I came to David Bowie, as to all good things, late. My memories of his music in childhood were fragmentary: “Dancing In The Street” was a top 40 hit, and “Let’s Dance” impinged on my consciousness. Later, WNOR and WAFX played that of his material that had been admitted to the classic rock canon: “Suffragette City,” “Space Oddity,” “Changes,” “Rebel Rebel.” I had no idea what lay behind those works.

I came to the better parts of Bowie obliquely, which is appropriate. In the fall of my last year at UVA, Philip Glass’s “‘Low’ Symphony,” based on Bowie’s first album with Brian Eno, came out on CD. It went into my odd heavy rotation. I didn’t check out the album it came from until later, after their collaboration “Outside” had twisted my head, obsessed my thoughts, and ultimately left me cold.

Eventually I found “Low,” but the first listen befuddled me. Then “‘Heroes,'” which was an entirely different story – the title song is probably the only one of his works I can sing from beginning to end. Slowly I was catching up.

I made it through “Ziggy,” “Lodgers,” then “Station to Station.” At which point I began to appreciate what all the fuss was about. The level of the funk he was pulling off in that record!

By contrast the first listen to “The Next Day” underwhelmed me. I’m going to go back and listen to it again, but at the time my dominant impression was “He’s been sick.” The once mighty voice was thin, though still powerfully emotive. And I won’t claim prescience, but it did remind me of the way that Chris Whitley’s voice was eroded in his last recording, or Yauch’s. I probably didn’t think the C word aloud.

But I managed to leave that impression behind. Because the lead single from his now-final album, ★, lifted off the top of my head in a way that his work hadn’t for a while. The skittering drum work of Mark Guiliana anchored a performance by the rest of his band that was at once exhilarating and familiar after the modern jazz I had been consuming for years. And the aesthetic of the video… well, I finally understood Bowie as a complete artist. And I will probably have nightmares with buttons for eyes for a long time.

I devoured the album when it came out last Friday, pausing only over “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” It sounds like a valediction, I thought.

Then this morning, and the place in my mind that was consumed by Bowie’s vital comeback realigned in an instant. It wasn’t a comeback. It was a parting gift. Bowie’s performance in “Lazarus” was completely convincing because he knew what it was to be in a hospital bed.

So now he’s gone, and I’m left to marvel at the wild oracular talent, the body of work that it left, and how far ahead he was and how far I had to go to catch up with him.

The history beneath our feet

New Yorker: Unearthing the city grid that would have been in Central Park. Fascinating read about history right under our feet, in the form of 8.5″ square, three foot tall stone markers that were carefully placed across New York City to mark street intersections—including in the land that is now Central Park.

I did an archaeological dig in fifth grade—the site, a trash dump in the backyard of a commercial site, didn’t yield much—and another one summer in middle school in Colonial Williamsburg, which yielded foundations and fragments of pipes and glass. What I discovered didn’t change the world, but it changed me. I learned that sometimes the past is in the present, just a little out of reach—or maybe so covered that it’s not recognizable. Or put another way, history is garbage with context.

“The Business Manager … arranged a tour…”

"The Virginia Boys," Atlanta Constitution, January 28, 1894, p. 24.
“The Virginia Boys,” Atlanta Constitution, January 28, 1894, p. 24.

It was a busy fall. I gave my first public speech about the history of the Virginia Glee Club at last fall’s Glee Club banquet, and in the process did a little new research. I wanted to share a few notes from the background of that talk (slides here), which focused on the Glee Club’s tours beginning with its first off-Grounds concerts in the 1890s.

To do that, I’m including a short excerpt from a book I’ve been writing off and on on the history of the Glee Club. I’d love any feedback on the content below. The question I tried to answer was: given the Club’s spotty history for the first 20 years of its existence, why did it come roaring back in the late 1880s and early 1890s, going from virtual quiescence to mounting extensive tours? Here’s an excerpt that gives some of the background.

That the Glee Club’s early history should be bound to the Grounds of the University is unsurprising, if one considers both the fragile civil life and convalescing infrastructure of post-Reconstruction Virginia. That just 22 years after its founding it would be touring major Southern cities in four states staggers the mind until one thinks about one aspect of that badly injured infrastructure: the railroad.

Prior to the Civil War, the railroad did not enjoy the same rise to prominence in the South as in the North. In Virginia particularly, the spread of the railroad was hampered by the political power of the planters, who were suspicious of transportation initiatives that did not directly help get their goods to market faster, and of the elite in Richmond, who, starting with George Washington, had championed river transportation for goods, with an eye to keeping commerce in Virginia ports rather than sending it down the Mississippi to the port of New Orleans (under Spanish control until the Louisiana Purchase). In this spirit, the canal building enterprise that created the still-visible Chesapeake and Ohio Canal between Georgetown and Cumberland, MD and the James River and Kanawha Canal in Richmond sought to create water links from major plantations to ports. When railroads first started to be built in a significant way in Virginia, they were likewise viewed as ways to market for the planters; there was no vision of a network of rails that could assist with transit of goods over land and across state lines, much less comparable carriage of passengers.

After the Civil War, this began to change. The railroad company eventually known as the Chesapeake and Ohio bought smaller rail companies and began to connect the lines to out of state networks, beginning in the Reconstruction years. Following Reconstruction, the C&O was purchased by Northern rail barons and expanded still further.

And passenger trains became more widely available. In 1885, the Charlottesville Union Station, a passenger depot serving the C&O, the Virginia Midland Railway, and the Charlottesville and Rapidan Railroad opened on West Main Street in Charlottesville, where it still sits (serving Amtrak) today. Before this point, distance travel relied on horse power; afterwards, students could – and did – ride the rails.

So it was that the Glee Clubs of 1889–90, 1891–92 and 1892–93 mounted their first performances outside Charlottesville – albeit in the relatively close-to-hand locales of Staunton, Norfolk, Richmond and Petersburg. As we have seen, the Glee Club of 1889–90 had held a concert in the Public Hall in the Rotunda Annex, on April 11, 1890, and followed it that same weekend with performances in Lynchburg and Staunton. Two years later the Glee Club returned to the Public Hall on December 17, 1891, with a program that featured song in less than half the performance’s 15 numbers, the balance being devoted to banjo, guitar and mandolin works; the following night found them in Staunton, and a performance in Norfolk followed on April 20. The 1892–93 Club broadened its horizons still further, with a performance in “town” in the Levy Opera House in January, and a three city tour with appearances in the Richmond Theatre, the Norfolk Opera House, and the Academy of Music in Petersburg in February.…

After 1892–93, the group decided to travel much more ambitiously. Led by Bernard W. Moore and with help from a few graduating alumni, including George Ainslie, the group mounted its first major tour outside the state of Virginia. The 1894 Corks and Curls dramatically illustrates the growth of the group’s accomplishments, with the modest touring of 1891 through 1893 together taking up less than the space allotted to 1894.

Even before the tour proper, the Glee Club held performances in the Levy Opera House and the Staunton Opera House in mid-January 1894. The tour proper kicked off with a performance in Fayerweather Gymnasium on Tuesday, January 30, and was off to the Mozart Academy in Richmond the next day. Thursday saw the group in the Lexington (Kentucky) Opera House, and they continued in Kentucky with an engagement in the Louisville Masonic Temple on Friday. Saturday was the Grand Opera House in Nashville. The group took a day off for travel (and the Sabbath) but performed in DeGive’s Grand Opera House in Atlanta on Monday, February 5. Turning north again, they were in Chattanooga’s New Opera House Tuesday to conclude the tour on February 6. A performance in the Lynchburg Opera House on March 29 concluded the season.

How was such an elaborate and lengthy tour possible? Again, the railroad not only facilitated but was the only conceivable way to travel the miles from state to state so rapidly. Here the group had the assistance of the general passenger agent of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, John D. Potts. Apparently having no UVa connection, Potts nevertheless worked closely with the group through the 1890s, to the point of being named business manager of the group in 1895–96.

Note: This post contains an excerpt from an unpublished work and — unlike the rest of this Creative Commons licensed blog — is copyright © Timothy Jarrett 2016. All rights reserved.

Too many books

I stopped writing regularly on this blog a while ago, about the time that I stopped reading books regularly. (The usual culprits – career and children – lay behind both.)

Actually, it’s not quite right to say I stopped reading: I just slowed way down. Given that I used to rip through stacks of books as a kid and right up through college (the semester I spent reading a Nabokov novel a week, on top of other literature, probably stands as the high point), this has been a painful transition. I still keep a stack of books next to my bed to work on. Right now that stack is a foot tall, not including the latest Neal Stephenson novel.

Why has my backlog grown so deep? A few reasons:

  1. Reduced time to read. This one is self explanatory.
  2. Broadened interests. This one is more interesting to me. I used to be all fiction all the time, but lately am just as likely to be buried in history, or in Keith Houston’s Shady Characters (recommended).
  3. Latent desire to find more books. My acquisition rate has slowed down, but not as much as my reading rate.
  4. Slackened desire to read. Sadly, a lot of nights I just veg out—albeit with Facebook rather than TV.

I’m not making any resolutions about it, but I will be measuring my reading this year to see if I can pick up the pace. You can follow my progress at Goodreads.

Notes on updating an iPhone in 2016

If you’ve read my blog (and I imagine the three of you currently doing so have done so before), you know I’m an Apple guy of long standing. Of course I was watching the keynote where they announced the iPhone Upgrade program, in which you can update to a new phone every year for a moderate monthly payment with no carrier contract*. But I didn’t fully undersand how the program worked.

Historically, I’ve been on the cycle for iPhone upgrades, starting with the 3GS, and with a January upgrade date. So I went to the Apple Store to get the scoop on the Upgrade program. Here’s what I learned (or re-learned):

  1. Subsidized iPhones are a thing of the past, at least for the high end models. You used to pick a price point ($199, $299, $399, whatever) and accept a two year contract with the carrier. But that’s a thing of the past. You can basically choose either to pay full price for the phone (starting at $649), or you can pay a monthly fee either to your carrier of choice or to Apple. Net result: you pay more, because your data plan isn’t correspondingly cheaper.
  2. I am paying for too much data. I have a legacy AT&T Unlimited data plan, but I only ever use about 2.7GB of data a month, based on a year’s worth of usage data. I could save a chunk of change by rebalancing my data plan, almost enough to pay the monthly charge for the phone.
  3. There are good reasons to rent your phone from Apple rather than the carrier. For one, the phone you get from Apple is carrier unlocked, meaning you can switch to a different carrier. For another, the monthly price to Apple includes AppleCare.
  4. It’s harder to avoid getting the high end model. My iPhone 5s was 64GB. I could mostly live with that, even with using it as an iPod for a lot of losslessly-ripped music. But I got the 128GB iPhone 6s, because the price difference was basically a latte a month (around $4).

The model has some interesting implications, not least of which the shifting of the accounting for Apple to a recurring revenue model (more predictable), the likely change in Apple’s device mix to higher end devices, an improved customer service model (imagine how much happier Apple’s customers would be if all of them had AppleCare!), and more.

But for now, I’m just excited for a new device. W00t!

On not forgetting


As a fourth year undergrad student, I entered Julian Bond’s course on the history of the Civil Rights movement in the fall of 1993 not knowing what was going to happen to me. I didn’t really realize how much the class was changing me until I worked on my class project, which ended up being a paper on Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws.

Learning that my home state had, not fifteen years before my birth, decided that closing public schools was preferable to having to integrate them was mindboggling. Learning that a superintendent who still has an elementary school named after him in my home town could cite the small number of black applicants to a school as a reason not to desegregate it was shameful. Understanding the perfectly legal mechanisms that were used by segregationists and racists to avoid, subvert, and delay the implementation of the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board decision made me aware that there were more dimensions of evil than just cartoonish Klansmen.

In that context, it’s easy to understand why university students would want to remove the name of slaveowners from  buildings. And why there have been calls to tear down monuments to Confederate soldiers. I find myself looking on such calls with mixed emotions, however.

As the historian of the Virginia Glee Club, I’ve had to grapple with the University’s mixed legacy on slavery and race. I learned about the Movement there, and the Glee Club was integrating truck stops on tours during the 1960s, but many of the Lawn buildings were probably built with slave labor, and as late as Faulkner’s first year as writer in residence, his proposal (in “A Word to Virginians“) of going along with integration met with an outcry there.

One cannot change history by removing names, and one cannot remove the stain of slavery’s original sin from the United States by removing monuments. Until one understands that one’s parents or grandparents felt no shame in putting out an issue of the student magazine with a triumphant Lee standing over Grant in front of the stars and bars (see above), one can’t understand the forces that shaped the culture that exists today.

On the legality of peeping Toms

Boing Boing: Free Stanford course on surveillance law. Now I know what I’ll be doing in my spare time this month, and you should too. 

At last month’s inaugural Black Hat Executive Summit, I learned a few things that surprised me about how existing US law applies to “cyber,” and I expect to continue to be surprised by this course. Probably unpleasantly, but who knows?

Sending 2015 out with a bang

Happy New Year!

We went a little nuts yesterday and made Melissa Clark’s “modern timpano” for our New Years Eve dinner. Did it go well? Well, aside from taking more like five hours, and the pasta covering being pretty inedible, I’d say yes. The inside was delicious, though not much like the Stanley Tucci inspired dish it’s named after (and check Tucci’s feedback on that in the recipe comments!). 

You can see what it looks like fresh out of the pan above, and served up below. 

And the New Year begins, lazy, as we polish off leftovers for lunch – not a hardship when it’s leftover duck and shrimp gumbo – and think do I really want to cook that Hoppin John analog today? Well, yes, since I went to the trouble of mail ordering the Sea Island red peas from Anson Mills and they’re soaking in the fridge. 

But for now it’s just a pleasure to sit and enjoy the quiet.