Mar 2017

My CocoaConf Yosemite 2017 Talk

Yosemite 2017 was so great. It always is.

Below is the rough draft of my first-night talk. A few notes…

The actual spoken version is probably not even close to the text, which was written before any rehearsal, and of course it’s never my intent to memorize it exactly.

The bit with Laura Savino was a quick three-chord rock medley. We both played acoustic guitar and sang. It went like this:

B: Louie Louie, oh baby, we gotta go
L: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
B: Louie Louie, oh baby, we gotta go
L: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
B: I live on an apartment on the 99th floor of my block
L: Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on
B: I look out my window imagining the world has stopped
L: Hang on Sloopy, Sloopy hang on
[Slight change of chords]
B & L: Teenage wasteland, oh yeah, only teenage wasteland [repeated]

Here’s my favorite video for Brimful of Asha.

During the Squirrel Picture interlude (slide #3) I told the Squirrel Story, which wasn’t planned or recently rehearsed, but I’ve told it often enough that it didn’t really need rehearsal.

I dedicated the performance of Hallelujah to Dori Smith.

The talk was meant to be about 20 minutes long. Afterward I went around the room with a microphone and each person introduced themselves. (The talk’s job is to be a first-night ice-breaker talk.)

I spent about 10 hours on rehearsal for those 20 minutes.

Here’s the talk:

Slide #1: Three Chord Rock

Hi. I’m Brent.

Before I get started — seeing my friend Brad Ellis reminded me of the most rock-n-roll moment of my life. Where’s Brad? Hi Brad. Anyway — I was at a party at my friend Chris’s house, and he let me borrow his guitar and do a sing-along. I think we did White Rabbit and Me and Bobby McGee and Hotel California.

Well, here’s the problem — I have a hard time hanging on to a guitar pick. Especially after a few beers. So at one point the pick goes flying, and I’m strumming with my fingers.

But I had a hangnail, and it got a bit aggravated as I was strumming. At the end I noticed that there was my actual blood on the guitar. I felt bad about it, but Chris was gracious, of course, and I thought that right then: that’s rock and roll.

You can use this as metaphor. Bleeding? Keep right on playing. Maybe you won’t even notice that you’re bleeding, at least not until you stop.

Chris told me later that the guitar cleaned up fine, so all was well.

Okay. On to the actual talk…

I bet most of you have heard the phrase “three chord rock n roll.” Or have heard that “rock is so great because you only need three chords.”

What you may not realize is that it’s even easier than that: it’s three specific chords. Always the same three chords.

They might be in any key but they’re the first, fourth, and fifth. In the key of C, the first is C, the fourth is F, and the fifth is G. In the key of A it’s A, D, and E.

And when a song does have more than those three chords, it has at least those three chords. They’re the foundation for almost all pop and rock.

One part of music is building tension and then resolving it. I’ll demonstrate on guitar.

[On guitar] Play the first .... and you’re fine. You’re home. Play the fourth .... and there’s a little tension. Not a ton, but some. But you want to go back to the first, to home.

Then play the fifth ... and you have maximum tension. You definitely want to go back home to the first.

So with those three chords you have everything you need to write a thousand songs.

Now for a little demo, I’d like to invite Laura Savino up to help me out.

[music]

Thanks, Laura!

SO LET ME MAKE TWO POINTS VERY CLEAR.

  1. ONE. If you’re writing apps or a website or doing a podcast or whatever — if you’re just starting out and only know the equivalent of three chords, don’t worry — you can create a masterpiece with just three chords.

  2. TWO. If you do know more than three chords, you might want to consider just using those three chords anyway. People love those three chords. They’re appealing. They’re accessible and intimate. They work.

Slide #2: “Brimful of Asha“ by Cornershop, Asha Bhosle, and You

One of my personal favorite three-chord-rock songs came out in the mid-90s. Brimful of Asha by Cornershop.

Who here knows this song?

Let me explain what it’s about:

Asha Bhosle sang songs for Bollywood musicals. The actresses would lip-sync, but it was her singing. She did this for over a thousand movies. Over 12,000 songs.

Some of those songs would be released as singles. Years ago a single would come out on vinyl, as a 45. A 45 is smaller than a regular album, and it has one song on each side. The number 45 means 45 revolutions-per-minute — you’d have to set your turntable to 45 instead of the usual 33 1/3. So: a 45 is a single.

So here’s a little bit from the song:

[There’s dancing, behind movie screens…]

I love that image. That Asha is not just singing but dancing as she’s singing. We never see her dancing, but that joy and engagement shows up in her performance.

And so this song is about hope. It’s about how a song can bring some consolation and hope when people need it.

And her name Asha actually means hope. Brimful of Asha — brimful of hope.

HERE’S MY POINT.

We're in the same business. People form an emotional connection to whatever we’re making. The things we make can bring hope to other people. Knowing that, it’s our job to be as engaged and joyful as she is as we make our things. Maybe we’re not literally dancing, but it should be the metaphorical equivalent.

Slide #3: Squirrel Picture

Squirrel!

When I was a kid we went to a Methodist church. I haven’t been to church hardly at all since I was a kid, but I remember one cool thing from church services: the minister would pause and ask people to shake hands with the people around them.

So here are the rules. Tell people to have a good conference, and shake hands with at least one person from another table. Stand up!

Slide #4: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, with Singing by James Dempsey

A few weeks ago I found myself in a hotel bar with a bunch of other nerds. I also found a piano. If there’s a piano, I’m going to play it. So I talked a few people — James Dempsey, Jean McDonald, Curt Clifton, and Jim Correia, into singing some songs.

I forget who suggested Hallelujah. Might have been James. I didn’t know it very well, but I did my best. James sang, and he was awesome.

So when I was thinking about this talk, I was thinking of doing the most beautiful possible thing I could do. So I remembered James singing this song.

I may not be religious, but I think it’s plain that there is awesome magnificence greater than anything any human could make. It’s right outside.

I’m not sure bears feel humble at the sight of these mountains; I’m not sure birds are awed at the vistas they fly over.

But we do. Humans do. And knowing that we can’t measure up, it doesn’t stop us. Intead, we’re inspired.

So here’s what I love about Hallelujah. It’s about trying and failing, and loving and losing — and singing Hallelujah anyway. In Cohen’s words, it may be a broken Hallelujah, but it’s still on our lips.

James Dempsey please report to the stage.

Everybody is encouraged to sing along. Especially to the chorus.

[Hallelujah]

Slide #5: Picture of my cat Papa

I’m going to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves. RULE: if anyone can’t hear, yell out.

Them That’s Got Shall Get

I try — earnestly, with good faith — to understand the Republican ideologies.

And I think I’ve figured out one of them: they want to make life harder for poor people so that they have more incentive to become rich, and they want to make life better for rich people to reward success, since it should be rewarded, and since doing so provides even more incentive for poor people to become rich.

If you look at it just the right way, you can see it’s not entirely wrong. If the government made material life pretty sweet for everybody, then some people wouldn’t bother to work to earn a living. I wouldn’t bother — I’d just make software and give it away for free.

If the government made life semi-sweet — well, anybody who wants the full sweet would want a job. But some people would be fine with semi-sweet, and they wouldn’t work.

I think that’s where Republicans stand: they think the government has made life semi-sweet, enough so that a bunch of people just take and don’t work. Republicans think: we need to give them an incentive to work.

This explains the health care bill: it takes from the poor, who need incentives to work, and gives to the wealthy, who need rewards for their success. (So the Republicans think.)

* * *

It’s as if the Republicans have no realistic conception of what it’s like to be poor. The choice isn’t between health care and an iPhone, as one Republican suggested — it’s between food and rent, or worse, and forget health care and iPhones entirely.

I was “poor” in my very early 20s. I put that in quotes because I was never in danger of starving or becoming homeless — my parents would have helped me. (They did plenty, in fact.)

But still, even this small experience gives me some insight. I remember buying generic macaroni and cheese because I literally didn’t have enough money for Kraft. And forget hot dogs. And forget vegetables.

I don’t mean that I had some money lying around that I’d put aside; I mean that I had a few dollars to last a week, and if I bought Kraft, which was a few dimes more, I would run out of money before the week was over.

(My bank had a $5 minimum balance for my account. I could withdraw as little as $5 — and in those days ATMs were free — but that would have meant having more than $10 in my account to get that $5. I got so angry because I had, as I recall, $6.91 but couldn’t get at it. I remember thinking that another $5 would change my life.)

I’m not complaining about this, or saying that I had things particularly tough. Not at all.

I’m saying that if you take that experience, and take away any possibility of help from family, and then stretch it out for years and decades — with the inevitable issues, health and otherwise, that happen to everybody — then you have a life where getting ahead is really, really difficult. I can’t imagine; I can only try.

But it’s no semi-sweet life. Not even close.

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