launchpad and Incredibox. I think they are both great and offer intuitive interfaces that allow for a lot of creativity with minimal effort.

But note! Both of these apps take away the possibility of playing wrong notes. Miles Davis famously said there are no wrong notes, but that’s not really true – he was just better at finding the right notes than maybe anyone else in history. For the rest of us, it sounds better when we hit the right notes.

This is the part where we talk about laziness. We live in an era where we expect instant gratification. Watch whatever you want whenever you want, and you don’t even have to leave your house. Food from anywhere is delivered directly to your door. The idea that we almost always maximize “utility” simply by increasing “convenience” is a bit incongruous. If something is really awesome, I mean it really kicks ass, then what I would expect is that there is a great deal of EFFORT involved. In other words, it is not convenient to create works of genius.

And there is a second layer that is perhaps even more important. The utility=convenience contrivance is, effectively, a bait and switch. For so many years, probably over a decade now, bait and switch has been the order of the day. Just take the example of Google – you get free mail, free word processing app, free everything! Except we now know it wasn’t free. The advent of surveillance capitalism means that you can pay for Gmail, and Google docs and every other “convenient” thing – you can pay without knowing you are paying. We would never tolerate that anywhere else. I’m sure that even billionaires would not consent to start consuming a product without having ANY IDEA what such consumption was costing them.

Alright, that’s enough of that digression. The subterfuge with these two apps I’m about to talk about here is not nearly as sinister as anything Facebook or YouTube have done. It’s not crime, but rather a compromise. To evaluate that compromise, we need to grapple with the philosophical problem of defining an “original” work. These two apps present you with rhythms and melodies that can easily be layered and combined in a very large number of possibilities. So the app user becomes an arranger of sorts, but are the results truly classifiable as “original compositions?”

Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about the practical implications of this question. What I mean is there is no legal impediment (in the U.S. anyway) in passing off these recombined versions of someone else’s work as your own if you are the one manipulating the app. All the samples and sequences are royalty free meaning that users can treat the raw content as if it were in the public domain. Obviously, the apps themselves are subject to copyright, but the new work you pump out is your own. The artists who originally concocted this raw material take their cut through in-app purchases or the purchase of the app itself. But these elements (which make up what I would describe as a GIGANTIC portion of the ensuing arrangement’s “originality”) are just like the drum samples that I use in Ableton Live. In other words – “take these parts and build YOUR original work.”

So, these two apps are interesting and worthy of your attention, but before I get to them, I do want to talk about my experience with Ableton Live so far. I always wanted to be a superstar DJ and when I first heard Squarepusher back in 1997, I realized that I needed to get hip with making music on a computer. Over the years I fooled around with GarageBand and a bootlegged copy of its big brother, Logic. It all worked fine for the little things I was doing, but when the pandemic arrived, I knew I wanted to use something that was not bootleg software and could give me a pro-level tool that wouldn’t come with limitations. I picked Ableton because it seemed like something Squarepusher would use if he were coming up today.

My experience with Ableton Live has been great, so far. I’ve learned the different work flow that goes with Live’s different-looking workspace. I can record my own building blocks and easily add limitless samples and midi tracks to go along with my guitar, bass and keyboard playing.

Here’s the key, tho. I don’t play drums. I believe that I have a rhythm impairment that prevents me from keeping time or staying with a metronome. It is embarrassing. I start messing around on touch pads to play finger drums and the result is disastrous. Same with real drums. There is a feature in Live and most other drum machines and software which attempts to correct this issue – called quantize, but I can’t bring myself to use it. I’m mortified. It would be like using auto-tune. IDK – maybe I should try the quantize thing.

Anyway, the point is that I am VERY dependent on pre-existing musical elements to compose or create in Live. This is true for original music and covers. It is also true for improvisation in Live, but that is a different topic we can get into another time. The big takeaway for this discussion is just that messing with Ableton Live over the past year has left me feeling much better about making music from pre-existing parts.

So, now let’s talk about that same concept (making music from pre-existing elements) and how it is carried out by these two very different, but very terrific apps.

Quick background, I’m using these on an iPhone 10s, but the apps will both work on any phone from the last couple years. Also, the first app I’m going to highlight, the uninspiringly titled “Launchpad’ is for iOS only, won’t work on Android. The other app, which is called “Incredibox” is available on iOS, Android, and even in native apps for Microsoft and Apple computers. Launchpad is free but comes with a pretty limited array of sounds to combine. After messing with the interface for a pretty short time I realized I liked it and went right to the in-app shop for a couple $3 sounds packs. Incredibox, on the other hand, is a one-time purchase for $4, and the dev team has a solid track record of updates, all of which are included so far.

OK – let’s start with Launchpad. The name pretty much describes what you get. Your touch screen becomes a six-by-six grid with various loops triggered by touching the labeled grid spaces. In addition to the name of the loop, the grid spaces are also color-coded to help you remember what is a rhythm loop, what’s a melody and what is a bass line. You can only trigger one item per column at a time, and choosing a loop from a where another loop is already playing will stop the current loop and put in the new loop. In other words, no layering of loops that are in the same column. Also, all of this happens on the beat, making it harder to mess up.

Another shortcut that Launchpad gives you is the relation of samples and loops across a row. They all go together. This means you can get rhythm, bass, keys and other sounds that were all meant to go together by triggering everything in the same row. The real fun, obviously, comes when you experiment in a given grid with things that are in the same key and time signature, but are not as closely related as what you find in a single row. As you can tell, there are a lot of combinations, and the ability to changes things dynamically, in real time (without fucking up the rhythm!!), means that this is not only a tool for “composing,” but also a tool for “performing.” This makes Launchpad a good choice for those of us who like to do those two things at the same time.

Let me just quickly say a couple more things about Launchpad. It has two extra rows that give you touch control over volume for each column, as well as, effects for delay and filter. There is some deep editing of pads and effects, but I haven’t wanted to mess around with any of that. I much prefer the intuitive nature of just being able to pick the thing up spontaneously, load in a sound pack, and start messing around and see what I can come up with. When something sounds good enough to keep, there is a handy recording feature, which then shares an mp3 over your wifi.

Here is some more of what I’ve done just messing around with this Launchpad.

Incredibox is a very similar affair in that you layer stuff that all COULD go together in a way that suits you. Instead of a sound pack, you start by picking a “version,” which is really the same thing. The first difference I want to note is that Incredibox feels very much like a collaboration with a musical artist. In other words, no matter how you mix stuff up, it still has the hallmark and originality of the musicians who made the app. This means less originality, but it also means a greater personality than the more generic sounding building blocks you get with Launchpad.

The Incredibox interface, which I will talk about in a moment, is cool and different, but let’s be clear – this app is about SOUND. As of now, there are eight sound packs or Versions, with names like “Alpha,” “The Love,” “Brazil,” and “Dystopia.” The samples that you get with each Version follow the general vibe suggested by that Version’s title. As with Launchpad, everything goes together in terms of key and rhythm but there is still a lot of variation depending on what elements you choose to combine.

As we talk about the interface, the consistent personality and style of the dev team and the app itself is reinforced. What is on your screen after you pick your version? A cartoon of seven shirtless dudes who are identical except for their slightly varying height, and twenty sounds that you can drag to one of the characters meant to clothe him and get him singing. It makes perfect sense that animation shows singing, because all of the samples were made by beatboxing – hence the name of the app. And the fact that all identical characters are identical drives home that this is a collaboration between you and the seven brunette boys with their varying costumes.

There is a game aspect that goes with Incredibox, but upon my initial examination, it appears to have been an afterthought. If you put together the “right” combination of loops in a given Version, you can unlock a funky break with unique animation. While it is very exciting to look at something different from my seven beatboxing boys, there is no way to know what the right “combination” is. You just run through the fairly limited number of combinations until you light up all the clues and then, bang! You get your animation.

As with Launchpad, Inredibox lets you record and share you “mix” which is a very good way to describe the ensuing work. You can download an mp3, but there is also a sharing platform at Incredibox dot com which acts almost like a social network for the app’s users. You can hear and share your mixes from this platform and also check out the work of others using the app. I wonder how long it would take to find two mixes by completely different people that are identical.

And, frankly, I’m OK with that. The advent of online music completely changes the relationship with artist and audience. Creating music with the audience is something that Peter Gabriel was talking about almost twenty years ago. It changes the economics and the idea of what constitutes the artist’s finished work. I am so used to a particular product being the end point of a discreet amount of music creativity. What I mean is that you make a song, and that’s the outcome. With Incredibox, that paradigm is disrupted. While is there is no way to make music that DOESN’T sound like it was made with the app, the musicians and devs who made the app don’t get the same satisfaction of their being a FINAL mix. Their music remains in a state of flux. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it takes some getting used to.

Launchpad allows for a lot more anonymity. The creative people who make the loops really fade into the background and you might have a hard time, from just listening, knowing how the music came to your ears. That’s not the case with Incredibox. Here are two mixes I created from different Versions on the same app. To my ear, the connection is plainly audible.

The first one is from the Brasil Version.

This next one is from the Dystopia Version, which was just released.

So, that will it for today’s Escape Pod. Thank you again to everyone who is listening, and please tell your friends. More good stuff coming in the pipeline, so make sure you are subscribed. Also, check out the YouTube channel by searching for MPOMY ESCAPE POD on YouTube. You can tweet me @MPOMY. We will continue to celebrate life with music and more here at the MPOMY ESCAPE POD podcast. Thanks again for listening and see you next time.

The MPOMY ESCAPE POD podcast is an MPOMY Production and is written, produced and edited by Michael Pomerantz.

Dark Companion Records

Dark Companion Records

On this episode we connect the dots between Cardiacs, Robert Wyatt and Greg Lake. All paths lead through Annie Barbazza and her label Dark Companion Records. The commitment to audiophile recording values and the true open-mindedness of progressive music makes this artist and this record label, very much worth your time.

Tim Smith receives Doctorate from Royal Conservatory of Scotland:

Folly Bololey performed live:


Welcome back to the MPOMY Escape Pod podcast. My name is Michael Pomerantz and I am your host. A few bits of housekeeping first:

Since the last podcast there have been I think two additional videos posted on the YouTube channel. They are covers for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy and also Fleetwood Mac Gold Dust Woman. You can check those out by going to YouTube and searching for “mpomy escape pod.” While you are there, please leave a like and subscribe to the channel and tell your friends about it. Emily’s vocals are characteristically awesome and I’m doing more experimenting with producing so I’m anxious for you all to check it out.

That being said, it’s been a good long break here and we’re going to be getting the podcast back up to speed with probably a little more emphasis on music and a little less on video games, although my interest there hasn’t waned.

Also, I want to explore tech and procedures for home recordings and collaboration. I’m working on trying to do Ableton projects the same way I used to work on Google Docs, where people in different physical locations (different studios) can have full access to production on a project whenever they want. This has caused me to learn about “Splice,” which is a cloud based music collaboration platform that works with Ableton and a few other DAWs. I’m only just starting to experiment with that, and it’s supposed to be pretty much “set it and forget it,” all working in the background, but we will have to wait and see if that is actually the case. So, there will be more discussion of that and certainly more home music production, both with Emily and soon with others who are outside my quarantine bubble.

OK, let’s get to some music discussion. I want to share with you what I have learned about the artist Annie Barbazza and the label Dark Companion Records. Ms. Barbazza was born in Milan, is only 27 (can that be right?) and has already had a pretty amazing journey as both a musician and, unless I’m very much mistaken, a music business professional. As best I can tell, she is either THE boss or one of the bosses of the Italian music label Dark Companion Records. I haven’t looked at Italian corporate records, but I’d be willing to bet that she founded this label, which has already been around for a few years now. And did I mention she’s 27.

Her identity as a musician is much more obvious. Her Facebook page identifies her as “musician” and says nothing about the record company. Her wikipedia page notes that she is a drummer and singer. She has a few releases under her own name, including a couple acoustic covers records and now one album of originals, which was released late last year on Dark Companion. I haven’t spent enough time with the album, called “Vive” to have a lot to say, but I can say a lot about some other music that Ms Barbazza has contributed to, including the record that was my favorite release of 2019. Old news I know, but news I’ve wanted to talk about for quite a while. So let’s start 2019. My favorite record of that year.

The way all of this came onto my radar was when, in 2019, Barbazza’s Venn digram intersected with THE POND – that peculiar universe that grows out of music by and related to the band CARDIACS. Ahh, Cardiacs, I shouldn’t get started. Cardiacs is now a big deal for me, pretty much the biggest deal. And the music is so odd that I’m not sure how to broach the topic directly in the context of this podcast. Maybe this is where it begins – with just this side mention.

Here’s a short version – Cardiacs is a British rock band from the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s that came at punk and ska and rock and pop with a Zappa-like musical genius that inhabited the body of Tim Smith. He composed with such ecstatic joy and abandon that nothing like it has been heard before or since. Sadly, Smith was left paralyzed in 2008 when he suffered a heart attack that deprived his brain of oxygen. The community of musicians and music fans who had already formed a cult around Smith’s music drew together even more tightly as we prayed for Smith to somehow recover. Although he did not, there was a recent change in status whereby we, the fans, learned more about Tim’s condition, struggles and day-to-day life. Following this opening up, he received an honorary doctorate in music from the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in 2018, which he accepted in person – the ceremony is available on YouTube and I will put a link in the comments. Countless loved ones were in attendance and it was a profound moment of recognition for this amazing, though not well-known musical revolutionary. In 2020 Tim finally succumbed to his condition. He was 59.

I never got to see him live, but once I started to understand his music, once I could make sense of this other-worldly talent, I realized no music was more important and more affecting to me than this. One could do a whole senior thesis on just one song by Tim and Cardiacs. It seems the majority of people who actually “like” Cardiacs music also feel as though there is no finer music. All or nothing. I fit into this category. Cardiacs is my most favoritest band. So we’ll put a pin in that for now and get back to Annie Barbazza.

A good place to start with this part of the story is with a musician who is, in some ways, the polar opposite of Tim Smith – talking about Gregory Stuart Lake, late of King Crimson and the supergroup Emerson, Lake & Palmer – that Greg Lake. I suppose there are some commonalities. You can say of Lake and Smith that they are both Brits, although from different generations, but that they both possessed a significant degree of musical talent and were both well-loved by those with whom they worked. As to the style of the music? Well, that’s really where the divergence comes in.

In Lake you have an underachiever (sorry) who was very much in the right place at the right time, but always too overshadowed by his collaborators. His skills in lyrics and composition are significant, but I wonder if he would have enjoyed the same success without the collaboration of such bona fide revolutionary geniuses as Kieth Emerson and Robert Fripp. That’s a conversation for another time, but perhaps in recognition of Lake’s good fortune, it seems that he took it upon himself to mentor and promote younger artists. This is how he got to know Annie Barbazza. No surprise that he would have some affinity for an aspiring Italian progger since Italy gave such tremendous support to early 70’s prog when many audiences still just wanted to hear the Blues.

So the story goes like this – Lake has decides in 2013 or thereabouts, that he was going to revisit some of his greatest songwriting, but in the most stripped down way possible. Just acoustic versions with guitar or piano, to highlight the song’s DNA. As the project is just starting to together, with arrangements being completed and the artist gathering a head of steam, tragedy strikes. Lake is stricken with the cancer that will eventually take his life. By all accounts he undergoes great hardship between 2014 and December 2016, but he never gives up on this project. While clearly not well enough to perform himself, Lake nominated one of his pupils to take the reins, explicitly instructing her to carry on his legacy. NO PRESSURE OR NOTHING.

That was, of course, Annie Barbazza and the album is entitled Moonchild, and, I have to say, it sounds quite a bit more intense when you know the backstory.

I don’t want to get too into my personal assessment of Greg Lake’s professional output. The fact that he is not one of my favorites takes nothing away from the extraordinary success he achieved as a musician and, I guess, as a mentor. I just never really think about the guy that much. And when I do, I think about how Fripp moved on from him in King Crimson, although, in fairness, Fripp moves on from everybody in King Crimson. I also think about the excess of ELP, which got out of control and started to take away from the musical output. As a super-group, ELP went on too long. Emerson in particular had the blessing of both Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. There is not a more potent combination of affirmation that any musician could ever ask for, but I don’t think Emerson could quite handle it. His creative juices dried up long before he took his own life in March 2016, just nine months before Greg Lake’s death.

So with that excess in mind, and the sort of slow and tragic decent of ELP, I can’t help but contrast the way-too-short musical career of Tim Smith. ELP came to produce music as a commodity, especially in the 80’s and beyond. That concept appears to be completely unknown to Tim Smith and his acolytes. Not just with Cardiacs, but throughout the artistic family tree (which is vast) there appears to be a complete aversion to doing what’s popular, fashionable, accessible, listenable. It’s not just rock in opposition. At times Cardiacs is downright combative and disturbing.


But fear not! For we have Annie Barbazza to bridge the gap. We fast forward to the years following Lake’s death, including the release of Moonchild on Lake’s label in 2018. In the meantime, Dark Companion becomes a haven for the aging British progger. Hey – you got a skill of being able to make it work with one of these old white dudes, why not try again? Who picked who, or how Dark Companion has gotten its roster of artists is unknown to me, but it is through that young label that I discovered John Greaves.

Greaves is a Welsh progger, a bass player that I didn’t know about. His CV is impressive, including Henry Cow and other acts that are part of the Cantebury prog scene in the 70’s. One guy that Greaves collaborated with back in the day was Robert Wyatt – now we’re getting somewhere. Wyatt I knew through my internship at the old record label Rykodisc back in the day. Ryko was reissuing Wyatt’s early work, but the naive me of the late 90’s was not able to digest Wyatt’s genius at the time.

I couldn’t detect any of the soaring synth work or heavy guitar melodies that was the hallmark for the particular flavor of prog I favored back then. Well, shame on me, because one of those records was something called ‘Rock Bottom.’ This 1974 release is pretty fantastic. Definitely proggy, but also intensely original and emotional. There is a sincerity that cuts through the pretentiousness of prog from that same era. Anyway, Rock Bottom must have had quite an effect on Barbazza and Greaves because they collaborated on this 2019 re-interpretation / appreciation of the Wyatt record. They called it Folly Bololey after lyrics that appear on the record and, in the interest of making a bigger sound that really emphasizes the original work’s compositional genius, they recruited the North Sea Radio Orchestra, which is a direct outgrowth of Cardiacs world. The NSRO is helmed by Craig Fortnam who is a Tim Smith disciple/collaborator/friend. Fortnam’s composing and arranging has the hallmark of gentle grandeur that lurks within much of Cardiacs’ flamboyant recordings. The charts he prepared as musical director for Folly Bololey transform the original, a modest masterpiece, into this powerhouse of art and energy that just sounded so good to my ears. I was absolutely knocked on my ASS. It doesn’t hurt that prominent Cardiacs alum and keyboard genius William D. Drake also appears on Folly Bololey as part of the NSRO.

So I went NUTS for Folly Bololey, and I still can’t stop listening to it! It’s been like two years. But, the even more important thing that came from listening to that record, more important than discovering the original and learning to appreciate that as well – all good, but the MOST important part was discovering Dark Companion records, which released Folly Bololey as an NSRO title. If you think of a boutique label as a curator of sorts, Dark Companion is offering a pretty special selection. Let me read from the manifesto:

    “The aim of Dark Companion is to gather together musical excellences from the most various fields, from all the countries and release artifacts both records and cds, entirely handmade and individually numbered. From Songwriting to folk, from contemporary classics to real jazz, from experimental to classical music from both western and eastern cultures. 

    We want The Dark Companion to represent the musical research

    The sound is everything.

    We do believe that “klang" is the centre, so we spend all our energy to ensure our records, both vinyl and cds, have the most vibrant, realistic, high-end sound quality possible. Nothing can match the energy and soul that moves a live gig. So some of our records are recorded live with no overdubs or tricks, but using the best microphones and technology in order to give the listener a real audiophile experience.”

If that doesn’t push your buttons a little bit, then I don’t know how big a fan of music you are. This ethos recalls a time gone by, when we thought about things like half-speed mastering, diamond needled turntables and the warm glow of tube amplifiers which cost as much as a new car. I remember buying records produced by Eno because I knew they had THAT sound. Like and OBJECTIVE assessment of quality.

And perhaps it is the power of suggestion, but after all this time, I do trust my ears to filter out the bullshit. So, even though I am streaming these recordings, they still have an extra sweetness and fidelity. And, if you think about it, they had better. This is the central claim of the label, so all the music geeks and audiophiles are on alert to be extra persnickety. But the Dark Companion stuff I have heard so far all passes this lofty test, even when streaming. Just think, the business model is to elevate expectations, which makes it harder to meet and exceed them. That’s some chutzpah, but the content is that strong.

You can hear it Folly Bololey and Barbazza’s recent solo record and on Paul Roland’s Lair of the White Worm.


So, I would say all of this merits your further attention. Check out Dark Companion records. Even though they want you to buy the vinyl, you can also get all the digital goodies on Bandcamp, which is just the best “website” ever. The extreme democratization of the music industry is so great when you know WHERE TO LOOK! New music is just a click away.

Also, for the Folly Bololey experience, with the petit orchestra jammed into what looks like someone’s living room, there is an extraordinary YouTube of the entire show, featuring all the known associates, including Barbazza, Greaves, Fortnam, Drake, Fred Frith and the whole NSRO which includes a young guy on vibes wearing a Tool t-shirt. Link is in the show notes.

Thanks, as always for tuning into the Escape Pod. Always room for more in here when people are looking to, even if just for a moment, escape the hellscape of the Trump era and COVID-19. Love to you all. Tweet me @mpomy and I will see you next time in the Escape Pod.

Gold Dust Woman (Fleetwood Mac cover)

All vocals by Emily Beck.

This was recorded at home between December 30, 2020 and January 1, 2021. Guitars are Les Paul Special and Frankencaster. Bass is Music Man Stingray. Analog instruments went through Line 6 HX Stomp to Soundcraft Signature 10 board. Board went to MacBook Pro and everything was mixed, arranged and produced on Ableton Live 10.

Video was produced with Adobe Premier Pro 2020 on January 2-3, 2021.

Thanks for your love and support!

A Guitar God and a Soft Rock Favorite

Here is a short meditation on the genius of Lowell George, and in particular his influential slide playing. Songs excerpted in the pod for the purpose of commentary and discussion include the following (in order of appearance):

  • Allman Brothers — “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” (Live at Fillmore, 1971)
  • Little Feet — “Crack in Your Door” (Little Feet, 1971)
  • Bonnie Raitt — “Spit of Love” (Fundamental, 1998)
  • Frank Zappa — “No Waiting for the Peanuts to Dissolve” (You Can’t Do That Onstage Anymore, Volume 5, 1969)
  • The Meters — “Just Kissed My Baby” (Rejuvenation, 1974)
  • Little Feet — “All That You Dream” (Live in Holland, 1976)
  • LIttle Feet — “All That You Dream” (The Last Record Album, 1975)

Thanks so much for listening and be sure to tell you r friends about the Mpomy Escape Pod podcast. Listen to the audio version of this essay on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

It is difficult for me to view anything by Little Feat without focusing through the lens of Lowell George. The sound of his guitar and vocal is just such a signature. And his slide playing on songs like Fat Man in the Bathtub has had such a tremendous impact on me personally. That guitar sound was not just big for me, but actually a bit of a pivot point for electric slide playing in rock music. Lowell basically took us on the next big step in popular electric slide playing. For white rock guitarists, it was Duane Allman and then everybody else. Duane was the only one who didn’t sound like he was imitating someone else.


Even monsters like Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green and Jimmy Page couldn’t do it. I think Mick Taylor was the only one who came close to establishing a real signature sound during the generation when the influence of Blues music became more mainstream in the late 60’s.

But then we fast forward into the mid 70’s and Lowell brings out that compressor pedal and changes everything.


There are undoubtedly a bunch of YouTube videos that discuss how Lowell George got this sound and the role that the compressor pedal played in making that happen, but I’m not interested in going into that now. Suffice to say that the technique can be approximated and we see a TON of that with guitarists Bonnie Raitt and Ry Cooder, who both learned their tone directly from Lowell George. The fact that Lowell didn’t survive long enough to see that pile of money that Bonnie Raitt made playing guitar the HE taught her is really too bad.


But Lowell George was a man of excess. He died of a drug overdose in 1979 at age 34. He was a big man, but not big enough for these appetites apparently. You can see him sweating through the Little Feet sets in Rockplast videos (THANK GOD FOR ROCKPLAST) and others on Youtube. His weight ballooned to over 300 lbs at the time of his death.

But even in that short career, he left an extraordinary legacy, mostly through Little Feet. I mean, Waiting for Columbus is like Frampton Comes Alive, or Live at Leeds or Seconds Out. That was an absolutely definitive live record, though highly produced, that had ALL the hits and found the band at its creative peak.

I didn’t have a strong feeling about Little Feat when I was learning guitar and I barely knew who Lowell George was, except that he had died young and that his band’s songs were on the radio all the time. Especially Dixie Chicken. To me it was like Lynyrd Skynyrd — dumb Southern Rock. Obviously the only dumb one in connection with that opinion about both Little Feat and Skynyrd was me. But I was young then and I’m a lot smarter now.

And then, of course, I found out Little Feet wasn’t really southern rock (at least not like Skynyrd or the Allman Brothers), but really a band from LA. More surprising was the fact that Lowell George, who co-founded and fronted Little Feet was an ex-associate of Frank Zappa.

If you go back to the era of Zappa’s band when Lowell George played guitar and sang, you can tell it’s him, but the music is still all about Frank, as it always was. This taste is from You Can’t Do That on Stage Volume 5, Disc 1, track 21 — No Waiting for the Peanuts to Dissolve. Lowell takes the first solo in this live jam from Miami in Feb 1969:

[No Waiting for the Peanuts SNIPPET YCDTOSAv5 from start]

But the more I listened to Little Feet, the more I realized that LA / avant Garde vibe is sneaking around in there. The song arrangements are a little counter-intuitive, I mean imaginative at times, more decorative than traditional blues. Once Little Feet got that New Orleans vibe, that was pretty much it. That’s the sound of that band, even though they are not one of the countless amazing musical act to come from that hallowed city.

And if we’re going to talk about Lowell George’s associations and New Orleans, then we need to highlight the Meters. The consulate New Orleans house band, The Meters (or sometimes The Funky Meters) were a more ‘lettin’ it all hang out’ version of Booker T and the MGs. Younger, more brash and showy in their musicianship, but the same basic idea. And Lowell worked with them on Robert Palmer music like “Sneaking Sally” which is way funkier than is should have been. More importantly, Lowell George’s SIGNATURE slide shows up on “Just Kissed My Baby” from the 1974 Meters record ‘Rejuvenation.’ That groove is one of the funkiest things you could ever hear anywhere.

[Snippet of JUST KISSED MY BABY from 2:30]

Lowell was smart to embrace the Meters sound in terms of commercial success. During his short career he (and Little Feet) probably outsold Frank Zappa by a wide margin. Of course, he also earned a lot more than the Meters, but that’s another podcast.

And that brings me to the Little Feet song that I just love the most and it’s been a thing for me for years. I must have heard this track under some very special circumstances to make me like it so much, but I don’t remember any of that. I just know that I love this tune. It is from the 1974 Little Feet album titled “The Last Record Album” (like The Last Picture Show). The second song on side one is “All That You Dream” and imagine how shocked I was that this long lost musical innovator, this consort of many geniuses, didn’t even write my favorite song from his band’s repertoire. Well, he didn’t.

The song is written by the second guitarist, Paul Barrere, and the keyboard player Bill Payne. The studio version also features Linda Rondstadt on vocals, which may account for a lot of the appeal. The vocal hook that the song is built around is so catchy and I will talk about that in a second.

But I may never have given this one a seance glance if it hadn’t been for that slide guitar, I have a real weakness there. As long as I live I will never hear enough of that compressed to within an inch of its life Stratocaster with the slide bar on the left pinky. The Waiting for Columbus version of the song really features more reasonable and adult contemporary sound from that guitar, but on this one bootleg, it sounds like all hell is about to break loose. Listen to the jam at the beginning, featuring some nice lead by Barrere, and then the way Lowell’s guitar comes in to introduce that amazing vocal hook. This is from Holland in 1976.


Of course, the most special thing about the song (my love of slide guitar notwithstanding), is the incredible vocal hook. It is something more akin to Fleetwood Mac or the Eagles rather than Frank Zappa or The Meters. But for me, those soft focus vocals from the 70’s will always have a special place since so much of the music I grew up with featured refrains that aspired to this catchy-ness. Here’s the studio version to calmly wrap up this episode. Thanks so much for listening and I will see you next time in the Escape Pod.

The Road Warrior (1981) – Pt. 1: Jesus the Warrior

In the latest episode of the MPOMY Escape Pod podcast, I am joined by dear friend David Cardegna to discuss a ten minute snippet of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. As expected (and hoped for), the conversation went everywhere, so I’ve broken this down to multiple episodes.

You can listen tot he podcast anywhere, including on Apple and Spotify.

Thanks so much for listening and for your support. Please subscribe and tell your friends. There is always room for more folks in the Escape Pod.

Video Game Roundup

Apple reduces (some) developer fees, Roblox announces IPO, Google Stadia may never be good, but cloud gaming is coming regardless. Plus some techno breaks courtesy the Launchpad app from Amplify.

For more video game business news, check out NYU professor Joost van Druenen on the Prof G podcast and follow @Joosterizer on Twitter.

Thanks so much for taking a ride in the Escape Pod!

Listen on AppleSpotify and everywhere else you listen to podcasts.

I’m the last person that should give anyone financial advice, but between my time in crypto and my new-found love of video games, financial tech and news has become something of a hobby. So, without further ado, here are some stories from the past week that interested me

— —

Apple has announced that developer fees will be cut in half for smaller developers that sell their apps on the Apple App Store. Currently the fee is 30%, which means that if I am developer and I have either an item for sale in the App Store OR if I’m selling ,an item in-game, Apple gets 30% of every dollar. Starting on January 1, 2021, if the developer makes less than $1million per year n the App Store, that fee will go down to 15%.

The App Store is where Apple is most vulnerable to regulation and anti-trust scrutiny. The app market is so consolidated that Apple has amassed the power to engage in very anti-competitive practices. A lot of this has been in the new lately because of the dispute between Epic (Fortnite) and Apple. Fortnite refused to pay the fee and Apple deplatformed the game. As much power as Epic has (Fortnite is a massive world-wide success for many years now), it is nothing compared to Apple. So if the biggest customer can’t fight back, it would seem that regulation is a fait accompli.

Apple’s move can help displace some of the bad feelings about their de facto monopoly, but it does nothing to settle the dispute with Epic, since Fortnite revenue is WAY beyond the $1 million cap. Good PR move for Apple, but I’m not sure what effect this will have. I did hear an interview with Senator Amy Klobuchar (D) of MN who is looking to have a lot of influence in the Biden administration, even if the Senate retains a Republican majority. She is writing a book about anti-trust and appears to be burnishing her credentials in anticipation of the growth industry of anti-trust regulation. That’s going to be a hot area over the next ten years.
— —
Google Stadia has arrived at my house and I am pretty impressed. It came with a pretty legit game/pad controller, very similar to what I have for the PS4. It also came with the current generation Chromecast. I was skeptical at first because the idea is that you don’t even have to download the game. The actual code of the game lives not on your device, but in the cloud. So it’s as if the gaming console is in another location and there is a long wire (called the Internet) just connecting your TV as a screen to see the information that off-site game console is pumping out.

And it’s not like that off-site console is really very far away. Google has now peppered the world with enough data centers that the physical distance between the computer that is running your game and the screen and controller you use to play that game is not excessively long. It’s still miles away, to be sure, but the decentralized design spreads out the labor.

In the meantime, them gaming experience has been pretty good. There is more lag than what I see with the PS4, but it’s not enough to turn me off to the platform, and I’m expecting improvement.

This is a much better model, if it can be made to work as well as an in-home console, because it gives Google a recurring revenue model (something Sony has to grasp for with Playstation), which also means a smaller up-front investment for the consumer. There is added convenience as downloads and updates are all handled off-site and without the need for consumer intervention or wait times.

One possibility which I’m hoping Google can get right, is the YouTube integration. Youtube is Google’s biggest brand and a healthy chunk of YouTube content relates to video games. Will Stadia integrate in a way that allows streamers and YouTube creators to go make a long-standing home on Stadia? Too hard to say at the moment, but the potential is there.

— —
The Roblox IPO is very exciting. If you don’t know, Roblox is an online gaming platform that emphasized community and connection over game design and graphics. It is a tool for building and hosting games games which look, well, blocky. The characters are more like Lego figures than actual humanoid beings. But the interactivity is so slick and seamless that it really doesn’t matter.

Roblox is a place with thousands of games you can play for free with people from all over the world. The games are diverse, but many of the most successful titles have extraordinary depth in terms of the virtual geography, and the ability to engage in a variety of activities on a competitive basis. For every successful video game out there, someone has tried to make a Roblox version, and some of them are pretty good. More importantly, some of them are wildly popular.

Over the past several months, the most popular games have been life simulators where players form families, get jobs and houses and basically just play grown-up. There are some very good car games, shooting games and even a skateboard sim that I enjoyed for a bit.

The one bad thing about a lot (most?) of these games is the fact that, although everything is free to play, the advantages gained from spending money on the in-game economy (Robux) goes directly too the heart of the games’ competitive features. In other words: free0-to-play, but pay-to-win.

That’s not a great model for players, but if you are REALLY into one of the many games on the platform, the micro-transactions needed to stay competitive don’t feel too burdensome. Also, as proven by the impending IPO, these micro transactions are a proven model for revenue and growth. The platform will have to find ways to innovate to keep the shareholders happy. I don’t think it can just be left to the developers, because the whole Roblox community is a walled-garden. If the contours of that garden remain static for too long, the platform will undoubtedly become stale.
— —
I guess the fact that COVID isn’t going away any time soon is leading to a little more movement in the video game economy. It could also be that my interest is stimulated because EVERYTHING is new to me right now. Either way, I’m interested in the platforms, delivery methods, marketing, etc.

After playing just on mobile for a while, I was gratified at the similar use of downloads and free to play on PS4. Here, I had thought that everything was buying a physical disc, CDROM/DVD whatever. Glad to know how wrong I was. I’ve thought a lot about the difference between gaming on a console, which is designed to do one very big task at a time, and playing on my MacBook Pro — which is designed to do a few big things or a ton of small things all at once.

It’s no surprise that gaming on a PC that is not a dedicated gaming machine, provides a pretty lackluster experience. At the same time, I like being in front of my computer. The paradigm has ben my son’s gaming, which is a lot of Roblox, which works exceptionally well on computer. I have learned the basics of keyboard gaming: which buttons work for direction and picking things up and what the mouse does. I understand why a lot of people prefer that mode of gaming, and I’m sure most. Use PCs that are designed with that task in mind.
So, here I am, liking the PC gaming experience, but with no good way to play PC games on my laptop with SSD. I can’t start downloading massive files via Steam or Epic, even though this platforms work on Mac.

And then Stadia came along and really legitimized the idea of cloud gaming for me. Stadia actually works on my MacBook Pro without too much glitchy ness or lag. The issue with Stadia is that there aren’t many free games. Talk about a carefully curated ecosystem. They need more choices ASAP.

So now I am looking for other cloud based gaming platforms that really require almost nothing more than a decent internet connection. That’s when I discovered, from the same people that have brought us That’s some serious muscle, although not the kind of muscle that has a lot of influence in the US. could change that.

It’s a cloud-based gaming platform that can now be downloaded onto windows computers and will provide a premium gaming experience with the user needing to own dedicated hardware and without downloading monstrous files. This is like Stadia, but the number and type of game is in a different universe. God knows what the Russian spyware will do to your computer, but the whole thing is incredibly predictable. This is an instant replay of the move to cloud music, which came just before streaming movies. I guess those shiny DVDs and blu-rays don’t do for people. They definitely don’t do it for me.

Now, to me the interface looks a lot like an Android emulator I have tried. That emulator theoretically turns my MacBook into an Android phone or tablet and makes all the games and other apps in the Android ecosystem available. That increases the number of games you can play on a Mac exponentially in no time. I’m practice, however, I’m not that impressed. There port is having to do too much work, so the benefit of the lightweight Android software is quickly lost.

Despite this similarity of appearance, is much more like Stadia and less like android. (Parenthetically, it is NO coincidence that Apple’s new M1 chip for the new version of my MacBook are designed with the goal of unifying Apple’s mobile and Mac operating systems. If this tech existed now, I wouldn’t have to download a damn emulator). The main difference is that the big working part of the game — the code that makes it look so pretty and do all the things it can do, that big chunk is somewhere else — not on any of my hardware. That’s the Stadia model and that what this Russian outfit is doing — With the Android emulator, large portions of the game need to be downloaded, just like it would be on your phone.

Just to put this into some perspective — a game like PUBG on a console is a download of over 80GB. An a phone or tablet, that gets cut all the way down to about 4GB, with the rest of the game being remote. Google Stadia has PUBG also. Download = zero. That’s the magic trick. currently has about 60 free-to-play games (with in-game purchases) and another 45 games that require payment to access. Prices are MUCH lower than what you find in the Playstation online store or on the paying part of Google Stadia. In both of those places, games can easily get into the $60-$80 range and beyond. selections go from .99 up to $25, but none of these are known titles. The real quality is in the free-to-play catalog which looks like it includes a lot of console quality RPG, shooting and action games. Two titles in particular (Warface and Skyforge) are available in the same form on PS4, also free-to-play. This appears to involve some high-end European distribution deals for Chinese games that have quality and depth but not a strong reputation in the US.

Interestingly enough, while I was looking up info about, it’s website remained unavailable. Not a good look for a company owned by the conglomerate that dominates all internet in Russia. “Site can’t be reached.”

News reports indicate that, despite their non-functioning website, will soon be moving outside Europe (seems like that has already happened) and will be available on a variety of platforms, including Mac — still waiting for that one.

The point is that this s clearly where the gaming industry is going. COVID has sped everything up, but the cloud gaming experience is already here and spreading faster than VR and self-driving cars.

Neil Young Archive II (Preview)

Neil Young is a BIG part of why I love music. Listening to and collecting his work, and seeing his remarkable performances, became a template for how I would approach musical genius. Now, with the impending release of his second Archive set that will cover his most vibrant, creative and turbulent period, I give a preview of what will be on the ten-disc release, and also reflect what makes “Shaky” Neil so vital and why this brief period of his massive catalog is so extraordinary.

As always, thanks you so much for joining me in the MPOMY Escape Pod!

Listen to the podcast on Apple and Spotify.

Reissues vs. New Music

Let’s hear it for the old guys who kicked our asses when we were younger! Sure, new music by Bruce Springsteen and Buddy Guy and Neil Young and Steve Hackett and David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler (all my heroes!) just doesn’t hold a candle tho their prior work. It’s fucking understandable. I mean that’s a pretty high bar. And I give the new stuff a chance, but it just lacks the urgency and immediacy of what we got when these artists were young and hungry.

There are exceptions. Bob Dylan’s latest material knocks me out just as much as his old stuff. No lie. Lindsey Buckingham too. The music is so simple, but it seems to never sound derivative. It’s never a question of recapturing that old glory. It’s always looking forward.

So you want to look back to your glory days? I’m a huge fan of the archive, the official bootleg. The unalloyed “hot ticket,” warts and all. This is how I became nuts about music. I learned from a cousin who would go to see Peter Gabriel on multiple nights, even if the show was largely the same both nights. That inspired me to start collecting bootleg recordings, so I could analyze the difference between Pink Floyd playing “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” on a Friday in August to them playing the same song on the following Saturday. I put up with a lot LOW fidelity enjoying those fan-made recordings.

As a fan of old Genesis, I did NOT want to hear them play watered down version of their old songs as they got into their dotage. And the new music, while much of it was quite good, was in no way anywhere near the calibre of what they created previously.

So, for me , the answer is the Archive release. And so many of my favorite rock artists have done it so well, including Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, King Crimson, (NOT Genesis BOO!) and even Neil Young.

Take a look at what’s on the box set
-four terrific years of music making
-lots of stuff we’ve never heard before

Tuscaloosa, AL; Feb 1973
-four months after Danny Whitten died.
— concert sounds good — pretty together
— Time Fades Away seems to straddle both periods — The Tonight’s the Night content, which is darker. It’s almost like an unraveling is happening in real time, in front of an audience. The drummer had to be replace, Neil had trouble with his voice, Crosby and Nash had to come and kind of bail him out at the end of the tour.

When that tour ends, Neil assembles the Santa Monica Fliers, which is basically a combination of the Stray Gators (Harvest band) and Crazy Horse, but with young Niles Lofgren replacing Danny Whitten.

This is such an amazing period of music, and the whole thing is problematized by the fact that we have to look BACK on it. No one but the people on the record and the people in the audience really got to see this play out in sequence. As ever, the music industry was fraught with peril and the result was an album of stunning importance (Bitches Brew level importance) was not released until almost two years later. Remember that his entire TEN DISC box set only covers four years. So, that two years is an eternity.

Reprise (record company) decision not to release the record looks pretty bad in retrospect. And when it was finally released in June of 1975, it didn’t serve up the success of Harvest and was seen as a failure.

Neil Young definitely didn’t see it that way. He ha to fight to get the record released and once he succeeded in that, Young began one of the most productive and successful periods of his career. As a result of Tonight’s the Night, Young crystalized the second incarnation of Crazy Horse — Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro. That band changed music forever under Neil’s guidance, starting in earnest with Rust Never Sleeps.

But in terms of transformational songwriting, in both music and lyric, Tonight’s the Night cannot be touched. It is without question the finest Neil Young record. The rawness of the emotion, the sincerity and directness of the guitar and piano and everything else you hear on that record is mind-blowing. It can be a hard listen, depending on your mood, but there is an unmatched richness and texture to everything in there, and I swear you don’t need to know about all the backstory to understand just how good the record is. You just have to listen to it.

— —
But now we get this detailed insight into the music that came before and after that pivotal moment. That’s really the moment that made Neil Young the legend. It was the dawn of a second act that had such a monstrous and profound impact on me. Made me want to play guitar, made me a music freak.

So let’s see what all is gonna be on this thing.

Mandy (2018) – extreme psychedelic horror

Is it in the splatter / revenge genre with a b-movie budget, or is it ‘High Art?” YES! Mandy is such a wild ride and has so many fascinating features to discuss. Join me in the Escape Pod to break down just a bit of the modern horror masterpiece.

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I finally saw Mandy, which was released just two years ago. It feels like it was much longer, because the meme-worthy incarnation of Nicholas Cage seems like it has been a thing for much longer than just two years. And yet, I associate this version of Cage (over the top, scenery chewing, b-movie) with this particular film, an unrated, itself over-the-top gore fest that may have Lovecraftian elements and also features a blood-soaked Cage looking exceptionally deranged for a very large part of the film. I feel like those images of him have been roaming the internet for a lot longer than two years.

More recently (2019) Cage has starred in the Color Out of Space, which came up hot on my Lovecraft radar, although I haven’t seen it yet. Based on posters for Mandy and Color out of space, I assumed they were part of a set – The Nic Cage cosmic horror series or something. I figured Cage was now the muse for some aspiring cosmic horror film auteur and I could expect loads of these B-grade masterpieces. As it turns out, that’s not the case at all.

These two movies are emblematic of Cage’s recent career trajectory, but it’s not as if he’s JUST doing cosmic horror. His full embrace of camp is recently evidenced by Cage landing the title role in an upcoming Joe Exotic series. Cage works incessantly and seems to have top billing in almost everything he does. These are not movies that end up on Oscar short lists, but, on the whole, they seem to make money and give younger and independent filmmakers a chance to work with a living legend.

And despite the similar poster art, Mandy, which I knew nothing about, is not at all related to Color Out of Space, which is based on a Lovecraft story with the same name.

But let’s linger on the poster art for a second, because it is not just marketing, or I should say it’s more than marketing in the same way that a gatefold 2-LP cover is more than just a way to protect two twelve inch wax discs. The art is part of the product presentation and gives the audience an expectation that will, hopefully, enhance the experience that the artwork provides. Sure, you can listen to the record and get maximal enjoyment without ‘experiencing’ the cover art, but you are missing out on part of the art-form. Yes, it’s all one product, but there is a sweet spot, which in some ways is the purpose of this blog/podcast where the items that were specifically designed and created to earn money can also find a way to communicate, perhaps even on a massive scale (by going viral), something beyond just the need to put up great numbers.

The better analogy, and the more obviously conscious source material for the Mandy poster, are those VHS covers from the horror section in our local video stores from 30 years ago. This is a key era, though very brief, in the history and evolution of cover art, so let’s take just a second. First, you have to acknowledge that even before COVID, the video store experience was long gone. For those of you who don;’t remember, or are too young, these were purpose built stores that, even in the suburbs of Philly where I grew up, had the feel of a used book store. The boxes, like old books, were constantly being picked up and moved around as more titles came in. For the most part they were empty, but the images on the boxes, especially for the horror titles, were often extraordinary and sometimes disturbing. Boxes for movies like “I Spit On Your Grave” and “Faces of Death” promised something so subversive and obscene, if only you could ever find a way to actually watch the video.

And that’s the big difference with even the most extreme heavy metal cover art from the same era. There was so much great stuff in that class too: Iron Maiden (shout out to Eddie!), Megadeth, DIO and Judas Priest, just to name a few. But note the difference. No matter how much weed you smoked, these LPs didn’t have images beyond album art. You put on the record and you get sound only.

Not so with the horror and sci fi titles in my video store. Whatever was on the cover MIGHT ACTUALLY BE DEPICTED – if – I was daring or stupid enough to watch the movie. I might actually get to see that image come to life, or at least that was what my 13-year-old self thought.

The artwork the accompanies Mandy is not nightmare fuel by any means, but it is you first visual experience of the movie, unless you’ve seen publicity stills. And the visual aspect of Mandy is its most important attribute. Unlike the lurid images from the video store, there is a haze and lack of clarity with the Mandy poster. It make me ask whether this film is going to be a b-movie splatter fest or whether it is going to be art.

The answer, of course, is yes.

So, as to the cover – the basic plan appears to be, like the early and iconic Star Wars poster, sort of a trailer/still that just shows a lot of the characters from the movie. The use of red/purple/pink hues, as well as the Mad Max like image of Cage in the middle of the iconic pyramid/triangle really makes the image stand out. Unlike the cover for a lot of 80’s horror, where the artwork OVER-promised and the movie UNDERdelivered, with Mandy – this is EXACTLY what the movie looks like.

The era of VHS artwork is now completely ended. Scrolling through your Netflix choices, no matter how gleefully gruesome the image might look, is just not the same as being in that musty store, with that smell, and holding the box for “Chopping Mall” and wondering if the movie really featured anything like the gore fest depicted so vividly on the cover.

Should we actually talk about the movie now? Yes and no. The first thing that hits me when I hit play is that this movie features one of the great prog-rock masterpieces for its opening credits. No less than King Crimson’s elegiac ‘Starless’ from 1974. It’s an epic without peer and many Crimheads would swear it is the best composition from any era of the band’s storied history. I might be one such head. So, ‘delight’ does not begin to describe my reaction. HOW COME NOBODY TOLD ME! I mean, it’s one of those things that would (ON ITS OWN) be enough to get me to watch the movie even if I knew nothing else about it or was otherwise DISinclined to watch.

As soon as we start talking about the actual movie, the key description, for the plot anyway, is that it is impenetrable. Most revenge stories are not depicted in what I would call a realistic manner, but Mandy really chucks it out the window. The fantasy elements do not mean that there is no plot. It’s a revenge story – so that’s the plot. But it’s really the style that takes center stage. So we don’t ask how we got here, or why any of this is happening. There is an unspeakable act of violence against the title character and her boyfriend Red (played by Cage) has an opportunity to mete out some extreme justice.

But, oh that style!

Look. There is a subjective line between annoyingly pretentious high art and a glorious defiance of dominant conventions. Many of the greatest filmmakers, like early Coen brothers, sneak in the unconventional and discomforting stylistic elements into a delicious treat – makes the medicine go down smooth!

But there are always those who want to destabilize your world view. To make you question your place in the cosmos and the nature of reality itself. That’s a heavy burden to take on, frought with risk. But, as a friend recently pointed out, sometimes you get the casting of 4’2” Billy Curtis in High Plains Drifter. Young director Clint Eastwood may have thought this was an artistic flourish that nodded to absurdist and new wave art, but the gimmick doesn’t land and we’re just left feeling like it’s exploitative. Yes, it’s destabilizing when you see it, but it adds nothing to the sweep and aura of the film.

On the other hand, when you look at all the decorative nonsense crammed into Raising Arizona, you can argue, as a viewer, that everything is doing something valuable in there. I may not know what the intention behind each flourish, but there is a continuity leaving me with the feeling that these “gimmicks” are in the service of a completely realized work of art. Of course, Raising Arizona is that rare movie where almost everything works. Most movies I’ve seen can’t make that claim.

Mandy’s most immediate referent is the only other film by director Panos Cosmatos. Beyond the Black Rainbow was released in 2010 and presents a stylistic vision that overshadows its own performers and plot. The appearance is sumptuous with color, lighting and texture all on the table to create mood. Despite its artistic achievements, Black Rainbow never broke through. I found it by chance on a streaming service and just assumed it was some drug-fueled experimental genius from the 70’s.

Mandy’s use of the revenge paradigm means that you can do all sorts of wacky stuff without loosing the very simple, very familiar plot thread. In this way, the revenge genre is not only enthralling, but somewhat user friendly for the artist.

The next big difference between Mandy and Black Rainbow is Nic Cage. Yes, he is a force of nature, big and fearless on the set. But there is also a tone of experience that he brings. While he doesn’t seem too worried about becoming a filmmaker himself, he has made SO many films that there is no question he knows the business, knows what it takes to get a film made. In a way, he is the new, ‘old Hollywood,’ and having him anchor something as ‘out there’ as Mandy smooths the road a great deal. Cage is the ringer. Everyone in the cast and crew bows down and he repays them with massive generosity and genius.

And he goes off. I get the impression that director and star made some kind of bet to see who could go off more, who could bring more insanity to the screen. I’m not sure who won, but they both did great. The moment Cage’s character begins to understand the depth of his loss is a scene of screaming anguish in a gaudy bathroom with warm but harsh lighting as Cage, in a t-shirt and tighty-whities, pours a large amount of vodka down his throat and all over his wounded body. It’s lit like no other scene in the film – all the soft pinks and purples are eliminated as the stage is set for an orgy of blood and revenge which can’t just come out of nowhere.

So, this bathroom scene is the pivot point between the first half of the movie, which is all about foreboding and tension-building, and the second half of the movie where everything, including humanity and reality are chucked right out the window.

The rest of the film doesn’t disappoint. Each act of vengeance is its own set piece, including the sword fight where chainsaws are used instead of swords. When Cage confronts the primary antagonist Jeremiah Sand we get the additional element of script and dialog to amplify the moment. Linus Roache, who plays Sand, talks in interviews about portraying the hypocrisy and withering cowardice of the overcharged male ego, but he really doesn’t have to say a thing. It’s plainly obvious what this character is about (especially in the Trump era), perfectly positioned as the psychotic religious cult leader whose penchant for LSD has turned his whole murderous belief system into a REALLY bad trip.

The legendary Bill Duke appears to help Cage get kitted out for his epic odyssey of revenge. You can’t help but remember Duke in Predator talking a little revenge to Jesse Ventura’s corpse:

“who ever got you, they’ll come back again. And when he does, I’m gonna cut your name right into him.”

So you can say “what is Bill Duke doing in Mandy?” I say he’s connecting us to Predator and a whole different generation of action / horror movies, but he’s also one of only a handful of people who has more gravitas than Cage. Duke’s endorsement of Cage’s revenge plan is important because he’s seen the shit go down, as a character in his only scene in the move, but also, undoubtedly, as an actor. Another pro. Another survivor. There is something about Duke’s strength which makes you believe that a mere mortal can defy a maelstrom of pure evil and come out at least looking like his humanity is intact. This may not be Cage’s fate at the end, but it makes for a weird kind of pep talk to get us ready for the blood and torture that is about to be unleashed.

(Excerpt starting at 1:10:00)

It is a bit wrong to make an audio-only podcast discussing this movie. So much of what happens is both visual and indescribable. There is a graininess to some of the images that makes the film feel like a real exploitation flick from the 70’s. The lighting, and overall use of color is so bold and so effective.

But the cool thing about this scene with Bill Duke is that it relies, just for this interim part of the film, between tragedy and revenge, it gives us script. First of all, Bill Duke’s character is called Caruthers. That takes me right to Scatman Crothers’ incredible performance in The Shining as Halloran. There is so much genius in Kubrick’s work that we sometimes overlook his flaws. The inclusion of a magic negro trope (right down to, and including, the character’s tragic death) is such a flaw. That element adds nothing to The Shining and it shouldn’t be there for a variety of reasons. That’s a subject for another podcast, but I like to think that, even though Bill Duke’s character spells Caruthers differently, that there is a connection between the characters. Certainly both performers are well known for their bald heads, and you can hear the Mandy script take a cheeky shot at that when Red says to Bill Duke – I’ll get out of your hair. It’s a cheap one, but I still love it.

Mandy is the promise of Black Rainbow realized. All the style and panache is now well grafted onto a basic (i.e. easy to understand) revenge movie. As much as Mandy has white knuckle action, it is also remarkable for its patience. If anything, Black Rainbow can be a bit slow, but this isn’t an issue in Mandy. All the lingering over style and lighting and framing is in the service of building tension. If it appears as self-congratulatory at times, that is because the congratulations are well-deserved. Cosmatos seems to be a filmmaker primarily interested in making a film that he himself would enjoy. In Cage he seems to have suitably anarchic and insightful fellow traveler and I am hopeful they will collaborate again. If not, then Mandy, which is so much, will have to be enough.