La Salle St After Hours #2 (take 3)

Yesterday’s post juxtaposed two essays, one written by a person and one by ChatGPT, an AI program. I asked which was which.

When I tried to write this follow-up, YouTube decided I was a robot and wouldn’t let me add links to the post. The post then disappeared. The next take froze and wouldn’t accept my CAPTCHA responses. Now it was sure I was a robot. Then ChatGPT erased the additional essays that I was going to discuss. I finally used two different browsers, one for Chat GPT and YouTube links and another to write the post. So here is #2, take 3.

ChatGPT wrote a convincing essay about a non-existent oil painting. One might say it was brimming with “alternative facts”. John Wright (1934-2017) was a jazz pianist from Chicago. His debut album, “South Side Soul” was released in 1960 with Wendell Roberts on bass and Walter McCants on drums.

When I changed the prompt to call it a “composition” instead of a “piece”, ChatGPT took minutes to begin writing, then spit out the same essay with a different conclusion, using new adjectives in the final paragraph to describe the fictional painting.

I tried again, calling it a “jazz composition”. ChatGPT continued to insist it was a 1991 work and now highlighted the virtuosity of the saxophonist, discussing his “quick runs” and arpeggios. Since the work is for piano, bass, and drums, I wondered where the AI found sax, so I asked. ChatGPT told me there were many recordings of this piece with different saxophonists, so I needed to be more specific. When I gave it specifics, it spit this back:

Thank you for providing additional information. The 1960 recording of “South Side Soul” features John Wright on piano, Frank Derrick on drums, and Frank Walton on trumpet. The saxophonist on this recording is Harold Ousley. Ousley was a talented tenor saxophonist who played with a number of notable jazz musicians over the course of his career, including Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, and Dizzy Gillespie. His soulful, bluesy style of playing is a perfect fit for the “La Salle St After Hours” composition, and his solo on the recording is a highlight of the performance.

As you may note, the only fact on this which is accurate and relevant is that John Wright plays the piano; but I told it that. The others are real musicians but did not play on this record. These actually are “alternative facts”, in that they are factual but have nothing to do with the question asked. It would be like the student who has some knowledge of the general topic but none about the question asked, so fills an essay with stuff that is true but irrelevant. Ousley’s “soulful, bluesy style of playing” is certainly not “a highlight of the performance”.

While I’ve read multiple essays warning about ChatGPT being used by students to do their homework, I would give the bot an ‘F’ on every one of its attempts. If I knew nothing of the work, I may have been convinced. Knowing the work, I’d know the student cheated. Not knowing the work would have necessitated about a minute of Googling to know the essays on painting were lies. Another couple of minutes would have been required to know those which called it jazz were no better.

The other essay, about the pianist playing late into the night after the club had closed, was written by a student from an exam prompt. The students were given two prompts and the piece was played twice in succession. They had to place the piece in a musical, cultural, and historical context in one essay and write a personal reaction in the second essay. It had to be written while the piece was playing and handed in a couple of minutes after the music stopped, so the bot and the human were working in about the same timeframe, kind of like John Henry and the steam drill.

It may not have been fair that I used the student’s second essay and not the first, which may have borne some minor stylistic resemblance to the ChatGPT essay; but I think this illustrates perhaps the most important issue. What is “intelligence”? To me, it is more about the ability to learn than it is about the accumulated knowledge. We don’t call an encyclopedia “intelligent” though it contains a lot of information. At the same time, we don’t belittle a child’s intelligence because they have not yet accumulated a vast store of knowledge. We note a child’s intelligence via the capacity to learn. Learning arises from not knowing. If we don’t know and we are aware of that, we can learn. This AI bot is stupid. Why? Because it makes shit up. If you hide your lack of knowledge by making shit up, you don’t learn. As a programmer, I learned GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. What came out of ChatGPT was Garbage.

Thanks for playing. As your prize for playing our game, here is the title cut from “South Side Soul”.

Beatlemania

It was the 1963-64 school year and the fifth grade talent show was fast approaching. Being only a spectator was not an option. Everyone had to have an act, a talent to display.

My friend Max at Powerpop has declared “Beatles Week” and invited others to write about “a favorite Beatle song”. (In another part of the same post he invites folks to write about “their favorite Beatles song”, an important distinction in my eyes. Who can have a single favorite from their catalog? I’ve written about the my problem of declaring favorites before.) This post will appear over there sometime, but I’m guessing there is not a lot of overlap between us, so you see it here first. Maybe you’ll want to stroll over there and see what others have to say about The Beatles this week. It should last at least 8 days.

okay, I couldn’t resist that one

A classmate approached me about joining an act with a couple of friends. When I asked about the act he was very secretive. He couldn’t tell me what the act was until I agreed to be in it. Once he told me, I couldn’t back out. Note I called him a “classmate”, not a “friend”. I didn’t trust him enough to go along blindly with this. Besides, I already had my act together. What was my act? I have no idea. What was their act? That still sticks in my mind 60 years later.

Four guys took the stage. Each had a rag mop on his head, dyed black and trimmed just so. Three of them held brooms – no mere air guitar for them. The fourth was, of course, Ringo. They lip-synched to “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It wasn’t my favorite Beatles song even then. I bought the single of “She Loves You” but I didn’t buy “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. It seemed like the sort of song that reinforced parental stereotypes about pop music (and “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah” didn’t?) with its simplistic lyrics about holding hands. (Image from WebRestaurantStore)

On February 9, 1964, the US saw The Beatles in person for the first time, on The Ed Sullivan Show. Those of us in the know had seen them a month before on grainy, low fidelity video on Jack Paar.

They had appeared in an NBC News story on November 18, 1963. The news was more about Beatlemania than about the music, though they did acknowledge that The Beatles wrote some of their own songs. Early coverage of the band was more from a sense of amusement at the phenomenon of those crazy teenagers than it was about the music.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was not received with universal acclaim in the US. Esquire music critic David Newman wrote, ‘Terrible awful. …It’s the bunk. The Beatles are indistinguishable from a hundred other similar loud and twanging rock-and-roll groups. They aren’t talented singers (as Elvis was), they aren’t fun (as Elvis was), they aren’t anything.”

On the other hand, it did reach #1 in most western countries (stalling at #6 in Belgium and Finland). In the US it was replaced at #1 by “She Loves You”. In the UK, the order was reversed. It was subsequently released in German as “Komm, gib mir diene Hand” – that version also received US airplay. They recorded in German (just this and “She Loves You”) because the German division of their record company was convinced their records wouldn’t sell in English – despite the fact that they cut their teeth as musicians in Hamburg.

Contrast Newman with Rob Sheffield’s assessment in the Rolling Stone Album Guide (40 years later): “Just check out ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ which explodes out of the speakers with the most passionate singing, drumming, lyrics, guitars, and girl-crazy howls ever – it’s no insult to the Beatles to say they never topped this song because nobody else has either … It’s the most joyous three minutes in the history of human noise.”

So what made them such a big deal? We were used to “singing groups” lip-synching their latest single on American Bandstand, complete with orchestration and fadeout. These were actual musicians. They played and sang at the same time. Of course, they weren’t the first, but it was still somewhat unusual in the pop music world. And they wrote their own songs. Sure, they covered American R&B (“Twist and Shout”, “Roll Over Beethoven”) Girl Group hits (“Chains”, “Boys”), and even show tunes (“A Taste of Honey”, “Til There Was You”) but the list of hit songs (and great songs) they wrote is too long to recount here. Some singers can produce great harmonies in a studio with multiple takes and overdubs, but The Beatles sounded great live in an era without monitors (and with fans screaming loudly enough that they might not have heard themselves even with monitors).

I went to a summer camp that had a carnival with games. One game involved headphones through which a few notes of a Beatles tune were played. Your challenge was speed in identifying the song. How many notes did you need? How quickly could you answer? With what other band would you play that game? What other band went so far in the 7 years during which they released albums in the US?

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is far from the best Beatles song, it’s not my favorite Beatles song, and it wasn’t even the first Beatles song. But it was the only one that dominated the fifth grade talent show at Winnequah School and made 4 boys instantly popular. I was not one of them.

Just another band from East L.A.

I thought I knew the story of Los Lobos (formerly known as Los Lobos del Este – after the famed norteño band Los Tigres del Norte, or Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, which is a mouthful). These guys got together at Garfield High in East LA, the alma mater of my late friend David Okuma. While they were rock and roll fans, they began playing traditional music for their mothers before electrifying and hitting the big time for a short period. While still playing 50 years later, they have not reclaimed their fame of the mid-80s – our loss.

What I didn’t know was the guy who brought them together: their original lead singer, who played harp and mandolin. Francisco (then known as Frank) Gonzáles left the band in 1975, before their first self-released recording Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles (Just another band from East L.A.) in 1978, but not before local PBS affiliate KCET aired a video of the band. (The album was re-released on CD in 2000.)

Note the polyrhythmic “El Canelo” beginning at 18:08. A version would later be released on the grammy-winning “La Pistola y El Corazón” in 1988.

Gonzáles first teamed up with César Rosas, then added David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, and Conrad Lozano. He left the group in 1976, according to the LA Times, to continue to play traditional music. He went on to become musical director of El Teatro Campesino and found a company to make strings for traditional instruments.

Los Lobos made only one major personnel change after that. In 1984 Steve Berlin left The Blasters to join Los Lobos after joining them onstage at the Whisky A Go Go, where Los Lobos had opened for The Blasters. Berlin had appeared on the 1983 Los Lobos EP “…And a Time to Dance”.

The influence of hanging out in the LA rockabilly and punk scene is clear here. KCET again. Stick around for David Hidalgo playing “Sleep Walk”, a 1959 #1 hit by Santo and Johnny, on steel guitar over the closing credits. “Sleep Walk” was reported to be the inspiration for Peter Green’s “Albatross” (Fleetwood Mac), which was, in turn, the inspiration for The Beatles’ “Sun King”. It was also the inspiration for Stephen King’s screenplay “Sleepwalkers. And it was a Grammy winner for The Brian Setzer Orchestra in 1998. (Setzer, of course, also started Stray Cats.)

David introduced me to the EP in 1983 and gave me a copy when he saw how much I liked it. In 1988 he called and asked me to meet him in Monterey, CA for a concert with Los Lobos, David Lindley, and the Grateful Dead. He didn’t have to ask twice. The fact that he had backstage passes was just icing on the cake. A Los Lobos concert at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco was the site of my first date with my future wife that fall.

They released the critically-acclaimed “How Will the Wolf Survive?” in 1986. (The single “Will the Wolf Survive?” reached #26 on the Billboard rock chart and Waylon Jennings’ cover reached #5 on the country chart.) My favorite, “By the Light of the Moon” (which I consider their masterpiece), followed in early 1987. Neither the critics nor the record-buying public agreed with me, though Ted Cox, in the “Chicago Reader”, agreed at least in part when he said ” By the Light of the Moon is an album that asks the big American questions.”

The film “La Bamba” (starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens – real name Valenzuela but changed for crossover appeal) was released six months later and catapulted Los Lobos to fame when the Valens family recruited them to perform Valens’ music. The soundtrack album reached #1 on the charts. They followed up with the all-acoustic and mostly traditional “La Pistola y El Corazón”. While winning a Grammy (for “Best Mexican-American Performance”), it probably skewered their chances of a major career as a rock band. (Of note, they previously won this Grammy for “Anselma” from the EP “…And a Time to Dance”. Other winners in the category include Flaco Jiménez – an acknowledged influence on Hidalgo’s accordion playing, Los Tigres del Norte, and Los Super Seven, which featured members of Los Lobos.)

Title track from “La Pistola y El Corazón”, written by David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez.

With the changes evident from the first two videos above, it should be clear that Los Lobos were not ones to rest on their laurels. They teamed with Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake to take their sound in a new direction. “Kiko” was both a critical and (minor) commercial success in 1992. They released the children’s album “Papa’s Dream” in 1995 and wrote and performed the score for the Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado” (starring Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek). The members of Los Lobos appeared on the albums of Los Super Seven, which also featured Flaco Jiménez, Rick Treviño, Freddy Fender, Ruben Ramos, and others. Los Lobos continues to record and perform today. The title track to their 2015 album “Gates of Gold” was dedicated to the memory of our mutual friend David Okuma.

“El Canoero”, Los Super Seven, featuring Cesar Rosas

Francisco González died March 30, 2022. This post would have waited for the anniversary, but the blog Powerpop posted something on the Blasters and I decided I couldn’t wait.