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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Mundane Moments: It never gets old.

Introducing another of this blog’s intended recurring features.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his classic efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unseen and unappreciated, and bring them out in the open for analysis, contemplation and occasional double-barreled comedic riffage.

So, here we go.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

1973. Click to view larger.

This man is a wedding photographer. He is on the clock, dressed like a pro and toting the balky tools of his chosen trade.

And he is having his picture taken by an invited guest.

It never fails to happen, this, at least not since cameras became pocket-sized and portable.

Some predictably prankish guest with time on his hands — it is almost always a he — spots the wedding photographer en route from church to limo and decides it would be kicky, recursive fun to take a picture of the fella who takes all the pictures.

Most of these shots are lined up poorly. The fella who takes all the pictures can tell this just by looking at his amateur counterpart. (Rare is the guest who captures his feet, for instance.)

And he knows that the picture of the photographer — an idea that seems so delightful at the time, like a fifth drink — never seems like so much fun when the pictures come back from the drugstore. He knows there are forgotten, boxed-up photo envelopes with his picture in them in closets from New Canaan to New Haven.

Yet, like a clown bound for his two millionth descent into the dunk tank, the wedding photographer takes it all in stride. He has a delighted smile he brings out for just such occasions.

This has never happened to me before!, the smile says. I am about as thrilled as I can possibly be to be in front of the lens for a change. This is a wonderful wedding. I wish the couple decades of wedded bliss. And I wish you, the amateur photographer, a lifetime of soothing karmic reward for thinking to point your Instamatic in my direction.

The wedding photographer is not nearly as cynical as that makes him sound.

He believes, just as those who take his portrait believe, in the magic of photography. He subscribes to the notion that good times can be preserved and revisited, and to the glow of eternal memory that keeps people snapping away year after year.

(Sometimes he thinks it would be fun to magically gather every picture that’s ever been taken of him at a wedding — all those shots in the forgotten boxed-up envelopes — into one giant scrapbook. He pages through it in his mind. The seasons change. His hair thins above his forehead, and thickens above his lip. The glasses become compulsory. But there he is in harness, year after year, always striding forward, always smiling, the gatherer of memories.)

He’s never been sure why or how he triggers the memory-preservation impulse in one guest at every wedding, given all the more important people and events that are there for the shooting.

But he’s come to view it as just another service he offers.

And when he’s making his way from one Big Event to another — from reception line to limo, or from first dance to cake-cutting — he always smiles.

Because he never knows when he’ll look up to see a camera pointing at him, held by someone who’s been waiting for just that moment.

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In which I am a shameless idea-pimp.

Tom Nawrocki at Debris Slide recently put up one of those ingenious pop-trivia posts that always starts me to saying, “Oooh! What about this one? And this one?”

In this case, Tom’s presented a list of the Top Ten Supporting Characters in Pop Hits of the Seventies, ranging from the night man in “Hotel California” to the truck driver in “Me and Bobby McGee.” Take a second and go check it out — I’ll be here when you get back.

Once my brain started in on this subject, it wouldn’t stop, as is usually the case. Rather than clog Tom’s comment box with my own list along the same lines, I’ll just post it here.

Feel free to come up with your own; I’m sure there are plenty more:

1.  The friend in town who’s heard your name in “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

2.  The policeman who knew Roger Daltrey’s name in “Who Are You.”

3. Reverend Smith, who recognized Alice Cooper (and punched him in the nose) in “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”

4. The next-door neighbor with a daughter had a favor in “Walk This Way.”

5. The city councilman takin’ bribes on the side in “Serve Somebody.”

6. The man selling ice cream, singing (pseudo-)Italian songs, in “Saturday In The Park.”

7. Tim Bass, who makes $2.50 an hour pumping gas in John Stewart’s “Gold.”

8. Uncle Ernie and Auntie Gin in “Let ‘Em In.”

9.  The sheriff (Edit: No, he’s a detective) who makes his living off other people’s taxes in “Take The Money And Run.”

10. The sheriff in “I Shot The Sheriff.”

Five For The Record: George Harrison, “Somewhere in England”

Just to explain the concept again, since we’re new and all: This is intended to be a recurring feature. I’m going to challenge myself to look at things I enjoy and explain five reasons why I like them. Not everything I write about in this space will be a record (as in, an LP.) But that’s what we’re looking at tonight, again.

Today’s subject: One in a series of treadmill albums recorded by the former Beatles lead guitarist in the late ’70s and early ’80s before he got disgusted and took a five-year break to go watch the wheels. Released June 1981. Reached Number 11 on the Billboard album charts, driven largely by the success of its elegiac/nostalgic lead single.

And I like it because …

1. You never forget your first (or second, or third). It would have been either my 11th or 12th birthday, when I was starting to explore the wide world of music on my own two legs, when I asked my parents for some solo Beatle albums.

My dad was nonplussed. He didn’t rate solo Beatle material in the same league as the full band’s output, and he wondered why I would want to hear the solo stuff when I could hear the full band.

A fair cop, yes, but no matter. Come the big day, I received John Lennon’s greatest-hits compilation “The John Lennon Collection” on tape, and “Somewhere in England” on LP — possibly the first long-player I ever owned, and definitely one of the first three. There would be many more.

Despite his misgivings, my dad even dubbed the Harrison album onto tape, so I could listen to it on my Walkman while mowing my grandparents’ lawn.

I’ll chuck it one of these days. But I haven’t yet.

2. “Blood From A Clone.” After Warner Brothers Records rejected George’s original version of “Somewhere in England” in the fall of 1980 — too downbeat, they said — he went back and wrote several new songs.

One of them, “Blood From A Clone,” became the revamped album’s first song. And it’s a stinger, with a lyric and a backing track that both bleed with contempt for the music industry.

The music of the verse is offbeat in a funky kind of way, while the rhythmic shifts of the bridge make it damned near undanceable. One suspects that was George’s intent all along.

Meanwhile, lyrics like “There is no sense to it / Pure pounds and pence to it” blast an industry that sells style over substance: “Ain’t no messing ’round with music / Give them the blood from a clone.”

Basically, Warner Brothers asked George to kick their ass for a man, Artie Fufkin-style, and he obliged. And when I think of “Somewhere in England,” this is the song I hear in my head.

3. That one line in that one song. I’ve ranted before in other forums about the hit-or-miss lyrics of “All Those Years Ago.”

There’s all that spiritual claptrap about “forgetting all about God,” for starters. And the line about Mark David Chapman being “someone who offended all” always makes it sound like his biggest sin was farting at a tea party.

(On the whole, I consider the song an OK-to-pretty-good pop single. Some people think it’s too bouncy to be a good elegy. I think a bouncy pop song is not a bad way to pay tribute to a guy who wrote some pretty good pop songs himself.)

But in the middle of this OK-to-pretty-good pop song is a single line that cuts through:

“I always looked up to you.”

This is exactly the sort of thing you never get around to saying until the person you mean to say it to is gone. None of us do. The simultaneous confession of fondness and personal vulnerability is hard to get out from underneath the tongue.

And given the strained relationship between the ex-Beatles (Harrison and Lennon were reportedly on the outs before Lennon was killed), it’s easy to imagine that George never got around to telling John this in person.

For one line, at least, George Harrison — generational icon, spiritual seeker, rock god, guitar hero, Beatle — is a regular person with the same regrets and the same pain in his heart as the rest of us. I find that touching.

4. The Hoagy Carmichael covers. Yup, there’s more than one.

George goes back to his roots (or even his parents’ roots) and tackles the legendary songwriter’s “Baltimore Oriole” and “Hong Kong Blues.” The former is lush with string synthesizer and saxophone, while the latter gets a driving, spiky treatment that is pure 1981.

Honesty compels me to admit that George’s vocal on “Hong Kong Blues,” in particular, is frequently flat; and as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, he ranks only slightly north of Marcel Marceau.

Still, I give him points for reaching into an unusual and imaginative bag, thirty years before his bandmate Macca would cut his own covers album.

It might also be seen as an act of humility. Rather than present a full album of his own songs (and I’m sure he could have written two more to fill out the record if he’d wanted to), this is George saying, “I like Hoagy Carmichael. He has nothing to do with rock n’ roll. He deserves your attention anyway. Check him out.”

5. Roots. The phrase “Somewhere in England” has a certain open-ended evocative power for me. It suggests that, somewhere in a distant island nation, magical and unique things are happening:

Somewhere in England, a young pop band is auditioning for the manager who will make them stars.

Somewhere in England, a wrinkled, stoop-shouldered craftsman in the employ of Her Majesty’s Secret Service is building a single-shot pistol into the heel of a man’s dress shoe.

Somewhere in England, a bulldog is sitting in a rose garden, eating bangers and mash.

For me, anyway, the title also has a personal resonance with the album’s creator.

I admit I am ill-equipped to gauge the English character. But it just so happens that many of the qualities I tend to associate with the British national character — insularity; a sense of class and place; a dry, playful sense of humor — are also qualities I associate with George Harrison.

(Insularity: George almost never toured, and recorded most of his solo albums in his own home. Sense of class and place: As late as 1995’s Beatles “Anthology” specials, George still had his charmingly thick Scouse accent. Sense of humor: Surely I don’t have to give examples.)

While his fellow Beatles made themselves over as New Yorkers (Lennon) or Los Angelenos (Starr);  and while his ’60s rock contemporaries became beasts-of-no-nation tax exiles (Mick and Keef); George Harrison seemed to have his feet planted, literally and metaphorically, somewhere in England.

Accurs’d noise.

I’ve come to like Twitter. It’s a useful news source and has connected me, to some extent, with dozens of people who live in my area.

But sometimes … Jaysus, it’s like being in the same room with five dozen standup comedians.

This year’s endless round of GOP debates has brought out the wanna-be comics in excelsis, as virtually every utterance from each candidate is greeted by a volley of snark-arrows.

The unrelenting tide of sarcasm gets old a little bit faster with each debate. (Though perhaps this is the Internet Gods’ way of telling me I need to mingle with more conservatives.)

Other events bring out similar, if slightly less abundant, responses. One person I follow today — commenting on the Ryan Braun news — said he’d waded through everyone’s attempt at japery but still hadn’t heard what the real meat of the story was.

I don’t like the level of noise on Twitter, but I’m starting to come around to accept it as the bad that inevitably comes with the good.

I’m beginning to think, too, that being in the same room with five dozen standup comedians is a pretty good analogy for life in early-21st-century America.

Thirteen ways of looking at a black circle.

Thirty-seven years ago this week, John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” was topping out at its Billboard chart peak of Number Nine.

It’s always fun to imagine what role pop singles play in people’s lives — as soundtracks to love, hate, joy, pain or whatever.

Here, then, a musing on what “#9 Dream” might have meant to 13 average Americans this week in 1975 …

In Los Angeles, a faithful Beatles fan hears the song and is disappointed — as he has been with virtually everything he’s heard since 1970. One of these years, he vows, the Fab Four will see the light, get back together, and record more of the finest music known to 20th-century man. He turns off his radio and reaches for “Rubber Soul.”

In New Canaan, Connecticut, an 12-year-old girl greets each spin of the song with delight. She is only dimly aware of Lennon’s status as a rock legend, and has thought of him mainly as a groovy hitmaker ever since hearing “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” for the first time. She wonders from time to time whether he will tour, and is already planning to ask her girlfriends if they will stand on line for tickets with her.

In Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, an 18-year-old boy recovering from a nasty motorcycle accident hears the song several times a day from the radio in the nurses’ station across the hall. Along with some of its hit-radio brethren, the song serves as a soundtrack to physical pain more savage than he’s ever dreamed of. In years to come, hearing the opening squirt of wah-wahed slide guitar will cause him to excuse himself and limp out of the room until the song is over.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a 15-year-old girl is struggling with an undiagnosed hearing problem that frustrates her at school and at home. The chorus of “#9 Dream” stands out as a source of particular grief, as she can never quite figure out what Lennon is singing. Not until 2007 — after she’s written a best-selling memoir of growing up handicapped in Seventies America — does she Google the lyrics. She is both relieved and irritated to discover they were nonsense all along: “A bowakowa, pousse pousse.”

In Evansville, Indiana, a 28-year-old homemaker who has one more kid and 30 more pounds than she wants to have hears the song and thinks of Beatlemania, and times gone by, and the dreams she entertained 10 years before as the prettiest girl in her high-school graduating class. She entertains thoughts of divorce and freedom, then returns to the grocery list.

In St. Cloud, Minnesota, a six-piece showband — five thirtysomething men and a younger female singer — has just about perfected its version of “#9 Dream.” The band performs at weddings, parties, store openings and other events throughout the central part of the state, playing a regularly refreshed selection of current pop and country hits. None of the members tremendously like the song, but they’re OK with it. It’s better than “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” anyway.

In Skowhegan, Maine, a 14-year-old boy with severe stress-related insomnia finds in “#9 Dream” a ticket to a good night’s sleep. The pillowy string arrangement, and the lyrics about dreaming and spirit dances unfolding, bespeak peace and comfort to him for reasons he cannot explain. He records the song off the radio onto a stolen cassette tape, and listens to it every night for the next ten months as he drifts off to sleep.

In North Adams, Massachusetts, a 16-year-old boy buys a copy of the single after overhearing a girl on whom he has an intense crush exulting about it. He listens to it for five days, absorbing every detail; then tries to start a conversation on the sixth. She laughs. On the seventh day, the boy breaks the single into small shards and throws it away.

In Denver, Colorado, a 15-year-old boy buys not only the single but the 8-track of the “Walls And Bridges” album in a similar attempt to impress a girl in the grade ahead. When the attempt fails, he places both single and album in a cardboard box, douses it with gasoline, and sets it on fire in his driveway while his parents are out. This remains his secret until 2009, when he tells the embarrassing story on his blog. The only comment on his post comes from a reader he does not know in Massachusetts, who writes simply: “Been there, dude.”

In Olean, New York, the afternoon DJ on a small AM radio station digs his fingernails into his palms in frustration. The owner of the station — an auto dealer who cultivates a resemblance to John Wayne in style and manner — has just told him that, Top Ten song be damned, the DJ is not to play that filthy “puss-say, puss-say” song on his radio station if he, the DJ, wants to stay employed.

In Gainesville, Florida, the soothing, balmy production qualities of “#9 Dream” provide a measure of psychic relief to a roller-rink owner behind on his debts and slowly surrendering to cocaine-induced psychosis. On Saturday, Feb. 22, he orders his DJ at gunpoint to play nothing but “#9 Dream” for the entire night. That night the rink empties early; on Tuesday it is closed; the following Monday, it is under new management.

In Brooklyn, a young man with his long hair suppressed by a hairnet takes a breather from kneading dough, which he does eight hours a day on the counter underneath the radio. Three years previously, he’d been a committed Marxist and revolutionary with a fondness for John & Yoko’s sloganeering “Some Time In New York City” album. Today, he is working in a bakery and considering going back for his master’s, while his onetime hero has returned to recording escapist pop for the masses. He shakes his head and thinks, not for the first time, that nobody told him there’d be days like these.

In Wichita Falls, Texas, a nine-year-old boy receives a copy of the single as a birthday present from his slightly dotty aunt, who has no idea what to give him and decides that a song with the number nine in it must be right for the occasion. Something about it lights a fire within him for pop music; he listens to the record each day until his mother is sick of it, then turns on his little transistor radio in hopes of hearing it again. In 2012, when the boy is lead guitarist in one of America’s most popular rock bands, the first thing he plays when he plugs in for soundcheck every afternoon is the melody of “#9 Dream.” He has never explained this to his bandmates. But — with pop music in their own DNA — they understand anyway.

Encore Performances: Bleu, blanc et rouge.

I used to have a quiet blog where I would hold forth on anything and everything. It’s gone now, but I still have the content, and every so often I’ll repost something that holds up over time.

The following post, written in June 2008, is presented in slightly updated form in memory of Gary Carter and the equipe for which he shone.

 

I totally shoulda bought this T-shirt.

I found it in the racks of the gift shop at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., while mucking around waiting for the museum to open.

I took a pass because it was much too small for me, and I’m moving past the point in my life (I think) where I accumulate essentially useless stuff just because it’s cool.

What we have here is Charlie Brown — wearing the “MANAGER” T-shirt that occasionally replaced his familiar zig-zag getup — voicing his support for the Montreal Expos.

What makes this great, for my baseball-illiterate readers, is that the Expos were one of baseball’s all-time snakebitten teams.
They scraped into the postseason once, in 1981, only to lose on a ninth-inning home run in the deciding game of their playoff series.
They racked up baseball’s best record in 1994, then lost their best shot at a World Series title to the players’ strike.
And in 2003, with the Expos in an unlikely playoff hunt, Major League Baseball — which owned the financially struggling team — decided to save money and not call up players from the minor leagues for the traditional end-of-season push.

That pretty much killed the city’s remaining interest in its team, which was already playing one-quarter of its home games in Puerto Rico as a marketing move.
The Expos left Montreal for Washington, D.C., after the 2004 season.

MLB’s choice to manage the Expos during their ward-of-the-state final years was Frank Robinson. He was, in most respects, the right man for the job — a hard-nosed baseball veteran with little to lose.

But this T-shirt made me think:
Maybe a better choice for manager would have been someone who was used to being kicked in the junk again and again.
Someone who had learned years before to get nothing and like it.

Someone who would have seen the bright side — the tiny glimmer of hope — in the fifth pitching change of the day in a temporary home stadium in a foreign country.

Someone who would have been perfectly used to 95 losses a year, and for whom 67 wins would have been an unimaginable carnival of joy.

Someone who would have welcomed the chance to manage in a sterile, dimly-lit dome, because it meant his players could not embarrass him by planting trees and shrubs all over the field.

Someone who would not have been afraid to give Joe Shlabotnik regular work in right.

In fact, I think this would have been a wonderful plot line for Charles Schulz, had he lived long enough. The Expos call to request permission to talk to Charlie Brown about their managing job … but Snoopy, concerned about going unfed while his master is out of town, rebuffs them.

Schulz is gone, of course; as are Charlie Brown, Snoopy, the Expos, and now even some of the Expos’ star players. (Charlie Lea and Gary Carter have both died within the past year.)

I hope, at least, that some kid is wearing the hell out of that Charlie Brown Expos T-shirt.

Five For The Record: The J. Geils Band, “Bloodshot”

Welcome to the first installment of Five For The Record, which is intended to be a recurring feature. I’m going to challenge myself to look at things I enjoy and explain five reasons why I like them. Not everything I write about in this space will be a record (as in, an LP.) But that’s where we’re starting.

Today’s subject: Third studio album by party-hearty R&B/rock band from Boston. Released April 1973. Spawned one wonderfully loose-limbed Top 40 single (now, don’t touch the knobs.)  Reached No. 10 on the Billboard album charts, the only Top Ten placement for any Geils album or single of the Seventies.

And I like it because …

1. Colored vinyl. Yup, mine is one of the early pressings, on clear lollipop-red vinyl. When I bought it, I made sure to dub a copy quickly onto cassette, so I could enjoy the music without further scratching up the awesome redness.

Colored vinyl is really kind of a dopey marketing stunt — the sort of thing you’d do to move copies of an album you didn’t think would sell by itself.

But it was a novelty then, and maybe the band thought a change was as good as a rest. Red vinyl goes very nicely with the black-and-red design of the album cover, too.

And anyway, I like to imagine Geils’ jive-talking frontman Peter Wolf meeting with some record-company suit, cackling, “Put it on any color vinyl you want! It’s still gonna melt the needle.”

(As an added bonus, the playout groove on one of the sides has a tiny, semi-secret message scratched in: “NICE TO SEE YOUR FACE IN THE PLACE.” Aw, thanks, guys.)

2. High-water mark. While my knowledge of J. Geils is not exhaustive, it is enough to convince me that “Bloodshot” is probably the band’s best studio attempt to capture its rowdy Seventies persona.

(I am certain that, by 1974’s “Nightmares … and Other Tales From the Vinyl Jungle,” the band’s tales of house parties and Detroit breakdowns were starting to seem a little threadbare. And by 1977’s “Monkey Island,” they’d decided to grow up, a move that would pay off very well for them once they got used to it.)

It’s no great surprise that Geils’ two live albums of the Seventies (“Full House” and “Blow Your Face Out”) should be parties in a cardboard box.

But getting that vibe in the sedate setting of a studio counts for a little extra something, I think. You have to bring the party with you. And with “Bloodshot,” J. Geils made it possible for a lot of other people to bring the party with them.

3. Whammer jammer, Dickie!  It’s a rags-to-riches story Horatio Alger would have envied: Connecticut-born physics undergrad with ginormous ‘fro adopts new name, transforming himself overnight into love-taking, sheet-shaking, fire-blowing juke-joint hero.

Well, OK. Richard Salwitz’ transformation into his harmonica-playing stage persona, Magic Dick, must have taken more than one night — you don’t get that good in a hurry.

Whatever backstory you choose to believe, Magic Dick is a pleasure to listen to throughout “Bloodshot.” Not only does he fill his expected role as a soloist, at his best he also reaches that R&B nirvanaland where the harp becomes an ensemble instrument pitched somewhere between a horn and a Hammond organ.

4. Quality control. When most bands have two minutes and forty-five seconds to kill, they throw together a generic filler song, based on a couple of chord changes they thought of at soundcheck and topped off with stylistically consistent yet unremarkable lyrical content.

Not J. Geils. Side One of “Bloodshot” ends with a drunk-and-disorderly jam called “Don’t Try To Hide It,” featuring a group singalong, random references to heinie-biting, and a discordant sax solo credited to that scourge of high-school librarians everywhere, Mike Hunt. (Wolf hails Mr. Hunt’s entrance with a growl of “oobadoobah!” that by itself is worth whatever this album will cost you in a 21st-century used-record bin.)

It’s riotous, completely irrational, proudly tossed-off, and more fun than all of Your Favorite Band’s albums put together.

5. Keepers of the flame. The invaluable ARSA radio-chart website helps us identify other albums that ran the charts alongside “Bloodshot” in the spring and early summer of ’73:

Paul McCartney, “Red Rose Speedway.” George Harrison, “Living In The Material World.” “The Best of Bread.”  The Beatles, “1962-1966.” The Beatles, “1967-1970.” Seals & Crofts, “Diamond Girl.” Paul Simon, “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon.” Carole King, “Fantasy.”

Well-crafted, mature albums, one and all … but lacking a certain fire down below, n’est-ce pas?

The pleasures of “Bloodshot” are magnified for me when I consider the company it kept. I like to imagine the record rolling up the charts in a haze of cigarette smoke and cheap cologne, rousting everything around it.

Going on 40 years since the album came out, the world is still full of music that aims for the heart and mind. And “Bloodshot” is still a marvelous, timeless antidote for those who want music from somewhere lower down.