Posts Tagged ‘Visio’

Weightlifting cover

The Trashcan Sinatras

In 1999, I edited a magazine for software company called Visio. One of my columnists was Dave, our Chief Technical Evangelist. Dave was a software maestro and the champion of all things Scottish. “Aye, Steve, it’s a hildy, wildy day, but I’ll wager there’ll be a glent o’ sunsheen yet,” he’d say before ducking into his office. It looked like he was refighting Culloden in there.

Dave kept trying to sneak his Broad Scots dialect into articles on such Scots-friendly topics as using Visio to automate Excel spreadsheets. One of his vocabulary words was “Slàinte!,” a traditional greeting that I believe means “Slammin’!” This behavior might’ve fooled another editor, but not me, because guess what? I’m a Scot.

Not everyone knows this. For many years I didn’t know this. Then one day when I was skylarking in Edinburgh, I happened to pass a souvenir shop. The employee stationed outside asked me, “Sir! What’s yer family name?” When I told him he cried, “Lad, if yer name is Bieler, that means yer an Aberdeen!”

I’m a smart tourist, and I realize I could’ve told him I was Ho Chi Minh or Salvatore Bazooka and he would’ve told me I was a Campbell or a MacDougall, but his Star Fleet engineer’s accent was convincing and anyway my wife and I had recently seen an awesome staging of Macbeth. Before you could say “Something wicked this way comes” I was proudly wrapped in a scarf woven in my Aberdeen clan colors. (But I said no to the kilt, the vest, the big old shorts, and the condoms.)

Until it’s time to go a-roamin’ in the gloamin’, then, I’ll keep enjoying my Scottish music an a’that. I’ve already written about Dire Straits, Donovan, and Simple Minds. There are plenty more to go, from Average White Band to The Waterboys. (Bay City Rollers? That’s takin’ the low road to Loch Lomond, laddie.) Before I get to today’s topic, here are a few of the early milestones, or perhaps roadblocks, of Scottish popular music.

Most scholars agree, especially after enough blended malt whisky, that the Scots came to world attention in 1967 with Lulu’s super explosive smash hit explosion “To Sir with Love.” I was moved by “To Sir” when I was 12, but today the only thing that catches my jaded attention is that it was produced by John Paul Jones. A year later, Jones became the bass player for Led Zeppelin.

In 1971, Middle of the Road took revenge for the Highland Clearances when they released “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.” Yes, all those sword-swinging Scotsmen fighting in the mud on Outlander evolved into “Where’s your momma gone, little baby bird?” Though I find this song about as appealing as someone paving my breakfast with a layer of haggis, I will always give this band some slack because their singer, Susan Carr, may have had the best legs in Scotland.

Maggie Bell is a Scottish soul singer who could mix shades of Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Marianne Faithfull, and Joe Cocker into one groovy cocktail. Sadly, her material was never as good as her voice. Her debut album, Queen of the Night (1974), gave her her sole hit in the USA: a calypso-inspired version of Eric Clapton’s “After Midnight.” I don’t know how this happened because this is the one song on the disc that isn’t a vocal showcase. She deserved better. I’d yell my Clan Aberdeen battle cry here, but I took an oath to use it solely against our blood enemies, Clan Coldplay.

Bagpipes! You thought I’d forget. I once attended a bagpipe recital. Every bagpiper onstage had won at least 10 awards (every FN one of which was announced), though no two bagpipers seemed to have attended the same competition. From this I learned that bagpipers, journalists, and third-graders all receive awards for everything they do.

Toss that funky caber, white boy
Now we come to The Trashcan Sinatras, Glaswegians who have the most stupendous band name in the history of Scotland. I just scoured the Wikipedia page that lists every Scottish band since Mary, Queen of Scots (rhythm guitar and mouth harp) and the Trashies’ only competition comes from The Blow Monkeys, Teenage Fanclub, and Shitdisco.

The lassie in the office next to mine is a highly placed officer in the international Trashcan cult. To preserve her identity I’ll call her Lorna. “We Trashcan Sinatras listeners take our affiliations very seriously,” Lorna wrote in an email. “Are you one of us?”

It’s a shame for a good Scotsman to admit it, but I’m not up on me Trashcans. Lorna recommended that I begin with the band’s fourth album, Weightlifting. This was their comeback; they recorded it after a gap of eight years. Weightlifting is a sly, melodic companion that rocks when it feels like it (“Welcome Back”) but mostly chills.

“Not everyone can handle their intricate, ethereal smoothness,” Lorna informed me, and she’s right. Weighlifting is too laid-back for me, though I did find the title track interesting. Plus the album cover is actually worth framing. If you like The BoDeans or (in their lighter moments) Big Head Todd & The Monsters, I think you’ll enjoy The Trashcan Sinatras.

Goodbye just now, honest men and bonnie lasses, and one day we’ll take up another aspect of my ethnic heritage: Norwegian death metal. Until then…Slàinte!

Bonus: Here’s Middle of the Road, 30 years later.



I edited a couple of trade magazines in the 1990s. When you edit any kind of specialty magazine, you find that boredom seeps in like water in an old rowboat. There are only so many ways you can present the same subject, to keep it readable, informative, and interesting to read.

It’s a struggle, but you won’t hear any complaints from me. There are enormous rewards that come with the editor’s blue pencil: wealth, celebrity, power, eager-to-please interns, the respect of your fellow editors, the adoration of your writers, and a bitchin’ sound system in your office.

Notice to our readers
There are several errors in our current post. “wealth” should read “health insurance.” “celebrity” probably refers to Run-DMSteve’s appearance on the front page of the Idaho Statesman in 2003. The reference to “power” is puzzling, but it might have something to do with shaking Al Gore’s hand in 1999 without being pummeled by the Secret Service.

In addition, Run-DMSteve has never been granted access to an intern, editors are too busy drinking to speak to each other, writers adore you only when you’re approving their invoices, and Run-DMSteve had to buy the sound system with his own money. We regret these errors.

My first magazine was published by Sierra On-Line, which made computer games. Sierra was chaotic and dangerous, a knife fight without any rules, but I never had trouble making those pages interesting.

My second magazine was published by Visio, which made drawing and diagramming software. The company was well-run but their products put me to sleep. I figured our readers must’ve had the same challenge. This is why I searched for unusual Visioids to profile. For example, there was a gentleman who used Visio to position the cameras for the Oscars broadcast, and a writer who visualized her complicated love life thanks to our software. I hope the latter story gave engineers around the world something different to think about.

Sadly, I never got to run our story about the Midwest cemetery administrator who used Visio software to keep track of his “residents.” That would’ve been my Halloween issue.

Not all who play chess are lost
In September 2002, the editors of Chess Life published an interview with Ray Charles and splashed his photo on the cover. Jackpot! Bingo! Touchdown! This issue must’ve been extremely popular because I can never find one on eBay. Everyone’s hiding their copy in their sock drawer. Here’s the only image I can find.

Ray Charles learned to play chess in 1965 while he was in a hospital kicking his heroin addiction. He basically traded addictions. Unlike most blind players, who play by calling out the moves in chess notation (if you’ve ever played Battleship, you’re halfway to learning chess notation), Charles played by feeling the pieces. I suppose this is similar to how he played the piano. He used a special board with raised dark squares and lowered light squares. The black pieces had sharper edges than the white pieces. Each piece had a peg in the bottom and each square had a hole.

“I’m nowhere near what you call a master. I’m just a person who plays chess,” he said in the story. “I don’t care if I lose. I try not to, but I just love to play.”

Charles was interviewed by Grandmaster Larry Evans, a former U.S. chess champion and a long-time columnist for Chess Life. Naturally, they played a game while they talked. Evans didn’t play full-out (he admitted as much later), which I’ve learned is always a mistake when playing children. They learn more when they play the real you, plus your sub-par moves sometimes return to bite you in the ass. Sure enough, Charles, who was a better player than he let on, came close to a draw.

At one point in the game, Evans warned Charles that if Charles moved a certain piece, Evans would be free to make a devastating counter-move. Charles said, “You’ve got your rights, brother.”

Charles also knew how to cut to the game’s essence. “You don’t just move pieces,” he said. “You have to have a reason. So you say to yourself, if I do this and he does that, then what will I do?” I’ve been trying to teach this simple concept for YEARS! But instead of slowing down and thinking, my chess kids invariably plunge ahead as if they were about to miss the ice cream truck.

Chess and music live on the same street
Ray Charles was not the only musician who loved chess. Here’s a partial list: Sonny Bono, David Bowie, Ludacris, Jay Z, LL Cool J, Kurt Cobain, John and Yoko, Wu-Tang Clan (the entire group), Phish (ditto), and some one-worders: Madonna, Cher, Moby, Nelly, Bono, and Sting. In fact the best thing I’ve ever read about Sting is that he has an estate somewhere with a giant chessboard built into the landscaping.

I haven’t even gotten to all the jazz and classical musicians who play or played chess. But the only country western musician that I know of who qualifies was…Ray Charles (Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, vols. 1-2, 1961).

All of this is the leadup to a sad truth: There’s little to say about Charles’ career in the 1970s, my current topic. I don’t believe he was capable of recording a bad album, but like all gods he was capable of recording unnecessary albums, and the ’70s were a long line of them.

Note: There are many necessary Ray Charles records. Here are just two: Ray Charles At Newport (1958) and The Genius of Ray Charles (1959).

I said when I began this series about black music of the ’70s that everyone on my list owed a debt to James Brown. I’m thinking now that we all owe an even bigger debt to Ray Charles.

“I beat Willie Nelson yesterday,” Charles said in Chess Life. “He tells me that I turned the lights out on him.”

Hit the board, Jack.



The biggest change in music in the 1990s came from the Internet. This is not a secret. We flocked online when the first graphical user interface browser was introduced in 1993, and by 1999 you could listen to your favorite radio station by visiting their website. In fact, you didn’t need a real radio station at all. I found this out in 1999 when I went to work at Visio and met a graphic designer named David. Following the tradition of all people younger than me whom I trick into becoming my friends, he gave me a tip about music: My life changed.

Spinner was an Internet radio station. Its only physical presence in my life (if this counts as physical) was the gorgeous red Deco-styled boom box that appeared on my computer screen once I downloaded their software. (There were no corporate firewalls in 1999. Or if there were, there wasn’t one at Visio Corp.) Spinner gave me, as I remember it, approximately three dozen channels divided by genre. Classic Rock, New Wave, indie, soul, neo-soul, baroque, romantic, West Coast jazz, big band, bebop, etc. While I worked I gobbled music like free donuts in the break room.

Whichever channel I was listening to, Spinner told me in a sort of CNN crawl on the boom box the song and the artist. This was particularly important to me because by 1999 mainstream radio djs had stopped giving this information so as to increase the time for commercials. The crawl also told me what the next song and artist on that channel would be and what was playing on some of my other channels.

There was no charge for Spinner, and there were few commercials.

Spinner introduced me to music I never knew existed. Country blues, for instance. This was blues from the 1920s through the ’40s made by poor whites from the South. I learned about trance, a form of electronica that Special D will not allow in the house. Trance, house, and acid jazz are genres you’d hear at a rave. Or so I am told. I’ve only been to one rave and that was in 1981, and we didn’t have the word “rave” yet. Or glowsticks. Or electricity. I suppose raves have changed a bit since then.

I became reacquainted with surf music, which was going through a renaissance, and met The Baronics. I learned much more jazz, immersed myself in Mozart, Telemann, and various other frilly-laced troublemakers, heard plenty of ’80s alternative and ’90s alternative (’80s wins) (assuming anyone can define “alternative”), and surprised myself with the Oldies channel. There were many songs from the ’60s that I didn’t know, and I was there! Chief among them was The Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” which had completely escaped me. That song’s pretty good, I thought. My experience just shows you how oceanic is our culture. No matter how hip you are, you can never hope to swim in it all.

Spinner had its quirks. Playlists were limited. Erasure was in heavy rotation on the New Wave channel; they’re Tears for Fears on nitrous oxide. Peter & Gordon and Chad & Jeremy were fixtures among the Oldies, though I still can’t tell any of them apart. Spinner loved new albums, so I heard a lot of freshly minted music. Certain novelty numbers turned up frequently; one was Jonathan King’s “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” from 1965. (Though Spinner never spun it, “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” can’t compare to King’s cover of the Stones’ “Satisfaction” as done in the style of The Kinks from their Muswell Hillbillies album.)

But these barely qualify as flaws. I was in love.

Naturally, this situation couldn’t last. Spinner was assimilated into Napster and Napster into Netscape. They turned the cool boom box into a gray rectangle! Suddenly, the music was available to subscribers only, except for a free 90-minute block each day. I can’t blame Netscape for trying to make money from this venture. Eventually they locked out cheapskates like me, but by then (about 2004) I had discovered Rhapsody. Rhapsody has its problems but overall it’s worked for me for eight years. It’s an old friend now. An interesting, enlightening, cranky old friend.

Special D urged me to launch this blog, but David is the one who gave me the key to the highway. I have no idea what happened to him, but he probably went on to invent Pandora or Spotify. I should’ve stayed in touch – he could’ve given me a job!

Random ’90s Pick of the Day
Hole, Live Through This (1994)
If there’s a grunge formula, Hole follows it closely, but that doesn’t take away from this record’s cumulative power. There’s more anguish in Live Through This and in Courtney Love’s deceased husband, Kurt Cobain’s, Nevermind, than in all the rest of grunge. Nevermind (1991) was epic, but Live Through This is what I listen to. The line “I get what I want/and I never want it again” (“Violet”) is the flipside of U2’s “I gave you everything you ever wanted/it wasn’t what you wanted” (“So Cruel,” Achtung Baby, 1991).

Random ’90s Pan of the Day
Soundgarden, Superunknown (1994)
I can’t remember the last time I played this. I went looking for the CD last night and couldn’t find it. Oh well.

Tomorrow on ’90s Week: The road goes ever on? Not according to Rand-McNally!