Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Do Nothing For Pity. Do Nothing For Love

I've had too much. Shivering by the dumpster. A little whiskey is the only cothamore we're likely to get, pa always said. Too much is a hole in the roof.

My pa was always waiting on something or somebody under a big hole in his roof. Tugged his forelock and averted his bleary eyes like a peasant for ward heeler or bank teller alike. I thought I'd be a man of action. Not waiting on anything, or anybody. There'd be cannonfire and blood running hot and a furnace of action at all times. But here I am hanging at a dumpster at two AM like any rain dog.

Some men have to make up their minds and screw up their courage time and time again. I don't get it. With me it was a switch you throw and that's that. You decide to go this way or that and the road rambles off into the distance but you'll never see that fork again. What's the point in trying to back up and read the signs after you've blown through the red light in the first place? But the nervous nellies are my bosses, still. I would have stayed at the shipyard and blasted rust forever if I wanted that.

The car will come when my tallow is good and frozen and we'll roll on over to Mehfeh and take out the trash. No courage needed.  Pa told me, "Do nothing for pity. Do nothing for love." The bundle in the trunk has to go into the Mystic. Why wait?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Engineering School

I'm always on the lookout for vitality.

The rest of the world might get tired of watching us do nothing but shop for shoes online at work and make plus-sized Star Wars costumes for ourselves even though we're forty-ish and Halloween isn't for seven months. We should at least acknowledge that it's unlikely we'll be allowed to leave the table while we're way ahead.

Being a prominent society requires a certain vitality. Endless schemes to ration, or import, or even extinguish vitality, lead to one place.  The Roman Empire is a pizza joint now. The barbarians wanted it more. I won't weep for it. My people were dyed blue, after all.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fellow Traveler

My friend Gerard had a little essay about the repair of Red Wing boots. I hate to admit it, but I've got a pair of Red Wing boots. The part I hate to admit is that they're my good shoes now, not my work boots. I found a video that shows the process, which I love. I love to see people with hand skills. Doesn't matter what sort of skills they are, either. Chef or glassblower or hod carrier or guitarist; whatever. 

I remember watching slackjawed as my mother typed nearly a hundred words a minute on a manual typewriter. Without errors. Literally awesome. She was like Cassius Clay confronted with a midget wrestler when electric typewriters showed up. I could go really fast on that.

I mixed mortar for my uncle and watched him butter a block perfectly, every time, with two deft swipes of his trowel. He never missed. I couldn't even get the mortar to stay on the trowel, or place the blocks in a row as fast as he could use them. I worked with men that could drive finish nails all day with a hammer and never leave "elephant tracks." I find manual dexterity, distilled by repetition to fluidity, fascinating.

I'm not alone in that. As society gets more complicated, people become farther removed from the physical production of anything. They often get the same thrill I get when they encounter someone that can do something with their head, heart, and hands really well.

Factories are important, and many things should be made in a big faceless building filled with robots and drones. I don't really need an artisinal flatscreen TV. But I need to see artisans, and feel like one, too.No one's holding a gun to your head and forcing you to shop for everything at WalMart and IKEA and patronize no one locally except a trash hauler. Some of your neighbors make things and do things. Do the neighborly thing and seek them out. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Are You A Q Head?

The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet, or quintet, depending on how old you are. You probably know them as plain old NRBQ. What's that? You don't know them at all?

I always think of them as Massachusetts folk, even though they're from all over. The bass player, Joey Spampinato, still lives on Cape Cod, and his brother Johnny -- a sometimes member of NRBQ -- is a member of The Incredible Casuals, who played at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet every Sunday for thirty years or so.

The music business seems trivial on its face, but it's as grim as the Cosa Nostra on the back end. You can never get really famous unless you're as serious as a heart attack about getting famous all the time. Some people are just too good-natured about the whole thing to ever become a household word. They just become household words in other musicians' households. Exhibit A: NRBQ

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How To Rattle That Stick In The Swill Bucket

Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.
-John Wanamaker

I lived in Los Angeles back in the early eighties. I have a soft spot in my heart for Fred Rated. Fred Rated is semi-well known as Shadoe Stevens, a disc-jockey game show host voice-over dude. According to Wikipedia, he's currently the announcer for Craig Ferguson's late night show.

He'll always be Fred Rated to me. LA TV and radio was fun just then. Cal Worthington and Elvira and Fred; The Plimsouls and Oingo Boingo and Wall of Voodoo. It was all cheesy garbage and I loved it. I loved the west-coast flavored The Gong Show just as I had adored the execrable east-coast Community Auditions because it was crap and didn't pretend to be anything else, and you could just watch the fat majorettes drop their batons while jitterbugging to disco versions of Sousa marches and enjoy the hell out of it while nursing a hangover.

Fred Rated became a sorta star by making those commercials. If the purpose of advertising is to make the public aware of the product then Fred was a smash, if I'm anything to go by. It's thirty years later and I remember him, and fondly. If the purpose of advertising is to get you to part with money, I make it a miserable failure, because I never set foot in a Federated store and never got the urge to, either.

Advertising has gotten very, very creepy. The Stasi crossed with a peeping tom keeps track of you, online and elsewhere, and mines it for all its worth. Funny that guys like Fred played a creep, and yet their appeal was simply to amuse while barking out the phone number.

This blog is advertising, I guess; I try to be charming, and let you know I exist. I know the charming part is thin on the ground now and then, but I try to exist as hard as I can. Maybe it's the only half that matters, anyway.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bleak House

The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart

ALL things uncomely and broken, all things worn out and old,
The cry of a child by the roadway, the creak of a lumbering cart,
The heavy steps of the ploughman, splashing the wintry mould,
Are wronging your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

The wrong of unshapely things is a wrong too great to be told;
I hunger to build them anew and sit on a green knoll apart,
With the earth and the sky and the water, re-made, like a casket of gold
For my dreams of your image that blossoms a rose in the deeps of my heart.

--William Butler Yeats

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dios Mio, Mang

So you wanna be a roofer, huh?

I was once at the top of a forty-foot ladder, laden with tools, with the ladder leaned against a house where one rake board transitioned into another rake board at the spot an addition met the main house. Forty feet is plenty high to be lethal, and give you the feeling it's lethal, too.  Without any warning, a bat -- one bat -- came out of the seam and hit me square in the face, thrashed around a bit, and fluttered off.

In theory, no matter what, you're never supposed to let go of the ladder. Earthquake, fire, gunshots, surprise parties, whatever -- your natural inclination to wave your hands around must be countered. It's hard to override a bazillion years of fight or flee, but it's easy to see who can manage it. They're not blogging just now.

The bats are just a lark for these fellows. Watch out for the histoplasmosis, guys! It's more painful than marriage, but less deadly in the long run.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Fairly Sure I Used To Play With This Drummer

And his brother the drummer. And his friends the drummers. And another guy that looked like him that was a drummer. And seven other guys that don't look anything like him but pretty much are his doppelgangers. They were all drummers, too.

Until the bizarre gardening accidents, of course.

Friday, January 20, 2012

RIP Jimmy Castor. It Was A Stone Groove, My Man

Jimmy Castor passed away this week. I dearly loved this novelty song when it came out of the transistor radio back in the day:

Jimmy Castor, a singer, saxophonist, percussionist and bandleader whose novelty songs and funk grooves brought him wide popularity in the 1970s and were later sampled for hip-hop records, died of cardiac arrest Jan. 16 in a hospital in Henderson, Nev. He was 71. The death was confirmed by his son, Jimmy Castor Jr.

As leader of the Jimmy Castor Bunch, the elder Castor combined funk and adolescent humor with such novelty songs as “Troglodyte (Cave Man),” a No. 6 Billboard pop hit in 1972, and “The Bertha Butt Boogie” two years later. Mr. Castor’s records featured a recurring cast of characters, including a caveman who chants the mantra “gotta find a woman, gotta find a woman,” and the irrepressible, full-figured dancer Bertha Butt.(Washington Post)

You can see him perform it himself, too, if you prefer:
Lotta greezy bass playing back in the seventies. Thumb and slap sorta ruined it in the eighties. Hope there are lots of cavewomen in heaven for you to dance with, Jimmy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

I Stretch Out My Arms and If I Don’t Feel Any Wood On Either Side, Then I Know I Can Get Up

Lathe turning is my kind of work. It's quiet, and contemplative. Most all the other machines in the shop shriek and bark at you. The lathe hums and whispers. It feels more like art than heavy lifting. My little son says "daddy is sculpting again" when I do it.

And Maurice Franklin, woodturner, is my kind of guy.
If you were to rise before dawn on Christmas Eve, and walk down the empty Hackney Rd past the dark shopfronts in the early morning, you would very likely see a mysterious glow emanating from the workshop at the rear of number forty-five where spindles for staircases are made. If you were to stop and press your face against the glass, peering further into the depths of the gloom, you would see a shower of wood chips flying magically into the air, illuminated by a single light, and falling like snow into the shadowy interior of the workshop where wood turner Maurice Franklin, who was born upstairs above the shop in 1920, has been working at his lathe since 1933 when he began his apprenticeship. In the days when Maurice started out, Shoreditch was the centre of the furniture industry and every premises there was devoted to the trade. But it has all gone long ago – except for Maurice who has carried on regardless, working at his lathe. Now at ninety-one years old, being in semi-retirement, Maurice comes in a few days each week, driving down from North Finchley in the early hours to work from four or five, until eight or nine in the morning, whenever he fancies exercising his remarkable talent at wood turning. Make no mistake, Maurice is a virtuoso. When rooms at Windsor Castle burnt out a few years ago, the Queen asked Maurice to make a new set of spindles for her staircase and invited him to tea to thank him for it too. “Did you grow up in the East End?” she enquired politely, and when Maurice nodded in modest confirmation of this, she extended her sympathy to him. “That must have been hard?” she responded with a empathetic smile, although with characteristic frankness Maurice disagreed. “I had a loving family,” he told her plainly, “That’s all you need for a happy childhood, you don’t need palaces for that.”
Read the rest of the story of Maurice at Spitalfields Life. Great pictures, too.

(Thanks to reader Rob W. from Rowe for sending that one along)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I'm In Danger Of Gettin' Fatigue

de fixer les objets longtemps sans etre fatigue (from 2008)


You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

I think it's hilarious that if you want to swap a battery out of an Apple product, you walk up to a counter called a "Genius Bar" in one of their stores. Apparently the Fuhrer of Lake Wobegon has gotten his enabling act, and has annexed the whole United States now. I don't have an opinion one way or another on the gaudy overpriced stuff they sell; but I'm not sure I could stand to be patronized in that fashion and keep a straight face. "Who's the genius -- you, or me? Both of us, of course!" I worked for many years with my younger brother, who is possessed of a sardonic wit. Whenever he was presented with any extravagant claim of the usefulness or value of any item, he'd pause for effect and say: "Yes, but is it premium?"

In politics, the word genius gets used quite a bit, but I notice that what the word they really mean to use is shameless. I really don't know why they keep getting those two mixed up. The last two political geniuses I can think of are Hitler and Churchill. Thank god we got both at the same time. Other than that, for 75 years it's been all workmanlike or incompetent; take your pick.

I've known my share of people equipped with plenty of raw intellectual horsepower. It mostly manifests itself on one side of the ledger, of course: words or numbers. Tremendous intellectual capacity at one thing is almost always accompanied by a loopy worldview and disastrous omissions in other parts of the intellect or personality. It's always amusing to see people with an IQ of 110 point out that since they have the same personality failings as Einstein or Feynman, they must be geniuses. Sure. Just take drugs and throw up on yourself. That will make you Hendrix, too.

Napoleon described it as: de fixer les objets longtemps sans etre fatigue. The ability to concentrate on objectives for long periods without tiring. Of course, many people think that because they hit Refresh four hundred times on an Elvis figurine auction on E-bay that that must apply to them. Sorry, no.

There is a kind of stubborness in any genius, of course, but any fool can be stubborn. You can't win fights solely by taking a beating. To couple insight with intelligence to see around a corner and identify things that are obscure to others -- that is genius. It's exceedingly rare, it seems, though many claim to see it everywhere, including while shaving. Any genius in a public school would be drugged to a stupor now, anyway. Perhaps it's a waste of time to talk of them any more.

Churchill was described as having "a zigzag streak of lightning in the brain." There, that's it. Trust me; you don't have it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Crewmen, Set Your Teleblasters To Stun

Yes, that's Nora Jones singing a Willie Nelson song, and in a band named after Willie hisself. The Little Willies. They're going too fast for the lyrics, but what the hell, they look like they're having fun. And doesn't Jim Campilongo spank that plank? Good -- extra good.

Nora's retired now, of course. She sold twenty million copies (!) of her first record, electrifying an entire generation of mopey girls and holding down the 'eat ice cream from the tub while weeping' fort until Adele showed up, and immediately started paging through AARP brochures, most likely. 

By appearance alone, it's hard to picture that Nora Jones' father is Ravi Shankar. It's like finding a Faberge egg under a Colonel Sanders chicken. Life is full of such mysteries. I can't understand how my brother can look just like me, and still be so ugly.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Under The Boardwalk

This is where I tell you that I've never seen Boardwalk Empire, but I'm going to write about it anyway, and you scratch your head like you do.

I found that showreel of special effects for the show fascinating. I think that the technical part of the production of movies, TV, music, and so forth has become so versatile and realistic, and engrossing effects readily achievable, that it's overshadowing the stories or music or whatever the locus of attention's supposed to be in the first place. The actors can't act, they're told to say ridiculous sentences and do unbelievable things while everything explodes, with deserts of filler in between the plastic oases of action. Singers barely mumble into a microphone and have it turned into a robotic melody while they hop around like second-string cheerleaders, all decided beforehand by committee. That sort of thing is driving me to the abandoned island of hardcover books, LP records, and David Lean movies.

Boardwalk Empire's coterie of participants hints that it might be better than your average teleplay, but I'm not that likely to go out of my way to look at it. I'm tired of gangsters. Do you know any crooks? They're deadly dull, generally, and kinda thick for the most part. I've known some really interesting honest people. Hollywood dug a shallow grave for honest people a while back and rolled them in. It's much easier to get conflict and action going if someone pulls out a gat from the get-go. But it's kinda lazy, and it gets old pretty fast. The pistol is the official deus ex machina of American entertainment. Got a plot hole? Fill it with a bullethole. Problem solved!

I suppose I should just enjoy The Old Man And The Sea And A Nine-Millimeter And A Shirtless Chick by Michael Bay like everyone else, but I'm having a hard time with it. I'm still interested in the process, and astonished by what the people that aren't in charge are capable of doing. Hardworking and talented people can put anything on the screen. It's not their fault if you hired Pauly Shore to play Sam Spade in a musical.

I'd --ahem-- kill to put words in these actor's mouths, surrounded by these visual wonders. First, you kill all the characters' fathers. Writes itself after that, really.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

From The Foot Of Mount Belzoni

The most influential guitar player I know of, and a very nice fellow. Albert King, the "Velvet Bulldozer."

Thursday, January 12, 2012

I Got A Gypsay Woman, Givin' Me Agvice

Like holding a bus station microphone up to a Hiroshima bomb. It's a Rocket 88 running from the law of averages with the lights off. A hive of angry bees sliced thin with a meat-packer's blade. Mount Vesuvius with the knob set to simmer. A club of off-duty arsonists lighting a Lucky Strike with a flare. A Big House rent party supreme. A Buddha made from a bucket of mud, a gallon of process, and a half-ton of lightning.

Muddy Waters!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stop-Motion Murmansk

Murmansk is an interesting place.

It's an ice-free port in a cold place. Murmansk is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. It is the last city founded by the Russian Empire, made to accept ships filled with Great War supplies, then to make their way by rail to Russia proper. One world war later, the Soviets successfully defended it from attack from the Nazis, and Murmansk continued as the USSR's link by convoy to the Atlantic west. Then it was a Cold War submarine base. When I think Murmansk, I think "cold."

But wait a minute. Murmansk isn't much colder than where I live in western Maine. Average daily lows in Murmansk in January and February are slightly warmer than here, and their record low for January of -38.9F is less than 3 degrees colder than ours. February and March lows are only about 3 degrees colder, too. Their daily highs are about 10 degrees lower on average, year round, than ours, though. All the loons around here turn on their ceiling fans if the temperature hits seventy, so maybe they'd like Murmansk better.

Holy cow, I'm comparing my local climate to Murmansk. I may have moved too far north.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hey, Maybe I Found A Drummer For My Badfinger Tribute Band

"Maine mom drummer" does a terrific job sittin' in on the extra-lame-o Wipe Out.

The rest of the band deserves to be taken out back and beaten. Since they appear to be out back already, they need to be taken out front and beaten.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Daddy, Where Do Hit Songs Come From?

1972. Huge hit for the Staples Singers:

1969. Lunch money for the Harry J. All Stars:

Gotta love a guy like Harry Johnson. African, Sicilian, and Scottish descent. Shaka Prima Braveheart.

People love to seize on stuff like this, and not just in music. So and so didn't really invent such and such.

The machinery of popularity, like less trivial pursuits, is not about fairness, or pedigree, or seniority. It doesn't matter that Henry Ford didn't invent the auto, or the assembly line. It doesn't matter that Bill Gates didn't do much of his own source code. It doesn't matter that the Staple Singers used Harry J's riff for their hit. Your job, if you're going to enter the big arenas and triumph, is to put the thing that everyone needs or wants in front of everyone at the right time and place.

Visionaries deserve credit. I hope I just gave Harry J. some. But practical syncretists are just as important. They generally don't require any extra credit, as they are sitting on piles of money and hate to reach down to receive their praise.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Mama's Got A Squeeze Box She Wears On Her Chest

My advice to aspiring entertainers has always been pretty straightforward: Give any audience a compelling reason to pay attention to you. It's really just that simple. A trainwreck is as good as a Traviata in this respect. Cut a fart and stick out your hand and say ta-daa. But don't just stand there.

If all else fails, you can always buy one of those pianos with emphysema, and a plus-size bustier. 

Those Darn Accordions
(Thanks to that deaf, dumb, and blind kid, Vanderleun, for sending that along)

Monday, January 02, 2012

Big Hair, Bad Eyesight, And Tube Tops

That's Woonsocket, Rhode Island's own Duke Robillard, trying to get  as many time zones between him and Woonsocket as he can.

When we were young we used to make Woonsocket jokes. It was in Rhode Island, and we were in Massachusetts, but it wasn't very far away. Everybody there was of French extraction and had wonderfully mangled translated expressions for mundane happenstances.
Throw momma from the train, a kiss.
Next time you go through my yard, you go round.
Is that to here, or for go?

My brother lived in a triple-decker in Woonsocket for a while when he first got married. Woonsocket is pronounced woon sock KETT! while using a Blaque Jacques Shellacque or Burglar Of Bampf...ff...ff comic accent, of course. We used to put lawn chairs out in his back yard and watch dead dogs float past in the Blackstone River.

No one much speaks French in Woonsocket anymore, or English, either, as time marches on. I'll never go there again, and haven't been there in 25-plus years, so it really doesn't matter what's going on there, does it? I can't imagine they spend a lot of time worrying about me, either.

So perhaps they'll forgive me if I forever immure them in amber, and imagine Woonsocket as the place where Duke Robillard plays in Chan's every night, and all the girls have big hair and bad eyesight and tube tops, forevermore.

[Updated: From their website, Chan's seems to have attempted to cut out the middleman, and produced a chimera of Duke Robillard in a tube top, with uneven results:]

Local musicians are never going to figure out that you need to learn to sing to be a singer, are they?

Sunday, January 01, 2012

I So Very Much Want One Of These

I feel a sort of affinity for this approach to making things for daily use. There is an acknowledgement of a lack of elegance in daily life. Searching for a kind of delight in using mundane things. A desire for at least a hat tip to continuity while not being a stick-in-the-mud about progress.

When I was young I had to type things on an ancient manual typwriter, and use carbon paper to save a copy for myself. I remember distinctly the first time I saw a Xerox machine. A Polaroid camera. A teletype machine. A fax. A cell phone. MS Office. I remember I was somewhat drunk at a party at my home, and some guests and I managed to get me on the Internet on dial-up on a lark. I remember loading Doom on a floppy and running it in DOS.

Sometimes it's not possible to say whether we've entirely shunned modernity or we're so far ahead of everyone else that we're the Jetsons and most everyone else is the Flintstones. We don't have cable TV. Our friends and family think we're living in 1965. You watch cable TV? And you get the newspaper printed and delivered? Send your children to school on a bus? Commute? Have heat fed by a big, rusty tub of carboniferous goo in your basement? Shop at a mall? How quaint you are.

I make things that are cutting-edge anachronisms. I like to see fellow travelers.

USB Typewriter