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Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year

I'm writing this from my phone, while watching Gangnam Style on  New Years Rockin' Eve or whatever it's called these days. This television experience is not one I've chosen myself--I want to make that clear.

I just want to wish everyone out there a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Major League Baseball segregation in 1961

I'm taking a break from politics to switch gears entirely, (though it could be argued that this post is somewhat political).

First a little background. In 1988-1989, when I was a junior at Michigan State, I took a particular interest in the 1961 Detroit Tigers baseball team. The '61 Tigers were quite possibly the greatest 2nd place team in baseball history, winning 101 games but still finishing 8 games behind the pennant winning New York Yankees. '61 was also the first year that the Tigers had prominent black players who made significant contributions to the team. The Tigers were, unfortunately, tardy to the integration of baseball.

Almost every evening from autumn 1988 through almost all of 1989, I spent a minimum amount of time on my school work and trudged over to the MSU Library to study microfilm. I took voluminous notes on the '61 team, from infomation gleaned mainly from microfilmed back issues of the Detroit Free Press and a few other newspapers. I have over 1000 pages of notes, in four spiral bound notebooks, that I have yet to do anything with. For years, I've intended on writing either a book or article, but neither have ever gotten off the ground. So the notebooks sit in a drawer in my basement.

Well, tonight I brought them upstairs with the intention of finally doing something with them. The very first page I looked at was an article about baseball segregation taken from the African-American newspaper, the Michigan Chronicle. In my research, I found that the black press provided the most illuminating commentary and reported stories that mainstream (i.e. white) journalists wouldn't have touched. This article is about spring training segregation in Florida, which was still very much alive and well fourteen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Although this story doesn't have anything to do specifically with the '61 Tigers, it is a fascinating look at the world of spring training segregation during that time period. I will present it verbatim from my notes. Along the way, I'll illustrate this article with photographs and images I find from the web:

"Report Tan Players In Bias Feud"
(Michigan Chronicle, Saturday, February 4, 1961; section two, page one, column two)

The New York Post reprinted a story in the Chicago American written by Wendell Smith. Smith wrote that black ballplayers resent not being allowed to stay in the same hotels with their teammates and not being able to eat in the same restaurants.

"The Negroes are accepted as first-class citizens in the north during the regular season but not in the south during training," Smith reported.

Minnie Minoso said segregation in spring training is well known to those who visit the camps.

"I don't know anything about any move to stop it," said Minoso as he dined at the Gotham Hotel. [The Gotham Hotel was a Detroit establishment that catered to the African-American community].

Gotham Hotel, Detroit, MI

Minnie Minoso

Larry Doby, former Cleveland outfielder, said, "Now is the time to make a move; organize; get someone to talk to the people in baseball. No one guy can do it alone, not even a Willie Mays or an Ernie Banks. We've got to do it together."

Doby cited one example of Jim Crow in Florida, "It was in Savannah. We couldn't get into a restaurant so we had someone go into a delicatessen to buy roast beef and bread. We ate it as we walked up the street."

Larry Doby

Smith quoted one black player as saying, "We think we should enjoy equality the year round and intend to get it. We are tired of staying in the flop houses and eating in second-rate restaurants during spring training.

"If we are good enough to play with a team, then we should be good enough to share the same facilities and accommodations as the other players both spring and summer."

Jackie Robinson told the Post, "I am surprised that this hasn't come up before. I took a lot of indignities in the early days, but they weren't important. The big thing then was to get the Negro into baseball. And then, in the early fifties, a good many of the guys didn't think it was a time to make a move. No, though, I think it is."

A few thoughts about the Second Amendment and Facebook (hell of a combination)

At home with a sick kid, watching A.N.T. Farm on Disney Channel.

I'm still thinking about Friday's horrific mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, though I have done my best to avoid the news and I reflexively turn away when I see school photos of the little children who were murdered. I just can't take it.

Like I wrote in my previous post, I am cynical and question whether anything will be done legislatively after this incident. Is it that much to ask why ordinary citizens need to own semi-automatic weapons? Here is how I see it: Those who argue that it's perfectly fine for civilians to own semi-automatic assault weapons are those who swear by the Second Amendment, and are also distrustful of the federal government (the "tyrannical government") and feel that they need these weapons in the event that they need to defend themselves from the government if and when it becomes "tyrannical." To be blunt, I think there is a lot of (unjustified and irrational) paranoia, particularly with a black president (with an "un-American" name) currently in office. I don't mean to suggest that all Second Amendment supporters are anti-government racists, but I don't think it's preposterous to suggest that at least some of them are.

As far as the Second Amendment goes, the world is not the same as it was in 1791. What sort of firearms existed in the late 18th century? Muskets? The early days of rifles? Certainly no automatic weapons that could take out dozens of people within minutes. Perhaps it's time for our Constitution to adapt to changing times. Is that suggestion too radical?


After news of the Sandy Hook shooting went viral on Friday, Facebook heated up. The discussion became intense, and by Saturday morning I decided that I'd had enough with Facebook. I felt in danger of losing friends, mainly my right-leaning friends, but even a few of my lefty friends. It was time to step away from Facebook. I am now on day three of my Facebook sabbatical/moratorium, and I don't want to post anything until Christmas. I plan on posting a "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" status update and continuing the moratorium for as long as possible. I have wasted far too much time on Facebook and I'm going cold turkey, trying to break the addiction.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A bad week topped off by a tragedy

Dick DeVos, Rick Snyder, and the conservative contingent in Michigan got their way. They have made the first step in undoing everything that this state was built on. Let the union busting begin.

I attended the protest at the capital building for about an hour on Tuesday morning. The union crowd was spirited and a little raucous, but I didn't experience any of the violence that allegedly took place later. My impression is that most of that violence was overblown.

I'm now coming to you in the wee hours of Saturday, the 15th of December. The Michigan state legislature passed several bills that, in my opinion, set the state back many years. Most of these bills went through in a marathon session late last night.

To top off this bad week, the U.S. had yet another mass shooting, this time at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I suppose unless you've been living in a cave, you already know. As usual, there is the usual hand-wringing and calls for gun control by the left (yours truly included in that group) and the typical defensive posturing by the right. Others rightfully call for better mental health support systems in the country. But as usually happens, in a week's time, this will all die down until the next mass shooting takes place, at which point the exact same debate will start up and, once again, dissipate to nothing. So it goes in the good ol' U.S.A.

I have spent way too much time today on Facebook, going back and forth with various people. It's just not worth it. I feel no better than I did when I began--perhaps worse. I need to take a break from Facebook. Not only is it a terrible time waster, but it rarely makes me feel very good after I am on. In that, I suppose it is not too different from any addiction.

Well folks, it's late and I really should go to bed. Plus, the dog is whining and probably won't stop unless I turn off the lights, close down the computer, and turn in.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Tragically Hip at the Fillmore: Detroit, November 28, 2012

(NOTE: Apparently, somebody in cyberspace doesn't like the photos I took of the Tragically Hip show, because they vanished).

On Wednesday, L. and I went down to see The Tragically Hip at the Fillmore (formerly the State Theater) in Detroit.  As I've gone on ad infinitum in this blog, I am a huge fan of The Hip, so I was giddy for this show.

Unlike the last time I recounted a concert experience in this blog (our aborted attempt to see Meat Puppets last November) we actually saw the band we intended on seeing.  The Hip had no opening act and hit the stage at about 8:15 PM.

Negotiating the freeways in Detroit always leaves me a little frazzled, so I was a bit dazed when we finally parked the car in the structure across the street from the Fillmore. We went from one confusing line outside the theater (guys strapping paper wrist bands on those who intended to drink alcohol) to several take-no-shit security people in the theater who were way more intense than any airport security I've ever encountered. (Unbeknownst to me, rock shows must be prone to terrorist attack or something). Anyway, we finally were able to get our tickets scanned, bought our overpriced 24-ounce Budweisers, and ambled up to find seats in the general admission balcony.

The Fillmore (as it was renamed in 2007--for many, many years it was the State Theater) is one of the very best concert venues anywhere. It was originally built in the 1920's as a motion picture palace, and it features ornate Renaissance revival ornamentation and motifs. Its beauty, now a bit faded and threadbare, harkens back to a time when Detroit was known as "the Paris of the Midwest" and seeing a movie or play was an event, as this was one of the few forms of entertainment available at the time. The Fillmore is truly one of those places that makes me want to get into the Wayback Machine and experience the theater in its Jazz Age heyday.

The show itself was great. The Tragically Hip are one of the most energetic and flat-out smoking live bands I've ever seen. I still cannot believe they have never gained more popularity in the United States. They played for probably about 2 1/2 hours and their set list drew equally from their popular (in Canada) hits and deeper album cuts. I was particularly thrilled that they played three of my favorite Hip tunes, "Thugs", "At the Hundredth Meridian", and "Fifty-Mission Cap."

I always enjoy people watching at rock concerts. The crowd for The Hip is, to put it blunt, very middle-aged and very white--so I fit right in.  Maybe there were some younger people on the main floor, but the folks in the balcony probably averaged about 45 years old...maybe even older. One guy sitting in front of me was particularly fun to watch. He was a tall, neat, short-haired 40-something dude in a blue sweater, and was doing some sort of seated interpretive dance moves to every song, but it was clear that since he was sitting with his buddies, he didn't want to go too crazy--probably felt a little too self-conscious. He looked to be a middle school math teacher by day who was cutting loose just a little tiny bit at the Hip show, but still trying to maintain a degree of "decorum."

As is the case with many concerts, there is always at least one unhinged wackjob.  In this case, it was a spikey-haired blonde woman, probably somewhere in her late 30s/early 40s, in a sleeveless print dress. For whatever reason (drunk as a skunk?) she was in a foul mood and was offending everyone in her vicinity.  After the Hip had finished their second song ("Grace, Too"), it was clear to me that the beer I'd pounded--along with the super-size coffee I drank on the drive to Detroit--had gone right through me and I had to find the restroom. Upon my return to our seats, I found the foul-tempered woman sitting alone in our row on the aisle. I said "Excuse me" and, initially, she didn't appear to have any intention of moving.  Finally, after a few seconds, she stood up and bumped into me as if she was a hockey player trying to check me into the boards.  I wasn't expecting it and darned near fell over in the aisle. I caught myself, though, and pushed past her to my seat. Moments later, security removed her from the premises (probably due to what she'd done earlier and not related to her practically knocking me on my ass). I pondered why she had bothered to spend $30 for a ticket only to act like an ass and get kicked out of the concert hall, or whether she had come with someone, gotten into a spat with him or her, and was now taking out her drunken rage on anyone nearby.

The rest of the show went by without incident. The Hip were fully energized, performing 24 songs in all. The crowd was abuzz as they left the theater, and we made it home safely.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Obama and the Broad Art Museum

I just spent about a half-hour debating a complete stranger on Facebook. Why do I waste my time in this manner? It's not worth it. I will not change his mind and he sure as hell isn't changing my mind. The guy, who commented on the post of a mutual Facebook friend, had a Barry Goldwater profile picture--featuring ol' Barry's famous quote, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." That should have been my first clue that this debate would only succeed in pissing off the two of us. I am proud of myself, though, in that in my final post I took the high road and praised my Republican foe for his intelligence and insight. I must say that he at least was able to write thoughtful, though extreme, retorts that demonstrated true intellect.  I knew full well that this "debate," which mainly amounted to the two of us hijacking this poor woman's pro-Obama post, was doomed to never be resolved. It was best to just take the high road, extend an olive branch, and get the hell out of there.

Once again, my apologies for not writing on this blog for awhile. What has been going on since the last time I was here? Well, for one, Barack Obama won a second term as President of the United States and I am both relieved and thrilled.  It feels like vindication for Obama and proof that the 2008 election wasn't a fluke.

Election night, I was nervous and decided to go to bed early. I was worried that 2012 was to be a replay of 2000 with no winner declared for days following the election. Imagine my relief when I woke up at 4:00 AM, checked my Droid Razr to discover that Obama had won. In an autumn beset by losses by my favorite sports teams (MSU football, Detroit Tigers, Detroit Lions, Detroit Pistons), I felt that having my President re-elected saved the Fall (and beside, the future of our country is just a tad more important than sports).

What else is new, you ask? I, and the family, went to the open house at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on MSU's campus yesterday. It is an amazing building and I still find it shocking that architecture this modern and cutting-edge has found its way to sleepy, Midwestern East Lansing, Michigan. As one can imagine, there are plenty of whiners and naysayers who complain about it, but when this museum proves to be a financial windfall for this community, I'm sure the trolls will go back under their bridges and hide.

And what of the art inside the Broad? It's definitely contemporary and modern and challenging--though the old artwork from the Kresge Art Museum has been incorporated into the new museum, so it is not exclusively dedicated to modern art. I'm not sure how the provincial folk in our area will respond to it, but it will certainly attract art lovers from around the world. (And before I act like everyone around here is a hayseed, that is not true. There are plenty of people in the Lansing area who are excited about this museum, and the long line of people waiting to get into the Broad Museum on Sunday only reinforces this point).

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tragically Hip and other stuff

My copy of the Tragically Hip's new album, Now for Plan A, finally arrived in the mail today one week after it was released and over a week after I ordered it.  Yeah, I know, I could have downloaded it and been able to listen to it the day of its release, but I'm old-fashioned and wanted a physical copy of the album. I was willing to wait for the thrill of finding the package in my mailbox, ripping it open, and popping the CD in the disc player in my kitchen.

I get no thrill from downloading music, and in fact have had some horrible mishaps in which I've lost downloaded music into some electronic black hole, so I will probably be the last person on earth to continue buying CDs.

Once I have a chance to give it a proper listen with pen and paper in hand, I'll bore all of you with a little review in this blog.  I like what I heard when I played it earlier today, but it was more background noise as I was busy doing other things around the house.

Oh yeah, not only did I finish reading the Damien Echols book, but I finally finished the Dan Wakefield book I mentioned earlier. What a fun read that was. I'd characterize it more as a "guy book", as the two protagonists are young ex-GIs trying to navigate their way through sex, love, relationships, crazy conservative parents, and more sex. This is not to say women wouldn't enjoy the book, but I think men would certainly relate to it more--and some women may be turned off by these guys's absurd and naive attitudes towards women. (But keep in mind that this book takes place in 1954).

Damien Echols' Life after Death, and the West Memphis 3

I finished reading a great book called Life after Death by Damien Echols. For anyone who doesn't already know, Echols was one of the "West Memphis 3," a trio of teenagers who were wrongfully tried and convicted for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in Arkansas back in 1993. Echols spent 18 years on death row, while the other two, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., were serving life sentences. Last year, the three guys, now in their mid-30s, were finally released from prison when they agreed to an Alford plea. The completely bizarre Alford plea essentially allowed the three men to acknowledge that the State of Arkansas has enough evidence to convict them while still maintaining their plea of innocence--and this allowed them to be released from prison. Makes no sense, right? Essentially, it allows the State of Arkansas to cover its own ass, because if the WM3 went to trial again, they would be found not guilty and would be able to sue the state for millions of dollars in damages. The case against Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley is flimsy at best.

If it sounds like I have become obsessed with the WM3 lately, I have. I don't want to go into too many specifics of the case. For that, I highly recommend the three Paradise Lost documentaries (the original Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its two follow-ups). I have actually only seen the first and the third docs. I would be remiss if I didn't warn my readers that these documentaries are extremely disturbing and graphic, with crime scene footage of the victims (thankfully, only a few minutes in the beginning of each documentary) As someone with two young sons, this was difficult viewing. The documentaries, though, are thoroughly compelling and definitely worth seeing.

Your next question might be: why the fascination with these guys? First of all, I suppose I am flummoxed at what an absolutely botched investigation this was, and how these three guys were basically sent up the river because of some bogus claim that they were part of a satanic cult, when the reality seems to be that they were just three teenage metal heads with some interest in wearing dark clothes and reading about the occult. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley remind me a lot of kids I knew in school in Michigan's Thumb region. They were three boys who grew up poor, living in trailer parks with dysfunctional families, and with interests that diverged from the conservative folk who were in the majority. These guys could have very easily been with the crew of metal heads and "burnouts" at Caro High School. I feel that I know these guys, or at least dudes very similar to them.

Echols' story is incredible. I'm amazed at how this guy was able to, at least from all outward appearances, grow intellectually and spiritually in the most hellish environment imaginable. While in prison, he read voluminously, became a Buddhist, and became a writer and visual artist. There are still some people who are not convinced of his innocence in these murders, and I suppose it has to do with his personality and how he carries himself. He seems to be, by nature, an introspective and slightly aloof man. This has most likely worked to Echols' detriment, both during the trial, when he seemed to many people to be a cocky, preening, self-absorbed, and just plain weird kid (and certainly weird enough to kill three children). Even now he is criticized in some circles for acting aloof or unfeeling (particularly around his wife, whom he met and married while in prison). This is probably just his personality, and most likely what happens to a person when he's been eternally shafted by the authorities. Echols may feel the need to be constantly vigilent and always watching his back. After all he's been through, who can blame him?

The man is a damned good writer though, and I was absorbed by his stories of prison life and of his dark and largely unhappy childhood.

I can't imagine how a man makes the transition from spending his entire adult life in a 9' x 12' concrete box with a probable execution looming in the future--to suddenly being free (and in Echols' case, whisked away to New York City hobnobbing with the likes of Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder, and Johnny Depp). It seems that one would inevitably suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I wonder if Echols has dreams that he is still in prison and either wakes up in a cold sweat or screaming. In addition, he has to learn not only how to function in the modern world of computers and smartphones, but how to be an adult. He has never had to pay bills, balance a checkbook, make appointments, drive a car, book a hotel room, grocery shop, or any of the other myriad tasks (both mundane and important) that an adult performs in daily life. I assume that his wife is helping him make this transition, and I hope that he and his wife can make their marriage work now that they are together and he is no longer in prison.

I have to admit that, though I do not believe that Misskelley or Baldwin were involved in the murders, I'm about 99% convinced with Echols. It seems that he was quite disturbed as a teenager, and there is something about his demeanor that seemed a little odd then and still does to a certain extent now. Perhaps my extremely tiny shred of doubt comes simply from watching too many movies in which a smart, cunning suspect has convinced the gullible authorities and public that he is innocent, but is later revealed to have pulled the wool over everyone's eyes and truly is guilty. However, it is always ill-advised to let someone's outward demeanor, rather than the facts at hand, determine whether you think he or she is guilty or innocent.

There are still three boys whose lives were taken from them far too early, and whose murders remain unsolved. I hope that someday the truth will come out and the true perpetrators will be brought to justice.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Greetings for a stranger

Hi folks, I'm still alive. I know I've said it before, but it seems as though I never make it to a computer long enough to write a blog post (except when I'm at work, and I'm not allowed to blog at work--for obvious reasons).

So what's new with me you ask? I've been reading quite a bit lately, for one thing. While on vacation, I picked up an old book called Going All the Way by Dan Wakefield. It's a coming-of-age story (bildungsroman, if you will) that takes place in 1950s Indianapolis. The book has been a pleasant surprise and well worth the $3.50 I spent on it at the used book shop in Munising, Michigan.

The used book shop in Munising is this place:

Falling Rock Cafe, Munising

Great food, good coffee, and used (and some new) books. It replaces the dearly departed 84 Charing Cross, which was the previous book shop in Munising that closed back in about 1999 or 2000. So if you are passing through the upper peninsula, or plan on going on the Pictured Rocks tour, but also are a book worm, make a point to stop in Falling Rock Cafe.

I shouldn't be too surprised that I like the Wakefield book, because I also liked another book he wrote called New York in the Fifties, which was a memoir about (drum roll please)....New York in the fifties. I wouldn't say that Wakefield is a beautiful stylist like, say, John Updike, but he does have a dry wit and tells a good story.

In other news, October 2 is the release date for The Tragically Hip's new album, Now For Plan A. As I may have mentioned before, I love this band. They have been together since 1983 and have been recording since 1987, but sadly I didn't discover their music until 2006--and it was practically love at first listen. The Hip have been a Canadian institution for decades, but have a mere cult following in the States and everywhere else in the world. This is probably due to their lyrics being, for the most part, specific to Canada and lost in translation everywhere else. That's not to say that ALL of their lyrics are "Canadian" (lyricist Gord Downie tackles plenty of other subjects too, but he's probably best when he touches on elements of the Canadian experience). Gord also has a very impressionistic and stream-of-consciousness bent, and that probably limits the band's accessibility. Oh, and Gord's singing is idiosyncratic and definitely an acquired taste. So I guess that probably explains why the band has never broken big in the States.

I have been writing most of the morning: here and on my MSU sports blog, so I need to wrap it up and get on with life. More later...

Monday, September 3, 2012

(I started this blog post on August 21, did not finish it before I went on vacation, came back to it after vacation, and just ran out of steam. Here it is, warts and all--and it has plenty of warts):

I'm off for a five-day camping vacation in the Upper Peninsula, and will be on the road starting tomorrow morning. I've wanted to post in here for a while, so here goes. Better to do it now before I'm off the grid for almost a week.

I'm just going to let it fly and not worry too much about grammar, spelling, linear thought, paragraph construction, or the like. Just write like I did back when I was 21 and lamely and unsuccessfully ripping off Jack Kerouac. (Doesn't almost every American male go through a Kerouac phase? And if you don't go through a Kerouac phase, you go through a Jim Morrison phase at about the same time or maybe younger. In any case, it was a  rite of passage for every sensitive, English-major-ish guy back in the '80s, probably not so much anymore).

Anyway, we're trying to get stuff ready for the trip and I'm sure my wife, L., is doing a much better job than I am.  She's a hell of a lot better at the organizational stuff me--he said as he farted around posting in his blog. (I refer to her as L. because I can't remember if I have used her full name in here before and if I have not, I want her to be able to have at least some anonymity and plausible denial).

Well, I had all these wonderful topics I was gonna write about, but I seem to have forgotten all of them.  Let me see if I can jar my memory. Okay, I thought of one...

Everyday at work, I try and take at least two walks through downtown Lansing. Since my job requires me to sit for eight hours and stare at a computer screen, I have to get up and walk vigorously for both physical and mental exercise. The best aspect of walking through the city is that I ALWAYS see something interesting--either a demonstration or event at the State Capitol, an interesting or odd person, or even something as mundane as a cool car parked on the street. In this case, it was an interesting and odd person. Here's the story:

So I'm walking up South Washington and about half-a-block in front of me I see a young woman, maybe 20 years old, roller-blading towards me. Now ordinarily, someone on roller blades would be wearing athletic gear or at least shorts, but not this young woman. She is wearing a long, denim skirt that is only about an inch above her ankles, if that. Her hair appears to be tied back and she is wearing some sort of white shirt/blouse type thing. I couldn't tell if she was a Deadhead hippie girl, or Amish, or Mennonite. Anyway, as she is blading across the intersection of Washington and Washtenaw, she trips and very nearly falls in the street, but catches her balance at the last second and averts disaster. She is so close to getting a faceful of black asphalt, that I prepare myself to dial 911 on my cell phone just in case of a major accident.  I continue on my walk, which is a circuit from Washington, to Michigan Ave., to Capitol Avenue and back to work.  While I am walking on Capitol, I cross paths with the hippie/Amish girl again, wobbling along on her roller blades. I have no idea where she is going. Does she actually have a destination in mind? or is she just rollerblading in a circle? I have no idea where I'm going with this story, but it's just an example of the unusual sighting I have on my daily walks.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mark's Surgery Month

I feel bad that I have not posted since early June, and am in danger of going "0 for July", so let me just update you on what I've been up to, since I'm sure you're all dying to know.

July was, quite unintentionally, "Mark's Surgery Month", or "Mark's Hernia Month".  In late June, I went in for my annual physical, and my doctor discovered a hernia.  On her recommendation, I went to a specialist and he recommended--or more accurately, commanded--surgery.  So on July 17, I had the hernia repaired.   I had never been under general anesthesia before, so I was nervous beforehand, but it really was a piece of cake.  I remember absolutely nothing about the surgery: one minute I was pulling myself from the gurney to the operating table, and what felt like two seconds later, I was waking up in recovery.  The whole thing has made we wonder about the nature of time. Does time really exist or is it merely a human construct. It's like the whole "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" conundrum.  If a human is not conscious to witness/experience time, does it really exist?

Well, the existence of time notwithstanding, the surgery was pretty easy, and it was back home to recover.  My wife took great care of me, and I had great pain meds to dull my sore abdomen.  The first few days were uncomfortable, but I improved a little bit with each passing day and right now, I feel just about normal.

It was great having a full week off work. I re-read The Great Gatsby, which continues to reveal new insights and beauty for me each time I read it--and I have read it about five times now, beginning when I was 13 years old back in 1981.  (Back then, I thought Gatsby was about as cool as a protagonist could be.  Now, I see him as a tragic and somewhat pathetic figure). Besides reading, I wrote quite a bit in my actual writing journal, and finished building a paper model of the RMS Titanic (for my younger son).  Oh yeah, I also watched a little TV (mainly Netflix streaming).  All in all, a relaxing sick leave. Maybe I should have hernias more often.

It's late now, so I had better get to bed.  Now that I'm back at work, my alarm goes off at 5:40 AM.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Jacob G. Revels: Portland, Michigan's "colored barber" (and inventor)

Jacob G. Revels

Jacob G. Revels (1863-1944) is one of the many people I profiled in my book, The Portland Area, 1869-1939. Along with Pedro Pratt, previously discussed in an earlier Brainsplotch blog post, Revels was one of a handful of African-Americans to live in Portland, Michigan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I guess for this reason, he became of special interest to me.  Okay, not just "of  special interest"--who am I kidding?  I became completely fascinated with Jacob Revels. The first time I ever saw the above portrait of Revels, in the 1969 centennial history of Portland, the questions flooded my brain. How did this man end up in, of all places, Portland, Michigan?  What led him to Portland? What was it like to be one of the only black people in a rural Michigan village only a few decades after the end of the Civil War?  Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to answer these questions, but it hasn't stopped me from trying to learn more about the man known in Portland as "the colored barber."

Revels was born in October 1863, most likely in Essex, Maidstone Township, Ontario; so it might be more accurate to describe him as "African-American/Canadian." According to the 1871 Canadian census, his father and mother were born in the United States and arrived in Canada at least by 1860, the year in which Jacob's eldest sister Mary was born.  Jacob was the third oldest overall, and only son, in a family of seven children.  At the time of his birth, Jacob's father Absalom was about 48 years-old and his mother Elmeda only 22. (The 1900 census record for Absalom indicates that he was born in Alabama, and though I have never found U.S. census records for Elmeda, Jacob reported his mother as having been born in Virginia).

What I found particularly noteworthy about the 1871 Canadian census was that, of the two pages I saw, four of the ten households had "African" listed as national origin.  Putting two and two together, it seemed safe to assume that these families probably arrived there via the Underground Railroad, and that this was a friendly place for those of African descent to settle.  Further web-based research led to information about a plague erected in 2007 by the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Lakeshore Black Heritage Committee. The plaque commemorates the Refugee Home Society, an abolitionist organization that, beginning in 1852, helped escaped slaves establish homesteads in Essex County, Ontario--the southern-most county in the province, directly across from Detroit.  It seems highly likely that this abolitionist society helped the Revels family.  Of course, I will have to do further digging to prove this conclusively.

(Here is a link to information regarding the Refugee Home Society and their efforts to help escaped slaves. It's fascinating to read):

Henry Bibb (1815-1854), abolitionist and administrator of the Refugee Home Society

According the U.S. Census, Jacob Revels emigrated to the United States in 1878 (at age 14 or 15), presumably with his father, Absalom.  I don't know if he immediately came to Portland at this point, or if he lived elsewhere in Michigan (or even in another state, though that doesn't seem likely).  I have no idea why he came to the United States, though in the aforementioned document about the Refugee Home Society, "settlers could sell or transfer their land free of restrictions at the end of 15 years", or ownership of the land may have been transferred by Absalom to one of his daughters.  All of this is speculation on my part, and I'm just going to have to do more research to find the answers.

By 1893, Jacob Revels was in Portland, because that was the year he established his barber shop, or at least began working as a barber.  In the October 16, 1900 issue of the Portland Review & Observer, it was reported that "Jacob Revels (Portland barber) was notified last week of the death of his father, Absolem (sic) REVELS, who was born in slavery. He was about 95 (sic) and lived at Owosso."  Besides getting his first name and age wrong, what the newspaper failed to mention was that Absalom Revels was, in fact, an "inmate" at the Owosso Poor Farm (aka, the Shiawassee County Poor House) in Caledonia Township.

Upon discovering this information about the unfortunate end of Absalom Revels, I pondered more questions. Why did Jacob's father end up in the poor farm? Was this because nursing homes did not exist in 1900? Did Jacob not have the time or resources to have his father live with him in Portland? Was Absalom too infirm for Jacob to care for himself? I wonder if Jacob felt a twinge of guilt or remorse learning that his father had died alone, with no family members by his side, in the poor house? I don't know if I'll ever have those answers.

(As an aside, it appears that Jacob Revels spent most of his life as a single man, and never had children. Based on information from the U.S. Census, it appears that he may have been married briefly, but I have not been able to find any information about who this woman may have been.  In his 1944 obituary, the only survivors mentioned are "a sister in the east.").

This brings me to the most interesting aspect of Jacob's life: his career as an inventor. On August 25, 1904, Revels filed an application for a patent for an invention that "relates generally to casters, and particularly to one adapted for temporary attachment to heavy articles of furniture or the like to facilitate their movement." Patent no. 801,742 for the caster invention was granted to J.G. Revels on October 10, 1905. A few years later, on November 28, 1908, Revels submitted a second patent application for an "envelop opener". Revels wrote, "My invention has to do with stationery and more particularly to the opening of envelops and the like; and it seeks the provision of a simple compact and inexpensive device through the medium of which envelops and analogous devices may be expeditiously and easily opened." On February 14, 1911, patent no. 984,299 was granted for Revels' "envelop[e] opener." Not bad for a man who, as far as I have been able to determine, had very little formal education.

Jacob Revel's caster patent

Jacob Revel's envelope opener patent

I don't know if Revels continued to try his hand at inventions (though it would not surprise me a bit if he did), but I do know that he continued his work as a barber until well into the 1930s.

In the January 6, 1944 issue of the Portland Observer, it was reported that "Jake Revels, known for many years as 'the colored barber,' died Sunday [January 2] at the Ionia County home, where he had resided for the last couple of years...Jake used to tell of the fact that his father had been a slave and that he was born in slavery." Unfortunately, the obituary made no mention of Jacob Revels' possession of two U.S. patents.

I'm amazed at Jacob Revels' accomplishments at a time when it was difficult for Blacks to make their way in America.  Here's a man who left his home country at the age of 14/15 and carved out a niche for himself in a predominantly white community.  I get the impression that he was an inveterate tinkerer and a man fascinated with mechanics and how things work. Clearly, he dedicated himself to making improvements to make life more efficient, while he made a living and payed the bills by working as a barber.

I will continue to be interested in Jacob Revels' life.  There are still many questions I have that remain unanswered, and I'll do my best to reveal the answers.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Farewell, Levon Helm and Adam (MCA) Yauch

Levon Helm (1940-2012)

Within the last few weeks, we've lost two musical treasures, and two guys I have admired for many years, Levon Helm and Adam (MCA) Yauch.  Both men died of cancer: Levon at age 72 and MCA at the ridiculously young age of 47.  The loss of these two great musicians has led me to dig out their discographies--thankfully I have a lot of their stuff--and listen to their music with fresh ears and also consider my personal relationship with their respective musical groups, the Band (Levon) and the Beastie Boys (MCA).

My parents had copies of the Band's self-titled "Brown Album" and Stage Fright.  I have memories of hearing the Band when I was a kid and just not getting it.  It just wasn't music that had any impact on me as a youth.  Plus, the five guys glowering on the cover of the "Brown Album", unsmiling and with big beards, just looked mean and scary (except, perhaps, for Garth Hudson. He could have passed for Santa Claus's younger brother).  It wasn't until the early nineties, when I was getting heavily into Bob Dylan and learning more about Zimmy's relationship with the Band, that I dug out my parents' old albums and truly heard their music for the first time.  I finally got it.  The rustic earthiness of their music finally made sense to my maturing musical sensibilities.  I quickly snatched up CD's of "The Brown Album", Music from Big Pink, Stage Fright, and several others.  I can still remember finding Music from Big Pink at Harmony House in Okemos (yet another record store that has died in the dwindling landscape of brick-and-mortar record shops) and being simultaneously blown away and mesmerized by it.

Adam (MCA) Yauch (1964-2012)

I was a freshman at Michigan State when the Beastie Boys burst upon the scene in late 1986.  My first impression of them was that they were louts: obnoxious, bratty white boys riding the coattails of the burgeoning rap scene.  Yet, there was an undeniable catchiness and fun to tunes like "Fight for Your Right" and "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn".  I wonder how much of my early opinion of the Beastie Boys was pressed upon me by my peers. I remember studying at the MSU Union on a Sunday during finals week, December 1986.  One of the older guys on my dorm room floor swung by the Union to pick up and take me to dinner. The tune on his car radio was "Fight for Your Right" and I was really getting into it, probably due in large part to a stressful afternoon of studying.  He turned and looked at me with a look of disapproval.  I shouldn't have bowed to the peer pressure, but when you're eighteen and an older guy--one whose approval you seek--does that, it can make an impression.  I now feel bad for letting someone else's opinion sway me, but so it goes.

The music of the Beasties made an absolutely indelible impression on me a few months later in about May of 1987.  A friend of mine, Bill, had somehow hooked up with a gaggle of high school senior girls who lived in the toney suburbs of Detroit (West Bloomfield, if I remember correctly).  It was a bright, warm spring Friday afternoon and Bill was looking for someone to tag along with him with these girls down to West Bloomfield to party at one of their houses.  Looking for some adventure, and with nothing else to do, I decided to join them and Bill and I soon became bemused passengers among two or three of the most free-spirited girls I'd ever met.  The girl driving took the speed limit as a mere suggestion, and blasted Licensed to Ill the entire way to the Detroit 'burbs.  It was "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn" and "Brass Monkey" at high decibels, with the girls gleefully singing at the top of their lungs, all the way down I-96.  This hedonistic, celebratory, and just flat-out fun music was the perfect soundtrack for this road trip. It's one of those mental snapshots that is permanently filed away in my brain.  To this day, I can't hear Licensed to Ill without thinking of that crazy Friday afternoon on the road.  (For what it's worth, the weekend did not turn out to be too terribly decadent--perhaps I'll elaborate further in a future post).

In 1989, the Beastie Boys released the seminal Paul's Boutique, but I was oblivious, as I was when Check your Head came out in 1992.  I incorrectly dismissed the Beastie Boys as one-hit wonders and had no idea that they were creating their best work--and had matured in the process.  I don't think it was until Ill Communication and the amazing "Sabotage" song and video that I decided to look back at what I'd missed.  I quickly picked up every Beasties album and took it all in pretty quickly.  I found it remarkable how much the guys had changed from the snotty buffoons of 1986, none more than Adam Yauch, who discovered Buddhism, apologized publicly for his youthful misogyny, and did so much to publicize the plight of Tibet.

On the surface, Levon Helm and Adam Yauch had little in common.  They were from different generations, completely different backgrounds, and played much different styles of music.  But there are a least a few things they have in common: first of all, they were deeply influenced in their youth by African-American music (Levon--the blues of the rural South; Yauch--the hip-hop scene in New York). Secondly, they were arguably the heart and soul of their respective bands.  When Levon sang, you came away with the impression that he lived these lyrics--he'd seen it all.  This also comes across in his appearance in The Last Waltz documentary.  I've always felt that Levon was the real star of that film.  Robbie Robertson tried hard to come across as the world weary traveler, but he wasn't entirely successful--he seemed to be acting to a certain extent.  With his colorful description of F.S. Walcott's Rabbit Foot Minstrels, the traveling musicians of his youth in Arkansas, to the effortless and completely smooth way he lit Robbie's cigarette in one of the interview segments, Levon had an air of authority unmatched by anyone else in the Band.  Levon's simultaneously soulful and country vocals, sung in a Southern drawl, stood out from the singing of fellow Band-mates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel.  The same can be said for Yauch, whose gravelly voice stood out among the high-pitched, nasally wails of his comrades Adam (Ad-Rock) Horovitz and Mike (Mike D) Diamond.  As one writer somewhere has already stated (I read this somewhere and I'm paraphrasing), Yauch's deep growl made him seem older and more mature than the other two Beasties.

In conclusion, I found one actual concrete connection between the Band and the Beastie Boys. On "High Plains Drifter" from Paul's Boutique, the Beasties actually make reference to the Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" with the lyric, "I bet on one horse to show and another to win/and sure enough that nag came in".  (The actual Band lyric is "She bet on one horse to win and I bet on another to show/The odds were in my favor, I had 'em five to one/And when that nag to win came around the track/Sure enough she had won".

So, so long Levon and Adam. You will be sorely missed but your musical legacy will live on.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bargain Bin Finds #2: The Edgar Winter Group--They Only Come Out at Night

Way back on November 29, 2009, I published the first installment of "Bargain Bin Finds".  It was intended to be the first in a long series of record reviews in which I philosophized and pontificated about whatever cool record or CD I found somewhere on the cheap.  Though I've periodically intended on finally publishing #2 in the series, it never actually came to pass.  Well, you need not wait anymore, because at long last I bring to you a brand new "Bargain Bin Finds".

Several weeks ago, my 10-year-old and I were at Schuler Books & Music (a place with which, if you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I have a long and close association--and absolutely adore).  Of course, the second we walk past the bargain CDs, I was like a moth to flame.  I spied The Edgar Winter Group's They Only Come Out at Night and my son saw it and immediately exclaimed with horror, "That's creepy!"--which I found funny because it's exactly the reaction I had when I first saw the album cover way back in the late '70s.  I was at my next door neighbor's house and happened to see some of what could have only been his older brother's LPs in a stack on the living room floor.  As I recall, and memories can be faulty, They Only Come Out at Night was in the front of the stack.  It had to have been, because forever imprinted in my brain is the sight of the ghostly pale guy (Edgar Winter is an albino, in case it wasn't obvious) with bright red lipstick, long white hair flowing behind him, seemingly gliding across the album jacket like a vampire who "only comes out at night." (The album title may also be a sly reference to what the public at large think, or thought, about albinos).  How could anyone possibly forget that album cover? Though I didn't actually verbalize it back then like my son did in the store, I'm sure I was thinking, "that's creepy!"

So after we both looked at the CD, we placed it back in the bin and I bought what I came there for in the first place (a birthday present and card, in case you're interested). But over the next few days, the music nerd in me kept thinking about that disc: that strange cover that had haunted me since I was a kid, the two hit songs on the record that I knew from classic rock radio ("Free Ride" and the instrumental "Frankenstein"), the fact that the album had always been mysterious to me, and most importantly--the nice price of five bucks. I eventually broke down, returned to Schuler hoping that the disc was still there.  Sure enough, it was...and now it's mine.  (By the way, I will probably be the last person on Earth to buy CDs, but that will have to be the topic for another blog entry).

We've all heard the old expression, "You can't judge a book by it's cover", and seldom has a tired old cliche been more true than with They Only Come Out at Night.  At first glance, one would guess that this was a dark, proto-goth metal album in the same vein as Black Sabbath, but in fact the record is the quintessential '70s party album (which is why my neighbor's teenaged older brother liked it). Sure it rocks mightily, but it's certainly not metal.

The record kicks off with "Hangin' Around", a Mott the Hoople-ish good time tune with chugging guitars, and appropriately celebratory lyrics about the joys of slacking off, "Drivin' along with my radio on feelin' good/Ain't got no lady but maybe thinkin' I could/I slept all day nothing to do...I'm just hangin' around".  It could easily be the theme song for David Wooderson, Matthew McConaughey's character in Dazed and Confused.  If I'm not reading too much into the song--and I probably am--it captures the hangover and malaise of post-sixties America.

A delectable drum beat ushers in the second tune, "When It Comes", featuring blistering bluesy guitar licks and a great sax solo.  It needs to be mentioned that the late great Ronnie Montrose and Rick Derringer both play guitar on this album (as well as Dan Hartman, who went on to have a huge solo hit in the '80s, "I Can Dream About You").  I don't know enough about the Edgar Winter Group to tell precisely who plays what on each song, but the guitar playing is excellent throughout this entire record, and from what I've gathered through some internet research, it's Ronnie Montrose providing the wicked slide guitar on "When It Comes".

The next song, "Alta Mira", finds the group delving into uptempo Latin-flavored pop.  It's a little like a Santana song chopped in half with all the hard edges rounded off.  Perfectly pleasant, but not much else.  It doesn't matter too much though, because the next song is The Big Hit, "Free Ride". Deconstructing this song, it's not difficult to see why it was such a smash--it's impeccably arranged and played, with wonderful guitar interplay and a smokin' solo, along with a cool breakdown after the solo with swooshing keyboard sound.  The whole thing is topped off with a Sly and the Family Stone-like coda.  "Free Ride" is a song that has been played so often on classic rock radio and beer commercials that it's hard to listen to with fresh ears.  However, if you can find a way to do so, you'll find a tune that is tremendous fun and deserved to be a hit.

At this point, the album hits its one big Spinal Tap-like moment with "Undercover Man", salvaged only by another smoking guitar solo.  This, and "Rock 'n' Roll Boogie Woogie Blues", are the only true clinkers on the record.  The remainder of the album is good-to-excellent: "Round and Round" has a definite Gram Parsons country-rock feel, with a yearning tenor vocal, jangly guitars with pedal steel coloring from Rick Derringer.  The Dan Hartman-penned "Autumn" is a gentle lost-love lament with a shimmering acoustic guitar accompaniment.  "We All Had a Real Good Time" is a song that I was convinced had to have been written by Ronnie Lane and Rod Stewart, as it sounds so much like the Faces.  I even checked the track listings of my my Faces albums just to double-check. As it turns out, the Faces had a similarly titled song "Had Me a Real Good Time" on 1971's Long Player, but "We All Had a Real Good Time" was written by Edgar Winter and Dan Hartman.  Anyway, despite being highly derivative of the Faces, "We Had a Real Good Time", a real good time.

If "Free Ride" was The Big Hit on this album, the album-closing instrumental "Frankenstein" must be classified as The Colossal Hit. "Free Ride" peaked at #14 on the Billboard charts while "Frankenstein" made it all the way to number one in May 1973. This is keyboardist Edgar Winter's showcase, and though it may be complete '70s rock excess, that doesn't stop it from being a jam, and a hell of a lot of fun.  Edgar provides a monstrous (no pun intended) electric keyboard riff and a jazzy sax solo, drummer Chuck Ruff gets a chance to shine, and Edgar returns with a spooky sci-fi psychedelic synthesizer interlude, and it all adds up to a hard-rocking instrumental roller coaster ride.  Oddly enough, "Frankenstein" was originally the B-side of "Hangin' Around", but Epic Records reversed them at the insistence of disc jockeys, who had been inundated with requests for "Frankenstein".

The Only Come Out at Night is a compendium of early '70s rock styles, with shades of country rock, blues, spacey jams, and boogie rock, along with some late '60s psychedelic carryover.  It's an album with some excellent playing and with songs that say what they have to say and don't waste time doing it. Unfortunately, this album seems to be the high water mark, at least commercially, for Edgar Winter. This is the only album by Edgar Winter that I I've ever heard, so I really can't speak for the rest of his career.  And while contemporary albums such as Exile on Main St. and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars have transcended the early '70s and are still highly regarded today, They Only Come  Out at Night seems pretty well trapped in 1972, as does poor Edgar himself.  These days, he's doing self-mocking cameos on cell phone commercials. All of this is too bad because They Only Come Out at Night is a good record that, for the most part, holds up fairly well today.  And I've got to say that the album cover doesn't seem that creepy to me anymore.

Here are some YouTube clips of "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride":

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Mad Men" starting in less than an hour...and other stuff

Hi folks!  How are you all doing?

Sorry it's been awhile since I've written in here.  I've been consumed with March Madness lately, and have now just resurfaced after my guys, the MSU Spartans, bowed out of the tournament.

So what's new with me, you ask?  Well, I'm looking forward to the start of one of my favorite TV shows, Mad Men, which finally starts its new season at 9:00 PM.  It's been a long wait for the new season, so I am excited.

I'm still plugging along on my "Bargain Bin Finds" post.  I thought I'd get it done earlier, but it's turned into a monster.  I worked on it a bit today and hope to get it out there within the next week--but we'll see how that goes.

Next week is Spring Break, and we've decided to take the kids to North Carolina, where we'll be spending time in Asheville and then driving across the state towards Durham and Chapel Hill.  I had hoped to make it all the way over to Kitty Hawk, but don't think that's going to happen.  I'm hoping to have my picture taken in front of Cameron Indoor Stadium while decked out in MSU gear.

Well, gotta run.  I'll catch you later.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

My early "music criticism", 1986-style

As I was rummaging through some old college notebooks, I excavated this archaeological find, ca. 1986. It's a list of music videos I'd seen on what was probably one of the first episodes of MTV's 120 Minutes.  This was the time that, as a college freshman, I was discovering what was then referred to as "college music".  I can distinctly remember being home from Michigan State, perhaps for either Thanksgiving or Christmas break '86, and staying up late in my parent's den watching this particular music video program, all the while feverishly writing down my (now) laughable observations.  Many of the bands on this particular program are artifacts of the '80s, and are now simply footnotes in musical history.

Unfortunately, I only wrote down the artists' names, and not the song titles (with the exception of New Model Army's "51st State").  Maybe I only had time to write the artist name and didn't bother with the song title--I don't remember.  I also used a grading system from 1-10 for each tune. Apparently, I was a tough critic because none of the artists received a "10"--not even my then-beloved General Public.

Here is the list, and if anyone can do some "History Detectives"-level research and tell me what show this track list is from, I'd appreciate it.  Meanwhile, I'll keep digging on my end.  Try not to laugh too loud at my vague and not particularly deep analysis.

1. They Might be Called Giants [sic] Lead singer has an interesting voice. Nice accordion. 6

2. Hunters and Collectors Decent. 5

3. The Dead Milkmen Decent guitars, weird voices, funny but stupid lyrics. 6

4. The Lucy Show Very British sounding voices, nice beat, non-synth, respectable guitars. 7

5. Crowded House Good bass, twangy guitars, soulful screaming lead vocals. 6

6. Dumptruck Guitar-based, the "Texas R.E.M.", excellent bass. 8

7. Angst  Monotone lead vocal, guitar annoying in some parts. 5

8. New Model Army British. Song about missiles in Britain. "51st State". Angry. 7

9. The Bolshoi Very good. 8

10. New Order Good synth, nice song. 8

11. Depeche Mode Not bad, typical DM synth overload. 6

12. General Public Already have the album. These guys are great. 9

13. Love and Rockets Average. 5

Okay, where to start?  First of all, I have no idea what I meant by "decent guitars", or why exactly Angst's guitar sound was "annoying".  Secondly, I get a chuckle over my assessment of They Might Be Giants' "nice accordion"--like I'm some sort of accordion connoisseur--and why only "nice"? Oh yeah, nice whiff on the band name, too. It's hard to imagine Crowded House as having "screaming" vocals, and I'm trying to think of what song it could have possibly been.  I suppose it was probably "Don't Dream it's Over" and, if anything, Neil Finn croons on that song rather than screams.

I don't know why I wrote that Dumptruck was the "Texas R.E.M.", as Wikipedia informs me that they were from Boston, Massachusetts.  However, they do have an R.E.M. feel, as by the mid-eighties about half of all indie "college rock" bands were embarrassingly indebted to those guys from Athens, Georgia.

I find it funny, and just a little embarrassing, that the only band I rave about is General Public.  Based on my own Sherlock Holmes detective work, the GP song that was in rotation in late '86 was "Come Again" off of their second album, Hand to Mouth, (which I still own on vinyl but have not listened to in at least 15 years--the album quickly lost its luster, but I've never had the heart to get rid of it.  Maybe it's time to give it another listen).  Of all the bands in this list, General Public may be the most dated, though I did recently pick up their first album ...All the Rage on CD, and though it's certainly aged--lots of drum machines and synth--it's still a fun listen with good songwriting. (...All the Rage was found in my own personal Kryptonite, a CD bargain bin--though unlike Superman's relationship with Kryptonite, I don't try exceptionally hard to avoid CD bargain bins).

My intention when writing this list was most likely for future music purchasing, in my attempt to transform from small town hayseed to college hipster.  I could sort through some of the big hitters of "college rock" and decide what I did and did not like.  The days before the World Wide Web where all of this stuff would be accessible with the click of a few buttons--I kinda miss those days.  Of all the artists listed here, General Public, New Order, and Love and Rockets (who received one of my lowest rankings) are the only ones that ever ended up in my music collection, and my cassette copy of Love and Rockets' Earth Sun Moon bit the dust years ago. (For what it's worth, it's most likely that whatever L&R song that was played was from their first album Express).

Looking at the extant 120 Minutes playlists from late '86, these songs, by a few of the artists in my list, were in rotation in the latter half of that year.  Thanks to the wonder that is known as YouTube, I have posted videos for these songs.  You can judge for yourselves whether I was correct, or just an ill-informed 18-year-old, in my assessment of their value:

So, you might be wondering what I think of these songs now, or maybe you weren't wondering? Regardless, I'll let you know.  I've not swayed on my judgement of the Hunters and Collectors' tune, it's merely "decent".  "51st State" still holds up well as a bit of Billy Bragg-ish agitprop.  The Lucy Show is prototypical '80s jangle pop, and yes, they have "very British voices" (they were from London) and I judge their guitar sound as not just "respectable", but maybe actually "pretty good".  And, last but certainly not least, the General Public tune is more effervescent and bubbly than I remember it. It holds up better than expected.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hiya, cyberbuddies!

Hello, friends in cyberspace.  I'm here to let you know that I'm slaving away on a few posts that I hope will eventually see the light of day and be reasonably entertaining.

Right now, I am up far too late on Saturday night and really need to go to bed, so I'm going to say goodbye now.  Perhaps I will add more tomorrow.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Posting from my Droid

This is an experiment to see if I can post from my phone. It may be successful.

...and it was, though I made several typos that I have since corrected.

Friday, February 17, 2012

My sanity has returned and other musings

Okay folks, I don't know what the hell was up with yesterday's post, and I have no idea if it even made any sense.  That's what happens when one starts writing at 11:00(ish) PM after being up since 5:30 AM: one comes up with some bizarre, incoherent fever dream.  But it is what is (which is probably crap) and I'm going to leave it up anyway.

Here are some random observations from the world around me:

Our 17 year-old cat Shadow and one year-old toy poodle Bodhi are an endless source of amusement.  They have a fascinating relationship, if it can even be referred to with that term.  Bodhi always wants to play, and tries to engage Shadow in playtime by feinting with him as if he, Bodhi, was a toreador.  Shadow usually sits still, swatting and hissing at Bodhi.  Shadow is completely fearless and usually gets in some good licks.  The cat has faster fists than Muhammad Ali had in his prime.  Bodhi thinks this hissing and swatting is wonderful, and the bigger rise he can get out of Shadow, the better.  Thankfully for Bodhi, Shadow is front declawed, so he can't inflict any serious damage.  The funniest part for me is how differently the two view each other, as there is a definite dog/cat "language barrier".  Bodhi thinks that Shadow is playing with him, when from Shadow's perspective he's merely trying to get the dog out of his face.

Now I don't want to give the impression that Shadow and Bodhi live in constant conflict (at least from Shadow's perspective).  Most of the time they coexist in close quarters with no incident.  It's only when Bodhi decides it's playtime, or Shadow decides he wants to eat Bodhi's food, that the fur starts to fly.  For example, at the very moment that I'm writing this, Bodhi is attempting to eat his dinner, but Shadow moves in when Bodhi is not looking.  Bodhi went on the offensive and chased Shadow away.  Shadow usually is relegated to the basement when it's Bodhi's dinnertime, but I haven't been able to get myself away from the computer to corral the old kitty.  As it turns out, Bodhi, in a rare display of anger, has chased Shadow away for the moment.

Did I mention that Top Gear is one of my favorite TV shows to watch with the kids?  It doesn't require an interest in cars because the show is just hilarious with its dry British wit.  Host Jeremy Clarkson comes across as the constantly put upon smart aleck with an uncanny ability to set various objects on fire.  His two sidekicks are Richard Hammond and James May.  Hammond, with his ever changing hairstyles, looks like an aging British pop star from the '90s,  he could have played bass for Blur or Oasis.  James May, on the other hand, looks like an aging '70s British rock star--like the least well known member of Pink Floyd.  The best parts of the show are the absurd challenges that are featured, such as all three having to buy an Italian sports car for under a predetermined amount of money and having to endure whatever wacky contests are assigned.

Another fun feature of Top Gear is "Celebrity in a Reasonably Priced Car", the title of which is probably self-explanatory.  A famous guest comes on the show and drives around the Top Gear test track as fast and skillfully as he or she can.  The results are often surprising and always fun.

For the readers who are unfamiliar with Top Gear, here's a taste:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Aimless(?) ramblings

It's funny to me that just a few days after I posted my "Grandparents' cars" post,  Josh Wilker, author of the blog Cardboard Gods (and the book of the same name) has a new post about the first rock concert he ever attended (AC/DC in 1979, if you're keeping score at home) in which he writes "...I think my generation, perhaps the most backward-looking generation yet to walk the earth, is the first blessed with ample concrete evidence and artifacts of what, in earlier times, would have been the utterly transient particulars of fleeting youthful experiences."  (Wilker, who is almost exactly my age, is one of the most perceptive and fluid writers around, and I have to admit I am supremely jealous of his talent).  The point he's making is that with the internet and all the far-flung and obscure information it contains, we Gen-Xers (who do seem inordinately obsessed with our youthful experiences) are able to double check and verify all of our ghostly memories.  I did this with my, in retrospect, excessively sentimental post about my grandparents' automotive transportation.  For example, I didn't remember that the '68 Polara had one single band of taillight(s) until I obsessively pored over Google images of various Polaras.

I've got to tell you that I don't even remember for sure if my grandpa's T-Bird was white or not.  Am I confusing it with the Polara, which I know for a fact was white (because I found some old family snapshots where the old car appeared in all of its muscular Mopar glory).

This leads me to the other part of Josh Wilker's statement.  Why does it seem that my generation seem to be so obsessed with our childhoods?  Are we, in fact, more nostalgic than that notoriously navel-gazing Baby Boom generation?  I know for a fact that the World War II generation were not backward-glancing in the least.  When you grow up with nothing during the Great Depression, and then have to turn around and fight a world war, you grow up fast and have neither the time nor the desire to wax poetic about your long lost youth.  My life has been considerably cushier, comfortable, and less eventful than my Grandpa N.'s, so it has afforded me the opportunity to remain in a state of (somewhat) arrested development.  Grandpa spent 1936-1940 looking for full-time employment, then served in the Army Air Force from 1942-1946.  As far as I know, it wasn't until my grandma died that he revisited his childhood by revisiting some of his old haunts in Iowa and Illinois.

Well, once again, I have no real idea where this post is going or the point of it is--but I'm sending it into cyberspace anyway and you can make of it what you will.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My grandparents' cars

1965 Pontiac Bonneville

1968 Dodge Polara

This may be interesting only to me but, hey, it's my blog--so nah, nah.  

In my previous post, I mentioned my grandparents' cars: the first two that I can remember, in any case.  Above is the 1965 Pontiac Bonneville (to the best of my recollection--and upon research, I've narrowed it to the '66 model), and the one featured in this vintage advertisement looks exactly as I remember my Grandma C.'s car.  Oh, how I loved that automobile.  I can distinctly remember the large steering wheel, which was sort of an opaque gold, almost like amber. One could almost see straight through the steering wheel.  And the chrome.  Both this Bonneville and my Grandpa N.'s '68 Polara (pictured below) had a fair share of chrome.  Though they were put of shame by the automobiles of the chrome-crazy '50s, these cars of the '60s had just enough to accentuate their streamlined bodies and interiors.

So why were my grandparents' cars so fascinating to me?  I suppose it's because I didn't see them every day, so they seemed a bit more magical--and, as I've mentioned before, I was a car-obsessed child anyway.

As a kid, I loved the single slender band of taillights that extended the entire width of the Polara and how it looked peering out of my grandparents' garage.  It was hypnotizing--and the times it was parked side-by-side with the T-Bird--even more so.  It's hard to put it into words, but cars had a power and character that seems missing in today's smaller, eco-friendly models--or maybe it's just my sense of nostalgia talking.

It was the architecture, geography, and design of the back side of the car, the way the shadows of the garage played off of the contours that mesmerized me.  Children seem much more attuned to small details, the minutiae of life that adults miss or simply don’t notice.  I notice this with my own children who can immediately tell the difference between a Toyota and a Nissan, where I am simply oblivious to the finer details.  In my nostalgic streak, I insist that it was the older cars that had more character, but maybe it’s actually just the grown-up in me who doesn’t have the time or ability to pay attention to details.

Here I am standing alongside my Grandma C.'s Bonneville, circa 1971.  We were on a trip to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins in the upper peninsula of Michigan.  This was close to the height of my young automotive obsession.  The era in which I memorized the appearance of every make of car, down to the details of their dashboards and windshield wipers.

This is a 1964 Ford Thunderbird, similar to the one my Grandpa N. had.  It was usually parked along the side street of their house in Trenton, Michigan.  I used to go to my grandparents' house and spend weekends when I was a kid.  At that time, my grandpa had a side business as an upholsterer in addition to his regular job at Mobil Oil.  Sometimes grandpa would have to go visit customers and he'd invariably take the T-Bird. I always went with him on these trips and wow, how I loved riding in that car.  Once again--the chrome.  Something about the contrast of the leather interior and the chrome, and all the cool little chrome levers and controls on the dash.  It just get into my young brain and enraptured me.  Am I being a little too dramatic?  Maybe it's just the nostalgia talking.

I've been working on this post off and on for quite some time and now it's just time to publish it.  As usual with some of these posts, I'm not quite sure where I was going with it, but definitely don't quite know how to finish it.  So I send it out to there and you can take what you want from it.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

I'm back...whether you like it or not

Hi folks, just checking in while I have a few minutes (or so I think...we shall see).

In an earlier post, I mentioned that, on Martin Luther King Day, we'd be going to the North American International Auto Show.  (Nothing honors Dr. King's legacy more than slobbering over new cars, eh?).  As it turns out, that trip was delayed until Saturday the 21st.  Half of the adventure was just getting to Cobo Center in Detroit.  We had trouble with our van's windshield washer that required us to pull over and fix it.  Then, as we were approaching Detroit via the Lodge Freeway, we were diverted off the freeway because of a car accident.  So all told, it probably took us an additional hour-and-a-half to get to Cobo Center. The auto show itself was insane--incredibly crowded.  It was fun to see all of the different cars from practically every auto manufacturer, foreign and domestic, you can imagine; but I dared not take my eyes off either one of my kids for more than a few seconds in the fear they'd be lost in the sea of people.

It's interesting how having kids will rekindle latent interests in certain subjects.  As a child, I loved cars.  I memorized the look of every car I saw way back in the early 1970s, and could easily tell the difference between different makes of Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler, and you name it.  (I was more interested in domestic makes than foreign automobiles, since one didn't see that many foreign cars back in the early '70s).  I remember clearly my parents and grandparents cars like some people might remember pet dogs or cats from their childhood.  My maternal grandma has a sparkly gold 1965 Pontiac Bonneville and my paternal grandparents had a white 1968 Dodge Polara; my grandpa also tooled around in a beautiful white 1964 Ford Thunderbird with black interior.  I was heartbroken when he sold that car.

My two sons are now both car freaks.  Together we watch episodes of the wonderful British automotive television program Top Gear.  My youngest son is mainly obsessed with Italian performance cars such as Lamborghini and Pagani.  My eldest son is a little more into domestic muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger and Charger.  I have really enjoyed being a part of their wide-eyed fascination with the automotive world, and it has re-opened a personal interest that I thought had long ago had permanently ended (or at least placed on the backburner).


Finally finished Keith Richards' autobiography, Life.  It's hard to summarize the entire book, but some of Keith's observations were interesting and or fascinating.  Brian Jones comes across as a whining, needy, attention-seeking hypochondriac.  (The book has a long, fascinating--for Stones nuts like myself--passage about Keith, Brian, and Anita Pallenberg's trip to Morocco in 1967, and how Keith and Anita fell in love and left Morocco together in the dead of night, leaving Brian behind).  I also had no idea that Anita turned into a paranoid junky by the late '70s, but has thankfully cleaned up since.  Keith's relationship with Mick Jagger is much more complicated.  I suppose it would have to be when you consider that the two guys have known each other, and have been inextricably linked, for almost their entire lives.  Mick is portrayed as a social-climber, a bit emotionally guarded, and often jealous of Keith's other friendships (particularly the close bond that existed between Keith and Gram Parsons in the early '70s).  At the same time, Keith marvels at Mick's talent, and is dismayed that Mick has often doubted his own abilities.  This came as a surprise to me, as I never would have taken Mick Jagger as someone with an ounce of self-doubt.  Overall, Life was a wonderful read, and a must for any Stones fan.

(If you are a Rolling Stones obsessive like myself, and are more interested in the creative process than the tabloid, personal, tell-all details, Keith does write at length about the creation of Beggars' Banquet and Exile on Main St.  Lots of interesting tidbits about Exile's creation at Nellcote in the south of France).

I've got to say that Keith Richards has been, since I was about 19 years old, a hero of mine.  With his kohl-eyed rock 'n' roll pirate persona, he's the guy I'd love to be but could never be because if I transformed into Keith Richards, I'd probably be dead within 24 hours.  There's no way I could live that life--well, maybe I could live Keith's current life, but if I was Keith pre-1978, I'd be dead in a day.  So it's probably better that I live vicariously through Keith by listening to his music and miming slashing open chord air guitar in the safety of my living room.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Random thoughts: Dentists, tattoos, and Wes Anderson

Random thoughts on a Thursday evening:

I had to go the dentist yesterday for my semi-annual cleaning.  I do not enjoy going to the dentist, but not for the reasons you might think.  I can take the poking and prodding of my mouth with steel utensils.  Sure, it's not what one would consider pleasant, but it really doesn't bother me that much.  The main reason I dislike going to the dentist is the inevitable "flossing lecture" I receive from my somewhat high-strung and dentally pious hygienist.  The thing is, I really do floss, just not the three times daily that she demands.  Is there anyone in the world, outside of dentists, who actually flosses three times daily?  If there is, I would really like to meet this person (or persons). Anyway, the semi-annual flossing lectures are annoying, to say the very least.  I feel like saying, "I'm 43 years old, I'm set in my ways, I ain't changing.  If you don't like my teeth, I'll find someone else who does.  So there!"  I mean, really, don't these dentists realize that if everyone's teeth were perfectly clean, they wouldn't have jobs?


I was listening to sports talk radio this morning (as I must admit I frequently do on my drive to work), and the subject of tattoos came up.  The host was talking about an MSU football player who had received a tattoo of a "Spartan warrior" on his torso.  First of all, let me say that I have absolutely nothing against tattoos.  I think that, in many cases, they look quite good on people--and some of the designs are beautiful.  My wife has a few tattoos (I don't think she'd mind me saying that) and I like them.  (I should mention that my wife got her tattoos back in the '80s, long before tattoos became a fad). The problem with me is that I could never get a tattoo because I could never decide on an image that I was ready and willing to commit to for the rest of my life.  I mean, would I really want to get a Duran Duran tattoo when I was 14 years old?  At the time, yes--but over time, I don't think so. Sure, it might seem totally rad in 1982, but I have a sneaking suspicion that by 2012, it wouldn't seem like such a wonderful idea.

I do think that sometimes people go a little overboard with the tattoos.  I'm not really into the "tattoos all the way up and down the arm" look.  I'm not saying that people shouldn't do it, I wholeheartedly believe in "live and let live", it just seems that some people go a little too crazy on the tats.  And this leads me to another thing about tattoos, when did they become so popular?  One can't find a college or professional athlete who doesn't have multiple tattoos, and it even seems like every other soccer mom these days is going out with her gal pals for "tattoo parties".  When middle-aged women are getting tats, then you can safely say tattooing has jumped the shark.  Getting a tattoo used to be a sign of rebellion, now it's just another trendy fashion statement.  Hell, I feel rebellious for NOT getting a tattoo.


While I'm out taking walks during the day, I have many disparate trains of thought, and recently I pondered the next movie project for director Wes Anderson. He needs to do an adaptation of the young adult novel, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  It touches upon all of Mr. Anderson's obsessions: Gen X kids books (He filmed The Fantastic Mr. Fox), pampered angst-ridden suburban youth, 1960s/70s fashions and iconography, New York City and environs as a setting, and loads of philosophical and pseudo-philosophical dialogue.  (I actually like most of Wes Anderson's movies, but he does tend to get a little too precious in his films, particularly in The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou).

Well, this concludes my Andy Rooneyesque ruminations.  Farewell for now...