The best band I forgot about?

A couple of days ago I ran across a Material Issue CD at a secondhand store. It was priced at $1, so I couldn’t pass that up. They were a band that was always on my list of CDs to buy, but never moved high enough on the list that I ever got around to it. And of course, in 1995 they just dropped off the radar entirely.

Like most bands I like, it seems, they have a sad story.Material Issue was a Chicago band whose major-label debut sold 300,000 copies, which wasn’t bad for an alternative band in 1990-91. Their songs ranged from power pop ballads to the just plain weird, and I remember hearing their songs “Valerie Loves Me” and “What Girls Want” on Les Aaron’s “New Music Sunday” radio show on 97.1 FM in St. Louis in the early 1990s. That stuff was just too weird to get much play on the right-hand side of the FM dial in those days, and for that matter, I don’t know that even Les Aaron played them every week.

Alternative music became the new big thing (and ceased being alternative, in a lot of ways) in 1992-93, due in large part to Nirvana bursting onto the scene. I remember every station with alternative sympathies in St. Louis and Columbia, Mo. having them in rotation after that, and critics always thought highly of their work, but for some reason their stuff just didn’t catch on.

In 1995, their record label dropped them after their third record sold a mere 50,000 copies. (In 1975, Lou Reed proved that a recording of 60 minutes of guitar feedback could sell 100,000 copies.) A year later, their lead singer/guitarist Jim Ellison was dead, committing suicide about a month after his 32nd birthday.

Ellison and Material Issue really could have been a Cars for the 1990s. Like Cars leader Ric Ocasek, Ellison penned quirky, disturbed lyrics, and he even had a slightly odd look, like Ocasek.

The song I really remember Material Issue for was “Kim the Waitress,” which was pretty much their last hurrah. And it wasn’t even their song, originally. I was vaguely aware that it was a cover, and I dug up the original, by a Seattle band called Green Pajamas, on Youtube. Material Issue’s version is faithful to the original, but still sounds like Material Issue. The original is a bit quirkier still, featuring a sitar, but Ellison sang it with a bit more urgency than the Green Pajamas did. To the Green Pajamas, Kim the Waitress comes off as a crush, whereas Material Issue sounds like they’re head over heels in love with a girl they barely know.

In the early 2000s, Stereo Fuse scored a minor hit covering Material Issue’s ballad “Everything.” Stereo Fuse electrified it (the original was largely acoustic), and in a way Stereo Fuse’s version ended up sounding more like Material Issue than Material Issue did, but Stereo Fuse didn’t capture Jim Ellison’s urgency in the lyrics.

It’s really too bad I didn’t pay more attention to them in the early 1990s. They were the kind of band that any shy, slightly neurotic guy would really relate to.

I guess Material Issue came in with too much emo too soon, and sounded a little too psychedelic too late. If they’d come around 20 years earlier or later than they did, they might have done better. Or, maybe Jim Ellison was just a shade too honest in his songwriting, and people were afraid of what others might think if they admitted to liking his stuff.

Abandoned intellectual property

Abandoned Intellectual Property. I read a piece on this subject at OSOpinion over the weekend, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. There are, of course, a lot of people calling for abolition of copyright or radical changes. This is, believe it or not, one of the tamer proposals I’ve read.

I’m definitely of two minds on this one. Take my first ever publication for money, in 1991. Compute Magazine, before Bob Guccione had managed to totally ram it into the ground, opted to buy my spring break project I collaborated on with a friend. We were writing a video game for the Commodore 64 and 128 and we were getting tired of trying to draw the title screen manually with graphics commands (bad enough on the 128 which had Basic commands to do such things, but on the 64 you were talking peeks and pokes all over the place–someone really should have written this thing back in 1982!) so we wrote a program to do the work for us. You loaded the sprites, moved ’em around, hit a key, and it gave you the Basic code to re-create the screen, suitable for inclusion in your program. We never finished the game, but we got a cool $350 and international recognition (OK, so it was a dwindling audience, but how many high school kids can say they’re published authors at age 16?).

Now, the problem. General Media whittled Compute down until it was basically just another PC mag, abandoning the multiplatform support that made it so great (I read about my beloved Commie 8-bits but still got the opportunity to learn about Macs, Amigas and PCs–what could be better?), market share continued to dwindle, and eventually Guccione and GM sold out to Ziff-Davis, who fulfilled your subscription with a choice of mags (I remember I opted for PC/Computing). So the copyright went to Ziff-Davis, who never did anything with the old Compute stuff. A few years later, Ziff-Davis fell on hard times and eventually hacked itself up into multiple pieces. Who owns the old Compute stuff now? I have no idea. The copyrights are still valid and enforcable. I seriously doubt if anyone cares anymore whether you have the Nov. 1991 issue of Compute if you’re running MOB Mover on your 64/128 or emulator, but where do you go for permission?

The same goes for a lot of old software. Sure, it’s obsolete but it’s useful to someone. A 68020-based Mac would be useful to someone if they could get software for it. But unless the original owner still has his/her copies of WriteNow, Aldus SuperPaint and Aldus Persuasion (just to name a few desirable but no-longer-marketable abandoned titles) to give you, you’re out of luck. Maybe you can get lucky and find some 1995 era software to run on it, but it’ll still be a dog of a computer.

But do we have an unalienable right to abandoned intellectual property, free of charge? Sure, I want the recordings Ric Ocasek made with his bands before The Cars. A lot of people want to get their hands on that stuff, but Ocasek’s not comfortable with that work. Having published some things that I regret, I can sympathize with the guy. I like how copyright law condemns that stuff to obscurity for a time. (Hopefully it’d be obscure in the public domain too because it’s not very good, but limiting the number of copies that can exist clinches it.)

Obscurity doesn’t mean no one is exploited by stealing it. I can’t put it any better than Jerry Pournelle did.

I don’t like my inability to walk into record stores and buy Seven Red Seven’s Shelter or Pale Divine’s Straight to Goodbye or The Caulfields’ Whirligig, but I couldn’t easily buy them in 1991 when they were still in print either. But things like that aren’t impossible to obtain: That’s what eBay and Half.com are for.

For the majority of the United States’ existence, copyright law was 26 years, renewable for another 26. This seems to me a reasonable compromise. Those who produce content can still make a living, and if it’s no longer commercially viable 26 years later, it’s freely available. If it’s still viable, the author gets another 26-year-ride. And Congress could sweeten the deal by offering tax write-offs for the premature release of copyrighted material into the public domain, which would offer a neat solution to the “But by 2019, nobody would want WriteNow anymore!” problem. Reverting to this older, simpler law also solves the “work for hire” problem that exploits musicians and some authors.

All around, this scenario is certainly more desirable for a greater number of people than the present one.

From: Bruce Edwards

Dear Dave:

I am having a crazy computer problem which I am hoping you or your readers may be able to give me a clue to.  I do have this posted on my daily journal, but since I get very little traffic, I thought your readership or
yourself may be able to help.  Here’s the problem:

My wife’s computer suddenly and inexplicably became very slow when accessing web sites and usually when accessing her e-mail.  We access the internet normally through the LAN I installed at home.  This goes to a Wingate machine which is connected to the aDSL line allowing shared access to the internet.

My computer still sends and receives e-mail and accesses the web at full speed.  Alice’s computer now appears to access the web text at about the speed of a 9600 baud modem with graphics coming down even more slowly if at
all.  Also, her e-mail (Outlook Express) usually times out when going through the LAN to the Wingate machine and then out over the internet.  The LAN is working since she is making a connection out that way.

File transfer via the LAN between my PC and hers goes at full speed. Something is causing her internet access to slow to a crawl while mine is unaffected.  Also, it appears to be only part of her internet access.  I can
telnet out from her computer and connect to external servers very fast, as fast as always.  I know telnet is just simple text, but the connection to the server is very rapid too while connecting to a server via an http
browser is much much slower and then, once connected, the data flows so slow it’s crazy.

Also, dial-up and connect to the internet via AOL and then use her mail client and (external to AOL) browser works fine and is as speedy as you would expect for a 56K modem.  What gives?

I tried reinstalling windows over the existing set-up (did not do anything) and finally started over from “bare metal” as some like to say.  Reformat the C drive.  Reinstall Windows 98, reinstall all the drivers, apps, tweak the configuration, get it all working correctly.  Guess what?  Same slow speed via the aDSL LAN connection even though my computer zips out via the
same connection.  Any suggestions?

Sincerely,

Bruce W. Edwards

~~~~~~~~~~

Hi Bruce,

The best thing I can think of is your MTU setting–have you run any of those MTU optimization programs? Those can have precisely the effect you describe at times. Try setting yor MTU back to 1500 and see what that does. While I wholeheartedly recommend them for dialup connections, MTU tweaking and any sort of LAN definitely don’t mix–to the point that I almost regret even mentioning the things in Optimizing Windows.

Short of that, I’d suggest ripping out all of your networking protocols and adapters from the Network control panel and add back in TCP/IP and only the other things you absolutely need. This’ll keep Windows from getting confused and trying to use the wrong transport, and eliminate the corrupted TCP/IP possibility. These are remote, but possible. Though your reinstall should have eliminated that possibility…

If it’s neither of those things, I’d start to suspect hardware. Make sure you don’t have an interrupt conflict (rare these days, but I just saw one a couple weeks ago so I don’t rule them out). Also try swapping in a different cable or NIC in your wife’s machine. Cables of course go bad more frequently than NICs, though I’ve had horrible luck with cheap NICs. At this point I won’t buy any ethernet NIC other than a Bay Netgear, 3Com or Intel.

I hope that helps. Let me know how it goes for you.

Fixing stuff, computer and recording-related

A productive weekend. I’m writing this well in advance because I fully expect to have no time available the next couple of days. So I’ll talk about my weekend.
Rebuildng a 486SX/20. The power supply in Steve DeLassus’ old Leading Technology 486 that’s been serving as his Linux firewall/gateway/DNS cache for the better part of a year died last week. Unfortunately, he had one of the last of the true-blue AT clones–you oldtimers know what I’m talking about. You know, the power supplies with the lever switch on the side, rather than that cheap modern pushbutton? Well, good luck finding one of those power supplies these days. Pushbutton AT boxes are easier to find than dirt, but getting one of those to work in that case would have been a serious gerry-rig. So we picked up a new AT case/ps combo to transfer the contents into. All told, it took me a couple of hours to get the guts transferred to the new case and to get the system back up and running (it takes 5-7 minutes, literally, to boot–once it’s running it’s fine, but we’re talking a seriously underpowered computer here).

Fixing an Alesis ADAT. Say what? An ADAT is an 8-track digital tape recorder that records on SVHS tape. I’ve had one for a couple of years for odd recording projects, but when I took it to church Thursday and set it up, it made as much noise as John’s synthesizer (and it wasn’t nearly as pleasant a sound). It flashed a few error codes and ate the tape. Swell. ADATs are notoriously tempermental and unreliable. Unfortunately for me, it’s next to impossible to find anyplace to service them–the places I could find needed a week and a half to three weeks before they could even look at it. But I needed it Monday. Last time something like that happened, a computer was involved, and that was when I learned how to fix my own computers. So guess what I did? I learned how to fix ADATs.

An ADAT looks like a big VCR, and there’s lots of open space, so when I showed it to a former VCR tech I work with, he pointed out every potential trouble spot very easily after we popped the cover. So I went off to Gateway Electronics for some rubber restorer, tape head cleaner, and foam swabs. On the way back I drove past a music store with an Alesis sign in the front window. So I stopped in, because it’s best to calibrate an ADAT against an ST-126 cassette, and all I have are ST-120s. So I paid way too much for an ST-126, but they were kind enough to format it for me. So I spent a couple of hours Saturday afternoon ripping open the ADAT and cleaning it. I let it dry for a few hours, came home, popped in the fresh ST-126, and the ADAT didn’t complain. Good. I went ahead and cleared its internal memory and calibrated it against the new tape just to be on the safe side, and successfully recorded with it.

Fortunately for me, the ‘net is full of ADAT care and maintenance tips. It turned out my buddies and I did just about every possible wrong thing you could to the poor thing (letting it sit idle for months; leaving tapes in with the power off, running it without a UPS or power conditioner, using cheap tapes rather than high-grade ones, and in the case of one of us — not me — smoking around it). It’s now in my sole possession, so I expect it’ll do a whole lot better now. Normally they first need service after about 250 hours of use. This one has 45 on it and has needed service twice. I don’t intend to let it happen again.

Speaking of the electronics store… As I was digging around for solvents and swabs and chuckling over some of the other obscure gear in the place (there’s stuff there that was there when I first visited the store 10 years ago–scout’s honor), I couldn’t help but notice another customer. For one, she was young and female. Standard clientele at this place is mid-40s male. I’m out of place there. For two, she was gorgeous. For three, she kept walking up to the front counter with a handful of resistors, verifying their specs with the guy there. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who’ve ever built anything from discrete components, myself included. So I was mulling over what to say to her (of course) when her boyfriend walked up. Drat.

My songwriting debut. I couldn’t find my keys or my wallet this morning, so I didn’t make early church. It was just as well because I had this song running around in my head that needed to escape to paper. I’ve written exactly one listenable song that isn’t about something that’s either depressing or enraging (and that was a song about someone who has no self-esteem but should). For the video we’re producing, we need to have some backing music (which was why I was messing with the ADAT). And something tells me pastor would be less than happy if we used Love Songs Bite.

So we’ve got a talented musician who knows how to write music but not lyrics. And we’ve got a wannabe goth/punk songwriter who’s never written a happy song in his life tasked with writing the lyrics. The day before we needed them, they hit me. I don’t think they’re all that great, but they fit our need and John liked them, and the thought did occur to me that they do say more than a lot of the songs we sing do, and if John can work a good pop hook or two in there and we can get the rhythm section to drive it, it just might fly.

I probably should bring a Cars CD tomorrow for John to listen to, since of all the bands I know they probably most closely resemble our setup. Their sound was defined by guitarist Elliot Easton and keyboardist Greg Hawkes — and our two best musicians happen to be on those two instruments as well. Their other hallmark was the harmonies Easton, Hawkes, and Ben Orr did in the background. We’ve got people who can do that too. Or we can just get the choir up there. And I’m at least as disturbed as singer/songwriter Ric Ocasek was, but I’ll keep my neurotic lyrics to myself. And I’ll let someone else sing. We’ll skip that part of the formula.

Whew. That’s a lot of stuff. After all that, I should take the rest of the week off — but I know I won’t.

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