"I never walk away from what I know is right, but I'm gonna turn my back on you." -Alice Cooper/Freedom
Posted at 12:00 pm by robohara in Main
I got my first record player when I was five or six years old, a little white unit that looked like it came from the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. While I owned a few records of my own (we’re talking the Star Wars picture disc and Alvin and the Chipmunks’ Christmas album), most of what I listened to was pilfered from my parents’ record collection: Blondie, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix albums. For my 8th birthday I got a boombox with a cassette deck and spent a few years acquiring music in both formats. The last vinyl albums I recall buying were the soundtracks to Beat Street and Breakin’, both released in 1984. By seventh grade (1985), I was exclusively buying cassettes. That’s the same year I got my first “all-in-one” integrated stereo system, complete with a record player, two cassette decks, and a radio tuner.
My dad purchased a Sony Discman in 1989 and my buddy Jeff got a CD-playing boombox for Christmas in 1990. Before I had my own CD player I would buy CDs and listen to them on their players. The first CDs I purchased were Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me by The Cure, Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album, and a radio promo CD full of anti-littering/pro-recycling blurbs from celebrities, which made my list of the five worst CDs I own. Sometime in 1991 I got my own dual CD/cassette boombox. Even then, I continued buying cassettes. I definitely recall owning both Pearl Jam’s 10 and Nirvana’s Nevermind (both released in 1991) on cassette.
I’ve told this story before, but at some point I acquired a big padded cassette carrier that held a whopping 60 cassettes (30 on each side). That thing was filled with 60 of my favorite albums, with one side filled with heavy metal albums and the other side full of rap and alternative tapes. I kept that carrier in my car at all times, and in 1992, someone busted out my window and stole it. Instead of replacing old cassettes with new cassettes, that’s when I started buying CDs.
With a vengeance.
In 1993 Jeff built me a slipshod set of shelves for my CDs. The makeshift box had three sets of shelves, each one holding approximately 50 CDs. My goal at that time was to own 150 CDs, mostly because the shelves wobbled less when each one was full.
By 1998, I had close to a thousand.
Regular readers know that I have attachment issues to “things,” and CDs are things. Not all, but I can recall where and when I purchased many of the CDs I own. I waited in line in Weatherford to buy Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power the day it came out. I bought Cypress Hill’s first album from the used pile at Rainbow Records. I picked up the first Presidents of the United States disc the day before I went on my first work trip for the FAA, and listened to it the entire time.
I don’t have a single memory attached to any of the mp3s I’ve downloaded.
In 2007 I began ripping every one of my CDs to MP3. I’ve talked about this project before. It took me several years. After ripping them all, the goal was to sell them. I couldn’t do it. They made it as far as the garage, where they sit today in large 30-gallon tubs. Four of them.
When I originally began converting my CDs I did them in 128k, considered today to be a relatively low bitrate. Halfway through the project I switched to 192k. If I were starting today I would either use 320k or simply rip them to FLAC (no pun intended), a lossless format that maintains the complete audio integrity of the original. When I downloaded my first mp3s, space was a premium; today, one-terabyte drives are the norm, if not small. Then again, isn’t that always the way?
My kids have no concept of “an album” — their world revolves around radio hits and single mp3s. My kids have never owned a real CD, but know how to find (and I can only assume, download) songs from YouTube.
Excluding devices integrated into our computers, we own two CD boomboxes — both are tiny, covered in dust, and sitting out in the garage. We own at least three or four Blu-tooth speakers that can play music when connected to an iAnything. I own the only cassette deck in the house, a dual Kenwood component deck connected to my computer for converting cassette tapes to mp3s. All three of our cars have CD players in them. I’ve never checked to see if either of the ones in my truck or my car even work.
Posted at 8:00 am by robohara in Main, Writing
Professor Chester, the instructor of my novel writing class this semester, suggested we keep a journal documenting our experience. I decided to set up another WordPress site over write.RobOHara.com for this purpose.
If you’re interested in keeping tabs on how my first novel is going, you’ll find updates there. I also set up a mailing list for the site, so that you will be notified via email each time I post a new entry. Whoever is on either of my mailing lists (that one or the one here) will receive a free electronic copy of my novel at the end of the semester.
Posted at 8:00 am by robohara in Main
RobOHara.com has finally moved to the cloud.
I set up my first website back in 1995, using a local hosting company (TheShop.net). When I moved to Spokane in 1996, I moved to NextDim.com and set up home there. (My NextDim.com URL was mentioned in this interview with the Spokesman Review back in 1997.) In 2001 I set up a web server at my house and registered the free URL forwarder welcome.to/TheOHaras, which was the genesis of this site. In 2004 I registered RobOHara.com, and the rest was history.
Back then, it didn’t make sense to pay someone else to host my websites when I could do it at home for free. Today, it doesn’t make sense not to. My buddy Sean turned me on to HostGator last year, and for $10/month I can host an unlimited number of websites with unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. Last fall I moved SpriteCastle.com, Review-o-matic.com, and LoveThyShelf.com over to HostGator, and based on how things have been going, I have now moved RobOHara.com there too. That also includes podcast.RobOHara.com (the home of You Don’t Know Flack and write.RobOHara.com, my new writing journal.
One thing I forgot is that while Windows isn’t case sensitive, Linux is. Because of that, lots and lots of links to pictures and pages on RobOHara.com are currently broken. If you find broken links, please send me a message and let me know where you were and what the link was to. I’m fixing them as quickly as I find them but I fear it could be literally years before I find and fix them all.
It has been a long time (over a decade and a half) since I trusted someone else with hosting my website. Over the years I have created backup jobs, rotated out hard drives, installed a battery backup, and put lots of time and effort into keeping this website online. It feels a little strange to relinquish that control, but I think I’m in good hands. Plus, giving up the technical side of things will allow me to spend more time writing.
Depending on your level of Star Wars knowledge, you may be baffled by today’s choice. The Draconian Marauder, of course, is not from Star Wars at all. It’s from Buck Rogers.
While Kenner’s line of Star Wars action figures didn’t invent the 3 3/4″ scale, it quickly and definitively solidified it as a standard. Within just a few years of the original Star Wars line, figures for The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Dungeons and Dragons, CHiPs, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings, M*A*S*H, G.I. Joe, and a whole slew of others, including Buck Rogers (and of course the original Fisher Price Adventure People, which pre-date Kenner’s figures). Many of these toy lines also had play sets and vehicles (including spaceships), and since they were all the same size, they were all interchangeable. This allowed wounded Wookies to visit the M*A*S*H unit, Han and Leia to take a vacation in my Adventure People van, and occasionally, bad guys to fly around in the Draconian Marauder.
I remember that the Draconians were the bad guys in Buck Rogers, but that’s about it. I don’t remember who flew this ship, or anything else about it, really. It looks like a bad guy’s version of an X-Wing fighter, and that’s what I used it for. When Luke would hop in his X-Wing and take off across the galaxy, I’d cram a bad guy inside this thing and send it off after him.
Like Star Wars toys, this ship had a cockpit that opened so that a figure could sit inside. Unlike Kenner’s line of toys, this ship (and many other non-Kenner playsets) seemed to be more fragile. I’m lucky that my ship still has all the major pieces (including the landing gear and rockets) attached. Most of the ones you see these days do not.
I’ve owned this ship since I was a kid, but I don’t remember who bought it for me — probably a well-meaning friend or relative who thought “he probably has everything related to Star Wars, so let’s get him something else.” I didn’t mind at all, and a few of these non-canon ships made their way into my pretend Star Wars playtime.
Posted at 7:00 am by robohara in Main
Yesterday I mentioned the concept of “pretend profits vs. true profits.” These are terms I made up to describe the discrepancy between how much money I thought I was making selling books vs. how little money I ended up making. (In reality, what we’re talking about is “net. vs. gross” income, but I like these terms better.)
When I first began selling copies of Commodork, Lulu.com (the company that printed my copies) ran a sale. By ordering 30 copies, I could get the price of each one down to $5. I sell paperback copies of my books for $15. That price gave me a profit of $10 per book.
A pretend profit, that is.
The very first place I sold paperback copies of Commodork was at 2006’s Oklahoma Video Game Expo in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I took all thirty copies of Commodork with me to Tulsa, and between friends and family, I sold about ten of them. Wahoo! At ten dollars profit per copy, that was a hundred bucks profit!
Of course, what I hadn’t figured in was any of my expenses. For starters, I drove my Chevy Avalance to and from the show. That’s approximately 220 miles, round trip. According to my notes gas was $2.75 a gallon that summer, so the drive itself cost me $40 in gas — plus I rented a hotel room, which cost me $80. That $100 sure went quick! In addition to those expenses I had a banner printed, bought a bunch of candy, a purchased a few items for a drawing. So sure, in pretend profits, I made $100. In true profits, I didn’t even break even.
The following month, I drove to Chicago and attended the Emergency Chicago Commodore Convention (ECCC) and sold books there, too. I sold another ten books! Another $100 in pretend profits! Let’s not count the $300 in gas, among other expenses.
My hardest lesson in this came when I began selling my eBooks through Amazon. At that time, Amazon kept 35% of the profits on any book that sold for $2.99 or more, and a whopping 70% for any book that sold for less than that. I originally priced my eBooks at $0.99 each. For each one I sold, Amazon kept 70 cents before sending the remaining 30 cents to PayPal. Unfortunately for me, PayPal had a 35 cent handling fee plus 3.5%. That meant they were going to charge me a total of 36 cents to transfer me my 30 cents in profit, which meant for each book sold I was going to lose six cents. Fortunately Amazon has a safeguard in place to prevent this from happening; instead, they only sent me my money after I sold two books. Each time I sold two books for a total of $2 (combined), Amazon kept $1.40, PayPal got $0.38, and I got $0.37. For the record, this is why I raised the price of my books to $2.99 — to specifically escape from this issue.
If you’re selling books (or anything for that matter) as a fun hobby, then “pretend profits” are fine. If you’re looking to make a living doing something, you may need to take a closer look at the “true profits.”
Posted at 7:00 am by robohara in Main
A customer of mine recently informed me that he found pirated copies of my books illegally available for download on a major torrent website. I’ve run across those same links before myself, usually while searching Google for reviews of my books.
Today’s reality is, people will pirate anything and everything available digitally. And if it’s not available digitally — say, an older book available only in print or an album that was released only on vinyl — they will convert it to a digital format so that they can pirate it. That’s reality. Whether you apply no DRM (digital copy protection) at all to your product, allow whoever distributes your product (Amazon, iTunes) to apply a modicum of DRM to your product, or you implement a level of copy protection so thick and convoluted that it affects even your paying customers (Ubisoft, Sony), people will pirate your stuff.
I was heartbroken the first time I found a link to a pirated copy of my book, mostly because at the time I had just started selling electronic copies of my book for 99 cents on Amazon. I estimate that I spent 200 hours writing, editing, and producing Commodork. After ten years of sales, my “pretend” profits are approaching minimum wage, while my “true” profits are closer to breaking even… almost. (Tomorrow morning I’ll talk about pretend profits vs. true profits.)
Instead of worrying that somebody might possibly pirate your work and simply accepting the fact that they certainly will (because they certainly will), you can start to move forward. To make this simpler for me to deal with, I created a grid containing four possible scenarios. Let’s start with my two favorite groups:
PEOPLE WHO BUY MY BOOKS: Yay! You guys are the best! You are the ones that persuade me to keep writing! Whether you head about my book on one of my podcasts, someone recommended it to you, or you simply found it through Google, you took a chance on me and risked three dollars on me. Often times, these people email me and tell me that they liked the book, and sometimes these people email me and share their own similar experiences with computers. Sometimes it takes me a day or two, but I email every one of these people back. Some of these people, I’ve been emailing for years. I really try to give people their three bucks worth.
And then we have:
PEOPLE WHO ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD MY BOOKS, READ THEM, AND THEN PAY ME FOR THEM: Also, yay! You guys are just as good as the first group as far as I am concerned! You guys downloaded the book, read it, said to yourself “Hey, I enjoyed that, that was worth a few bucks!” and then PayPaled me some money. We all know there are a lot of horrible self-published (and for that matter, published) books out there. I don’t blame you for adopting the “try before you buy” model. But you guys did the right thing! You tried, and then you buyed (er, bought) the book. Thank you!
Occasionally people in the above group will say to me, “I know three dollars isn’t much,” and they’re right. Three dollars will get you 60% of a large coffee at Starbucks or half of a Taco Bell combo. It’s not about the amount, per se — it’s about the fact that you read the book, you liked the book, and you bought the book. Again, you guys keep me going.
Next up are:
PEOPLE WHO ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD MY BOOKS BUT DON’T READ THEM: Who cares? If they’re not reading books then chances are these people never will be my customers anyway. If you’ve read Commodork, you know that I spent way too many years of my youth uploading and downloading pirated Commodore 64 games. The fact is, I never would have bought 99% of those games. In the past I’ve downloaded music and movies that I’ve never watched or listened to. It’s all a waste of time, but I get it — pirated media is the currency used by torrent websites. There are people uploading and downloading my book all the time who will never read a page of it. You can’t worry about these people. If anything, I think of these people as advertisers for my products. Hopefully someone in the “try before you buy” group will download one of these torrents, actually read my book, and become a fan!
PEOPLE WHO ILLEGALLY DOWNLOAD MY BOOKS, READ THEM, AND DON’T PAY: While you can’t let things like this keep you from sleeping, I’ll admit, this was the group of people that gave me the most heartburn in the beginning. I’ve had a few people, two or three maybe over the past decade, send me emails bragging about how they downloaded pirated copies of my books and then expect me to engage them in conversation. You know how actions speak louder than words? These people are saying to me, “I stole your book and read it. I didn’t think it was worth three bucks, but I would like to talk to about how much I enjoyed it and also tell you a bunch of stories about my past and continue to converse with you.” If you’re going to steal someone’s hard work then do it, but don’t rub it in a guy’s face.
The takeaway here is that some people buy my books and then read them and some people read my books and then buy them. I love both of those groups. Thank you guys for continuing to support me. When I am writing, you are the people I am writing for. We’re all in this together!
Then we have the people who download my books but don’t read them. Eh.
Finally, we have the people who download my books, read them, don’t pay for them, and occasionally, feel the need to tell me about it. Poop on those people.
Posted at 8:00 am by robohara in Main
After having articles included in Chris Kohler’s book Retro Gaming Hacks (O’Reilly, 2005) and self-publishing Commodork: Sordid Tales from a BBS Junkie in 2006, my writing became somewhat “in demand” — and by “in demand,” I mean “lots of people began to contact me and ask me if I would be interested in writing articles and reviews for them for free.” I did, and do, contribute free articles to lots of publications, including websites, eZines, print magazines, and newspapers. I was (and continue to be) flattered each time someone asked if I would be interested in submitting an article to their publication. If you are willing to write for free, you will soon find a long list of publications requesting your services (and no money in your pocket). That stands to reason. If a talented chef were to open a restaurant that served great food for free, you can bet the line to get in would stretch around the block every day. The reality is, if you are willing to produce quality work for free, there are a lot of places that will be willing to accept it (and occasionally, expect it).
I don’t mean to imply that writing for free is bad. I do it all the time. I regularly contribute articles to The Log Book eZine by Earl Green and have been submitting articles and reviews to the Digital Press eZine off and on over the past fifteen years. But again, the reality is, lots and lots places will accept your writing for free. Shortly after publishing Commodork I began receiving tons of requests to write for different websites and magazines. Typically when I asked “What does it pay?” I never heard from them again.
One of the exceptions was Video Game Collector (VGC) magazine. I met Shawn Jones (the editor of VGC) at a video game convention while selling autographed copies of Commodork. Right up front, Shawn offered to pay me $25 per review. I spent a couple of years writing reviews for the magazine, until the magazine folded in 1999. Keeping a print magazine afloat in a world full of free game-related websites is tough to do.
If you don’t know or remember the story about the time a customer at Vintage Stock thought I was famous after seeing my face in Video Game Collector magazine, you should read it.
Around the time Video Game Collector was winding down, another magazine, Video Game Trader was just starting up. Video Game Trader started as a new and used (vintage) video game store in Buford, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. While in Atlanta for work I met the original owner, Jay Fennimore, for dinner. Jay’s an awesome guy, and soon I found myself again getting paid to write video game reviews and articles. Jay eventually teamed up with Tom Samsone, and I worked with both of them on several issues. I got to visit with both of them the last time I was in Atlanta, and I have referred several people to their store. (If you are in Atlanta and like retro video games, you should go there.)
Not only did the guys at Video Game Trader pay me for my work, but on occasion they also sent me hardware to review! Early on they sent me a Retron to review, and a few years ago they mailed me a RetroN 5 console to also play with and review. It was a nice side perk, for sure.
Either last year or the year before, Video Game Trader moved away from print issues and changed to digital downloads and print on demand issues. Around that same time I changed positions at work and, especially after going back to school, I simply didn’t have the time to write for them anymore. I certainly enjoyed the magazine and the guys who ran it, but there are only so many hours in a day, and even if it’s difficult, at the end of the day you have to decide how you’re going to spend those minutes.
One day after class last week I turned my phone on and found flood of emails announcing the closure of Video Game Trader Magazine. Even though so many people (including myself) enjoy the physical experience of flipping through the paper pages of a real magazine, not enough people are left to financially support the traditional model. Printing and shipping costs are up and circulation is down. Each time another magazine folds, I’m a little bummed for the magazine and more bummed that in my lifetime we’ve watched a form of entertainment I enjoy disappear.
As part of my college application I had to create an online portfolio containing examples of my work. Here is a link to my portfolio, which contains a few scans of my work from both magazines.
Posted at 9:00 am by robohara in Writing
I returned to school this week for another round of graduate classes. I’ve doubled my workload this semester. Last semester I only took one class, and this semester, I’m taking two.
On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I’m taking Writing the Novel. The class is being taught by Professor Chester, the same woman who taught my Writing the Short Story class last semester. There are nine students in the class, seven of which were in my short story class from last semester, so I feel pretty comfortable in there. In short story class we wrote three 5,000 word (maximum) short stories. In novel class, we’ll be writing one 50,000 novel. Technically, I suppose, that’s a novelette. In short story class we had a lot of minor assignments as we learned about description and plot and scenes and stimulus/response and story structure, but all that hand-holding is over. In novel class, once our synopsis is approved, we’ll get two grades: one for the first 25,000 words, and one for the final product. We’ve already been warned not to try and write the whole thing a week or two before it’s due. This class will definitely force me to work on my time management.
My second class is Readings in Mass Communications, which takes place on Wednesday evenings from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Although the Professional Writing department has mostly split away from the Journalism / Mass Communications / Public Relations department, requiring hopeful writers to take one class from this block reveals the program’s early roots. In this class we will be reading topical news articles each week and discussing them in class. Students will take turns leading the discussions with a 60-90 minute presentation one a topic that relates to mass communication. From the provided list I chose “Social Media,” so I should be good there. We’re also required to turn in three book reports, write an APA-style paper, and contribute to each week’s discussion. Although I don’t see any insurmountable goals in this class, it will definitely be a steady stream of work throughout the semester. Jeff and Sean, two classmates who were in my short story writing class and are also in novel writing class with me are also in this class. This class has a lot of diversity, with students from Bangladesh and Venezuela and a few with roots in Germany, so I am looking forward to hearing about issues from students with other viewpoints.
Both of these classes will require not only an increase of output but also an increase in reading. I’m trying to work on that. Each time I find myself sitting in front of the television flipping between two stupid reality programs I need to turn the television off and pick up a book. It’s a hard habit to get back into, but I’m working on it.
This semester I am still parking at the nearby Lloyd Noble center and taking the free bus from there to class. Last semester, the buses I rode were largely empty. I figured once that the capacity of the buses was roughly 60 people (that’s with a few people standing). Last semester, my 7 a.m. bus rarely had more than half a dozen students on it and my 11 a.m. ride back to the parking lot had someone between a dozen-and-a-half and two dozen. This semester has been a bit different. Both of the bus rides to the school (one at roughly 3 p.m., the other at 6 p.m.) are mostly empty. The rides back, however, are quite different. On the Tuesday and Thursday rides at 5:30 p.m., those buses are packed. On Tuesday, I ended up standing on the ride back. On Wednesdays, because class lets out so late (9:30 p.m.), the bus no longer goes from point A to point B and back; instead, it drives all over campus, picking up and dropping off people. The normally 5-7 minute ride took about 15 minutes. I’m not in an hurry to get back to my car, but it’s a new experience. Jeff, one of my classmates, has a parking pass that allows him to park right outside our building. Jeff offered me a ride back to my car Thursday after class and it was wonderful! I hope I can continue to bum rides from him at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays to avoid the crowded bus situation. Jeff mentioned that he drinks Diet Cokes and believe me, I am never above a carbonated bribe!
Last night while in novel class it hit me that I am happiest when I am sitting in a classroom, learning about something I love. I loved short story class and I already love this novel class. I know that I will learn many things throughout the duration of this program and this degree, but I already feel like between those two classes, I am closer to my goal of becoming a professional author.
(This is not my writing area, but doesn’t it look cozy?)
While walking through the kitchen the other day I noticed this package of Star Wars tissues sitting on the counter.
My wife, the eternal Girl Scout, is prepared. For anything. If we suddenly had to rappel off of something, build a sailboat, or perform a tracheotomy, I’m pretty sure my wife has the necessary components in her purse to do any of those things. If you were to be stranded on a desert island with only one person, she’s the person you should hope for. I’m sure my wife knows how to open a coconut on an island and get the milk out of it and all those other things you need to know to survive on an island. I, on the other hand, would be the guy that made a coconut bra and did a funny dance to keep everyone entertained.
My point here is that my wife probably needed some tissues for her purse and happened to pick some up that had Star Wars characters on them, whereas I would be the person who would buy these because they had Star Wars characters on them, even if I didn’t need any tissues at the time.
My Star Wars collection didn’t start out as a collection — it started out as a bunch of toys that I played with when I was a kid. As I previously said, anything in my collection that I have actual memories attached to, those are the things that are worth the most to me. I don’t know what percentage of my collection those things make up, but it’s not as much as you would think. 25%, maybe. The rest consists of newer toys I’ve bought just to fill shelves, or items like these tissues. I never got into collecting food with Star Wars characters on the labels, but I do have a box of cereal, a box of fruit roll-ups, and a box of Pop-Tarts in my collection. I have some Star Wars candy and some Star Wars Pogs and some Star Wars markers and, of course, a pile of those Star Wars Pez dispensers that came out several years ago.
As I find myself running low on display space (again) for my collection, I am becoming more discerning as to what I add to it. During a recent trip to Target I was met at the front door by a large display of Star Wars branded food. There were at least half a dozen different brands of cereal with Star Wars characters displayed on them, not to mention the cans of soup, the bottles of water… you name it. I’ve even seen pictures of fruit in Star Wars bags! I enjoy seeing these things, but I’m not as tempted as I once was to buy them.
There was a time when I would buy anything related to Star Wars. In my defense, there were some pretty dark and sparse years for a while for Star Wars fans. There were times — years at a time, in fact — where one might not see anything related to Star Wars on store shelves. Walking into Target or Walmart now and seeing an entire aisle dedicated to the new film is great! I love it! I just don’t need to own it all, anymore.
I’m glad my wife bought these tissues, but they probably won’t go up on a shelf to be treated like some kind of rare find. Instead we’ll open them and blow our noses into them and, depending on which side is facing up when I use one, I’ll probably do either a Yoda or a C-3P0 impersonation afterwards. (“Blow, or blow not. There is no try.”)
God help me if these things become rare and worth a million dollars in twenty years. I guess saving one package of them couldn’t hurt…
Posted at 9:00 pm by robohara in Main
Susan thinks I exclaim “This is my favorite song!” way too often. She’s probably right. In my defense, I do have a lot of favorite songs. Typically I shout this out in the car after my iPhone, set on shuffle, randomly delivers one of these songs through the car’s stereo.
What follows is a pretty random list containing ten of my favorite songs. I have lots of other favorite songs to be sure, and for this post I removed obvious songs from the Beatles and Metallica and other big name acts in order to share a few songs that you may not have heard in a while, or, in some cases, songs you may have never heard before. I hope you listen to at least one song you don’t recognize. Enjoy!
And now, in no particular order…
JOE JACKSON – STEPPIN’ OUT
Joe Jackson’s debut album Look Sharp! was released in 1979, and his latest album, Fast Forward, was released in 2015. Jackson has released hundreds of songs and sadly I can only name three of them: “Is She Really Going Out With Him?,” “Breaking Us in Two,” and this one, “Steppin’ Out.”
Musically, “Steppin’ Out” is a combination of old and new. While the drums and bass line are obviously electronically programmed, they sit just below a traditional piano and Joe Jackson’s voice. To me, the bass line represents the excitement from the city while the piano represents a romantic evening out on the town.
In second grade I fell head over heels in love with a cute little Irish girl, so much so that I used to ride my bike around the neighborhood real fast until I got to her house, where I would pedal by real slow. The name written on her mailbox was “Joe Jackson” (no, not the same guy), but I’ll never forget it. Around that same time, “Steppin’ Out” hit the radio and, more importantly, the video hit MTV. In 1983, K-Tel released Hit Explosion a compilation record containing popular radio hits of the time. I owned the record, and Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” was the third song on the first side. Some combination of that mailbox, that video, this record, and a song about a night out on the town with a beautiful woman clicked in my mind. Every time I hear this song I think of romantic nights out on the town and pretty girls.
And I lied about the list not being in any order. This is probably my favorite song of all time.
MEN AT WORK – OVERKILL
Australia’s Men at Work first hit the charts with their debut album, Business as Usual. Songs like “Who Can It Be Now?,” “Be Good Johnny,” and the mega-hit “Down Under” made the band a household name in the early 1980s. The band’s second album, Cargo, contained even more classics from the band, including “It’s a Mistake,” “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive,” and this song, “Overkill.”
I’ve always found it odd that “Overkill” was the second song on Cargo, as the song sounds like the end of something to me — perhaps it’s the song’s repeated talk about sleep (or lack thereof). Lead singer Colin Hay has said that the song was about the fame and excess the band was experiencing at the time. He has also said that song could “relate to a relationship with a person or a relationship with a place.”
There’s something haunting about this song to me. It takes place at night, when you can’t sleep because your mind is racing, remembering things from the past that can’t be changed and worrying about what may come.
Colin Hay continues to perform the song acoustically (which many people discovered on the television show Scrubs). This version is even more emotional. Not many pop songs get better when their production is scrubbed from them, but this is one of them.
T’PAU – HEART AND SOUL
Named after a Vulcan (rumored to be Spock’s grandmother) from the original Star Trek series, T’Pau released their debut single “Heart and Soul” in 1987. The song initially failed to make the charts, but after being featured in a television commercial, “Heart and Soul” caught its second wind and climbed to number four on the US charts. Throughout their career, T’Pau released five albums and eighteen singles. While twelve of the band’s singles charted in the UK, this was the band’s only US hit.
From a technical standpoint, there’s not much to this song: a drum track (probably programmed), a few layers of keyboards, and a guitar that comes in for the chorus. The song’s most interesting aspect to be is its layered vocals, featuring multiple tracks from lead singer Carol Decker. The verses contain two layered tracks, one of Decker “rapping” and a second one of her singing. The overall effect is of two songs directly layered on top of one another. The effect works, but it makes it difficult in the car to decide which one to sing.
In ninth grade I developed multiple crushes and spent a lot of time that year alone in my room wishing I had the courage to express my feelings to these young ladies. For some reason, this song got a lot of late night airplay that year. If you’ve ever laid in bed at night thinking about someone that either doesn’t know you exist or, perhaps worse, “doesn’t think of you that way,” this song reminds me of those days. I get a pit in my stomach every time it comes on.
URBAN DANCE SQUAD – DEEPER SHADE OF SOUL
“Deeper Shade of Soul” was the first single from Urban Dance Squad’s debut album, Mental Floss for the Globe. The song features multiple samples from Ray Baretto’s similarly named “A Deeper Shade of Soul” during the opening, chorus, and multiple breaks. Urban Dance Squad formed during a jam session in 1986 that combined an existing rock band with a DJ (DJ DNA), a somewhat unique approach at the time. While the band was originally simply an experiment, the chemistry worked and Urban Dance Squad released six albums between 1989 and 1999. A collection of the band’s singles was released in 2006.
Urban Dance Squad consisted of a white DJ, a black vocalist, a white guitarist, a black bass player, and a white drummer. The video also features both black and white skateboarders. The band’s message is clear in the lyrics: “Under the skin, we’re in like Flynn.” The video also features both black and white skateboards zooming around the band in an empty swimming pool.
While I’ve always loved this song’s groove, I equally love what this band was, and stood for. It’s a conglomerate of musicians and styles and musical backgrounds that melts into one single track that can be enjoyed by anyone.
For the record, this song appears on two separate Urban Dance Squad albums (Mental Floss for the Globe and The Singles Collection) and neither one is the version of the song that appears in the video. The video version is far superior in my opinion, and the version that resides on my phone’s playlist.
LIVE – I ALONE
While Live’s 1991 debut album Mental Jewelry featured “Pain Lies on the Riverside” and “Operation Spirit,” it was 1994’s Throwing Copper that really put the band on the map. “Selling the Drama” and “Lightning Crashes” both hit number one in the US; “White, Discussion,” “All Over You,” and “I Alone” all charted as well.
Public reaction to “I Alone” was divided. Some people thought the song’s lyrics were religious in nature, while others (pointing to lines like “The greatest of teachers won’t hesitate to leave you there by yourself chained to fate”) thought the opposite. Ultimately, it was both, and neither. According to lyricist Ed Kowalczyk, the lyrics were “a profound lesson he derived from studying spiritual teachings, which was that religion and truth must be found for oneself and practiced, rather than just accepting the word of others.” With alternating claims of “I alone love you” and “I alone tempt you,” you can decide for yourself what the song represents.
I’m a sucker for a good soft/loud/soft song, which “I Alone” is. Musically, the song is not complicated, and the video has a dreamlike quality having been shot at a higher speed and slowed down. In 2009 after a squabble over publishing rights, Kowalczyk parted ways with the band. Kowalczyk has since recorded solo material, while the band recently released a new album with a new lead singer. As is often the case, neither group’s new material is as powerful as their older works.
“I Alone” reminds me that while we’re not alone, in reality, we’re all alone.
THE CURE – JUST LIKE HEAVEN
The Cure is one of the more well-known bands to appear on this list. The English band was originally formed in 1976 and is about to embark on a 26 city North American tour before returning to Europe to continue to the tour and play three nights at Wembley Arena. In between those two things, the “underground” band has sold 27 million albums.
My friend Justin exposed me to the Cure’s 1987 album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me when it was brand new, and while the band’s musical style ran the gamut between frantic and playful, all of it fell somewhere between slightly and immensely depressing. (That’s kind of their specialty.) One song that stuck with me (and in years to come, millions of others) was “Just Like Heaven,” often considered to be the band’s breakout song in the United States.
While mostly happy, it’s the song’s final verse that puts everything in perspective. After spending a wonderful time with his girlfriend by the seashore, the lead singer wakes to find himself “alone, alone, alone, above a raging sea, that stole the only girl I loved, and drowned her deep inside of me.” Whether or not she drowned in the sea or simply left, we don’t know. What we do know is, she’s gone, man. She’s gone.
My senior year of high school, I spent a couple of wonderful months dating a wonderful girl. Things didn’t work out, and I woke up one morning to find her gone. Whether it was for another guy or she simply left, I didn’t know. What I did know was that, she was gone, man. She was gone.
I listened to this song over and over for months until I physically wore my cassette tape out.
BJORK – ARMY OF ME
The same friend that introduced me to The Cure also introduced me to The Sugarcubes, a literally unknown Icelandic band formed in 1986 that released three albums over seven years. It’s doubtful the band would have been a footnote in music history had its lead singer, the waifish, innovative, and occasionally downright weird Bjork, hadn’t set out on a solo career.
Few of Bjork’s songs resonate with me as much as the Sugarcubes’ debut Life’s Too Good did, but one that did was “Army of Me.” A departure from Bjork’s more playful sound, the somewhat dark and industrial sounding “Army of Me” was actually a message from the singer to her brother, who had fallen on hard times. Along with the music, I like the song’s message. I like the idea of someone meeting an “army of me.”
The video is all Bjork, featuring a monster truck with a mouth for an engine that eats diamonds, a visit to a gorilla dentist (who extracts a diamond from Bjork’s mouth), and a terrorist act at an art museum that wakes up a sleeping man (presumably, Bjork’s brother.)
ALICE IN CHAINS – GOT ME WRONG
There are a dozen different Alice in Chains songs that theoretically could have made this list. All of the band’s studio albums are on my phone. Dirt, the band’s second full-length album (and third official release) is mandatory listening on every road trip I take, and has been for twenty years. Every single one. Alice in Chains is best known for being one of the original “Seattle grunge bands” who, along with Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam, ushered in a new style of music and clothes and made a permanent impression on millions of disenchanted youths everywhere.
Two years after the release of the band’s debut Facelift, Alice in Chains went into the studio to record their second album when, according to legend, drummer Sean Kinney had a dream about recording an acoustic album named “Sap” and releasing that instead. And so that’s what they did. “Got Me Wrong” is (by far) the best song of the EP, and in my opinion, the only keeper. None of the songs got any airplay until “Got Me Wrong” was featured on the soundtrack for Kevin Smith’s debut film Clerks. The rest is history.
I picked “Got Me Wrong” for a couple of reasons. First, the song is a perfect display of the interwoven harmonies of lead singer Layne Staley and guitarist/co-vocalist Jerry Cantrell. I love both the album version and the live unplugged version, so I added them both. Sonically it’s tough to beat the studio version, but watching the two of them intertwine their voices while Cantrell bends his strings to the breaking point is something to see.
Most of the band’s songs are about tragedy, be it failed relationships as in this song or, more commonly, the effects of drug abuse. Lead singer Layne Staley died from a drug overdose in 2002. Mike Starr, the band’s bassist, died from an overdose in 2011. Now go listen to any song from Dirt or Black Gives Way to Blue and try not to cry.
LIFE OF AGONY – LET’S PRETEND
I’ve been a fan of Life of Agony since their debut album River Runs Red was released in 1995. Once, I even had the opportunity to go on the band’s tour bus and interview them for a website.
According to the YouTube video, “Let’s Pretend” was a ballad written about lead singer Keith Caputo’s mother, “who died a short time after his birth due to a heroin overdose.” Caputo’s father also died from a heroin overdose when Keith was in his early 30s.
If the line “Mommy, it’s me, it’s Keith, you had me back when,” doesn’t get you, try the song’s chorus: “Sometimes I like to pretend, that she knows me, that she holds me. I guess I can’t, ’cause she doesn’t know who I am.”
I don’t know why I enjoy songs that choke me up, but I do, and this one does, every time.
TOOL – AENIMA
Note: the last song on the list is the only one that includes adult language, so consider this your warning.
I discovered Tool shortly after the release of their 1993 debut album Undertow through their original and dark videos on MTV for songs like “Sober” and the unfortunately named “Prison Sex.” Very early in the band’s career, I fell in love with their unique time signatures and creative song construction. The band’s sophomore album Aenima (technically Ænima) featured more hard rock radio hits including “Stinkfist,” “H,” and “Forty Six and 2.” Amazingly, the song “Ænema” was even released as a single and charted, although I can’t imagine how much editing must have went into that version.
Our first clue that something’s not quite right with the song occurs in the first verse, when the line “Some say we’ll see Armageddon soon” is quickly followed with “I certainly hope we will.” By the time the chorus hits, Tool’s stance on Los Angeles is pretty clear: “The only way to fix it is to flush it all away,” soon followed by “Learn to swim, I’ll see you down in Arizona Bay.” Later, when describing the potential crashing of meteors, comets and title waves into the Earth, Tool comments with, “I certainly hope they will, I could sure use a vacation.”
Early in the song we’re given a list of things to fret about (lattes, lawsuits, Prozac and cars) and later another list of things (L. Ron Hubbard, tattoos, junkies, insecure actresses, and hip-gangster wannabees) is preceded by a different F-word.
“One great big festering neon distraction, I’ve a suggestion to keep you all occupied: Learn to swim.”
I was having a rough time many years ago at work. I felt like I wasn’t getting respect from my co-workers, nor was I getting the acclaim I thought I deserved. Some of this was real and a lot of it was in my head. I felt like a pawn, being used and abused. It was around this time that I first heard Aenema, and while I certainly didn’t hope to get hit by a meteor, I connected with the song’s suggestion: learn to swim. In any situation, whether it’s a bad situation at work or California falling into the ocean (thus creating “Arizona Bay”), there’s only one thing you can do: learn to swim. I found so much solace in this that I actually added it to my email signature for a while and wrote the phrase directly on my cubical with a black Sharpie marker. I’m sure my boss thought I was insane, but every time I looked at it, it made me smile. Eventually I moved to another area. I don’t know if the guy who filled in behind me was able to clean the phrase off the my old cube.
If not, I hope he learned to swim, too.