Thursday, December 7, 2017

Roundup

While I mull over another music-and-nostalgia piece that's almost finished, here's a brief rundown on what I've been reading lately. There are a few good things in here. But most of it, eh.
* Tobias Wolff: IN PHARAOH'S ARMY (1994) -- If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's THE VIETNAM WAR series on PBS got to you, you might try this, though I think the best book on Vietnam is still Michael Herr's brilliant DISPATCHES. Wolff was a field-artillery officer in a backwater village in the Mekong Delta in 1967-68, and was grateful to be assigned there, because he would rather have died than show how incompetent he was. Wolff tells 13 stories about his war experiences in this brief book, and all but one of them work. Some of it's even funny. Near the end it gets brutally funny. Vivid, direct, involved. There's no distance between Wolff and the events he describes. I wish the book had been twice as long. You can read it in an hour or two.
* Damon Knight: CHARLES FORT - PROPHET OF THE UNEXPLAINED (1970) -- Fort was maybe the first of those folks who keep track of bizarre occurrences -- rains of stones, rains of frogs, spontaneous combustion, unexplained disappearances, even UFOs. He kept track of these kinds of oddities for years in the 1920s and '30s, and eventually filled four books with what he'd learned and let readers be the judges. Unfortunately, he led to those folks who now track Bigfoot, compile details about UFO sightings, try to reach people beyond the grave, and think the Twin Towers were transported to an alternate universe during 9/11. At least Fort had a sense of humor. Knight covers the ground with some sensitivity. Fort had a truly weird childhood, and he was lucky he had enough money to follow the odd compulsions that led to his books. But I wished there was more about what's IN the books, and the reactions to them. Knight sometimes goes off track -- there's a whole chapter about Velikovsky's WORLDS IN COLLISION theories, ghod knows why.
* Viv Albertine: CLOTHES MUSIC BOYS (2014) -- Viv gained some attention as self-taught guitarist with English punk-noise band The Slits back in the day. I picked up the book for that. Her memoirs of that time are direct, intimate, funny, gross. She slept with Mick Jones of The Clash, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, and other Names. But the only time she felt right was when she picked up a guitar. Short, hard-hitting chapters, and she doesn't romanticize what happened. Later, the book turned kind of self-indulgent as she drifted into the 1980s and I lost interest. I couldn't finish it.
* Anthony DeCurtis: IN OTHER WORDS (2005) -- Interviews with musicians, writers and movie-directors. I bought it for the Bob Fripp interview, which didn't tell me anything new. Phil Spector on John Lennon held my interest. The Van Morrison interview didn't seem as awkward as DeCurtis thought. Don DeLillo was pretty gripping when talking about his JFK-assassination novel LIBRA. The rest are all people you've heard from before. Includes the dullest front-cover I've ever seen on a book.
* Philip Caputo: A RUMOR OF WAR (1977/1996) -- I respect Caputo as a reporter, but this memoir of his tour in Vietnam is too distant. He's too far separated from the events he describes. It's dull. I couldn't finish it.
* Jon Fisher: UNINHABITED OCEAN ISLANDS (1999) -- If you want to get away from it all, this is a book you could consult. Didn't realize there were so many islands in the Pacific once used by the military and now uninhabited. One of them has been bulldozed and shaped to look JUST LIKE an aircraft carrier. The maps were not as detailed as I'd hoped. A full-color "atlas"-type edition of this book would be well worth the price. The descriptions of some of these places make them sound like they'd be interesting to visit. Some prices for the properties are even included.
* M. Harry: THE MUCKRAKER'S MANUAL (1980/1984) -- I thought Harry's guide to investigative reporting might teach me all the areas in which I'd unknowingly made mistakes. Unfortunately, most of his advice is very basic: Everyone has dirt on them, and if you're careful, organized and never give up, you can get your hands on that information. Well, duh. I didn't learn much.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Keep the Customers Satisfied"

I'm not sure who's idea it was, but what started it was the Morning Announcements over the intercom at Lowell Elementary in Boise. Every morning, the principal would make the day's announcements -- and sometimes students would come on the intercom afterward and sing or do a brief comedy skit.
My friends and I thought we could do this and Get Famous.
God knows who suggested the idea, but somehow the plan was hatched to get on the morning announcements and sing "Snoopy and the Red Baron." God knows why.
The conspirators were myself and friends Tim, Steve, the other Steve, the other Tim, and Patrick. We were all in the same fifth-grade class. Within days we got onto the morning announcements and sang the flattest, weakest version of "Snoopy and the Red Baron" that you'll ever hear. That's because we NEVER practiced. It was excruciating. Nothing but stunned silence afterward.
Thus started our 15 minutes of fame.
After that, we were semi-officially "a singing group." We were The Snoopys. We took it upon ourselves to break meekly into song whenever our teacher, Mr. Jones, abandoned the classroom for 15 minutes at a time and vanished off to the teachers' lounge for a smoke. God knows what we sang, and I can't remember. I can't remember if anyone ever told us we were "good." It didn't matter.
(Can I note here that Mr. Jones warned my mother during a parent-teacher conference that if I didn't take a bigger part in sports and get out and socialize more often, that I'd end up gay? Seriously. This was in 1970. My mom told Mr. Jones to mind his own business.)
There was some talent in the group. Tim could actually sing -- he later got solo vocal spots in school choir concerts. As for the rest of us -- who knows? We thought about adding more members to the group. We even thought about adding two girls.
We never officially sang together in public again. But we always Had Plans. We began collecting lyrics for all the songs we thought we might someday sing in an official songbook -- a composition notebook from class. Life in The Snoopys became an immediate power struggle between Tim and I over who got to carry around the songbook.
I thought Tim was my friend. As part of our research into cool songs to sing, he invited me over to his house, where we listened to Simon and Garfunkel's BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER album in a glassed-in den where Tim's record player was. "Keep the Customers Satisfied" was a big favorite, along with "Cecelia," though neither of us understood the words. Too bad we never got to the gorgeous "The Only Living Boy in New York."
I was actually closer friends with Steve -- who was an uncoordinated nerdy geek just like me. It was just like looking in a mirror, and I thought his loopy sense of humor was a scream.
But the battles over the songbook got uglier. Tim started threatening to beat me up. He started chasing me home on our bikes -- we zigged and zagged through after-school traffic and I was usually able to dodge him and make a run for it. Only once -- on the last day of fifth grade -- did he catch me in a local park and start punching me. That was the last time I remember purposely hitting someone in anger, with an intent to hurt. I was screaming and crying in anger. And then I ran.
Two weeks later we moved to Washington. I was in an Air Force family and we moved every two or three years. Three years later we moved back to Idaho, and Tim ended up in my junior-high English class. He'd gotten pudgy and didn't seem to remember me.
Steve was around school, too. We had similar lives for awhile. He worked in the same car-parts store I did after graduating from high school. He joined the Air Force two years before I did. Last I heard, he made a career of the AF and was a foreign-language instructor. That was more than 15 years ago.
I lost touch with everyone else a lot longer ago. And some of them maybe I wouldn't want to know now. I looked up another old friend from sixth grade a couple days ago and found out from Facebook that I REALLY don't want to talk to him now. I used to know him when he smoked pot and listened to Peter Frampton, and now he's as far away from that as he can possibly get. And not in a good way. What is it that changes people so much? Is it just life and experiences, or is there something more?

Saturday, December 2, 2017

"Saving Grace"

Gene and I had it all planned out.
We knew from a couple of "recording sessions" in my garage that -- although neither of us could actually PLAY an instrument -- we could bash around and make a pretty good, amusing noise. So we thought we'd take my cheap acoustic guitar and even-cheaper drum set out into the back yard and put on a free "concert" for the kids in the neighborhood.
It was the middle of summer and we were bored. I'd been in the neighborhood maybe eight months. I was at that age when everything about music was fascinating and I was devouring everything. I was hearing and learning about new stuff constantly.
Gene helped with my education. He turned me on to The Beatles' "Hello Goodbye" and "I Am the Walrus," The Monkees' "Pleasant Valley Sunday," and Led Zeppelin's silly "Whole Lotta Love," which I've never been able to take.
So everything I bought got played on the garage stereo with Gene. Todd Rundgren's great "I Saw the Light" (and the B-side "Marlene," which was boring); INTRODUCING LOBO; Three Dog Night's HARMONY; Chicago's third(?) double-album, which I never got all the way through; El Chicano's wonderful "Brown-Eyed Girl" (I never heard Van Morrison's original 'til years later and I wasn't impressed); Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Some of Shelley's Blues"; Bobby Russell's "Saturday Morning Confusion"; Mal's cute and silly "Mighty Mighty and Roly Poly," which made no known chart; Gladstone's controversial "A Piece of Paper." I was a real off-the-wall-45's addict.
Gene and I thought we could do this stuff. We could both sing, sort of. Gene was actually a pretty good singer, I thought, and was great at making up lyrics off the top of his head. He could even get something like chords to come out of that cheap guitar my parents had bought me a couple years earlier. And I could bash the drums, though I had no sense of beat or rhythm. Loved the cymbal -- big splashy noises -- and the cowbell.
Not sure why we stayed a duo. There were other kids around who were just as into music as we were, if not moreso. Right next door was Jim, who turned me on to Creedence's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and "Hey Tonight." His sisters Sandy and Gayle were big music fans, too. But they were, you know, girls. And I was 12 years old and still pretty scared of girls. Jim and Gayle were in high school and maybe a little too grown-up for anything as silly as what Gene and I were up to. When my parents inflicted the first Osmonds album on me (I'd asked for something else entirely), it was Jim, Sandy and Gayle who suffered through it with me.
On the other side was Mike, who was into Frank Zappa, Black Sabbath, Grand Funk, Eric Burdon and other stuff too loud and weird for me to hear. But he was also a sucker for Tommy James and the Shondells, and tried to educate me by tossing me a stack of gift 45's like Rod Stewart's "Maggie Mae," The Clique's "Sugar on Sunday" (with the GREAT forgotten B-side "Superman"), and others I've forgotten. Mike was a high school dropout and much too worldly and cynical to join a "singing group" led by a couple of 12-year-olds.
So Gene and I were on our own. The first thing to do was publicize our free "concert." I drew up a really ugly flyer, which I then copied a dozen times, and we stuffed it in all the neighborhood kids' mailboxes. We chose a Friday afternoon when both my folks were working for our backyard bash.
Gene thought we'd open with our stunning version of Delaney and Bonnie's "Never Ending Song of Love" (we maybe should have chosen "Only You Know and I Know") to grab our audience's attention with something current, then we'd segue into our own "greatest hits." And then see what happened next.
The afternoon came. We hauled our instruments out into the back yard, threw open the gate, and....
Nothing happened. Nobody showed up. None of our friends in the neighborhood ever even mentioned it.
Probably a good thing, looking back. Any "concert" we'd attempted probably would have lasted less than five minutes. And we would have made a heckuva racket.
But then I might have had a REAL story to tell....
It was the last time I ever "seriously" tried to be in a band or sing in public. Maybe I should tell you about the first time....

Friday, December 1, 2017

"I Hardly Know Her Name"

The best Christmas present I ever received (other than starting a blog) was the cassette tape-recorder my parents got me for Christmas of 1971. From that point on, I could record the songs I loved off the radio and ignore all the other crap. This went on for years.
Those little plastic boxes of reel-to-reel tape were a godsend to cheapo music addicts like me. Yeah, the sound might have been a little mushy and fuzzy and distant -- but that didn't matter when I could assemble nothing but The Good Stuff on a blank tape.
The only downside was that the recorder sometimes became possessed and ate tapes. Always the best ones, of course. And the chances of having something eaten went up, the longer the tape was. I had some 120- and even 180-minute tapes for awhile. They must have been microscopically thin. I could probably have seen through them. They didn't last long.
I started out with Really Cheap blank tapes. They used to sell three 60- or 90-minute blank cassettes in a bag for around 99 cents at places like, yes, Radio Shack. (I was actually addicted to Radio Shack's catalog for about five minutes back in the day -- back when I had the delusion that I could set up my own radio station in my bedroom.)
Needless to say, the sound quality on these tapes was pretty wretched. But I didn't care. They made noise. That was good enough.
Once at Radio Shack I was able to score a couple of "high quality" TDK blank cassettes -- actually the "basic" bottom-end of their line as far as sound quality goes. They must have cost a couple bucks each, a shocking expense. But they were far above the three-in-a-bag tapes I'd been buying up 'til then. Suddenly I could hear highs and lows -- sounds weren't as mushy and hissy.
The first song I recorded on these "high quality" tapes was The Wackers' fast-paced two-minute love ditty "I Hardly Know Her Name," which seemed to get a lot of airplay on Tacoma's KTAC AM, for a song that never cracked the national Top 100.
I know next to nothing about The Wackers. Wikipedia isn't much help. I read somewhere ages ago that they were a Northern California bar band that sometimes dressed in women's clothing when they went on-stage. Shades of David Bowie and Alice Cooper -- both of whom were too scary for me to hear back then.
Over 40 years later, I found a copy of one of their albums, HOT WACKS, which includes "I Hardly Know Her Name." It still sounds great -- a two-minute blast of energy in the same league as Five Man Electrical Band's "Absolutely Right." But the next track on the CD is a dull version of John Lennon's "Oh My Love." I've never gotten any farther. I've read that the second side was a six-song ABBEY ROAD-like medley. I should look into that.
A few weeks back I found a cheap copy of their third album, SHREDDER. This includes the band's only chart single, "Day and Night." Never heard it. But I'll be investigating it soon -- possibly in that previously-announced upcoming previously-unheard-music blowout that's seriously overdue here.
Other early songs recorded to high-quality tape? The Royal Guardsmen's great "Snoopy's Christmas" (hey, it was the holidays), The English Congregation's "Softly Whispering I Love You" (which really sounded like an overblown rock opera), The Jimmy Castor Bunch's "Troglodyte".... All these still sound great to me, though I don't play them much.
The cassette disease stuck with me, though. At one point I had more than 100 tapes full of favorite music, fake DJ-ing, spontaneous comedy skits with friends, etc. Almost all of it's gone -- taped over, eaten by cassette players, gone sticky and unplayable and then trashed. What remains -- the oldest of it's from 1981 -- is in a box in the closet. But I don't play it much. The sound quality's way better on CD's.
COMING SOON: More Nostalgia.

PS -- Hope you've seen at least SOME of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's THE VIETNAM WAR on PBS. It's damn hard to watch at some points, but it's an amazing piece of work. FINDING YOUR ROOTS is no slouch, either.