Sunday, December 24, 2017

9 Years?!?!

It was somewhere around this time nine years ago that I started blogging about music.
My first review (on a site my son set up for me) was about the Hollies' ROMANY album. My second was on Al Stewart's MODERN TIMES. Within a week I had two-dozen reviews posted. A week later I'd added another dozen. Then I contacted Internet-rock-review legend Mark Prindle (I'd made a few comments at his huge review site), he posted a link from his site to mine, and I kept on rolling.
That first year I posted pieces on everything from made-up music history (What would have happened if the Beach Boys' SMILE album had been released on time?: World peace, and Brian Wilson winning the Nobel Peace Prize), to how CNN became the Michael Jackson Network after MJ died.
After nine months I had 225 reviews posted. I wrote six posts in a day, once. I wrote all of them in shorthand "text English," like most people use on their cellphones and Twitter -- I was striking a blow against illiteracy or something, I thought. Besides, as an extra bonus, writing that way seemed to annoy some people. Every post I did before #666 on King Crimson is still in text -- I was going to put them all in Real English once, but ... you know, life's too short.
Then the old website started having trouble. Posts disappeared for no reason, and I had trouble accessing the site. So I gave up and moved here to Blogger, and everything's been great ever since.
I was surprised for awhile by how much the blog has meant to me. It's been a way to blow off steam about work, whine when I'm lonely, work through issues when I'm angry or depressed, rant about politics and modern life, etc. After 950 posts, it's really been the best diary I've ever had.
The rash of posts this month has also helped me avoid thinking about other things that have been going on. The Girlfriend was in the hospital for a couple days back in November, after she was having increasing trouble breathing. She was diagnosed with COPD and the beginnings of congestive heart failure. She's doing much better now after being on oxygen 24/7 for awhile. Her spirits are good, and she has more energy than I do, most days.
My car got back-ended on the way to work a couple weeks ago. Almost $7,000 in damage. I wasn't hurt -- and I was grateful the woman who hit me wasn't hurt either. She was nine months pregnant and had her four-year-old daughter in her SUV. So it could have been a lot worse. I just want my old car back. And now I REALLY hate to drive here.
But enough. Thanks for reading here. And as a special Christmas gift, I was going to post a list of the 40 worst Beatles songs I could actually remember. But then (after typing the list out) I discovered I'd already posted that list -- back in July of 2016. And that list is better and funnier than what I was going to post this morning. Alzheimer's is an amazing thing....
See ya next year!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Great Christmas songs

I've written about all of these here before, but you should track them down if you haven't heard them already. They'd make a great soundtrack to the season.
* Step Into Christmas -- Elton John. Phil Spector could have produced this. A whirlwind of sound, from Elton's best period.
* Happy Xmas (War is Over) -- John Lennon.
* 2000 Miles -- The Pretenders. Gorgeous, heartbreaking.
* December Will be Magic Again -- Kate Bush. You can see the cartoon video in your head.
* Remember (Christmas) -- Harry Nilsson. Gorgeous nostalgia.
* Snoopy's Christmas -- Royal Guardsmen. The long version is a great Christmas pop-opera.
* Little Saint Nick -- Beach Boys.
* Ring Out Solstice Bells -- Jethro Tull.
* A Christmas Song -- Jethro Tull.
* Merry Christmas Darling -- Carpenters.
* It's Christmas Time -- Carpenters. Even better than "Merry Christmas Darling." Almost perfect.
* Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) -- Darlene Love.
* Same Old Lang Syne -- Dan Fogelberg.
* A'Soulin' -- Peter, Paul and Mary. Kind of dark for a Christmas song, but unforgettable.
* Fairytale of New York -- The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. Hilarious.
* Santa Claus is Coming to Town -- Jackson 5.
* The Most Wonderful Time of the Year -- Andy Williams.
* Jingle Bells? -- Barbra Streisand.
* The Little Drummer Boy -- Harry Simeone Chorale.
* Feliz Navidad -- Jose Feliciano. The best thing he ever did?
* Hurry Home for Christmas -- Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. You'll have to trust me on this one....
* Father Christmas -- Kinks.
* I Believe in Father Christmas -- Greg Lake.
* The Man With All the Toys -- Beach Boys.
* The Twelve Days of Christmas -- Ray Conniff Singers. Whatta hoot!
* The Bell That Couldn't Jingle -- Smothers Brothers. Cute.
(Late addition, 2 Jan 2018 -- Jim Croce: It Doesn't Have to be That Way. Don't know how I forgot this one. It's wonderful.)

Favorite olde-style Christmas carols:
* Carol of the Bells.
* O Holy Night.

Christmas songs I never need to hear again:
* Christmas Eve in Sarajevo -- Trans-Siberian Orchestra. So over-the-top they make ELP sound modest.
* Jingle Bell Rock -- Bobby Helms, and....
* Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree -- Brenda Lee. The two most overplayed "classic" Christmas songs.
* Wonderful Christmas Time -- Paul McCartney and Wings. Embarrassing to all concerned.
* Blue Christmas -- Elvis.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

"A Night at the Opera"

It's May 1976. Jeff picks me up in his tiny ticket-me-red Austin Healy Sprite -- a car so small I can just barely shoehorn myself in -- and gives me a lift to the end-of-schoolyear Newspaper Awards Banquet in downtown Boise.
For some reason, it was decided we'd have the semi-formal banquet at The Gamekeeper, a semi-classy restaurant where Jeff works. Jeff, the school newspaper's cartoonist -- who looks something like a self-drawn cartoon of Paul McCartney, all arms and legs and hair -- started out at GK as a dishwasher, then was promoted to try and become an assistant cook. That isn't going so well, judging by his stories from work, most of which revolve around gross and horrifying disasters with food. Did we all just think he was joking? His hilarious stories about the kitchen directly contradict The Gamekeeper's jingle playing on local radio stations. All together now:

The Gamekeeper, dining leisurely.
The Gamekeeper, dining in luxury.
The Gamekeeper, dining
Where you want to be
In delightful company.
Dining elegantly.

Yeah, uh huh. Tell that to the guy who burned beyond recognition 68 chicken breasts in the kitchen's huge cooker. Revealingly, Jeff does not choose chicken for dinner.
As we pull away from my house, Jeff says he has a surprise for the soundtrack on our 10-mile drive into town. It's the latest album by Queen.
I'd heard of Queen. Their "Killer Queen" single from a year earlier hadn't really thrilled me. It was too ... arch, too clever, and the guitar work seemed shrill. Jeff assured me their SHEER HEART ATTACK album was more brilliance, but....
A month or so earlier they'd come out with the six-minute "Bohemian Rhapsody," which I'd first heard while foolishly leaving the radio on while having dinner with my family. Halfway through the falsetto chaos, my mom and dad turned to me and said practically in unison "What IS this shit?" I shrugged. Hey, I didn't know....
But it grew on me, so I was mildly interested in their album, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Besides, Jeff had turned me on in the past to Kansas's LEFTOVERTURE, plus lots of great old Beatles, Elton John and Paul McCartney songs I'd never heard before, so....
The album started with a rumble, then some of that same bouncy, hyperactive guitar that marked these guys. Then it downshifted into mere overactive guitar and a set of vicious lyrics apparently pointed at Queen's former managers ("Death on Two Legs"). Hilarious. I thought maybe these guys had potential.
I was annoyed by their occasional silliness ("Lazing on a Sunday Afternoon," "Seaside Rendezvous," "Good Company"), but the good stuff was impressive. "I'm in Love With My Car" moved well, and seemed a good soundtrack for Jeff's involvement with the Sprite. "You're My Best Friend" sounded like updated Beach Boys. Then came the gorgeous "'39," a space-age folksong, still one of my Queen faves.
When they tried to get heavier, I wasn't impressed. They seemed to be straining to keep it simple and heavy, as on the kinda pathetic "Sweet Lady."
But when Jeff turned the tape over, the real heaviness kicked in: "The Prophet's Song" was stunning -- a misty, foggy tale of prophecy and doom, something like Led Zeppelin crossed with The Moody Blues. And it was a great soundtrack to careening in and out of downtown traffic.
We arrived at the banquet then, but the rest of the album was downhill anyway. The filler "Love of My Life," the silly "Good Company," and a dumb filler guitar-instrumental of "God Save the Queen." After "The Prophet's Song" and "'39," "Bohemian Rhapsody" was almost an anti-climax.
So I bought the album, and it grew on me, and I followed Queen for awhile, more or less. I was impressed with their 3/4's-great "It's Late" (did they always have to get Too Heavy?), amused by "Fat Bottomed Girls" and "Bicycle Race," and bought THE GAME later, mostly for its second side ("Rock It/Prime Jive," "Save Me," etc.) and for "Play the Game" and "Need Your Loving Tonight" -- emphatically NOT for "Another One Bites the Dust." I thought their team-up with David Bowie on "Under Pressure" was pretty great.
Then I drifted. Finally in 1991 I heard their INNUENDO, which has some amazing stuff on it, like "The Show Must Go On," "I'm Going Slightly Mad," and "These Are the Days of Our Lives." I thought at the time that it might be their solidest album. And of course that was Freddie Mercury's last hurrah.

On the Moodies reaching the RnRHoF

Well, it's about time!
This was really overdue.
I would have jumped on this faster, but when I read on Facebook a couple days ago that The Moody Blues had FINALLY been voted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ... well, all I could think are the two sentences above.
I don't usually follow too closely who gets into the RnRHoF. I think it's a useless, stupid institution, since the "history" of rock and roll gets added to every day. The "Rarnhof" should be a big beer-drinking pub in Germany or Switzerland.
But I'm glad for the Moodies. I never thought they got their due, back in the day. Once upon a time, their "Classic 7" albums meant way more to me than The Beatles, or anyone else. I still think if the Moodies had been signed to a hipper, more with-it record label, they would've had more hits and sold more albums.
Don't get me wrong -- I thought Decca was great. Decca at least had enough taste to offer a home to Caravan and Camel, among others, not to mention The Rolling Stones (after turning down The Beatles). But Decca was way uptight and old school, never even as "progressive" as EMI, and nowhere near as adventurous as Vertigo, Virgin, or Harvest. Not to mention Island.
But give the Moodies credit -- they stuck with Decca, even when they could have gone elsewhere. When Decca was bought by Polygram late in the '70s, the Moodies stayed on.
The Moodies were important to me because they were the first "strange music" I ever heard, and back in high school I spent way more hours stuck under headphones listening to the Moodies than to anyone else. Because Moodies albums were trips that you could got lost in -- for hours. I many times played their "Classic 7" albums all the way through one after another, back in the days when I had time to burn. When the radio got boring, the Moodies never disappointed me.
That doesn't mean I love ALL their stuff. I think IN SEARCH OF THE LOST CHORD is mostly dated psychedelic crap. I think most of the orchestral sections on DAYS OF FUTURE PASSED sound like bad movie-soundtrack music. I think one of their hits, "Isn't Life Strange?," is fourth-rate Bee Gees. And for most of their stuff after 1983 -- don't get me started.
But the Moodies could rock ("Story in Your Eyes," "Question," "Eyes of a Child Part 2"), or they could space you out ("Have You Heard?/The Voyage," "My Song"), or they could boggle you with a cosmic mix of the two ("You and Me"). Their later albums like LONG DISTANCE VOYAGER and THE PRESENT were at the very least good polished pop music for their time.
I know that without the Moodies and how strong their albums were, it would have taken me longer to get hooked on "strange music," and I would have been way less likely to stray from listening to the radio, no matter how bored I was. They deserve to be in the RnRHoF just for expanding my mind a bit.
Besides, when's the last time you heard any of these great overlooked Moodies songs on the radio?:
Peak Hour, Evening: Time to Get Away, Twilight Time, Simple Game, Voices in the Sky, The Actor, Lovely to See You, Send Me No Wine, Never Comes the Day, Eyes of a Child Part 2, Out and In, Gypsy, Watching and Waiting, Don't You Feel Small?, It's Up to You, Minstrel's Song, Dawning is the Day, Our Guessing Game, After You Came, One More Time to Live, You Can Never Go Home, For My Lady, You and Me, Land of Make-Believe, In My World, Meanwhile, Nervous, Veteran Cosmic Rocker, Blue World, Meet Me Halfway, Running Water, Sorry, No More Lies.
This was a choice for enshrinement in that silly, useless building in Cleveland that, for once, was well deserved.

Friday, December 15, 2017

More disappointments

* Richard Goldstein: GOLDSTEIN'S GREATEST HITS (1970) -- Goldstein was (along with Paul Williams -- no, not that short songwriter with the blonde hair and glasses) one of the very first rock critics -- he had a regular pop-music column in THE VILLAGE VOICE starting back in 1966.
The review that brought him the most attention was a slam of SGT. PEPPER that was published in the NEW YORK TIMES. He got tons of hate mail. And 50 years later, Goldstein's still right about that album -- it's totally artificial and way obsessed with production and detail, with one absolute killer song at the very end. Of course most of the other songs on there have long since become classics as well.
That SGT. PEPPER piece is by far the best thing in Goldstein's GREATEST HITS. I expected the book to be dated, but I also thought I'd enjoy the dated effect. Most of it just reads as thin and naïve. There's a nice interview with The Shangri-La's that I wish had been done in more depth. There's a decent review of Dylan's JOHN WESLEY HARDING. There's a brief look at art-rock that has a slam or two for my old heroes The Moody Blues. There's a long piece on the history and hype behind San Francisco bands of the late '60s. There's an interesting write-up on how singles were manipulated into hits back in those days.
Too bad the SGT. PEPPER review is also in the DA CAPO BOOK OF ROCK AND ROLL WRITING, which I already have, surrounded by lots of other good stuff. This was not worth my $9.99. But as a snapshot of the naivete of the times, you could maybe dig it, if you were there back in the day.

* THE SOUND AND THE FURY: 40 YEARS OF CLASSIC ROCK JOURNALISM, edited by Barney Hoskyns (2003) -- There is some good stuff in here. David Toop's piece on Charles Manson's connection to The Beach Boys is interesting, and it's good to have it all laid out finally. David Dalton's eyewitness account of Altamont is pretty chilling. But both these pieces end too abruptly. Nick Hornby is as amusing as always in his look at the Collected Works of Abba.
But that's about all, really. The rest of these selections are usually interesting, but not gripping. Good B-level material. Can't believe editor Hoskyns really thinks these are classic examples of what rock writers wrote about.
For that, check out the DA CAPO BOOK OF ROCK AND ROLL WRITING, or those annual YEAR'S BEST MUSIC WRITING collections that I'm still finding buried gems in.

Coming soon: More Nostalgia -- "A Night at the Opera."

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Cousin Jim's band

In the fall of 1973, after I moved back to Idaho from Washington, my cousin Jim suggested we should team up to write songs. He was taking organ lessons and learning how to sort of string notes together. I'd been feverishly scribbling short stories for a couple years. Seemed like an obvious first step toward forming a band.
I had visions of my cousin becoming a younger Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman. Turned out the organ he was learning how to play was one of those little living-room electric organs millions of families had back in the early '70s when they were briefly a fad -- the kind that "anyone" could play, with "automatic" settings and reedy keyboard tones and percussion noises like a popcorn machine.
I quickly churned out half a dozen lyrics for Jim, waiting to see where this might lead. The high-school girl who was teaching Jim how to make noise on the keyboard thought the lyrics were OK, and said she might be interested in joining us if we were planning on forming a group. It helped that Jim had a big crush on her. That was always motivational -- one of the lyrics I wrote was about a girl classmate I had a crush on. She didn't even know my name.
All we needed for our "band" was someone who could sing, a guitarist, bassist and drummer. None of that was ever going to happen. Mostly because neither Jim or I knew any musicians our age, and neither of us were very outgoing.
Jim never got any tunes written -- I'm sure it was much harder than writing lyrics -- and the band idea died. I thought making random squawking noises on the organ was much more fun (and much easier) than actually learning to PLAY the thing. But then, I never had enough self-discipline to learn how to play an instrument.
I didn't put much weight on any of this stuff at the time. It was just another phase we went through. After all, I grew up with Jim. He was my closest friend for years, and indirectly introduced me to radio, rock and roll, and science fiction. I thought he was a normal 14-year-old, just like me.
Then I started noticing that he was maybe just a little slow. I first noted this when I was the only one of his friends who showed up for his 15th birthday party. We didn't care. We had a great time anyway, fumbling our way through making homemade pizza. We managed to not poison ourselves, and even cleaned up after ourselves, which must have been a relief for my Aunt Vera, Jim's mom.
I spent most of the summer of 1974 with Jim, riding our bikes around Cascade Reservoir in the mountains of central Idaho, getting farther into music and science fiction, spending the whole summer doing what we wanted, as if parents and chores didn't exist. When I did talk to my aunt and uncle, it was mainly to tell them how out-of-date their musical tastes were. They listened to stuff from the '40s! They liked Lawrence Welk!
After high school, Jim would occasionally show up at my front door without warning, hanging around for three hours and expecting me to entertain him somehow. But that wasn't as easy as it had been when we were 14 or 15.
At one point, I lived next door to him in the same dumpy trailer court. There Jim pretty much kept to himself, which was kind of a surprise. But after my girlfriend Tina got grabbed while throwing out the trash one night, only then did Jim reveal that a woman had been raped in the trailer court a year earlier -- as if this information wasn't that important, as if we didn't need to be careful.
Somewhere I had passed Jim by. I realized it, maybe he did too. I was hanging out with people like me, with interests in music and writing, who were maybe too fast and glib for my cousin. Sometimes they were too fast and glib for me.
Later, when I'd moved to an apartment elsewhere, Jim showed up at the front door without warning for the third night in a row, and I told him to go home and try calling first next time -- that I wasn't put here to entertain him all the time.
He went -- and the next time I talked to him a year later I was unemployed and looking for work. Jim had started driving a taxi, and thought there might be a spot for me. I was set to join the Air Force in six months, but that wouldn't feed me right then. Jim got me an interview -- then told the boss that I was leaving in six months, and the boss refused to hire me. I was furious about that one.
But Jim DID take me and my future ex-wife out for drinks a couple nights before I went off to basic training....
I went off to the military and then reporting, and lost touch with my cousin for 25 years. The next time I saw him was at my mother's funeral in 2008 -- where I barely recognized him. Suddenly he was a foot shorter than me -- how could that have happened? Just a dapper little man in a dark suit. We didn't talk.
After that he got in touch by e-mail, and said maybe we should start corresponding. But his letters were very odd -- he kept trying to sell me things. He barely spoke about himself at all. I finally pried out of him that he was living in a small town, with a crazy woman who made him do all the household chores, and who allowed him two hours a day to go to the library, where he tracked me down on the Internet. He had no job, no car, no prospects. He sounded like he was trapped in hell.
I wanted to know what he'd been doing for the past 25 years -- we had a lot to catch up on, right? He wouldn't tell me. Naturally, as an ex-reporter, I wondered what he was hiding, and I said so. He said I was "verbally nasty," and threatened to send Mormon missionaries to my door. He said what was missing in my life was God. I said God had certainly done him a lot of good.
That's about where we left it. A year or so ago, he e-mailed me and suggested we start writing again, ghod knows why. I responded that if he planned to try to sell me things or talk about the weather, he might as well not bother. If he wanted to write about something meaningful, bring it on. Naturally, he didn't bother, and awhile later I found out his e-mail address no longer worked.
Last week, while brainstorming blog ideas, I thought about the band Jim and I never had, and I looked him up on Facebook. There I learned that he'd become a Trumper, is still into God, and is apparently addicted to on-line video games. His Facebook page barely says a word about him personally. Can't tell if he's still with the same crazy woman, but he's still in the same town.
I'm sure if I "friended" him he'd respond, and would likely become that one person in my life I seem to have a sick need to Argue With. I'd prefer to avoid that. But he reinforces my belief that God and Trump are lifelines for people who Can't Figure Out What's Going On and feel deeply threatened and scared by it.
So though I may feel bad about some of the things I've said in the past, I'm not so sure that I really want to get back in touch....

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Growing up in the country

When my family moved from Boise to Meridian in June 1974, I thought we were moving to The Sticks, even though it was just 10 miles directly west, out into the country. Meridian wasn't the sprawling mess then that it is now -- back then it was just a small rural agricultural town of maybe 3,000 people, though it was soon to be home of the largest school district in the state.
Moved away from my favorite used bookstore ever, I had to find new places to supply my addictions. One tiny hole-in-the-wall bookstore in "downtown" Meridian briefly supplied me with old science fiction magazines from the late '60s, but they didn't have much else and they weren't around long.
So I fell back on Meridian Drug -- an old-style drug store from back in the day when drug stores had a whole lot more than just medical stuff. Meridian Drug not only had a great book and magazine rack, they had a music section, too -- all the latest vinyl, plus occasional surprises. Once they had on display a dozen new, sealed copies of INTRODUCING THE BEATLES, on Vee-Jay Records, selling for $1.99. Why I didn't grab one of those I don't know, unless I thought I had enough Beatles at home already.
Actually, I didn't have that much music at home. Lots of 45's and tons of cassette tapes filled up by recording songs off the radio, but not that much on album. The Moody Blues' SEVENTH SOJOURN, THE BEST OF BREAD, Neil Diamond's first GREATEST HITS, INTRODUCING LOBO, Three Dog Night's HARMONY, the first Osmonds album, TUBULAR BELLS, The Carpenters' SINGLES -- the usual child's starter-kit of pop music. Grabbing stuff a cousin was bored with, I added copies of Simon and Garfunkel's BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (and finally heard the gorgeous "Only Living Boy in New York" and the great melodrama of "The Boxer"), The Beach Boys' SUMMER DAYS (AND SUMMER NIGHTS!) (worth it just for "Let Him Run Wild," "Help Me Rhonda" and "California Girls"), and Peter, Paul and Mary's TEN YEARS TOGETHER best-of. But that still wasn't much.
In the first few months of high school I'd add The Beatles '62-'66 and '67-'70, ABBEY ROAD and the White Album, plus YESSONGS, and the rest of The Moody Blues' "Classic 7." But there was still so much I hadn't heard yet, and I knew it.
Meanwhile, I'd been getting my science-fiction magazines second-hand for a quarter each. Meridian Drug carried GALAXY, a mag I'd never previously liked much, which was reborn from mid-1974 through 1977 thanks to editor Jim Baen -- it became the most interesting magazine in the field, publishing wonderful fun stories by John Varley, Larry Niven, Roger Zelazny, Frederik Pohl and a bunch more. The grocery store a couple doors down from the drugstore carried ANALOG, AMAZING and FANTASTIC, so one 10-minute bike ride from the trailer park we lived in could set me up with enough reading for a month. It never occurred to me to wonder how a small rural town in Idaho could be so well-supplied with SF magazines.
The book rack at Meridian Drug kept me well-supplied too. It was the first place I saw a copy of Samuel R. Delany's huge and notorious "science fiction" novel DHALGREN, which I never bought new and could never get more than 200 pages into, despite repeated attempts. Delany had been brilliant once, wonder what happened....
MD also put me in touch with a collection of writings about The Who from the pages of ROLLING STONE -- "THE WHO: TEN GREAT YEARS." I'd been a Who fan since hearing "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," "Love, Reign O'er Me" and "Bell Boy" on the radio a few years earlier. I'd soon add a copy of WHO'S NEXT to my cheap collection of tapes.
Next I tripped over a Beach Boys biography and a huge collection of record reviews from ROLLING STONE, and started longing for a bunch of music I'd never heard. So I started pursuing that. There was life-changing music out there that the radio never played, and I couldn't figure out why. It was easy to get interested in off-the-wall music then -- 1974-75 was a pretty dull musical period in a lot of ways.
That first couple years in the trailer park, I was still trying to figure out what interested me, where I fit in. Then I got on my high-school newspaper, and most of my uncertainties ended. I finally realized I was where I should be, where my talents fit in best.
My best friend ever lived in that same trailer park -- but I didn't meet him until three years later, I was so withdrawn and anti-social and scared of embarrassing myself by talking with people. Most of the friends I had ended up living in that trailer park at one time or another. It really was a small world, back then.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


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 as a reporter. 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.