Monday, February 11, 2008

A bit of a row over qualifications. And congrats to a legend lots of people never heard of before last night.

A brief detour today, then we're back to Natalee Holloway.

I'm fascinated by the emerging Capitol Hill flap over Dr. Robert Jarvik's suitability as a spokes-shill for Pfizer in those ubiquitous, cloying Lipitor ads. Again, if you hadn't heard, some Congressional types, led by Rep. John Dingell, a career skeptic of drug-industry tactics, have raised concerns about whether Jarvik's status as the inventor of the artificial heart may unduly influence consumers about his fitness to speak authoritatively to the benefits of Lipitor. Though Jarvik* is technically an MD, he doesn't practice and isn't certified in cardiology. It also appears that the ads use body doubles to give the misleading appearance that Jarvik—who says he takes Lipitor—now indulges in any number of arduous physical activities, including rowing. Jarvik's long-time collaborator at the Texas Heart Institute, the nearly equally famous O.H. "Bud" Frazier, had this to say: "He's about as much an outdoorsman as Woody Allen. He can't row." (NOTE: We don't actually know whether Woody Allen rows, but I'd be kind of surprised.) Third-quarter 2007 sales for Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug, hit $3.3 billion.

But notice what's happening here. Jarvik is a medical doctor, even if he's not currently licensed to practice. And though he's not a cardiologist, either, the guy did, after all, invent the artificial freakin' heart. You'd think that all of that might give him at least some standing—a "platform," as it's known—to credibly air his feelings about a heart drug. And yet despite all that, there are watchdogs who consider Jarvik's background insufficient or ill-suited to the task.

Compare that sort of ultra-close scrutiny of credentials to what you have in SHAMland...where people who were running Carvel franchises a few months ago reinvent themselves overnight as "executive coaches" and dispense all sorts of life-changing advice to clients at hourly rates that few cardiologists could get away with.

Think about it.


And, a point of personal privilege... I'd be remiss if I let the day pass without noting Herbie Hancock's stunning "Album of the Year" victory at last night's Grammy Awards. In achieving that coup, he somehow bested such pop powerhouses as Kanye West and Amy Winehouse. Though Herbie was, admittedly, awarded for his work on a "crossover" project, River: The Joni Letters—a tribute to his long-time friend, pop/folk songstress Joni Mitchell—it's nice to see somebody from the jazz world getting props in categories outside the limited context of jazz itself. (For years now, the Grammy's haven't even been giving out the jazz awards on-camera; they're marginalized to treatment in recap form, like the esoteric technical categories at the Oscar's.) This is all the more true in an era when "harmonic complexity" seems to mean the ability to combine more than three simple chords in the same song.

And, of course, Herbie Hancock isn't just "somebody." If you're not into jazz and you know the name at all, it's likely as a result of Herbie's showstopper live performance of his fusion hit, Rockit, at the 1984 Grammy's—acknowledged as a banner moment in Grammy history. (Maximize the view and watch it all the way through. I think you'll thank me.) But for half a century Herbie has been one of the most influential figures in American jazz and, I dare say, American music—whether credited for that influence or not. He came to prominence as part of what some jazz aficionados consider the idiom's greatest quintet ever: the "second great Miles Davis group"**, which included Wayne Shorter on sax, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. From there, and along with such contemporaries as McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea, Herbie went on to change the way the piano was played, not just inventing new harmonic voicings and improvising dozens of the more technically astonishing solos on record, but also composing some of the most lyrical and haunting melodic lines to come out of the modern-jazz period (Dolphin Dance, for one. And if you listen to the track, pay attention to Herbie's subtle chord-work in the background).

I'll end with an unusually candid quote from one of Herbie's fellow nominees, country singer Vince Gill. Upon being asked how he felt about Herbie getting the award before the likes of West and Winehouse, Gill replied: "I think Herbie Hancock, hands down, is a better musician than all of us here put together." Amen. And congrats, Herbie.

* whose wife is the officially declared "world's smartest person," Parade columnist Marilyn vos Savant. I open SHAM with a memorable quote from her about the limits of possibility.
** The first was the one with John Coltrane, arguably the foremost figure in jazz's so-called modern period.


Anonymous said...

Herbie certainly deserved to win album of the year - anybody who removes Joni Mitchell's rancid voice from the world deserves an award.

Herbie, enjoy your well-deserved award. And then get back in the studio and get rid of the toxic vocals of Taylor Swift and the Dixie Chicks.

Steve Salerno said...

I've talked about this before, and you've given me a new opening here, Anon. For the life of me, I just don't see the whole Taylor Swift phenomenon. We could quibble about the Dixie Chicks--I think they're at least capable of producing a nice sound at times, and love her or hate her, Natalie Main must be given credit for having something to say.

What is Taylor Swift's appeal, other than her being terminally Cute?

I just do not get it. Then again, I didn't get Bob Dylan, either, which would tear the lid off a whole new can of worms for lots of folks, I'm sure.

Cal said...

Since you are/were a jazz musician, my question is how do you respond to some of the jazz world feeling that Herbie is a "sellout" according to the "traditional" jazz fans? I'm not implying anything here... it's just a question I'm curious your answer is for my own knowledge. I remember many years ago meeting through a friend of my family who was in a band and he basically savaged Grover Washington as a musician. I don't know enough about jazz to make a comment one way or the other. To me, it just may have been an evolution of the genre.

Cal said...

BTW, I don't get Dylan. But I am not part of the demographic he caters to either. I just remember when the song "We are the World" came out. I said to someone "Who the hell is that?" when he sang his part. I thought it was a joke or something. But he did stuff with Mavis Staples, so the music sees something I never will.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, the "sellout" question is a very involved (and sensitive) one, with lots of answer and sub-answers. To try to confine it to the issue at hand:

It's true that Herbie took some flak when he eased into his Fender-Rhodes phase--though electronic instruments have never been put to better use in straight-ahead jazz than the way Herbie did it, e.g., with Joe Farrell on an album called "Moon Germs." (While I'm on the subject--and I know I'm getting too deep into this for most folks' taste, but it is my blog--anyone who has ever dismissed Stanley Clarke as "just another Jacuzzi-jazz artist" needs to listen to some of the bass lines he lays down behind Herbie and Farrell on that same album.)

But you also have to keep in mind two other things. 1, Herbie came to electronics fresh from his apprenticeship with Miles Davis, who was known for pushing the envelope, and encouraged his sidemen to do it too. And oddly, you don't hear many critics attack Miles for his subsequent forays into amplified jazz, a la 1969's "Bitches Brew," etc. 2, Herbie "selling out" wasn't quite like some other guys selling out. The same must be said of Chick Corea, who went electric very early but did some masterful work in that genre. After all, neither of them became, say, a Kenny Gee--who did help lure millions of new fans into jazz (some of whom no doubt stuck around and ventured deeper into the idiom), but who I will never forgive anyway for becoming, in mainstream America's mind, "what jazz saxophone is about." Ugh! I can't tell you how it saddens me that a guy like K-Gee has higher name recognition among the music-consuming public than Bird, Charles Lloyd, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garrett, Michael Brecker and even the great Coltrane himself.

Speaking of jazz sax (my original instrument of choice), Grover Washington is an easy target, yeah...but Grover could blow, man, when he wanted to. Though his straight-ahead work is hard to find nowadays, it's worth looking for.

Elizabeth said...

Steve said: "despite all that, there are watchdogs who consider Jarvik's background insufficient or ill-suited to the task. Compare that sort of ultra-close scrutiny of credentials to what you have in SHAMland..."

An excellent point. I keep waiting (without holding my breath) for the likes of Oprah to introduce some real psychologists and ones with counter-arguments to the feel-good-be-happy mantra of SHAM she promotes. Believe it or not, Oprah & Co., not everyone in the field supports the light version of your positive psychology.

So why not have an honest discussion? Why avoid it and pretend that there is no serious controversy involved here? (Wait, these are all rhetorical questions, no need to answer. Really.)

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

Never been a serious jazz fan, Steve, but your tribute almost makes me want to start now, at mid-life. Nicely done.

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

Elizabeth, not to usurp Steve's role here, but I'm glad you joined the blog. You bring an excellent, more learned perspective to the various topic in psychology and related realms that we talk about here. (No offense, Steve.)

Specifically, you make an excellent point about Oprah that touches on something I knew bothered me but I never quite realized what it was: the total lack of balance on her show, even when dealing with open-ended issues. It's Oprah's way or the highway. She doesn't "explore" issues, she commandeers them.

The Crack Emcee said...


I'm with you on the Dixe Chicks, dude - can't stand 'em.


Alone, I don't think "having something to say" is worth anything in music; it's like saying you appreciate Britney's records because she's cute (or was anyway). Natalie Main did our country a disservice, when it needed her, so hand her an award if you want, but I like the idea of rednecks running her out of town. Focusing just on their music, I've never heard a Dixie Chicks song I thought was worthy of my time. It's just feminist hype. There are many other women in music who deserve recognition more than them. Right now, the lady in charge is former San Quentin prison guard, Sharon Jones (with The Dap-Kings).

I like Dylan but more his later stuff (like Modern Times). Hearing his voice change is a shock.


Herbie Handcock couldn't "sell out" if he tried: His range is too big for that.

And Grover's music has always been produced too clean, like his recordings had to pass a white glove test before he'd release 'em. That's not a statement on his talent (You're right, Steve, the man has got it) but his sensibilities suck. Plus, he rarely challenges his listeners, or himself, but, mostly, I can't stand that Kool Jazz sound.

Steve (again),

Say it with me: Kenny G Must Die. O.K., you're too nice a guy for that? Fine. Say it when you're alone.

Roger O'Keeffe,

May I suggest you pick up "Money Jungle" as a start? It's got three giants - Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach - doing stuff that's really beautiful, haunting, and/or fun, depending on the song. And it's even kind of experimental in it's own way. Most Jazz fans consider it a classic, and, I find, most of my friends who don't know Jazz are always struck by it, wanting to know what it is.

Elizabeth and Roger,

Oprah is a cultist. She would entertain having an open-and-honest conversation as much as Jim Jones would in The People's Temple. Oprah removes photos from the web she doesn't like, and most unflattering stories, as much as possible. I've been making the point, for a long time now, that she's building a cult around Obama - and now all the media is catching on (One of these days Steve is going to have to be a witness, that I caught onto this mass media cult scene - and was willing to call it that - long before everybody else, because he knows when, and how, I got into scoping it out.) Now all they can talk about is how "creepy" Obama's followers are - Hello! But nobody thinks it's "creepy" when grown women are buying into the magical thinking behind The Secret? Am I missing something?

I think it's gonna be wild when "America" catches on that they've been sucked into cultish thinking, everyday at 3 or whatever, because, like all cons, the first emotion after discovering you've been taken is to become pissed - and Oprah's got it comin'.

Cosmic Connie said...

After a prolonged absence I'm poking my head back into the party. First off, I'm enjoying Elizabeth's perspectives too. Secondly, regarding credentials: I'm always struck by the fact that many in the SHAM/New-Wage fields seem to want the best of both worlds. They want to be accepted as experts on their own terms -- experts by virtue of their life experience, really -- and yet they don't hesitate to use conventional means to boost their credibility. (I know we've discussed this here before but I think it's worth a rerun.)

Many of the most successful SHAMsters, New-Wagers, and selfish-help gurus are self-made men (and women) who, after years of trial and error, finally hit upon just the right shtick. They may or may not have been trained in some legitimate field -- they may even have a degree or two -- but very often their training has nothing to do with the shtick they're selling. In reality, their main expertise generally is in the field of self-promotion. Yet they continue to market themselves as "experts" and their income is directly dependent upon their credibility -- or, more accurately, their target audience's willingness to believe whatever they say or write.

On the one hand, a person can almost admire some of these folks for making the most of what they had, for reinventing themselves after repeated failures, and for turning a few random thoughts or ideas into a cottage industry. Yet some of these people are not satisfied with being self-made millionaires; they feel a need to tack on a diploma-mill credential or two. That "Dr." before their name, or the letters after their name, just seem to lend a little extra "oomph" to their image. And even when people call them on the fact that their degrees are phony, more often than not they just gloss over it.

As I've no doubt mentioned before, "Dr." John Gray of Mars-and-Venus fame was called on his diploma-mill doctorate a few years ago, and he just sniffed and said something to the effect of not needing a degree, because he was the most famous writer in the world. Yet he continues to call himself "Dr." John Gray. "Dr." Joe Vitale has been called on his phony doctorates on several occasions, and he ignores the comments (and even deleted several from his blog a few months ago).

I'm sure that both Vitale and Gray would say, "Why does it matter? Look at our books, look at our work, look at all the people we've helped, etc."

Setting aside the question of whether or not people have really been helped by these guys -- and I'm sure some have been, but that's not the issue -- the real question is, why bother with a phony degree when you'd be raking in the dough anyway without it? I think it's because they don't want to leave a stone unturned when it comes to boosting their image and making themselves more bankable.

I guess in the end it really doesn't matter, because the target audience just doesn't give a damn. They want the feel-good platitudes and The World According to Oprah.

The Crack Emcee said...

One more thing for Roger O'Keeffe:

I think becoming a Jazz fan at midlife is probably one of the coolest things that can happen to a person because there's so much to discover. No other music has gone in so many directions, and influenced so many others, as Jazz. And, if you've lived your life listening to more conventional forms of music, you'll have a unique chance - as a mature adult - to see just how conventional, and dull, the rest of it can be.

Steve mentioned Coltrane once before and I'll tell you, for me, there's nothing like having "A Love Supreme" on headphones, while going for a bike ride, or just having it on the car stereo while driving around the city, and experiencing this perfect melding of sound with reality - the mundane part of reality: just seeing people, walking around, doing nothing special but living - each complimenting the other. I fall in love with being alive each time I do it, which is the whole point of the piece: "A Love Supreme". It makes me a nicer person. I don't mind when someone cuts me off, or tries to jump in front of me in the turn lane, or anything. I wave them on, like I'm really glad to see them, instead. It's an amazing piece of music. Try it sometime.

And welcome to the club.

Steve Salerno said...

Connie's point is both astute and excellent, and references an incongruity about the SHAMsphere that I've never quite understood: They want to be able to reject real-world standards and evidence when it suits them, which is most of the time ("You just have to believe"; in fact, some attack any allegiance to the known physical universe as "counterproductive" or "negative energy")...and yet let some tiny, random scrap of real-world proof come to light that somehow benefits their cause, and they're the first ones to put it right up in the headline of their newsletter, blog, whatever.

And nobody in their target audience calls them to account for this!

Steve Salerno said...

Crack: Quick funny story re Coltrane. You know there's this part of the track where they all start chanting, "A love supreme...a love supreme...", right? I remember one of the first times I had the album on, and I kept playing it over and over, almost as if in a trance...and after maybe an hour of this, my befuddled father (who never got much past Artie Shaw in his musical tastes) comes to the door of my room, pokes his head in and says, "What the hell is that line they keep singing?? 'Love's a's a scream..."

But yanno, Crack, my dad probably had it right. Love is, most definitely, a scream.

katetbetrue said...

Maybe I'm out of line here, but it seems that Dr. Jarvik's, "feelings about a heart drug," have absolutely no bearing on the safety or efficacy of Lipitor. Yeah, I know numbers don't move product as well as a trustworthy-looking shill, but wouldn't it be refreshing for an ad to just once give me the data and then go away? I think that sometimes skeptics are so aggressive about defending legitimate medicine that we deny the unethical & cynical practices of the pharmaceutical companies and their admen.
Anyway, I love the blog. I've been reading for quite some time but this is my 1st comment. Keep up the good work.

Your PR Guy said...


You make a valid point here. I guess Congressional officials are less inclined to question the authority of a Tolle, as it begins to trample relgiosity.

Matt Dick said...

Herbie Hancock is amazing. I guess I'd quibble Steve, that he hasn't gotten enough credit. Perhaps as jazz is not so main stream anymore that's true, but if you follow jazz at all he gets plenty of credit.


Matt Dick said...

Oh and I did listen to Rockit all the way through, then clicked the next link, Steve Wonder in 1975 at the Grammys. Funkiest song ever. Not to get too off topic, but there's another genius with few peers.

God bless YouTube for little discoveries like that. If you haven't see that performance, go find it and close your eyes and get the chills.


Blair Warren said...

As for the fake degrees...

I've had followers of these guys tell me that fake degrees are "no big deal" and that "degrees don't mean anything anyway."

Well, if they're no big deal, why do their gurus go to the trouble of buying them and taking the risk of getting caught?

Could it be that degrees *do* mean something after all?

Steve Salerno said...

Stevie and Prince are two of the musical gods of our generation. So is Trent Reznor. Now, Reznor's a bit edgy and even scary to some. "An acquired taste." But if you want a musical road map of the psyche of Gen X, and the torment that plagues same...he's it.

Steve Salerno said...

Blair: Exactly.

mikecane2008 said...

Pfizer pulls TV ads with heart expert Jarvik

Your power is immense.

Don't quit the blog.

Steve Salerno said...

Well, Mike, I wish I could claim the credit here, but I think maybe the skepticism of some influential members of Congress carried a bit more weight. ;)

Nonetheless, I try to do what I can in my own small way.