Frontier Psychiatrist

Archive for August 2010

Beach + Bikes = Nostalgia

[Our weekly urban cycling column appears on Tuesdays]

I’m often guilty of nostalgia for things I never experienced: the California Gold Rush, Los Angeles in the 1940s, other people’s childhoods. This summer I had it bad. Summers are for nostalgia, after all, especially summers on bikes.

When I was a kid, we rarely went to the ocean. I still can’t go underwater without plugging my nose. But I could ride a 40-mile day by age 13. Our family vacations were bike tours; my parents spent the weeks before a trip planning our routes in painstaking detail. My nostalgia for childhood biking involves endurance, military precision, building our family bikes in the baggage claim sections of airports. A kickstand was forbidden for the extra weight.

Now that I’m an elementary school teacher, I spend my summers visiting family or working at camp. This year, though, I got a babysitting gig unlike any I’d had: taking care of two pre-teen girls on Fire Island. It would just the three of us from Monday to Friday. I’d never been to Fire Island, and I’d never spent so many days in a row at a beach.

I knew that there were no cars on the island, so I asked if I should bring my bike. The younger sister Amelia assured me they had a bike I could borrow. I was skeptical. My road bike is fitted to me, and its geometry is as familiar as the length of my own legs. How would a loaner fit?

Mark Ronson, The Bicycle Song (Feat. Kyle Falconer & Spank Rock)

The beach cruiser that waited for me on the dock was disgracefully heavy, rusted out, with a turquoise paint job apparently from the 60s. The seat was too low, the handlebars extended too far. I went to change the gears, once, before realizing that there were none. There was no need for them, because as we headed to the house, 100 yards away along a wooden path, a sign told us: “SPEED LIMIT 8.”

On Fire Island, which is paved with sandy wooden slats, beach cruisers are the transportation of choice. Fire Island is insulated– by three trains, one bus and one ferry– from the traffic adrenaline we face daily cycling the city. My own zippy bike would have been as awkward on the island as a top hat at fight night.

But here’s the thing: I loved riding that cruiser. We lived in our bathing suits, hopping on and off our bikes to go to the next town or to get more milk. The nearby towns we biked to were Dunewood, Kismet, Lonelyville—names you couldn’t make up. My clearest image of the summer is 12-year-old Isobel in her bathing suit, riding ahead of me, tanned and upright on her bike seat, bumping slowly over the road to Lonelyville.

The girls refused sunscreen with the carelessness that comes with olive skin and a summer of base tan. They ran in and out of the Atlantic, flopping on sand and reading books between races to the waves. (They taught me to put my face in the water.) Our days had no rigorous routines like my family bike trips, but more of a vague sunny shape based on a single activity—let’s look for sunglasses today! Let’s jump in the bay! My tan lines deepened. Over the course of a week, I learned to let go of logistics, to let the days sift from my hands like sand.

Fire Island feels like it couldn’t possibly exist in the present day. It’s too analog, too smoothed out and sunlit. It inspires nostalgia before you’ve even left: the longing for things past. The sandy kitchen floor, the kickstanded cruisers, no grownups in sight—maybe I was living some weird alternate childhood memory of my own.

Previously, I’d known only one way to remember bicycles and summers. But now back in Brooklyn, with my road bike, rack and clipless pedals, I pretend to remember tanned, lazy summers of my own. I pretend that I was once fearless in the Atlantic, and that I never minded the sand in my sheets. And now I judge beach cruisers, and their weight, more gently.

Micaela Blei is a teacher and writer who lives in Brooklyn. She has written an article for Frontier Cyclist about Bike Anthropology and a poem about bike commuting in New York. She rides a KHS Flite 220 Flatbar.


Dear Frontier Psychiatrist,

What can you copyright in music, anyway? There are only so many notes and so many chords one can use in Western Music. You can’t copyright the 12-bar blues. Or a I-IV-V progression. Or can you? What about artists like Sufjan Stevens who “borrow” lyrics? Or hip-hop artists who use samples?

-Need an Attorney for This Journey

Dear Need,

Properly speaking, this is not a question for a physician; I gave my best effort to research the topic as thoroughly as possible.  Sadly, as I combed through reams of copyright law, I found myself mystified, frustrated, and ultimately asleep.  I was, however, able to come up with some fairly satisfying answers to your questions; I hope that the many legal scholars who frequent this website will add their own thoughts on the topic.

1) Your opening question can be answered in two ways.  First of all, when speaking of “copyrighting music,” one must distinguish between two potential copyrights: that of the song itself and that of the recording.  Some of your follow-up questions apply to the former, some to the latter.

2) When a song itself is copyrighted, the copyright applies to only two elements of the song: the lyrics and the melodies.  This means that chord progressions (I-IV-V, 12-bar blues, what have you) cannot be copyrighted.  This is of course intuitive; were such protections not in place, The Rolling Stones would long ago have sued Guns N’ Roses:

The Rolling Stones – “Sympathy for the Devil”

Guns ‘n Roses – “Paradise City”

And The Clash would have bankrupted The White Stripes:

The Clash – “Garageland”

The White Stripes – “Hotel Yorba”

3) As for the copyrighting of melody…well, one might wonder how it is possible to avoid copying previously penned melodies.  The answer: easier than you might think.  If one assumes 12 available notes and a 12 note melody, for example, the potential combinations (12^12) exceed 8 trillion; this doesn’t even account for potential differences in note duration, etc. (full disclosure: I like numbers).  Still, this issue has risen to the courts before, most famously in Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, in which George Harrison was forced to give up a large percentage of the royalties earned for his hit “My Sweet Lord” due to his having “subconsciously” plagiarized the melody from The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine:”

George Harrison – “My Sweet Lord”

The Chiffons – “He’s So Fine”

A similar issue arose between the authors of the melody for “Under Pressure” (Freddy Mercury and David Bowie) and someone named Robert Van Winkle:

Robert Van Winkle

Thankfully, this one ended without legal action, as Van Winkle gave songwriting credit and lots of cash to the great British androgynes.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

4) You are of course referring to the new Sufjan Stevens tune “All Delighted People,” which borrows lyrics from Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence:”

Sufjan Stevens – “All Delighted People (Classic Rock Version)”

Simon and Garfunkel – “The Sound of Silence”

I cannot say whether this is properly legal or whether Paul Simon stands to benefit financially from the song, but I am fairly confident that, should a lawsuit ever emerge, its validity would hinge on the concept of “fair use.” Fair use is essentially a legal term that specifies which uses of copyrighted work do not constitute infringement and are thus legal.  If a purported thief claims “fair use,” the courts must consider 4 things when determining if the claim is justified: the purpose of use (profit or not); the nature of the copyrighted work (whatever that means); the amount of the work which was pilfered; and the effect on the potential market value of the copyrighted work (i.e. should the victim be raking in the royalties).  Of course, none of this double-talk tells you how a court will decide; it just tells you what will be considered.  Given that Stevens is unlikely to rake in big bucks from his $5 digital-only EP, it’s unlikely that the question will ever be addressed in his case.

5) Sampling.  Note that this is a violation of the copyright of a recording, not of a song itself.  This is pretty much always illegal.  Unless of course royalties are paid:

If one is sued for sampling, they will likely claim fair use, and they will likely lose.  “The internet,” that apatean temptress, has led may to believe that any sampling of less than 4 notes constitutes “fair use,” a claim that is sadly nonsense (see this case, which would have been much cooler if called “P-Funk vs. Ice Cube,” for confirmation).

However, the winds of change may be blowing on this issue.  Many in the hip-hop and electronic communities have openly pondered why Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, has not been sued despite creating records that consist exclusively of samples of copyrighted material (if you want to see exactly how many samples, check out this breakdown).  The  consensus opinion seems to be that Gillis has transformed the sampled works to such a degree that he would win any suit against him by claiming fair use, in the process setting a dangerous precedent for the already moribund record industry.  For now, the RIAA is picking its battles.

I hope that provides a thorough (but not too thorough) answer to your question.  Barristers, please comment below.  In the meantime, all of this law talk has left me lethargic.  Time to prescribe myself something mind-altering:

Have a musical query? Write to Ask a (Frontier) Psychiatrist, and we’ll provide a therapeutic solution.

The season of the Hatch green chile is upon us. For those of you not finely attuned to the various harvest times of the crops of the Southwest, the region of Hatch, New Mexico is known widely for its chile production. I am friends with transplanted Arizonans and New Mexicans who wait all year for someone from home to Fed-Ex a box of chiles to them around Labor Day. New Mexicans have elevated the preparation of green-chile-based foods to a high art. Stews, salsas, enchiladas, you name it, it all goes down better with some roasted green chiles thrown in.

For me, the ultimate comfort food — and the best use of roasted green chiles — is a gordita de queso y rajas (rajas are strips of roasted chile). A gordita is a corn-based flat bread. It is made from masa, the ground corn dough that is the basis of tortillas, but gorditas are the size and thickness of pita bread. Fried crisp, sliced in half and stuffed full of roasted green chiles and just enough melted cheese to bind it all together, gorditas de queso y rajas are crunchy, spicy and little bit sloppy, as all comfort food should be. You know you have a good one in your hands when green chile juice starts dribbling down your wrist. I am a connoisseur of all things queso y rajas and I can confidently tell you that the single best version here in the Chicago area is the gordita de queso y rajas from the taqueria stuck in the corner of La Chiquita supermarket on 31st and Pulaski. It is worth a bike ride one weekend, if you live around these parts.

It would be a big weekend project to replicate these at home. Well, not if you live on the west side of Chicago. It is easier to get fresh-ground masa in my neighborhood than it is to get whole-wheat sandwich bread, but I know that for most folks, the local deli isn’t going to have a bag of tortilla dough lying around. Even then you have to press, griddle, then fry the gorditas (if you are in the mood for a big weekend project, check out the gordita recipe in Rick Bayless’ Mexico One Plate at a Time). For simplicity, I suggest you downgrade to a more elemental version of the dish, using store-bought corn tortillas instead. A quesadilla de queso y rajas is just as delicious, if a little less voluptuous than a gordita.   When I was living in the central mountain region of Mexico, quesadillas with a bit of mild cheese and a few strips of roasted chile were an all-purpose snack, for any time of day. Now, I prefer them in the morning, when the heaviness of a gordita just won’t do. Paired with a steaming cup of sweet, black coffee, quesadillas de queso y rajas are the breakfast of champions.

For rajas, traditionally you use strips of roasted poblano peppers. Where I lived in Mexico, strips of roasted serrano peppers were often used too. I myself now use the New Mexican style chiles I grow in my own garden. You want a green, thick-walled pepper with some heat. Do not, I repeat, do not use a green bell pepper — that would be an offense to your palate and to the fine, ancient tradition that is Mexican food. Cut off the stem, slice the peppers in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds (This should go without saying, but if you are touching spicy chiles with your bare fingers, don’t go touching your eyes or other tender bits of the body – ahem). Lay them skin side up on a baking sheet and broil until the peels are brown, bubbly and charred in bits. Pop them into a plastic bag immediately, close the bag and let them steam for 15 minutes. The peels should slip right off after that. Do not run the roasted peppers under water to remove the peel — you are rinsing away the goodness (see above comment on importance of roasted green chile juice).

After the roasting, it’s a cinch. Slice the roasted peppers into strips. Heat up a skillet and pop in a tortilla. Once it is heated on one side, flip it over, and cover one half with rajas and grated bits of any Mexican melting cheese — asadero, chihuahua or quesillo would all work. If you can’t get those, Monterrey Jack is just fine. Fold the tortilla in half and keep cooking until everything is melty and toasty. Bite in and let the juices flow. Enjoy.

Ra Ra Riot Keeps It Quiet

Their name suggests that Ra Ra Riot makes either raucous or humorous music. Or maybe this is what your English teacher calls irony. On their second record, the Syracuse sextet offers more orchestral pop tunes tinged with the ache of love gone wrong.

Released last week, The Orchard continues on the path that Ra Ra Riot established on their 2008 debut, The Rhumb Line. Once again, frontman Wes Miles provides the heartache with his high-pitched vocals, while the string-driven band offers a cathartic cheeriness that seems inspired by an 80s teen movie soundtrack. The album cover, a suburban house illuminated at night, speaks to the paradoxical mood: a veneer of wholesomeness that masks angst beneath the surface.

Ra Ra Riot, Shadowcasting

In their pop perfectionism, Ra Ra Riot sounds similar to former tour-mates Vampire Weekend; Miles likely learned some lessons from keyboardist Rostam Batmangi, who mixed one track on The Orchard and with whom Miles has collaborated in the past. Like those polished preppies (and Sufjan Stevens), Ra Ra Riot loves strings: Alexandra Lawn (cello) and Rebecca Zeller (violin) play on every song on The Orchard and help define the record’s sound. RRR also resurrects the spirit of The Police, with its interplay among syncopated bass lines, minimalist guitar, and sparse drums. Meanwhile, with his yelps, falsetto leaps, and quasi-British inflection, Miles gets in touch with his inner Sting.

Ra Ra Riot, Massachusetts

Lyrically, The Orchard is all heartbreak, all the time. The lovers in these songs are cold, foolish, doubtful, callous, miserable, and uncommunicative. Yet the lyrics avoid the source of their suffering. As a result, the songs often sound like indie haiku. Even the album’s title is an enigma, explained only by a single lyric on the title track: “All my life/You were important/And your father too/Wandering the orchard/Through burning golden eyes.” Then again, an orchard is less esoteric than the title of their first album. (A rhumb line, a.k.a. a loxodrome, is a line crossing all meridians of longitude at the same angle. Take that, math rock.)

If the first nine songs on The Orchard juxtapose pain and hope, the last track is pure agony. On “Keep it Quiet,” Miles pours out his heart over sustained keyboard chords while a solitary drum pounds quarter notes. The melancholy builds for two minutes before guitar, strings and and backing vocals break the tension. For the next two minutes, Miles turns up the emotion with the repeated phrase “Oh My God/Oh My God/How Can I Want to Stay Around?” before the song ends with a single drum beat: an appropriate end for a record of quiet riots.

Ra Ra Riot, Keep It Quiet

Ra Ra Riot: The Orchard

Ra Ra Riot is on tour through November, with four shows this fall in New York: two at The Bowery Ballroom and two at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. For more music and videos, see the band’s web site.

The Frontier Psychiatrist editorial board is meeting tonight to enjoy some serious cocktails.  We certainly will not be drinking Conjure, the cognac brought to you by Ludacris.  Indeed, there seems to be a certain compunction among those in the public eye — artists, sports stars, etc. — to pursue endeavors well-outside the established areas of their expertise.  Shaq, for example, has been denying us his musical genius by wasting his career on basketball instead.  Here, Karl Malone wistfully ponders what could have been.When it comes to liquor, the attachment of a celebrity to any spirit is generally a red flag that the producers of the product in question don’t care about what’s in the bottle, but are focused instead on branding, lifestyle, and the aspiration to be — as Diddy insists we must — “ultra premium.”

That said, today’s post focuses on Absolut Brooklyn, which bills itself as “a Spike Lee Collaboration.”  Apparently, Spike had a hand in the bottle’s design, and the address of the brownstone in the background is that of his own home growing up in Brooklyn.  Despite an initial hesitation, we must admit that the bottle’s pretty damn cool; even the seal of Lars Olsson Smith, founder of Absolut, has been Mars Blackmon-i-fied.

Many readers, lured in by the packaging and the Kings County connection, have perhaps snapped up a bottle of this limited-release spirit, only to get it home and find themselves without an idea of what to do with it.  Sure, you could just add some club soda and call it a day, but Frontier Mixology is not about to let you do that. Instead, we obtained a sample, and set to work creating a bespoke cocktail based on Absolut Brooklyn.  Of course, the testing was highly scientific, assuming that your definition of “science” is sufficiently elastic to encompass gathering together a bunch of friends, opening up the dark reaches of the home bar, and getting everyone drunk.  Doctoral dissertations have applied less rigor.

The flavors of Absolut Brooklyn are listed as red apple and ginger.  As to both its taste and meaning, the apple we get but the ginger remains a mystery.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, applejack proved a great partner to the other-wise overpowering apple flavor.  After several iterations with various other ingredients, including a particularly unsuccessful attempt with rhubarb bitters, a drink emerged that played to Absolut Brooklyn’s strengths while smoothing out its weaknesses.  As for the name, paying homage to both Mr. Lee and Brooklyn without being too obvious, we give you…

The 25th Hour

1 ½ oz.  Absolut Brooklyn vodka

1 ½ oz.  applejack (if you can get the 100-proof, use it)

2 dashes aromatic bitters (we used Fee’s old-fashioned)

2 oz.  ginger ale or ginger beer

Stir vodka, applejack, and bitters in a mixing glass with ice; strain into an old fashioned glass, and top with the ginger ale; garnish with a slice of apple, if desired.

If Spike Lee wants to continue down this line, he should take note of Sammy Hagar, who was able to grow his line of tequila, Cabo Wabo, into a veritable empire with a nightclub and restaurant in Cabo San Lucas.   When asked how he balanced his business interests with his deep commitment to rocking out, the Red Rocker replied that “I always had other people doing everything.”  We could only be so lucky.

Drink up,

Good musicians borrow. Great musicians steal.

First, Sufjan Stevens appropriates Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” on his new EP, All Delighted People, which we reviewed on Monday. Now Stevens has announced his forthcoming album The Age of Adz, which appropriates the art and ideas of the late Royal Robertson, a Louisiana artist whose work “depicts his vivid dreams and visions of space aliens, futuristic automobiles, eccentric monsters and signs of the Last Judgment,” according to Asthmatic Kitty. Also, Robertson was schizophrenic. Somebody call the Frontier Psychiatrist.

Sufjan Stevens, All Delighted People (Original Version)

*Speaking of appropriation, unwitting Vampire Weekend cover girl Ann Kirsten Kennis spoke to Vanity Fair about her $2 million lawsuit against the band, as previously reported on FP. A former Ford model, Playboy club bunny, and teddy bear company executive, Kennis was first flattered, then offended, then litigious, that VW had used her image without permission on the cover of their #1 Album Contra. Undeterred, Vampire Weekend has decided to title their next album: Fairfield, Connecticut.

*Still speaking of appropriation, Kanye West released a remix of “Power” featuring Jay-Z and Swizz Beatz.

*Still speaking of appropriation, Frightened Rabbit is covering The National’s “Fake Empire

*Still speaking of appropriation, Frontier Psychiatrist has retained counsel to advise us on an identity theft lawsuit against the HBO miniseries Bored to Death. Dear Jonathan Ames: We saw you spying on us in the coffee shop, on Smith Street, and even outside the wrought iron bars of our windows. (Also: We are taller than Jason Schwartzmann. Way taller.) In any case, for all you Bearded Brooklyn Bourgeois Bohemians with Existential Ennui, an album of music featured in Bored to Death comes out on September 21. The soundtrack features tunes from M Ward & Zooey Deschanel, Lykke Li, Andrew Bird, and Freelance Whales.

*Finally, still speaking of appropriation, we mourn the passing of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died 20 years ago today in a helicopter crash at the age of 35. In his furious take on the 12-bar blues SRV appropriated the licks of Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, and countless guitarists who preceded him. He may have been derivative, but SRV was better at guitar than any of us are at anything. In the spirit of appropriation, here are his covers of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” plus an acoustic version of SRV’s electric classic “Pride and Joy.” Steal away!

(Each Thursday, we celebrate music before 1990)

The Stevie Ray Vaughn Memorial Statue in Austin, TX

It’s difficult for those of us who picked up a six-string at a young age to evaluate Stevie Ray Vaughan objectively.  Others might argue that his music is derivative, banal, even (gasp) boring.  And perhaps they are correct.  But for those who spent time listening to records and trying to distinguish Stratocasters from Telecasters, SRV was a god.  Like a transcendent athlete or a brilliant prose stylist, Vaughan showed us what we knew was possible but never imagined we’d actually see or hear.  From the release of his debut Texas Flood in 1983 to his untimely death in a helicopter crash twenty years ago tomorrow, SRV re-established the blues as a legitimate American art form.  His passing at the age of 35 was a genuine tragedy, but his spirit lives on in the heart and mind of every 12-year-old boy whose ever blistered his fingers trying to play “Pride and Joy.”  R.I.P., SRV.

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Listening To:

Sons of Dionysus

A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.