In the rush to nominate a successor to the Napster throne, there's one deserving URL that nobody is talking about. It's strange, because like Napster, The On-Line Guitar Archive (www.olga.net) has endured lawsuits and harassment from the recording industry. Because like Napster, Olga exists in that sexy gray zone between fair use and copyright infringement. But unlike Napster, Olga now has more songs than ever.
Olga's songs, though, are in a much more streamlined format than the grouty MP3 or bulky WAV. They're simple HTML -- just chords and lyrics -- ready to print and play. That means that anyone with limited bandwidth and a modicum of guitar know-how can recreate the great pop, country, and R&B masterpieces of the past fifty years. Sort of.
Olga bills itself as "a tabulation cooperative," and all its transcriptions are posted by random fans, so the proffered lyrical interpretations are sometimes shaky and the chords a little off. But they'll get you through "American Pie" just fine. And sometimes, if you're like me, the near-infinite song possibilities will open a scary part of yourself you might wish had never been unleashed.
To wit: Last month, I went to Kansas to visit my family and meet a girl. The girl in question, Anette, was visiting from Finland. She had lived with my parents for one summer eight years ago, and my mom and dad hadn't stopped talking about her since. The fact that Anette and I never met back in 1994 seemed like such a criminal oversight to my mom, that she offered to pay for my ticket home last month so I could be there for Anette's second coming.
So there I was, walking down the familiar plane-plank into the familiar Kansas City airport, hugging my familiar mom, my familiar aunt, and -- yikes -- an unfamiliar, cute 25-year-old blonde girl in a jeans skirt and clunky black shoes. That was her: My exchange sister.
The next five days were kind of a riot, with Anette and I staying up late talking and making the necessary runs to the all-night suburban grocery stores to feed her gallon-a-day ice cream habit (Finland, apparently, has only four flavors of ice cream). The rest of the time, though, we were singing.
Anette's taste in music was American, but shaped by the vagaries of European pop radio. She liked Bon Jovi and Shaggy, Guns N' Roses and lots of CCR. Perfect Olga fodder. There was an old acoustic guitar in the basement, and one night I tuned it up, and used my mom's iMac to grab some choice morsels I thought Anette would like.
And then we sat around in the living room and tried to perform them. She and I were like a Bad News Bears funeral choir: We lurched when we should have soared, fortissimoed when we should have pianissimoed. Even when singing the same words, our voices were rarely on the same page, both of us unintentionally wandering off in search of notes the original composers never intended.
But it was a hoot, and we ended up playing for hours and hours. Midway through our sixth (signature) performance of CCR's "Down on the Corner," though, I caught a glimpse of myself in the living room mirror. And saw something horrible. I realized that -- thanks to repeat exposure to Olga -- I had become one of those people who always mortified me as a child: I had become a Singer.
Ugh. Singers were the parents (the parents!) of childhood friends who insisted on passing time on long car trips by running through "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" or "This Land Is Your Land." Even as a kid I shied uncomfortably away from that kind of Flanders family entertainment. I preferred reading until I got carsick, or clicking away endless hours on the handheld "football" video game where you moved the glowing red hyphen past other glowing red hyphens.
But lo and behold, somewhere between my fifth and fiftieth Olga download, I had become one of them. Passing out lyric sheets, hamming up John Fogerty, and giddily leading ESL ventures into Guns N' Roses' "Patience."
These are the afflictions of aging, I fear. But ones I've sadly come to appreciate. I had to admit as much when Anette told me on her final night in Kansas that she wanted to sing our songs, but not "Down on the Corner." We couldn't do that one, she said, because she had already folded it away into her scrapbook. A memento of her brother, the singer.
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