Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Good-bye America

Witness the recent revelation that three of the Republican candidates for president do not believe in evolution. Three men seeking to lead the last superpower on Earth reject the scientific consensus on cosmology, thermonuclear dynamics, geology and biology, believing instead that Bamm-Bamm and Dino played together.
- LA Times editorial on the “Creation Museum” that opened Monday near Cincinnati.

The president's trope has been that we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here. It's a notion dependent on the absurd idea that a disparate, lateral organization of religious fanatics is somehow unable to do both. The truth appears to be: we are training them over there so they can come and murder us over here.
- Andrew Sullivan

Good-bye America ... you are not the country that I love and I finally realized no matter how much I sacrifice, I can’t make you be that country unless you want it.

It’s up to you now.

- From Cindy Sheehan's "farewell letter"

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pages Of Acceptance, or: How I Fondled History

It’s a conversation I’ve had many times since the Internet came along and changed the rules of the game.

In fact, I think I had it most recently with the producers of the Simpsons TV piece. I’d been talking about how many of my overseas collectibles came from the early days of eBay and how the arrival of the online auction site changed everything.

Especially for book and collectible shows.

The wife and I had been small-scale bibliophiles in our day and we looked forward to few things as much as we did book shows.

Even the waiting in line was fun: watching the dealers load in their wares, looking over the floor plan handout and deciding which tables to attack first, seeing if so-and-so might be here with that proof copy they promised to bring next time.

Not only did you get to know your fellow bibliomaniacs after awhile, but you started to form relationships with the dealers, many of whom, it must be said, were some of the nicest sorts we’d ever run across.

So nice that we invited a number of them to our wedding. And they came.

People would let you pay for stuff in installments or even leave with the object of desire with the understanding that you could be trusted to pay for it.

At some point, however, we noticed that the words “eBay” and “auction” kept coming up in conversations at these affairs, sometimes floating in the air as you passed a table. And the next show would have fewer dealers and then there were just fewer book shows.

And I guess the point I’m getting to is this:

Maybe it sounds a little over-the-top or pompous to say that these online transactions (social as well as financial) have bled a lot of humanity out of the process. But all of the access to rare goods is no replacement for the market stall, where you could engage someone like-minded in conversation and, most importantly, hold in your hands the object under discussion.

There was nothing like seeing the endless array of books laid out before you, available for browsing, and awaiting your jealous examination.

And examine them we did, beautiful signed firsts that we could never afford, but which were free to hold for as long as we wanted. Rare exotica that was usually buried deep in college libraries was here and could be taken home for the right price. If you couldn’t afford it, though, you could pretend for a few seconds that you could by picking it up and perusing its ancient endpapers.

And that is something that’s been lost, that physical connection, that traveling carnival aspect.

I’m glad that we got in when we did – we got some great things that we could never afford to buy now as the value of rare books never seems to go anywhere but up.

But we got in under the wire, before all of those other wires came along.

I look at my shelves sometimes and marvel at it all. Looking back, it feels like it was a quiet meadow in the middle of my life.

These books all have so many more stories and personalities attached to them than anything I could buy now.

Like so many memories that come up to me at this stage of life, I wonder: did that really happen? So many lifetimes ago?

These books, these lifetimes are mine for a while still. But no one will love them as I have.

Friday, May 25, 2007

This Sporting Life

I am, at heart, a gentleman of leisure.

I was never meant to throw on a football jersey and charge down the field, nor was I intended to feel the thrill of adrenalin when my bat would make that satisfying crack upon contact with a ball.

I was barely meant to get off the couch, frankly.

In this respect I was the odd man out amongst my siblings, who enjoyed nothing better than sweating their way to home plate, or a touchdown, or first place at the Kentucky Derby.

I was more the Ferdinand the Bull type, sniffing flowers just outside of the stadium. Just let me know when it’s over and if we’re stopping for ice cream on the way home.

I have, in fact, prided myself on my ability to do absolutely nothing for hours on end, barely expending the energy necessary to breathe.

A comfortable chair can be immeasurably helpful in accomplishing this.

So it was with no small irony the other day that I discovered that I was the victim of a…sports injury.

And not merely any sport. No, it had to be a rather snobby one that I usually identified with a more moneyed class of individuals than I am accustomed to spending time with.

I couldn’t have a torn rotator cuff or a pulled hamstring or some good ol’ American sports injury.

No. I had to get tennis elbow.

I mean, to have an injury connected with any kind of sport, any kind of physical exertion, in fact, is embarrassing enough for someone of my sedentary persuasion.

But for it to be an upper-crust, Jody-and-Muffy cashmere sweater kind of injury is almost too much to bear.

If I had to have a sports injury, I would have preferred the sort of ham-and-eggs, Converse sneaker, local pizza joint team sponsorship kind of an injury, not this precious, prissy little ailment.

When we were kids, we didn’t slice tennis balls in half and smack ‘em at the wall, for cryin’ out loud.

Now I don’t suppose I have to explain that I didn’t get this playing tennis. It was, rather, something common to folks who performed the kind of repetitive tasks I was, until recently, regularly performing.

But it’s still tennis elbow, nevertheless.

So now I wear this little black elbow splint around my arm (which looks rather morbid, as the wife pointed out) and it does seem to be easing things somewhat.

But in the meantime I have to tell people that I’m not working because of my tennis elbow.

Is there a more sniffy, elitist, bring-the-car-round-james type of sports injury to have? Do those chess guys ever sprain their wrists moving those little horsies around?

Really, I’m asking because I don’t know. Even that sort of thing always struck me as too strenuous.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Our Man In Jazz

Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, Henry Grimes, Billy Higgins, circa 1963.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Après la Guerre

In March 2003, I stood up at the Oscars and said we’re being led to war for fictitious reasons, and I was booed. Only 20% of the country agreed with me. I should have learned my lesson and gone away quietly. Instead, I made "Fahrenheit 9/11". I did that because I believe that the majority of Americans are not only persuadable but that they have a generous heart and ultimately want to do the right thing. Now I am in agreement with 70% of the country about Mr. Bush.
- Michael Moore

I heard people at the time of my arrest say, "He did that to get out from under that Pee-wee character." Anyone who thinks like that is not remotely on top of what people go through. That’s like saying Lana Clarkson shot herself in the face.
- Paul Reubens

That’s not singing. That’s someone getting into a hot bath. Oooh, aaah! Oooh, aaah!
- Craig Ferguson on Enya

Anyone with a morbid interest in how I came off looking in that Simpsons piece mentioned below can see the video here or read a transcript here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Return Of The O.G.

I guess I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’ve lost something of my enthusiasm for concert-going.

Although some of it is age and health related, most of it has to do with today’s audiences. Each time I think I have witnessed the worst behavior I’ve ever seen at a show, someone shows up to prove me wrong.

Then why do you go? would be the logical question here. Well, it’s the wife, you see. Not only does she still love to attend these exercises in emotional cruelty, she thrives on them. Nothing but the front row will do, and she does not leave without a set list.

And god bless her for it. It means she still loves it.

I, conversely, usually find myself just that much more revolted by humanity.

Something about these events, rock shows especially, brings out the kind of people you imagine you’d be trapped with in Hell.

I don’t know what it is. I can’t figure it out.

I mean, there are recent stories I haven’t told you just because I’d rather forget them. Not to mention the fact that they paint a picture of me as a somewhat unstable crank, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

For example, there was the recent show where I complained to the management about the annoying man behind me and, receiving no satisfaction, I then proceeded to stand and point at him as if I were a bit player from Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

I think I frightened him because he changed his seat.

Tonight seemed like it would be far from the usual grouchy tableau. I had scored a comfortable stool on an upper balcony to watch Elvis Costello from, not to mention the wife, anxious and anticipatory in front of the stage. We called each other on our cells and waved.

I noticed quickly, however, that my stool had become stuck.

In between my stool and my neighbor’s on the right, there was a leg. The leg was connected to a gentleman who, finding that all the stools on this level had been taken and being loathe to sit any higher up, had decided to improvise by grabbing a stool from an upper balcony and placing it, tightly, behind the two of us so that we could not move. This way, by attempting to disappear into us, no one would notice that he didn't belong there.

He was practically spooning me.

Now we are in an enclosed area. People are welcome to stand behind us (the seated ones), but adding any more seats makes it difficult for folks to get by. So our new friend had done his level best to make certain that his molecules overlapped with ours, thereby creating a new seat on the level he preferred.

I threw around a few dirty looks and that seemed to do the trick. Things loosened back up considerably.

Now these kinds of confrontations have become not only tiresome to me, but clichéd. So I was intent on doing what I could to avoid another one. After all, poor fellow probably doesn’t even realize, etc., etc., salt of the earth probably, etc., etc.

The wife waved at me. She looked happy.

Shortly before the show started, however, I tried to stand up, something which shouldn’t be that difficult under the circumstances. I found to my surprise that my stool, once again, had been rendered immobile.

What to do, what to do?

It was time to appeal to his logic and reason.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “but are you trying to sodomize me? Because, in that case, I could just lean over the rail here.”

“Hey, if you need to get out,” he said, “I can still let you out. Especially if you’re a little more gracious about it.”

“Well, then, eat me,” I said.

This masterstroke of debate artistry seemed to conclude the matter.

The woman on my right leaned over to me and asked, “Is that guy annoying you, too?”


“Hey, we’re old punk rockers,” she said, “we know our way around a mosh pit. This guy can’t bother us.”

“Look at us now, though,” I said. “Upstairs in the old folks section sitting on padded barstools.”

“At least we can still sit.”

“Do you still go to many shows?” I asked her.

“Well, I teach dance and have daughters, so I have to keep up. I saw that Christina Aguilera.”

“My niece tells me she’s the only one of them that can sing. Of course, she’s also the niece most likely to throw her first-born out the window.”

“They’re all like that now,” she said.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Giant Yellow Hands, or: Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves

The phone rang yesterday with someone requesting a television interview.

No, you’re not reading the wrong blog.

The truth is that some time ago I was responsible for putting together a couple of price guides for collectibles involving The Simpsons. The end result has been that every once in a great while, usually when something is heating up in the Simpsons universe, we get a phone call from someone looking to beef up an article or promotional piece.

And this week (I’d almost forgotten) brings the 400th episode of the show on the eve of the long-awaited feature film. So you’re probably going to have a hard time escaping them this summer.

There’s the various Springfields that are all competing for the honor of hosting the film’s premiere, and the handful of 7-11’s that will be converted into Kwik-E-Marts, and the 100 limited Xbox 360’s that will be given away at special events.

There was a time when the collecting aspect was a lot more fun, largely due to the fact that being a completist almost seemed possible and you had the fun of finding unusual items you’d never seen before at toy fairs and collectible shows. Most of the coolest stuff was coming from overseas and eBay was just coming into its own.

After my books and similar ones appeared, it seemed to get through that there were American fans only too willing to spend their disposable income on yellow memorabilia. The result was a tidal wave of domestic merchandise that spelled the beginning of the end for my participation in the hobby, for not only could I no longer afford to collect everything, there was simply no place to put it all.

Having written the books had also allowed me to make more purchases than I probably should have, of course, since I had the excuse of needing to keep up with the subject. And soon the need to do that started to take a little of the fun out of it.

So on some level, I felt like I had probably ruined it for myself. But this is the way of the world. If one loves something to death, one should be prepared to accept the consequences.

Oh, I’ll still buy something from time to time, but it has to be something cool, like when I started. And I’m still a big fan of the show so it’s kind of a kick to have had something on the bookshelf about the subject.

It’s sort of the yang to my yin of enjoying things that are unknown and obscure, I suppose. I’m equally excited and thrilled by things that are so massive, such a common cultural currency. And these giant yellow hands are going to be with us for decades after we’re gone.

The woman running the camera handed me a lavaliere microphone and stood back awkwardly, as if she were a prom date too nervous to pin on a corsage.

“The wire goes down your shirt…” she explained. I nodded.

The interviewer, a good-natured fellow who looked to be a little younger than me and resembled Kevin Spacey, was a big fan of the show and we enjoyed shooting lines back and forth at each other.

I’d brought out a handful of eye-catching stuff and some large stand-ups that I thought would work for them.

I wondered what I would say, frankly, but the guy had a handful of topics that were easy enough to elaborate on. I found myself babbling and losing my train of thought and getting off some surprisingly good bits of off-the-cuff analysis in equal measure. Because we’d decided to tape the interview in the front yard, we had to stop every few minutes or so because of the noise made by this giant corkscrew machine that was planting trees down the street.

“How old are you?” the interviewer asked me as he swatted away a mosquito.

“51,” I said, “52 in October.”

“When in October?” the camerawoman broke in. “Are you a Libran?”


“Yeah, me too,” she said. “Everything has to be fair, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“While you piss off just as many people at the same time,” she added.

You know, there could be something to this whole astrology thing.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Are You A Writer? or: Vocational Counseling At The ER

I was going through a particularly bad patch.

Unable to sleep because of emotional distress, I would lie in bed with the television tuned to the Fine Arts station, a sort of MTV for the classical set.

Every once in a while I would drift off but wake almost immediately to the sight and sound of a strange orchestra gleaming in the dark. Eventually daylight would creep into the room and I would drag myself to work. I’d get through the day in a weird, zombie haze, barely able to hold my head up, and then go home to lie awake some more.

The difference between day and night had, at this point, effectively disappeared, replaced by a flat panel of cardboard scenery that hummed and buzzed. It all started to get a little hallucinatory, a twilight world broken up by strange clips of classical music.

Eventually it was all going to collapse on me.

My doctor at the time was a young woman who, I found out later, was related by marriage to a rather notorious personality on the American political scene. She didn’t seem to share any of this person’s pronounced conservative viewpoints, but marriage makes for some strange relations.

She herself had suffered from depression, but didn’t seem very familiar with panic attacks. This was all right as it was around this time that, having gone to seek help for my sleepless predicament, I proceeded to have one in her office.

There is a sense during these attacks, difficult to describe, in which one feels the need to escape, almost out of one’s skin. You feel threatened by danger for no apparent reason, as if you were an ant that a shoe was about to come down on, and you look desperately for a way out.

This can be especially dangerous, as the wife will attest, if you’re behind the wheel. She can tell you tales of my suddenly accelerating through red lights as if a landslide were behind us, nearly causing a worse accident than the one I was imagining.

Back at the doctor’s office, I asked if I could leave for a few minutes to get some air. I needed to get out, anywhere, before the shoe came down. This helped enough to allow me to return inside after a while, but I could tell I wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“So that’s what they’re like?” my doctor asked.

I tried to explain exactly what it felt like, not an easy task, especially in my twilight state. I don’t remember what else happened during the visit, only that I got back in the car for the 5-minute ride home hoping that the worst was over but feeling like everything was still incredibly fragile.

It hit as I pulled into the driveway. The rug was pulled out from underneath the world. Everything crashed in, a million dangers out of nowhere. I struggled to get up the front steps, my legs like rubber and my heart beating like mad. I managed to make it to a chair in the kitchen and said to my father, “Call an ambulance.”

I tried to talk just to assure myself I was still conscious. I wanted my father to keep talking so I knew I could still hear. It felt like I was going to die.

The paramedics showed up and asked me some questions and I explained where I’d been and what happened as they took my blood pressure.

The one operating the pressure cuff said, “They let you leave the office like that? You’re practically stroking out.” He told me some numbers that indicated that the pressure was, indeed, through the roof.

They gave me some drugs that seemed to take the edge off and on the way to the hospital, I tried to place my mental ducks in a row: figuring out how to further refine my description of what had happened and how it felt. At the very least, it was an excellent way of taking my mind off of my current difficulties.

The doctor at the ER listened to my story with a strange expression on his face. When I was through, he asked, “Are you a writer?”

Where on earth was this coming from? I wondered.

I said I did a little writing, but never professionally.

“Well, that was a textbook-perfect description of a panic attack,” he explained.

There was a textbook? I figured I’d better get my doctor a copy of that thing.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Do Unto Mothers

An American who built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith has left us. He will be greatly missed, but the legacy of his important work will continue through his many ministries where he put his faith into action.
- Mitt Romney

Dr. Falwell was a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country.
- John McCain

Laura and I are deeply saddened by the death of Jerry Falwell, a man who cherished faith, family, and freedom.
- George W. Bush

Falwell was a perfected Christian. He exuded Christian love for all men, hating sin while loving sinners.
- Ann Coulter

In 1984, Falwell called the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church "a vile and Satanic system" that will "one day be utterly annihilated and there will be a celebration in heaven." Members of these churches, Falwell added, are "brute beasts." Falwell initially denied his statements, offering Jerry Sloan, an MCC minister and gay rights activist $5,000 to prove that he had made them. When Sloan produced a videotape containing footage of Falwell's denunciations, the reverend refused to pay. Only after Sloan sued did Falwell cough up the money.
- Max Blumenthal, The Nation

And click here for a personal farewell from Tinky Winky.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Time For Tubby Bye-Bye

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Darling Buds Of May, or: My Niece Vs. The Department Of Education

Hear them hollerin’, hear them hollerin’, at the baby show
Lots of chubby ones, lots of grubby ones, laid out in a row

- The Baby Show, as sung by George Formby

The coming of Spring, of course, does not merely mean more empties in the next door neighbor’s trash, nor the first letters to the township concerning our overgrowth.

For most of us, it encourages annual musings about the cycle of Life, our brief and flickering mortality, and the power of Eros (which backwards, not coincidentally, is “sore”).

For The Powers That Be, who live in fear of the hormonal rampage of teenagers, it’s also the starter’s pistol for much harrumphing about abstinence and dancing two feet apart, lest Satan inspire the Tango That Wears No Clothes.

And it was in this context that the wife received the first in a recent flurry of messages from our oldest niece:

i hate this baby! the IM read.

it’s always crying! i want to throw it out the freakin’ window!

This was just after she’d informed us that she was now a mommy.

Not wishing to have us expire from heart attacks too prematurely, she then explained how the school had sent everyone home for the weekend with these high-tech baby dolls.

The idea was that they had to take proper care of them or the child would cry, or its head would fall back if not held correctly, in which case they had to insert a key to fix it. All of this information would then be recorded within the baby-thing, ultimately resulting in a score at the end of the weekend.

It sounded an awful lot like those old Tamagotchi toys, the ones you had to electronically feed and play with from time-to-time in order to nurture it and keep it alive. I think mine lasted about two weeks before its little digital body sprouted heavenly wings on the screen.

In my niece’s case, they had given her a child with Asian features.

you know why they’re giving those to you, don’t you? the wife IM’d her. the idea is to scare all of you into not having sex and getting pregnant.

i know, she said.

have you learned anything yet? the wife asked our harried niece.

yeah, she replied. i’m not having sex with an asian guy cause their heads are too sensitive!

Our niece has changed quite a bit since we knew her in the early days. For instance, she recently informed us that her favorite word is the f-word. I think it used to be “sheepy.”

this thing won’t stop crying! she complained. Variations on this message appeared on our screen throughout the weekend until she finally figured out a way to rig the colicky creature with a rope so that its head would stay in a stationary position.

If the other kids figured this out, as I imagined they did, it surely meant there were hard times ahead for the next generation, whose parents had been taught by the school system how to lasso and hogtie them.

so what are you going to tell your teacher on Monday? we asked now that the worst was over.

i’m going to tell her that I liked being a mommy so much, i’m going to get pregnant and have a lot of kids right away!

She’s a chip off the old block, that one.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pensées Are Not A Lady's Underpants

I want to see people in markets. I want to see couples strolling down the street, folks sitting at outdoor cafes.
- Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah explains the al fresco method of measuring progress in Iraq

Here's how you can tell when Michael Medved is lying: When his moustache moves.
- Chris Kelly

Björk concert perk No. 237: Not even the biggest asshole even attempts to sing along for more than a few lines, because it's just not possible.
- Ryan Dombal

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sitting With The Cool Kids

There was a point early in the century when I decided to try and put forth some effort in trying to establish myself as an improvising musician.

I didn’t feel part of any particular school of thought or technique where this was concerned, but I wanted to try and connect with people who seemed to have similar artistic aims.

The thought of introducing myself to people and performing for strangers was intimidating, but there was a limit to what I could do by myself.

Sticking to the East Coast, I tried to find gigs above and below where I lived.

In the one city, I called and e-mailed a likely place. They had me call back. Each time I called, they told me to call back.

Which I did, usually while reading a list of their latest bookings.

In the other city, I was invited to take part in a day-long performance where the musicians would take turns in shifts. After driving for hours, we slowly realized that no parking was provided for the participants, nor was there any nearby lot.

Finding street parking, we lugged the keyboard into the building just in time for me to begin my shift. As I sweated profusely and tried to catch my breath, the fellow in charge would watch while rubbing his chin, pausing every 5 minutes or so to walk over to me and turn down my volume.

Then it was back to calling the other city. They said it sounded interesting and told me to call back.

So I e-mailed the fellow who’d turned down my volume and asked if he’d be interested in booking me at his club. He apologized because, although they’d like to have me, their piano was in terrible shape and he was sure it wouldn’t be up to my standards.

He was really, really sure.

Two weeks later, I read a review of a visiting musician who thrilled the audience at this club with his acumen on the terrible piano.

So I called the other city again. They were having lunch and asked me to leave a message.

But then, remarkably, I got an e-mail from a local promoter who asked if I’d like to play on a bill with other keyboardists. I accepted and was told that they’d be recording it as well.

After the show, I inquired after the recording. Months later, after numerous e-mails, I slowly began to realize that the promises in the e-mails to send it had been sarcastic.

I wrote to the other musicians on the bill. They’d all received their recordings.

I was not asked back.

So I wrote to the other city again. There were no bookings to be had as the booker had moved to my city and, within two weeks, arranged for six gigs booked by the guy who was going to send me the recording.

I offered to trade lunches with him, but he said his mom would kill him if she found out.

Friday, May 11, 2007

It Paint Necessarily So, Or: Moulin Stooge

There are people who, if asked about musicals, will tell you:

“I don’t get it. They’re standing around one minute and then they break into a song. Who does that? It’s unrealistic.”

And I don’t know how to respond to that.

Has music never teased you with a glimpse of spiritual infinity?

Have you never felt yourself disappear, your soul soaring and unleashed?

Have you never, without warning, found yourself burning in a strange and miraculous way?

Having decided that we would “put the show on in the barn!”, so to speak, the sensible thing to do would have been to make some scenery and paint it, like Mickey and Judy did. Why this didn’t occur to me, I don’t know. That the thing that did occur to me was to paint our title in the middle of the street is something I can’t explain, especially from the vantage point of 2007.

It seems like such a reckless and inconsiderate thing to do, sitting here thinking about it. I didn’t ask anyone’s permission and the neighbors would have to live with it for, literally, years.

And yet, I took my two cans of bright pink and green (practically day-glo) paint and went to work, designing the words Chickies Galore! so that they stretched in an elegant way from one side of the street to the other. Of course, I’d have to step aside from time to time to let the cars drive through.

Having gathered together those willing souls who would agree to dance in the middle of the street, I filmed them as they danced in line above my curling and circuitous logo, Gold Diggers style. On the sides of the street, some curious kids gathered who would try to run into the middle of the shot.

Partway through, however, something in that sturdy Sears Roebuck mechanism began to jam.

Remarkably, like some old victrola, the camera didn’t run on batteries or electricity but had to be cranked regularly with a handle that sat on the side of it. At some point I realized that it simply refused to be turned any more.

This was a very bad sign.

Disappearing into the living room, whose darkness would (I hoped) keep the film safe should any accident occur, I attempted to get at the root of the problem. Had the film finished, awaiting removal? Carefully keeping myself shaded, I slowly opened the side of the camera.

A dark ribbon shot into the air, spinning cartwheels until it landed on the rug.

I prayed that it had only been exposed to minimal light and that the film would still develop but, in the end, what I got back from the drug store developer was a completely see-through, clear roll of film. It had all been lost, the dancing, the day-glo logo that sat mocking me in the middle of the street, everything.

In the end, I got everyone together and handed out magic markers. We slowly made our way through the blank movie, drawing on it with different colors (not unlike my defacing of the street), sometimes going for animated effects by drawing frame-by-frame, until it was filled with color and movement.

It may have been the world’s first conceptual musical.

Like some ancient hieroglyph, my painted logo remained on that street much longer than anyone had anticipated. It was still there when Neil’s sister came to visit us soon afterwards with the news that he had died. We were shocked, having no idea that his condition had ever been anywhere near that serious.

It was still there when my family moved out of the neighborhood and into an even more suburban location, where the neighbors would probably frown upon sudden bursts of creativity in the middle of their street.

And years later, when I would detour through the old neighborhood just to have a look, bits of pink and green could still be seen in the asphalt, like the remains of some spent fireworks.

What confuses me still is the fact that I not only seemed to feel that what I had done was permissible, but that there were no complaints about it afterwards. It almost became a point of local interest. Was the social contract so different then? Was the atmosphere we breathed so dissimilar? What world was this?

How is it we go day-to-day and never see it changing?

For, although the avenues for expression have increased a thousand fold, my sense is that the ambition of the canvas has grown smaller.

So I stand in amazement in front of this strange still life, its innocents painting the world, this quiet universe with its new and undiscovered wavebands awaiting their inevitable corruption, before the so-called sports card stores and comic book stores and any other institution that mortgaged childhood fun for money moved in, before it all got bled dry by carneys and hucksters who were only too happy to watch us as we traded in the moon for the narcotic haze of carnival lights and the sad contentment of cheap prizes.

I don’t understand any of it now. It lands on my ear like the sound of a brick falling from a great height.

None of it seems to breathe anymore. No one breaks into song anymore, or seems to want to.

That’s all right, though.

Because there are still times, even at this late date so close to expiration and despite the unrelenting madness and unceasing noise –

I burn like bloody murder.

And besides, every canvas is eventually washed away. That’s why they keep so many of the good ones indoors.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Let's Face The Music And Wince

Chickies Galore!
Knocking down my door!
They chase me day and night
For I’m the one they adore!

Chickies Galore!
They love to hear me snore!
Their spectacular beauty
I find quite hard to ignore!

When I am gone
They cry on my lawn…

In the course of performing the ongoing work of The Screwlooseum Project, which involves archiving the contents of an endless collection of boxes whose infinitude would probably stagger the imagination of Busby Berkeley, I sometimes find objects I’d long forgotten ever existed or despaired of ever finding again.

In the case of the original sheet music for Chickies Galore!, for such was the name given to my musical film project, I barely remembered that such a thing ever was.

My friend Neil, who lived across the street from me and thus became the bookend of my neighborhood’s soon-to-be-legendary graffito, suffered from a lack of gamma globulin in the blood, reducing his immune system and requiring regular visits to the hospital for treatment. Despite this, he was a surprisingly good humored and happy person who I was able to crack up at the drop of a hat. Some people are like that – they just find you funny. Neil found me incredibly funny, which made him, perhaps, a little more tolerant of my idiosyncrasies than he might otherwise have been.

In addition to that, we shared a love of comic strips (we both drew our own) and, of course, old films. There was a piano in his house that made itself known as soon as you walked in the side door of his house and, to his frustration, I often never got any further than its bench.

As a confederate, he found himself reluctantly drafted into duty whenever my adolescent mind concocted another scheme. Being as fond of musicals as I was and having the ability to notate music, it was Neil who provided the actual music to the Chickies Galore! theme, while we collaborated on the words.

We then commissioned his younger brother Arthur to create the eye-catching cover on display above. Even these many years later, I find myself admiring its daring and innovative use of white space.

According to the notes provided, this was actually recorded by a trio that included Neil on piano, my friend Dayle on clarinet, and myself on kazoo and vocals. I think it would be something of a miracle if The Screwlooseum Project ever unearthed that fugitive bit of tape.

Having completed this task, we were halfway home.

Before continuing, however, I should probably try and explain just where Chickies Galore! sat in the context of my cinematic oeuvre, if you are to understand its somewhat privileged position in my memory.

Up to this point, I had only used the 8mm camera I’d appropriated from my family’s vacation equipment for the occasional one-reel comedy. Every family owned one of these at the time, a cold and heavy block of metal (ours came from Sears Roebuck) with three lenses whose job it was to capture that immortal moment when a family member took his turn rotating in front of it on an amusement park ride.

When I realized there was nothing to stop me from buying a roll of film and filming whatever I wanted, a new avenue of artistic expression opened up for me.

The details of these early silent films are best left for another time; suffice it to say that they involved much location shooting, which often resulted in strange stares from onlookers and occasional conferences with law enforcement.

Having taken the 5-minute medium as far as I could go, I envisioned Chickies Galore! as an ambitious attempt at something feature-length, say, 10 or possibly 15 minutes. During its delicate gestation period, it grew in my mind from an homage to the American Theater into a vast and phantasmagorical panorama featuring a cast of thousands, my Cleopatra or Ten Commandments.

All I needed was three rolls of film and, of course, the thousands.

Conclusion: It Paint Necessarily So, or: Moulin Stooge

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Alvin Batiste, 1932-2007

Alvin Batiste, 74, a widely respected jazz clarinetist, composer and educator who played across the musical spectrum, from traditional to avant-garde styles, and was a prolific figure on the jazz festival circuit, died May 6 at his home in New Orleans after an apparent heart attack.

He played May 5 at FestForAll, a celebration in Baton Rouge, and died hours before he was scheduled to perform with pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Mr. Batiste recorded sparingly but performed with saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley, considered modern jazz greats, as well as musicians as diverse as drummer Billy Cobham and pianist Dr. John. Never a household name but always admired among musicians, Mr. Batiste received broader recognition in the 1980s touring and recording with Clarinet Summit, a quartet that included John Carter, David Murray and Jimmy Hamilton.

Alvin Batiste was born Nov. 7, 1932, in New Orleans, where his father, a railroad worker, played traditional jazz clarinet on the side. Outside home, Mr. Batiste grew immersed in the city's music offerings.

"I remember following a parade when I was 3 years old," he told a Baton Rouge reporter last year. "It was Easter Sunday. I had on a little white suit and, all over New Orleans, the people fed me. When I got home, after they expressed the happiness for me being there, then they almost killed me."

He received extensive musical training through the school system and, as a college student, was a guest soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic playing a Mozart clarinet concerto. He was a 1955 music education graduate of Southern University and later received a master's degree in clarinet performance and composition from Louisiana State University.

Mr. Batiste was increasingly influenced by bebop jazz pioneers such as saxophonist Charlie Parker. In 1956, he helped start the American Jazz Quintet in New Orleans with drummer Ed Blackwell, pianist Ellis Marsalis, saxophonist Nat Perrilliat and bass player Chuck Badie.

Mr. Batiste considered American Jazz Quintet an experiment in a modern chamber-jazz sound, and it resulted in an early album, "In the Beginning."

Competent on piano and saxophone, Mr. Batiste was called on for his multi-instrumental skills while touring with rhythm-and-blues artists such as Ray Charles, Guitar Slim and Little Willie John.

He also was a studio musician for the AFO ("all for one") label in New Orleans and toured regionally with his band, the Jazztronauts. That group included many of his music students at Southern University, where he helped create the jazz studies program in the late 1960s.

As an educator, he influenced several generations of performers, including Branford Marsalis (son of Ellis, brother of Wynton) and pianist Henry Butler. Though retired from Southern University, he continued to teach at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a conservatory for young adults.

His first major-label release was 1993's "Late" for Columbia Records, which included several of his compositions and a trio led by pianist Kenny Barron. This year, Branford Marsalis produced "Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste," which showcased Mr. Batiste's compositions.

Survivors include his wife of 53 years, Edith Chatters Batiste of New Orleans and Baton Rouge; and three children, Alvin Batiste Jr. of Plaquemine, La., and Marcia Wilson and pianist Maynard Batiste, both of Baton Rouge; a sister; and 12 grandchildren.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Cranky Doodle Dandy

One of the things that’s happened since I started working at night is that after I take the wife to work, I come home and see what’s going on over at the Turner Classic Movies channel.

If the boy was happy in the company of old black and white movies, then the man finds TCM pretty much irresistible.

In the morning especially, they’re prone to dragging out these obscure oldies that I’ve never seen before in my life. Shortish screwball comedies and frothy musical revues that seem to end before anything happens, perfect entertainment. The other morning I turned it on and saw Ginger Rogers playing backgammon. Backgammon!

But one of the things that TCM preserves that was much more common back in the day is the tradition of the Movie Host, which it has in the person of the affable Robert Osborne.

During my adolescence, we had afternoon movie programs on UHF that featured a local host who’d welcome us to the film and then pop up during breaks to make a comment or read a commercial. Mostly his job was to say, “Now, let’s get back to…”

UHF was also the home of the local horror movie host, who did bad magic tricks while shilling for a local soda company, and the Saturday morning wrestling programs. My friend George found these to be particularly hilarious, with their outrageously choreographed routines and histrionic interview segments. The fact that this same shtick started to bring in huge amounts of money years later, while creating its own kind of star-making machinery, is a little frightening. But then you used to be able to buy a Spider-Man comic for 12 cents. Now he’s down at the local IMAX for $14.

But, first and foremost for me, UHF meant musicals.

It was where I first fell in love with the Astaire-Rogers pictures and the Gold Diggers movies.

Swing Time. Top Hat. Follow The Fleet. Flying Down To Rio. The Gay Divorcee. Dames. Gold Diggers of 1935. Footlight Parade. 42nd Street.

I saw them so many times I could recite them from memory.

It was often much more entertaining to spend time in their company than to watch what the major networks were offering. And it wasn’t just the wonderful music and dancing, but the discovery of the comic relief that floated through them. In the case of Astaire and Rogers, there was the riotous Eric Blore, whose eyes went from smiling to shooting daggers at a moment’s notice, and the befuddled Edward Everett Horton, whose voice I recognized from the Fractured Fairy Tales segments on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

In the case of the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, there was the simply bizarre Hugh Herbert, eternally lost as he tapped his fingertips together, trying in vain to make some sort of sense before he’d get to the end of a sentence. He was rarely successful and would inevitably fall back on his trademark “Woo woo!”, earning him the nickname of Hugh “Woo woo!” Herbert.

Astaire was an excellent light comedian as well as an exquisite dancer and I found myself able to watch and rewatch the numbers from his films endlessly, the way you’d play a favorite 45. I recently saw a pristine print of Swing Time on TCM and marveled at its perfection anew, trying to keep the lump in my throat down during the climactic Never Gonna Dance number, though whether it was because of the number or just nostalgia for my lost youth is debatable.

And what was more American in all of its ambition, exaggeration, and pure showmanship than a Busby Berkeley musical?

Worlds hurtling out of nowhere onto stages much too small for them, microcosm becoming macrocosm, life on a superhuman scale overseen by an endless parade of glamorous, though not aloof, women, kicking their legs to the skies as if to make a hole in Heaven.

I identified with all of these pictures and the art and milieu they represented much more than I can possibly say, lest you think me madder than you already do.

So I was moved by a certain sense of artistic necessity when I decided to follow in these footsteps by creating my own musical. As I opened those fateful cans of paint that day and prepared to deface public property, I can remember thinking:

I’m going out there a youngster, but I’ve got to come back a star.

Next: Let's Face The Music And Wince

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Lullabye Of Oddway

I distinctly remember, as my consciousness began to dawn and I slowly started to realize that the world had been here longer than I had, being under the impression that my parents’ childhood (if it could be scientifically proven that they’d had one) must have taken place in caves or some other prehistoric circumstance.

From the stories I heard from them and my grandparents, it seemed as if many of the modern conveniences we took for granted (like, for instance, electricity or the concept of exchanging payment for goods and services) had only recently been invented. In fact, to hear my father tell it, his old comic collection (legendary but now long gone, and which supposedly contained the first issues of Superman, Batman, and Captain America) fairly fell off of the first Gutenberg press.

It was easy to believe this after paying one of our periodic visits to my grandmother. She had this old metal washtub that hung up on the wall that we were expected to bathe in. My god, I thought, when faced with this remnant of our antediluvian past. Did they make my father hunt for his own food, too? I pictured him in a loincloth, his valuable comic collection strapped to his back, as he beat the bushes in search of nuts, berries, and the first issue of The Flash.

Of course, it didn’t take me reaching my half-century mark to eventually realize that this is the experience of every generation and that, as my world started to become overrun with mp3’s and iPods, the circumstances of my childhood, a gilded age that provided access to 3 television channels (4 if you counted the public television station) and allowed music to become easily portable through the invention of the cassette tape, must have appeared equally primitive to my nieces and nephews.

How could I possibly explain to this cable-ready generation the excitement we felt upon the appearance of UHF (a handful of additional television channels broadcast on another waveband) or the anguish of waiting another year before we could witness The Wizard Of Oz again? How to express how modern it felt to have access to color television or FM radio, which actually provided music in 2-channel stereo? And, in a world where every kind of information is instantly available, what it was like to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning in order to watch a rock video or a movie musical?

It must sound to them as if I was rubbing two sticks together. And yet, we felt at the time as if we had a surfeit of entertainment available to us.

It was television that really provided our education in the movies. Between The Early Show, The Late Show and The Late, Late Show, the whole spectrum of American cinema seemed to be running 24 hours a day. I logged many an hour staying up well past my bedtime while gorging upon hour after hour of old movies, even the worst of them providing some weird kind of window on the world that had come before. We learned that every Bogart movie was not necessarily The Maltese Falcon, nor was every film with Orson Welles in it Citizen Kane.

But it was UHF, those freshly-scrubbed channels of emptiness desperate for programming, that really seemed to pump the classics out at a frantic pace. You could while away entire weekends just planted in front of the screen as you absorbed decades of comedy and melodrama. And it was UHF that really seemed to go for the old musicals in a big way, brittle, old black and white prints with scratchy soundtracks that seemed to come from beyond the dawn of time. No one had really given much thought to digital restoration yet.

But they were wondrous and magical, a world of endless white staircases and inspired symmetry.

Next: Cranky Doodle Dandy