Perfect is the enemy of good – THIS IS NOT A TEST #56 (transcript)

Published February 13, 2016

Wait, wouldn’t you rather listen? Reading is so 20th century, and besides, this is a transcript of an audio presentation that was meant to be heard¬†with your ears.¬†Follow this link to podcast happiness.

Yep, here we are, THIS IS NOT A TEST and I’m still me, Michael Phillips. Good lord, I’m a little out of it. I got the flu or the ZIKA virus or something at the end of January or the beginning of February and it’s stuck to me like…like something really sticky, I don’t know. Maybe I brought it on myself by saying to Carol that I didn’t get sick at all in 2015. I know I didn’t because I made all the weekly podcast deadlines, and I didn’t miss any due to being, like, you know, sleeping for three days straight. Which I like to do when I get the flu or ZIKA or whatever this thing is that I have right now. Still. For more than a week now. I don’t know if I can stop coughing for an entire half an hour to do this, but you’ll never know because I’ll edit out all the coughing fits. Anyway, yeah, it’s good, man. To just get into bed all sick and miserable and sleep for several days. I almost look forward to doing it every 2 or 3 years. It’s enjoyable, except for the hacking up of phlegm from deep somewhere in the lungs, and the pain and misery part. That I can live without, but the hibernation, the two or three days of sleep, that should be mandatory for everyone every year. Or maybe every month. Three days a month to sleep. You know, in addition to the 10 or 12 hours you already sleep.

I kid, I kid, I know you probably sleep like 6 or 7 hours, because for some reason we think we have a lot of things to do. So we don’t sleep. I also heard on the radio the other day that 41% of Americans didn’t take a single day of vacation from their job last year. I found that to be a shocking and troubling statistic, but since it is a statistic it’s probably not true anyway. But if it is true, or close to being true, it’s probably because so many American companies don’t pay for vacation. In California every employer has to provide a certain number of sick days to all employees, even part timers, but federally there’s no requirement to pay you when you’re home sick and can barely move or feel the need to sleep for three days. And worse than that, there is no law here in this country that says a company has to give you any paid vacation time. Or even any vacation time, period. It’s kind of insane, isn’t it? To just work every day and never take a few days or a week or two weeks off? I say that, but I haven’t had more than four days off in a row since May of 2014, more than a year and a half. But I’m taking three weeks off this year, I’m just not sure when and how much of that I’ll take consecutively. If I was smart I’d take all three weeks off in a row, because these weeks off or four day weekends or whatever don’t feel like anything. Doesn’t feel like being away from the job at all.

I used to just quit whatever job I had when I started feeling this way, but that was back when I was young and foolish and broke and I worked at jobs that didn’t provide frivolous things like paid vacation or time to sit down if you’re having a stroke on the job. Seriously, I worked in one print shop with an older guy named Jesse, and he wasn’t the healthiest guy and one day he kind of – well, he had a little stroke while he was standing at the press. So we were all standing around him as he was sitting on a pile of boxes making sure he was okay, and the shop owner comes back and says, “what the hell is going on?” and I tell him, Jesse’s all fucked up, I think he had a stroke, and the owner says, “Jesse, you all right? Not feeling good? You should go see a doctor. Are you on the clock?” Are you on the clock? No man, as soon as I started having a stroke I clocked out. Jesus Christ. Are you on the clock. And what the hell, “you should go see a doctor”? How about you call a brother an ambulance or something, man? But that’s not an unusual story and I’m sure someone listening to this works someplace even worse. But I didn’t come here today, I didn’t turn on the microphone here, the recorder and all this gear, I didn’t turn all of this on to talk about work. No. So let’s not.

I mentioned a few weeks back that I did a short little guest spot on Mat Gleason’s “Modern Art Blitz” Internet TV show thingy, and I probably also mentioned – or complained – that my microphone wasn’t working for most of the time I was on, which was annoying, because when things like that happen I think, “Well why did I even bother with that?” Which then makes me think, “You know, I could fix the sound on that show,” which leads me to looking at the rest of the show and thinking I could fix other things…like getting a director so Mat can focus on his guests, and doing something more interesting with the background image green screen things, and…and…and…and then I think to myself, “Self, what the hell are you talking about?” Well, I’m talking about making the production more “professional,” and less bumpy and ragged and rough. But then I look a the show and think, maybe the bumpy, ragged roughness is what’s cool about it. Maybe polishing the show and making it more professional would kill it. Sometimes that local cable access vibe is mesmerizing, and isn’t this the same thing, only on the web? In spirit, anyway? I think it is, and it occurs to me that it doesn’t need to be “fixed” or polished because it’s perfect. And what’s “professional,” anyway? Who the hell wants to be a professional? Jay Leno was a professional. Professionals are boring. Most professionals make me want to change the channel.

I think this Internet is warping my mind. I’m spending too much time on the Internet. All the numbskulls everywhere going on about professional this and professional that, and how everyone must strive to be professional, and everything must look professional, look the same, sound the same, taste the same and be equally disposable and useless. Equally empty, like a McDonald’s mozzarella stick. Now someone who is really good at doing something, and has done that thing for a long time, long enough to earn some respect and maybe get paid some money, they’re professionals. Being a professional isn’t a bad thing, I didn’t mean to paint it with my drippy, broad brush, but I guess I did. There’s a lot to be said for being professional. I admire professionals in trades, like carpentry or road paving. People who are really good at what they do, who care about what they do and are at the top of their craft. Experts, professionals. And I suppose in entertainment you have some professionals who aren’t just empty heads floating on top of skeletons, moving their mouths so advertisements can come out. The Internet numbskulls could be talking about the good professionals. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. But either way, those people, those amateurs who hold the elusive professionalism above all else – are just strivers. They’re people who want to do something that professionals do, and they think that emulating the professionals will somehow elevate them to the same sort of astral plane, but that ain’t how it works.

I don’t know why everyone wants to be something they’re not these days anyway, but they do. We’re so suckered into thinking that the wealth and easy life is easy to come by on the Internet, all you need is the right idea, or to copy the right idea, or emulate that other numbskull who makes a quarter million dollars a month from the ads on their YouTube videos. The Internet millionaire is the worst thing, the worst concept, that the Internet has produced, and the Internet has produced some awful shit. “The Internet millionaire” is like if someone, or a small group of people, back in the 60s or 70s had actually made a lot of money from a pyramid scheme or some multi-level marketing bullshit and everyone saw that and said, “Fuck the factory, I’m going to sell Amway!” I know, that’s how pyramid schemes work, but they’re built on lies, so let’s just assume, for the sake of argument and to humor the universe, that it wasn’t all lies and a handful of people got rich selling vacuum cleaners door to door. That’s what the Internet reminds me of most days. All those poor bastards walking out of the factory or the Starbucks or the office building and thinking, “I’m never going back there, kiss my ass! I’m on my way to easy street!” There seem to be millions of them out there. All digging in the dirt, looking for the next big thing that’s going to pay for their yacht.

So they’re all over the Internet telling you that you have to be professional, because someone told then that was the key to everything. And the mountain of amateur professionals gets taller every day. They’re stacked up like a bunch of 15 ton pyramid blocks, just sitting there, baking in the sun and sand doing nothing. With all their professional template websites and business cards and professional photographs of their eager, smiling faces, trying to look reassuring and professional. They keep at it because surely success is right around the corner. They’ve followed all the rules. They’ve done what they saw everyone else do. They researched, they read, they paid for seminars and classes. They’ve learned from the best! From that person at the very top of the pyramid. From the only one who will ever profit. From the one who did something that no one else was doing in order to make it to the top of that pyramid. Which is the real secret, and the one that they’ll never tell you because they can’t sell you a seminar on how to have an original fucking idea. They can’t write up a set of steps or rules where every step says, “fuck the rules.” Well, they probably could and most of the strivers wouldn’t even see the irony in it, but the people at the top are too smart, they aren’t selling or giving away anything that will actually create any competition for themselves.

That’s what I really think of the so-called professionals, so it irritates me that their mantra has seeped into some crack in my shell somewhere. That I can look at something like Mat’s show and even dare to criticize it because it isn’t “professional.” What a load of shit. As far as creative endeavors are concerned, sometimes the less professional the better. The more rough edges, cracks, drips and spills, the more missed notes and bad edits, the better. The more alive, the more real. Missed notes – there’s something most of you under the age of 35 have never heard in a music recording. Most popular music isn’t really music anymore, it’s computer programming. But it’s not even the fault of computers, really. There were bands in the 70s that edited all the mistakes out of their music, or recorded it over and over so many times that they just pounded all the feeling out of it. All the life. You know what I’m talking about. Bands like Electric Light Orchestra or Boston or any prog rock creeps you can mention. That shit that’s so perfect, so glossy and shiny and flawless that you find yourself compelled to jump off a bridge when you hear it. “I don’t know what it was officer, I was driving along and suddenly I just pulled the car over on this bridge and started walking toward the edge…”

Music is a funny thing. What’s the ideal way to listen to a band? Or an orchestra or a hurdy gurdy, anything, any kind of music. On a record? No, the ideal way to listen to a band is standing in the same room they are playing in. There’s nothing better than that, and that’s not even close to being a perfect experience. Unless you’re standing in the room with a singer and the musicians are just pretending to play their instruments but really you’re listening to a recording, which, by the way, Electric Light Orchestra were accused of doing back in the 70s and it was like a federal grand jury investigation or something, no one could believe that a band would do that because a live concert is supposed to be, you know, live. But things sure changed quickly, didn’t they. No one expects – no one goes to a pop music concert now and thinks that everything they’re hearing is being played live. People expect to hear recordings, they expect whatever it takes to bring them that seamless, perfect experience. All the dancers should dance and the music should sound just like the recordings they’re familiar with, and the singer should dangle on a wire above their heads and shower them with confetti and candy while they Instagram that shit to prove to everyone how much fun they like to have.

Okay, okay. But if hearing a band live, if standing in the same room with them while they play is the best way to hear music, why is so much recorded music so stale? Why the quest for perfection? Why can’t the tempo waver a little? Why can’t a guitar be slightly out of tune for part of a song? What can’t the singer’s voice crack? All of those things are just part of the music, they’re things that happen when a bunch of musicians get together and play songs. But we try to shave off all of those edges in the recording studio. And now that a computer can control the instruments and the tempo and the pitch, there’s no reason to have anything less than perfection. I don’t know if imperfection is even possible anymore. If you start with an electronic metronome, or what they call a “click track,” everything will always be in lock step, won’t it, it will always be perfect. Perfectly unnatural. You know what makes any music great? SWING. The music has to swing. I don’t mean like swing music, I mean the music has to swing. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, and that goes for your rock and roll, your funk, your hip hop, your chamber orchestra and your country music NASCAR halftime show.

So what is swing, and how do you know if your music has any? Well, I’m sure someone who studied music theory could explain it to you in technical terms, with eighth notes and rhythmic cadences or some other words like that that don’t really mean anything. Swing is a function of the rhythm of the music, which is the drum and the bass, and your rhythm section can swing, they have to swing, but where all of the instruments “land” on the beat is what determines if your tribe will swing. If all of the musicians were staring at metronomes or a consistently flashing light and they all tried to play exactly in time with that steady beats, you’d have the opposite of swing. I don’t know what that’s called, the opposite of swing, but I know it’s not cool, and you probably wouldn’t like it if you heard it. You’d say, “Who put the sticks up the band’s asses?” That kind of straight time doesn’t serve any kind of music well. Except maybe electronic music or music that’s supposed to sound like machines stamping out the plastic parts to Barbie dolls. So yeah, I’m sure “swing” is quantifiable in musical terms, but I’m not the man for that job. I can only tell you that you can feel it when music swings. Music that swings makes you want to move along with the music. You feel the groove and you go with the flow, Joe. You swing.

I have to think that everyone who picks up a guitar and goes forth into the world to play rock and roll music or pop music wants, somehow, to swing. That must be one of the things that drew them to the job in the first place. You’d think. I wonder why then, so much of our music doesn’t swing anymore? Why we’ve chosen bland and un-swingy perfection over feeling. Recording music in a recording studio is an interesting experience, because all of those guys who work in there and the people that sit behind the console and boss the musicians around, all of those people think it’s their job to make a certain thing in a certain way. And part of that thing, that way, is knocking all the rough edges off the performances, either by repetition or electronic wizardry and fuckery. Because if they leave a weird guitar sound in, or a note that’s sung kind of off, their peers are going to hear that and point and laugh and tell them how badly they suck at their jobs. I know that because when I spent time in recording studios I had to fight with those guys every day. I had to argue constantly to maintain feeling over perfection, and believe me, they’ll argue.

Do you know what dub is? Or maybe what it originally was? It’s an instrumental reggae track – a song without the singer, and the individual instruments drop in and out and effects make things echo and reverberate and the whole thing is very spacey and trippy and that’s dub, baby. Well, one time I was mixing some dubs with Trevy in a studio somewhere here in town, and that was something he and I did really well together. As a team. We communicated on the mixing board there without words, and sometimes it takes four hands to control all the weird shit going on in a dub anyway. Sometimes it takes more than four hands, but usually it was just the two of us. We’d done it a lot, but when we started in on a dub at a new studio or with a new engineer this one time, the guy, the engineer stopped the tape when we were in the middle of mixing the first dub track. Trevy said, “What the fuck you doing, man?!” and the guy said, “That delay is out of time.” Well, yes, the delay was not in time with the beat, that’s the point. In a dub all kinds of shit is ricocheting off and around the beat, sometimes very far off and around.

Anyway, this guy wasn’t a reggae specialist, I don’t know if he’d ever engineered a dub mix before, but when we said, “No man, that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he argued with us. He wouldn’t roll the tape, he kept saying, “it’s not right, it’s not right,” and finally I had to go out to the van and find a dub tape and bring it in and play it for him. He still wasn’t convinced, but he went back to pushing the play and record buttons when we wanted him to. So you see what I mean about these studio guys and perfection. They kind of go together. Maybe you have to be anal retentive to be a studio engineer, I don’t know. All I know is the engineer’s job is to work the machines and get the fuck out of the way, but there are a lot of egos in the studio, on both sides of that soundproof glass. So it’s a miracle anything ever gets recorded with any kind of spontaneity or feeling, especially now that everything’s done on a screen and you can see right there on the graph that the kick drum is a hundredth of a second behind where it’s supposed to be.

Perfection is the enemy of good enough, or perfect is the enemy of good, something like that someone said somewhere, and that’s true. They probably weren’t talking about art or creative kinds of things, but that’s where it’s really important. There’s nothing wrong with attention to detail and quality work, but the sweat should show somewhere. Or you should be able to smell it. But maybe that aesthetic just isn’t cool anymore. We don’t put zines together with exacto knives and rubber cement on the counter at Kinkos anymore, we do it in a publishing program. And we don’t set up an 8 track recorder in the garage or basement to record a band anymore, we open up the digital audio workstation on the computer, plug a microphone into an interface and record all the parts ourselves because it’s easy to do it. And it’s probably that ease of perfection that has so many of us chasing it all the time. Chasing perfection. It’s hard to let some slop show when there’s probably an app to clean the slop up. Wherever it is, whatever it’s on.

So I apologize to Mat for thinking about ways to improve his show. Even though I never said anything to him and he wouldn’t have ever known I even had those thoughts if I didn’t say them here. See, I have to learn to keep my mouth shut. But it’s hard to do something like this without talking. No one listens to mime podcasts or mime radio. Maybe that’s what I’ll say next time I’m doing nothing and someone asks, “What are you doing?” “I’m listening to mime radio. You should check it out.” That would be better than spilling my guts here, but here we are, so what the hell. If the Internet has rubbed some of that perfection grease off on me it’s also made me more transparent, so it’s not all bad. I figured out early on that the best way to stay ahead of anyone out there who wants to expose you or embarrass you or insult you is to expose, insult and embarrass yourself first. We were working on the first version of the Boom Shaka website, this was probably 20 years ago, and I asked the guys in the band to bring some pictures over so I could scan them for the site. So we’re all sitting there, hanging around and scanning pictures and Trevy’s brother Ray handed me his passport. I said, “You want to use your passport picture?” And he said, “No man, the whole thing.” “You want me to put a scan of this whole page of the passport, with the numbers and everything on the site?” “Yeah man.” So what the hell, I stuck it in the scanner, but I thought about it for a second and it kind of dawned on me what he was doing, and I looked at him and said, “Hiding in plain site, yeah?” and he just smiled.

So that’s what I’m doing here I suppose, hiding in plain sight. That’s what I should have called this thing. Damn it. Well, I didn’t have the hidinginplainsight.com domain name sitting around, so what can you do. I had thisisnotatest.com sitting around. I registered the domain back in 2000. I used it to store and share files, but the only thing publicly visible was a test pattern. I guess because it was so mysterious for so long, or just because it didn’t do anything but show a test pattern, it got listed in a lot of forums as a “creepy site” or a “mystery site.” I guess people find it mysterious when a site doesn’t do anything, when it just sits there for a decade showing you a test pattern. I still get traffic from those sites, even though it hasn’t been a mystery for over a year. Maybe it’s still creepy though. I knew I’d use the domain for something someday, I just didn’t think it would take 15 years to figure out what that something would be. I have a few domains like that. They just sit there. But things eventually change, see? Even thisisnotatest.com. Look at it now. It’s like, an actual thing. And thanks for actually hanging around with this thing. With me. I know I’ll see you next time, right? Right.