Saturday, March 23, 2013

Road Stories: Supertrash

In the late 1970's, the ancestors of the four companies that now own all of your music and television were young, hungry, and awash in cash and blow.  In other words, they were motivated and able to try bold new things, without the judgment to wonder if they were good ideas. This smokey crucible produced the enduring cash machine of the outdoor music festival, and money pits like the ELO spaceship and the made to order supergroup.

The definition of a supergroup (often capitalized for no reason I can understand) in those days was a group composed completely or in part of people who were already famous. The desire to create them came from early more or less organic successes like Cream, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

The main problem with supergroups is that they are full of inflated egos who are all convinced that their enormous talent is the only chance the thing has for success. They never last, though a record executive who could put together another Cream would probably be okay if they only did one tour. I think the reasons that any bands ever stay together after they get famous boil down to habit and long familiarity.

I got to witness two of the less stellar attempts at this new sport. The first was the RCO All Stars, which provided the venue for my initial hiring. I was fortunate enough to call SHOWCO on the day after Randy Lawson had failed to show up for work for the next to the last time ever, so the late great Kirby Wyatt** sent me down to the RCO show in town the next day for a job interview.

Actually, Levon Helm was having health problems even then, and the show was cancelled, so my interview happened in Budrock's hotel room. Budrock would go on to become Willy Nelson's long time lighting director, and if you want a mental image of him, use Charlie Daniels. I learned a lot about Budrock over the years, but the first thing I learned was that he could not brush his teeth without gagging. This problem had cropped up suddenly after his divorce and seemed to annoy him greatly, but he had found a workaround. If he lifted one foot off the ground, he was fine. So my first exposure to this new company was watching a man in cowboy boots and a ten gallon hat brush his teeth while standing on one foot.

Anyway, I got hired and the RCO All Stars never did really get much of a tour together, though they tried one or two more times. They put out one album that didn't sell very well, and all sort of drifted away, I think. We were all quite disappointed, because the band was reported to be very good.

The second was the Dudek, Finnegan and Kreuger band, or DFK.* This was a good example of trying to make a supergroup from great musicians who were not famous enough. We all liked them. Their music had a complexity that hipsters thought was necessary at the time, but was poppy enough to be enjoyable. Sort of Genesis meets Peter Frampton, to use an analogy of the day. But they didn't really have a great songwriter or front man, so they were probably doomed from the start.

The also could bring it live, which was the real litmus test for any band. We did a three week trans-Texas tour for them to tune their road chops, which included one of the best shows I ever saw. We played in the Ritz Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas on a hot night in late Spring. The great thing about decaying theaters is that the owners tend not to be overprotective of the upholstery, and just want to fill the seats, so pretty much anything goes. They were serving beer in big plastic cups, and by the end of the night pretty much everyone was drunk. Dave Mason made a surprise appearance to close the set, and he was Hasselhof drunk, but still playing guitar better than 99% of us could even fantasize. The show ended with Dave and Les Dudek lying boot to sneaker on the front of the stage, dueling with guitars and matching each other note for note, while the band kept up like only real professional musicians can do. It was magical. And sweaty.

Alas, DFK was not to be. They made a single album, which sold less than the RCO All Stars, but the band had already split before it was released. Musicians are not the only people with egos, and in this case the rumor was that management disputes made it unhappen. The record company released the album as a one-off, and DFK faded into the CO2 fog of history.

Neither these two, nor countless other experiences can keep the music executive from trying again. I assume it won't be long before we see the American Idol All Stars form a band. Or since technology has virtually eliminated the need for real musical talent, maybe it will be Donald Trump, Nancy Grace, and Dr. Phil, with Lindsey Lohan on drums.

* I know, right? A lot of this depends on your definition of "famous."  Also, it was pretty obvious it was doomed since they couldn't even agree on a real name. I'm surprised they were able to agree on alphabetical billing.

** Kirby was the best and most terrifying boss I have ever had, all at the same time. He knew everything, he saw everything, and he had an answer for every problem. On several occasions I stormed into his office intending to quit and left a half hour later feeling lucky to have a job. I have never met his equal.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Writing for position

I've been writing much more at work for the last year or so, which has a lot to do with the time I have not been spending here. Writing for academic conferences is competitive in a way that I had not had occasion to ponder until about a week ago. And unlike most other fields, my specialty is dominated by conference publications (rather than journals), due to how quickly the research changes.

Conferences generally know from the beginning how many papers they will accept. This is a function not only of having to provide time and space for each paper to be presented, but also a holdover from the days when proceedings* were expensive to publish, and every page counted. So instead of the work being compared to some specific standard of quality set by the publisher, conference papers are in direct competition with each other, as judged by the competitors and their rivals. Acceptance rates are single digits for a few established and prestigious conferences, and are published as a matter of course.

Most of the conferences I target have an acceptance rate of one in five or six, so while it's no fun to get a rejection, neither is it usually a big surprise. It's what I was expecting when I submitted a paper in December for a June conference. The writing was jammed between the end of semester, the holidays, and several other work deadlines, so it was not my best work. The project itself seemed interesting enough, and the paper was good enough that I wasn't embarrassed to submit it, but only just. My plan was to take the feedback and refine it to submit somewhere else.

Every paper is assigned a primary reviewer, who is responsible for rounding up three additional referees, all of whom provide ratings and feedback. The ratings are on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 signifying "better than I could have written," and 1 meaning "it's burning in my wastebasket as we speak." For better conferences (like this one), some papers are rejected outright, some (those with all fours and fives) are accepted, and the rest are given a chance to write a rebuttal of the reviews. Then a committee meets to decide who's in and who gets the home version as a consolation prize.

Remember to keep it close to the wall through the Discussion section.  Image from here.

Rebuttaling is a delicate business. Regardless of whether a paper gets accepted, there is a very high chance that the same people will review your work in the future, so the "Reviewer 2 is a poopy pants" approach is not generally recommended. We pretend this is all anonymous, but academic communities are very specialized and surprisingly small these days, so everyone knows who is skewering whom. The safe approach is to thank the reviewers for telling you your writing is awful, assure them that their reviews were better than Cats, and start working on the next publication.

My ratings averaged to "meh," which normally means thanks for playing. Imagine my surprise when comments from my primary reviewer said essentially, "I would like to see this in the conference. Write a rebuttal that will convince us. You have five days and up to 5000 characters."

First, let me say that if you ever receive such a notice, it's important not to read 5000 characters as 5000 words. Just don't do it. But it got written and submitted, and it's arguably better than the paper, so I consider it a good exercise. Hopefully it will be just enough to edge out some poor slob whose reviewer hates his Ph.D. advisor, and I will have some work-funded travel to look forward to.  I  will know in a few days. In the meantime, I guess I will start on the next one.

Updated: After a successful rebuttal and two rounds of revisions, the paper has been accepted. I will spare you any description of the subject matter. If I can manage to get the camera-ready version uploaded to the website, it looks like I will be heading back across the pond this summer.

* All of the papers presented, as well as descriptions of selected other activities and messages from Powers that Be, are collected into the Proceedings of the 24th Annual Conference for Whatever Arcane Topic and published. They used to be bound as books. Now most are distributed on DVD, or increasingly, online.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Things I love about gardening

Every year I plant a handful of plants and call it a garden. Basically, I grow pizza and salad ingredients -- basil, tomatoes, bell peppers, lettuce and whatever else strikes my fancy. If I could find a mozzarella tree we would be in business. This year I decided to start a few seeds indoors before the weather was reliable outside.

Apparently the cat approved.

Planting seeds from the garden, you can never be sure what will grow.
I don't know what's up with her lately. Notice how she didn't run away as I asked her what she was doing and then went to fetch the camera. This is despite the fact that she pretty much runs away whenever I enter a room she occupies.

Don't worry, I won't be inviting any of you over to eat the lettuce under her butt. She ate what she didn't crush.