Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Perfect Cassette

I sold my Explorer the other day and while cleaning it out found an old cassette tape I had made for a girlfriend something like 12 years ago (1994?).
Yes, for many years I was obsessed with creating the perfect mix tape, just like the guy in High Fidelity. It was an art that I took very seriously, perhaps a little too seriously.
Besides trying to manage recording levels, I'd be fixated on choosing just the right song order. The opening song was crucial, it had to be engaging but couldn't give away too much. From there, the songs had to progressively build until really letting loose around track 3 or 4. But, I had to be careful not to completely blow my whole wad so early. The tape still had to ebb and flow cohesively, involving just the right combination of bands that no one had ever heard before (to show how cool I was) along with more familiar songs (to show I wasn't a total music snob).
The cassette tape format, being two sided, provided additional options for creativity. Side one could consist primarily of quieter "singer/songwriter" or "emo" tracks, while side two would be chockablock full of "ear bleeders". Or, once the first side was completed, the challenge would be to mimic the same progression of music on the second side, repeating the rise and fall of the songs and creating the same changes in emotion, only doing it even better.
The final song on each side was arguably as important as the opening track. It had to be an epic, preferably one of those long songs that started very softly and passed through a series of peaks and valleys before finally blowing the speakers off your stereo. Either that, or it would be a long slow dirge that would dig down to your soul, leaving you hopelessly exposed by the time the tape machine clicked off.
So, I spent the other night listening to that tape for the first time in at least 10 years. What a treat, and what a walk down a musical memory lane! Ultra Vivid Scene, Pavement (Cut Your Hair), Sebadoh (Brand New Love), The Fluid (Tip Top Toy), Low Pop Suicide, The Big F, Blind Melon, The Pixies, New Order, firehose (Losers, Boozers and Heroes), etc, etc, etc. But even more so, it brought back a connection to that passion for pop music that drove so many of us back then, and still drives a few of us today.
Let's see now, I'm planning to attend four concerts in local clubs in the next two weeks. I'd say the passion's still there...

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Which East is Better? The Answer Lies Somewhere in the Middle.

On two different occasions while in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I was posed with the question “Do you find much difference between Riyadh and Dubai?” In both instances, before I had a chance to respond, the asker supplied me with his answer “Riyadh is just the same, isn’t it?” Now, I’m not sure who they were trying to convince, themselves or me, but I did my best to squirm out of replying without divulging my true feelings, which would have come across something like “What, are you nuts?!?”

Not that there aren’t some similarities between the two cities. Both are really hot and dusty, which I suppose one expects from the desert, and since both are located in the Middle East, there are lots of Arabs, and thus lots of guys who are obsessed with facial hair who wear white robes and Arabian style headgear. Also, driving in the two cities is pretty well the same, often resembling camel races, but with Hummers and the like all jockeying for position while ignoring the lines on, and rules of, the road.

Of course, the Middle East wouldn’t be the Middle East without prayer, and in both locales one can hear that unmistakable wail broadcast all over the city on huge loudspeakers at least 5 times a day, calling the faithful to face Mecca and pray. However, here’s where the difference between the two cities starts to surface. It’s a subtle difference, but noticeable to anyone who’s paying attention. The prayers are always respectful and reverent, for these are a deeply religious people. Yet, I swear in Dubai I heard them slip in some soccer scores at the end. Honest, I swear it went something like:
“God is great,
All praise be to Allah!
Dubai 3, Abu Dhabi no score...”

This is where the two cities diverge. As I see it, it all hinges on spirit – Dubai’s got it, Riyadh could only be so lucky.

When looking for something to do in Riyadh, besides work, about all my associates could suggest was eating and shopping. Well, Dubai also has eating and shopping and, oh yeah, did I mention that one of the shopping malls has a full sized, indoor ski hill? With real snow?

Or how about special events? In Riyadh, well, there are none. Meanwhile, the day I arrived in Dubai was opening day of the Dubai Men’s Tennis Championships. So, my spare time in Riyadh was spent holed up in my hotel room doing work on my computer, while my spare time in Dubai was spent swilling beer, sitting in the sun and watching the likes of Roger Federer.

Architecturally, Riyadh has some interesting buildings, but overall, it’s pretty well an underdeveloped sandbox. On the other hand, Dubai is an out of control construction nightmare on a scale the world has never seen. It’s like ten separate Manhattans, all under construction at the same time, with every building over 100 stories tall. Even more outrageous is that several of these Manhattans are being created at sea, on man-made islands fabricated in the shape of palm trees, or the earth! Dubai is like Vegas, only orders of magnitude more extravagant, and without all the people from Kansas.

It’s obviously not a lack of money in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Airlines apparently flies nothing smaller than a 777. On both of their flights that I took, the plane was almost ¾ empty, yet they flew the behemoth anyway. (Funny, they also sat everyone at the very back of the plane. As soon as the doors were closed, I led a charge to the free rows up towards the front.) There is certainly no shortage of money in that nation.

No, what Riyadh’s missing is, like I said, spirit. Or should I have said spirits? Alcohol is most certainly a missing link in Saudi Arabia. It’s the only way to explain all the super models in Dubai. I mean, the place is crawling with them - Amazon beauties, dressed to the hilt, strolling around talking about Monaco, Versace and Formula One drivers. It’s absolutely unbelievable. The most beautiful women in the world are in Dubai, and they’re all in bikinis…

OK, the last bit isn’t entirely accurate, but I’m trying to make a point, and it’s not just that when I drink I see super models in bikinis, or that alcohol is the reason there are women in public in Dubai. It’s just that the equivalent to super models in Saudi Arabia, or females for that matter, simply doesn’t exist. In fact, my experience in Riyadh was one of “women, what women?” The lack of women in Saudi Arabia is more striking than the presence of all the Riviera trash in Dubai. A woman’s place in Saudi life is certainly not a public one. Women simply aren’t around. I gave a presentation to over 60 people from the Ministry of Water and Electricity in Riyadh. There wasn’t a woman in the audience. Moreover, there wasn’t a woman in the entire building.
Women in Saudi Arabia lead an entirely private life. If in public, they are dressed literally from head to toe in black. No wonder you never see them. It’s 45 degrees Celsius in the shade in the Middle East. Who in their right mind would go out of the way to bake themselves to a crisp?

Now, having read the Darwin Awards from the last few years, I think the answer to that question is undoubtedly “a man”. But a woman subject herself to such undo harm? Not a chance. As a result, Saudi Arabian women are left to do their own thing, away from the prying eyes of strangers or men. I asked my male associates where the women were, or what the women do, and their reply was something to the effect of “We don’t really know, but we’re sure they are really enjoying themselves, and when we come home, they’re usually there.”

Thus, I have developed this whole secret society theory of a Freemason type alliance amongst Saudi women. I really have nothing else to go on. I was never able to talk to one to learn otherwise. But, judging from their apparent fondness for gold, I wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of alchemy is realized in the kitchens of Saudi Arabia. Remember, you heard it here first.

So which is better, the ultra-religious repression exemplified by Riyadh, or the out of control commercialism of Dubai? My guess is it’s some ideal yet probably unattainable middle ground.

Still, an event occurred on my last day in Dubai that suggests perhaps the unchecked growth option isn’t sustainable. Indeed, February 28 was the first time the construction workers in Dubai, all of them foreigners, went on strike. It wasn’t every one, but it was enough to shut down a highway and disrupt business in the city for the better part of a day. Why are they acting in this manner? They work six days a week in incredible heat, live in camps with conditions that rival those experienced by some POW’s, and they earn 600dh per month. To put that in perspective, my hotel room my first night in Dubai cost 770dh, for one night. These guys are building the foundations by which many people are making huge fortunes, and their rewards are on a par with slave labor.

But hey, far be it from me to piss on Dubai’s parade. It’s an incredibly amazing spectacle that may very well support the Emirates long after the oil money has dried up. And who knows, maybe by then the Saudi women will have perfected their magic, and the two countries will approach the happy medium I spoke of earlier? It could happen, couldn’t it?