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It’s a short month.

Looking for a quixotic creative endeavor?

Own a kazoo?

Well, Bunky, have I got a proposition for you.

February, it turns out, is Album Writing Month. It says so right at fawm.org, a website that challenges participants to write 14 new songs in 28 days. (Why the tunesmithing has to stop for Leap Day, I don’t know.)

Apparently, you can also use the site to find others to collaborate with. Perhaps the next Bernie Taupin and Elton John will make each other’s cyberacquaintance over the coming weeks.

The idea here — like that of the more popular National Novel Writing Month, in November — is that too often we wait for fully formed inspiration to arrive before we start a creative project, and when the flame doesn’t seize us, we never get started.

FAWM and NaNoWriMo suggest that the biggest step is often just getting moving, and if we commit ourselves within a framework of both discipline and support, we can get where we want to go in a month — or, at very least, have something we enjoy and can be proud of completing.

Cynics will tell you that much of what comes out of NaNoWriMo is unreadable by anyone other than its creator. People tend to hyperinflate their word counts to reach the goal, or turn to zombie invasions and UFO landings when they run out of plot. Whether it’s worth staying up late for a month to complete 55,000 words of dumpster fire is in the eye of the beholder; to me it seems questionable at best.

Album Writing Month seems cut from much the same cloth, and its results seem likely to be similar for most people.

And yet — while I won’t be doing it myself — it impresses me more favorably than NaNoWriMo.

Maybe that’s because simple songs can be good songs, and regressing to a few chords and an emotion — as one is bound to do when one’s trick bag is empty — can do wonders.

Can a beginner who knows two chords produce better, more gripping art than a beginner who knows nothing about structuring a novel? Yeah, I’d go along with that.

Spur-of-the-moment songwriting can be marvelously absurd, too, and I’ve always dug the absurd.

Not the cute, nor the twee, nor the novel or shallow. The absurd, the unhinged, the dada, that which speaks other languages and occupies other realities while totally convinced of its own worth and logic — there’s the glint in the sapphire.

I wouldn’t read somebody’s 50,000-word Civil War epic turned zombiefest, but I’d listen to “Surfin’ Bird,” or “Bo Diddley,” or something much like that. They’re gonzo, they ride a wave, and they don’t overstay their welcome.

Not anyone can toss off something berserk, and those who can can’t do it on command. But when it happens, it’s above and beyond.

And, if you give enough people enough $150 acoustic guitars, it’s bound to happen every now and again, in a way that won’t happen if you give those same people Microsoft Word.

Encore Performances: She knows how hard a heart grows, under the nuclear shadows.

A Twitter trending topic brought this post from the old blog to mind. Originally posted December 2009; edited ever so slightly for rebroadcast. The title comes from here.

Help me out with a question, readers.

It’s apparently considered gospel here in the Lehigh Valley that, had the Russkies launched a nuclear assault during the Cold War (and especially in the ’50s and ’60s), this area would have been on their first-hit target list because of the national strategic importance of Bethlehem Steel.

The local paper alluded to this rumor in this section of its big Steel history published a few years ago — though they were slightly less definitive, saying only that published maps showed that Bethlehem was within the target range of missiles planted in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
(That’s kind of a no-brainer — everything on the East Coast south of Portsmouth, N.H., was probably within range of those missiles.)
The story does claim, though, that “Bethlehem Steel had made the Lehigh Valley a target because it was a leading defense contractor.”

This reminds me of a conversation a whole bunch of kids had around a middle-school lunch table when I was in seventh grade, circa 1985.
A couple of the cool kids at the table said (citing no authority that I remember) that in case of a Soviet missile attack, Rochester would be a first-hit target, due to the proximity of the Ginna nuclear plant.

This sounded like bushwah to me at the time, and I said so immediately … which earned me a “Shuddup, Blumenau!” from one of the nerdy cool kids.
(Remember, this was 1985; those were halcyon days for nerdy cool kids. Ferris Bueller, the Eighties patron saint of nerdy cool kids, would be along in less than a year’s time.)
It didn’t really sting, though; I still thought I was right, and time is on my side.

So annnnnnnnnyway, dear readers, I’d like your feedback:
Was this a nationwide trope during the Cold War?
Did every community in the country have some homegrown reason why they would be near the head of the line for a Soviet nuclear attack?
Just like college kids have passed around the story of the sinking library for generations, did generations of younger kids explain earnestly to each other why they were in Leonid Brezhnev’s crosshairs?

Or maybe this goofy canard just followed me around and no one else.

Anyway, do weigh in in the Comments. Is this something you heard as a kid or young adult wherever you happened to be?

I know at least a few of my readers grew up in areas of smaller population than my hometown, so I’m especially interested in their answers.
If the people of Loyalsock Township or Cadiz expected to get a night letter from the Soviets, I’d love to know how they justified it.

On the original post, my man Jim Bartlett commented: “They said the same thing in Quad Cities, USA (Davenport/Bettendorf IA, Rock Island/Moline IL), thanks to the John Deere and Alcoa Aluminum plants, which would presumably have started producing tanks and aircraft aluminum in the event of a war.”

And regular reader West Berkeley Flats added: “I grew up outside the DC area, which according to the Book of Lists was the USSR’s #1 nuclear target. #2 – #10 were places in the middle of nowhere in areas such as North Dakota that had missile silos. I guess the question is how many areas did the Soviet Union have the nuclear capacity to target?”

 

If you smile at me, you know I will understand.

It was around the same time in my life — I’m thinking late freshman year in high school; woulda been 1988 — when I bought David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust … and Flight Log, the excellent, comprehensive two-record collection of Jefferson Airplane and Starship’s first decade of work.

I found much to like about both artists; but in the years since, I’ve accumulated considerably more Starplane records than I have Bowie records.

And that’s why — despite the numbing frequency of musical RIPs lately, and the inadequacies of my personal writing — I’m moved to comment about the passing of Paul Kantner, guitarist, singer and songwriter, at 74.

I suspect many people my age or younger think of the easy hippie cliches — tie-dyes and peace signs — when they hear the name Jefferson Airplane. I never got the sense that a lot of people of my generation dug into the ‘Plane’s back catalog.

And that’s a shame, because the musical, vocal and songwriting talents evident in their best work still reward anyone willing to go beyond “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love,” and the dusty stigma of those Time-Life late-night oldies collections advertised with endless streams of Ed Sullivan performance clips.

The Airplane’s marvelous third album, After Bathing At Baxter’s, metaphorically represented the group as a San Francisco “painted lady” Victorian house, sprouting improbable triplane wings and soaring gleefully above a polluted plastic landscape.

As I learned what I could about the band, in those pre-Internet suburban days, it wasn’t hard to believe that image. Put on the vinyl, take a mental trip to the Airplane House, and you might find yourself:

  • Hanging out in the master bedroom with Marty Balin — somehow both the practical and romantic one — as he rapped about the hassles of the music business and trying to stay true to himself.
  • Sitting on the stairs with Kantner, the revolutionary, as he spun scenarios of uprisings and interplanetary escapes to come.
  • Stepping into the living room to hear Grace Slick deliver a feminist lecture stern enough to singe the ends of your chest hairs.
  • Heading to the basement to hang with Spencer Dryden, whose nimble, jazz-inflected drumming suggested he spent lots of time spinning John Coltrane records and rolling joints.
  • Or, stepping onto the porch to pass the jug wine and hear the good-time contingent — Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and eventually Papa John Creach — cackle and high-step their way through dirty old Delta-blues numbers until sunrise.

If I don’t make the ‘Plane sound like a tremendously unified ensemble, that’s ’cause they often weren’t.

They were strong personalities in turbulent times; and even now, you can hear them pull in different directions, like how the Volunteers album segues from Kantner’s fire-breathing, defiant “We Can Be Together” into the mellow post-folkie trudge of Kaukonen’s “Good Shepherd.”

(At their worst, as on 1971’s dismal Bark, they went in so many directions that their center no longer held. But even in the wreckage, there were things to enjoy, like Kaukonen’s lusty “Feel So Good” and Kantner’s earnest, stentorian “When The Earth Moves Again” — as pure a San Francisco song title as any in pop history.)

The Airplane’s rough edges quickly wore down in the Jefferson Starship era. By the late ’70s, the band’s work offered little of real interest — though the early Starship records like Dragon Fly and Red Octopus managed to honor the Frisco-weird soul of the Airplane while moving in more commercial directions.

(Kaukonen and Casady’s Hot Tuna also offered some worthy music, but suffered from not having a few more songwriters, singers and viewpoints in the band to complement Jorma’s limited talents. A diamond, after all, has many facets.)

Still, the classic Airplane and Starship records remain a testament to a handful of oddballs with talent, stubbornness, humor, and a determination to seize the cultural moment that had been presented them.

And the departure of another member of that quintessentially San Franciscan troupe is something to mark.

Leaving the arena.

For what it’s worth: This is not a commentary on Glenn Frey as a husband, father, friend or human being … more like an exploration of one rock star’s public persona as it played out over the radio and between my ears.

It was Max Eastman, writing for the New Republic, who levied the most ingenious and lasting criticism of Ernest Hemingway: “a literary style … of wearing false hair on the chest.”

And Eastman’s famous quote was what I thought of earlier this evening, upon hearing that Glenn Frey of Eagles (not the Eagles, as the insistently retweeted Steve Martin anecdote reminds us) had died at age 67.

I know nothing of Frey’s private life or personality, except that he came from Detroit, and his fellow Eagles apparently could really get under his skin when they got the notion.

What I “know” about him I gathered from the songs he sang or wrote, many of which have played inescapably in public settings throughout my life.

And … let’s just say that Glenn Frey, as I defined him in my mind, would have been a fitting companion for Ernest Hemingway, sitting ringside at a Spanish bullfight, throwing dares and getting into the odd wrestling match with each other in case anyone should doubt their machismo for a moment.

A look at some of the characters created or embodied by Frey will explain my feelings, I think:

“Take It Easy”: Co-written by Frey and Jackson Browne, this song finds Frey playing the hard-lovin’, road-weary rock n’ roll troubador. Women wanna own him; women wanna stone him; but most of all his lovers keep blowing his cover (which must mean he’s, y’know, a little bit dangerous.)

The fact that Eagles plowed this furrow ahead of a bunch of other flannelly singer-songwriters doesn’t excuse them that much. Especially since they followed this with the Desperado album — ooh, musicians as Wild West outlaws! The ladies of the canyon probably bought that, but I don’t.

“Already Gone”: Frey (who, in sorta-fairness, sings this but didn’t write it) brilliantly brings to life the sort of smug, self-satisfied jerk who would sing a “victory song” upon breaking off a relationship. “All right, nighty-night” … asshole.

“Lyin’ Eyes”: This one just sorta strums on and on, hectoring its subject — a young woman with a serial knack for poor romantic decisions, as if that were a crime — with lines like, “I thought by now you’d realize.”

“Life In The Fast Lane”: Another co-write by Frey brings us back to that dangerous-troubador trip again, as a too-cool-for-words narrator tells us about those crazy rock stars, their cocaine habits and their assorted interpersonal cruelties.

(I’ve said in the past that “Are you with me so far?” might be the most repellently smug ad-lib in rock n’ roll history; of course Don Henley was singing, and of course, it might not have been an ad-lib.)

One could blame the corporate milieu of the Eagles — sorry, Eagles — for this tiring menagerie of jaded sinners and self-celebrating winners.

(It says something that the only Eagles song I really like, “On The Border,” is narrated by a powerless schnook being watched by Big Brother … although the zest the band brings to lines like, “Never mind your name, just give us your number,” makes you wonder which side they really feel for.)

Yes, the cooler-slash-smarter-than-thou Alpha Male could have been an Eagles thing. But, left to his own devices, Frey carried the image into solo material like “Smuggler’s Blues” and “You Belong To The City.”

The first of these positioned our pastel-suited, platinum-selling hero as some sort of spokesman for the demimonde. The second moved a bunch of Pepsi and included laughably overheated lines like, “It’s in your moves, it’s in your blood / You’re a man of the street.”

That same sense of vague, overblown drama also blows through “The Heat Is On,” defused only by the absurd four-beat drum break in the middle. I’ve read that at Eagles reunion shows, Joe Walsh would sometimes play that part while wandering the stage like a lost basset hound, strapped to a big bass drum; it only made me more grateful that God gave the world Joe Walsh.

(It surprised me not in the slightest to learn that Bob Seger’s “Shakedown” — another bit of ’80s soundtrack fury signifying nothing — was reportedly intended for Frey to sing.)

It took me a while to separate characters from reality; there was a time when I would have told you Frey and Henley were wastes of space. The previous 12 paragraphs notwithstanding, I wouldn’t say that today. (I am also fairly certain, having learned more, that Frey and Henley were better human beings than Ernest Hemingway.)

So, the departure of Glenn Frey from the scene is sort of like seeing a pro wrestling heel go to his higher reward.

You know the fans won’t get autographs and pictures in the elevator any more, and the grandkids won’t get dandled any more, and charities will probably be poorer, and you take no pleasure from any of that.

But you’re content to see the mask leave the arena.

Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.

Among the many David Bowie-related messages I saw on Twitter today — all heartfelt and intelligent — this one stood out.

bowie

I don’t know the person who tweeted this, and I don’t normally buy into people’s interpretations of what famous celebrities would want me to do.

But I can go for this line of thinking.

Bowie’s work wasn’t always secret — you’d know in advance that an album was coming — but what came out was always unexpected, and always creative.

And he probably would encourage others to find what’s uniquely theirs and develop it, because that’s what he did, again and again.

So, rather than write out personal snapshots of how Bowie’s work crossed my path (they involve Time magazine, garage-band jams, high school crushes, nights in front of the TV set — same stories you have, basically), I’m going to spend a little time tonight working on a musical project I have in its earliest stages.

I’m going to line up a few squeaks and screeches and see how they sound … and maybe after that I’ll do something flippy and Eno-ish to them, and see how they sound then.

It won’t come close to Bowie’s level, of course; but it will be something I haven’t done before, and it will be creative, and it will have come out of my head.

That seems like the best celebration.

Another in a long series of modest proposals.

Posted on

News item: Former Montreal Expos star Tim Raines passed over once again for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I only care about halls of fame when I have some absurd, momentarily amusing, impertinent thought related to their existence.

And so it was this morning.

In the face of widespread social media calls for Tim Raines’ election to the Baseball Hall of Fame (a cause I’m down with, for what that’s worth), I had the brainflash of taking it a step further:

Ten Reasons Why Every Member Of The Montreal Expos Should Be Elected, En Masse, To The Baseball Hall Of Fame

  1. Just imagine the hall of plaques, full to bursting with the tricolor “elb” cap. (Yeah, I know it’s not an “elb.”)
  2. The Hall of Fame forfeited its status as a trustworthy arbiter of the truly elite many decades ago, and is now pretty much just a cool place to look at gloves and spikes. Why not do away with the pretense?
  3. The resultant flood of Quebecois tourists would lead to the establishment of many authentic poutine restaurants in Cooperstown.
  4. Baseball has long needed something to counterbalance its excessive fixation on New York. A new century calls for a new town. Why not Montreal?
  5. I’ve always wondered who John Boccabella would thank if he had an induction speech.
  6. Nostalgia for Parc Jarry, now unfairly lacking, would be rekindled. By all accounts, the Expos’ first home park was a cozy and charming place, full of enthusiastic fans.
  7. Montreal has a historic record as a great baseball town — most notably, as the city that first embraced Jackie Robinson. If any city deserves this unprecedented kind of mass enshrinement, I say it’s Montreal.
  8. This move gets not only Raines but also Rusty Staub, Larry Walker, Maury Wills, Lee Smith, Ken Singleton, Graig Nettles, Manny Mota, Dennis Martinez, Dave McNally, Andres Galarraga and Willie Davis into the Hall of Fame. That’s a lot of hits, homers, wins and highlight-reel plays right there.
  9. (And Bartolo Colon! Whenever he retires, that is.)
  10. Un discours de gratitude prononcé en français sonnerait assez grande. Vraiment!

Traveler’s end.

After 350 days, George Canale shuffles off to a well-deserved retirement tomorrow night.

Canale — or, more specifically, a 1990 Donruss baseball card of the former Milwaukee Brewers first baseman — was my choice for 2015’s #walletcard, as explained in my post of Jan. 12.

(For anyone who doesn’t feel like re-reading: #walletcard is a curious social-media thang among sports card collectors. You pick a card from your collection and carry it in your wallet for a year, taking a picture of it whenever an interesting opportunity arises and posting those pix online. You also report back at the end of the year on the condition of your card after a year of activity.)

I felt most of the year like I hadn’t taken my walletcard out often enough, and that I’d be disappointed when I reached Dec. 31.

But, counting it up now, I posted 31 #walletcard images on Twitter over the course of the year.

Somehow that doesn’t strike me as all that bad. Certainly, I didn’t fall into the trap of taking a pic of it with every day’s lunch, just for the sake of another post.

Here, then, I offer my 10 best #walletcard posts of 2015.

Thanks, George. It’s been fun.

Jan. 23. The brand-new Italian restaurant where I took this had closed by November.

Jan. 23. The brand-new Italian restaurant where I took this had closed by November.

 

Jan. 24. Heck of a storm, that was.

Jan. 24. Heck of a storm, that was.

 

Feb. 19. Sorry, Catman.

Feb. 19. Sorry, Catman.

 

March 11. Not all who are called, serve.

March 11. Not all who are called, serve.

 

March 14. Jury duty, you can get out of. Taxes, not really.

March 14. Jury duty, you can get out of. Taxes, not really.

 

April 26. I was grilling in the driveway. The eggplant was grilled for purposes of babaghanoush. The beer was not my first of the evening.

April 26. I was grilling in the driveway. The eggplant was later grilled for purposes of babaghanoush. The beer was not my first of the evening.

 

June 21. The Red Sox and I were not in Boston at the same time, so #walletcard had to settle for soaking in some townie color in the subway.

June 21. The Red Sox and I were not in Boston at the same time, so #walletcard had to settle for soaking in some townie color in the subway.

 

July 3. True, this. (The setting: A home game of the Allentown Railers of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League.)

July 3. True, this. (The setting: A home game of the Allentown Railers of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League.)

 

Oct. 25. The notorious Jackson Pollock set design of Donruss '90 holds its own against Mother Nature.

Oct. 25. The notorious Jackson Pollock set design of Donruss ’90 holds its own against Mother Nature.

 

Dec. 24. Holiday merriment. No matter what comes along, ol' George never bats an eye.

Dec. 24. Holiday merriment. No matter what comes along, ol’ George never bats an eye.

And, a last look as of Dec. 30:

Dec. 31. A last look.

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