Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Je Ne Regrette Mahone

Well, she half expected it. She even joked about it.

“You know,” the wife said, “now that I’ve gone through all this trouble and planning so that I can see The Pogues in England, just you wait. They’ll end up playing in America now.”

And we laughed.

And, of course, they just announced their American dates.

There’s not many of them, though, and the wife regrets nothing. She still gets to take her long-delayed trip to the UK, not to mention seeing The Pogues in some rather exotic locales.

Of course, we’ll keep you posted on all the latest developments as the wife takes on England’s green and pleasant land, starting a week and a half from…now!

Beware, Blighty. She is coming for your curry!

And God protect anyone trying to beat her to the set list.

Speaking of the summer of 1977, I was flipping through the channels yesterday evening and what do I find but my old friend from Drama Class, The Star, playing the role of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer.

It was awful, must have been some TV movie or something, although he played opposite a rather major star as the detective on his trail. The film was 20 years old, so he resembled the fellow I knew more than some of his recent cameos have.

What was odd, though, was just how much he resembled Berkowitz. I could see why they cast him. He was his spitting image. Funny it had never occurred to me before, I thought. It was spooky.

I mean, not as spooky as if it had turned out that I had gone to school with a serial killer. Although I’m sure some of the students I knew had probably considered it as a career path.

Over Thanksgiving, interestingly, I met someone who had actually gone to my old school. The best we could figure, we’d probably only had a year in which we’d overlapped and neither one of us remembered the other.

What we both had in common was our inability to get into the “advanced” high school, Central High, where you automatically graduated with a B.A. Both of us also had friends who’d managed the trick, while we had been condemned to George Washington High School, well known for its men’s rooms full of smoke and the forbidding luncheonette across the street where the bad kids hung out and all sorts of unimaginable hijinks went on, or so it was said.

Two or three police cars always seemed to be sitting in front of this place, as if they were waiting for the inevitable crime that would soon be taking place. I never had the guts to go in, or even cross to that side of the street. I stayed to the other side, where the library was, and busied myself with the occult mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System.

It was a good plan then and I’ve never seen a reason to change it.

The Good Old Days

It (homosexuality) does not represent a social value and even less so a moral virtue that could add to the civilization of sexuality. It could even be seen as a destabilizing reality for people and for society…In no case is this form of sexuality a sexual alternative, or even less, a reality that is equivalent to that which is shared by a man and a woman engaged in matrimonial life.
- Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano gets nostalgic for The Inquisition.

The Democrats are giving aid and comfort to the enemy for no purpose other than giving aid and comfort to the enemy. There is no plausible explanation for the Democrats' behavior other than that they long to see U.S. troops shot, humiliated, and driven from the field of battle.

They fill the airwaves with treason…These people are not only traitors, they are gutless traitors.
- Ann Coulter gets nostalgic for "Tailgunner Joe."

The Democratic Party seems to be taken over by the Michael Moore contingent in their attitude toward Vietnam, and they continually call for a withdrawal of troops at a time when we haven't finished the job.
- Sen. Orrin Hatch, who later admitted he meant to say "Iraq," gets nostalgic for quagmires.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How I Invented Punk Rock

It was announced yesterday that the Sex Pistols are finally going to receive their due and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year. No one can doubt that their place in the pantheon is deserved, even if only for their profound influence.

There’s always been some controversy over whether punk rock migrated from the US to England or vice versa and who was really responsible for it. Now, at long last, I can reveal the truth.

It was all me.

Some time ago, a handful of years after the recording of the Great Sgt. Pepper Parody Album and somewhere in the vicinity of the premiere of Drug Fiend Polka on the steps of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, it occurred to me that it was high time for an ode to stupidity.

Up to that time, I considered the highest example of the form to be Allan Sherman’s Dropouts March, the flipside to his hit Crazy Downtown, a parody of the Petula Clark hit.

Dropouts March contained classic lyrics like:

March, Dropouts, down the field!
Proud of the will to fail!
You won’t find us in the school halls
Look in the pool halls
Or in jail!

March, Dropouts, Backwards March!
Ain’t we a tragedy?
We must unite
And fight, fight, fight
For good old stupidity!

Its unabashed celebration of idiocy always touched that part of me that was deeply in love with pure and unadulterated freedom and anarchy. One day, a melody popped into my head, more like four chords actually, with lyrics to match. The result was entitled I Don’t Know Nothin’.

It began with a spoken intro:

1 + 1 is 4!
2 + 2 are 5!
3 + 2 are 6
and 3 + 3 are 5!

Having established the lay of the land, the only other lyric was I don’t know nothin’!, sung as the four chords repeated themselves endlessly. There was, however a middle section during which the singer was to expound on all the different things he didn’t know.

Like John Lennon the morning he woke up with Instant Karma dancing in his head, I knew I had to get this thing to tape before the inspiration faded. I immediately called George and Harry and we all met at Harry’s house as I explained the intricacies of the song. I had even crudely notated a bass line that I thought George might find useful.

Our recording equipment consisted of a beat-up cassette machine and, on the count of three, I pressed the deep red of the Record button.

The three of us shouted out the mathematical intro, which led directly into the first round of my solo vocalizing. During this section, though, George was required to back me up between lines with what I referred to as the “Goofy laugh” after the Disney character. Something like a-hilk! thrown in between each of my lines:

I don’t know nothin’!
(a-hilk! a-hilk!)
I don’t know nothin’!
(a-hilk! a-hilk!)

Keep in mind that while all this was happening, Joey Ramone was still heavily into Glam Rock and Johnny Rotten was still miming in the mirror to Alice Cooper.

I proudly pounded out my four chords on the piano, while George obliged me on guitar and Harry provided the beat. When we got to the middle, George dropped out to make the effect of my vocals against the drums that much more stark and haunting:

I don’t know nothin’!
I don’t even know the words to this song!
That’s right, I don’t know nothin’!
I never learned how to read music!
I never learned how to play the piano!
(rude keyboard sounds)

Then I yelped as we headed into the finale, George returning with guitar blazing and even turning my theoretical bass line into a guitar solo. My keyboard solo even impressed George, staying within the chord changes as it did.

Finally, our mighty rhythm machine ground to a halt as another chapter in Music History was inscribed in the Book of Home Cassette Recording. The world would little note, nor long remember, what we accomplished in Harry’s living room that day, but we would know and that’s what was important.

I should also make it plain that if the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame even attempted to draft us into their ranks, we would refuse to participate in their cheap, corporate-sponsored dog-and-pony show. We have far more integrity than that.

And nothing decent to wear.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Strange Inoculation For Small Orchestra

I haven’t seen the Doctor since July, so it was time to pay him a visit and have him reevaluate my bag of tricks, i.e., mood enhancement delivery systems.

As we’re winding down, he throws out “You want a flu shot?”

Now I usually pass on these as I have this persistent memory of a flu shot that left me feeling like I had, well, the flu. I understand that’s how they work, but it still left me a little needle-shy.

Then he goes, “You know…you’re 50.”

Yeah, I know. So is he, as a matter of fact, which is sort of what I like about him: we can discuss the health problems common to middle aged men. And there are few things more exciting than that, let me tell you.

“And how about a pneumonia shot? Get ‘em both done while you’re here.”

Normally this sort of pressure would have chased me out of the office and down the street. Thinking about how miserable I become during my annual winter illness, though, I do something uncharacteristically mature and I agree to the shots.

The nurse comes in with both of these in their paper wrappers and gives me one in each arm, pinching my upper arm to help relieve the discomfort as she hits the plunger.

Well, that wasn’t that bad, I think.

It doesn’t take but a few hours for this familiar warmth to creep through my body. By the next morning I feel totally out of it, my arms throbbing unmercifully. I feel achy and warm throughout, as if I’m sick without actually being sick. It all lasts for three days before I feel like I’m coming out of it.

You know…you’re 50.

These are truly going to be the Golden Years.

Since the wife wanted to go to the Franklin Mills Mall yesterday (this place deserves much more space than I can provide here: stay tuned), I decided to kill time at what was left of the annual Thanksgiving Record Show here in Philadelphia.

It was the usual sort of sad affair but I ran into Shark, who was manning a table, and had him surprise the wife on the cell phone. Although she appreciated my whimsical intention, she had an armful of jeans to try on at the time so she wasn’t as amused as I’d hoped.

One side of the room was dedicated to expensive lithographs by the late Jerry Garcia, while the rest of the space was filled with the usual cardboard longboxes full of product from the Island Of Misfit CD’s, which is to say, discs nobody really wanted.

I got a book of Ramones photos for the wife, while my eye was caught by a fellow who had a box full of Sony’s Essential series, many of which looked appetizing. In the end, and strapped for cash, I settled on the one I really didn’t need, The Essential Igor Stravinsky.

I say didn’t need because one of my most prized possessions is the Complete Stravinsky set that Sony put out a while ago. Still, I enjoy collecting him on CD and vinyl if there’s something rare or noteworthy about the performance. In this case, it seemed like a fun way to have a sort of Stravinsky mix tape for work. I’d been putting off buying it mainly because of the sticker on the front that read:

Liner Notes By Trey Anastasio Of Phish.

Now I’ve got nothing against Mr. Anastasio or Phish per se. I’m sure he’s a very nice man and that Phish has its fair share of fans. But I was reminded of a series of albums that appeared in my youth that desperately attempted to lure the rock audience to classical music. These compilations were given the names Mozart’s Head, Bach’s Head, Handel’s Head, etc. and featured covers festooned with pseudo-psychedelic artwork that suggested a cross between Peter Max and the artwork for Yellow Submarine, if that isn’t redundant.

They simultaneously demeaned both the rock audience and the composer they intended to promote. And so, I found myself shying away from this latest repackaging. But given the cut rate price this guy was offering, I took the plunge.

It turns out to be a pretty neat collection, hitting as many of the high spots of a 60-year composing career as you can over two discs. There's an emphasis on shorter pieces, naturally, but it's a great place to start if you've ever been curious about his work.

And it turns out Anastasio’s contribution consists of about a page of text. The real liner notes are by one Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize winning critic for The Washington Post who goes mysteriously unidentified on the CD’s sticker.

Which is not to say that Anastasio doesn’t have a thing or two to say on the subject. For instance, we learn that the composer was “an iconoclast,” and that Le Sacre Du Printemps is “just killer,” which I can only assume is one step removed from “awesome.”

Oh, and “Petrushka is another one I listen to a lot.”


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Murtha, Good! You, Bad!

Oh, by the way.

Dick Cheney forgot to say something the other day when he was busy labeling as unpatriotic any American who dared to suggest that this administration manipulated the facts concerning the war in Iraq.

Namely, that he loves, loves, loves John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who called for the US to pull out of what he sees as “another Vietnam.”

That’s right. He wants to give John Murtha a big, fat, sloppy kiss because he loves him so much.

Mwah, mwah, mwah!

"He's a good man, a Marine, a patriot,” said Cheney on Monday, “and he's taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."

They were words that curiously echoed those of his boss the other day when he said that Murtha was a fine man, a good man, a great guy whose babies he wouldn’t mind having and a great Texas Hold ‘Em player.

So, you may ask, what’s the difference between Murtha and those “dishonest and reprehensible…corrupt and shameless” types that insist that the White House “distorted, hyped or fabricated” the intelligence that supported the war? How is it that Murtha, a vet who served in the Marine Corps for 37 years, is engaged in an “entirely legitimate discussion” while anyone else is a wild-eyed, evolution-toutin’, Bin Laden-lovin’ liberal?

Look. They’re like Santa. They know if you’re bad or good. Just trust them.

It’ll be interesting to see if this new offensive (and how) manages to develop any traction. It’s classic Bush – when cornered by a deluge of facts that seem to point to your misdeeds and that would seem impossible to refute, you act offended that anyone would dare to suggest that you were dishonest. You bluff your way through because you haven’t got any cards in your hand. They’ve done it time and again and it always seems to work.

But, call me crazy, it feels like something’s different. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part, but I think a mighty wind could be a-blowin’.

Of course, that breeze could just be the result of Republicans running to get away from Bush as quickly as possible. When next Thanksgiving rolls around, they don’t want their heads to have been the ones on the chopping block.

Who knows? Maybe a year from now, we’ll all have a lot more to be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Pride And Prejudice

I'm a keen observer of these kinds of things, as you people well know, and I have concluded that most of the limitations that individuals face economically are actually self-imposed.
- Rush Limbaugh

Every time you think these Republicans can sink no lower, even after their vile smears against Kerry's service last year, they keep going. They make me sick to my stomach.
- Andrew Sullivan

I never meant to attack Congressman Murtha personally.
- Rep. Jean Schmidt

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dylan Calling

The wife turned to me excitedly in the car yesterday and exclaimed, “Oh, here’s something I forgot to tell you!”

“Oh?” I said.

“Yes! Guess what song Bob covered last night in London?”

“Bob,” of course, always means Bob Dylan in our house.

“Want to give me a clue? Or would it give it away?”

“Well,” the wife said, “let’s see…it made me ecstatic…he was playing London…”

“He covered a Costello song…”


Understand we had already seen him cover Brown Sugar, so Bob is capable of coming out of left field from time to time.

“Umm…not a Kinks song or a Paul Weller song…”


“You better just tell me.”

There was a pause.

London Calling.”

My jaw dropped.

“Oh, get out of here, he did London Calling! No way!”

“Remember he said his son played it all the time and he liked it?”

“Yeah, but…London Calling? Can you hear it?”

“I’ve been trying, but I can’t! People are already putting up mp3’s of it, though. I’ll have to get someone to download it to disc for me.”

I’m still trying to imagine this performance. “Loooondon Caaalling! To the faaaaraway toooowns!”

What's next? Blitzkrieg Bop? Genie In A Bottle?

From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.

Mr. Dylan also opened one of his recent London shows with the Link Wray classic Rumble, in honor of the great guitarist who passed away on November 5th due to heart failure.

Unbelievably, Wray, revered for the muscular and manic guitar stylings that were his trademark and that have arguably influenced everyone who came after him, had just completed a US tour this summer at the age of 76.

There’s been much activity surrounding the upcoming 25th “anniversary” of John Lennon’s murder and today sees the release of 2 more Lennon discs that have been subjected to the remastered-with-extra-tracks treatment.

These new versions of Walls And Bridges and the double set Some Time In New York City are unremarkable, except for the fact that a great deal has actually been subtracted from one of them this time.

If you were around at the time (and, god knows, you shouldn’t admit it if you were), you may remember that the Lennons dropped in on the Mothers of Invention as they were recording the live show that saw release as Fillmore East - June 1971. Quickly throwing some material together, John tore into Well (Baby, Please Don’t Go), he and Yoko engaged in some call-and-response with the Mothers (Jamrag), improvised a song whose only lyric was Scumbag, and then John and Yoko ended the evening by themselves with Au, an improvised feedback and vocal duet.

John had hoped that the entire Mothers/J&Y show would be released as a double set, but various Beatle legalities made that impossible. The Mothers LP appeared alone, while listeners waited until the release of Some Time to hear the second half of the show. This second disc, called Live Jam, also included a live set by a sort of Plastic Ono Supergroup recorded at the Lyceum. Its inner sleeve also reproduced the artwork from the Mothers release, only with amusingly scrawled corrections from Lennon and Ono.

The new Some Time adds single tracks Happy Xmas and Listen, The Snow Is Falling, but the Live Jam tracks are now represented only by the Lyceum set and John’s version of Well from the Mothers show. The entire Jamrag/Scumbag/Au sequence is now gone, resulting in a newly slimmed, single CD.

Yoko Ono, who’s always been painfully aware of the public response to the experiments she and John enjoyed creating, had this to say about her decision to pare down the disc:

"I decided that the Fillmore performance should end without going into the long avant-garde improvisation. I wanted John to have the last voice on the album, spreading his childhood over us. If you miss the 'freak out' part...just put a microphone to the many battlefields in the world. You will hear everything - children crying, guys shouting, and the occasional silence created by the dead."

(Thanks to Pitchfork)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Welcome To The Schmuck

So now that the Republican agenda and the neocon war and Social Security Reform and Intelligent Design and the White House’s best and brightest seem to be circling the drain, the upcoming bird flu pandemic is actually polling higher than Bush’s popularity, and the condemnation of the right has become increasingly bolder and frequent, it’s worth taking a moment to look back to see how we got here.

The most popular opinion seems to be that the Bush regime got hit by too many things at the same time: Katrina, DeLay, Frist, Scooter, Iraq, Elections, etc. And, true, all of these things played a part.

But something started bubbling in the back of my brain yesterday as I watched Rep. John Murtha on Meet The Press defending his call for the US to pull out of Iraq:

We got to--this is not a war of words, this is a real war where people are getting killed. Fifteen thousand people have been wounded, and half of them are desperately wounded, blinded, without their arms.

I mean, it breaks my heart when I go out there and see these kids. I see wives who can't look at their husbands because they've been so disfigured. I saw a young fella that was paralyzed from the neck down and his three children were standing there crying with his wife and his mother…

But, you know, I'm convinced that the people--I have never seen such an outpouring in the 32 years I've been in Congress, of support and people with tears in their eyes, people walking along clapping when I'm walking through the halls of Congress, saying something needed to be said. So they're thirsting for a solution to this and the president can't hide behind rhetoric and neither can the vice president.

Murtha’s roll call of the maimed reminded me of how little we’d been allowed to see of this war. Even our war dead were off limits to us. And we certainly weren’t supposed to criticize it for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. So how does a combat-decorated Vietnam vet get to this point?

Of course, you didn’t expect that the shock-and-smear swiftboat crowd would leave a combat vet unsullied. This kind of thing is their specialty. A Bush spokesman, obviously working against a deadline, immediately compared him to Michael Moore. And VP Dick “5-Deferment” Cheney quickly shot back with a sneer:

The president and I cannot prevent certain politicians from losing their memory or their backbone. But we're not going to sit by and let them rewrite history.

Better yet was Congresswoman Jean Schmidt who, on the House floor, actually had the gall to say that a Marine “asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do.”

Shockingly, Bush, whose poll numbers are now within spitting distance of Nixon’s at the time of his resignation, is way ahead of Cheney in having figured out that labeling their foes unpatriotic, especially those that served their country, no longer works and, in fact, now does more harm than good.

This kinder, gentler Bush told reporters “I heard somebody say, `Well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position.' I totally reject that thought.”

After calling Murtha a “fine man and a good man,” Bush concluded, “I know the decision to call for the immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way. I disagree with his position."

Let’s face it, he isn’t about to make this same speech about Alec Baldwin or someone who isn’t a decorated vet, but it was fascinating to see him forced to sound like a President.

Over on ABC, they were trying to figure out what the tipping point was for this huge shift in public opinion. They went through the litany I listed above, but the moment I would point to wasn’t among them.

Cindy Sheehan. Remember her?

That crazy, loony mom that everyone on the right laughed at and smeared? The one whose kid died in Iraq? The one that swore she’d wait until Bush found the guts to talk to her face to face?

Would we have gotten here without her? I suppose so. But I’m convinced we wouldn’t have arrived here as fast. And I’m doubly convinced that the spectacle of this lone mother bringing the war to Bush’s doorstep enabled many others to finally find their own courage and give voice to their own doubts.

Worst of all for the White House, Bush’s refusal to see her threw a number of things into stark relief. For one, the complete disdain this administration has for the public and, for another, how frightened they were by anyone who threatened to make the war seem real, the way Murtha did when he ran off that list of the injured. A real mother with a real son who really died was something they could not afford to admit existed.

But I think that’s what first planted a kernel of doubt in people’s minds and made them more receptive to the idea that they might have been sold a bill of goods.

If it’s true that all historical events occur the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, Bush reenacted the Cindy Sheehan affair in Beijing this weekend when, after a reporter requested a follow-up question, he replied “No, you may not” and strode toward a nearby set of doors. As he strained to open them, it became clear they were locked.

"I was trying to escape,” Bush said. “Obviously, it didn't work.”

No, sir. It didn’t.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Will You Pull Your Pants Down?

The subtext of all rock songs is (the question), “Will you pull your pants down?”
- Bruce Springsteen

So said The Boss during a recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. He added that after marriage, that question becomes “Will you pull your pants down so I can just have a look?”

Ba dum bum.

Well, I found this mightily amusing, especially coming from such an august personage as Jersey’s John Steinbeck. And no doubt he’s right to some extent.

But I always get a little nervous when someone seems to imply that rock music, by its very nature, has certain limitations that keep it from being taken seriously. And conversely, I’m bothered by fans who take it so seriously that they refuse to allow themselves to have any fun.

I remember once going to a show by an elder art-rock statesman with a group of folks, and when it was over they tore into him for what they perceived to be a willingness on his part to “entertain” the audience. He’d been too much of a “showman.” Heaven forfend!

On the other hand, I’ve grown so accustomed to critics who are now willing to let both high and low culture play on the same field that I’m shocked when I read statements like the one Andrew Sullivan posted the other day:

“I loathe most rock criticism, as I loathe most of rock and roll, because of its absurd pretension to seriousness.”

Which is, I suppose, to say that it has no business believing it has the power to move and transform an audience as, say, the latest from Philip Glass or Sonny Rollins.

He then goes on to quote admiringly from a recent Time review of the new Madonna CD:

“Before you press on with the album, you will need to ask yourself, Am I a serious person who listens to music for intellectual enlightenment and makes it a point of pride not to dance under any circumstances? Or am I merely a semi-serious person who makes it a point not to be seen dancing under any circumstances? If you're the former, Confessions on a Dance Floor is not for you. If you're the latter, close the blinds.”

Can you spell “condescension”?

Now I don’t think Mr. Springsteen was saying anything like this. I think he was merely referring to the popular notion that rock and roll, the very name a euphemism for sex, represents youth, freedom, and romance (in all senses of the word). And it’s obvious from his own records that he sees the music as a very generous continuum that can include everything from Hasil Adkins to Bobby Freeman to The Who to Suicide.

In other words, I think he said it lovingly.

Personally, I think products of popular culture get a lot more respect than they used to. I see reviews of graphic novels in periodicals and record reviews that accept pop music on its own terms. But there’s still a notion out there that there are certain boundaries that things like rock and roll or comic books should never be allowed to cross.

For all of the great reviews that Charles Burns’ Black Hole seemed to get in the mainstream press, I ran into one that damned it with faint praise because, well, they’re really just “funny books” in the end and they shouldn’t try and aspire to something that’s obviously out of their reach.

Sorry, but I’ll trade you a boxful of “exciting” new novels for an issue of Ex Machina any day.

You have to wonder what makes some critics so defensive about popular art. Do they have so much invested in the gates and passwords by which they measure their own superiority that they feel threatened when someone finds a way to sneak in through the back?

Whenever my mind runs along these lines, I have a flashback of the time a friend and I went to see improv guitarist Derek Bailey. He walked up and down the center aisle of this cramped performance space as he played and paused so you could take a leaflet from the bag that was hanging off the neck of his guitar. They advertised his available recordings.

When it was over, my friend started talking to another acquaintance. Waving me over, he asked what I wanted to do now. I mentioned that I wanted to stop at a nearby videogame arcade.

“Oh,” said the acquaintance, “he wants to play videooooo gaaaaames,” drawing the words out with disgust.

I had the feeling that he never got his pants pulled down much.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Hammer And Psycho

To hear these liberals carry on, "McCarthyism" was the worst thing that ever happened in the history of the universe.
- Ann Coulter

As an active part of the Liberal Media, I spend a good deal of time trying to think of ways to indoctrinate the innocent and unwary.

Even though we’re more or less running the show, leaving the audience scraps for the Limbaughs and O’Reillys, we won’t really be happy until we’ve turned the United States into a haven for gay atheists promoting an agenda of communist abortion.

Having said that, you’d be surprised how difficult it is sometimes to stir up interest and publicity. For instance, this site should really be seeing much more traffic than it does, at least according to my masters in Al Qaeda.

So I’m always on the lookout for new ways to promote the Liberal Agenda.

Recently, Bill O’Reilly made some comments about how San Francisco’s reluctance to allow military recruiters into their schools should want to make Americans say to Al Qaeda, “Look, every other place in America is off limits to you, except San Francisco. You want to blow up the Coit Tower? Go ahead.”

Well, the news, I mean the Liberal Media, ran with the story and if there’s one thing O’Reilly hates, it’s being quoted correctly. So he soon had his panties in a twist about what he referred to as “the far-left smear sites” run by “anti-American people.”

“They hate this country,” O’Reilly said, “they do. And if you read their garbage day in and day out, we're the bad guys. We're always wrong. Blame America first. That's who these people are on the far left on the Internet.”

It’s hard to imagine anyone characterizing someone who openly invites terrorists to blow up an American city as a “bad guy,” but apparently they’re out there.

So Bill’s had enough and he’s announced that he’s going to devote his vast media empire to exposing these heinous sites. I was going to write to him and ask him if he could include this site here but, for some reason, I can never convince these guys that I represent that much of a danger.

Earlier this year, I read an article on Salon regarding right-wing loony David Horowitz’s “Discover The Network” site, a site that aspires to be a master list of liberals. Thus encouraged, I wrote a letter to Horowitz, which Salon ran, practically begging to be included but to no avail:

Dear Mr. Horowitz,

I read with considerable interest today about your "Discover the Network: A Guide to the Political Left" project today. And my first reaction, frankly, was "Where was I?"

I'll admit that my name as yet does not carry the star power or recognition of, say, a Roger Ebert, whom you have generously included. And I understand you're currently operating with limited means and time. Still, doesn't it seem to be a little "elitist" not to include those of us ordinary folks who make a point of criticizing the Bush administration on a daily basis, even though the paparazzi aren't stalking us?

If you want to be seen as something more than the "Access Hollywood" of blacklists, I think you would do well to expand your parameters to include those of us who don't have a music video coming out, or whose utterances don't tempt the ear of the (liberal) media. In short, I'm making you a proposition: If those of us on the left who are not famous are willing to turn ourselves in, would you consider adding us to your prestigious list?

I'm not asking you to do this sight unseen. I'm saying that if someone like myself could provide enough background material and letters from other sources to help back up my claims, perhaps you could give those of us who aren't celebrities some consideration.

For instance, I've been going on about what a jerk George W. Bush is for years. Not only Bush, but all his little beady-eyed cronies. I like Michael Moore. I won't even turn right when I'm driving if I can help it.

Of course, I have another motive here. In plain words, I could use the publicity and, as I'm pushing 50 as of this writing, I haven't got a whole lot of time left to become an Enemy of the State.

Is it selfish and shallow of me to daydream of the cachet my name would gain as a member of your list? My crazy liberal buddies would be drooling, I don't mind telling you, as surely as if I'd scored a ticket to a fundraiser for Osama bin Laden. I'd get invited to a lot more parties and my networking opportunities would increase without my having to lift a pinky.

So think it over. Don't dismiss my plea. Consider the credibility you would stand to gain as a list that truly cares about including the grass-roots Bush-haters, as well as the Hollywood elite. I think we could both stand to gain from pooling our talents -- in a non-communist, capitalist way, of course. I look forward to hearing from you.

But, sadly, I never did.

I don’t know what these guys want from me.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

While you can’t help but admire the punk aesthetics that were the driving force behind the band's sound, a lot of this is basically unlistenable now, the discordant guitars and yelping vocals (like the sound a Jack Russell would make if you stood on its paw) just aren’t palatable at all.

All in all, this is one for fans if you’re a completist, otherwise i’m pretty sure you can find more intelligent punk music from the period, trust me it isn’t hard.

I don't think anyone bothering to read these words needs to be told that this review, from "Kev" over at the UK site The Beat Surrender, is someone's assessment of a group that's a special favorite of mine.

I imagine the giveaway is probably the words "discordant" and "yelping."

One of the great pleasures of the post-punk years was the brief 18-month career of Scotland's Fire Engines. Though frequently lumped into the same scene that produced such bands as Orange Juice, Josef K, and Aztec Camera, Fire Engines didn't really resemble any of them. Instead, they produced a frantic, angular noise that owed more to Captain Beefheart's Magic Band than the pop artistry then appearing on the Postcard label.

It's no coincidence that lead singer/guitarist Davey Henderson, when asked what his favorite album was by Uncut recently, chose Trout Mask Replica. The small catalogue of work the band produced (collected on CD in 1992 as the now long-out-of-print Fond on Rev-Ola) features guitars that know no boundaries, ricocheting madly off the walls as Henderson wails about camouflage and candyskin.

Now, 25 years after their first record and 13 after the CD comp, Domino Records has released Codex Teenage Premonition, a collection of live tracks, Peel sessions, and early studio takes. Much of it, coming as it does from audience-recorded live shows, etc., is decidedly lo-fi, but after a few minutes you don't even notice. If any band could turn lack of sound quality into a virtue, this is it.

The first 5 tracks consist of those aforementioned studio tracks from 1980 and suffer the most from audio shortcomings but the music still shines through, especially if you're not familiar with their previously released counterparts. The next 6 date from an early 1981 show and sound much better, as do the 3 tracks from their very first gig in 1980. There's also a short clip in which Henderson, presumably, tells someone about how they're playing with this band U2 that he hasn't heard much from yet. In a perfect world, of course, it's the Fire Engines who would be doing iPod commercials now while Bono and the boys would just be getting around to their second CD.

But I digress.

Oddly, it's the US fans who get the extra tracks this time around, and they're worth the purchase price alone for die-hard fans. There's two Peel session tracks (including Candyskin without a string section!), plus their version of Franz Ferdinand's Jacqueline from the split 7-inch they released in which each band covered one of the other's songs. This is the jewel for me as I've been outbid every time I've tried to score a copy on Ebay (it was a limited giveaway at recent FF shows opened by the reunited Engines).

Though I still wouldn't mind hearing what the Ferdinands made out of Get Up And Use Me.

What's so strange about Jacqueline is how much these four guys still sound like The Fire Engines. Although Henderson has gone on to bands like Win and Nectarine No. 9 (a band I love just as much as FE), you wouldn't think a day had passed, let alone 25 years.

Chances are this is the Engines' last hurrah as they have no permanent plans to reunite, although I've seen a rumor regarding a possible appearance at the next South By Southwest. That might be enough to get me to hop on a plane.

Fans of the band will run out and knock people out of their way to buy this, but if you've never heard them before and don't have access to a copy of Fond or any of the original vinyl, this is a worthwhile investment until someone sees fit to reissue those recordings.

It remains some of the most exciting music to come out of the ferment of the Scottish scene in the early 80's, or any scene at any time, as many of today's better known and more successful bands will tell you.

In this case, you can believe them.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Are We Really Going Out With Him?

You’d think that after the recent collection of scandals, indictments, and poll numbers, the current administration might want to take on a more conciliatory approach.

Of course, the wonderful thing about them is that they never do the thing you’d think a reasonable person would do.

Now faced with the hobbling of his entire legislative agenda, Karl sat Bushie down and laid out the new game plan. And it was this:

Act even more like the kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. That’ll help.

Say nothing. Admit nothing. Deny, deny, deny. 9/11.

I would have thought that last Tuesday’s election results might have clued them in that the usual Republican tactics of leaping out from behind a curtain and saying “Boo!” have lost a little of their luster, even for die-hard conservatives.

Thank god it hasn’t. This all bodes well for the future of Democrats.

Instead, the big lunkhead dusted off his old cowboy hat and went on the attack. That’s right, out of traction, back in action!

You can hardly blame him. It all worked so well before.

Well, before polls showed that more than half of the country find him to be less than, er, trustworthy and capable.

Old favorites like “criticizing us only provides comfort to the enemy!” and “everybody had the same intelligence!” were trotted out to deafening silence.

I once told people that, at some point, people would begin to behave as if this administration never existed and start to distance themselves, to the point where even those that voted for it would never admit it. Bush boosters would deny they ever said a good word about him. A state of national amnesia would ensue.

At the moment, I don’t seem far wrong.

In my own heart, though, I knew that a part of me, regardless of how successful the Democrats might become, would never forgive the country for what it did.

I went out with someone for about a year who gradually began to tire of me. During this time, her best male friend started inviting us to hang out with a guy friend of his and, incredibly, I somehow missed the fact that she was laughing far too enthusiastically at this guy’s jokes and he was licking his chops every time he gazed at her.

Yeah, I know. Not too bright.

Sometimes the three of them would go out and I’d receive a glowing report on how neat he was and how much fun they’d all had.

Well, Nature took its course and eventually we parted ways. Some time after this, however, my future wife ran into this ex and they got onto the topic of this guy. Turns out that as soon as we were history, the two of them got together and enjoyed a short-lived relationship.

“He wasn’t very bright,” she told my wife-to-be, “but it was just nice to be with someone who wasn’t neurotic and depressed all the time, you know? Just a big, dumb guy who didn’t have much to say and didn’t think too much.”

Well, America, regardless of how all this turns out, I’m not sure I can forgive your fling with the big, dumb guy.

I can understand that you wanted a vacation from having to face up to some hard problems and that the prospect of painting the world in black and white was somehow comforting.

But playtime ends eventually. And the longer you ignore what needs to be done, the worse it will be when you eventually face up to it.

No, Lady Liberty. I’m glad the fling is over, but I can’t forgive you for it.

And History will be far less forgiving than I.

Monday, November 14, 2005


That Things I Should’ve Done file keeps getting bigger.

That can’t be good, can it?

I don’t buy every Simpsons book that they wave in front of me. You know, Philosophy and The Simpsons, Religion and The Simpsons, Wall-To-Wall Carpeting and The Simpsons, etc. There’s quite a few of them now.

I finally picked up Chris Turner’s Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation today, now that it’s in paper.

When I first saw it earlier in the year, I flipped through it and was met by a deluge of funny and interesting footnotes, all having to do with Simpson minutiae. The book itself seemed fairly ordinary, but just the fact that the author had tried to write a sort of cultural history around the phenomenon of the show while trying to stuff as much of the show into it as possible made me jealous.

In the two Simpsons Collectibles books I’d done, I had the most fun writing the footnotes. Some were serious, some were just comic riffs, but to me they were the icing on the cake and validated the effort put into the books. Part of me wished that I’d done something that had more text than pictures about the subject.

This is the second book that’s made me wish I’d put forth a little more effort. The first, Garry Mulholland’s This Is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk And Disco, I wrote about in a previous column.

Now not everyone’s in love with Turner’s book. If the reviews on Amazon are any indication, a few folks agreed that at times it belabors the obvious and doesn’t add much fresh or new to the discussion.

But, once again, could I have done it? No.

Should I have tried?

I don’t know. I do know I’d like to devote more time to creating something that expresses more of me than talk about somebody else’s playground at this stage of the game. So maybe it’s not so bad as all that.


Capote and Good Night, And Good Luck have come to the local theater, so what do I go out to see?

Chicken Little in 3-D.

I’m sorry, I’m just a sucker for it, I guess. I’ll go see any movie that requires that you wear special glasses. And I’m always particularly interested when someone is proclaiming that this is a new process that improves on what you’ve seen before.

The Chicken Little glasses are cool, polarized numbers, not the old style red-and-blue deal, and they’re made to look like the hero’s. I still remember the polarized glasses you got when you went to see Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein during its original run and I always thought those were some of the best 3-D effects I’d ever seen. So I had high hopes for the Chicken, especially after the relative disappointment of Shark Boy and Lava Girl.

Long story short, certainly much better than the average 3-D affair, though sometimes it feels as though the effects are just a step up from a View-Master with 2 or 3 planes of depth.

But when it’s good, it’s great. The ending, especially, made great use of it and the movie itself, though I wouldn’t tell anyone to run out and see the regular version, is amusing enough, despite the plethora of bad reviews.

Still, the one to beat is The Polar Express in IMAX 3-D. There were parts of that I had to cover my eyes during. Really. If it comes back for Christmas, try and see it.

And lastly, Happy Birthday to the world’s bravest, most long-suffering wife and typo fairy. May you have a wonderful, marvelous day. I know that England will love you as I do.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Formby Comes Alive!

The four leading jokes are nakedness, illegitimate babies, old maids and newly married couples…
– George Orwell on the “saucy postcards” of Donald McGill

When I picked up that 3-CD set of George Formby’s Golden Greats a little over a month ago, little did I dream what kind of Pandora’s Box I’d opened.

Or Pandora’s Box Set, I should say.

Not only did I find Formby’s style of winsome, music hall double-entendre completely beguiling, I immediately hungered for more.

It turned out that modern reissues of Formby’s work were varied and many, with a haphazard look to them. It was hard to know where to turn, until I happened upon the folks at JSP Records.

Not only had they released a 5-CD chronological overview of his early work last year entitled England’s Famed Clown Prince Of Song, but a second box of 5 discs completing the story of his recording career, The War And Postwar Years, was due at the end of October. The source recordings themselves, from the collection of a longtime fan, had been remastered and were described as possessing “dazzling clarity.” This was surely the way to go, so I put in my order at Amazon UK.

Well, they arrived the other day and you can consider me dazzled.

What a job they’ve done with these. There’s no comparison between these and the sound I was used to on my previous set. These sound like someone removed a blanket that had been hung over the record player. Of course, there’s not much to be done with the earliest tracks, which date from 1926, but the sound soon improves as we get into the 30’s and 40’s that were Formby’s heyday.

The boxes themselves aren’t any fancy material, appropriately enough, just glossy cardboard that won’t take a lot of punishment. But the attention is lavished on what really matters here, which is to say, the music. There are session dates provided for every track, as well as informative liner notes with each disc. And considering what you get, the price is remarkably reasonable. I’ve gone from being the possessor of 60 of his songs to 250.

Formby himself was Britain’s most popular star for a while, with movie and recording careers that reinforced each other. Beloved by the public, his films, which usually featured him as an ambitious innocent who won the girl in the end, usually came in for a critical drubbing, but they made a fortune anyway. Following in the footsteps of his father, also a music hall entertainer, George Jr. took to the stage while still in his teens with an act that featured him singing comic songs while accompanying himself on the ukulele (technically, his trademark instrument was really a “banjolele,” a cross between a uke and a banjo).

He found his greatest success performing songs that often, but not always, used low comedy to wink at the audience about the topics George Orwell mentions above. Often likened to the “seaside postcards” of Donald McGill and others, the lyrics to a Formby song often contained innuendo that would have been unthinkable in popular music in the United States during the same period:

Now lots of girls I’ve had to jilt
They all admire the way I’m built
It’s a good job I don’t wear a kilt
When I’m cleaning windows

His wife Beryl was supposedly a show biz tyrant who cut George’s business deals for him and flew into a rage if any of his leading ladies were too pretty. Formby, whose health problems had forced him off the stage by the early 1950’s, only survived her death in 1961 by two weeks.

Although he didn’t create the template, Formby’s naïve but triumphant Everyman proved to be an enduring creature and thousands lined the streets for the funeral of the “cheeky chappie” with the plaintive Lancashire accent. The jokes in his songs, often about his native Wigan (a town which had become a British punchline), fly past you so quickly that their giddy momentum simply carries you along with them. And he hasn’t been without influence – leaving aside the well-known fact that George Harrison was a tremendous fan, using Google’s new Print Search I found no less than three quotes that compared the songs of The Kinks to Formby’s, including Dave Davies admitting that Dedicated Follower Of Fashion was influenced by him.

Me? They just make me smile a lot.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Oh, Sweet Mystery Of Life, At Last I'm Floundering

Be careful what you wish for.

They had a little sit-down with me at Endless Bore and Tedium the other day and explained that, due to some new automated procedures, it’s possible that I may not have a job in a few months.

It’s a little suspicious that I’m the only one in the division that these new procedures would be affecting, but hey.

I think they just don’t want to celebrate my 20th anniversary next year. That’s a speech I’m sure they don’t want to hear.

“When I first arrived here, I thought I knew something about the depths of human depravity. Little did I suspect…”

I’ve been on breaks from here before, for illness and once when I was similarly the victim of downsizing. The unemployment had just about run out when I managed to find another job.

Unfortunately, it landed me back here again. It was the only thing I could find.

Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that, despite outward appearances, we Screwlooses haven’t come all that far from the days when my grandfathers worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. I’m just digging a different type of hole.

The recent news story concerning White House employees being made to attend Ethics classes did remind me of a similar period here at EB&T, though.

Quite a few years back, EB&T received some very heavy fines for misrepresenting their products and deceiving their customers.

Some heads rolled and new safeguards were put in place to prevent these sort of shenanigans from occurring for at least a couple of months. Among these were, yes, Ethics classes designed to test our knowledge of morality in the workplace.

Keep in mind we hadn’t done anything. It was the fellows sending us to the classes who had cheated on the test and now they were assigning us to detention.

We were shown industrial films in which actors portrayed scenes of office workers stymied by questions of right and wrong. Should Abby reveal personal information about a client to her sister Pam? Should Harry take an extra ten minutes on his lunch break? Does Mary’s gossiping constitute a security leak?

What about human sacrifice on the company grounds? Yea or nay?

It was not long after they made the big payout that we started hearing about entire divisions, fellow workers that we knew well, being told to go home in the middle of the day. These workers were not fired, mind you.

They were, rather, “impacted.”

I remember one big meeting where they read off the names of workers who’d been let go. There were audible gasps when a particularly well-liked or longtime employee’s name was read and then characterized as “impacted.”

You know, like a wisdom tooth.

There were other signs that the monetary penalty EB&T had received was going to mean big trouble for us. We all attended a presentation based on the popular book Who Moved My Cheese?, a parable designed to get workers used to the idea that change should be embraced, not feared. It involved the adventures of a plucky mouse whose cheese seemed to have a mind of its own, but the mouse rolled with the punches, thought outside the box, and soon learned that cheese never came with any sort of guarantee.

We soon figured out where our cheese was going.

My favorite, though, remains the weeklong meeting rolled out all over the country that all employees were made to attend. It was a huge multi-media presentation that made the case that the company was in truly bad shape financially after our episode of moral turpitude, and that we’d better pull ourselves up by the bootstraps if we still wanted to have a job.

No effort was spared in painting a picture of the company as terminal, with far more money going out than coming in, competitors breathing down our necks, and the wolf banging on the door. This involved all manner of expensive graphics and free food.

It must have cost them a fortune.

A year later we seemed to make a remarkable recovery, if you didn’t count all the people who had been “impacted.”

It wasn’t long after this, I think, that the company magazine printed an article about how the Chairman and CEO of the company had a gold faucet in his kitchen that dispensed soup.

I figured that the worst was over.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

We Don't Torture, So Shut Up And Let Us Torture Already, or: I Can't Gitmo Satisfaction

There seems to be a great deal of confusion going on at the White House these days.

Why, just yesterday, Resident Bush declared “We do not torture” to help calm the concerns of an international community increasingly skeptical about the interrogation practices of the United States, while back here at home, Vice Resident Dick Cheney continued to lobby under cover of darkness for the right of the C.I.A. to do whatever they bloody well please when it comes to inflicting pain on prisoners in the snug of European soviet-era torture facilities.

They just don’t seem to be on the same page, is all I’m saying.

I think they need to open their e-mails a little more often or something. Obviously some memos are going unread.

So I thought it might behoove me to do a little research and try and find out which one of the two world leaders was standing on the firmer ground, which one has the power of precedent on his side, so to speak.

Well, believe it or not, it’s the much-maligned Mr. Cheney who actually holds the better hand here. Turns out that if you examine the history of our nation, it’s Mr. Cheney who is actually following in the footsteps of some of our greatest leaders and patriots.

For instance, take a look at this quote from Abraham Lincoln Cheney:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to bind naked detainees up and place them in the freezing cold until they die of hypothermia, smash their feet with hammers, make them sit on exhaust pipes, and break their legs with metal bats. We will not bind their wounds, nor inform their widows or orphans.”

Or drink in this inspirational thought from the revered John Kennedy Cheney:

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask how you can habitually beat detainees before interrogation, pour burning chemicals on their faces, and shackle them in such a way that they physically collapse and die.”

Now those two quotes would be enough for me, personally, to hop on board the Cheney train. I mean, it’s obvious he didn’t come up with this torture stuff on his own. He’s actually following in the tradition of those who have come before us. It doesn’t get any more patriotic than the following quote from the beloved Nathan Hale Cheney:

“I only regret that I have but one prisoner to kick in the stomach while he is in a kneeling position, to urinate on and kick in the head, to beat on the lower back and groin until they urinate blood, whose back and legs can be jumped on with military boots, and that I can chain to the floor hand and foot in a fetal position.”

But in the end, it is our poets and artists who have the last word on America. They are the ones, after all, who really pass on the American legacy to generations yet unborn, the ones who are the keepers of the American Spirit.

So it’s fitting to close with this memorable meditation from one of America’s best loved poets, Carl Sandburg Cheney:

“I see America, not in the crimson light of a rising sun fresh from the burning, creative hand of God, but in the vision of a prisoner lying on the floor with a banana inserted into his anus and another who has been sodomized with a nightstick.”

Monday, November 07, 2005

A Drunkass Christmas

Now that Halloween’s over and all the candy wrappers have been swept up, it’s time to tackle the next big holiday:


At some point, Thanksgiving, the traditional gateway to the holidays, was tossed overboard for Halloween as the starting gun for the annual gift-giving marathon.

It keeps creeping up incrementally somehow, as people already accustomed to instant gratification chomp at the bit for holly and mistletoe.

We’ve got a station here in Philadelphia that, honest to god, starts playing Christmas music 24 hours a day the weekend after Halloween. It’s never too early to begin putting Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer into heavy rotation, is it? Which is bad news for your humble narrator, who will have to suffer the joy of the season for the next 60 days thanks to the co-worker that dwells on the other side of his partition.

It’s sort of like a blob making its way up the calendar and gobbling up whatever other holidays stand in its way. Maybe we should just stand aside and stop fighting it. Throw out all the holidays and let it be Christmas all year round.

After all, this Halloween was really nothing to write home about. Although we did observe an interesting phenomenon this year.

Many of the kids who worked the houses on the other side of the street would turn around, take a look at ours, and head in the opposite direction. I can only assume that the amount of overgrowth and wild foliage our home now boasts actually does scare people.

Which sort of means it’s Halloween all year round at our place. The only thing missing is Gomez Addams sharpening the points on the fence.

However, everybody’s on a different wavelength. For instance, Mr. and Mrs. Drunkass, the couple who have taken up residence behind us and who always signal the end of the weekend with the tinkling sound of cases of glass empties making their way into the recycling, actually put up some Christmas lights before Halloween even arrived.

A good few weeks before the end of October, a string of red and a string of green lights suddenly appeared on their front patio. Were they afraid they’d forget to do it by the time December rolled around? Are they holiday enthusiasts? Did they feel the need to somehow fight back against the powerful Halloween vibe given off by our gothic manse?

Whatever the reason, they’re up there, twinkling away as if St. Nick were already on the radar.

Stranger still, all of this premature Christmas activity has been accompanied by some unseasonably warm weather. Yesterday it was 72 degrees here. You could drive around with the top down listening to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, for god’s sake.

Not to mention the fact that we just turned the clocks back. Now my external clocks are as hopelessly confused as my internal one.

Adrift in this timeless sea without a compass, I’ve been struggling to find true north.

The only thing I can count on is that waterfall of glass every Sunday. When I hear it, I know another week has gone by and I scrawl another line on the wall of my cell.

God help us all if they ever go on the wagon. The world will teeter on its axis and gravity will fail, as their twinkling lights point the way towards salvation.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Five O' Clock World

People come and go and forget to close the door,
And leave their stains and cigarette butts trampled on the floor,
And when they do, remember me,
remember me.
– Brian Eno, Some Of Them Are Old

We all used to have this joke about other people’s record collections.

You know, they’d show you this neat line-up of 50 or 60 albums piled neatly by the stereo and our reaction would always be “Well, sure, they’re the ones you’re listening to at the moment, but where’s the rest of them?”

Although he had originally been my wife’s friend, Steve G. and I developed a telephone relationship where we’d hash out movies, music, politics and pop culture. And, although I encouraged most folks not to use the diminutive form of my name, I couldn’t quite shake Steve of the habit so I just gave up. Each call would begin with his familiar “Hiiii, Bahhhhhb!” spoken as if by the villain in a James Bond film. He’d then go on to tell me what was on his mind which, sometimes, could take quite a while.

Mostly, though, we talked about stuff. You know, promos, imports, toys, collectibles…stuff. We both took it very seriously. In fact, there was a good eight-month gap where we didn’t speak because of a misunderstanding over a fast food toy someone owed the other one. We were serious.

I remember hearing about the medical problems once in a while and then they suddenly seemed to pile up and the next thing I knew he was telling me about how the leg had to come off due to the diabetes. The what?

I couldn’t fathom it. It’s the sort of situation, with the possible exception of death, that I think frightens people the most. And yet he was talking about it like any other kind of operation, his explosive laughter still coming out at the ends of his sentences.

At this point, Steve had quit the record store and now only worked record shows, selling bootlegs for a creepy guy who actually made him price some of the stock from his hospital bed. He’d still work the shows with the one leg, though, and a terribly uncomfortable prosthesis. Record shows had become fairly depressing affairs at this point, with the really good dealers jumping ship for the internet and leaving the dregs that no one cared about. To see Steve hobbling around in such sad circumstances was a little heartbreaking.

Then came a period where it seemed all he did was go back and forth to the hospital. That should have told me something, but I always hoped for the best. I simply wasn’t capable of considering a worse-case scenario. I visited him one last time and brought a Big Gulp cup from a new 7-11 Simpsons promotion with me. The nurse told me his situation was “very bad” and drew back the curtain. He was lying there unconscious and his body seemed to move as if he were having a bad dream.

I spoke and got no reply, so I left the cup for him on the table and went home.

The next time I called him, they told me to call the family. I knew what that meant. I found out later that Steve had made a choice. The doctors had wanted to take the other leg but he chose to keep it, regardless of the consequences.

A lot of people came to the funeral, even the famous classic rock deejay who’d known him for years and who let him sit in while he did his show. His claim to fame was that he’d broken many big acts in Philadelphia, including the hometown one that conquered the world. Now the music had changed so they made him play his oldies on Sunday nights. His own funeral was not that far off.

Bob had not yet moved to California, so he came. Old friends from out of the past appeared and paid their respects. We all agreed after the fact that the eulogy managed to capture something of who he was, which you can’t always depend on at these things. The rabbi or priest does the best they can with the info they’ve been given. All things considered, it did a more than respectable job of conjuring up something of his passion and his personality, which is the most any of us can hope for.

Seven years later, Steve M. would have trouble breathing while he was in the hospital.

His affair featured a lot of remembrances from family members, stories that helped fill in parts of his life that we only knew sketchily, like his love of cooking. Of course, like at the other Steve’s funeral, everyone spoke of his love of music, almost as if to say “I don’t understand taking something to that kind of extreme, but to each his own.”

How do you explain it to someone who hasn’t been tapped by that fairy wand?

How do you explain the adrenaline, the excitement, the sense of joy?

Better they should never know it. Look at what it does. Holds heaven out like a carrot on a stick, making otherwise sensible people forget everything else that matters. Makes them embrace a lifestyle and a business that promises everything and delivers nothing. Reduces men and women to beggars with a game of three-card monte that is eternally unwinnable.

Better they should never know it.

And yet, they were happy. Maybe it was the only way for them to be happy.

When I talk to Bob, it’s always with the unspoken understanding that we feel lucky to still be here. After all, we were all the same age and had the same affliction. What sense does it make that we’re still here? All of us had all put our lives on hold for the same reason. We all crucified ourselves with horrible jobs that humiliated us because we had placed our own lives behind the need to forge a ball and chain that increasingly made it harder and harder for us to even move, and impossible for us to make any kind of positive change.

But we are still here in this sadder, poorer world. And we still talk. And my wife worries a little more about me because I’m getting older and I take a lot of pills.

Sometimes I think I know what heaven is. Sometimes I think I see it, feel it when I see an outdoor restaurant decorated with twinkling lights on a warm summer’s night. People are laughing and there’s a hint of the smell of Valencia oranges coming from somewhere.

Friends are moving from table to table, leisurely, enjoyably.

The air seems drunk and the years are spread out before them like a carpet.

If I could rescue the two Steves and place them back in the garden of our youth, I would.

We’d be at a record show and the aisles would be filled with wonderful dealers from everywhere, their tables gleaming with incredible finds, the mystery records you dream about that usually disappear when you wake up, and the wife and I would be trying to get each other’s attention as we’d attempt to make some headway at the piggie trough, already impossibly crammed with kids in heavy metal t-shirts, and Shark would be there with his remarkable mohawk and Bob would be making fun of the customers with his Billy Baloney ventriloquist doll, laughing uncontrollably as people shot strange looks at him, and then we all gradually notice the raised platform at the end of the hall where Steve M. and Steve G. are embracing and laughing, and Steve G. throws records into the crowd as Steve M. opens a bottle of champagne, and their glasses clink as they drink a toast to us and we to them.

Hallelujah, Elysium.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Hello Goodbye

My wife had been working an assortment of soul-crushing odd jobs when we got the news that the government position had come through. It wasn’t anyone’s idea of a dream job (if she’d had any idea of what was to come, I doubt she would have accepted it), but it beat the telephone soliciting and the other horrible assignments that eat through a human being from the inside out.

Whatever she expected from the new job, it wasn’t this:

“Hey! I know you!”

The speaker was a large, roundish man with a pudding face and receding hairline.

“You’re a friend of Steve’s, right?”

Indeed, she was. Who was this mysterious gentleman and why didn’t she recognize him?

Steve M. had grown up during the 1960’s and fallen in love with the music of the original British Invasion, an enthusiasm only matched by his love of the Blues. He’d had a subscription to Melody Maker for 20 years before he met my wife and on his first trip to England he brought an empty suitcase with him. He brought it back stuffed with British vinyl.

The job was merely there to provide the money to do two things: buy records and CD’s and attend gigs. Everything else found its place eventually. His ample record collection was spread over several locations, including his parents' house as well as his girlfriend’s. Like many vinyl junkies, the prospect of ever moving anywhere filled him with dread. There would simply be too much to move.

My friend Bob who, as I’ve said before, I often discuss these kinds of issues with, used to see Steve M. a lot at “house concerts,” shows put on by fans featuring cult artists who enjoyed the more relaxed format. Where Steve couldn’t see changing his job or his lifestyle, Bob was the only one of us who actually found the inner strength to sell off some of the vinyl and move to California.

Steve M. would never manage it. The ritual never changed, according to the wife. He’d come in with all the New York papers and music magazines and go through them arranging his social calendar. Steve thought nothing of attending a concert every night and usually being the first one there. He was so well known at venues up and down the East Coast that the doormen all knew him by name and would save him a good table.

All the while, he worked at a job that was slowly killing him.

The government had figured out that, considering his lack of options and refusal to move further up the ladder, they had him over a barrel and would push him to the lengths of his endurance. Which wasn’t good for someone whose life seemed to be a constant comedy of errors in the first place: some of the funniest stories I've ever heard were about the mishaps that happened to Steve going to shows, at shows, and leaving shows. Whenever we’d end up at a concert sitting next to some group that was particularly obnoxious, we’d look at each other and say, “You know whose seats these were supposed to be.”

The best stories by far concerned Steve’s battles on the phone with the witless employees employed by ticket sales outfits. Where you and I could make such a call without any difficulty, the fates would conspire to deliver Steve into the phoneline of someone so brainless and devoid of common sense that the transaction would inevitably take half an hour, as Steve’s requests were treated with the same understanding that would have greeted ancient Sanskrit. It was his Sisyphean punishment for loving the music more than anyone else did.

Inevitably these stories would end with him slapping his forehead and, eyes rolling back in his head, declaiming to the heavens, “Mother of God!”

Once Steve M. realized that my wife knew Steve G., she became something very special indeed: the only real link between the two Steves. In fact, she engineered a minor bit of local history when she arranged for Steve G. to meet her at the office and, for a brief moment, the two Steves were reunited.

For a moment, time stopped and strange music was heard.

There were not to see each other again.

Steve M.’s health had started to erode. He’d peed blood. He gained weight, which made it harder and harder for him to get around to shows. He was transferred to another office and my wife and I heard from him less and less. This was particularly sad for my wife as she and Steve had been each other's lifelines at the office, the only two who understood music the same way and who could cheer each other up when being there seemed to be a kind of endless torture.

One night, after not hearing from him for a long time, the phone rang. To receive a call from him was an event in itself, as Steve was loathe to receive calls made to or make calls from his own home. He drew a very clear line between his life and his work. He spoke briefly to my wife and, after explaining why he was going into the hospital the next day, told her, "You know I wouldn't be calling unless I was scared."

The next night, he was gone.

Conclusion: Five O’ Clock World

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Two Steves

It’s been observed that one of the hallmarks of adulthood is that the victim no longer cares for many of the things that seemed so important during their raging teenage years.

The protest pins are filed away in a drawer, the pop singles are sold at a garage sale and replaced with jazz and classical box sets, and the money formerly squandered on childish enthusiasms is now saved up and placed carefully away for retirement.

So it would be fair to say that the people I’m about to describe to you are classic case histories of arrested adolescence, beings that literally lived as though there were no tomorrow, whose love of music, particularly pop music, was such that everything else in their lives came in a very poor second. Hypnotized by what three minutes of music could do, they abandoned everything and followed a melody without any concern for where they might end up.

You might not think this would be a very constructive choice for someone to make and, of course, in many ways you’d be right. But in other ways, it was the only way they could survive.

And, in any case, choice didn’t really enter into it.

The two Steves once actually worked together at the same record store. You could be forgiven for thinking that they had once been one big ball of colored vinyl split by some Big Bang into two whirling entities of obsession. Chances are that if you had any interest in what lay beyond what the radio fed you and you lived in Philadelphia during the last 30 years, you knew one or the other.

Both were big men, in appearance as well as musical appetite. There was something about Steve G. in particular that was larger than life. He seemed almost Falstaffian with his beard and boundless energy. The most terrible insult he could throw at you, usually when you couldn’t seem to muster the same enthusiasm for some new band or record, was “Oh, I see. You don’t caaaaaaaare anymore!!”, the “caaaaaaaare” drawn out like some unsheathed sword that dared you to defend yourself against the encroaching common sense of adulthood.

Steve G., as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, cared too much. Only not about himself.

His knowledge of all kinds of music was encyclopedic. He wasn’t a snob, either; he respected all kinds of music and artists on their own terms. He would tell you, almost instinctively, why the production on the new Kate Bush album failed and who they should have gotten and how he would have fixed it. These declarations would teeter precariously between sounding like crazy daydreams and seeming to be the only possible explanation. Something about his certitude convinced you he was right.

He was endlessly extolling the properties of the latest import release and he turned us all on to so many things that the list became endless. And, though not conventionally handsome, it didn’t keep my wife and her then-roommate from competing to see who could impress him the most. Neither could hold much of a candle to Paul McCartney in his heart, though, and when Wings came to town in 1976, Steve was on the front page of the paper beaming from the front row of the audience.

He never worked anywhere but record stores and record shows and was always happy to order something or hold something for you. He always respected anyone else's obsession as much as his own. Over the years, he made a number of connections in the industry that should have led to his being able to turn his omniscient understanding of the business into a great personal success. But Steve could never get the hang of marketing himself, of creating an attractive package for the corporate world. He was too much himself. It was the industry’s loss and he watched as others, without half of his talent or love of the music, leapfrogged up the ladder.

Was part of it a fear of success or the loss of himself? Was he frightened that if he accepted the terms of adult life, he’d no longer “caaaaaaaare” anymore? When Tower Records came to South Street, they offered him the chance to run it and he turned it down. It was a position that would have offered him even more inside options than he already had. But he kept slogging away at record shows and dumpy record stores instead, reluctant to fill out a W-2 or to turn what he loved into too much of a job.

Friends would shake their heads and ask him why he insisted on living this way. You should think about the money, Steve. You should take better care of yourself. Think about the future. You're not getting any younger.

The money only really became an issue after the diabetes diagnosis. That’s when many of us gladly became chauffeurs, happy to repay his generosity.

We would have done more if we’d known how little time was left.

Next: Hello Goodbye

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Life In These United States

One detainee was killed by the CIA, by being exposed naked to freezing cold temperatures overnight. Hey, this is America. We do this kind of thing now.
- Andrew Sullivan

We know how all this happened. It was Joe Wilson out there trying to destroy the Iraq war, the Iraq policy, undermine the presidency and the White House simply trying to defend its policy…This guy is a cup and saucer short of a full place setting, folks. The elevator doesn't go to the top floor. He's a publicity whore.
- Rush Limbaugh

At age ten the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their patrons. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest.
- passage from Scooter Libby's 1996 novel, The Apprentice

With A Bullet

As every good Philadelphian knows, the hip strip in downtown Philadelphia is South Street, made famous by The Orlons as the place where the hippies meet and now flush with tattoo parlors, condom emporiums, and alternative record stores.

Although the creeping Mallism of America has not left it unscathed. There’s some fancy expensive clothing store where the used book store used to be and a Gap, for god’s sake, facing it on the opposite corner.

You used to be able to kill a good couple of hours in the bookstore, poring through stacks of old sci-fi pulps or the used vinyl in the back. You knew it was a hip store because all the clerks ignored you until you shot them a look of hipper-than-thou ennui that made you look like you were even less interested in them than they were in you.

Oh, and they were all in bands.

From such tidal ponds were obsessive collectors created, that specimen of humanity that lived for the asterisks of history: you may have had the new Screaming Riboflavins CD, but they had the promo copy with the “Not For Sale” stamp on it plus the Japanese version with the extra track.

You bought the latest from Veeblefetzer Agony right away because of the limited free poster? They already had a version of it that was only sent to radio stations and that was signed by the band.

I’m not saying these people don’t exist any more; of course they do. But it was a different game then, B.E. (Before Ebay). To keep up, you had to painstakingly comb through the ads in the back of Goldmine, ruining your eyesight as you skimmed the tiny print for the words “rare” and “promo”. You had to haunt the promo bins at the hip record store, using your elbows to keep other poachers at bay. You had to be there when they opened up in the morning to make sure you got the new import LP with the free single.

Sooner or later, this unholy fraternity began to identify who did and didn’t belong to their ranks of the damned. They saw each other at record shows on the weekends. Their names started crossing over into each other’s conversations. Soon, a sort of hierarchy was established. It included the casual but dedicated collector, the obsessive and, on top of the heap, the truly mad.

I have known some of the truly mad. I’ve been good friends with one or two. I cannot condemn them because their blood runs through my veins. The only thing that separated us, I fear, was my sheer laziness.

Some of them are gone now. But those of us who are still here from that time and place seem to stick close together, speaking a language that we fear no one else will understand. We’ve tried to adapt to the whole computer thing, some more successfully than others. And we visit when we can.

Which is how the wife and I came to visit Noise Contraction the other day, a small record store just around the corner from South Street. Its owner and operator, Shark, though younger than us, was still part and parcel of that era and understands the mindset.

Back in the heyday of the record show, Shark sported a truly impressive blond Mohawk, the kind that looked like it could take off a hand. These days he cuts it short and looks more like Kiefer Sutherland halfway through a season of 24.

We’d gone down to pick up the new Fall import vinyl single, which he’d ordered and put aside for me. Yeah, I could have bought it off the ‘net, but it’s nice to renew the ancient custom of the face-to-face transaction once in a while, as if in tribute to a bygone era.

When Shark found out about the wife’s plans to visit England next month, he whipped out his photos from a recent trip dedicated to visiting Beatle Landmarks: here he was crossing Abbey Road, here he was at 3 Saville Row, here he was at The Cavern Club.

He would not brook any teasing about his pilgrimage, even the gentle kind. “I’m not talking to you anymore,” he told me half-seriously after I’d kidded him about it. These were The Beatles, goddammit. You don’t kid about stuff like that.

Ultimately, we can kid each other about these things because we know we all feel the same way. It comforts us to know that there are others like us. But there were never two like the two I am going to tell you about.

They lived for music. And, possibly, died for it.

Next: The Two Steves