A Story in Three Parts
Pt. 1: December 1994
1994 was a good year to be in the Dallas music scene. Bands like the Nixons and Tripping Daisy and the Toadies were breaking out with national hits. Record labels were eyeing Dallas bands with eagerness. A local-national DJ named Redbeard had the drive-time rock show on the rock station (Q102) and was aggressively spinning local music during drivetime. It was just a great time to be in a rock band in Dallas.
That winter, my band was tracking some demos at Crystal Clear Studios with owner Keith Rust. Over a lunch break one day, I casually asked Keith if any interesting bands had been in the studio recently.
Keith replied that they had just worked on a CD for an art-rock band called the Moon Festival that was pretty good. And, he added, there was a killer sort-of-punk-country band called the Old 97s who had just finished up a CD.
So I checked out the Moon Festival, and met front man Salim Nourallah, and needless to say, that turned out great for both me and Salim. We’ve worked on lifetimes of wonderful music together and have learned greatly from each other. Salim’s influence on my tastes – the entire way way I think about music – cannot be underestimated.
And I checked out the Old 97s. They had a great draw at Dada where they played regularly – a club where we also drew well – so we conspired to get on their bill as openers for a series of shows. And that’s how I finally got to see the band live, and I was floored. The kinetic energy onstage was electrifying. The band thundered through its set and the sweating crowd ate it up. And the songs – this collection of unpretentious but infectious tunes – were a kind of music I’d never heard before.
In 1994 “rock” was grunge. If you had a twang in your guitar or a twang in your voice, you were country – and the Old 97s had both. But in those days, “country” meant sterile Nashville pop-masters like Randy Travis and Garth Brooks. The Old 97s played more like the Clash or the Replacements. And the twang was more Wichita Falls than Nashville.
I bought the record when it came out, and I was instantly charmed. After that run of shows, I didn’t see the band again for many years, but I kept up with the records. The band has made a number of killer records and for sure, records like “Wreck Your Life” and “Fight Songs” and the latest “Most Messed Up” are maybe the band’s best efforts, from a sense of musicality or artistry.
But over the years, for me, nothing had the staying power – nothing “took me back to the club scene days” – like Hitchhike. Overlong, minimally produced, sometimes cacophonous / sometimes playful – this record had a sort of naive charm that is impossible to maintain the moment record labels start waving contracts in front of you.
“Getting noticed” changes a band. Where before you were just kids with dreams and hopes having a good time with no expectations, suddenly you have a responsibility to create something marvelous. And you have to do it naked, under a microscope, with everyone watching. The act of observing something changes the thing observed. It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.
The band never made a record like “Hitchhike” again – and really, they couldn’t even if they wanted to. You can’t re-have your first kiss. You can’t see Star Wars again for the first time. You just can’t get back to those places once they’re gone. And in this way, records are like time capsules – and Hitchhike to Rhome is truly that: a time capsule of the undiscovered, youthful band playing their first full “set” and just having a grand old time.
Meanwhile, Salim went on to work and tour with Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller for his solo work. Later, Salim and the Old 97s and I would go on to make several records together.
Over the years I quit listening to the Toadies, and the Nixons, and Tripping Daisy, and Buck Jones, and Ten Hands, and Hagfish, and 66, and Fletcher, and Pop Poppins, and all the rest of the local bands from that time. But Hitchhike to Rhome wormed its way into my heart and soul.
It’s karmic, somehow… I grew up with Rhome in my blood, literally, because half of my family is from there. My great grandparents even founded the tiny, adjacent community of New Fairview. So when Rhett sings,
Hitchhike to Rhome
take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg
it always evokes a palpable image of dusty, poor North Texas in my mind. Rusty metal windmills. Grain silos. Dirt.
Over the decades I’m sure I’ve listened to that silly romp of a record over 1000 times. I know every word, every guitar lick, every bass groove, every drum fill by rote memory. I shit you not: its in my desert island collection, right alongside Please Please Me and London Calling. There’s not another “local release” in my Top 20.
Pt. 2: January 2014
Early this year I received a message from God. Perhaps unsurprisingly, God used His child, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, to deliver His divine message to me.
The issue was almost existential: I was trying to figure out if I wanted to take up residency in a studio somewhere, build a new studio of my own, or just quit music altogether. All musicians struggle with the decision to keep making art in the face of an increasingly hostile musical environment – and this was one of my moments of doubt and pain. This decision lasted literally months, and culminated one day in a trip to Essalunga, the Italian version of Kroger.
That day my indecisive brainstorming reached near-seizure levels. So wrapped up in decisionmaking that I could barely see straight, I went with my wife Vanessa to the grocery store. On the way I laid it all out for her. The costs, the risks, the rewards, the probabilities. I wanted to build a new studio, but the costs are high and the probability of payback is low. Conversely, I could shack up in someone else’s studio and grind out an income, but that can quickly become soul-crushing work that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums.
I was really wrapped around the axle, as we say in Rhome. As we walked up to the gleaming automatic sliding doors of the Essalunga, I desperately asked Vanessa, “how can I ever decide?!”
The doors parted, and from inside, accompanied by the swell of fuzzy synthesizers, David Lee Roth loudly proclaimed the answer to my question:
Might as well JUMP!
Go ahead and JUMP!!
There was a certain logic to the illogic, and Diamond Dave’s was the exact answer I needed. I heeded the call. I started seriously and methodically planning the design. I started assembling a new audio recorder – 48 channels of the latest Pro Tools HD, a lovely vintage “big iron” mixer from the 70s, and a pile of my favorite vintage gear. There’s old vacuum tube gear and cables piled all over the house now, while the building is currently under construction.
I fully expect to have Diamond Dave over to cut some hot tracks.
Pt. 3: Spring 2014
By now you should be asking where all this is leading.
So, Constant Reader, it was with coronary-inducing excitement that I received a call from the band this spring, asking for some help. “We’re putting out a 20th anniversary re-release of Hitchhike,” explained guitarist Ken Bethea, “but we were never really happy with the mix of that record. Would you be willing to remix some tracks?”
Remix Hitchhike to Rhome?!? One of my favorite records of all time?
Are you fucking kidding me?!?
I stammered agreement over the phone, hung up, and immediately started wondering, “where the hell am I going to mix this thing?” I had the gear, but the building wouldn’t be ready until long after the album’s release date.
I considered a number of alternatives, including mixing it at Treefort (where the last few records were mixed) or even going back to Crystal Clear and mixing it at the original studio.
But I work best when I Do My Own Thing. So finally I decided to wing it: I set up an entire studio’s worth of equipment in my bedroom – not a spare bedroom, mind you, but my bedroom, wife and all – and got to work.
It was a very mad-science endeavor – but in a way – mixing Hitchhike on a bunch of old vintage gear piled into in a bedroom is kinda perfect. And I couldn’t be more happy with the way the record came out: raw, punchy, and rowdy. I kept it real – no digital editing or “fixing” was used – and it’s an all-analog mix with all-analog gear for a big fat analog sound. When I crank it up on a good stereo, I can close my eyes and I’m standing in front of those old JBLs at Dada.
Mixing this record was a complete blast and I’m super grateful to have been a part of it. I hope everyone enjoys listening to it even half as much as I enjoyed mixing it!
Stay tuned to the Old 97s to find out about the re-release later this year.
As I mentioned in my last post, perhaps the secret to phone blogging is to carry a keyboard.
Today I’m writing this blog post using my Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android and the WordPress Android app, and it’s definitely a completely different experience.
The keyboard itself is about as small as it can be and still be considered “ergonomic.” The keys and spacing are almost exactly the same proportions as my Macbook keyboard, and though the keypress travel is a little shallower, the overall typing experience is very good.
The keyboard travels in a case that doubles as a stand for your phone / tablet. This makes it very easy to convert your device into something with a form factor very similar to a computer.
I have never gotten used to touching a screen instead of moving a mouse / trackball / touchpad, and I wonder if I ever will. I find the experience of taking my hand from the keyboard and lifting it to the screen disruptive to data-entry (as well as leaving the inevitable fingerprints) – but it works.
The keyboard works very well with the Android app. I haven’t taken the time to learn the various shortcuts available with the keyboard, but the usual hotkeys like CTRL-C work as expected.
Of course, carrying a keyboard is not much better than just carrying another device, like a Macbook Air or Chromebook. The keyboard is only a little smaller and lighter than a small computer. One advantage comes to mind though: with the phone + keyboard solution, I always have the option of jotting down a quick blog post just using the phone sans keyboard, or jotting down some ideas in the app and fleshing the post out later with the keyboard.
Of course you can achieve a similar result using a phone + computer but this option saves a step. And of course it’s easier to post photos taken on the phone directly from the phone itself, instead of having to transfer the content first to the computer.
Maybe the smartphone didn’t kill the blog after all.
Used to be, I consumed all of my internet content on my computer. Any time I wanted to read an article, check my friends’ statuses, send an email, check the weather… it always meant a trip to the computer.
In that world, blogging came naturally. Here I was already at the computer, with its spacious and ergonomic keyboard inviting me to type my thoughts. It was almost irresistible.
I created a lot of content back in those days. I created the original prorec.com, participated in a group blog with my friends on cuzwesaidso.com, started and killed a humor site called skeptician.com, and of course blogged here on my personal blog.
But these days I no longer head to the computer when I want to interact with the internet. Now I reach for my phone.
The phone is a lovely way to consume internet content. It’s always with me. It’s 4G wireless. The form factor is convenient. I read novels on my phone.
But as a data entry device, it’s horrible. The keyboard is no match that of my Macbook and the screen is just too small for editing hundreds or thousands of words. And no phone app can compete with the page-layout power of a real computer.
And so I rarely blog anymore. It’s become inconvenient. When I want to say something I’m likely to jot down an email to my buddies (email being a forgiving text medium that does not mandate perfect grammar and page layout, where incomplete sentences and clumsy writing aren’t a showstopper). Or I’ll tweet or post a photo.
But blogging? This is my first blog post in years. I suspect it could well be my last. I’m actually writing this entry on my phone. And, I gotta tell you, it’s a royal pain in the ass, even though the WordPress app is mature and powerful and I’m hard-pressed to see how it could be improved.
Perhaps a Bluetooth keyboard could work. But then I’m practically carrying a computer again.
Time will tell if the phone has killed the blog. But from where I sit, things are looking gloomy in the blogosphere.
A few weeks ago, while I was visiting family in Georgia, the subject of Italy came up. Somebody asked me if I would consider moving to Italy, and my reply was, “in a heartbeat, if I could figure out how to make it work.”
Vanessa’s uncle Mike asked why, and I replied “the way of life is better.” He didn’t buy it. And I understand why. There’s a lot going wrong in Italy, especially at the moment. And, as a red-blooded American myself, I also have a natural instinct to defend the USA as the best “way of life” there is.
But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Italy now, and feel at least marginally qualified to back up my claims.
But First The Downsides
Lest you think I’m irrationally positive about Italy, here’s a quick rundown of some of its many flaws.
Government / Financial Collapse
Italy’s government is fundamentally broken. It’s on the verge of catastrophic bankruptcy, it’s run by criminals and clowns, and it’s completely hog-tied by crushing levels of bureaucracy. Not unlike America in about 20 more years. Italy is living proof that with government, smaller really is better (pro tip: vote Libertarian).
It’s a common misperception that the problem with Italy is that the society is too socialist and the people are too lazy and unproductive. This is totally false. Italy actually provides modest and reasonable social-welfare benefits which are well within its means – Italy spends less of its GDP on social welfare than the USA. Italians are also very hard working and highly entrepreneurial. Most importantly, unlike Americans, Italians do not have a culture of personal indebtedness.
The problem is, quite simply, a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy. From the thoroughly corrupt former Prime Minister, Silvio “Bunga Bunga” Berlusconi on down, the country is strangled by a government grown vastly beyond its requirements. Something like 50% of government expenditures goes to paying needless government employees and their exorbitant pensions and benefits. Once you get a government job, you’re set for life. Just like in the USA but much, much worse. For example, thousands of employees get “work cars” – Mercedes S350s. You see them everywhere.
Unless you haven’t watched the news in a year, you know that Italy is on the verge of insolvency, and when that happens, it will probably take out the world economy. It’s far too big to bail out. Curiously, Italy actually runs a primary surplus – the government takes in more money than it spends on its services – but it’s carrying a mountain of old debt, and it’s the interest on that debt that is breaking the budget.
Unlike Ireland, Spain, and Greece, however, Italy has a very strong manufacturing base and a large GDP. Even a 1% uptick in GDP would resolve the current debt situation. GDP, however, continues to stagnate.
Americans, beware. This will be you, if you don’t change course. (see pro tip, above).
Here in Lucca, crime is not a problem at all. It’s a very safe town. But there are certainly parts of Italy that are overrun by crime and are relatively dangerous. The mafia is alive and well here in its native land. The corruption that plagues the country is in no small measure driven by organized crime which controls various aspects of government.
It boggles the mind that the society which literally brought Western civilization to light (and which brought us Gucci, Ferrari, da Vinci, Versace, Verdi, Galileo, Maserati, Michelangelo, Puccini and even Chianti) also produces some amazingly craptastic products sold in supermarkets that rival Fiesta and Dollar General for sheer tastelessness. Some of the world’s most beautiful and well-constructed architecture sits in stark contrast to ugly industrial plants and bleak, communist-era high-rise condos.
There is no doubt that this country has a deep and rich legacy of the world’s best art, science, design, construction and manufacturing, with a deep appreciation for quality and taste. You see it literally everywhere – so many things are so freaking right. And yet, there’s a lot of serious crap. I have yet to see an Italian airport that didn’t look like something you’d find in the Congo – dirty, ugly, stinky, hot, and confusing.
The civilization that brought us running water and sewer systems seems to be content with Roman-era amenities. There are plenty of “squat toilets” still around (though in truth, they’re getting pretty rare, but hell, it’s the 21st century already!) Showers are often completely uncontained – you just stand in the corner of the bathroom and get water everywhere. There is internet, but God help you if it goes down, and free wi-fi is extremely rare. Most Italians are not very Internet savvy and Italian websites look like something from 1997. Most businesses have no Internet presence whatsoever.
Energy & Transportation
Energy is extremely expensive. A gallon of gas costs about $9.00! Natural gas and electricity are also far more expensive than in the USA. There is a good highway system here (the autostrada) but it’s toll-based and relatively expensive to drive on. There are trains, too – including the thoroughly badass 200 MPH Frecciarossa – but they can get expensive.
I could go on. While Italians enjoy some of the best health outcomes in the world, the public healthcare system seems pretty vintage. The big cities (Rome, Milan, Bologna) are dirty and shabby. Italians are generally obnoxious and careless drivers. The old sewer systems sometimes stink. It’s impossible to find good sushi. And so forth.
So let it not be said that I’m a Pollyanna who only sees the good side of Italy.
Cost of Living
Compared to America, to live with equivalent amenities in Italy will probably be marginally more expensive, if for no other reason than the cost of energy and taxes. I’ve mentioned the energy / transportation beat-down. Taxes are roughly 30%-ish – not too much worse than the USA – but there is also a 21% “sales tax” on many items that definitely affects the cost of things. However, some things are curiously less expensive, even including the tax.
I pay about 2/3 the price in Italy for high-speed internet and maybe 1/2 the price for high-quality 4G cell phone service that’s better than what I get at home in Dallas. If you are dependent on your cell phone like me, Italy is a big win. Service is exceptional, data speeds are high, and it’s pay-as-you go – no contracts. I spend about $20/month for service that surpasses the typical $60-90/month service in the USA.
Gas is super-expensive so cars are super fuel efficient. In the USA there are a handful of cars that get 40+ MPG, and they’re all north of $30K. In Italy you can get decent, highly fuel-efficient cars cheap (if you like Fiat) – a 65 MPG (no shit!) 2012 Panda will set you back about $11K – a great little car, actually, and nothing like the flimsy rust-buckets from the 1980s. It’s a good driver with good build quality and simply astonishing mileage at a value price. And unlike a Prius, there are no batteries to replace or recycle. Fiat also makes a turbodiesel van that seats 9 (or 6 + tons of storage) and gets better than 30 MPG highway (compare to Ford E-series at about 17 MPG).
Most food is cheaper than in the States – about 1/2 to 2/3 the price for equivalent food. A cappuccino at Starbucks will set you back $3 – in Italy they’re a buck (and they’re a lot better than the swill they serve at Starbucks). High-quality drinking water is completely free in most areas and tastes noticeably better than anything you can get in a plastic bottle. A delicious three course dinner for two with wine and coffee can be had for under $20 apiece. Groceries are maybe 1/2 to 1/3 cheaper. A totally tasty sandwich is about $3. More on the food later.
You can take the high-speed train from Florence to Rome (about 180 miles) for about $30 and it’ll get you there in an hour. A second-class train seat is roughly the same comfort and space as a 1st class domestic flight on a major airline like Delta. By comparison, a 180-mile flight on Southwest (also one hour) costs twice as much and offers no comfort. And the trains have no security lines and are rarely delayed so they are actually considerably faster and lower stress than flying. You just run up and hop on. I think Americans oppose high-speed rail only because they’ve never used it. It’s a vastly superior experience to flying, especially for under-500 mile trips.
But cost of living is only part of the story.
Way of Life
Let’s get real about cost of living: cars are freaking expensive. Say you drop $25K on a decent car. Then there’s insurance. Fuel. Repairs. It’s pretty hard to own and use a car in the USA (as a typical American driver) for under $8K per year. A lot of people spend two or three times that much, easy.
There are a few cities in the USA where you can live well without a car: New York, Chicago, DC, Boston. Any American will tell you: these are the rare exceptions. Otherwise, if you’re American, and don’t have a car, you’re struggling. Let’s just say it’s not a good life for a carless Dallasite.
We love our cars. They’re awesome, fun, exciting, and provide a nice ego-boost for us less-well-endowed men. However, they’re totally non-value-added. Meaning – they don’t actually make our lives better – they just provide comfort and sex appeal while we get from point A to point B, all the while draining our bank accounts.
But what if you didn’t need a car? And by that, I mean: what if everything you needed – everything – was practically within arms reach? What if you could live as well without a car as you could with one?
What if you could live better?
That’s the case for a large number of Italian towns and cities. Let me give you an example.
Here in Lucca, we have a little apartment on an ordinary street in a nondescript and workaday part of town. In the photo on the left, our apartment is on the top two floors of the gray building in between the white and blue cars.
It’s not a special location – in fact, for central Lucca, it’s a little out of the way. But life is pretty freaking sweet. Let’s draw an imaginary line 100 yards around the apartment and walk around, shall we?
I can buy vegetables and fruit from a vendor who is literally 150 feet from my front door. And these aren’t crappy Wal-Mart vegetables grown in Chile and genetically engineered to survive two months of storage and transportation. Quite the opposite: these are organic fruits and vegetables (grown typically within 20 miles of town) that totally outclass the best stuff you can buy at Whole Foods or Central Market. Tomatoes that taste like the ones grandmother grew in her garden – no, forget that, they’re better. I’m talking about real food of the sort you can’t even find in America. Shit that makes you actually like salad. The best part? It’s about 1/4 to 1/2 the price of the Wal-Mart crap! Seriously – we routinely make dinner for two for under $5 – and this isn’t Hamburger Helper, it’s totally top-shelf gourmet stuff.
Other food is the same. Across the street from the vegetable guy is a store that sells freshly baked breads and homemade prepared foods. They have better bread than the good stuff from Whole Foods (a half-loaf is $1.20) and cured meats (prosciutto, salame, pancetta, etc.) better than anything available anywhere in the USA for about the price of Oscar Meyer bologna prepacks. The milk is produced less than 20 miles away and barely pasteurized – it’s the milk we old dudes had when we were kids – and it’s cheap as dirt. In Dallas I buy bottled water, because the tap water tastes like calcium and rust. Here, there are community fountains of aquifer water (UV-sanitized) that is deliciously clean and soft. The closest one to our apartment is across the street from the bakery – still within the 100 yard radius.
But I’m just getting started. A few doors down from the vegetable guy is the cobbler. He makes custom-fitted shoes to order. And they’re HOT. I mean, seriously badass. There are at least four or five styles that are some of the coolest shoes I’ve ever seen. They cost $100-$150 – which, if you knew the quality of these shoes, you’d realize what a bargain they are. And they’re custom made in your choice of materials and colors and individually fitted for your feet (which are always different sizes). Try to find that kind of quality anywhere in the USA.
Next door to the bread guy is the leather bag guy. He makes bags, purses, briefcases, etc. He has a lot of cool stuff ready to buy but also will custom-make a bag for you. For about $80 I’m getting a new leather bag for my camera and the other stuff I carry around – and it’s custom made to fit my camera, lenses, etc..
There’s a laundry next door to the shoe guy and a laundromat down from the bag guy. Next to the laundry is the butcher. Chianina beef is as good as the best USDA Prime beef from Texas and sells for about the price of Choice. All steaks are cut to order from freshly-butchered sides of beef that have never been frozen.
There are three bars within the 100 yard radius. In Italy a bar is not just a place to drink beer but also your coffee-and-pastry shop in the morning and sandwich shop in the afternoon. Each one makes coffee that’s better than 98% of the coffee you can get in the USA, terrific homemade pastries, and awesome sandwiches on homemade foccacia bread. A coffee and delicious pastry will set you back about $2.
Across the street from the shoe guy is the gelateria. They make all their gelati every day from scratch. A 2-flavor gelato is $2 and better than pretty much any ice cream you can get anywhere in the USA.
There are at least four sit-down restaurants within the 100 yard radius. Each one is completely amazing, serving delicious local food and wine. A typical dinner at one of these places (with a pasta or meat, a vegetable, and a glass of wine) is about $20 per person. There are two places in Dallas that offer Italian food of equivalent quality and you can’t get in and out for under $50 per head. I had a roasted pork dish at one of them that was simply the tastiest damn pig I’ve ever eaten in my life. One of the restaurants does a delicious “plate lunch” type meal and you can usually get in and out (again with wine and bottles of water) for around $10-ish. Tipping is not customary so you save money there too.
Are you getting the point? Almost everything I want to do on a typical day is not just within walking distance, but within crawling distance.
If you want to talk about walking distance – meaning, up to about a 1/2 mile – then the entire inner city is available to you. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
To begin with, Lucca (link to Wikipedia) – like hundreds of other towns in Italy – is simply lovely. Lucca is surrounded by a medieval wall that is at least 30 feet tall and 30 feet wide, which is now lined with trees and closed to cars. It is one of the most lovely parks I’ve ever visited. At approximately 4 km circumference, it’s walkable and easily bikeable.
Via Fillungo is the “main drag” for shopping. If you can name it, they probably have it. Gucci, Versace, Armani, Boss, Lucky, Nike, Diesel are just a tiny number of stores on that street. There are local tailors who make beautiful designer suits to order. There are probably 100 different stores, all selling The Good Shit. There are at least 6 shoe stores and 4 eyeglass shops selling awesome designer frames – really cool frames, not the Lenscrafter stuff. Stuff that’s really hard to find, even in D/FW, a metro area of over six million people.
And that’s just Via Fillungo. Branching out onto some side streets, there are hardware stores that have locally-made ironworks, camera shops carrying the full line of Canon and Nikon lenses, a B&O stereo store with super-nerdy hi-fi gear, bike shops selling kick-ass custom bikes and stationery stores selling hand-bound notebooks. There are literally a hundred different bars, dozens of restaurants and wine shops, custom-made wood furniture, leatherworkers, and on and on.
All of this is within a 10-15 walk from the house. Or less than 5 minutes by bike.
The best part of all of this is that Lucca is a small town – about 20K people in the central area. If I told you that I was going to move to a small town of 10-20K, you’d probably wonder about me. In most of America, unless it’s a suburb of a large city, living in a small town pretty much is a guarantee that you’re living in the sticks. I’m thinking of maybe Granbury or Palestine, Texas. Even a cool small town like Durango is kinda small-townish. The country is nice, but the amenities usually suck.
By comparison, a place like Lucca is like having all the benefits of the most cosmopolitan cities and all the benefits of a small, friendly town at the same time. It’s clean and safe and mostly quiet, like a small town. You quickly meet lots of people and make lots of friends, but all of the creature comforts of the big city are right there. Hell, Lucca is even home to a summer music festival that brings in artists like Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Blink-192, and Norah Jones. Walking distance.
And if you’re willing to hop on a train for an hour, for under $10 you can go here:
Or any of a hundred other places.
Hopefully, you’ll come visit us sometime in Lucca, and let us show you around.