Friday, May 31, 2013

The Montessori-Americans Strike Again (Again)

(Written two years ago. Sears tried to launch a Intertunnel TV show called Screw*d that went nowhere, and I was writing about it. Yesterday's episode of Portlandia makes me wonder if they were the only people who watched it. And I just might have been fibbing when I said I didn't know whether it was funny) 

When I got up yesterday, I had 6019 emails in my inbox. The Montessori-Americans are at it again.

I wrote the other day about the benighted graduates of the White Dwarf Star Academy. No matter how I phrased it, and explained it, and commented about it after in simple, declarative style, I couldn't seem to get my point across. Everyone just goes back to their default setting and starts talking about kids these days, and how no one, sometimes including themselves, is handy with carpentry tools. I'll try again.

The people in the video, and the target audience of the TV show Screw*d are indeed not skilled in any productive manual arts. That is not the point. They are not good at any useful behavior. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. That's my point. Asking them to do something practical highlights an overarching, fatal flaw, because unlike every other thing they've been exposed to during their development, it requires them to change the world in a fundamental, productive way --something that can be measured. There's supposed to be a birdhouse visible at the end of the test, and there isn't. I was supposed to have today's email in my inbox, not 6000 emails I already erased. There's no difference, really. Someone like the hipster dorks in the video kept pressing some caramel-colored button somewhere for no particular reason-- somewhere that calls their workplace "a campus" to keep from terrifying their employees with even a hint of real work on the docket -- and I got thousands of emails I'd already erased sent to me over and over. I'll fix the email myself, and the birds will live in a dumpster, and that's that.

Whenever I go on one of these jags, everyone seems to further assume that I'm just a less successful Norm Abram making fun of the Valedictorians because they can't bang a nail, and I don't know Shakespeare from Shakes the Clown. But I am a born poindexter. I am the Valedictorian; or would have been, if I didn't stop attending school regularly when I was about sixteen. I don't presume to be as dumb and useful as Norm Abram. Norm learned what he knows from his father. My father taught me that when the vibration of the Briggs and Stratton loosens the nuts and bolts on the handle on the lawnmower, and they fall out and get lost on the tan lawn you're growing, you put rusty framing nails through the holes and bend them over with an upholstery hammer. I learned everything I know of  a practical nature on my own, because it seemed, well, useful; it bothers me to see so many robbed of the chance to hit their own thumbs and then proudly display their hematomas to a real, live girl  like I do every night.

Let's organize meetings, and everyone can puff on their inhalers instead of smoking and drink diet Mountain Dew instead of coffee and testify:

Hi. I'm a recovering Montessori-American.I was raised to pay attention to nothing in particular, until it got boring, and then pay attention to something else, and not learn anything by rote lest you lose the childish wonder of the goldfish discovering the side of the one-quart bowl with your forehead over and over again. When I grew up, I just expected my "workplace" would have half-circumcised tennis balls on the bottom of all the chairlegs, and a cafeteria and a ball crawl for when you get bored between team-building exercises and placing cover pages on your TPS reports. I figured important ideas would always be presented by a cartoonist on a whiteboard, or in collage format. I promised to make fun of people who read USA Today while simultaneously demanding everything be presented to me as a bar chart or a Venn diagram, and I fully expected to be drugged senseless to tolerate blocks of text of any kind. If a co-pay is suddenly required for my anti-anxiety medicine I figure I'll lay down on the low-pile carpet outside the HR office and whimper until one of us dies.

It breaks my heart to see them. They sit as meek and passive as Chance the gardener in an empty house saying, "Louise will bring me my lunch now." You'll not hear kids these days from me. Adults these days, maybe; because those adults have robbed most children of their birthrights, to soothe their own neuroses by visiting social engineering on the following generation.

The denouement of all public policy towards children from the last forty years has been reached. They don't know anything useful, they don't know how to learn anything useful, and they're afraid to learn anything useful. They're so far gone they're even afraid to reproduce themselves. But by god, they sure can update a Facebook page and dress the dog they have instead of a child as Boba Fett, which is nice, too. Who are you going to blame for that, exactly? Certainly not them.

The purpose of the Screw*d show isn't to make manually literate adults. It's an attempt to reposition the squaresville retailer that's selling the tools as someplace a hipster should shop. They want a taste of that magic Pabst Blue Ribbon marketing that turns anysuds into the hot new thing. They don't have any respect for manual arts, or the contestants, or the audience. They just want you to collect and display their tools along with your Legos and your action figures, even though you're balding and childless at this point and don't know anything about fixing things that the Handy Manny website didn't teach you. (Warning to productive adults: The Montessori-Americans that produced the Handy Manny website coded it to autoplay music, because they're tools, and not the kind of tools Handy Manny uses, either)

Don't cooperate. Have some respect for yourself, and for the subject at hand. Being a productive and useful adult is gratifying. Don't let them herd you into the world of the useless.
Do Not Go Useless Into That Website.

Do not go useless into that web site,
Young age should spurn the rave and close the browser;
Rage, rage against the dying of the sleight.

Men's men scratch their ends and know only right is tight,
Because their nerds had forwarded no emails they
Do not go mental because of some web site.

Fantasy Footballers, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail rosters might have danced against Green Bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the sleight.

Mild men who know only of girls in bytes,
And learn, too late, that Darwin's on his way,
Do not go gentle into that porn site.

Concave men, out of breath, who see with myopic sight
Four eyes could blaze like Death Stars and be gay,(NTTAWWT)
Middle-age rage against the dying of the sleight.

Luke, I am your father, turn off The Dark Knight,
Text, tell me not of your IT career, I pray.
Do not go useless into that web site.
Rage, rage against the dying of the sleight

(By the by, for obscure (to me) reasons, Amazon has decided to discount my book of Flash Fiction, The Devil's In The Cows. It's now only $7.19 and is Prime eligible, too. Buy one before they change their minds)

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I Have No Idea If This Is Funny

Reader and commenter and left-coast Interfriend Charles Schneider sent this one along. He said, "Not sure if this is funny or not..."

I wondered if he was being polite, and thought it was funny, but was worried it might offend me a little, since I make furniture. Or maybe he was like me: I have no idea if it's funny.

I'm not saying it isn't funny. I didn't laugh at it, but that doesn't mean it's not funny, necessarily. It might be a scream. You tell me.

Remember Night Shift? It was back when Michael Keaton was zany and Henry Winkler was trying to Un-Fonz himself, and Shelley Long still had a prayer of a career outside a disreputable bar in Boston. (me too, babe; me too)  It was quite charming, and there were plenty of jokes in it to carry it along. Somewhere in the middle of it, one of the characters is trying to explain just how much of a misguided deadbeat schlub someone else's boyfriend is. She says he's quit his job, and is making furniture by hand.  It was 1982's version of the same joke.

But not the same joke, I gather. I assume that it's the opposite of the same joke. In 1982, no one cared if you could make furniture. It was assumed that anyone could do it, but no one would. It appears in 2013 that the same joke relies on the assumption that everyone wants to, but no one can. It reminds of how the same thing spoken in two different times means two different things. In 1950, the prosecutor told the jury that the defendant went nuts and killed two people. In 2013, the defense lawyer tells the jury that the defendant went nuts and killed two people.

I've seen an episode of Portlandia. It was funny. I'm not immune to their schtick. But in order to get a broad, topical joke like that, you have to be in on the cultural stereotypes that are the moving parts of it. I guess I'm not. Do the young women of today really go wobbly if you're able to make a chair, unless it's a wobbly chair? I don't know. Who are the stereotypical male males in popular culture now? I find Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a handful of other leading men to be interchangeable. They don't seem to be able to grow a beard yet, though they're close to collecting Social Security.  I know who Ron Swanson is, but I'm not going to watch that show to figure out if he's just the handy Archie Bunker I assume he is, or if he now represents an archetype of some sort of an overtly masculine person in a feminine world. If he does, I imagine it's just to mock him for it.

The actor that portrays Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman, seems affable enough. I've seen him here and there on these here Intertunnels. He understands deadpan. Deadpan comedy is best. It's Ward, via Twain, if you do it right. You can be subversive when you can deliver the payload with a straight face. A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down the pants is fun, but it can't be subversive.

So our friends in Portland shot some seltzer down their pants while they made a chair, and I don't know if it's funny. But then again, I'm too busy actually making furniture to keep up. I've made furniture for a decade now. Well, I made furniture for two months, mixed in with looking for my bevel square for nine years and ten months, anyway.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Matthew 7:9

When I was little my father took me to the graves on Memorial Day.

He was a younger man than I am now. He'd drag any of us he could catch all over the Boston landscape to one boneyard after another. Memorial Day wasn't just for the military dead for him. It was some sort of druidical day. Touch the stone. Pull the weeds. Say the words. Explain to your son who that person was and what they meant to him. Then off to look for the next stone marker by the next oak in the next town. I never understood it. To me it seemed like the stone was all there was to them.

He was a veteran. Everyone was, once. Army Air Force in World War II. He hung below a B24 in a little glass ball and watched the Pacific and the Zeros pass by. He never spoke of it, really, until he was dying in front of me.

I don't know if he knew he was dying. I don't know if you look that visitor in the face, ever. Humans don't seem capable of dealing with the idea. If you're 114, I imagine you figure you'll die tomorrow. But not today. Never today. You know you're dying when you're 10, too. You file that knowledge away with the things that live in the back of the closet and out by the woodpile on a moonless night.

Towards the end, I took him to the doctors a lot. His body wasn't sick. It was a villain, an enemy at that point. It didn't let him down; it turned on him. But I'd take him to the doctor just the same -- who seemed more in tune with the wraith of endless malady that shared my father's body than my father himself.  They took turns working on  him like a heavy bag. I'm not sure which showed more mercy. Doctors have precious little mercy in them, in my experience. It's not in their job description, anyway. I don't understand why people look for it from them.

I had almost nothing to do with my father for about 15 years or so. He was lost to me, or I was lost to him, or something. I got the feeling towards the end there that I was of some small use to him, and I liked it. I took him and sat with him while we waited on chairs that would make you feeble if you weren't already, then afterwards we ate a donut and drank coffee at the Dunkin' Donuts while gaping like shut-ins at the traffic passing by. He lost all his teeth when he was a child, and had a soft spot, always, for a jelly donut.

It's hard to describe what came out of his mouth while we lingered there on those afternoons. I'm not sure he was talking to me. He was unraveling a long string, and allowed me to sit with him as he did it. The string wasn't coherent. It was all one skein, but it was bits and pieces of things, knotted together roughly, all out of order, but all of immense interest to me. I think the Rosetta Stone has mundane things written on it, doesn't it? What's mundane... depends.

All these people appeared among the clatter of the cash registers and the muffled sound of the traffic outside, suspended in fleeting words in the air in front of his eyes, eyes gone the color of dishwater from their blue beginnings. He produced laundry lists of my flesh and blood; himself when he was younger, described like any other stranger; far-flung relatives; friends gone but not forgotten. They assembled as he called them up in an imaginary mob behind him until there were too many to count. He was their priest, or maybe their ouija board, their lawyer, their mourner, raiding their tombs like Carnarvon.

And nothing passed their lips but a terrible murmur that my father could not hear: Why the world would give them a stone when all they asked for was bread.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Shame About The Creedence

Our friend Deborah asked a question in the comments after yesterday's essay about Wichita Lineman:

This is a bunny trail, but please go with me. Since you have an "ear" for the electric bass, can you tell me if the first 30 seconds of the Hollies' "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress" is played on the electric bass? I maintain that the first 30 second of "Long Cool Woman ... " is the finest 30 seconds in all of Rockdom. I'm wondering if I like the sound so much because it is played on the electric bass.

Well, now.
It's hard to argue about her rating for the first thirty seconds of Long Cool Woman. It is instantly recognizable everywhere, to most everyone. Let's have a listen:

There's a problem with Long Cool Woman, though.

Let's move on to second number 31, and all those that follow. Like many songs with very recognizable intros, it's two different songs. Back in the day, if you played that intro in a club, the audience would whoop and flood the dance floor. So far, so good. But when the scintillating guitar riff and the second big ol' BOOM BOOM on the snare and floor tom was over, the bass player starts dutifully playing a polka at the slowest tempo imaginable. Short of turning on the lights, you can't possibly clear a dance floor any faster than by doing that.

It's the same problem you have when you play a rockabilly song in a place frequented by people that can't dance country. Everyone gets really excited, then discovers on the dance floor that they have no idea what the hell to do with that beat and their feet. The hayseeds that can two-step glide around the floor, everyone else hears their mother calling them right quick. The brave souls that could Lindy Hop before their hip gave out could have managed it, too.

To answer Deborah's question: no, that's not an electric bass guitar that gives the intro that sound. The guitar players in the video are playing regular Fender Telecasters, and the recording sounds like it, too. They've got the reverb cranked up to 11 on everything, though, including the vocals and drums, and it gave it that sound. The producers and engineers of these records don't get enough credit for such contributions to the final product, generally. George Martin, the Beatle's producer, wasn't "the fifth Beatle." He came in third, if you ask me. Maybe second.

That song was immensely popular when it came out, mostly because it didn't sound much like the Hollies. The Hollies didn't want to sound like the Hollies that day. This is what they wanted to sound like:

Speaking of songs that are pretty good flash fiction in their own right, Green River surely is that.

Well, take me back down where cool water flow, yeah.
Let me remember things I love.
Stoppin' at the log where catfish bite,
Walkin' along the river road at night,
Barefoot girls dancin' in the moonlight.

I can hear the bullfrog callin' me.
Wonder if my rope's still hangin' to the tree.
Love to kick my feet way down the shallow water,
Shoe fly, dragon fly, get back t' yer mother.
Pick up a flat rock, skip it across Green River.

Up at Cody's camp I spent my days, oh,
With flatcar riders and cross-tie walkers.
Old Cody, Junior took me over,
Said, you're gonna find the world is smoulderin'
And if you get lost, come on home to Green River.
I could try for a good long time and never come up with the imagery bagged and tagged by "I spent my days with flatcar riders and cross-tie walkers."

Long Cool Woman is lots of fun; but Green River is Artemis' baby, conceived on the sly, midwived by Bob Dylan, delivered by a stork from Bakersfield who got lost and stopped to ask for directions in Yoknapatawpha County.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Another In The Long List Of Songs I Don't Like That I Like

I used to play the electric bass, mostly. When anyone asked what instrument I played, I'd say electric bass, and they'd immediately say, "You mean bass guitar?"

No, I mean I play the electric bass. That thing Glen Campbell is playing in the video is a real, live electric bass guitar. It looks like some form of  Fender Bass VI.  It's an electric guitar tuned down an octave. It sounds like Bonanza.  It's so rare that I've never actually seen a real one in person. It was so rare that Nigel Tufnel didn't want Marty DiBergi to even look at his Fender VI.

When I was a little kid, Wichita Lineman came right out of the radio whether you wanted it to or not. Every radio station played everything back then. FM hadn't caught on in cars yet, so there weren't that many stations, and radio stations grubbed after the same audience by throwing everything popular at the wall. It lent itself to an interesting phenomenon: Songs you hated that you liked.

I wasn't a teenager yet, but I recognized Wichita Lineman as something for the squares. I wanted to hear Marvin Gaye sing Grapevine, or Hey Jude by the Beatles, or maybe People Got To Be Free, or hear Archie Bell tell us he was going to tighten up that bass, one more time. Instead of those, you'd have to sit through Honey by Bobby Goldsboro, or Judy in Disguise With Glasses, or some Herb Alpert shite.

It didn't matter if I liked the stuff or not; I had to hear it, so I knew it. Inside and out. Years later, we used to play Stump the Band with our audiences, and we didn't have much trouble banging out a terrible but recognizable version of most everything. It was banged into our heads all those years ago. Hard.

Considered dispassionately, Wichita Lineman is an amazing piece of work. Soup to nuts, composition to execution. It was even marketed properly -- it was on everything all the time.  Jimmy Webb wrote it. It's just a pop song, I guess. But I write flash fiction, and that's almost exactly like writing songs. You have to conjure a mood immediately and describe a small story arc without exposition. It's simple, but not easy. A very difficult knack.

It's harmonically unusual for a pop song, and very effective at instantly painting an image of intense longing and loneliness in a particular time and place. Everyone involved in its production was a consummate pro. People don't like to admit it, but popular entertainment can be broken into its component parts, the parts understood, and then produced like a widget. It's the understanding part that's difficult.

So Wichita Lineman sucks. But how can you help but love it?

(Also: Wichita Lineman at the Rumford Meteor)

Thursday, May 23, 2013


When I was young my father would take me to an MDC skating rink. The MDC was the "Metropolitan Disctrict Commission." It was a layer of government in Massachusetts that allowed the corrupt mayor of Boston to be corrupt outside the city proper. The MDC had its own police force, and ran all sorts of public parks and such. They constructed skating rinks here and there around Boston.

They were spartan affairs, but didn't seem so to us, because all we had was the corrugated ice on the local pond, and we had to shovel that first. Some people think that sort of activity, born of privation, builds character. People that think that have never met me. I don't have a trace of character, and I went through all sorts of inconveniences.

The MDC rink we frequented was on the banks of the Charles River, on the Jamaicaway, I think, and it was simply a roof over a patch of ice, with a chain link fence for walls around it, and a blockhouse where you could rent someone else's athlete's foot by the hour. They threw in the skates for free. They also sold hot chocolate that wasn't either of those things. It was a long car ride from where we lived, and it seemed very cold, but we loved it.

During public skating hours, they'd play organ music over loudspeakers they had borrowed from a defunct prison camp or something. It transmogrified the music into something not quite musical. It was the same hoary old stuff the organist at Fenway Park used to play, only recorded.

There were usually a lot of people. There were all sorts of rules posted, all ignored, mostly, except by custom, but there was one, big, hairy rule that everyone followed uniformly: Everyone skated the same direction at the same time. You'd skate counterclockwise for 15 minutes or so, and then a voice would break into the groaning organ music and bellow: SKATE TO THE RIGHT!, and everyone would immediately stop and go clockwise. To this day, whenever I hear any sort of Hammond organ music, I still mutter skate to the right to myself.

I was little and in awe of my father. He could skate pretty well. I had a problem. I could only skate to the left. When the direction was reversed, I'd have to cross my left leg over my right to make a right turn, and I'd fall down. A lot.

Humans are practical creatures, and devise various strategies for dealing with such failings -- almost all of which involve avoiding trying. I'd say I was cold, and sit down on a metal bench the temperature of Neptune, or hang on the boards and lie like a Turk in a bazaar and say I was tired. When the disembodied voice re-appeared and said SKATE TO THE LEFT again, I'd go back at it.

My father gave me some good advice, which I still remember. He said that if I didn't want to learn to skate that I shouldn't go skating. It would be a waste of time, and I should simply do something else that I really wanted to do. But I enjoyed my counterclockwise self, so it's more likely that going clockwise was just a difficulty that I could overcome with effort and intellect. If I was happy fifty percent of the time, why not make it a hundred? 

He told me that I had to figure out the aspects of skating I was bad at, and only do them. He told me to sit on the arctic bench and hang on the boards when the direction favored me, and only skate to the right.

It's counterintuitive to do this. Go with your strength everyone says. There's an entire school of thought in business called the Hedgehog Strategy. Find one thing you do well, and only do that one thing.

Dad said don't go with your strength. Take your strength for granted. Work on your weakness. It was marvelous advice, and not just for skating. Businessmen, especially small businessmen, rarely understand the concept. In large organizations, your boss exists to do one thing: make you skate to your right. Left on your own, you'd do whatever was easy and file everything difficult under M for manana.

That's why most everyone hates their boss; he makes you do things you don't want to do. If you were wise, you'd realize it's in your own best interest to learn to skate to the right, but that's not why he asks you to do it. If you don't skate to the right, he gets fired and can't afford to get the GI Joe with the Kung-Fu grip for his kids for Christmas. So he makes you. His boss makes him. And so forth. 

When people want to start their own businesses, 99 percent of the time it's because they think that if they don't have a boss, no one can make them skate to the right. They'll go with their strength. Of course their strength is likely not of any use to the public. If you're in business on your own, you don't have one or two bosses. The general public is your boss, every man-jack of them. And they're not interested in the fact that you can really check boxes on forms, or your desk is really clean, or that you're amazing at leaving witty comments on FARK all day. They want their stuff. They all want you to skate to the right all the time. But they only have one way to make you skate to the right. They starve you out. They go away and never come back. The public is so much more cruel than the worst boss in this regard, because they almost always say nothing to you. They figuratively kill you without telling you why. They would tell you why, but listening to the customers is the A, Number One, Primary, Overarching, Central and Foundational example of skating to the right for almost everyone. That's why salesman make so much money and do so little heavy lifting.

So my advice, for all you owners and managers and employees of businesses, is simple: Your business should skate to the left, hedgehog style, all the time. Go with your strength. All your employees, and you if you're an owner or manager, should work on skating to the right all the time, to make it possible for the business to keep that Business Hedgehog fed, so all his spines don't fall out from inanition. There's a name for a hedgehog without spines that curls up into a ball and plays dead. That word is "lunch." 

Most managers do not have a deft touch at making demands for clockwise skating. They grab you by the shirt collar and drag you to the right. My father wasn't like that. He told me why I should try, and I believed him, and I made up my mind to try as hard as I could, because I'm stubborn. I battered my knees with fall after fall, and heard the tittering of everyone wondering who the clumsy kid was, but I eventually learned. I got to be as facile one way as the other.

Filled with a bit of pride, I said, "Dad, I think I can skate to the right better than to my left now."

"Now skate backwards."

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Billy Mays With Acromegaly And A Palsied Makeup Artist

The sign says the factory is in Brewer, Maine. Brewer is basically Bangor. It's a city a couple hours east of where I live. We have a Paul Bunyan statue in our town, too, that doesn't belong here, either. Ours doesn't look like a nifty gay superhero like Brewer's does. Ours looks like Billy Mays if he had acromegaly and a makeup artist with palsy. All those people in the video sure look familiar, though. Mainers from the poor cities look and talk like everyone working on the line in that video, except for the robo-dweeb that's narrating. He looks more like Portland, ie: Northern Massachusetts.

No one in any of those places would be caught dead wearing Sperry Topsiders. Someone must still be wearing them Down East, I guess -- the constellation of little hamlets hard by the granite coast where people sail during the ten minutes of good weather that Maine gets every year. They don't wear them while sailing, of course, just in the bar after.  Yuppies used to wear them in the eighties. I wonder if the fellow with the shirt three sizes too small signals a resurgence among the hipster crowd. They're comfy shoes; they could do worse. According to the Bangor Daily News, it's the Japanese and other assorted Asians that are buying them. Asians only want them because they aren't made in Asia. You can try to explain that if you want, but I have a headache already.

It's the Sperry label you see at the beginning of the video, but Justin Brands owns it, and Berkshire Hathaway owns that. That's Warren Buffett's bailiwick. Warren Buffett only buys things that have some strategic advantage someone's missing out on. A "Made in Maine" tag seems to be all you need to sell boat shoes in Japan. Who knew? Then again, Berkshire Hathaway used to make shirts when Buffett bought it. If I was working in one of his factories, I wouldn't buy any green bananas.

The elderly workforce in the video is not a gimmick. Maine is old people. After we moved to the wilds of western Maine, we later learned that everyone called us "the young couple." We are not young. But if you stand next to midgets you're tall, I guess. If you have children shorter than you, you're young, at least in Maine.

Maine used to make a lot of shoes and boots. It was the state's largest industry until very recently, when free trade killed American piecework dead.  The state's current largest industry is selling oxycodone you stole from grandma's medicine cabinet, I think. You can still find Quoddy in Maine. Bean. Sperry. Bass. Red Wing. New Balance. Oops, I forgot about Bass. They're made in: "Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Honduras, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan." They still show scrawny, WASPy- looking chicks and their lantern-jawed LL Bean brochure consorts sitting on Adirondack chairs, dockside, on their website, though. The Maine ethos still sells. Maine is the size of Ireland, and about five square miles of it looks like those ads, but, whatever.

Maine used to look like those people in the video. Hardworking, no-nonsense people. I always admired people like them. I wonder who I'll admire when they're dead and gone. It won't be long till I find out, I guess.

(Thanks to my friend Gerard at American Digest for sending that one along)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Working 9 to 5

In some ways, the work that goes on behind the scenes in most forms of entertainment is more interesting and fulfilling than whatever the "talent" is up to. I'd rather own a football team than play on one, too.

I always found bars to be dull unless I was working in them. The most fun I had in the music business was generally after the show was over and we were breaking down the equipment. It was my job to look like I was having fun while I was performing, and I tried to, whether I had a strep throat or a chisel wound in the meat between my thumb and index finger or not. Most applause simply brings a feeling of relief, not elation.

You have to be on top of your game and your craft to be in charge of the stage at the San Francisco Opera, whether you can sing a note or not. There are satisfactions to being invisible.

Obscurity and a competence—that is the life that is best worth living.  -Twain

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's Hard To Get Old

You can die young, or get old and watch everyone you know die. It's a crummy choice, and insult to injury, the choice is made for you, anyway. Everyone works it out as best they can. 

I can hear you calling my name
Or somebody's whispering
That sounds like you

I can see you standing in the shade
The sun is glistening
And it's blinding my view

I can feel your touch on my face
I remember kissing you
For the first time

I can sense you just out of fray

And I'll be reminiscin'
For the rest of my life

Never loved anyone
I never loved anybody
But you Baby

Never been lucky baby
I never bet winners
But I'll never say never again

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Sultana Of Swing

You have to give the audience a compelling reason to pay attention to you.

That's the only advice I ever gave to my children about performing, really. The rest was details. The rest is details. There's lots of different approaches. They all work. Or they don't. It's up to the performer. Performers can have the wrong audience, it's true. A metal band that looks out into the audience and sees nothing but blue hair is probably in for a rough time. But the audience is rarely the problem. A stubborn insistence on entertaining yourself before the audience, or instead of the audience, is usually the culprit.

We used to call the phenomenon "Doing The Show." Caravan Palace knows how to Do The Show.

Caravan Palace on Amazon

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Guess Who

Pavarotti without a beard is almost unrecognizable at first glance. 1964 in Moscow. I have no idea who's playing the piano with their elbows for accompaniment.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Oil Paint And Lighter Fluid

Walt Disney is the only true genius I know of that has worked in Hollywood. Like most geniuses, not many paid any attention to his advice, probably because it sounded so trite. It was also at odds with his image. Disney's a square telling the freaks to be different, not look different. They don't want to hear any of that. That sounds like showing up on time and dressing like a bank teller and producing worthwhile work on a regular basis.

The term genius has been debased over time. Lots of brilliant people have worked in the entertainment industry, of course. Being brilliant isn't the same as being a genius. The term has been dumbed down even further by the Intertunnel, where anyone that gets anyone else to pay attention to them by any means is called a genius.

So, what's a genius? Napoleon said it was de fixer les objets longtemps sans etre fatigue. The ability to concentrate on objectives for long periods of time without tiring. That'll do. Walt paid attention to his objective fifty years in advance. His only advice: be yourself, only works if yourself is notable. That's why creatives shun it, and greenlight Batman XVI instead.

Friday, May 10, 2013

2013: When Bagel Makers And Gong Farmers Form An Amalgamated Union

I love to see people making things, and who have pride in their work. It doesn't really matter what they're doing.

I used to supervise the construction of commercial food preparation facilities once in a while. While the soundtrack is barrelhouse piano, this video is from the 1970s, not ancient history. I noticed about a zillion current health code violations visible in the video.

But those violations are meaningless, because I imagine the people in the video were personally invested in the quality and cleanliness of their surroundings and product. The raft of rules about food preparation -- as well as many other things -- are the result of trying desperately to micromanage the behaviors of people that don't care a whit about themselves, their customers, or the product they're making.

So the people in the video aren't wearing hairnets, and we're supposed to freak out, I guess. I bet everyone in the Nordstrom's Cafe in San Francisco was wearing a hairnet. Of course you might have contracted typhoid fever from them, but you can rest serene that while they were crapping their insides out in the bathroom from their medieval ailment, they were sitting within eyeshot of a sign in the wrong language telling them to wash their hands after doing so. Which is nice.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Nothing But Blues And Elvis, And Somebody Else's Favorite Song

(Author's note: I have no idea who the fellows in the video are, and mean them no harm)

Someone said something interesting to me the other evening.

At the end of my sons' performance, my younger son went home, because he's barely ten, and we don't keep him up all hours for any reason. My older son and I stayed through all the other acts that followed them. We had to wait until the evening was over to break down the equipment, and it's not polite to wander out on the other acts in a show like that, anyway.

I never willingly sit in an audience for any reason any more. I've long since lost the knack of being entertained for the most part. Back when I was a performer, I had no idea how to act in an audience any longer, and always suffered from the sneaking suspicion I was supposed to be on the stage or tidying up or something; and after I no longer was a performer I always had the impression I was supposed to be on my couch. I doubt this is peculiar to the musical walk of life, either. I don't imagine plumbers would get much entertainment value out of watching other people installing toilets on their days off, either.

There was a guitar player on the same bill as my boys. He played well. He played Mississippi styled fingerpicked blues, more or less. He was very inventive, and could play leads and rhythm with equal facility, and sing. He had another singer and a fellow playing a rudimentary drum set with him.

He was as nice as all get-out, too. I'd guess he was about my age. As my son and I were breaking down the drum set and amps, he told me how impressed he was with the show the boys had put on. Effusive and generous with his praise. He invited them to go to some sort of open-mike jamboree thing at some roadhouse out  in the landscape that he either ran or habituated, I'm not sure which. I appreciated his enthusiasm for the boys. Then he said something fascinating, and telling, to me.

"It's obvious your boys don't get their musical ability from you," he said, "is their mother a musician or something?"

I know what you're thinking, but you're mistaken. You don't understand what that man was saying to me, and figure it's a backhanded, unstudied insult, because you don't understand why Sultans of Swing sucks. I understood immediately what he meant, and took no offense. He was being pleasant, and making small talk, but was truly curious about what sort of Zeus's forehead might produce the child act that he just saw. It was exactly 180 degrees on the compass removed from an insult.

As I said, he's a nice man, and he played well, too. But he misunderstands what music is for, and what an audience is for. What he meant by his innocuous comment was that there was no way that he could conceive that I might be able to play any instrument and not go up on the stage with my children-- or without them, for that matter. It is never any one else's turn, not even your own children. There is no reason to worry about what you're doing, or why you're doing it, or wonder if the audience will be entertained by what you're doing. Hell, you shouldn't even worry too much if there is an audience. Open mike night is just taking turns being the audience, for instance.

Ninety-nine percent of the participants are very confused about the music business. Your job is to entertain the audience. What you want to play, what you want to hear, how you want to look means absolutely nothing. Your job is to figure out what the audience wants, and give it to them. Period. The extra difficulty in that equation is the audience often lies. They'll tell you they want to hear, oh, I don't know, Sultans of Swing, and then the room empties out if you're dumb enough to listen to them and play it.

It was assumed that a person like me -- one that could play but wouldn't -- could not exist, and so the question about whose children the two talented kids really belonged to was asked, because if any audience, anywhere, could be cobbled together under any pretext, I was supposed to glom onto it like a cat with a mouse he doesn't want to kill just yet, and inflict myself on it at all costs. I'm supposed to use my children as human shields, or hostages,  or simply elbow them aside if necessary -- or maybe not have them in the first place to keep all my time to myself -- to keep the dream alive: Playing Sultans of Swing, inexpertly, one more time, to an audience of no one.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Mystic Chords Of UnoЯganized Hancock

Last Saturday was Paul Bunyan Day in Rumford.

If I might mix my metaphors, Paul Bunyan Day in a town like Rumford is a two-edged sword.  There's a paper mill still chugging away in the center of town, it's true. But if Paul Bunyan showed up here in the flesh, he'd immediately be arrested by the EPA, right after he was told he had to join the steelworkers union to go near the mill, and his ox would be impounded by the local PETA chapter and then probably sent to college on a scholarship. But the town must keep on keepin' on in any case, and the logs trucks do roll by on Route 2 all day. Paul Bunyan'll do.

My boys were approached about performing for Paul Bunyan Day. The town was going to have a parade, a zipline ride across the falls, and ax throwing contests and so forth. The boys love to be part of the local fabric of life here, but I was skeptical. The promoters were a little confused, and I didn't like the sound of Unorganized Hancock playing their first job outside, perhaps partly at night, in an alley next to a barroom and the river. It's still below freezing at night around here sometimes, too. The dandelions sprouted right out of the last snowbanks. The boys are unorganized, not disorganized. Surely there must be a more appropriate venue.

There certainly was. There's a converted church in town, turned into a performance hall and function facility. They were beginning Paul Bunyan Day festivities the night before with music and contests and so forth. The Mystic Theater at 49 Franklin has one of the nicer stages I've ever seen, and I've seen many. It was perfect for the boys.

My wife was out for a walk last week, and the neighbors said, "Hey, your kids are in the paper, huh?" We're often surprised by such things, because having the paper delivered is a medieval custom to us. But there they were. 

They played for about an hour, with a break in the middle. There was a biggish crowd, fifty or maybe seventy-five people. The boys played their first song, and there was a noise at the end that sounded like applause, but wasn't, really. I know that noise. It's the noise of a crowd that wants to like you, and don't even really know why. They just do, and that's that. There is no manufacturing that.

That break I mentioned was less a break than a green-stick fracture. The promoter decided to sprinkle a "Tall Tale" contest throughout the night. One fellow got up. He emitted one, thirty-minute sentence, a kind of monotone monosyllabic raga of everything that had ever happened to everyone he'd ever met. I began to search my mind about halfway through it for a metaphor for it, but my simile works weren't up to the strain and froze up and started to smoke. It had all the interest and humor of a paid mourner at a funeral of a person no one liked reading a phone book. The Beijing phone book.

So the boys went back on to face the shellshocked audience, but it took only a song to get them back into it. It was a delightfully motley assembly watching them. There was white hair next to Bieber haircuts, tattooed love boys and coquettes, Rockabilly queens and blues bar heroes all arrayed around the room. There was an uninterrupted row of pretty high school girls in the front.

The sound quality's not stellar, but the entire performance, sans paid mourners, is now up on YouTube. We have a sort-of modern Magritte drummer; instead of an apple he's got a cymbal in front of his face, and the sound's a little woolly because we were only able to get a flip camera on a tripod over to the side to record the proceedings, but it's enough for you to get the idea. They were, in their little way, in our little town, a sensation.

Many thanks go out to all my readers for all the love and support they've shown my boys. If they're any good, you can claim you were their patron. If they stink, you can always blame me.

[Update:  Kathleen M. from CT is a wonderful person and I recommend her to all my friends for all their wonderful person needs]
[Up-Update: Many thanks to Cynthia R. from Calliforn I A for her generous support of the boys' efforts]

Monday, May 06, 2013

Well, I Put The Quarter Right In That Can, But All They Played Was Disco, Man

You need to understand right off that I don't like Bird Dog over at Maggie's Farm.

What a wan word "like" would be for me to use, so I can't. I love Bird Dog. He's my brother fum anotha motha. We're friends. We get to tell the truth to one another. You can't tell the truth to strangers.

He's a fan of my boys' musical efforts. He links to their videos, and offers a word or two of encouragement for them. But he gets ideas. As anyone that lived in the Soviet Union from 1917 until 1981, or anyone at a prog rock concert with a drum solo pending, ideas can be a dangerous thing. You've got to look at ideas a lot before you settle on them. Paw them over. Pick them up and put them down and go back to them. Ideas you treasure without reflection are risky. They can be popped like a bubble in the bath simply by the introduction of competing ideas. That's why people with opinions I don't agree with are so closed-minded. They can't bear to hear the truth.

I risk ruining Bird Dog's day. Our friendship might be on the line, right here, right now. I can't help myself. He wants my sons to play Sultans of Swing, by Dire Straits, to perhaps prove their musical chops, their mettle, and mayhaps delight the Intertunnel with their precocious abilities. He wonders if they might be up to the task? Could they do it? Take up the Stratocaster cudgels? What a monumental, notable, and noble undertaking that would be!

I don't know how to break it to him any other way, so I'll just blurt it out: Sultans of Swing sucks. Hoover-quality suck. Outer Space with a pinhole in your capsule suck. Weapons-grade suck. Donkey balls. It's -- not good. But there is no way Bird Dog has ever heard that said. Sultans of Swing is one of those hoary old standards like Stairway to Heaven or Green Grass and High Tides or Freebird or Bohemian Rhapsody. The devotees of such tedious anthems never even consider that their love for them should admit the alloy of time and place, and consider that others who weren't listening to it on their eight track with a girl in a tube top in the front seat of a bitchin' Camaro when it first came out might not share their high opinion of it. It's Pauline Kael rock. No one I know doesn't like it.

It was my business for a long time to tell people that approached the bandstand that their favorite song was of absolutely no interest to everyone else in the room, and we weren't going to play it. It's a delicate thing to tell people that the song that contains both the name of their illegitimate children and their pit bulls, and whose album cover is featured on both a tattoo on their chest and painted on the side of their van, isn't very entertaining. Such information upsets people, like going to the monkey house at the zoo and throwing your poo at the apes. Those monkeys stop in their tracks and stare at you, I'm telling you.

Don't ask me how I know that.

But I know music. I didn't even have to ask my son to know what he'd say to the suggestion. I did ask, though, and he gave me a look of surprise and fear and disgust, one that said without words, "Dad, why are you flinging poo at me?" To a kid two decades into this century, Dire Straits is like a Stallone movie starring Richard Simmons. If Eric Clapton was a hairdresser, that's what he'd sound like. 

Now, back when I was luxuriant of hair and bereft of fixed opinions about music, teachers tried to sell me some of theirs. I distinctly remember eighth grade. It was the first year I spent in public school. None of the other students could read or write or add or subtract, and thought the Ottoman Empire was a furniture store. They were fertile ground for any sort of bosh. Me, I was skeptical. My older brother was a musician with very good taste, and I got used to hearing good music, well played.

I had a music class. They call such classes "music appreciation," because in their hearts the faculty knows they're incapable of teaching children to play musical instruments or sing and dance, so they sort of shrug and tell the parents, "We meant to do that," and baste the students with their ill-founded opinions instead. I remember Mr. Sacco like it was yesterday.

He affected a style approximating Englebert Humperdinck, gone to seed. He had Civil War sideburns and high-water bell-bottom pants with garish socks and round-heeled shoes that looked like they were  designed by some unholy agglomeration of Florsheim and Cardinal Richelieu. We slumped in our chairs, while he waved one --just one-- 45 record in the air, intoning,"This is the greatest record ever made," and meant it. He put it on, and played it over, and over, and over again. He'd stop it now and then at odd intervals by yanking the needle up to pontificate on some minor point of interest he found in the noise, a signpost to the entrance of entertainment nirvana that only men like him, attuned to such things, could discern, and then he'd slam it back down and the sound would wash over us again from the tinny speaker in the ancient record player he used.

He did this for weeks on end. He played that record for us a hundred times, maybe more, and never once looked at any face in the small crowd arrayed around him for a glimmer of approbation. It was the greatest song ever written, and that was that. There was no gainsaying it, and no opportunity to gainsay it, either. He'd wave his arms in the air like a conductor with palsy and hum along, and sing tunelessly along with it, and generally stop just incrementally short of soiling the front of his polyester pants with the whole thing every time he heard it. He never played another record that I can recall, and the only test I can remember simply asked a series of arcane permutations of the same question: Why this recording was the ne plus ultra of organized noise.

The song was Crimson and Clover, by Tommy James and the Shondells.

And so I must ask the question. It has been troubling me this morning. I must blurt it out, and exorcise it. Bird Dog, why do you want my son to play Crimson and Clover? You don't even have sideburns. 

Thursday, May 02, 2013

A Patch Of Old Snow

There's a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I've forgotten --
If I ever read it.