Guest column: Leo and the potential renaissance

The swarthy gentleman slouched in the driver's seat growled, "Get in."

Tony Miranda and I crawled from the watery early morning sunlight into the dim interior of the slightly filthy taxi and as the door closed, our driver gunned it.

We hurtled away from the curb outside San Francisco Airport and dodged into the stream of traffic with wild abandon, accompanied by the honking of the motorists who had to slam on their brakes to avoid a major collision.

"Where you go?" inquired our driver in a low and rather menacing voice as he emitted a cloud of cigarette smoke that smelled strongly like a burning tire. Adding to the somewhat surreal experience, the car's tape player was loudly playing something that sounded like a polka except it had a reedy, Eastern sound.

"Downtown," I replied, "and I wonder if you could put your cigarette out?"

He grunted and tossed the butt after taking a gargantuan hit of smoke. As if to underscore his irritation of having to dispose of perhaps an eighth of an inch of perfectly good cigarette, he floored the accelerator again with wild abandon and with a trickle of smoke leaking from the edge of his mouth, off we shot into the morning torrent of traffic that is the 101 freeway into San Francisco.

Tony and I looked at each other with a mixture of amusement and terror realizing that we were in the hands of what could be a lunatic.

"What's the music?" I asked.

"Is Armenian," he growled and turned up the volume. "Was my band," he added.

"What do you play?" I asked.

His answer of "drums" came as no surprise. We got to our destination rather quickly and Leo, for that was his name, insisted that he would drive us to the airport at half past three.

What struck me about Leo's music was that some of it was pretty good. It had some interesting nontraditional components (it isn't often that you hear a synthesizer accompanying a concertina).

It also struck me that this is what the Internet excels at. Take an obscure Armenian band (with a surly kamikaze taxi driver on drums), put a few of their tracks on the Net in MP3 files, put a little effort into promotion and there's a hit album!

Of course, the album won't make gazillions of dollars - the ultimate goal of record companies - but it will give the musicians a chance to express their art.

By way of an example, I recently found an artist named Craig Patrick from England who goes under the name of SevenEyes (see http://ecom.mp3.com/cgi-bin/ order.cgi?cd_id=15773). I think his work is outstanding and, without the Internet, I would never have discovered his music and ordered his CD (at a very reasonable $7.99 from MP3.com).

But if the Recording Industry Association of America and the major labels get their way - they have axes to grind and megabucks to pay lawyers and lobbyists - the likes of MP3.com will become so heavily constrained (see my.MP3. com for example) and so scared of litigation that what could become a musical renaissance will wither and die.

It is vital that we all show our support for the likes of MP3.com and my favorite cause, Napster Inc., if we want to be able to find the music we like without being told by the major labels what we can have. Of course, this probably doesn't matter one whit to Leo.

Leo picked us up at the appointed time ("am waiting for 15 minutes") and off we rocketed to San Francisco Airport followed by a chorus of honking horns and at a speed which drowned out the alien polka music.

It was a record trip: Under 15 minutes from the financial district to the airport.

"Ees good?" Leo growled.

"Just terrific" we croaked as we shakily extracted ourselves from the taxi.

Leo got a huge tip.

Tales of surreal travel to nwcolumn@gibbs.com.

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