The Tragedy of Slow Motion

It is a scorchingly hot day in what seems like a crude, low rez approximation of early 1960’s Miami Beach. You seem to be in a parking lot of a huge luxury hotel. Two identical non-descript Volkswagen micro buses pull up and angle off – one on each side of you. It is understood that you are to enter one which you do.

The one on the left contains the future described in countless novels – the bleak, washed out schema of pure totalitarianism, Orwellian, State driven, loyalty trials, re-education centers, Darkness at Noon. You peer in the open door, inhale, get the drift and promptly amble over to the other VW.

This one features the William Gibson construct – cities have grown into one single giant “sprawl,” services and the infrastructure have all turned to shit, the haves have unimaginable technology, and the have not masses are forced to go decidedly low tech and low rent.  Jobs and careers seem to be an archaic memory from decades earlier and the sky – as Gibson himself mentions — looks like a “television tuned to a dead channel.” The State is not the problem here, rather it is the modern form of High Tech Gangster world masquerading as Corporations with their tribal spin-offs creating the tension, violence and opportunity. Cash is laughably obsolete, a relic, and everyone has a “Chip Card” for commerce making it almost impossible to be off the grid.

You back away from that open window, ears humming, and want to sit down. Suddenly you really need to sit for a moment and decide to actually digest what you have seen or begin to work on cancelling out both visions of possible future-world. But there they are.

While they are very different projections they share a common umbilical cord: they show a world bereft of privacy. Without privacy there can be no liberty, no freedom. None. Within the State Sponsored VW the individual is, as the Totalitarian Operations Manual demands, constantly monitored for adherence. One knows that they have no privacy – it is not even a question. Within the high tech – low tech futura VW bus you have no requirements to pledge allegiance to anything because there is really nothing there other than the necessity to survive the mutated City -State economic gang warfare which is what the mainstream economy has come to.  But you also have zero naiveté that you are not being monitored. If you matter at all – if you possess even a modicum of resources or import – someone knows what you are doing, what you are spending, on what, where and with whom. Admittedly, it is not a construct that has fully shown up yet but we are getting postcards that it is en route.

So how did we get here, a stepping stone away? How did we go from having our entire national identity based on “Individual freedom “and “Freedom First!” to submitting to everything from constant searches and low end abuse at airports because of a single very bad day more than a decade ago, to tacitly accepting that someone is listening to your personal phone calls and reading -even programmatically – your correspondence and not going bat shit crazy as a populace?

If you were to get, say ten GI’s to meet at that same simulation of a  Miami parking lot – all wearing their Greatest Generation T shirts and showed them the insides of both VW’s they would totally understand the first one, the State Sponsored Hellscape.  They would have seen the shadowy outlines of Stalin and the Gulags, of Berlin and maybe even Mao. Exhaling smoke from their permanent cigarettes they would have reminded you – with some irritation – that this is why they went to war in the 40’s and 50’s – to ensure that would not happen here.

The second VW would have flummoxed them, would prove to be far more upsetting. Not just the technology but how did everything go to shit so damn fast? I mean, seriously. They know economies flourish and fall – hell, they lived through the Depression. But they just can’t wrap their heads around someone listening in on every call – reading your mail, knowing where you are spending your money in real time – who you are talking to, on and on. And no one puts up a fight? Someone is that far up into your snout, your business and you just let them? “That’s what we fought for? Fuck you.”

If they could get past their disgust I could explain it. I really could. It would still sound horribly weak but I could. In a crazy run on sentence it would sound like this:

“ 911 / terrorists wanting to do more 911’s / it’s nice that Amazon knows what I just ordered / it’s nice that Amazon remembers me / it’s great that NetFlix knows what movies I would like / it’s convenient that I don’t have to keep re-entering my credit card / terrorists are mad at us because we wanted to bring Freedom to the Mideast and they just don’t get why we needed to invade/ Facebook is fun / GPS is très convenient/ if I am not doing anything illegal why should I care that someone monitors me? / I need Instagram / on-line banking is convenient / 911 could happen again / it’s a small price to pay / they hate our freedoms…

Repeat as a chorus…

I would also explain that it didn’t happen all at once; there was a big shock to the system, followed by a heavy daily dose of 100% pharmaceutical grade media-Fox fear, then the slow motion dance of technology, convenience and modernity doing the rest. But slowly…. Slow-motion slow.…frogs not jumping out of a saucepan slow. No malice, no end game other than commerce until of course, there was.

Snowden, NSA… this will sound like ancient history in a year or so. The news cycle will turn over and we will have moved on. But we will also have left a lot behind. Maybe almost everything.

Crushing on Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra

Think way back to when you were dating and things seemed to be going well and then suddenly your date blurted something, probably something trivial like “I loved Cancun but why can’t they speak American?” or “ I really like country music,” something that you knew you could never un-hear. Of course, you were still going to try to sleep with her but you knew there was now no other end game. Some things cannot be overlooked. Conversely, think about a different, happier outcome with someone else where you got to the fifth or sixth evening together and despite that much time together, that much exposure, there were no missteps, no gaffes, no violations of your world view. A relationship beckoned…

That is how I feel about composer and arranger Vince Mendoza. I have spent countless hours now listening to his work, daring him to reveal himself as capable of a misstep, an overreach, something even marginally cheesy. But no,…nada…nyet. He is a great arranger and composer and I am crushing hard even as I try to catch up with his catalog. The music is jazzy, it is complex, it is symphonic, it overflows
with rhythm and melody. It is wonderful.

Picture this: it is very late and I am goofing around in YouTube looking at the very earliest Weather Report videos I can find; Alphonse Mouson on drums and Miroslav Vitous on double bass joining Wayne Shorter and Joe Zavinul. 1972 and it is pretty great. One vid spawns another and somehow I am now watching an entire Orchestra, the Metropole Orchestra, some 60 pieces, blasting a later Weather Report tune, “Nubian Sundance”, from their Mysterious Traveler CD. An entire orchestra? But it is freaking fabulous and authentically great. I say authentic not only because three Weather Report alums are playing in the orchestra – Peter Erskine on drums, Alex Acuna on Percussion, and Victor Bailey on bass – but authentic because it sounds like Weather Report only with 60 members. Percusso rhythms on the bottom with all kinds of melodic lines in solo and counterpoint, strings, horns, keyboards in perfectly interweaving arrangements all led by a thin, unassuming dark haired conductor, my new main squeeze, Vince Mendoza.

One thing leads to another and I quickly start to inhale all the videos and then the CDs. It also dawns on me that I knew a little of Vincent Mendoza through the wonderful Joni Mitchell re-recordings of her work with orchestra on Travelogue and Both Sides Now. I actually bought those CDs because of how lyrical and lush the orchestrations were as Joni’s voice was not nearly the instrument that it had been on the originals. But the symphonic stuff just killed me – that was my boy Vince.

Fast City is the CD of the Weather Report tunes recorded live by the Metropole Orchestra with the aforementioned alums. It is actually a tribute to Joe Zavinul and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Dense, swinging, and dangerous, it is a thing to behold. The Metropole Orchestra gets it; understanding the subtleties of the music, they never err as individual soloists or as an entire orchestra in trying to sound “rock,” “jazz,” or “modern hip.” Amazingly, they do not fault. They don’t step on the white line. They don’t ask about speaking American in a foreign country. They are impeccable.

I learn that this is not a single lucky evening for them but that it carries over to all their recent recordings. The next one I fixated on was Regencia: A Night with Ivan Lin which I also listened to absolutely non-stop. Lin is a Brazilian singer – composer, famous-famous in South America who you might have heard second hand because Sting, The New York Voices and a ton more have covered his tunes. His recording with the Metropole Orchestra and Vince Mendoza is equally fabulous and addictive.

The Metropole Orchestra is the nationally funded Orchestra of the Netherlands, sometimes called a jazz orchestra, sometimes it is spelled Metropole Orkestre (oh, those Dutch) and has been around for decades. Vince Mendoza was the director from 2005 through 2013. They also have several great tunes of the Orkestre with Pat Metheny on YouTube that are spellbinding. Not to beat this into the ground but it really sounds like the Pat Metheny group that has effortlessly and organically expanded by a factor of ten.

Most of Vince Mendoza’s discography is under his own name, mostly large orchestra recordings like the CD Epiphany recorded with the London Symphony (again with the great jazz drummer, Peter Erskine) which is kicking my ass right now. Over the last week I have literally been alternating Epiphany with the Vince Mendoza CD Phoenix by the DR Jazz Orchestra, back and forth, A-B, A-B, playing them non-stop.

The reason you can actually do this is simple: there is so much music, so much melody, so much enjoyable complexity within these albums that it can still sound new, you are not even close to having it memorized. It is also flawless execution with no missteps, no duff moments, no tenor sax clichés, no fake rock beats from a symphony guy – it is beautiful and encased in pure melody.

Admittedly I have always liked tasteful strings on jazz and pop records. This goes all the way back to Nelson Riddle’s still way cool “Route 66.” That tune would have been nothing without the strings which is obviously why Nelson has them front and center. But there are not a lot of good examples of cool strings over some swinging bass line – they usually sound forced or pasted on. By the way, if you have not heard “Route 66” lately do yourself a favor and spend 99 cents on I-Tunes and download it. It is right up there with the “Theme from Goldfinger” and “Peter Gun” as the top evocative instrumental hits of pre- British invasion 1960’s.

Melody is everything to me. Tone is negotiable meaning that a great melody can still be wrung out of Soft Machine’s Lowrey organ with a fuzz tone or a Fender Stratocaster distorting out on Jimi’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” But I will also listen to what you might deem as “crap likely” just for the melodies: the Carpenters, Beach Boys, some of the hits from Bread, even Spanky and our Gang come to mind. Moving to higher quality but still MOR (middle of the road) -through my wife’s influence- I have become a big fan of the entire works of Burt Bacharach. I admit to taking some pride in having my IPOD Shuffle go from Sun RA to “Walk on By” to Steve Reich to “The Look of Love” to Imogene Heap to Magma. Again, the common denominator is melody… as in I would like to hear some.

Whether you have noticed it or not, melody and the quality of melody in popular music – meaning any widely heard music- is under siege. Forget the War on Christmas this shit is actually happening. Part of it is the Whitney Houston – Mariah Carey horror show vocal style where the melody is sung maybe once and from there it is the increasing annoying and escalating undulations and runs that become the whole piece. That is part of it. I am sure there are other factors not the least of which is that memorable, pleasurable melodies are very hard to write and no one seems to be trying too hard.

Twenty minutes of listening to a random sample of current tunes spat out by American Idol hopefuls does nothing to dissuade, trust me.

That is why I am so happy to have stumbled on the work of Vince Mendoza as well as the freakishly awesome Metropole Orchestra. Do yourself a favor and start with these or at least go to iTunes and preview them:

Fast City – Vince Mendoza with several ex-Weather Reporters and the Metropole Orchestra pay tribute to Weather Report co-founder and composer Joe Zavinul

Epiphany by Vince Mendoza – jazzy orchestra – great compositions and soloing

Regencia: A Night with Ivan Lin  – Vince Mendoza conducting the Metropole Orchestra with the very charming Brazilian superstar composer and vocalist, Ivan Lin.

Phoenix by Vince Mendoza and the DR Jazz Orchestra …do not think “big band” and what that might dredge up for you, do think modern orchestra voicings for reeds and horns with great compositions by Vince Mendoza.

54 – Vince Mendoza directs the Metropole Orchestra featuring star guitarist John Scofield.

Seriously, do it now.

Tommy the Limo Driver

A couple of weeks ago I attended a software conference in Naples, Florida with the president of our company. We arranged a car service to take us from the conference back to the airport, Tommy’s Limo Service. Leah, a colleague, asked how we were getting to the airport and I said “Tommy.”

“Oh, you’ll like him. He has been sober for 25 years.”

“Leah, how the heck would you know that?”

So I was slightly worried that Tommy was going to be extremely chatty and way too eager to monologue our way to the airport. We have all been there, trapped for 45 minutes quickly running out of “uh huh’s” and other marginally polite ways to acknowledge and feign interest. But I could not have been more wrong. We were the ones that soon were asking question after question.

Tommy started slowly with comments about the feral pig situation near the Naples airport but that led to him telling us that his home was the equivalent of a petting zoo with 16 rescue dogs, a small donkey named Obama, a miniature horse named Romney, a raft of macaws and other parrots, and on and on.

“That is great that you do that much rescue. How long does it take to feed all your animals?”

“About two hours although it could take all day, you know what I mean? There is always something that needs to be done. Plus, my wife and I can’t really leave and go anywhere with all the animals at home. The Lord blessed us with really good neighbors, someone new moved in recently and I was really worried but she told me she thought it was great what we were doing. Even though we are in the country and have five acres there is still a hell of a racket.”

“Tommy, do you have any help?”

“Well, I had a guy who just got his ass handed to him when the economy tanked — good guy — and I told him he could live on my farm. This guy can fix anything so I told him he could fix up the barn, make a living area, and I’d pay for the materials. I thought he was going to do it but he didn’t. But about a month after that he said, ‘Tommy, I got a great guy for you. You won’t have to pay him anything, he’s got a shit little trailer, let him fix up the barn and live there and he’ll help you out. He can do everything, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, plus he likes animals.’

So I am thinking that is sounding pretty good. But then he says there is only one catch; he just got out of prison after 30 years. He shot at a cop. He was a dumb ass kid, he was drunk. He is really smart but I don’t think he got past the first grade. But he paid his debt. So I say, what the Hell, what’s his name?


So I have to tell my wife that a convict who was in prison for 30 years for shooting at a cop is going to be living in our barn. That did not go over too well, I can tell you that. She talks to her brother, who is also named Tommy, kind of funny, and he is a minister and he says to my wife ‘this will not end well’ so she comes back from talking to him and wants Sheldon gone.

I gotta tell you that really pissed me off. The God that I know is a God of second chances. I put my foot down and told her, ‘Sheldon is not going anywhere. I’m not moving on this.'”

“Did she ever get over that, did she start to like Sheldon?”

“Oh yeah, after a month or two she got over it. Plus, she was always after me to get help and now I have help. Sheldon doesn’t drink and he doesn’t smoke any of my pot I can tell you that.”

That kind of surprised me because Tommy was not a young man, somewhere in his sixties I would guess, but before I could give that much thought he went on.

“There is one thing about Sheldon, though; he likes to wear women’s underwear.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad but how exactly do you know that?”

Tommy laughed, “Sheldon is not gay but I came outside one day and he had all of these women’s thongs on his clothesline, all wild colors. I said, ‘goddammit Sheldon, I have people coming over – take down your damn thongs.’”

“So you’re sure they were his?”

“Well, one thing I should explain: Tommy thinks of himself as a woman in a man’s body. I guess he is a lesbian because he has a girlfriend and they dress up together and shit. He occasionally calls himself Jeanette. I once paid him $600 for something special he did, I can’t even remember what it was now, and he took $400 of that and bought a white wedding dress. I don’t care, you understand, his business is his business. I do have to yell at him sometimes to take off his falsies.”

“Tommy, Sheldon wears falsies?”

“Yeah, when we get to the light I’ll show you a picture on my phone. I have to yell at him, ’Sheldon, take off your damn tits, I got people coming over!’ But if he has done something really good, like fixes something we didn’t think he could, he would put them on and wear them around because he knows I won’t say anything. He knows he earned it.”

Tommy reaches around and shows us the photo of Sheldon on his iPhone. Not in a mocking or a demeaning way but with the same enthusiasm he has for things he cares about, like his giant talking parrot, his Presidential donkey, his rescued, half-wild wolf bred with a mastiff that almost took out a Doberman until Tommy intervened. So, there is Sheldon looking goofy and happy in a white T with an excellent rack and arms that look like they have pumped a lot of iron.

No matter who you are, when you go to prison you are not the same when you bounce out some 30 years later. If this is how Sheldon/Jeanette stayed sane, more power to him. But especially more power to Tommy, who is guided by his God, a God of second chances. That stayed with me. What would Jesus do? My guess is that he would happily have Sheldon in his falsies help Tommy take care of his flock.

The Memory Sherpa Sticks His Thumb Out


In 1971 I hitchhiked from Northern California to Sarasota, Florida and then home to Evanston, Illinois. I had just turned 19. The odd thing was that I had never hitchhiked in my entire life before then, not once. I had never even considered it. But at that moment faced with the choice of either flying back home after a month long break visiting my friend, Bill Coleman, in Pacific Grove, California or doing something else it seemed like a good idea; a challenge and somewhat of an adventure. At that time and at that in-between age, unless you were willing to enlist for Viet Nam, there were not a lot of readily available scary things to throw yourself into. More importantly it was also a way to extend the suspended nature of things, delaying the return to a new crappy job for purposes of saving money for college. So something else meant go visit my older sister, Mary, who was attending New College in Sarasota, Florida before going home. I had a big backpack, a sleeping bag, a leather fringe jacket and boots, some money, a map, and no clue.

My exact first ride of an eventual 4,500 miles and fifteen days of travel was with a very old guy driving a Grapes of Wrath pickup truck in Monterey. This is not a careless description — about twenty minutes into the ride, through my nervous questioning, he told me that his next door neighbor for years and years had been author John Steinbeck. I expressed amazement at that fact and rattled off Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flats, titles of books that I has read and liked a lot. Maybe it was my long hair but he seemed very surprised that I knew who John Steinbeck was. I was surprised that my very first ride was this interesting. John Steinbeck, for God’s sake. The ride was pretty short but he made a big deal out of turning off the truck, getting out and going into the bed of the pick-up and as a parting gift, produced a banana and very solemnly handed it to me.

It was mid-February so my plan was to get south and try to stay warm. I dropped through California on Highway 5 that gets you to San Diego and then east on Highway 10 through New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and then down to Florida. At the end of that same long first day I was outside San Diego and it was very late. A car of three pretty drunk guys picked me up from an excellent place to get a ride. They were OK, just tipsy and loud when after about 20 minutes they turned off on some minor exit and that was it, that was as far as the ride was going. I was totally screwed. They were oblivious to the fact that this was no favor. As you know, you cannot hitchhike on an interstate but it was after midnight and I was in the middle of nowhere. I walked back down the exit ramp and onto the expressway and put my thumb out.

A lot of trucks were blasting by and you had to be visible so you were close enough to be almost knocked down by their drafts. After about 30 minutes I saw one of the smallest cars ever, the original – original Honda whiz by and then kind of back up on the shoulder towards me. I grabbed my pack and ran for that little Smart Car prequel as fast as I could.

I immediately got a mini lecture on hitching on the highway but then we were moving and the driver seemed like a very nice guy. We talked – I was Mr. Conversation as my contribution – and after some nice back and forth he said, “John, it’s after one in the morning, you can crash at my house if you want or I can drop you off at the next exit which is where I turn off and there is a big truck stop where you can get a ride.”

I had three or four concerns about hitching across country. Even though 1971 was post-Charlie Manson and any idyllic concept of “Peace and Love” was long gone it was still early enough that not everyone had long hair. It was that in-between time when long hair still badged as having a specific political and social point of view, it was not yet de rigeur, not yet standard issue as it would be by 1974 or so, (check high school yearbooks in ’74 if you are in doubt.) America as violent place and backdrop for your pending mutilation paranoia flowing from either the hitchhikers’ or the drivers’ point of view was not yet front and center. You were likely to be befriended by kindred spirits because you were visible to them, the era’s charm had not yet worn completely off by 1971 (that would be 1973). But topping my concerns were not being able to take regular hot showers and someone jacking with me.

So, hearing the slightest possible trace of a molestation–invitation I replied, ‘Thanks, I really appreciate it but I think I need to keep going…the truck stop will be fine.”

He smiled at how ridiculous the “keep going” part sounded at one in the morning and how obviously I was thinking he was a probable sodomite.

“OK, but my wife should have dinner ready. She always does when I am on the late shift.”

I glance over to see if this is believable. It was and I did. “Well, if that is not a problem or a hassle for you guys that would be great.”

We got to his house, modest but pleasant, his wife was friendly, sexy-plump and could not have been nicer. We ate a casserole of chicken and mushrooms and I tried to repay by being as interesting a dinner guest as I could possibly be. After dinner we were still sitting at the table and he asked if I smoked.

“I do not.”



It is 1971, we are in southern California and I have shoulder length hair. I am at a strange house with two very nice people that I have known for about three hours. What the hell…

About thirty minutes later he was playing some album that somehow seemed like the greatest music that I had ever heard in my entire life. It turned out to be “Ball” the second album by Iron Butterfly. You might know them by Inna Gadda Da Vida. That appraisal of greatness should also provide some clue to my perspective at that point in time. Moments later “goodnight and thanks again” and I am on the couch listening to the two of them laugh a lot and then have happy sounding sex through some fairly thin walls. It was actually pretty nice to hear the giggling and the affection.

Nice southern weather, the miles were flowing and there was (and is) comfort in movement. My hitchhiking skills were improving; not just where to stand on the road with your thumb out, that was the easy part. The real education was how to behave once inside the vehicle. For you, the transaction had a very simple goal: be driven as far as possible. But what in return? The answer was as quickly as you could, figure out why they stopped their car and interrupted their travel to offer you the ride. There were four and only four reasons:

• The person was just really nice and was paying it forward. Your required response was to be appreciative as hell and be an interesting companion and conversationalist.
• They were nice and doing you a favor but through subtle signs you realized that conversation is not needed or wanted. You were the recipient of good will and that’s it.
• They were bored shitless with driving and your role was to entertain them with topics that, through initial questioning, you had determined they would be interested in. You needed to be chameleon like but authentic in finding common ground. You were the entertainment.
• They actually wanted to bring a second driver on board. This was much likelier late at night (more on that later). They wanted you to drive and they needed to sleep. Easy-peasy, you were now driving.

Again, the equation is who did they want or need you to be? X equals what? What role needed to be fulfilled? If you were perceptive enough to quickly figure that out you would be rewarded with longer rides and considerations like going slightly farther than they needed simply to get you – now a comrade – to a better spot for your next ride. By the way, if there is a better ad-hoc sales training out there than this I have never seen it.

Arizona and the Orange Grove

As I mentioned, I was worried big time about two things: getting hot showers and Pervs… pretty standard stuff. Everything was going well until I was roughly three days in and I found myself again very late at night in the middle of nowhere. I was near Interstate 10 but I occasionally shadowed it on different parallel routes. I wandered off into what seemed in the dark like a wooded area and crawled into my sleeping bag. I woke up the next morning and was jolted by a big posted sign: “Orange Grove – Trespassing a $10,000 Fine” that I was literally sleeping under. Yes, I was in an orange grove. Apparently no one in Arizona has a sense of humor about Orange Groves and I needed to walk out of it tout de suite. Who knew?

Once out, I sat on that roadside for freaking forever. This was the first lengthy dry spell with hours going by and no ride. In addition to being increasingly pissed at myself for being in the middle of nowhere, I started to fixate on a hot shower, I really wanted to wash my hair. Finally a big, tan Bonneville slowed and stopped. I jumped to it – the driver a pudgy, middle-aged Republicany white guy in golf casual– not the standard driver – motioned me in. We rode for no more than 20 minutes and he pulled into a motel.

I almost burst out laughing because what the hell – I knew I could kick his ass, that was not the problem – but the lack of subtlety was actually funny. He turned to me and said “I am staying here and I thought you might want to take a shower.”

That stopped me short. The truth was that just minutes ago I was absolutely begging the Universe to get me a hot shower. Not a prayer or a chant, exactly, but I was putting it out there. Then almost immediately, a guy in a big car picks me up and offers me exactly what I had been asking for. But what about the Perv factor? That cannot be ignored, either. Who picks up a hitchhiker and within five miles pulls into a motel and offers a hot shower? Plus, it wasn’t like I reeked or anything, I knew that. My hair was dirty and I hated that but it was not that obvious that I needed a shower.

We sat there a minute and I looked at him trying to assess motive and then at the motel sign, back to him, and finally said “Okaaay…I would like to take a shower” with enough hesitation to indicate my skepticism. We got out and he opened the door. It was one of those 1960 motels with the door right in front of the parked car. We went in, I had my pack and was on high alert. The very first thing I saw was that on one of the two single made beds, was a very graphic porn magazine opened to an extreme, almost gynecological close-up of a woman’s vagina, or what was known in the industry at that time as a beaver shot. So, was this good news or bad? Pervy, yes but seemingly heterosexual perv… He seemed non-plussed that I noticed the magazine – not that I could have missed it – and indicated the bathroom door.

We have all seen “Psycho.” That scene was not lost on me. I risk stating the obvious when I say there is something very scary about being in a shower in a motel room with a guy who just picked you up hitchhiking outside of an orange grove who was (and hopefully remaining) on the other side of a thin motel bathroom door. But I did want that shower and for all I knew this guy, admittedly presenting as a perv, was a shower angel manifested just for me in response to my shower plea. In Arizona…outside of an orange grove…it could happen.

I took my pack into the bathroom and also grabbed a bunch of wire hangers from his closet. These would be my early warning defense system. I hung them all over the back of the bathroom door. The door kind of locked but it was hard to tell if it was really trustworthy. I trusted my hangers more.

I took my shower. The water pressure, the temperature and steam were perfect resulting in one of the greatest and most appreciated showers of my life. Too delightful to rush, I took my time. I actually started to feel more nervous when I was drying and changing clothes so I did that as quickly as possible. We have all seen too many movies.

I bounced out and he was sitting on a bed thumbing through his magazine. I was effusive in my thanks and also very happy that he was not in his underwear and black dress socks or anything creepus maximus. Praise Allah for that. So we talked and the absolutely hysterical thing was that as we talked about politics – somehow in that day and frame you got there quickly with Viet Nam, Nixon, Kent State, Kissinger, fill in the blank – we kind of agreed about stuff. Even though he was a very conservative Republican, a Tea Party guy forty years ahead of that descriptor, and I was left of left, we pretty quickly got to the common ground of everything is totally and probably irrevocably fucked up.

As unlikely as that sounds we were so diametrically opposed that face to face we would agree about nothing but were both so completely disgusted and fed up about America, Nixon, the war, that if we stood back to back instead of facing each other in our perspectives we agreed on everything; meaning that absolutely nothing was right and America’s future was looking very dicey to say the least.

We were two living, breathing Algebra problems coming to the exact same answer from two unrecognizable equations. For completely different reasons, armed with shatteringly different beliefs, we absolutely agreed that our country was at the end of greatness, that we were going down the shitter, that Nixon had to go, the War was criminal (my criminal was that we were there vs. his criminal that we were pulling our punches not even trying to win), that if our Founding Fathers somehow could see this current episode they would have regretted ever starting the damn series, on and on. There was a lot of on and on.

He never stood up from that bed. We did not get back in his car. I shook his hand, thanked him profusely, thanked him sincerely, grabbed my pack and closed the door. Nice guy.

“You going through Texas? Better get yourself a cowboy hat.”

I heard that a lot from other hitchhikers sporting long hair. It was a warning and a mantra. But I never considered it, not for a second. Not that I was above improving my odds for not getting jacked with somewhere on the Texas Plains. We’ve all seen those menacing scenes with the hero/victim bloodied beyond recognition that all start with some denim clan of miscreants in full drawl, “You ain’t from around here are you, boy?”

And no, I was certainly not. But I just could not bring myself to get a cowboy hat. Forget for a minute how inauthentic it would be, I am just not a hat guy. Plus, I hate country music. So Texas loomed and I knew it would be tough. Hell, fellow travelers were warning me about it from hundreds of miles away. Don’t forget, this is before Willie and Austin as “Hipster Oasis.”

El Paso is the one city Texans don’t brag about for very good reasons. It’s their Mordor. Coming into it, I got a long ride with a Mexican businessman, extremely formal, looked like an engineer- spoke very little English but what English he did speak was delivered very precisely. He took unaccountable pleasure in my high school Spanish which at that time was better than you would guess. Now of course, I am reduced to dazzling taxi drivers in Playa del Carmen with “Pero, no me gusto albondigas!” delivered quite emphatically and with a surprisingly good accent (But I don’t like meatballs!), but then my Spanish was more serviceable. He was worried about me when we actually got into El Paso; it was late so he first drove to the truck stop where he wanted me to go the next day for a decent shot at a ride and then drove a few more blocks from there to drop me off at what can only be described as a flophouse.

He kept pointing at the “hotel” saying “limpio y asequible…limpio y asequible” which means clean and cheap. I looked at the sign and back at him and believed the cheap part but was definitely hesitating on the clean. He wanted to give me five bucks which I refused and I had to show him I had money before he relented and then he made me take some licorice. I thanked him and reluctantly left the safety of his very pleasant car.

It was a very old daily hotel catering to the semi-indigent on the bad side of El Paso (which is saying a lot) so I knew if I went in I was not coming out until the light of day. I could have afforded better accommodations but I was tired, it was late, I was there and I did not exactly know the location of said better accommodations, nor a way to get there had I known. The funny thing, as low clientele based as it was, it was freaking immaculate. Mr. Clean was in the air and the guy at the front desk (think the hotel in Gunsmoke) was very nice. I trundled my pack and the huge iron key up three flights of stairs into my surprisingly large room. The bed and sheets were starched and pristine, the bathroom beyond ancient but spotless. I ate my licorice, took a bath in one of those huge claw leg tubs and got into bed.

Sometime during the night, two or three o’clock (I was too freaked out to get out of bed to check my watch) I heard an old male voice whimpering and crying out after what sounded like whipping noises. Someone was getting whipped with a belt. I was unnerved to say the least. I was frozen in that bed thinking WTF…the whip noises were very far apart and I started to suspect that the whimperer might actually be enjoying the spaced lashing. I had to think that was better but not by much. Occasionally I would hear a different low voice, not mad, not reprimanding or punitive, just layered in there. I was very asleep when this woke me up so I don’t know if it stopped or I just got used to it and fell back asleep. That moment kind of summed up El Paso for me. Hard to believe, I know, but I did not mind leaving.
So picture this: El Paso is basically the biggest city in the western part of Texas and Houston is about as far east as you can go. Through dumb luck with the nicest truck driver ever born, I got my first long distance semi ride that basically in one lift of the thumb took me almost 1,000 miles across the entire state: El Paso to Houston.

We would go through town after town that on the map looked like reasonably sized burgs, places where you would logically assume that you could get any number of rides. We would drive into and through the single stop light in seconds and I would realize with post event fear that I could have died there for days…there was nothing map worthy about it. Time and time again.

So only when traversing Texas did I realize how stupid it was to do what I was doing… here comes the denim-clad drawl…and as mentioned, I have seen this movie. So, ironically, the only time I was ever really frightened was when I was safely bopping down the highway with the nicest trucker ever born, staring out of the window at the relentlessly beautiful and empty countryside and occasionally watching him take salted Planters Peanuts out of those twenty-five cent bags and patiently drop them one by one into his six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola that he balanced on his lap.

He could not believe that people back East did not put salted peanuts in their Coke. I could not believe how completely f’d I would have been, could have been, should have been trying to cross Texas without him. When I first got into his truck and told him where I was heading he laughed and said, “You are in luck.” I had no idea.

At one point, God knows where, he pulled into a classic looking truck stop for dinner. To show you how naïve I was I did not want to go in because I thought he would want to see some of his good old boy trucking buddies and hang out with them. He looked at me like I was crazy and just laughed and we went in. What was I thinking? That the trucking fraternity was so strong that no matter where you were or what time you dragged yourself into some basic issue truck stop in BFE that trucker friends would be there waiting for you, ready to yell, “Hey, good buddy! Bobby! Where you been?” No wonder he laughed.

After crossing pretty much the entire state, as we got to the outskirts of Houston he told me to get down in my seat because the trucking company had spotters and you weren’t supposed to have riders for insurance reasons. Hearing that I thought he was kidding and didn’t move a muscle until slightly annoyed he repeated himself – why I didn’t believe him I am not sure; I had no problem imagining an ever present magical truck fraternity but somehow insurance regulations seemed…unlikely?

When he dropped me off at his last stop, as well I should, I thanked him to the point of embarrassment but I meant every word.

Alabama and the Jesus Freaks

From Houston the next big stop was New Orleans. Sounds good on paper but it was a snooze. Literally, as all I remember is that in return for helping someone unload part of a moving van they let me sleep in the truck overnight. I made a ridiculously comfortable bed out of those heavy protective moving van quilts and had the trailer to myself. As you might guess, I was nowhere near the French Quarter.

Once you have been hitchhiking a week or so it becomes a game or a point of pride or something not to spend money on a hotel. A test of resourcefulness. There were also far fewer budget hotel chains back then so you also worried about doing serious damage to your funds just for one night. But conversely you did not accept someone buying meals for you – that was too much. Sometimes you had to argue to pay because they assumed you were cash free.

Somewhere in Alabama, kind of in the country, I was on a nice bucolic stretch needing a ride. It was a good road, not a lot of cars, not busy, not deserted. The hour passed. I saw the absolute perfect ride approach; a yellow VW bug with two fairly attractive girls. I knew I was going to get a ride, it was done.

When they passed and did not even slow to even consider picking me up I was stunned. Then in the reverse image of their rear view mirror they must have seen me jump up and down, throwing my arms around in what can only be described as a temper tantrum. For some reason that image, childish as it was, made them stop the car, put it into reverse, back up a quarter of a mile and pick me up.

I was kind of embarrassed so I did not ask what made them rethink me, I wasn’t intending on them witnessing my little spaz attack. But they were cheerful and announced that they were taking me to the “Center.”

By the way they were talking, plus the scenery, I somehow knew that this “Center” was not an urban outreach program. It was way too country-suburban for that. We drove, I tried to make them laugh with some degree of success, and then we were there – at the “Center.” It was really just a house on some grounds with a questionable up-tempo paint job, something that a low budget set designer might cough up when challenged to convey “Today’s Kids – hip but not hippiesh-hang out here.” Church hip.

They now seemed unreasonably pleased that I was there and that they were bringing me in to meet “Steve.” It was about 8:00, still light out, a very pleasant Alabama evening. Plus, I was going to get to meet “Steve.”

Steve bounded out and shook the heck out of my hand. He hugged the two girls and we went inside. He was gracious, he was in charge and immediately invited me to “crash” showing me where that would be. I stowed my pack and went out to join them. I think we ate something, some sort of snack and then we got to it. I was kind of looking forward to it.

The term ‘Jesus Freak’ had just started to get into the language in the early seventies, it was not pejorative. And these young Americans were Jesus Freaks. Soon we were in a group of about five or six and the questions started in that IQ reducing Southern drawl:

“John, it’s John, right? John, do you ever think about what happens when you die? Have you thought about what eternal life might be like not in Heaven but in Hell? Do you want to hear what Revelations says about it?” A few passages later…

“Sure, I can understand that you might have doubts about Jesus but why take that chance? Here is what Mathew says about what Hell is like” and a few more passages were read. For the finale and to lighten the mood, the coda and his pre-close were all about the Rapture.

Now I like Christian Theology. I like it a lot, it is very interesting to me. I enjoy discussing the merits of acts versus just faith, was Christ raised or he was able to raise himself, whether or not Paul totally hijacked Christ’s message, on and on. So we talked and started to banter, Steve and I.

But the discussion he wanted and moved into quickly and purposefully was none of that. It was not about what Christ most likely said or was metaphor allowed meaning did everything in the Bible have to be read as literal or anything interesting, it was all about…insurance.

“John, accept Jesus Christ as your savior and you will have eternal life. Accepting Jesus Christ as your savior is the only way to avoid eternal Hellfire.” John, don’t you understand, what have you got to lose? Even if you are not sure why risk it? Open your heart to Jesus, accept Jesus tonight as your personal Savior. If I am wrong maybe there is no afterlife. If you are wrong you burn in hell for all eternity. Why take that chance?”

I looked around at the room, at the two girls and everyone was beaming and they were looking blissed out. I looked back at Steve who was staring at me with that focused love-smile, not a lot of blinking. I knew that look, he was closing. I respected that.

“So Steve, are you saying that unless you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior you will burn in Hell for all time?”

Steve, looking very pleased, gently said in his Southern drawl, “John, that is exactly what I am saying.”

“So Steve, do you think that Mahatma Ghandi is burning in Hell right now?”

“Ahm sorry John, I don’t know who that is.”

I think I actually flinched. I abruptly said my thanks and goodnights. As I crawled into my sleeping bag I tipped my hat to the idea if not the execution of Missionary Zeal.

New College

On one of my final long rides bringing me to my destination of New College in Sarasota, Florida I actually got a ride that central casting could have approved; a van with about five or six young “Freaks” (the self –referential term popular back then was also non-pejorative.) Long hair, late teens going God knows where on pocket change. They stopped for me and as I was a year or two older than the others I somehow became the brains of the operation. There was not a lot of competition for the job I can tell you that.

The first full day we stopped at some beach and there was a rag-tag band playing or kind of playing, more like rehearsing. They were black and some soul song without vocals was being euthanized. I walked up to the beat to shit, two–thirds of a drum set and after I told them I played I was immediately grilled on whether I knew the exact drum beat to James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” I did not, non-audition over.

That night we slept on the beach. We all put some money in and the van driver left for a Quick Mart to procure some semblance of a dinner. That dinner turned out to be two quarts of ice cream that everyone but me thought an excellent choice. I knew I would have to quickly abandon my tribe.

Days later when hanging with my sister Mary at New College a friend of hers told me that a bunch of kids were looking for me on campus. I immediately flashed on Lord of the Flies and also wondered how long Natural Selection took in a group setting.

My sister and I had a great time, her friends were smart, funny and fun. 1971 Sarasota, Florida in February with its soft air and its trees was delightful and something to see. I stayed for about a week, hated leaving but it was time. I did have a beautiful girlfriend back in Evanston, Becky Thompson, who at eighteen was almost being dared by my absence of two months to find someone else. Looking back, that might have been truer than my conscious brain realized. If she left I could win her back and that had been a very fun part of our history. If that was what my inner director had been thinking the joke would prove to be on him, poor bastard.

Where are we? North Carolina?

I am not going to make excuses. If I was I would go with fatigue, cold weather, a new accelerated desire to get home once I started my trek, something compelling. But the truth is that, excuses notwithstanding, I did exhibit some bad behavior on my trip from Sarasota back to Evanston; I kind of hijacked someone.

I was as far as Memphis or so. It had been uneventful but was no longer recreational/adventure tinged, it was pure utilitarian movement, reduced to the physics of just getting my increasingly frozen ass home. No longer able to duck and weave on the highways of the very southern states, I had to set a course due north and it was getting colder every mile.
Early evening I got a ride by a nice but very fatigued black guy in his thirties, who picked me up and immediately got onto the back seat and prepared to sleep. Surprisingly there was almost zero discussion about our destinations, he asked me and I told him Chicago and he told me he was going to Washington DC. No discussion of routes (that’s right, your Honor, no discussion of routes) so after checking my map I started driving. It is not an exaggeration to say he was asleep before I had the car in gear. All I knew was he had apparently been driving for a long, long time and the gas tank was full.

I drove for hours through the dark and as it got later and later I mostly just saw trucks well behaved in their right lane. (What happened to that?) I had decided after thinking about it awhile driving his warm, new car that we both had to go north and he had to go east so what would be the harm if we went north first? We could through the rest of Tennessee and Kentucky and when we hit Indiana he could go due east on I70 to Washington. It was not as the crow would fly and diagonally would certainly be faster for him but on the other hand then I couldn’t drive him because that was out of my way and driving him was providing a very valuable service as he was dead to the world.

So I drove and he slept. I could not believe how long he slept. I kept waiting for him to wake up so I could “brief” him on our route and the logic. I had filled the gas tank somewhere in Kentucky with my own money and even then he did not stir. But when I saw us crossing into Indiana I knew I probably needed to advise and wake him so I pulled into a dinky little highway rest stop.


“Man I was sleeping…whoa…how long we been? Are we in South Carolina?”

“Uh, no”

“North Carolina?”

“Uh, no”

“Where are we?”

“We just crossed into Indiana”

“Indiana! Why the hell are we –“

“Hey, it’s not that bad, you had to go north and east now you just have to go-“

“Get the hell out of my car, boy – get the hell out of my car”

Knowing how crabby one can be when they first wake up I did just that. I got my pack just in time as he roared off. I was guilty of bad behavior and the Highway gods apparently do like payback.

Indiana and the Highway Patrol

It was still dark and it was freaking freezing. I got one ride and once again was in the middle of nowhere staring at pretty empty highway. I went off into the woods and unfurled my sleeping bag and tried to sleep but it was too cold so I just rested. The sun finally was coaxed up and I soon gave up on the idea of trying to get warm before I got out of my sleeping bag. I walked out of the woods by the highway and stuck my thumb out.

Trucks were the only vehicles and once again in order to be seen you had to be right out there. With my forty pound pack on my back I was literally blown over and down the embankment by a semi who might or might not have enjoyed that rear view mirror tumble by a longhair as the truck was awfully close to the shoulder.

With my pack now resting on the road and my thumb back at work, I saw a car looking like it was stopping and had maybe one second of relief before I realized it was the Indiana Highway Patrol.

I thought it was a good sign that he had me sit in the front seat as opposed to the “perp” back seat as we started with basic questions. Did I know it was illegal to hitchhike on a State Highway, where was I coming from, going to, name, identification…he was professional–pleasant-crisp as he looked at my drivers license.

“Trimble…I knew a Jack Trimble when I was at the National Safety Council in Chicago.”

“Really? That would be my dad. He still works there.”

“You are Jack Trimble’s son?”

The next thing I knew is that we were driving to his favorite breakfast place where he insisted on both loading me up with a ridiculous amount of farmer breakfast and paying. We were still marveling at United States as small world. Before dropping me off at a truck stop he repeated, in a much friendlier tone, the lecture on where it is legal to hitchhike and general things to watch out for. He could not have been nicer and wrote his name down so I could give it to my dad with his regards. Yes, it is a small world.

But all still was not forgiven. I had the absolute worst time getting north through Indiana. I spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get out of freaking Terra Haute, Indiana and to this day that place still pisses me off. Alabama had been easier than this for God’s sake and a hell of a lot warmer. I would stare at the map and there was no denying that the closer I was getting the more excruciating it was becoming.

An entire day later, I was finally on the south side of Chicago and abandoning the thumb, I started in on the maze of the Elevated trains and subways. Changing trains in downtown Chicago at Adams Street, I got on the Evanston Express with my pack and boots in the afternoon rush hour, unintentionally jostling everyone. “Noyes Street next stop” and I was home.

I was delighted to be home and saw two of my best friends, Cal McKean and Anne Stout, who would both be leaving the planet within three years, their exits unconnected but within months of each other. I saw my friend, Peter Low, and just laughed and laughed at the news and the non-news and all that I had missed. I finally heard the first Emerson Lake and Palmer record.

The first night back I saw Becky who happily was very glad to see me. I realized completely how much I had missed her. We had been together for over two years which at that age was a very long time. I had started my campaign to be with her a full year before that so we are talking basically forever.

This was the longest time we had ever been apart. And like any good Woody Allen movie, just as I was appreciating all over again how smart and beautiful she was I was struck by my own carelessness, vandalism even, to have created a space, an absence big enough that a rival could squeeze into. But despite some hints and subtle warnings when I was away I was still so dialed into our old world order that, at least that night, I felt I could overcome it.

After we had caught up and had dinner, Becky said, “there is something I need to tell you about.”

I replied “It’s OK, I am not going to be upset.”

“OK, well then just tell me when you want to get not upset,” she said and laughed.

My inner director got off his chair and waved me off. Not today. Not just yet.

Joe Radovich

This eulogy for my father-in-law, Joe Radovich (March 26, 1921 – September 18, 2012), was delivered at a gathering of friends and family in celebration of his life in Geneva, Illinois on October 12, 2012.

Chuck got it right: “an Irish wake for a Serbian.” This is not a sad day. It can’t be. Sadness would be for a life unfulfilled or cut short. Joe Radovich’s life was a life lived in full, virtually all of his 91 years.

You see a long line waiting to get into a theatre. You see loved ones ahead of you in line. You do not weep when they are admitted ahead of you. We will all be in that theatre soon enough…in the blink of an eye.

When you meet someone important in your life you see them first through the prism of others. When I first met Joe I first knew him through the lens of my wife and his daughter, Valerie, a lens of absolute and unqualified love. Through early loss their affection, enjoyment and dependence on each other grew and never changed. It was central.

The first time I actually met Joe was at his 65th birthday party, a surprise party that Virginia had organized at their home with a lot of guests. I was nervous, I didn’t know a soul other than Val and I was meeting the “parents.” Everyone was nice, of course, and Joe began to open presents. He naturally received a lot of bottles of good Scotch and wine. But every time he opened one he would say, “John, I bet you know about this one!” or “John, this is good stuff, right?” Other guests were starting to look at me like I was about to leave One Crawford and head directly to Rehab, take in an AA meeting… maybe an intervention … I finally figured out that he was confusing me with Val’s prior boyfriend, a liquor distributor. An easy mistake: he was about six-foot one, dark complexioned, and a body builder. I think we can all understand the confusion.

An interesting thought is that the only thing that people remember about you is how you made them feel. Ultimately nothing else matters. I know that this is true and it is also why there are so many people here today. Joe genuinely liked people, he respected their hard work and labor and it simply did not matter whether that labor was working in a restaurant or as a lawyer or as a judge. He saw and enjoyed you, he related to you.

Maybe it was his Serbian immigrant father who worked on the Railroad seven days a week, maybe it was being raised by five older sisters, maybe it was – cliché worn though it may be — him becoming a living, breathing embodiment of the American dream, coming from extremely modest circumstance, and working his way to the Law and Geneva and all of you. Whatever it was, he made you feel good to be with him.

This is not to say he did not have his faults – he did – and I would like to list a few right now:

  • He did not curse well at all, mostly because he did not curse. As a fan of cursing that always bothered me. If he was fed up he would unleash “that’s nonsense” or “that’s nonsense, doll” which could sound formidable I’ll admit, but again…
  • He had horrible taste in wine…German, sweet wine was a favorite. It literally could not be too sweet, cavity-producing wine – Gewurztraminer – flat 7-Up in a nice bottle…horrible.
  • He could not tell a joke…hearing Joe tell a joke was funny only to see how mangled or incoherent the punch line would become, an audio car accident. Brutal…
  • His love of the outdoors was lost sometime in the 1930’s… I think there are vampires who have seen more recreational fresh air and sunlight first hand than Joe Radovich. Once his outside work was done he made a beeline for the indoors. Sit outside on a beautiful night at a restaurant? Don’t think so…

But today we forgive all of these sins….

The last time I saw Joe he was at peace. I had left the hospital room where Virginia, Val, Chuck, Barb, Jenny and I had been with him in the last days. I left for a couple of hours to visit my mother and when I was returning I got a text from Val saying to come back to the hospital, the end is imminent. I hurried as fast as I could and I bounced into the room expecting to see everyone bedside as I had left them. Instead there was only a very peaceful Joe lying there, no one else… I was more than a little surprised.

I asked for the attending nurse. I wanted to know if the family knew he had passed. I was assured that they knew so I got to sit with Joe for a few moments alone. Assuming he was looking down on me from the top of the room, I thanked him for raising such a wonderful daughter whom I have loved for more than 25 years. I thanked him for his love, his welcoming me into the family, and mostly I was able to tell him how important he was to me. I had a lot to thank him for.

While Joe was not religious and did not believe in the construct of Heaven by any means, he was also aware of Physics, even Spiritual Physics. Joe knew that energy does not cease, it cannot cease; it merely transforms.

To the transformed Joe Radovich: I toast you with all my heart.

The United States of Amnesia

USA! USA! If people really have to ponder the question of “Are we better off now than we were four years ago?” the “A” officially now stands for Amnesia.

Seriously? You are really asking that question?

Let’s see… 2008; the Dow Jones Index was at 8,281 points and would continue to slide to a stomach churning 6,624 points shortly after the inauguration. Today the Dow is at 13,306. Jobs were being sloughed off and lost at the dizzying rate of 700,000 a month. At the height of the financial meltdown people, me included, were taking sizable amounts of cash out of the bank because for the first time in our modern era the thought that the banks would collapse (without the cool Bonnie and Clyde fashion statement fedoras of 1929) was not so unthinkable.

You had single day Dow Jones plummets of 500 and 700 plus points. This, despite the fact that Sarah Palin was wowing the country at the exact same time with her reading lists on nationally televised interviews.

So yeah, I guess we are just slightly better off than we were in 2008.

As Dennis Miller used to say, when he was still funny and before his apparent stroke and being used as a meat puppet on Fox News “I don’t want to go on a rant here but…”

Republicans were at the helm when this economic collapse happened and had been for the prior eight years, eight years that also contained the attack on 9/11, the rush to a war on an ever-changing narrative-explanation of its necessity. An illegal and too-tragic-to-be-called-ridiculous but ridiculous war that both bankrupted and polarized this country, not to mention the uncountable dead and wounded soldiers and civilians. Those eight years are a two-term extravaganza of all possible bad things on my watch foxtrot.

Yet Ann freaking Romney has the tin ear temerity to mention in her convention speech that it is time for the adults to take over. A remark that is both unbelievably offensive not only for the racist undertone (if Mitt is an adult then who is a boy?) but equally so for the entitlement quotient. Yes, entitlement…we are white, wealthy and in this country that means that we deserve to be in charge…not for anything specific, you understand, certainly not for any coherent plan or shared roadmap for the nation. Republicans allegedly hate entitlements so the irony here is pronounced. I think I’ll pronounce it “nauseating.”

I know the scouting report on Party tendencies is that Democrats can govern but cannot message worth a crap and Republicans can’t govern but are dazzling effective in their messaging.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. In the September 2012 Merrill Lynch report to its clients on effects on the market of possible election outcomes it stated that in the modern era the markets performed the best under a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. That model will probably see a change with the Tea Party and tax pledge – no compromise – no discussion behavior of the current House of Representatives but for now that is what history shows.

Their playbook on each other is Republicans are all about God but have no heart and Democrats are all about heart but have no God. In a nutshell that kind of says it.

If we could just agree to the general truthiness (thank you, Stephen) of these three things, I really think that the IQ of any political party line argument would be greatly improved and almost tolerable:

  1. God and Founding Fathers:
    Our founding Fathers were men of God but they came out of the Enlightenment Era and most of the big hitters were Deists not Christians in the current denominational sense. Thomas Jefferson as many know created his own New Testament (now in the Smithsonian) by literally cutting and pasting pages to remove all miracle stories from the Gospels and preserving the moral lessons of Jesus. Deists believe in a creator and God but again not the construct of Jesus as God.
  2.  Assault Weapons and the Second Amendment:
    Our Founding Fathers did write the second amendment stating that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” But I am pretty sure that they could not foresee or conceive of assault weapons. One modern assault weapon of today could have literally defeated an entire army of Colonials or British with enough ammunition. Muskets of that era were considered accurate from only 150 yards and could produce four rounds a minute max if the soldier was very well trained as it took twelve different steps to reload and fire. So…a hundred rounds a minute with armor piercing ammunition and Kevlar vests for any citizen …enough already, I am reasonably confident that this was not their intent.
  3. Medicare and Medicaid:
    The Democratic authors of Medicaid and Medicare wrote that bill in the 1960’s when the life expectancy was 67 years of age. Today it hovers at 85 years. They could not have predicted that any more than George Washington could have predicted that a 22 year-old could walk into a movie theater with more instant assault firepower than his entire army. We will have to adjust expectations and structure of Medicare and Medicaid, everyone knows that. It is a “duh.” The question is how fairly and intelligently we will discuss and then foster those changes. The National Debt is terrifying but so is “Atlas Shrugged” as a primer on domestic policy.

So, again, do we live in a political sewer? Why, as a matter of fact, yes, we do. Is there any cause for optimism that we will wake up less polarized, less bought and paid for from Day One? No, there is not. When the Supreme Court says corporations have the legal – political rights of people, and can spend unlimited amounts to elect their guys is there any reason to think we are going to be more functional as a democracy? Nope, don’t think so.

But…despite all this, is it too much to ask the American populace to remember back just four years?

Four years?

Four years is not forever. If Americans can’t remember just that far back not only is it terrifying but it’s also a postcard from Goebbels with a “thinking of you” handwritten note on the back.
Hey U.S., I want my “A” back.

Three Weddings and a Tour de Donut

My wife and I attended three weddings in three consecutive weekends this summer: in Indianapolis, Cleveland and Austin. If hanging out in a suit in blistering Al Gore summer heat and navigating the social complexities of that American ceremony don’t seem scintillating enough for you let me just say this: I was able to witness a priest having a meltdown, see bats dropping guano on a wedding head table, observe how we are all doomed if anyone notices our waistlines at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, and deliver a reverse love wedding toast. So there…


Very good friends of ours, he is Canadian and she is from Spain, decided to repeat their vows in a full Catholic ceremony as the first time, around six years ago, had to be a civil ceremony. The wedding was at three o’clock. We got there at 2:45 and realized that most of the guests as well as the maid of honor (the bride’s sister) and the groom’s mother are not even yet in the building. Knowing typical Spanish punctuality I feared we were in for a long afternoon. I wandered back to the entrance where the re-groom is very calm and we chatted. Not so much the priest who, by several verified reports, was actually throwing things in his office just down the hallway, furious at the delay. He then went to stand at the entrance and was talking loudly as he crossed parts of the ceremony off the list… ”we’re not doing this, this is going, if we don’t start in five minutes this is coming out.” He was pissed and hell bent on exacting liturgical revenge.

The wedding started at 3:30 so I guess he kept some stuff in. The very first recitation did not trigger the volume and zest from the congregation’s response so the priest stopped and said in a very annoyed voice, “we have been waiting now for over thirty minutes so we are going to do this right.” He started over. All the Catholics in the church jumped to it at that point, I can tell you that. His opening remarks basically centered around the theme (if I remember correctly) that only drug dealers or whores get married in a civil ceremony — and don’t even think about that ceremony being valid in the eyes of God. But then his argument stalled a little when he had to explain that in the Catholic Church this Divine Redo is called a “Validation.” Really? After all the not-so-subtle lecturing about a secular ceremony, this is what we are doing? Let me tell you, nothing invokes the spirit of God like a ‘validation.’ It was so…oh, what’s the word, what’s the word?

The bride was beautiful, the ceremony came to an end. As I walked around the church dodging small talk which was breaking out all around me (unfortunately, I am fresh out), I saw the pamphlet that you are seeing here as well. No, this is not a joke; I was accused of Photoshopping it but I clearly don’t have those types of mad skills. I was so knocked out by, shall we say, this rather pointed direct approach for requesting funds — particularly the outstretched hand — that I immediately grabbed a handful from the display thinking, this is some church.

At the reception I was seated next to the priest, or at least his chair and name card, as he never showed. I was actually disappointed as I had worked up a whole host of questions for him that I guarantee would have kept the conversation moving along briskly.

At the reception we did hear the conflicting lateness excuse saga: it was the bride’s sister according to the mother of the groom…no, it was the mother of the groom’s fault according to the sister. Over drinks I learned that in Spain when a couple sends out wedding invitations, say at 3:00, the guests will actually call the couple and say, “Great, when are you really getting married? Oh, about 5:00.” One of the Spanish guests said she could not count the amount of times in Spain where she sat through the wedding in front of the wedding she was supposed to be at. What fun.

Hmmm…the sister is Spanish and the mother-in-law is Canadian. I’ll let you decide.


The wedding the following weekend was at a lovely, extremely rustic setting with the ceremony held in a field and the reception in an 1870’s barn in Akron. Very popular for weddings, the reservation needed to be made a year and a half ago. Who could have predicted back then that it would be about 95 degrees with similar humidity at five PM? Other than Al Gore, that is.

Earlier that day my wife, Valerie, and I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland or what all locals simply call “Rock Hall.” As we lined up waiting for it to open, I looked around and it was not exactly a patriotic feeling that coursed through. No, it was not. What I realized was that almost everyone in line looked either a little damaged (Sixties, freeze-dried, as in…things did not go exactly to plan with the bonus of some derailing physical complication type of vibe) or good ol’ American obesity gone wild. Not plump, not carrying a few extra lbs, but more like “how in all that is Holy can you actually navigate a sidewalk?” That type of obesity.

You cannot compare generations…. or so I am told but I don’t know why the heck not.

Look at the general populace in the early 1940’s, zero in on the men. Compared to today we know that culturally/historically they are more racist, more anti-semitic, less tolerant of anything you would care to name: women’s rights, different religions; they’re homophobic, xenophobic, so on and so on. Not all of them, of course, but statistically take a random sample and select one of them to put on a long cross country flight in a chatty mood as a seat mate and you are probably willing to defect by the time you are flying over Des Moines. However…

A certain Evil Doer in Germany popped up and there was a specific need for the general United States male population, not the highly trained and capable volunteer subset forces of today, but the draft of every able bodied American male to kick some ass, trudge through two theatres of war in incomprehensible conditions, learn to fly airplanes and a thousand other complicated things very quickly and basically save the world. If the identical circumstance happened today I might have to take the under. Of course I haven’t scoped out Berliner waistlines recently either so who knows?

I am looking at my brethren at the Rock Hall and as many waddle in line to get their color coded wrist bands I am thinking, as an example, if there were any extraterrestrials also lurking in line, studying our culture, they would now report back to headquarters: “don’t even bother bringing the heavy stuff, this will be over in the first quarter” or whatever sports variation slang ET’s use to denigrate the opposition.

So this thought contrasts nicely with the exhibits once we are in: basically a pulpit of great artistry and horrible personal lifestyle choices. Which are neither random nor unrelated. In the U.S. an artist is treated only slightly better than a drug dealer and in Europe it’s better but not much. So the required mindset to get here is one that says, I am going to absolutely risk everything for music, “I am all in.” This is the necessary outlook and the “stars” in Rock Hall are the miniscule few that had this attitude who actually made it through to the other side.

But that does not mean that once success and money flowed, sensible thinking magically appeared. The personality that could function looking at life’s diorama with no safety net and absolutely no Plan B is exactly the artist that will blow through a million dollars, be irrational in all things logical, financial, matrimonial and pharmaceutical. If you are a huge, huge star for some reason you might even tragically call it a day at age 27…Morrison, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Amy Winehouse, and I am sure I am missing someone. (Actually, I miss all of them.) That’s a phenomenon or coincidence that I would like to understand better.

Looking at the clothes at Rock Hall you also realize that the British Rock stars are physically diminutive in stature: not the Beatles but definitely the Stones and others. Jagger’s clothing is hysterical. I am thinking about this when I wander in front of the Everly Brothers (Wake Up Little Susie) display.

“Val, I yell, “you think Mick Jagger was small, check out these black dance shoes of the Everly Brothers’, they’re tiny!”

Val comes over and reads the placard. “Yes, John, maybe that is because they wore these shoes when they were eight years old” and walks away. A guy behind me snorts and I knew what he was thinking, “God help us defend our Terra Firma with idiots like this running around.” I couldn’t argue. Fair is fair.

Early evening we got to the wedding and thankfully it was the shortest ceremony in history. Everyone was baking in the field. The bride was either crying huge non-stop tears of joy or her face was melting; I was very close and still could not tell. There were a million groomsmen and bridesmaids. One of the groomsmen was very short, very wide, and at age 22 already starting to lose his hair. Based on the unequal number in the wedding party he was the last to leave the front, escorting two stunning bridesmaids, one on each arm. I was right on the aisle and as he walked past he gave me a big s*** eating grin. I had time to respond, “Enjoy it, this will never happen again” before he passed. Hot weather apparently makes me cranky and realistic.

The evening progressed and started to cool but only, as we all now know from this summer, only slightly. The bride’s cousin is getting his Doctorate in studying bats, which came in handy as coincidentally there were rows of bats hanging upside down on the east side of the barn under the rafters 30 feet or so directly above the long head table. Before dinner the cousin gave a quick overview of the bats at hand. During dinner I noticed he would periodically raise his arm and point at the hanging bats, who were still in repose. Only later we found out that he was alerting those at the head table that the bats were sending down guano as their toast of the day onto the wedding party, who from all reports never noticed… Ah, champagne and young love.


It is very hard not to have fun in Austin, all of its clichés are true: it’s an oasis in a fascist state and a very fun college town with great restaurants and entertainment. What is less widely known is that almost in the center of town is “Barton Springs” which is a natural spring-fed, big-ass pool/canal, great for swimming, that offers up year-round water temps of a constant 65 degrees. With ambient temps approaching 100 degrees its attraction cannot be overstated. I swam every day.

My niece Molly’s wedding is our third consecutive wedding in three weeks but this one boasts family on my side so I know it will be sarcastic and fun. The rehearsal dinner has a guest list of some seventy people and is held on the second floor of some very nice, not even remotely neo-hipster restaurant.

Austin has a lot of hipsters but at night it is awash in University of Texas coeds presenting as expensive hookers; impossibly short black skirts, very low cut tops. Hysterically, the women are totally nightclubbed and made-up where the guys look adolescent-doofus in their uniform of jeans and collared, long-sleeve untucked shirts, their hot fashion set-up. The contrast is not kind.

The rehearsal dinner is loud, crowded and high energy. Once dinner is winding down the toasts — speeches really — begin, and there are a ton, almost completely from the Groom’s side. He has an extended family so that is a big part of it; there is a lot to say and a lot of people to say it.

Apparently they are very excited to welcome Molly into their family: that was a warm and an oft’ repeated theme. There is a fairly long speech read by the biological mom of the groom reading a decree by Governor Rick Perry celebrating the nuptials. That is interesting, I guess, but I lost the thread almost immediately of both the narrative and how they happened to have an honorary anything from the Governor. Plus, he’s a total tool so I didn’t work that hard to catch up. But while everyone is being very kind and gracious in their remarks, the speeches and toasts are getting more and more precious. I realized we had been sitting there for quite a while when my sister Mary, mother of the bride, leaned over to me and said, “I am begging you to get up and say something.” I grab my brother, Ted, and the microphone and up we go. This is almost verbatim:

I want to thank Molly for allowing us to come up here because it’s fairly widely known that I have never cared for her personally.

Molly is 28 years old and was the first grandchild so if you can do rudimentary math…I can’t but I had time to figure it out ahead of time…you know that 1984 was an unbelievably important year to my family, a year we will never forget.

1984… the Cubs were up two games to none on the San Diego Padres and all they had to do was win one game and they are in the World Series but no…they go to San Diego and lose three freaking games in a row . Unbelievable…and oh yeah, Molly was born.

Molly has both a great career in education and a real gift for it. She is a wonderful teacher. And honestly, my brother Ted and I do not feel we have gotten nearly the credit we should have for sending her down that path. In fact we get zero credit, which is just not right. (Ted zealously agreed.)

It was my brother Ted and I who patiently worked with her the night before Molly’s first day in Kindergarten. We got her to embrace education that very night as we tirelessly drilled into her the saying that would get her safely all through grade school. Ted, will you please — and this is absolutely true — share with everyone what we taught Molly to say to her teacher the first time she was called on?

Ted grabbed the mic, ‘I don’t know any voodoo so call off your dogs…I don’t know any voodoo so call off your dogs.’

Molly had it down. We had her saying it with passion and the right inflection. It was a thing of beauty… which is how Molly fell in love with education”

The response from the dinner guests was actually pretty good considering the demographics. And it was all true.

Tour de Donut

After three weekends in a row of eating and drinking more than normal the body craves exercise. How fortunate it was that the Tour de Donut bicycle race was the very next weekend in Staunton, Illinois, near St Louis. This would be my third Tour de Donut.

My first Tour fifteen years ago had about 200 cyclists. I remember that they introduced the winner of the prior race with a bullhorn before the start — he was just a few bikes down from me. He’s waving to the crowd like mad, he has a crappy bike and is noticeably overweight and I am thinking how the hell did he win a 34 mile bike race? Oh yeah, the Tour de Donut…

The deal is that you bike like mad for ten miles, check in at the first station and eat as many glazed donuts as you can. For every donut they take five minutes off of your time. You then ride ten more miles and do the same thing, then finish off in pretty rugged hills for the remaining fourteen. It is not impossible that the previous year’s winner’s time suggested that he actually finished before he left. I saw him at the first station and he had about ten donuts in his glazed hands, compressing them down Wonder bread style into one very dense pre-Big Bang, heavy matter donut orb which he chomped down in just a few bites.

So in 2012 the count was up slightly from 200 riders to 1,600 riders with one cyclist flying in all the way from Guam for the race. Same 34 miles, but now the donut prep count was up to 6,000. Two separate small towns are very jacked about the Tour with people lining the streets, beating red plastic cowbells as you rode through them, apparently celebrating competition and love of cycling as well as early onset diabetes.

Some riders are very serious on their zero body fat frames and $5,000 bikes and don’t even look at a donut, as it is not required, but that is not the normal drill. It is the Tour de Donut for God’s sake. Someone flew in from Guam for this.

By our second Tour my friend, Jay Stobie, had figured out a key advantage: take a second disposable water bottle filled with frozen milk. By that first critical stop ten miles in it is now just very, very cold and ideal for washing down that initial wave of three or four glazed donuts. Happily they are light like Crispy Crèmes: cake donuts would have been all over the highway if you know what I mean.

Like any sporting event there continues to be technological advancement. Our next Tour de Donut will see us sporting latex gloves, as handling sticky, melting glazed donuts in 90 degree heat does not lend itself to crisp cycling. We more than wasted our donut gift time just trying to get rinsed off. But that is next year. This year we still dazzled with the frozen milk. Climbing a hill after the first stop I was riding next to two guys who were relating how they struggled getting the donuts down. I gifted them the frozen milk water bottle concept and they were ecstatic.

“That’s genius! We’re going to call you The Milkman!”

The Milkman… I kind of liked that. Probably because I sense it is much nicer than whatever nickname they will give me next year after they see me putting on those latex gloves.

Music and Books That Deserve to be Buried in Your Bunker of Love

….Landmark recordings, including some that changed everything for me:

Terry Riley: Rainbow in Curved Air

Steve Reich: Music for Twelve Musicians

The Beatles: Meet the Beatles / The Beatles’ Second Album

Soft Machine: Soft Machine / Volume Two / Third / Fourth

Laura Nyro: Eli and the Thirteenth Confession

Magma: Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh

Jimi Hendrix: Are You Experienced?

John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

Miles Davis: Sketches of Spain

Imogen Heap: Speak for Yourself / Frou Frou

Astor Piazzolla: Tango Zero Hour / La Camorra

Joni Mitchell: Hejira

Bebel Gilberto: Tanto Tempo / Bebel Gilberto


…Books that absolutely killed me:

Thomas Pynchon: V / Gravity’s Rainbow

Ann Patchet: The Magician’s Assistant

Don Delillo: White Noise / Underworld

Richard Powers: The Prisoner’s Dilemma

William Gibson: Neuromancer / Pattern Recognition / Zero History

Nicholas Christopher:  Veronica / A Trip to the Stars

Ken Kesey: Sometimes a Great Notion

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. : God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater / Slaughterhouse Five

Marge Piercy: Vida

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jim Harrison: Dalva

Hunter Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Richard Yates: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

Tom Wolfe: Electric Kool Aid Acid Test / The Right Stuff

Richard Farina: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me

 (the list order is random / JCT 2012)

The Kinetic Playground

Let’s do some math…let’s pretend for a time travel second that you were seventeen in February of 1969  Fast forward to 2012 and sure, there might be an arithmetic downside of age.  But screw that, blast backwards and there are definite advantages.  Some are sociological, some historical, some are downright monetary. But also musical: think for a second about the last concert you went to. Think about whom you saw, what awful acoustic hell of an arena they were in if it was a name act… how close you were to the stage, perhaps now visualize the price of the ticket.  There, I got you.

On the first real date I ever went on, I took my new girlfriend, Becky Thompson, to a concert.  As I hinted, it was February of 1969, February 7th to be exact, and we went to the Kinetic Playground on the Northside of Chicago.  You did not have to worry about being of age as the Kinetic Playground did not serve alcohol.  It was not a small club but it was not large by any stretch. On the main level you sat on the floor and could get as close to the stage as you wanted or as close as your new neighbors and butt physics allowed.  Towards the back was some seating, there was also a second level, somewhat of a balcony, where you could stand and see the stage as well.

We were there for three reasons; I was head over heels for Becky and wanted any excuse to go out with her.  Second, one of the hot songs of the day was Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hanging On” and they were headlining.  Thanks to the miracle of circular oldies radio many of you can conjure up that tune.  Third, my older sister, Mary, who was away at college, had just sent me a new record by Jimmy Page’s new band who were going to be playing as well.  Jimmy Page’s old band was the Yardbirds. Both the album and his new band was fantastic, I played it non-stop.

For those that are immune to circular radio and the never ending composting that is oldies stations, you might not remember the Yardbirds.  This was the band that was both excellent and acted as a famous finishing school for gigantish British blues – rock hero guitarists starting with Eric Clapton, then Jeff Beck, and ending with Jimmy Page.  I first saw the Yardbirds in 1966 on Hullabaloo, one of the two rock music television shows that sprung up in the Ed Sullivan – Beatles wake, Shindig being the other.  Both were cheesy  but most of the time the bands did not lip sync and at least you did not have to sit through all kinds of crap like on standard “Variety” shows like Ed Sullivan or Dean Martin.  So, on Hullabaloo the Yardbirds play their biggest hit to date, I’m a Man where the lengthy fade out is a complete rave with Jeff Beck playing completely non-musical things on his Fender Telecaster.  To date that was one of the coolest, most musically subversive things I have ever seen. I loved the Yardbirds. Jeff Beck then leaves to form his own band, The Jeff Beck Group, with lead singer Rod Stewart (before he turned into Dean Martin, which he did , yes, he absolutely did), and the Yardbirds then featured Jimmy Page on lead guitar.  Almost impossible to imagine was that he was in the band for some season of time with Jeff Beck which should have caused damage to the Earth’s rotation or tectonics or something but inexplicably did not.  By the way, if you have never heard “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” by the Yardbirds, seek it out on I-tunes. You will never hear it on radio and it might be in the top ten singles of all time.  Seriously.

Anyhoo … Sister Mary knows I love the Yardbirds and sends me Jimmy Page’s new record. Magically/coincidentally I see that his band is at the Kinetic Theatre the next weekend.  Plans are made.

Five dollars admission, Becky and I walk in and realize the first band has already started. This is the first of three groups that will be playing.  What I am trying to understand as we scoot very close to the stage, encouraging a little open pocket of rear ends to open up, is why are there two guys on stage dressed as shepherds, both playing flutes, both standing on one leg?  The music sounds great but it is an arresting image.  One of the flautists goes back to guitar and the other one stays on flute and it becomes apparent he is also the lead singer.  I ask the person next to me and he has no idea who the band is, the person in front of me hears the question and yells “Jethro Tull.”  The name meant absolutely nothing to me.

Looking back I can only assume that they would not be touring without a record, especially then, so it must have just come out but their name recognition was humming along right around zero .  But the crowd was appreciative and rightfully so, they were killing.  Glen Cornick on bass, the very underrated Clive Bunker on drums, and  Mick Abrams, (who was to leave after their first album) on guitar and one-legged flute, and of course Mr. Tull himself, Ian Anderson.

The stage hands appear to set up the second act.  They wheel out very obscure, unusual upside down triangular shaped, large Rickenbacker Amps, a lot of them, and test the drums.  The set is a nice maple Ludwig kit with a floor tom on a snare stand for the rack tom, big drums.  The off-stage voice introduces “Led Zeppelin” and the reception is polite but it is clear only about a third of the audience had any clue who the heck Led Zeppelin were.  I guarantee that even fewer had the album which had been out with very little fanfare for just a matter of weeks, two months tops.

They are young, aggressive, seemingly happy and appreciative to be there and very skinny, even John Bonham.  They rip through the first album in the same song sequence.  So…you have just turned 17 and you are sitting on the floor about 50 feet from the stage, it is loud but not damaging and you hear the drum intro to Good Times – Bad Times.  By the time they got to Dazed and Confused, heart and minds were won, farewell letters written, foreign countries invaded, governments toppled, you name it.  It was ridiculous.  They get to How Many More Times/The Hunter and it is suddenly over, the crowd standing and yelling like mad.  The standing bit was somewhat unusual for a sit-on-the-floor 1960’s venue owing to the physical requirements of standing  after being cross-legged for a couple of hours, not to mention the languid effects of the combustible refreshments being discreetly self-served.

But the crowd is standing and will not, will absolutely not let Led Zeppelin leave the stage. Robert Plant is laughing and apologizing that they can’t play any more songs because they played everything that they know. “Sorry, we don’t know any more songs!”  Did not matter.  So they repeated  the first two songs and the crowd is still not letting up nor was the band.

To be able to see a band that is obviously destined for greatness but at an early, early moment is a wonderful thing. Theoretically, their fame/acceptance/treasure/career still hang in the balance and they are working very hard to get that pendulum to swing.  It is not there yet and there is work to be done but everyone can feel it. There will always be work to be done, recording and performing is never easy but in that very early frame there is palpable appreciation shown to the crowd by the band that is then boomeranged back at the band.  Love and affection times love and affection.  With real success that band-gratitude thing is the first thing to go.

Just as importantly, sitting there, I and everyone else — through pure dumb luck — just saw the future and were flashed an up-close, in-house preview of the next decade of rock music.  These first releases of Tull’s This Was and Led Zeppelin show us now that the energy and investment were not going to get any better over that timeline.

Forget Evolution, that night I was a convert to Creationism.  Here and now, fully formed.  Hulloder…

Finally the crowd lets the band leave. They would have felt better about it had they known that the identical one – two punch of Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin would be back in this same club that summer, just months away, with the same five dollar cover. Only this time Zep would be headlining with Tull opening.  I was in attendance for that and they both also killed as you would expect, although it was much, much sweatier.

But speaking of headliners, let’s not forget Vanilla Fudge. The Fudge had a couple of hits and a semi- impressive rhythm section of Tim Bogart on bass and Carmine Appice on a double bass drum kit.  Carmine was all about the show and twirled his sticks almost constantly.  In fact, the whole band was mostly show and little go, show biz following (unfortunately for them) new art.  The lead vocalist/organist started to do this weird little arm dance with his left arm as he sang and you could hear the beginning of some twittering in the audience.  A mature person might sympathize and go, jeez, how fun can it be to follow a very hungry, newborn Led Zeppelin and their monster set — with Jethro Tull pitching in — showing the audience what rock music  can and will sound like when at its best.   What band in their right mind would want to do that?

But at 17, I was not mature and when the crowd started lightly booing at about the tenth time the arm dance showed up, I was more than OK with that.  I simply did not give a shit: I had just heard the future.

Dave Stewart

[ Originally posted to What’s Rattlin’? Yahoo! Group on January 13, 2012 ]

I absolutely love Dave Stewart. I love his tone and his soloing and compositions. I love Barbara Gaskin. I had the pleasure of talking to both of them at length at a very small club in Chicago on tour before and after their set, appearing as a trio with Jakko on guitar. They could not have been more generous. On that recent web Canterbury radio program, listening to Egg, music that I have heard but not memorized…just delightful. So here is my question and I ask it with love and affection: What is Dave Stewart’s end game here? I just do not understand the musical direction or energy that is his current world.

Now three things;

First, I will point out before anyone else snarkily does that it is not necessary for me to understand or approve as his accomplishments already buy him a lifetime free pass, I get that.

Two, if he was making any money at all with the much, much simpler covers and tunes I would say, have at it, I understand and sympathize, it is time for a brother to get paid. If “It’s My Party” or even the tune that references the 4 tops (I really liked that CD) made any money, again, I get it. But that is not happening unless invisibly to me he is huge in Japan and the yen is pouring in.

Third; I am sure he got very tired of being in quasi democratic bands and having to constantly negotiate on the musical choices or whether to gig in Italy without actual gigs lined up, etc etc. Musicians and linear logic are almost mutually exclusive and I agree with some voiced opinion that Dave Stewart is incredibly bright, perhaps the 7th smartest musician in the free world. So he wants to be self contained in his own little musical village of two, a much more elegant and nimble ship to navigate, again understood.

But what I don’t get (not completely dissimilar to Ratledge just packing it in) is how with his ability, writing, and with Barbara Gaskin, they could not make their own music that somehow reflected the lyrical sophistication and complexity of what happened decades ago. Imagining what just the two of them with today’s technology could create makes me lightheaded.

Unless of course they don’t want to.

Soft Machine and their tools

[ Originally posted to What’s Rattlin’? Yahoo! Group on January 6, 2012 ]

This is going to veer very possibly into fetish land but as an American musician growing up ( which allegedly occurred) I have been inordinately interested in the gear that Soft Machine used. Having been lucky enough to have seen them on both Hendrix tours I had the luxury of walking up to the stage before the show and staring at the amps (on the first tour: very beat up Fender amps of all things) and Robert’s black Premier kit. I remember when we first learned the holy grail that was Ratledge’s specific fuzz tone model (Duo Fuzz, unheard of in the U.S.) and that seemed to rank right up there with the uncovering of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Huge. Big mystery solved.

The problem was there was simply no coverage, you had to loot Melody Maker and hope for some shred of mention or article, rare but they were at least occasionally covered. In early 1972, Crawdaddy magazine came out wth an unprecedented long article about the Softs, actual coverage and great pics amazing everyone. But we desparately wanted to know how they made these sounds, sounds that no one else was either capable of or interested in making.

Musicians make music, music is sound, sound comes from instruments, aided and abetted by fuzz tones and wah wah pedals, so it is arguably of some importance.

All a long winded lead in to this: I about fell out of my chair when I read the transcripts of Robert’s postcard and he said for Vol II that he “rented a Rogers kit with a tiny bass drum and huge Avedis Zildjian cymbals”. Hundred of hours spent thinking I was listening to Robert’s Ludwig kit (gifted from Mitch Mitchell) on Vol II, enjoyng the Ludwig nuances that apparently weren’t there. This is hard to accept… Recently calculating while viewing YouTube footage of the Softs at the French TV concert with non-mustached Ratledge and Lyn Dobson; was that the concert that he unveiled his new Gretsch snare that would star on Third and Fourth? The Ludwig acrolite snare drum set up in the wings,was it just in case he hated the new snare drum? On and On… Yes, it borders on fetish, freely admitted.

Lastly, there was a lot of drinking back then and maybe Robert was incorrect in his memory as on a very recent interview again on YouTube when he charmingly spoke of receiving the kit from Mitch and rejecting a guitar lesson from Jimi (something that still makes him shiver with regret) he said he used his Ludwig Custom Maple kit on every recording since he accepted it from Mitch, and chronologically that would include Vol II.

In my life I don’t expect any recordings to affect me the way Vol II and Third have; if you had told me then in 1968 would I still be listening to those same recordings 44 years later I would have been impressed but not shocked. So I guess music and musicians that impactful deserve some detective work. There is probably even a blog right now where a bunch of old guys are arguing about which reeds Charlie Parker used… So it goes.

Soft Machine / Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame (Part 3)

[ Originally posted to What’s Rattlin’? Yahoo! Group on November 4, 2011 ]


Seriously? Judging by your use of all caps you must be upset in your taking “deep exception” to my post and that is fine. You feeling the need to protect the reputation of multi-national corporations like U2 is also fine. But here is the deal; not everyone is great, not everyone is above criticism regardless of how “committed” you perceive them to be or how well they are reviewed and revered in mainstream press.

Think of it as physics: if we can talk endlessly about how great bands like the Softs are underappreciated it necessarily means that an equal mass consisting often of very popular, huge money making empire-bands are overrated. The degree to which you think they are “committed” while important to you is irrelevant to me because I can’t hear in the key of commitment, I can only hear the notes.

Admittedly, looking back if I had been writing with more exactitude I would have used the word “overrated” about U2, “crap” is just more fun to type.

Finally, two things:

While not germane to this but to answer your question I have played drums in bands since 1969, still actively play and record, played in Merz Pictures for 12 years which performed original music including Soft Machine covers (which as Jeff of Glass also mentioned are a bitch to play).

A last thought on commitment and criticism; there were a lot of posts on Lol Coxhill. Now I don’t really like Lol’s playing that much, a little for me goes a long way. But I would never normally offer that up because here is a guy who really is committed to his art and has scraped by financially for years to do what he loves and what he feels he needs to do. That to me is commitment. I respect the hell out of that. But in contrast, leaving U2 out of it I will instead mention Karl Jenkins. Karl works my last nerve; Karl Jenkins is a terrible woodwind soloist. Period. He has exactly one oboe solo that you can hear on song after song. He became an Industry with the success of Adiemus and promptly shamelessly recycled more than even Phillip Glass. Maybe Karl is committed, I don’t know, but he is unlistenable now as much as his oboe solo is on “All White.” I can freely offer that “rude and nasty” opinion not only because I am convinced of it but also because I don’t feel sorry for millionaires.