31 December 2007

Mom And I Go To Oakland

Saturday being my next to last day in California, I asked Mom if she'd like to go with me on a little outing. She can still drive, but won't do so on freeways or major highways, so it's not too often that she gets out of the orbit of church, shopping mall and senior center, all of which can be found in about a ten-block radius of her house.

She was up for it, but we had a little trouble deciding where exactly we should go. Downtown San Francisco didn't make sense because of the traffic. I suggested BARTing it instead, but she said, "I can do that anytime; we should go somewhere I can't drive to on my own. She wasn't at all interested in going someplace scenic like the Marin Headlands or the San Francisco Presidio. "I'm not in the mood for the country. I want to go somewhere in town."

"Ever been to San Jose?" I asked half-flippantly. "Yes, a couple of times," she replied, which is at least one more time than I've been there. But no, that wasn't it, either. Finally she decided on Oakland. She and my dad lived there for a while in the early 90s, and they both had happy memories of that time, before he broke his hip and the two of them could still get around by public transit and walking.

So we decided to revisit some of their old haunts. "It must be ten years since I was here," became the afternoon's refrain. First we stopped in Rockridge, which was in walking distance of their old house, and she pointed out the restaurants and cafes they used to stop at, all of which were either packed out with Saturday afternoon shoppers without a free table in sight or had long ago gone out of business. I did my requisite bit of bitching about Oakland a dysfunctional city administered by baboons recently escaped from the insane asylum, this time (it's always something) triggered by the unsynchronized traffic lights and the one-hour parking limit on College Avenue, i.e., enough time to get seated at one of the local restaurants, but not enough to finish your meal before being hit with a $50 parking ticket.

We finally gave up trying to find anywhere to eat in Rockridge and migrated over to Piedmont Avenue. Here we had some better luck, both in parking (several blocks away, but it was free and we had two hours) and in finding something to eat. Nothing fancy, true - just as in Rockridge, the nice restaurants were oversubscribed or unaccountably closed for the day - but certainly adequate. By then we'd covered a couple miles on foot, and Mom was getting a bit tired - she is 89, after all - so we embarked on a driving tour of the less salubrious parts of Oakland, i.e., pretty much everywhere else.

We cruised along Broadway for a while, which she remembered from when my dad and she used to take the bus downtown. I pointed out the many vacant storefronts, the shopping center that more or less isn't there anymore, the spot where Dr. Frank got attacked by racist thugs in broad daylight a year or two ago. Then we were downtown, also littered with vacant or under-utilized buildings and storefronts, but also punctuated by new construction, presumably the residual result of former Mayor Jerry Brown's plan to build apartments for 10,000 new residents, most of whom haven't showed up yet.

"Looks kind of like Detroit before they burned it down," I suggested, but Mom, who grew up in Detroit, wasn't seeing it. In some part of her world, Detroit will always be beautiful regardless of what's happened to it in more recent years, and so, I suspect, will Oakland.

She was especially keen on seeing Jack London Square, which she and Dad frequently visited in the 90s, but that turned out to be the biggest disappointment. I myself hadn't been there in years, and while it's still picturesque, it suffers from the same disease as much of Oakland: half the storefronts are vacant, and those that were occupied were doing little or no business. By the time we'd strolled around a few blocks, it was beginning to get dark and the few shoppers/tourists/hangers-on still on the scene melted away. It was as though everyone had to get off the streets before nightfall and the zombie attacks began.

One thing that puzzled me was the plethora of reasonably decent hotels in the vicinity. Why on earth would someone want to stay there, in a back corner of Oakland not particularly well served by public transport and cut off from civilization by the couple miles of terribleness that are downtown, West Oakland, East Oakland, etc.? I know (or so I've been told) that Jack London Square offers a fair bit of night life, but I'd been led to understand that it too frequently involved gunplay for most conventioneers to find it appealing.

After leaving JLS, we took a rambling route through many of the parts of Oakland you're probably better off avoiding, as State Senator Don Perata found out that same afternoon when he was carjacked at gunpoint on the corner of 51st and Shattuck. I would say that it could have been us instead, but I rather doubt that our '95 Buick would have the same appeal to thugs as the Senator's fancy-pants Dodge Charger. But that reminded me that during our entire time in Oakland, during which we covered quite a few square miles, I never saw a single cop. Well, I did see one, but he was an Alameda County Sheriff's Deputy on official business, not an Oakland cop on patrol. Come to think of it, it's been so long since I've seen an actual Oakland cop that I don't even remember what their cars look like (black and white, I'm thinking, but as I said, it's been a long time).

Mom enjoyed the outing, I think, and I did, too, both because of her company, and also because the nice bits of Oakland were, um, nice, and the rotten bits left us unscathed. But quite apart from that, I found the overall sight and spectacle of Oakland rather deeply depressing. It's a failing city suffering from corrupt and/or incompetent government, and while its resemblance to Detroit - a failed city on a scale similar to several West African states - is mostly superficial, it's not unimaginable that it could follow a similarly dismal trajectory.

It probably won't, thanks to its being surrounded by a somewhat more healthy metropolitan area, and to the force of gentrification, which might - just might - eventually produce a more responsive and responsible city government. But at present I could see it going either way, and my one overriding thought is one of gratitude that Mom doesn't live there anymore and that - with any luck - I will never have to.

30 December 2007

Ready For The 90s

As I've said before, I'm quite fond of bicycles and bicycle riding; bicyclists, not so much. I think of them as the vegans of the transportation world: shrill, sanctimonious, arrogant and often insufferable.

Not all bicyclists, of course, and certainly not all vegans. But both groups tend to be dominated and/or misrepresented by their loudest and most obnoxious members. In recent years I've softened my stance on vegans, if only because two of my very favorite people, Kendra K. and Robojoe, fall into that camp. However, my disdain for bicyclists, even though I'm frequently one myself, continues apace.

Let's clarify: I think it would be perfectly wonderful if whole sections of the city were cleared of automobile traffic to make room for bicycles and pedestrians. Dedicated bicycle lanes of the sort seen in many European cities not only make great sense but are practically the moral prerogative of taxpaying bicyclists (well, some of them have jobs) who shouldn't have to risk their lives by sharing the street with two-ton internal combustion behemoths piloted by oblivious sociopaths.

So you'd think I'd be a card-carrying member of Critical Mass, the protest group that uses a massive assemblage of bicycles to tie up commuter traffic once a month in many cities of the world. And I wanted to be, too, but the very first Critical Mass ride I attended, sometime in the early to mid-90s, put me right off that idea.

The concept itself is sheer brilliance: by congregating en masse, bicyclists demonstrate that the entirely legal actions of individuals can, when multiplied by hundreds or thousands, wreak havoc on the right and freedom of others to go about their business. In other words, exactly what automobile drivers do to society on a daily basis.

But from that very first Critical Mass ride, I quickly discovered that a significant number of the participants were little more than low-grade thugs whose main goal was not to change society's attitude toward bicycles, but rather to pick fights with police and motorists. So many years - going on 15, I'd guess - passed between my first Critical Mass ride and my second, which was in fact last night.

It was not my idea of how to spend a fiercely cold San Franciscan night, especially one that promised medium to heavy rain before it was over, but my riding companion, a Mr. A. Cometbus, is a persuasive cuss. "Just because we don't agree with everything they stand for," he reasoned, "doesn't mean we should write the whole thing off."

I refrained from pointing out that the same argument could be made in favor of attending a George Bush campaign rally, and followed Mr. C. down Valencia and Market Streets, two of the only routes in SF which are basically flat if not entirely bicycle-friendly (you try weaving in and out among buses, trucks, and irate cabbies at rush hour; I clipped - entirely accidentally - three side mirrors trying to thread my way between vehicles and the curb), down to the assembly point at the Embarcadero.

Aaron thought there might be "about 10,000" riders; there were more like a couple hundred. San Franciscans are not a tough lot; as committed as they may be to the revolution, it had better be scheduled for a warmer time of the year if you want them to turn out in any numbers.

We waited there in hopes more stragglers would turn up. One extremely loud and extremely drunk man punctuated his guzzles from a large green bottle with ear-piercing bellows that echoed across the plaza and off the walls of the Hyatt Regency. After nearly an hour of this, I was almost ready to point him out to the cops who were standing guard over us and ask them to arrest the joker for public intoxication. Alas, I didn't, and as punishment, was forced to ride through the streets of San Francisco hearing his inane cries of "Go back where you came from" and "This is my country," both apparently meant to imply that anyone who didn't support our cause was an interloper from Walnut Creek or Kansas. I mused rather darkly to the effect that out of the entire body of Critical Mass riders, no more than 5 or 10% were likely to be San Francisco or even Bay Area natives, and that many of them were no doubt the kind of 80s and 90s arrivistes that those of us who made it onto the scene in the 60s or 70s used to always bitch about.

But apart from him and a handful of other noisy lunkheads, most of the Critical Massers seemed like perfectly decent people, and after a while I relaxed and began to enjoy the ride. Having the Broadway Tunnel to ourselves was pleasant, and when the rain arrived, it did so at a time when we were riding uphill and needed to cool off. The police followed us everywhere on both bikes and motorcycles, and stopped us from turning up or down certain streets, but at the same time blocked off traffic for us on others. It was an ideal way and speed to see San Francisco, Aaron remarked; just fast enough so you don't notice a lot of the crap.

And he was right; as we cruised down Upper Fillmore, I found myself thinking that San Francisco hadn't looked this good in years. Maybe it was the low-hanging clouds and the misty rain blurring the harsher contours of the city, but it began to look and feel more like the romantic little toytown I'd fallen in love with so many years ago. Even the bone-numbing cold that's been afflicting us for the past few days seemed to have lifted, and by the time we spun off from the group, I was feeling downright benign toward what I used to routinely refer to as Critical Massholes. Well, most of them, anyway.

We finished up the night at the Apple Store in downtown San Francisco, where Aaron - who has a mostly but not entirely undeserved reputation as a Luddite - was trying to get a computer he'd been given repaired. This struck me as just incongruous enough - we are talking, of course, about the man who until recently hand lettered his entire and not inconsiderable output of books and magazines - to give him a gentle ribbing. But Aaron took it in good stead, and joined in by pointing out that with the level of technology he'd now accumulated, he was "ready for the 90s." Which is about as far into the future as I've ever heard Aaron profess himself ready to explore and embrace, and which of course was also the decade in which Critical Mass was at its apex.

Anyway, upshot of it is that I rode Critical Mass without getting arrested, beat up, or into any blazing political rows with my commie/anarchist riding buddies, though I might have come close when I told one young fellow who was arguing fervently that "the 60s weren't a failure" that the 60s were in fact an extended clown show. Come to think of it, the Critical Mass gang were downright sedate and civil compared with the yahoos and troglodytes unleashed on the world by the New Left and hippie revolutions. Will I join them on future rides? That remains to be seen, but in the meantime, let me declare in solidarity with Mr. C: roll on the 90s!

27 December 2007

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent...

Most people have heard Mark Twain's crack about the coldest winter he'd ever spent being a summer in San Francisco. I'm guessing Mr. Twain must have left town before the real winter set in.

I must admit that I'm befuddled: two weeks ago in New York it was 20F/-7C in New York and it wasn't this cold. Where I grew up, hell itself (aka Detroit) was frozen over for several months of the year and it wasn't this miserable. During the four days I've been here, the temperature has been mostly in the 40s and high 30s (3-10C) and yet I'm longing to get back to New York where it's at least a couple degrees colder.

Maybe certain types of cold are colder than others? You know, the way they also say, "It's a dry heat" when they're trying to explain to you why their particular hellhole isn't as unpleasant as yours is in the summer? In other words, some quality - like the dampness, for example - makes San Francisco cold so much more obtrusive and unpleasant than East Coast cold?

Well, that theory might have some legs if it weren't for the fact that I lived in California for many years, and also in England, which has a similar maritime climate. And while I've endured terrible bouts with the cold here before, it only occasionally felt this bad, even when in actuality it was much worse, like the time in 1988 or 89 when the whole Bay Area stayed in the 20s and low 30s (-5 to 0C) for a week or so and I was hanging out at the Ashtray (aka Screeching Weasel's Punkhouse), which not only had no heat, but also had large holes in the walls leading directly to the frozen outdoors.

So why is this minor cold spell troubling me so much, and why I am hankering to be back in New York so I can warm up at last? Answering the second question first, at least in New York they have sensibly hot furnaces and radiators, and I also have put in a goodly store of long underwear, scarves, gloves and, of course, my (fake) fur hat. Here in California, where everybody likes to pretend they're in the land of the Endless Summer, such patently sensible commodities are in a short supply.

In fact, what is in truly short supply is the "sensible" bit. San Francisco/Berkeley/Oakland/El Cerrito are not sensible places. They are basically living in la-la land, but without the creature comforts you'd think were incumbent on la-la land. You want to lie around nibbling on lotus leaves, at least find somewhere sunny, warm and beachy to do it, not some desolate, cold, deserted, crime-ridden backwater.

Speaking of backwaters, Berkeley's sad slide from Athens of the West into Rust Belt-style oblivion continues apace. The anchor tenant of its "downtown," Ross Dress For Less (a couple steps up from wig shops and check-cashing joints but well down the scale from Target or Walmart) is upping sticks, no longer able to make a go of it in the elephant's graveyard for small-time muggers and feral beggars that Berkeley City Council in its wisdom has decided to turn its main commercial area into.

Writing in the Berkeley Daily Planet (it doesn't come out daily and, as you'd expect in Berkeley, is not of this planet), one angst-ridden commentator after another argues that it's not the beggars or the derelicts or the criminals that have driven businesses and ordinary people out of downtown and the Telegraph Avenue/South Campus area. It's the "lack of parking," they say, or "the internet," or "this terrible economy" (funny, that last one; pretty much everywhere else in America the economy has been flourishing ever since the early 90s, during all of which time Berkeley's shops continued to close and its street life continued to deteriorate).

It's also odd how other cities, including some with far less parking than Berkeley (New York, for example) have seen almost unbroken expansion and prosperity in their retail economies. But then Berkeley never was big on personal responsibility, or any kind of responsibility for that matter.

On the plus side, one of the cafes that still prospers is the one at the corner of Shattuck and Hearst, which offers free wireless internet and thus is perennially packed with geeks like myself. In fact, having been subjected to the 20th century indignity of dial-up internet access out there in the wilds of El Cerrito where I'm staying, it's doubtful I'd be posting to this blog at all were it not for the tender ministrations of Berkeley Espresso (and the coffee's not bad either).

No big ups, on the other hand, for Telegaph's long-standing bastion of beatnik, hippie and punk culture, the Cafe Mediterraneum, which much to the chagrin of A. Cometbus and myself, was closed on Christmas Day after decades of being a reliable refuge for the footloose and disconnected when all else was barred to them. Anyway, it wouldn't be Berkeley without me bitching about it, so now that I've done my bit, I'm going to pack up my laptop and BART it back to El Cerrito and bury myself in blankets until it's time to return to the comfort and sanity of Brooklyn.

25 December 2007

I'll Be Home For Christmas

I remember hearing my mom talk about the way this song had just about everyone in tears at Christmas time in 1943. It's easy to see why: whether you were a GI stuck on the other side of the world in a war that looked like it might never end, or you were celebrating another bittersweet and lonely holiday back on the home front, wondering when or if you'd ever see your loved one(s) again, the idea of a simple, old-fashioned family Christmas must have seemed impossibly remote. People must have wondered if things would ever be normal again.

"I'll be home for Christmas," the song begins, "you can count on me." Then after recounting some of the joys to be anticipated - "snow, and mistletoe, and presents on the tree" it winds up with the grim reality: "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

It's so much easier today, when getting home for the holidays no longer requires winning a war, merely putting up with some crowded airports and highways, but I suspect that ease, like familiarity, breeds, if not contempt, at least a casual disregard. Many people seem to treat the annual pilgrimage as a slightly tiresome duty, and it wasn't all that many years ago that I was guilty of just such an attitude. Oh, I'd go, all right, most years, anyway, but my journey was typically accompanied by an ironic bit of eye-rolling, as if to say, "Well, if it makes them happy I guess I can play along."

I don't know when things changed; my dad's death in 2004 certainly had something to do with making me realize that the family wouldn't always be there to come back to. But it was really a few years earlier that I found myself thinking, "You know, I actually kind of like my family." We were never especially close, though that's changed a bit as well since Dad died, and being the assiduous fault-finder that I've been known to be, I never had trouble pointing out the many reasons why it made no sense for us to be together as a family.

"If we weren't related, would I want to hang out with these people?" I'd ask myself, and the answer was usually, "Not particularly." But that's no longer the case; I found myself genuinely looking forward to seeing everybody this year. Even if I wasn't particularly keen on leaving New York, it was a sacrifice well worth making.

So Christmas Eve found me boarding the L train headed for JFK (change at Broadway Junction for the A, in case you're wondering), making my way through a surprisingly tranquil airport, and sitting though an unremarkable but slightly bumpy six and a half hour ride to California that took off and landed only a half hour late. Then another hour and 15 minutes on the Bay Area's own Toonerville Trolley (aka BART) and I was walking the darkened (except for the glow of Christmas lights) streets of El Cerrito. It was only 8 o'clock at night, but it felt like I had the entire city to myself, and that I was far more than 3,000 miles from the ever-bustling streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

But down at the bottom of a small hill I could see the lights of home, and there they all were, all except for niece Gabrielle, who's back in New York. I'd missed dinner, but they saved some for me, and though nothing special went on apart from washing the dinner dishes and sitting quietly near the Christmas tree and fireplace, it was worth every minute of the journey. How many more years will it be possible for all of us (minus Dad, of course) to be together? Probably not that many, and just as the day grows more precious as the sun begins its descent into the sea, and as we clutch at the dwindling days of summer when September heaves into view, it suddenly seems a lot more important to cherish each other while we can.

This is my first time back in California since I gave up that little room I kept for so long in Berkeley, and it was odd indeed to stay seated as the train sped past the Berkeley stop. Old habits die hard, too; when I boarded the train, I caught myself automatically heading for the second car from the front, the one that would line up with the stairs at the far end of the Berkeley station where I'd been disembarking for the past 17 years or so. Then I remembered that the El Cerrito exit was at the opposite end of the platform, and started to sigh, before asking myself, "Do I miss Berkeley at all?" Answer: not really.

I'll head over there tomorrow anyway, in between Christmas breakfast/present opening and Christmas dinner, to see a couple friends and celebrate Jewish Christmas (walking around the deserted streets) with Aaron Cometbus. Right now it's way past my bedtime, especially by Mom's House standards, and there's a spooky, chilly wind outside that's seeming to blow right through his house. In an inversion of the old song, I'd be safe, or at least warm, if I was in New York, but there's a different kind of warmth on offer here, and if nothing else, plenty of blankets. Merry Christmas, everyone.

21 December 2007

The Longest Night

I celebrated the first day of winter by riding my bike to McCarren Park to do t'ai chi, then to the gym, and finally to my friend Luis' new shop and café, only to find out afterward that I'd been misinformed, that the solstice won't actually occur for another 8 1/2 hours, at 1:08 this morning.

Oh, well, close enough. Today looked suitably wintry and bleak enough, and after all, beginning tomorrow, the days get longer and brighter. Why, a mere three months from now the trees will budding and the flowers will be poking their tender heads through the still half-frozen soil and the peace and quiet of McCarren Park in midwinter will be but a distant memory as thousands of hipsters and children and long-suffering old-timers come flocking at the first hint of a balmy breeze.

And what's three months, anyway? Remember how quickly last summer came and went? Before we even had a chance to do one tenth the things we'd planned to do? Regardless of what it might it seem like at times, winter is just as brief, just as fleeting, and just as likely to be gone long before we've really got going on that list of things to accomplish before spring.

But today, bundled up tightly enough to keep warm but loosely enough to allow me to do the series of jumps and kicks that constitute my t'ai chi set, I caught myself willing the winter to speed quickly to its conclusion only to have another part of me protest, "Not so fast! You've only got a finite number of winters and summers left, and that number is getting all the more finite with the passage of time."

Young people often protest when I engage in what seem to them like morbid thoughts, but which to me are only realistic: I can't help wondering, for example, how many more years I'll be able to ride my bike to the park, or even do t'ai chi, though legend has it that Master Guo, who was the teacher of my teacher, celebrated his 90th birthday by getting a little tipsy at a party in his honor and then leaping up to knock a pesky housefly out of the air with a deftly executed scissors kick.

Speaking of masters, yesterday a schoolkid shouted, "What kind of martial art is that?" as he walked past. "Tai ji quan," I said, giving it its full Chinese name and pronunciation, "It means 'Great ultimate fist.'" (It does, too.)

"Cool," he said. "Are you a master?"

I thought about that for a minute. "No, not really. Far from it, in fact."

"So how long you been doing it, then?"

"30 years."

"30 years? Thirty?"

"Yep." He walked on, shaking his head at the crazy white dude who's been doing kung fu for twice as long as he's been alive and still hasn't mastered it. If he'd been inclined to stick around for a couple more minutes, I would have explained that this wasn't the sort of thing you ever mastered, that much like life itself, the practice and the process were more important than any end result," but when you're 15 and are mainly interested in how it takes before you're ready to murdalyze someone, you don't really want to hear philosophical disquisition on why the dao that can be told is not the eternal dao.

The day grew quiet again, except for the car alarm that went off every time a heavy car or truck went by, and the Mexicans high atop some scaffolding putting the finishing touches on those high rise apartments across the park, who would whistle loudly and insistently whenever anyone looking remotely female walked by. It was the last couple hours of the Friday before Christmas, and nobody seemed interested in working particularly hard. The women mostly ignored them, but that hardly discouraged them; they just whistled all the louder.

Later on, as it was getting dark, I headed into the city. I had some business to take care of in Chelsea, and by the time I was finished, a chilly wind was blowing in off the Hudson. Without the wind, it would have been a reasonably comfortable evening, but with it... well, it was just enough to keep people stepping along rather than lolling about chatting on street corners.

I was enjoying the lights and sounds and smells of the city more than usual, especially when I caught a glimpse of the Empire State Building lit up for the holidays in red, white and green (I suppose it could also have been in commemoration of something Italian or Mexican, but I'm pretty sure it was about Christmas.) I was strolling along in an extraordinarily benign and contented state of mind when, as I crossed 8th Avenue, a chain reaction collision sent a stopped taxi flying forward into the crosswalk, just a few feet ahead of me. If I'd been walking at my normal fast and furious pace, I probably would have been right in the line of fire.

That shook me up a bit, or at least took me temporarily out of my zone of tranquility for the next block or two. Then, on an impulse, I hopped the 1 train up to Columbus Circle, thinking I'd have a look at the Christmas decorations up in that end of town.

I'm not normally much of a mall person, but I wandered into the Time Warner Center, as much to get out of the cold as anything, and in the lobby was treated to a spectacular view of giant illuminated snowflakes constantly changing colors in time to piped-in Christmas music, and this against the backdrop of the several stories high windows looking out onto the Circle and the lights and traffic of Central Park South. I don't mind saying I was awestruck, and I was far from the only one; a couple dozen people were gaping and gawping along with me. There are times when it's easy to take New York City for granted, but this was not one of them.

With the last of my Christmas shopping safe in hand, I headed downtown once more for the closest thing to a PPMB Christmas party we were likely to see. Bill Florio's eight or ten or however many-piece Lost Locker Combo, clad in matching Santa hats and spraying liquid snow on anyone unwise enough to stand up front, opened what was a more or less secret show for MC Chris in the basement of the Ludlow Street's Cake Shop. Most of the PPMB crew were there - we missed Grath McGrath and Michelle Shirelle - and nearly all in uproarious good humor, although perennial wiseacre Jonny Whoa Oh rather sternly took me to task for wearing my "I'm A Viking On The PPMB" t-shirt, a rather convoluted in-joke that's too, well, convoluted to try and explain here.

Following the band/rapper, a fellow from the Hold Steady took over as DJ and there was much goofy dancing, this also to the chagrin of Mr. Whoa Oh, who insisted that he was focusing "like a laser" on "talking business" when Stephanie, Mikey Erg and I surrounded and enveloped him with our dancing fool-ness. Stephanie kept flipping the tassel on his Santa hat (not part of J Whoa Oh's normally quite dapper attire, but he's a member of the LLC and was still in costume following his performance), but even that was not enough to sway from his laser-like concentration on being serious.

Better results were achieved with the normally reticent Joe III and Chris Grivet, both of whom busted out some rather funky moves (that Grivet is a surprisingly slick dancer, I must say) to the delight of Chadd Derkins, who sat, Buddha-like and wreathed in holiday delight. Kelly Lynn came floating in looking positively radiant (she'd just come from seeing the Lemonheads, who for some reason she adores) and left an hour later wearing a string of silver tinsel (and the rest of her clothes, too), looking more spectacular still.

Crystal Jettrocks, just back from Hollywood, put in an appearance, as did Danny Momac and Oliver Poopsounds, Chris A. and P. Smith, Colin Challenged and Rob Suss. Even Charles In Charge, who normally shows up for these things no more than once or twice a year, was in full effect. The only sour note - well, there were two, actually: on the the way to the club, while crossing the Bowery, I saw a bicyclist get hit head on by a car. He went flying over the hood and hit the pavement with a sickening thud - thank God he was wearing a helmet - but then got up and, when asked if he was all right, said, "I think so." That spooked me, though it having been the second traffic accident in as many hours to unfold right in front of me.

I also found myself thinking, okay, these things come in threes, don't they? Which probably means the next horrible thing is going to happen to me. And it almost did, thanks in no small part to Oliver Poopsounds, who as were standing on the sidewalk out front decided it would be fun to pick a fight with a drunken American supporter of Chelsea Football Club. Only Oliver's version of fun involved picking the fight on my behalf, basically saying every rude thing he'd ever heard English football supporters say and then pointing at me as if to suggest he was speaking on my behalf.

It didn't help, of course, that my team, Fulham, is a longtime arch-rival of Chelsea, even though I have no interest in this rivalry and kind of actually like Chelsea. It also didn't help that, when the drunk put his arm around me and sang an abusive Chelsea song about Fulham in my ear but mistakenly referred to "Fulham UFC," I had to correct him and point out that it was "FFC." At that point he shoved me rather roughly and I almost fell into a parked car before deciding this was a good time to take my leave.

So was that enough of a mishap to round out the day's trio of misfortunes? If not, I then remembered another one: on the way to McCarren Park earlier today, a guy stepped out from between two parked trucks and I very nearly ran him down with my bicycle. If I had hit him, it probably would have done me more damage than him, as I almost certainly would have gone flying, and I wasn't wearing a helmet. A bad habit of mine which I'm going to have think seriously about changing.

I got home from the city at 2:30 and as I finish writing this it's coming up on 5 am. It's officially winter now, and the year's longest night is crawling to a conclusion. Apart from the occasional bits of unpleasantness mentioned above, it's been a good one. A good night, a good year, a good life, for that matter. I feel almost alarmingly content with everything.

Birthday Shuffle

Last summer, when I was still tentatively considering hosting a big birthday party myself in October, I stayed up late one night putting together an iTunes list of some songs that had been important to me at one stage or another of my life. The plan was to shuffle the list and let it play throughout the night.

As you will know, if only from not having received your invitations, the party never happened, but I still have the never-used sound track for it, and like to listen to it on those infrequent occasions when I find myself feeling especially reflective. Like, say, winter solstices...

And for some reason, I decided to jot down some thoughts about the various songs as they played, what they meant to me, for example, or how I came to know the band involved, or why I should probably delete that song from my playlist but can't quite bring myself to, etc.

WARNING: The list is continuing to play as I type, and like another famous list, is "thousands long," so there's no telling when or if this post may end. As long as that's understood, here we go:

"Claire Monet" - Screeching Weasel. This came out right as my longtime friendship with Ben Weasel was starting to sour (thankfully it's since been restored), and I also worked on the mixing of the album, which made it kind of doubly or triply poignant for me. No matter how bad relations between Ben and me got, and they were pretty bad for a while there, I never stopped appreciating his ability as a singer/songwriter/performer, and never more so than on his more thoughtful/reflective songs. "If she can't go on being Claire Monet, who can?" rang like a heartfelt epitaph for lost idealism and vanishing youth.

"Runaway" - Del Shannon. This was #1 in the spring of '61, when I was 13 going on 30 and couldn't wait to break loose from the constraints of church, home and family. It was ringing in my ears that bright April day when I went aimlessly wandering down the creek at the end of my street and met up with the Vandals (later to become the Rebels and still later the Saints), who would become my first street gang. That haunting organ riff in the middle was my personal chime of freedom, but of the tragically doomed variety.

"Love Will Tear Us Apart" - Joy Division. I was only vaguely aware of Joy Division when Tim Yohannan half-jokingly ("I guess he hung himself, heh heh") announced Ian Curtis' death on the Maximum Rocknroll radio show. Soon afterward I had copies of nearly everything they'd recorded, and that discography has faded in and out of my life in more or less inverse proportion to my degree of despondency. Once I tried to will myself dead (helped along by a dozen codeine tablets and a quart of whiskey) by putting "The Eternal" on endless repeat in the belief that the sheer sadness of it all would eventually overpower any desire to live. "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is probably the ultimate Joy Division song; when I finally saw New Order perform it at Reading in 1998, I nearly expired then and there.

"There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" - The Smiths. Total random coincidence that these two popped up together: from the greatest Joy Division song to the greatest Smiths song, with both having served as soundtrack to countless teenage tragedies. My own band covered this song once, inadvisably, as it turned out, for though our musicians did a credible job of reproducing the sound of the Smiths, my vocals weren't quite up to the job. They were... adequate, which is nowhere near the level of mastery one needs when tacking a magnum opus like this one.

"Trinidad" - Brent's TV. One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands ever. Brent's TV, who played on the streets and in the laundromats of Arcata more than they did in actual clubs or venues, were the original inspiration for the Potatomen (but please don't hold that against them). Singers John Denery and Virgil Shaw later formed and sang for the Hi-Fives and Dieselhed respectively, and though a handful of Brent's TV songs, this one among them (even though it's a fairly straightforward borrowing from Elvis' "Marie's The Name (of his Latest Flame") (but then so is the Smiths' "Rusholme Ruffians") deserved to live forever as rock/pop classics, the band itself was too quirky and eccentric to have much hope for commercial success. They sold about 2000 7"s and a similar number of a split CD with Sweet Baby. Consider yourself lucky if you own one.

"America The Machine" - Surrogate Brains.
Hailing from Stockton, California, the Brains were one of Lookout's lesser known but by no means lesser bands. I don't think they ever put out much besides the 7" this song appears on and one other 7". This particular song is a haunting, moody one, sounding more 60s psychedelia than 80s punk, and always reminded me of "End Of The Night" by the Doors in the slow parts and something more like the Jefferson Airplane or It's A Beautiful day in the more upbeat bits. Don't be put off if you hate hippies; it's still a basically punk record, just a little more adventurous than most of its contemporaries.

"Devoted To You" - Everly Brothers.
Beautiful guitars, beautiful harmonies, simply beautiful. Sonically and harmonically, it's a bit of a cousin to the much better known "All I Have To Do Is Dream." I used to constantly play and sing both songs, to the consternation and/or annoyance of many around me.

"Out In The Streets" - The Shangri-las. The Shangri-las were Bad Girls, or at least they managed to give that impression. All their best songs were epic tragedies about girls and/or boys and/or the course of true love gone wrong, usually involving motorcycles, street corners, and the like. "He don't hang around with the gang no more, he don't do do the wild things that he did before," the singer observes, noting that he's given all this up for the sake of being with here, only to tearfully conclude that she's going to have to let him go because his heart is "out in the streets."

"Blank Generation" - Downfall.
From the mysterious "lost" album that was recorded, mixed and remixed, but never came out. It would probably have been a milion-seller if it had; rising out of the ashes of Operation Ivy, Downfall played a handful of shows, recorded about ten songs, and promptly disintegrated. This song, with a few echoey dub touches and a modified ska beat, has nothing to do Richard Hell and the Voidoids' track of the same name. I'd put my money on this one as the better of the two, by a considerable margin.

"Doctor Jones" - Aqua. I don't care what you say - hey, I just unconsciously quoted Black Flag while talking about Aqua - I just love the cheesy dance pop this Danish group produced toward the end of the last century. It's relentlessly silly, upbeat, and happy, happy happy. Unfortunately only about five songs from their first LP - it also contains "Barbie Girl" - fit that description; the rest of it is slow, soppy dreck. But the good stuff is very good indeed, and this is one of their best.

"Beauty Changes Everything" - Pushups. The very last song recorded by this late 70s San Francisco new wave band who could and should have been the Next Big Thing. Their first single won a Bammie (Bay Area Music award) as best debut, and they were packing clubs with their perky, skinny-tie dance-pop, but in what could have been a made-for-TV film about the perils and pitfalls of the music business, fell apart in a welter of conflicting ambitions and strategies before their music got a proper hearing. I have what I think is their total recorded output, consisting of seven songs. This one is more of a rough demo than a finished product but is especially touching because of that: although it's ostensibly an elegy to a doomed love affair, just substitute "money and fame" for "beauty" and you've got the tale of the Pushups' own demise.

"Diogo A Go Go" - The Steinways. I've made no secret of my belief that the Steinways, from Astoria, Queens, are one of the best and most exciting bands in existence today, and this song, from their first album, is vintage Steinways. It's the classic pop-punk formula, true, but with a special Grath McGrath twist. Along with the Zatopeks, they're today's answer to classic-era Screeching Weasel.

"Comin' Back To Me" - Jefferson Airplane. I first listened to this while sitting - seriously - in a strawberry field on a sandbank overlooking Lake Huron. It's one of the only semi-technically demanding guitar songs I ever learned to play, and it's been background music for more messed up love affairs than I care to contemplate, including the one that was going on in June 1967 when this song entered my life.

"I Got No" - Operation Ivy. One of two songs the band recorded in autumn of 1987 for the Maximum Rocknroll Turn It Around Gilman Street compilation, which more or less laid the groundwork and set the pattern for what would become Lookout Records. It was later tacked on to the CD and cassette versions of Energy, and because it's the very last song, I always associate it with endings and silence.

"Steal A Kiss" - The Spazzys. The Spazzys are and have been Australia's greatest musical treasure for a few years now, and only a series of unfortunate management decisions and the fact that the three girls involved seldom stop partying long enough to focus on their "career" has prevented the rest of the world (or, for that matter, the rest of Australia) from finding that out. Almost everything they do is great.

"Institutionalized Misogyny" - The Mr. T Experience. It may say "Mr. T Experience" on the cover, but this song is King Dork author "Dr. Frank" Portman at his semi-acoustic best, using his breathtaking facility with language to skewer one of his bĂȘtes noires, the post-structuralists whose bleatings about institutionalized misogyny are "all that comes between my baby and me."

"Sidekick" - Rancid. I went for years thinking he was singing "I had a dream I was a missionary sidekick" rather than "vigilante's sidekick," but for me the most memorable line has always been "My name is Tim, I'm a lesser known character." I'm still not sure I have any clear cut idea what he's talking about, but it's catchy as hell nonetheless.

"Falling Apart" - Screeching Weasel. This one has some of the same poignancy as "Claire Monet," mentioned earlier, but with the added fillip that it accurately described the state of my relationship and my life at the time of its release.

"The Green Hills Of England" - The Lookouts. Possibly my favorite Lookouts song. It's about the Roman invasion of Britain in 65 A.D. What else do you need to know?

"Lullabye" - Blatz. "Sleep, little one, sleep, take comfort in the night's embrace, for the morning sun will open your eyes and you'll see that you live in a fucked up place." This is Blatz's stab (probably the appropriate word) at a heartfelt ballad. Can you imagine having one of them for a parent?

"Ursula Finally Has Tits" - The Queers. Moronic as all get out, and an absolute classic. Even if you hate its, erm, institutionalized misogyny, you can't help singing along. Possibly the best song from the best Queers album ever.

"Lost Highway" - Hank Williams. Greatest singer-songwriter of the 20th century? Know anyone else who comes close? That Dylan character might have provided some worthy competition if he hadn't cluttered up his legacy with all that less-than-sterling post-1966 stuff. Hank had the smarts to die before he started to suck. Not that I'd wish death on anyone for putting out a bad or mediocre record; stay alive, by all means, and just don't put out that record. "Take my advice or you'll curse the day you started rolling down that lost highway."

"Agape" - The Lookouts. Another of my favorite Lookouts tracks, this one, written and sung by bassist Kain Kong, features me playing dueling lead guitars with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong. Go on, listen to it and see if you can tell which of us is which (if you can't, you need an ear and/or brain transplant). Kain, who was about 18 when he wrote this, was probably taking a philosophy course at the time, which is no doubt where the slightly pretentious title originated. It scans and rhymes just perfectly, though, so no complaints from this quarter.

"Cumberland Blues" - The Grateful Dead. Believe it or not, the Grateful Dead were actually a very good band for at least a couple albums (American Beauty and Workingman's Dead, to be specific). Unless you just plain hate country/folky/bluegrass type music, you owe it to yourself to check these two out. And as an added benefit, just think how you'll be able to piss off the by-the-numbers punks when you start telling them about it.

"Words And Smiles" - Tiger Trap. One of the best all-female bands ever, fronted by the most beautiful voice in North America, that of one Rose Melberg. With better production and marketing, they could have been bigger than the Go-Gos. As it is, they're a relatively unknown classic.

"Beachwood 4-5789" - The Marvelettes. They also had "Please, Mr. Postman" and "Playboy," not to mention "Too Many Fish In The Sea" and more, but this might be my favorite. High school kind of sucked for me, but not when music like this was playing. The fact that it was being made by our hometown/Motown heroes made it all the sweeter.

"Some Town In Northern France" - The Zatopeks.
Will DeNiro (aka Will Zatopek) is a genius. That's all I have to say about that.

"Hats Off To Larry" - Del Shannon. What else do I need to say? The follow-up to "Runaway."

"Confessions Of A Futon Revolutionary" - The Weakerthans. Hey, I sleep on a futon, too! Not that I have any idea what that has to do with anything. The Weakerthans have been my favorite favorite band (as opposed to my favorite, like the Steinways or the Zatopeks) for almost ten years now. I've seen them about 30 times in half a dozen states and provinces and three countries, and it's still not nearly enough. They keep getting better and better, and anyone who doesn't appreciate them probably enjoys torturing small kittens.

"Looking At You" - The MC5. One of the first bands I ever saw live (the other was the Supremes) back in the mid-60s. They grew up about a mile from me and appeared in a neighborhood battle of the bands, which they lost to the Satellites. Yeah, those Satellites. If it hadn't been for coming up against such stiff competition so early in their career, who knows what kind of legacy the MC5 would have left for us.

And I think that's about enough for now. Congratulations on your patience and/or masochism if you got this far. P.S. The birthday shuffle list has been playing the whole time I was writing this. I could do another even longer piece tomorrow. But probably won't.


19 December 2007

Birth Of The Gilman Geek

One of my favorite memories of the early Gilman years was the battle of the bands between Isocracy and the Naked Lady Wrestlers. The photo above isn't of the best quality, but you can see Isocracy on stage (singer Jason appears to be hiding behind Walter Glaser, who's doing the pro-wrestling style announcing, and I don't know who the hell the guy on the far left is) in their moment of triumph.

Off to the right, skulking under a cowboy hat, is one of the members of NLW, who've just been handed a resounding and humiliating defeat by Gilman's favorite house band (to be fair, this was before Operation Ivy rose to prominence). I don't think that's Max Volume, the appropriately named loudmouth lead singer who got this whole battle started by repeatedly heckling and ridiculing Isocracy for being untalented and "amateur" musicians, in contrast to his own band, who were ridiculously talented but never seemed to succeed at anything besides boring the Gilman audience stiff.

As John "Al Sobrante" Kiffmeyer memorably put it after the unanimous verdict had been announced in favor of Isocracy, "When we were playing people were bouncing up and down, rolling around on the floor and peeling themselves off the walls. Then you guys come on and it's like a goddam golf tournament." (I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.)

The clash between Isocracy and the Naked Lady Wrestlers was emblematic of a cultural divide that opened up rather early in the Gilman era. NLW were older guys who'd been around since the very early 80s; Isocracy were barely out of high school, and had formed their band in 1986 when they still were in high school. Although the people who were the main driving force behind opening and operating Gilman (mainly Maximum Rocknroll people, spearheaded by Maximum Leader Tim Yohannan) were in their 20s and 30s, the place quickly attracted an audience of young teenagers who previously hadn't hadn't been allowed into most clubs that offered live music.

The first time I saw Isocracy, when they shared a stage with us at the old Club Foot in San Francisco, singer Jason Beebout was so scared that he hid behind our bass amp for much of his 10 or 15 minute performance, but by the time they'd been playing Gilman for a couple months, Isocracy was setting the standard for extroverted, exuberant, uninhibited spectacles. Music may not have been their strong suit, as the outraged Naked Lady Wrestlers continually pointed out (the NLW guitarist, by contrast, never passed up an opportunity to drop a note-perfect rendition of the William Tell Overture into the middle of one his solos), but they more than made up for it in showmanship.

It's hard to describe just what was so amazing or hilarious about an Isocracy show; in essence, we're not talking about much more than a lot of smart-ass remarks and random insults coupled with the band's trademark gimmick of bringing in great bags and boxes of rubbish (er, "found art) and throwing it at the audience (who of course threw it right back). But it was a refreshing change from what had by then become the very formulaic sort of punk rock shows we'd been seeing since the late 70s. It was no longer one-way traffic from the stage to the audience; an Isocracy crowd was every bit as involved as the band. By the end of an Isocracy set, there would typically be more audience members than band members on stage, and the audience might well have commandeered the microphones and be outsinging the band as well.

Some of the older punks tut-tutted about how "these kids" were making a mockery of long-standing punk traditions, but they were soon outnumbered by the influx of yet more kids, every other one of whom seemed to want to start a band and play at Gilman, too. Teenagers across the Bay Area seemed to have had a blinding revelation along the lines of, "Hey, if little Johnny Doofus from sixth period English can have a band and play on stage at that new punk rock club, why can't I?"

I'm not sure when the term "Gilman geek" started getting tossed around, but I'd guess it was within the first few months of the club's opening. I'd also imagine that it was originally applied to some aspect of the Isocracy phenomenon, but it might also have come out of the Slapshot incident. For those of you not familiar with Slapshot, they were a straightedge hardcore band from Boston who wore matching varsity jackets and whose singer, a charming and refined gentleman known as Choke, used to menace the crowd with a broken-off hockey stick as he bellowed and hectored them about whatever straightedge hardcore bands used to bellow and hector.

The night they played Gilman, a small knot of X-handed hardcore kids stood up near (but not too near) the stage where they stood, awestruck, watching Mr. Choke, um, once again, bellow and hector. But meanwhile, a larger group of Gilman kids (and not quite kids, like, for example, myself) had reacted to the all the abrasive shouting by playing leapfrog in what would normally have been the pit. This infuriated Choke, but when he yelled at them to "stop screwing around," they responded by pulling faces and jumping up and down like so many armpit-scratching monkeys.

By the end of his set, Choke was beside himself. "I've played all over this country, and in some other countries, too," he said. "I'm ready to play for anybody, anytime, anywhere that wants to see us and gets into our music. But I didn't come here to play for a bunch of fucking goofballs." This elicited a rousing round of ironic cheers, at which point Choke shouted, "This place is punk rock Romper Room!" before stomping off.

And he was right, the only difference being that he thought that was a bad thing and most of us thought it was a very good one. It was a big part of what made Gilman so special and so different from most punk rock clubs: the fact that you could act as silly or as carefree as you wanted and not have to worry about conforming to some rigid ideal of what "punk" was supposed to look or sound like. I think a lot of this was due to our members being so young and relatively free from preconceptions, but it was probably also because our club was completely non-commercial and (at least inside and in the immediate environs) alcohol and drug free.

Ironically, and, I thought, a bit sadly, the era of the Gilman geek lasted only a couple years before a counterreaction began to emerge. Once bands like Green Day started gaining recognition in the larger world and the whole "shiny happy smartpunk sound" (as one of our detractors had it) showed signs of crowding out most other forms of punk rock, there was a tendency on the part of many Gilman old schoolers (those same kids who'd been 16 or 17 when the club opened but were now entering their angst-ridden 20s) to revive the dark and nihilistic styles of early 80s hardcore, complete with dyed black hair, grim faces, and serious drug habits.

It may have started as a joke - certainly Absolutely Zippo fanzine, with its championing of "da punx" and its legendary Jesse Michaels cover drawing of a desperate scenester pouring drugs into his arm through a funnel, was mainly satirical - but as with most such jokes, people soon start forgetting to laugh. There was much debate about whether the band Filth, who looked and sounded like the Exploited or GBH from ten years earlier, were serious about their Ur-punk lyrics (their "big hit" bemoaned "thousands long" list of former punk rockers who'd sold out and abandoned the cause) were merely having a Zippo-style laugh.

Singer Jake Filth insisted he was dead serious, but then he'd cut his punk rock teeth viciously heckling the almost universally loved Operation Ivy even while maintaining a close friendship with at least part of the band. When Lenny, from the now broken-up Isocracy, joined Filth, it seemed to signify a real sea change in the prevailing Gilman aesthetic, not least because suddenly Lenny wasn't smiling anymore.

There would be periodic infusions of new kids, and new bursts of wacky, zany geekdom throughout the 90s, often seen most in evidence at the annual Punk Rock Prom or at Joel Qpunk's birthday bash, but in recent years, such events seem fewer and farther between. Granted, I'm only able to get to Gilman a couple times a year at most these days, but as of late, I often haven't even bothered going when I am in the Bay Area because the great majority of shows seem to be of the generic hardcore/grindcore/deathmetal sort of stuff that I thought had been mercifully put out of its misery back in the late 80s/early 90s.

Hey, it's not really my club anymore, and it's been at least 10 or 15 years since I actually volunteered to work at a show there, so I don't have any business complaining. So please don't read this as such. Think of it more as an elegy for a time, heartbreakingly brief as it turned out, when we, regardless of our ages in the real world, were a bunch of crazy kids who thought - fully expected, even - that we could live that way forever.

17 December 2007

Weston And The Unlovables

Not so long ago the New York pop punk scene would have been crawling out of the woodwork for a show like this one, but in the past year or so, shows and parties have been proliferating at such a rate that people no longer consider it inconceivable to stay home even when there's something pretty special happening.

Thanks to Hallie's nightly duties in Fuerza Bruta, the Unlovables haven't played since last summer, and while Weston, after a loooong hiatus, have been popping up to do the occasional show here and there, this was the first time they'd played Brooklyn in, at least according to what I heard someone say, 16 years. The venue was the unheated back room of a hipster bar on N. 8th Street, and even by the time three bands (the middle band was the Besties, who Carla Monoxide said sounded like Go Sailor, and I'm not sure she meant that as a compliment) (Carla is very P0NK) had played and a lot of people had done a lot of jumping around, it was still pretty chilly.

That was nothing compared to what it was like outside, of course, where some truly foul winter weather had set in. No snow, and the temperature wasn't even that low (about 30F, -1C), but the wind was vicious, and that may have helped keep some people at home, as did the fact that much of the New York scene had been to shows and/or parties in Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan on the previous two nights, and many of them had already seen Weston in either New Brunswick or Hoboken.

For me, however, it was my first time ever seeing Weston play electrically (those of you with elephantine memories will recall that I saw them do an acoustic set back in October). Back in the 90s Weston were perhaps the East Coast's premier pop punk band, and if there were any justice in the world, should have been on Lookout Records and been a lot more famous than they were, but I dropped the ball on that one, at least in part due to the anti-East Coast prejudice that was rife in the Berkeley scene in those days (fanned in no small part by myself) and also due to the increasing pop punk burnout that by the mid-90s had me unable or unwilling even to listen to more demo tapes and records.

Now the band are talking seriously about reviving their career, and though I'm no longer in a position to help them, plenty of other new up-and-coming record labels and their respective moguls are, and I not only wish them all the best, but predict a good deal of success if they keep at it. My one criticism, and this seems to apply to a lot of old school bands who come back for the second time around, is that it's not necessarily a good idea to play every single song you ever knew just because it's been a while since people have seen you. I think when a band's been gone a while, and unless they were VERY famous (like Rolling Stones-famous), an hour-plus set is only going to alienate many potential new fans. No matter how well-loved you were back in the day, to many people in the audience you're a brand new band, and new bands are best advised to pick out 20 to 20 minutes of their very best songs and leave the fans hungry for more.

That being said, the Weston boys were having a ball, and so were most of the audience. I'd heard many of the songs before, first at last summer's Bottomfest campfire singalong, then at the aforementioned acoustic show, but it was much more exciting hearing them with a full band, and it was a special delight to my buddy Dave, who plays guitar, mugging for the crowd and doing all his ultra-slick rock star moves. What people may not realize is that he does this constantly, even when he's not on stage, but it all looked slicker and more glamorous under the lights. I couldn't stay to the very end to congratulate him, but I got at least an hour's worth of Weston, and I'll be back to see them again next time.

The Unlovables were in fine form, too, especially considering their five or six months off. The Steinways' Grath McGrath once again joined them on second guitar and really adds a lot to the band, as does the busiest and best punk rock drummer in all of the Northeastern United States, one Mikey Erg. I was musing, though, how unfortunate it was that in all of NY/NJ's burgeoning pop-punk scene, there seems to be only a relative handful of people who can actually play the music, leading many bands to have to share musicians, and in turn resulting in frequent schedule complications, the inability to do shows because so-and-so is on tour with someone else, etc.

Anyway, I really liked the Unlovables' set. Not sure I could say the same about the Besties. Carla was right; they did have a certain resemblance to Go Sailor, including the two girl vocals and the foofy lo-fi indie sound, so normally I should have been all over them (I mean in a fanly way, of course). And they started out brightly, with a number called "What Would Tim Armstrong Do?", which sounded good but raised an eyebrow if not a hackle on my part because Tim's a friend of mine and I got the impression they might be, oh, I don't know, kind of making fun of him. But then I wondered if I was being unnecessarily thin-skinned, concluded I probably was, and enjoyed the Besties for the next several songs.

After that, though, the songs seemed to drag on a bit, and become a bit too resolutely and shambolically indie. I was probably just impatient for Weston to come on, and, old man that I am, for the night to be over so I could scurry on back to my snug little burrow and wait out the winter winds. When I finally got there (home, that is), however, I discovered that though the radiators were hissing and clanking away full blast, it wasn't enough to offset the winds blowing right through the cracks in the walls and floors, and that in other words, my little burrow wasn't quite as snug as I'd imagined.

In fact it's still like that this morning; every time I heard an especially virulent gust of wind howling overhead, it's followed a few seconds later by a cold draft swirling through the room at floor level. And here's me just about to set out for the park to do my t'ai chi set, probably bundled up in so much fur-lined long underwear and the like that I won't be able to move. Anyway, here's a photo of some of the faithful scenesters who made it out last night:and a shout-out to some of those who didn't and who I sorely missed seeing: P Smith, Chris A., Oliver and Stephanie, Johnny B., Bill Moon, Rich Grech, Michelle Shirelle and the normally ubiquitous Chadd Derkins. Next time, okay, guys?

16 December 2007

Write Or Rewrite?

As some of you know, i spent a couple years writing a memoir which I finished in the spring of 2005. At that point I showed it to a couple of agents, both of whom were not interested in representing me, and in a typically (for me) childish fit of pique, I tossed the manuscript into a box under my bed and more or less forgot about it.

Now that I've moved and no longer have a bed to store things under (these days I'm sleeping on a futon on the floor), I'm not really sure where the manuscript has gone, though I think it's around here somewhere. But the real question - it's also stored on my computer - is what if anything to do with it. Lately, people seem to have been asking me what ever happened to it - my stock answer: "Nothing" - with increasing frequency. That plus the fact that I'm not getting any younger leads me to believe that maybe I had better get round to doing something with the manuscript, even if it's only to walk down to the bottom of the stairs and deposit it in the trash can, erm, I mean recycling bin.

As I remarked here a few days ago, I've been seriously considering giving up on the whole memoir business and turning my attention to writing something else, probably a novel. But the reaction to that idea seems generally negative, and I myself am kind of disinclined to just toss the whole thing as well (in case it's unclear, my 1,000+ page suicide note turned journal is something entirely different from my 511 page memoir. The suicide note might actually make more compelling reading at times, but it's way too raw and personal to contemplate publishing.

But the memoir has serious problems, too, one of the main ones being that it tries to cover too much material: my dysfunctional childhood to my teenage greaser/hoodlum years, my hippie/psychedelic gangster era, back to the land, drug and alcohol abuse, zine publishing and playing in bands, and of course the Lookout Records adventure, which is really the only aspect of my life the general public is likely to be interested in.

The result is a rather exhausting string of anecdotes piled in a ramshackle manner atop each other, with not enough attention devoted to the incidents that really mattered and a perfunctory name check of a host of events that probably don't. "Rewriting" this mess would more accurately mean taking a meat ax to the existing text, which in turn might feel like taking said meat ax to the sinews and fibers of my life, which, however unimportant it might seem to the general public, is of at least passing interest to me.

The other big problem with the memoir is that it contains too many recriminations and self-justifications. At the time I was writing it, I was still very angry at certain people and events that I felt had contributed to the downfall of Lookout Records and the stiffing of the many bands I had signed to it. Whether my anger was justified or not isn't the issue; the fact that I hadn't successfully dealt with it and moved on is.

My account of my last years with Lookout too often resembles the lancing of an especially putrescent boil: yes, it needed to be done, but that doesn't mean that the contents of said boil need to be publicly displayed. Today I've gotten over most of my resentments toward others with regard to the Lookout debacle with the possible exception of those I harbor toward myself, which leads me to believe that if I'm going to do a memoir at all, it will need to be so different from the one I originally wrote that I might as well sit down and start over from scratch.

On the other hand, that's a lot of work I'm talking about there: maybe two years, if the last version is any indication. Whereas if I set about rewriting the original, I only need to take out a lot of stuff and completely rewrite a few chapters. In theory, that is.

Actually, I just realized that all this dithering is yet one more form of procrastination, and that the only way any version of this memoir is going to get done, let alone published, is if I stop thinking and talking about it and simply sit down and start working on it. And that, my friends, is the scary bit. Very possibly you'll be hearing more about this tomorrow.

A Wintry Mix

That's what they're called this unpleasant blend of rain, snow and sleet that's descended upon us tonight. We're also supposedly having a nor'easter, which seems like an excessively nautical term (yes, I know we're on an island and therefore technically at sea, but it's not very likely that we're going anywhere) for a storm that's blowing in off the ocean.

Though I don't suppose I should sneer so cavalierly at the marshaled forces of Mother Nature, since only five months ago they were responsible not only for flooding my apartment (twice in two weeks), but also for getting me evicted from said apartment (presumably it wouldn't have flooded if I hadn't been living there, or something like that). Now that I'm on the third floor, I no longer worry so much about floods, and have switched to fretting about the possibility of leaks developing in the roof or, more crucially, the entire roof being peeled away and deposited somewhere in Long Island Sound by the next hurricane.

But nonetheless I braved the elements tonight, first for a party in the city consisting of a slap-up meal (I don't really know what that means, but hopefully it means good and/or plentiful, because the meal was both, a re-enactment of the Judy Garland 1963 Christmas special with special guest star Ethel Merman (if you guessed there were drag queens involved in this extravaganza, you can safely append the initials M.O.T.O. to your surname), and some DJ dance music that started out promising but soon turned predictable.

At which time I headed back to Brooklyn on a jam-packed L train (breathing room only, and precious little of that). It was just like the morning commute, only consisting mainly of people who looked rather less likely to have jobs, i.e, half the population of Williamsburg. At one point, the train stopped without explanation and just sat there for about a five-minute eternity; the hipsters spoke loudly and agitatedly of panic attacks and reached as one for their Xanax.

Rather than rely on the none too tender mercies of the G train, I jumped, or rather squeezed out at Bedford, thinking I'd take the B61 bus to Greenpoint, but ha ha, once again the joke was on me, because it never came, and I walked all the way while talking to my old friend Wade on a mountain somewhere in Northern California.

By now the "wintry mix" was in full effect, one minute covering the sidewalk with the sort of slush one would find in a sno-cone (not sure which flavor, though), the next washing it away again. Got to the Lost and Found, where I seem to be turning up rather often these days in time to catch about half the set by the very intense and very good Max Levine Ensemble. If the B61 bus had turned up, I probably would have seen it all, but at least it was an improvement over Gainesville, where I missed it all.

Until David the Spoonboy's (there's a story behind that name, but I don't understand it) conked out, the MLE were on top form. They're a little more hardcore than the bands I normally prefer, but make up for it with surprising dollops of melody and sheer, overpowering energy and enthusiasm. I will see them again first chance I get. Afterward, spent a pleasant little while chatting with the Spoonboy himself, the continuation of a conversation/good-natured argument that started in Gainesville. Very smart guy, especially considering that we disagree on about 90% of everything.

Then it was time to make my way home, and by now the storm was in full effect. Just as I got to Manhattan Avenue, what to my wondering eyes should appear but the elusive B61 bus. Unfortunately, I was no longer going where the B61 bus was going, so I waved it away, and immediately regretted my decision. I could have, you see, taken it to the subway, and even if I had to wait a long time for the train, at least I would be doing so indoors where it was warm and dry. I could have also simply gone downstairs and waited for the G train, but just as I considered doing so, I heard it go by under my feet, meaning there wouldn't be another one for at least 20 minutes.

Instead, I very sensibly (not) waited a similar amount of time in the very windy, very wet and very cold outdoors for the B43 that was going to take me almost directly to my house (well, after the driver parked it literally in the middle of the road and went in to get a coffee and shoot the breeze at an all-night deli). When I got back to my block, drunken hipsters were sliding on the ice that now coated everything, all of which was jolly fun if, like me, you enjoy the spectacle of hipsters falling on their asses.

Speaking of hipsters and asses, the Lost and Found attracts a fair few of them, and tonight a couple of them decided that since the L&F practices a pretty laissez-faire attitude about almost everything, it would be fine if they lit up cigarettes while they watched the band. Maybe I'm spoiled by New York's (and now London's) generally smoke-free bars and clubs, but boy, did those two jerks manage to stink up the whole place for everyone else. A third guy, emboldened by the first two clowns, started rolling up a cigarette for himself, but when he went to light it, standing right next to him, I spoke sharply to him and he slunk away, leaving it unlit.

Why, you ask, didn't I similarly chastise the other two smokers instead of fuming about it off in the corner? Well, they were a lot bigger and meaner-looking, though perhaps I'm confusing "oafish" for "mean." Anyway, regardless of one's feelings about smoking in bars, my guess is that if this trend continues, it's going to end up with the Lost and Found getting shut down. All it takes is one complaint to the city and inspectors will be in there checking it out, and even if they don't catch anyone smoking, they're almost certain to run across any number of other violations which I don't need to name here, but which almost anyone who frequents the place will be aware of.

So, smokers, even if you don't care about being jerks and stinking up the place for everyone else, you might want to take your fags outside for the sake of not getting a great place for shows shut down. Unfortunately the two clowns in question tonight didn't look as though they gave a lot of thought to anything, or at least not particularly high quality thought, but I've misjudged people before and perhaps I'm doing it again. In any event, if you happen to be reading this: cut it out, please. It's not big, it's not clever, it's not cool, and it STINKS.

15 December 2007

Luck And The Absence Thereof: When Saturday Comes

I know that many of you, especially those of the American persuasion, are not too interested in my occasional posts about English football, so I'll try and limit the football content to general principles.

But as you may know, Saturday is the day when most English football matches are played. When I lived in London, there was little question of where I would be most Saturday afternoons: either at Craven Cottage, where I had a season ticket, or in some benighted corner of the country, be it Grimsby, Birmingham, Manchester or West Ham, enjoying and/or suffering the triumphs and travails of Fulham Football Club (est. 1879). Saturdays when the team were playing away and I couldn't or wouldn't get there, I'd usually be perched by the radio or computer monitoring the results and how they would affect our position in the league.

My first step in preparing to leave England was to give up my season ticket at the end of 2005-06. It was a wrenching decision because it was excellent seat near center pitch, and I knew that even if I moved back to England one day, it would be years, if ever, before I ever scored such a great seat again. The decision to give up my Notting Hill apartment was even more fraught, for much the same reasons, but because giving up my season ticket came first, it felt even more dramatic and final.

Since moving to the USA I've spent a good deal of time and money trying to keep up with the fortunes (more misfortunes, of late) of my favorite club, mostly involving subscriptions to any cable or broadband service that promises to show Premiership games. It's still not as much as I spent while in England, especially considering the price of train fares to away games, but it's not insubstantial.

All of which appears to be in vain, however. Fulham are having the worst season since I've been a supporter, and at the rate they're going, will have vanished from American TV by next season because they'll no longer be in the Premiership. I realized today it's been over a year now since the last game I attended: a memorable 2-1 victory - our first in 40 years - over the mighty Arsenal.

Maybe I should have given up on supporting Fulham then, gone out on a high note. But no, love of one's football team is as irrational and unshakable as the feelings people develop for the patently unsuitable girlfriend or boyfriend whose glaring faults everyone else can see but to which we remain blithely oblivious.

Anyway, the main theme of Fulham's inexorable descent toward the bottom of the league this season has been their ability to constantly conjure new and unanticipated ways to lose in the closing minutes, even in games which they had mostly dominated. Today it was giving up a penalty in the final 30 seconds of stoppage time, but by this point, the details hardly even matter. The way Fulham's luck has been going, the entire Newcastle team could have been flat on their backs and the wind would have picked up a dead ball off the surface and deposited it behind our goalkeeper.

But is it luck? They say that lucky teams (or people) make their own luck, and I tend to subscribe to this. Sure, there will always be the occasional time when a simple twist of fate undoes all your most valiant efforts, but when that sort of thing happens on a regular, even constant basis, I think that rather than railing at your rotten luck, it's more productive to take a good, hard look at yourself.

I know there was a time in my life when I was firmly enrolled in the "If it wasn't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" school of thought. I think I got that from my Dad, who from my earliest childhood, seldom passed up an opportunity to explain how the government, the corporations, the capitalists, the rich people, and the general stupidity and cupidity of the human race were to blame for our not being able to afford a new car or a trip to Disneyland.

It was only in the last couple years before he died, when he was increasingly suffering from senile dementia, that he casually admitted how his own lack of motivation might also have had something to do with it. For instance, one of his most constant refrains the whole time I was growing up was about how the Great Depression and the War had robbed him of his chance to go to college and get a better job.

Then one day, in one of the last coherent conversations I was able to have with him, it suddenly occurred to me that World War II veterans had been entitled to a free college education under the GI Bill. "Why didn't you take advantage of that, Dad?" I asked, and he, with uncharacteristic candor, answered, "Ah, I didn't feel like it."

I later confirmed this with his brother-in-law, who'd been through the same war and depression yet still managed to acquire a master's degree and a couple successful careers. "Yeah, your dad was a great guy. Just not too motivated."

And I've come to believe that about 90% or more of "bad luck" can be summed up that way: a lack of motivation to do what is necessary to change it. On the football pitch, it can be as simple as making that extra effort to always be on the ball or anticipate where the ball is going next, and never to let one's concentration lapse, even for a second. In the larger game of life, the principles are not that different, which is why when things don't go my way, I no longer waste time or energy searching for someone or something to blame.

In fact, even the most cursory self-examination usually reveals, and quickly, too, the real culprit to be myself. I'm not saying I always deserve to miss out on the opportunity I was seeking or the person I was sure should fall in love with me or even just writing the perfect blog post instead of a so-so one. But at the same time, there's scarcely a time when, in any field of endeavor, when I can't say, "I could have done better." And similarly, scarcely a time when the reason can't be perfectly summed up by my dad's immortal words (immortal in the sense that they now seem to have become my words as well): "Ah, I didn't feel like it."

13 December 2007

It's A Wonderful Life

I woke up this morning to the sight of a thick coat of hoarfrost covering the fields and rooftops (P.S. I had to look it up, but now I know: "hoarfrost" is not just some poncey word that poets use when they need two syllables to keep up the meter or to impress their audience with just how literary and eloquent they are; it is an actual, meaningful word that describes, well, the kind of frost I saw this morning.)

The dazzling whiteness, albeit spread out beneath a royal blue sky and kissed by a lemon-flavored sun slung low in the southern sky, made it clear that winter had finally arrived in London. It also meant - not the fact that it was cold and frosty, but that the sun had come up - that it was time for me to leave.

I might have stayed longer if I could; I had an invitation to the Rough Trade Christmas party and about half a dozen things going on over the weekend. But tomorrow's the day the airfares go up by a whopping $500 or more per ticket, and I couldn't think of any party that was worth that kind of money. Besides, I've got work to do at home: music to be played, books or articles to be written, muscles to be exercised, and demons to be sent packing.

My last day in London was really yesterday, since there was little more to today than getting dressed and hauling myself to the airport. But yesterday I took Flat Sally for an outing that saw us cover a good little stretch of the Thames, from Pimlico to the Houses of Parliament. Along the way I stopped in at the Tate Britain, something I've been meaning to do for years, and found a real treasure trove of British painting from the past 500 years. I also found myself getting mildly outraged that the Tate Modern gets all the attention and media hype when, apart from its magnificent structure and setting, the Modern contains little more than (in some cases literally) a load of old, erm, new rubbish.

Like all state museums, the Tate Britain is free, and worth every penny. No, seriously, I'd even pay (within reason) to see this collection, despite the post-modern contextualization that seems to have recently been attached to the walls, purporting to show how each painting illuminated the social and class struggles of Great Britain. No sir, no just plain pretty pictures hanging about here: these paintings were on a mission.

On the plane home today, one of the movies on offer was the Frank Capra classic It's A Wonderful Life. "Wouldn't be Christmas without it, mate, would it?" said my seatmate. I shushed him and settled in to watch it for the fourth or fifth time.

It turned out to be better than ever, and as it has unfailingly done every time I've seen it, had me in tears by the end. As all but a handful of you probably know, the film revolves around a suicidally depressed man who love of life and living is brought back when he's given the opportunity to see what the world would have been like had he been granted his wish to have never been born.

"You left an awful big hole where you would have been," says his guardian angel, Clarence, so of course I reacted by trying to look at my own life and seeing what if anything I'd accomplished or changed for the better. Maybe not even for the better: just looking to see what kind of impact I'd had on the world and wondering if it mattered anyway. Most people live quiet and reasonably content lives; is it necessary that we do "great" things if we want our lives to be judged worthwhile?

Obviously I helped create jobs for quite a few people. Not just musicians, but also those in ancillary trades: recording engineers, CD manufacturers, t-shirt printers, journalists and PR agents, and any contribution to the economy on that scale is not to be sneezed at (though based on your opinion of some of the bands we put records out for, "contribution" might be far too generous a description.

But who wants to be remembered mainly as a generator of income and sparkplug for a new business plan? I know at the time I was doing/being just that, I went through all sorts of typical 20-something angst (which wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been in my 40s at the time) over the idea that I should be doing something "bigger" or "greater" with my life.

Most of these somewhat bitter fantasies revolved around me being the artist or musician or writer myself instead of spending my days helping others to achieve those dreams, and eventually I became convinced that the only way I'd ever achieve such a change of course was to commit what was essentially career suicide. Earlier in the 90s, I'd seriously - hell, obsessively - contemplated actual suicide, in fact going so far as to begin compiling what I was to eventually dub the longest suicide note in history.

It had reached something like 428 pages before a) Green Day's new record went multi-platinum, resulting in such an explosion of business for Lookout Records that I no longer had enough spare time to finish and polish my suicide note to the standard I deemed necessary; and b) it occurred to me that suicide, even the elegantly planned version that I had mapped out, might not be the best career move, at least not if I wanted to be there to savor artistic triumphs I was anticipating.

So, by the end of the century my suicide note, now grown to over a thousand pages, had gradually transformed itself into a journal and/or chronicle of miseries and self-pity and I had decided, more or less by default, to live. By then I'd also left my position as head and chief owner of Lookout Records, a position which I'd come to blame for all my sorrows and shortcomings in life.

Funnily enough, it turned out that being a highly successful and highly paid record mogul hadn't been the problem at all, because after a year or two of unemployment, I realized that I still had all the same problems I'd had before, minus the one of what to do with all the money I was no longer earning. The whole affair reminded me of a similar incident back in 1970 when I'd flushed my entire dope stash down the toilet in the middle of the night under the feverish delusion that it was creating bad karma for me, and that by wiping out what essentially amounted to my life savings at the time, I would purify myself and be cured of the illness I was suffering from.

I woke up the next morning sicker (and broker than ever), and while the hepatitis that had produced those feverish delusions passed in a couple weeks, my newfound poverty was to hang around for a couple years. Some years later, another friend, who'd accumulated a fair-sized fortune through hashish smuggling, went down a similar route: a gypsy fortuneteller persuaded him that the ill-gotten money was the source of all his misfortunes and that the only way to reverse his situation was to hand over all the money to her so that she could perform an exorcism of sorts by burning it in a graveyard at midnight.

Not only did his misfortunes not cease as a result of this; they greatly increased, since much of the money he'd given the gypsy actually didn't belong to him at all, but was the property of some very cross and unpleasant dope dealers who made it their mission in life to hunt him down and perform severe depredations on his person. "It is an odd thing," Oscar Wilde said, "but everyone who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco," and indeed, that's the last place I saw him, but indeed I digress rather far afield here.

My main point, of course, was to celebrate a happy and successful trip to London and an even happier and safe return home. Quite a few years - nearly 11, in fact - have passed since I lay down the mantle of commerce and set out to find myself and/or my destiny. Both still seem to be doing a good job of eluding me, but gradually I'm becoming more accepting and content with what I do have and more appreciative of what my life has embodied so far.

I'd still like to write a great book or (this is one of my not so commonly known ambitions, but a deeply felt one) compose a timelessly enduring Christmas carol, but increasingly I'm all right with whatever happens, and grateful, even, for all I've seen and done and been a party to. I've been given more than my fair share of splendid opportunities, and casually or gratuitously spurned most of them, but hey, like the man said, it's life and life only, and despite all my bellyaching and complaining, it's been a pretty damn grand affair so far.

10 December 2007

Brevity And Wit

Today I met up with a 77 year old friend who's written a memoir/autobiography that he'd like to have me proofread and possibly edit for him.

It covers a lot of ground, including his childhood in Ireland, coming to England as a young man, a spectacular suicide attempt, a fair bit of time spent in jail cells, successful careers in both engineering and show business, run ins with the IRA, spectacular misadventures on several continents, with much of the 20th century as its backdrop.

After sitting and chatting with him for a couple hours, I took the manuscript (hand typed, by the way) over to Kinko's to make a copy for him, since it's never been stored on a computer and he was entrusting me with the only copy in existence. Because the pages were old and tattered (he finished it quite a few years ago and it's been kicking around in drawers and boxes ever since), it was impossible to run it through the automatic document feeder, so I had to stand there and copy each page individually.

Most of my knowledge of the story was gleaned from reading a paragraph or two of each page as I waited to feed it into the machine. It looked like a real ripsnorter, and I look forward to finishing it off on the plane back to New York.

But here's the thing: despite covering considerably more time and at least as many events as my own memoir/autobiography, it's about 200 pages shorter. So what's up with that, I couldn't help wondering? As it was, it felt as though I was leaving half of my favourite stories out and only telling the barest details of those I included, and yet my book seemed long and laboured, while my friend's book, which dealt with whole sections of his life in a page or two, virtually sparkled with wit and insight.

He also uses very simple and straightforward language; he's obviously not a natural writer, but he seems to understand that and make up for it by avoiding fancy constructions and most adjectives and adverbs. I think he may have the makings of a very fascinating book here, whereas my own probably needs to have about two thirds of its innards excised before the general public is likely to find it readable.

Discouraging? A bit. I'm at a point now where I'm deciding whether to toss the whole thing out in favour of a novel that covers some of the same ground, or to do the necessary rewriting/major surgery on my original manuscript.

In the meantime, I'll occupy myself by editing my friend's book. I'm already preparing myself for the delicious irony should I succeed in helping him get it published while my own continues to languish in well-earned obscurity.

09 December 2007

Return Of The West Country Walking Society

Foul weather? What foul weather? It looked grim when we left London, and looked even grimmer when Danny phoned just as were coming up on Reading to tell us that it was simply bucketing down out west and that we'd better abandon plans to trek across some sodden stretch of the Cotswolds in favour of having a wander around some picturesque market town like Bradford-on-Avon.

Only trouble was, Richard had already set out to the rendezvous point at Haresfield Beacon, some 50 miles in the other direction, and for reasons unbeknownst to us, wasn't answering his phone. "I've half a mind to let him sit up there in the rain by himself," groused Danny, but in the end, of course, we all agreed we couldn't abandon our comrade and altered course back toward Haresfield.

After a hair (and hare)-raising careen over a one-lane mountain track on which Danny had assured us "nutters in SUVs are always trying to kill horse riders" (we were, as it happens, in an American SUV, but saw no horsemen or horsewomen to target), we pulled into a car park at the top of a vast expanse looking somewhat like the picture above. Almost instantaneously, the rain stopped, and within an hour the sun had appeared (as in the picture above).

Richard was there, blithely unaware that his phone was switched off, and Danny and Bella pulled in moments later. Longtime WCWS stalwart Shely was regrettably absent, having relocated from Poole to her native land, the Isle of Man, which was not quite so easy a commute. The weather having now turned for the better, against most predictions and all common sense (it's a weekend, we're out in the country miles from anywhere, of course rain is the logical outcome), there was nothing to do but set off along the escarpment in the direction of the troublingly named village of Painswick.

Having only heard Danny speak of it and not having seen it on the map, I naturally assumed that it was spelled Payneswick or Paineswick, and innocently asked if Thomas Paine had once lived there (not such an extreme assumption, as one of our previous walks, back when we were more of a South Downs Walking Society, had taken us to Lewes, which actually was the old firebrand's original home town). But no, Danny took, erm, pains to point out, it was actually a wick (archaic term for village or town) of pain that we were headed for.

You certainly would have thought so from Bella's reaction. She's not too keen on these Sunday walks, and often only comes along out of loyalty to Danny (her partner) and the rest of us in the WCWS. Not without reason, she has come to suspect Danny of fudging the distance and arduousness of our planned journeys to make them appear shorter and more appealing, and regularly peppers him with questions aimed at elucidating the true extent of the challenge facing us.

Danny, on the other hand, is a past master of feigned innocence (he is a journalist, after all) and replies to all her queries with a wounded expression and some version of "How could you doubt me?" or "Why on earth would I want to lead you astray?" In order to pull this off, he also has to exude unwavering confidence that the route he has chosen/is choosing is the correct one, something which, when following rural English footpaths, even Daniel Boone himself could not always be sure of.

As it happened, this particular path was not well signposted, and Danny's much-vaunted GPS was not being too helpful either. A bit of a row, thankfully good-natured, ensued when I asked him why he refused to carry his GPS in London, where its ability to identify street names and landmarks would make it actually useful. He insisted that he had no need of it in London, because he knew his way there, to which I replied, "Well, it certainly would have helped last Monday when we were lost in the City and trying to find Liverpool Street Station." "We weren't lost," he contended, "we just didn't know which street would get us to Liverpool Street." "Isn't that more or less the definition of lost?" I countered, and so on and so forth.

Ropey GPS or not, we eventually wound our way down several muddy hills into the picturesque (and not, as it emerged, especially painful) village of Painswick. We had an excellent lunch in a pub dating from 1545, seated by a window looking out onto the street and a similarly ancient graveyard. At one point, and sadly I have no photograph to prove this, I noticed a flash of colour out of the corner of my eye and looked up to see Santa Claus riding by in a horsecart laden with presents. It happened so fast that I didn't even have time to alert my companions, so naturally none of them believed me. But you do, dear readers, don't you?

Before heading back to our seemingly faraway car park, we had just enough time to stroll around the village, uncovering such Hogsmeadian gems as The March Hare and The Fiery Beacon before taking what Danny and his GPS assured us would be a "short cut." With the weather looking to take a turn for the grim, and evening quickly descending (it gets dark at 4 in the afternoon at this time of year), it was nervous going for a while, especially when we were faced with a choice between a busy highway with no footpath or shoulders and plunging into a dim and dismal wood.

We chose the wood, and as it turned out, Danny and his GPS had not steered us wrong, for we emerged out of it and into the car park just as rain began to fall for the first time since we'd set out. Wes, Richard and Danny stood about drinking tea under the overhanging tailgate of Wes's SUV, and then we all climbed into our respective vehicles and set off for London, Bristol and Bath. An excellent outing, all round, and the only other thing I want to mention is the place names we passed along the way, which practically read like poetry (or a Monty Python sketch) in themselves.

Examples: Ampney Crucis, Duntisbourne Leer, Lower Chedworth, Ready Token, Cricklade, Daglingworth, Brimpsfield, Birdlip, Nailsworth, Nympsfield, Owlpen, Moreton Valence, Quedgely, Dursley, Dowdeswell, Tuffley and... Well, the list is thousands long. You get the picture.