Matthew T Grant


Tall Guy. Glasses.

Hero-Worshiping Guitar Player

3684432700_f0789345b6_mWhen I was in college, I played music with a fellow named Tony Benoit. (If you’d like to read the text of an insightful and thought-provoking/action-recommending speech he gave on why we have environmental problems, you may do so now.)

We had a lot of far-ranging conversations about truth, life, art, girls, etc., but of the many things he said to me over the years, the one that stuck in my mind’s craw was the following rebuff, apropos of what I can not now recall, “That’s because you’re a hero-worshiping guitar player.” My friend had therewith hit a certain nail on it’s undeniable head and to this day I dwell on the implications of that sobriquet.

At the time, he was probably talking about my tendency to obsess about Jerry Garcia who was, in his way, my hero. Of course, I also idolized other guitar players, Jimi Hendrix, for example, or Jimmy Page, but Garcia meant something in particular to me at the time.

I had seen the Dead a bunch of times, and I had seen Jerry’s solo band here and there, so he was actually a living person to me (though, when he was playing at Frost in 1982, his ashen pallor had a from-the-grave-ness about it). But beyond that, I, like many of my Deadhead brethren and sisthren, saw in the band, and the figure of Garcia in particular, the living embodiment of a kind of ideal. While the precise contours of this ideal are lost in a vivid purple haze, broadly speaking I would define it as an ideal, not just of freedom, but of a willingness to use that freedom to explore the outer reaches of conscious human experience.

I think, however, Tony wasn’t just talking about my ongoing idolatry of rock stars like Garcia or Dylan or Neil Young. Instead, he was highlighting a more deeply ingrained part of my developing personality. If I admired someone for being extraordinary, and, frankly, I admired Tony in this way, I would see that individual as somehow essentially different from me and consider the qualities that made them uniquely special effectively unattainable.

Tony was trying to wake me up from this delusion. He was trying to remind me that people like Jerry, or, frankly, himself, were ultimately people just like me (or if they were different from me, they were no more different than everyone is from everyone else). As he told me once, “You know, if you could get into someone’s head and live there for awhile, I think you’d find that it’s pretty much like being in your own head.” (Of course, he also said, “When I die, I’ll finally get over this hang-up that I’m different from everything else.”)

Nowadays, while I still admire folks famous, not-so-famous, and downright unknown, I no longer place them in an aspirational realm forever beyond my grasp. No, I appreciate them in their “thusness” and don’t turn this thusness into a self-esteem-withering condemnation of my own thusness.

So, thanks, To(ny).

Image Courtesy of Αλεξάνδρα.

My Santana Problem

317438083_2e3067b329_mFine. I’ll admit it. I like Carlos Santana.

Not the resurgent, iPod friendly, Michelle Branch cum Matchbox 20 Santana of several years back, but the Evil Ways-Black Magic Woman -Oye Como Va-Santana of the hippie era.

Heck, I even dig the jazz-rock-fusion Santana of Love, Devotion, and Surrender and Welcome. And while we’re at it, I’ll cop to having a big soft spot for Moonflower, or about half of it anyway. There, I said it.

Why do I feel like I am herewith confessing to a regrettable aesthetic peccadillo? Because Santana is a one (or two) trick pony who plays a handful of licks with an albeit distinctively fat, warm tone, but who, when required to branch out on extended jams, quickly repeats himself and even more quickly falls back on a weird, wah-wah-fueled, ascending chromatic accelerando which is cool when you hear it for the first time as a thirteen year old but makes you shake your head when heard ever after.

Nevertheless, periodically I find myself listening to Santana, especially the first two albums and any live stuff I can dig up from the early 1970s. The Tanglewood concert on Wolfgang’s Vault is a good example of what I find compelling from this period of Santana’s oeuvre, particularly things like his frenetic but concise phrasing on “Batuka/Se Cabo.”

I think I return to this music, ultimately, because I consistently appreciate Santana’s unabashed devotion to melody, his rhythmic fluidity, and the fact that his playing frequently exhibits enough psychedelic bite to excuse me while I kiss the sky. To get a sense of what I’m talking about, check the outro-solo on “Evil Ways” where the guitar line twists and whips around like a paisley rattlesnake. My mind just blows and blows.

Certainly there is something clichéd about Santana (something which Zappa lampooned with his “Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression”), but it’s important to remember that it’s a cliché  Santana minted and coined himself on his journey from the strip clubs of Tijuana to the patchouli soaked stages of the Fillmores East and West. He’s an icon and a dinosaur who speaks in a hilarious hipster patois that I can never get enough of, but he is also the classic example of a musician whose art is inseparable, for good or ill, from the spiritual longing that burns at its core.

I don’t know how you feel about him, but if you like Santana, you’re going to love him live in Ghana. Enjoy:

Image Courtesy of dgans.

Trivial Pursuits

3307392086_a9ff7132b1_mIt must have been 1995.

I was having dinner with a bunch of friends in a house where I had formerly lived in Cambridge.

It was a fairly typical evening for me back then (in the pre-kids era), partying and having hyper-educated goofball conversations with my fellow academics: the doctor of English; the doctor of American Studies; the doctor of Religious Studies; the precocious undergrad, etc.

What made this night unlike any other night was the presence of a traveling scholar, who I believe was a friend of my ex-roommate, Tom. This fellow was doing research at Harvard’s Law School and he had made his bones working on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

I remember sitting around the table and having a dumb argument about Madonna and Cher, or something like that, and it struck me that this fellow must think we’re absolutely retarded. Products of America’s finest schools and representatives of the prosperous American Middle Class (and, we might as well say it, American Upper Class), and here we sit, indulging in mindless cocktail banter and busying ourselves with the abstruser angles of cultural studies while other people (him, specifically), were focused on things like creating an equitable judicial process to promote reconciliation in a society ravaged by genocide.

Of course, this fellow was neither self-righteous nor confrontational and the disdain I had imputed to him was but the projection of my own intellectual self-hatred. I had devoted my 20s to earning a PhD in German Studies writing papers on Batman, the Nazis, Hans Holbein the Younger, Charles Manson, Goethe, etc., and, although I thoroughly enjoyed myself, had never been able to shake the feeling that studying history and literature, film and philosophy, was a bourgeois indulgence that served no purpose other than vanity, at its best, and the highly refined reinforcement of dominant norms and ideologies at its worst. (That last part is particularly ironic for me, given the popular view of academia as the royal roost of tenured radicals.)

“How,” you may ask, “could you have spent seven years doing something most people don’t spend one second doing when you thought that it was a bogus privilege, a trivial pursuit?”

How, indeed.

Image Courtesy of rogiro.

Sons of Surgeons

400129136_7952d815d1_mI was once in an alt-rockin’ trio called “Spanking Machine.”  The fellow who played bass, Kurt, was the son of a brain surgeon. My father, it just so happened, was an orthopedic surgeon.

One day, Kurt said that we should form a band with this other dude, Dave, whose dad was a cardiac surgeon.

“We could,” he suggested, “call ourselves, ‘Sons of Surgeons.'”

It only recently occurred to me that our fathers regularly cut people with surgical blades. My father sawed and drilled bones while replacing joints with hi-tech titanium replicas.

Kurt’s father sutured brains.

I’m sure that our conscious or unconscious awareness of the work our fathers did had no influence whatsoever on our life choices.

Image Courtesy of daveparker.

The Litl Difference

3785715256_680edc0b5c_mLitl launched the litl (though Wired seems to think it’s called “the Webbook”– clarification guys?) yesterday and they invited folks to check it out at the local Starbucks (here’s some photographic proof that I was in attendance).

Given my years of ingrained computer-user habits, I did not find litl’s card-metaphor desktop, novel controllers (buttons, rollers, etc.), and unique capabilities (bend-over-backwards easel mode) intuitively usable, though the friendly litl people happily walked me through it and one beta-tester told me that, while she had the same experience at first, after a while she found herself missing some of the litl features when she was back in her “native” computer environment.

Similarly, the head of one beta-tester family (he, his wife, and his three children all test-drove the litl) told me he found that the younger the user, the quicker the adoption of litl. As he put it, his middle child had enough computer experience to complain about missing or “different” features, while his youngest took to it like a duck to water.

Of course, the main point of the litl is this difference. It looks like a laptop, but it’s different; it sounds like it’s a netbook, but it’s different; it acts like a traditional computer, but it’s different. This emphasis on difference is both litl’s strength – it is really a new kind of thing – but also its greatest vulnerability.

I told the litl folk that what they are attempting is bold and, for that reason, fraught with entrepreneurial peril, in part because the device doesn’t ask people to do one thing differently, it asks them to do a lot of things differently (store all your data in the cloud, rely on web-based apps instead of software, think in terms of “cards” rather than pages or docs or whatever). And no matter how much we celebrate diversity or shout “Vive la différence,” getting people to do things differently is frickin’ hard.

Innovation by definition means doing things in a new way, but there is a limit to how much “new” people can handle, particularly when they don’t see the clear advantage or the critical difference.

I believe that this “difference limit,” and not just the $700 price tag, is the most daunting hurdle facing the litl team. Getting around it will probably involve partnerships with companies that have the reach and sway to influence technology buying behaviors, or an aggressive “seeding” program that gets litl webbooks into the hands of the 7-and-under crowd (kind of like Apple did by getting Macs into the hands of college-age kids making the leap from typewriter to word processor back in the 1980s).

Of course, knowing the people involved as I do, I’m sure they’ll come up with something completely different.

Image Courtesy of lucky_lucas.

Helping Out the Litl People

500x_litl_lifestyle_13A bunch of folks I’ve known for a while have today introduced a “webbook” called the “litl.” As I understand it, what differentiates a “webbook” from a “netbook” is that the former has no hard-drive and all of your stuff lives in the cloud.

Aside from a bunch of techie stuff like running a Linux-based OS and eschewing traditional things like software, what further differentiates the litl from other laptop-ish devices is that you can set it up like an easel to watch movies or check the weather while shaving (as illustrated above).

I was around when the concept was being germinated and have watched the development of this device from afar, but have never really seen the machine in action, which I’ll get a chance to do so this morning.

Reviews are rolling in and they range from the skeptical (Gizmodo) to the intrigued (Xconomy) to the bemused (engadget). I’ll toss in my 2¢ as soon as I’ve found them.