The Royal Scam

Roger Nichols died the other day. He was the engineer behind the Steely Dan records, the ones that stood in the great chasm between George Martin’s Beatles productions and whatever is going on today. When I think of what could be of the great realtime stream we’re all building, I hope and trust it will somehow reach toward the quality of that perfection.

It felt like a perpetual motion machine, a unique world inside a glass ball, shimmering in the precision of the world’s greatest drummers’ time machine. Some felt it lacked emotion, settling for cool perhaps. You could say that, but as the years went by, the clock kept quietly ticking — through the rage of the punks, the bloat of the eighties, the decades we stopped counting. Like a Kubrick film, exacting in its architecture, with tinges of humor and slashes of jump cuts.

Today we talk of bubbles, of the hype cycle, of valuations and pre-IPO marketplaces where we can retain control over the precision of our inventions. My favorite bubble is AirPlay, where Steve Jobs’ hobby as he called it is transformed into a gateway drug for the new media. We know what the iPad is good for, but what a surprise awaited us when we started to notice the little icon that connects us back to the time when music and film and even TV kept us in the know about what was important.

Back then music was freed of the tyranny of the cartel’s fear of digital copying. Back then we stole from each other, guilty of the pleasure of honoring those we loved and admired. And the sharing gave back to us this explosion of riches, the feeling of walking among the gods even if we were mere mortals. The sweet insolence of confidence that we were busy inventing the world.

You can see that spirit alive today, as it always is. On Netflix, a Marx Brothers film, not the classic ones but a middle-aged one reusing the Casablanca sets. There’s Harpo with that goofy expression, a glint in the eyes that says everything The Clash would say years later as they rocked the Casbah. The Times obituary quoted Nichols saying he didn’t mind the endless retakes of Becker and Fagan: “It would have driven a lot of other engineers up the wall. In my own way, I’m just as crazy as they are.”

Back then we called them records as they spun slower and slower, from 78 to 45 to 33 and a third. You could lose yourself in the liner notes, the arcana (specialized knowledge or detail that is mysterious to the average person: “knows the arcana of police procedure and the intricacies of litigation” (George F. Will)) of producers and engineers and musicians and doctors and lawyers and thanks to God et al. Like baseball cards or bird watching or the clocksmith tinkering in his inner sanctum, a world where we all took the time to revel in what we were inventing.

There was no concept of users, or the audience back then. We felt like the baseball fan sure that if we turned off the game too soon or failed to wear the lucky hat that day, that our team would lose. If we weren’t in the loop, the bubble wouldn’t exist. Does that sound like the Stream today? It should. Twitter’s power is in our shared assent, our cooperation, our delight at co-writing the liner notes of our time.

Still, the tools rebel at our temerity. Word barfs every time I construct a sentence that dangles, splaying a green line below the fragment but not suggesting a replacement. It’s almost a validation of the choice of fewer words, the flailings of the machine as it debates whether to add the style to the dictionary or continue to obstinately tell us it doesn’t learn. It wants to be helpful, but with a schoolmarmish virtual rap on the knuckles. No, it doesn’t like schoolmarmish at all.

Real soon now they’ll unlock the two sides of AirPlay, the liner notes displacing the default animals on the HD screen alongside the music. I listened to the new Paul Simon record yesterday, produced with another great master of then and now, Phil Ramone. The CD format is too small for the aging eyes, too dark for the underlit room in this turn off the hall light energy crisis $5 a gallon moment. I’d pay for a channel that pushed the graphics and liner notes and pictures and web site with upsell and concert promos and so on. C’mon guys, the iPad is here.

On the record, God speaks (Paul in a close-miked Bill Cosby voice): Big Bang, That’s a joke I made up, Once when I had eons to kill, You know, most folks, They don’t get when I’m joking, Well, maybe someday they will… I found this at my neighborhood record store, aka Starbucks. Simon, who used to be on Warners and Columbia (Sony) with Garfunkel, is now on Hear Music aka Starbucks Corporation. I’m beginning to get that they are joking.

And so I will mourn Roger Nichols with the great pleasure of knowing he did what he set out to do: play in the garden of perfection without fear and with no apologies. Back then, they knew what this world was going to look like, because they invented it. Just because Pan Am didn’t survive until the real 2001 doesn’t mean Kubrick was any less of a prophet. Like Steve Jobs and the inventors of the Cloud, those who dare to be perfect divine our shared future.