All posts by Erik Heter

In my professional life I am a patent agent, writing and prosecuting patent applications in the field of electrical engineering for high-tech corporate clients. In my home life I am a husband and a father of one son, football fan (the American kind, that is), a reader of history and many other things (avidly when time permits) and a lover of music (progressive rock in particular), among other things. I'm also a former submariner in the U.S. Navy.

Exit The Warrior: Neil Peart, 1952-2020

There are drummers, and then there are really good drummers.  And then there is Neil Peart.  It’s almost fitting of Peart that his death was not announced until today, January 10th, three days after his actual death on January 7th.  Whereas others did things in simple time and merely kept the beat, Peart’s timing – in drums and in life – was never conventional.  Hence the announcement of his death not on the day he died, but three days later.  The beats never fell quite where they were expected.

There is not much I can say about Peart, the drummer, that hasn’t already been said.  Just about every superlative imaginable has been used to describe his drumming, and a few have probably even been made up.  Peart was simply so good at what he did that new words needed to be invented if one wanted to give an adequate description.  And still, it fell short.  You just had to listen to him play, and if were lucky, see him.  Peart set a standard the drummers everywhere have been trying to live up to, with only a few able to even get within the ballpark.  That’s not a criticism of those that can’t.

Part of the reason Peart was such an incredible talent on the drums has to do with his own philosophy for living.  Whether by temperament or practice, Peart was a Stoic’s Stoic.  He comported himself in a way that would have made Epictetus and Marcus Aerelius proud.  Far from indulging in the perks of fame and fortune and losing his head, Peart shied away from the excesses of the rock star lifestyle.  Instead of flying in a fancy jet between tour dates, as would be common for rockers of his stature, Peart rode his motorcycle between cities, choosing instead to indulge himself in nature and the world around him.  Instead of chasing groupies and destroying hotels, Peart would sit quietly in his room, reading books, filling his head with knowledge.

And as an artist, he valued his integrity above all else.  He was never content to simply go through the motions for a given song or a given album.  It had to be his best.  Nor would Peart, the chief lyricist of Rush, chase hits with sappy love songs and the like.  He deplored the excess commercialization of rock music, as spelled out in the lyrics of one of Rush’s more popular songs, The Spirit of Radio.

From a personal perspective, the timing of the arrival of both Rush and Peart into my life was most serendipitous.  In the spring of 1979, I purchased their breakthrough album, 2112.  As Rush fans are well aware, 2112 revolves around themes of the individual vs. the collective, totalitarianism, and the human spirit’s unshakeable yearning to be free.  Around that same time, I was having numerous, lengthy conversations with my maternal grandmother who, along with my grandfather, aunt, and mother, were defectors from the communist hellhole known as East Germany.  Whereas Peart’s lyrics from 2112 introduced me to a fictional world in which the human spirit was crushed by a totalitarian government, the talks with my grandmother introduced me to one that was all too real.  Individually, 2112 and the talks with my grandmother both left strong impressions on my.  Together, those impressions reinforced one another to leave an indelible mark.

My story is just one of perhaps millions with regard to the influence of Neil Peart.  The impact drummers have on their fans is through their drumming, and little more.  They set an example of how to play drums.  Peart, on the other hand did so much more.  He set an example on how to live, how to maintain one’s self when the surrounding world is pulling in different direction, how to maintain one’s integrity through the ups and downs that life throws at all of us.  And thankfully, so much of that is recorded for posterity.

Thank you, Neil, for being a shining example for all of us.

Tool de Force: Tool’s New ‘Fear Inoculum’ Was Worth the Wait

We’ve been waiting.  Oh man, have we been waiting – over thirteen years, to be exact.  I fear-inoculumhad begun to believe that the title of the their last album – 10,000 Days – was Tool telegraphing us the time it would take to see the next one.  Thankfully, they beat that by a good fourteen years.  Better yet, what they have finally delivered has made the wait all the more worth it.

Fear Inoculum – the digital version, anyway – clocks in at a hefty one hour and twenty-seven minutes.  Not only is the album itself long, but six of the album’s ten tracks eclipse the 10-minute mark, with the longest clocking in at over fifteen.  But it’s not merely the duration of the album or that of the individual tracks that is significant here.  Every second counts on Fear Inoculum, which is more consistent in its excellence from start to finish than any of their previous releases.

Lyrically, the album continues the trend of introspection and contemplation started on 2001’s Lateralus, while dispensing with the rage-fueled catharsis of previous works dealing with institutional decay (Intolerance), the decadence of Los Angeles (Aeneima), or humanity’s lamentable will to fight each other over any and everything (Right in Two).  On Fear Inoculum, Tool focuses in on the inner struggle of facing one’s fears (the title track, 7empest) and dealing with one’s aging and mortality (Invincible, Descending).

From a musical perspective, Fear Inoculum is stunning in its quality.  The soloing in Adam Jones guitar work is as dynamic as its every been, while in plenty of other places he dishes out scores of power chords as meaty as a thick, sizzling ribeye.  Danny Carey’s drumming exceeds even his own typical excellence, combining the rhythmic intricacy of Bill Bruford at his best while also employing plenty of Bonham-esque heavy thuds right when appropriate.  Justin Chancellor’s bass work provides a nice, thick bottom to the music, wrapping perfectly around Carey’s drumming while keeping the listener engaged in guessing where the next beat will fall.

Although the album is stacked with good tracks, there are two in particular that stand out for me.  Invincible is the first of these tracks.  This one is positively infectious; it just gets into your bloodstream.  The first seven minutes are a textbook example of slowly building tension.   After the explosion, the song slows down, although Carery’s heavy drumming is active underneath, before the band makes one final, mad dash to the finish line.  Throughout, the aging warrior tries to hang on to what was as Father Time strips it away.

Tears in my eyes chasing Ponce de Leon’s phantoms.
So filled with hope I can taste mythical fountains.
False hope, perhaps,
But the truth never got in my way before now.
Feel the sting. Feeling time bearing down.

7empest is the penultimate track on the album and possibly the ultimate track in Tool’s catalog.  In its fifteen-plus minutes of running time, it encapsulates virtually everything that makes Tool great.  After a delicate intro of about a minute and a half, Jones guitar snarls and lets the listener know that go time is rapidly approaching.  Carey’s drums join in, and soon enough, the band punches it, the g-forces pushing the listener back into their seat from the sudden acceleration.  The music builds to a first climax, before transitioning into a middle phase notable for Jones’ hypnotic, exotic soloing.  Meanwhile, Carey’s drumming and Chancellor’s bass work provide a solid underpinning.  A brief, (relatively) mellow interlude follows before the song picks up the pace and the band brings it to a close.  It’s a very satisfying listen.

In fact, the whole album is a very satisfying listen.  Fear Inoculum is an album that breaks enough new ground to sound fresh while still having the recognizable Tool tool-fear-inoculumsound.  Lyrically, it is by far the most mature album they have made, perhaps owing to the wisdom accumulated over the years (most definitely including those from the last album to this one).  After such a long delay, it’s fair to wonder when we will see the next Tool album, much less if we’ll see another Tool album.  Should this turn out to be Tool’s swan song, they will have gone out on the highest of high notes.  You can’t ask for much more than that.

The Realignment – A Podcast

I’ve been interested in the 50,000 foot view of what has been going on in the last several years politically and culturally with respect to things like the election of Trump, Brexit, the populist surge sweeping across Europe, an so on.  Also, I am a podcast junkie, and listen to quite a number of them on a regular basis – arguably too many.  Although I need to add yet another podcast to my list just slightly less than I need a really bad case of malaria, I have nevertheless stumbled across one that is particularly suitable for the interests discussed above – The Realignment, which you can find at the link.  The first and only episode (so far) is an absolutely fascinating interview with JD Vance, who was the author of the equally fascinating Hillbilly Elegy from 2016.  If you are into podcasts and into understanding what’s going on in the world right now, then this is one you won’t want to miss.

Apollo 11 and The Lost Frontier

“It would be very interesting to speculate on what the human imagination is going to do with a frontierless world where it must seek its inspiration in uniformity rather than variety, in sameness rather than contrast, in safety rather than peril, in probing the harmless nuances of the known rather than the thundering uncertainties of unknown seas or continents. The dreamers, the poets, and the philosophers are after all but instruments which make vocal and articulate the hopes and aspirations and the fears of a people.

The people are going to miss the frontier more than words can express. For four centuries they heard its call, listened to its promises, and bet their lives and fortunes on its outcome.  It calls no more” – Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier

Webb’s prediction was correct, just as he feared.

We do miss the frontier more than words can express.  We miss it so much that few can even contemplate its absence.  But clearly, something is amiss.  The political earthquakes presently rumbling across the planet are just symptoms of something bigger.  Sure, we can validly attribute a multitude of causes to the present day state of the world.  But undoubtedly, we miss the frontier.  Man, do we ever.

Fifty years ago this July 20th, a five year old boy (yours truly) stood ossified in front of a black and white television in a living room in Lewiston, Idaho.  While he didn’t fully appreciate the significance of what was happening, he knew it was a big deal.  The cues from the adults in the room were ample evidence of that. Apollo 11 Buzz

What the moment led to was a lifelong interest in space exploration, which included the devouring of one book after another on the topic, building plastic models of spacecraft, flying model rockets, and anything else that could satiate my appetite for all things space.  More than that though, it created a hopeful anticipation for a certain future, a future of unlimited possibilities.  Unfortunately, that future has yet to arrive.  As Andy Tillison of the British progressive rock band The Tangent stated, the future was not as good as the book.  Or, as venture capitalist Peter Thiel surmised, “we were promised flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”  Queue the golf clap.

What happened to us since that glorious day 50 years ago?

Continue reading Apollo 11 and The Lost Frontier

Into the Mind of an Addict – A Review of The Heroin Diaries: A Year In The Life of a Shattered Rock Star, by Nikki Sixx

I always knew I’d do book reviews here someday.  What I didn’t anticipate is that the very first one would be a book authored by Nikki Sixx, whose claim to fame is as the bassist of the now-retired heavy metal band Mötley Crüe.  Spirit of Cecilia is not the placeHeroin Diaries you would expect to find a review of a book authored by a heavy metal musician, particularly one from a band with a reputation as notorious as the one which is his claim to fame.  Yet, for reasons I will discuss below, this powerful book is more relevant today than upon its original publication in 2007, and maybe even relative to the 10th Anniversary Edition (the one I read) released in 2017.

As the title suggests, the bulk of The Heroin Diaries is just that – entries in a diary.  In particular, these are diary entries recorded by Sixx between Christmas 1986 and Christmas 1987, while he was in the midst of a vicious heroin addiction.  It was an addiction that nearly cost him his life – and in fact did, for two minutes on December 23, 1987, before a determined paramedic revived him with two adrenaline shots to the heart.  Interspersed the book’s diary entries are contemporaneous thoughts and accounts from people around Sixx, including bandmates, managers, and his mother (with whom his relationship was strained, to put it mildly), among others.

The opening entry finds Sixx alone in his mansion on Christmas Day 1986, shooting up, or as he describes it, “watching [his] holiday spirit coagulating in a spoon.”  It’s not hyperbole to call it a depressing beginning.  The events of the year that follows include the recording of an album, a tour, numerous misadventures, and an absolutely insane amount of drug consumption. This drug consumption went well beyond just the heroin which had him in its grip.  It was the rock star lifestyle on steroids.

The diary entries range from lucid and clear-headed at one extreme to the mad ramblings of a mind spiraling out of control at the other.  The more lucid entries show Sixx as someone keenly aware of being captive to something from which he desperately wants to be free.  There is a point in the year in which he was able to get away from heroin in particular and drugs in general for ten days or so, but eventually the addiction sucks him back into its vortex.  With regard to the more rambling entries, we find Sixx often times consumed by paranoia, hiding in his closet or flushing his stash (and effectively, hundreds of dollars) down the toilet for fear of being watched through his windows by the police, only to realize later that nothing of the sort actually occurred.  This is followed in some instances by calling his dealer to obtain more drugs, becoming paranoid again after getting high, flushing the drugs again … you know the drill.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

As a quick aside, one of the criticisms I have seen from a few reviewers of this book is that it somehow glorifies or glamorizes addiction.  That opinion is, for the lack of a better term, bat-shinola crazy.  Many of the various diary entries and associated anecdotes in the book range from repulsive, disgusting, to horrifying, to heartbreaking, and other emotions that are far removed from anything resembling glamour.  Nobody with a modicum of sanity would find glamour in drug addiction after reading this book. 

Among the cast of characters surrounding Sixx in his race into hell are numerous enablers that will enrage the reader.  Chief among them are the record company types and assorted managers and others who were only too happy to indulge Sixx in his addiction as long as the band (for which he was the main creative force) was making them money.  Then there are the dealers who made their living by preying on Sixx’s weakness.  I’ll except his bandmates from this dishonorable mention, since all of them were dealing with their own demons at the time.  This applies most keenly to the band’s guitarist (Mick Mars) who has long suffered from a particularly debilitating form of arthritis known as ankylosing spondylitis.

On the flip side, a hero of note in the book is a man named Allen Kovac, Sixx’s personal manager.  Subsequent to the events of the diaries themselves, Sixx had one brief relapse with heroin in which Kovac issued an ultimatum – you can work with me or you can have your heroin.  But not both.  In one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for Sixx, Kovac’s tough love served as the catalyst for his final break from this nasty drug, and was instrumental in leading to full sobriety. 

While the diary portion is extremely tough reading, Sixx’s chronicling of his life subsequent to the events of 1987 serves as a happy and uplifting ending.  As he states in the book, the beauty is in the recovery.  In the 10th Anniversary edition, the “posthumous” adventures, as he calls them, come in two parts, the first leading up to the book’s original 2007 publication, and the second covering the remaining time up to 2017. 

Reading through the author’s description of his post-addiction life, it is at times hard to reconcile that it’s written by the same person who scribbled the diary entries describing the insanity of Christmas 1986 to Christmas 1987.  While some of difference can be attributed to wisdom and maturity gained over the years, it is also apparent that the clarity of a completely sober mind is a significant (if not the dominant) factor.  At the end of the story we find Sixx enjoying marriage and fatherhood far more than he ever enjoyed any rock star excess, and we find a man indulging in creative passions including his love of photography instead of sinking into a debilitating drug addiction.  The contrast between the Nikki Sixx of today and the one from 1987 could not be more striking.

Ultimately, The Heroin Diaries is a story of redemption.

One might wonder why Sixx would chose to bare his soul as he did in The Heroin Diaries; why he would want to show himself at his absolute worst.  Some of this undoubtedly is spurred by the opioid crisis currently ravaging parts of the country.  Understandably, as a recovering addict, he wants to help others through prevention and recovery.  On the prevention side, a reading of the entries in his diary would be more than enough to dissuade almost anybody from trying heroin, cocaine, or other hard drugs.  On the recovery side, the reader will know that if Sixx can climb out of the hole he was in then there is hope for anyone that truly wants to break the chains of addiction.  The opioid crisis will be solved one person at a time, by preventing people from starting down the road Sixx traveled and by demonstrating to present addicts and those around them that their situation, no matter how bad it seems, is not hopeless.  With lives being ruined and families being torn apart by the scourge of opioid addiction, this message is needed now more than ever.

Thank you for sharing, Nikki.

 

3 Up, 3 Down (Softly)

Elon Musk catches a lot of grief, and to be fair, much of it is well-deserved.  But if there is one of his endeavors for which I am an unequivocal fanboy and for which he is performing an unqualified good, it’s SpaceX.  Where various NASA contractors have dumped almost $12 billion for the Space Launch System and haven’t even a single flight to show for it, Musk and Co. spent a mere $500 million of private money (no, that’s not much in terms of rocket development) and came up with the Falcon Heavy, currently the world’s most powerful launch vehicle.  Tonight, it made it’s second successful flight, launching a commercial payload into orbit, while successfully landing all three booster stages, two at Cape Canaveral and one on a barge at sea.  Bravo to Elon, bravo to everybody at SpaceX, and bravo to the private sector, which now runs rings around government sponsored space programs.  More, please.