29 February 2008

Unpacking My Electric Guitar In Anticipation Of Spring

So, as promised/threatened yesterday, I did in fact dig out the old electric guitar from under the pile of debris that passes for my "office." I was originally going to make this alcove my bedroom so that I'd have a proper living room for the first time in, oh, decades, but then we couldn't get my enormous desk through the last door, so it had to stay here in the alcove, and it turned out just as well, since there a few problems that would have made the alcove a terrible place to try and sleep.

First off, there's a skylight, which means the daylight comes streaming in with the dawn. No big problem in winter, but do I really want to be getting up at 4 or 5 am every day in the summer? I don't think so, especially since it's not uncommon for me to go to sleep not too much before that. Secondly, because of its location at the top of the stairs and the deteriorating state of this 100+ year-old house, noise, smoke, cooking smells, whatever, all drift up from the first three floors and collect under my high "cathedral" ceiling (well, that's what the landlord called it; looks more like an attic ceiling to me, because that's what it is.

Seriously, I can practically hear every word of whatever idiotic TV program the people on the first floor are watching. But at least they usually quit by midnight or so, unlike the aspiring DJ/stoner at the back of the house (I'm inferring about the stoner part, but what else would keep someone up mixing beats till at least 4 am every morning?). Anyway, the good thing about the DJ is that his racket only is audible in the bathroom. I'm assuming it travels up the sewer pipes or something, also from the first floor. Don't know how the girl living on the floor in between puts up with it, but maybe this house's weird acoustics leave her floor in the quiet zone.

She, the one right underneath me, is actually pretty quiet most of the time, though there was a period recently where once or twice a week she'd stumble in (or come crashing in, more like) at somewhere between 2 and 4 am and start "partying." Actually, even that wasn't too unmanageable, at least not with earplugs, but she was bringing some guy with her who - maybe you know the type; you often see/hear them standing about on corners in "ethnic" neighborhoods like, come to think of it, this one - was incapable of speaking in anything lower than a loud "yo, listen to me" bellow.

It was weird. They'd wake me up, often by dropping a load of bottles or somesuch at the bottom of the stairs, come stomping through the house, and then all would go silent or very nearly so for a while. I'd hear her barely murmuring and would start drifting back to sleep only to be rousted back to wakefulness by one of his rafter-shaking guffaws or belches. On a couple occasions when they were really drunk (or something), they decided to put on loud music at about 5:30 am, which is bad enough as it is, but when some of her favorites run to Kim Carnes ("Bette Davis Eyes"), Gordon Lightfoot ("If You Could Read My Mind"), and Bob Dylan ("Knocking On Heaven's Door"), perhaps you can see why I might get a little annoyed, especially when, as happened to be the case, I had to be up at 8 myself.

That was the last time I was tempted to try out my electric guitar, ideally with the amplifier lying face down on the floor over her bedroom, and though I resisted that idea as downright unneighborly and likely to lead only to worse trouble, I did get up bright and early the next morning with the intention of putting on a football broadcast at top volume to see how they, who'd only drifted off to sleep about a half hour before, liked it. But my heart wasn't in it. I just don't seem to be capable of enjoying the same level of obnoxiousness I once used to thrive on. Instead, I just wrote her a nice note, and she wrote one back, and everything was very civilized, and I realized that about 95 or 98% of the time she was very quiet and that considering what many people have to put up with in New York, I was very unfortunate indeed.

In fact, although I know I'll have to start looking for a new apartment sooner or later, I'm holding back at least partly for fear that I'll end up somewhere with much worse/noisier neighbors. I mean, mine are pretty good, all things considered, and if this house wasn't full of cracks and holes and missing insulation, I'd probably almost never hear them at all.

Speaking of cracks/holes/missing insulation, about three or four times this winter we've had a frigid blast of wind from the west that hangs around for a day or two and drags temperatures down into the teens or low 20s. It also blows right through the front wall, along the floorboards and onto the futon where I sleep. Fortunately I've got lots of blankets, but it's a little unsettling to hear the wind whistling inside your house.

What also happens on those rare frigid days (there really have only been a few this winter) is that the radiators go into overdrive. These are the old-fashioned kind of radiators, that can't do their job silently, but in fact go through such a rigmarole of hissing, squeaking, banging and fizzing that it can really be quite alarming. I mean, if your tea kettle was making sounds even remotely that menacing, you'd get the hell out of the kitchen and perhaps out of the house altogether.

But so far, so good. The radiators haven't exploded, the apartment has stayed relatively warm and quiet, and winter, at least according to the calendar, shows signs of being on its way out of town. And even if it isn't, I will be, having planned a short excursion down to Florida in the third week of March. It's only for five days, but while I'm away the vernal equinox will have come and gone, so I anticipate returning to a New York in the full thrall of springtime. Well, not really, though I note that the snowdrops, primroses and daffodils were in full bloom over in London as of a couple weeks ago. No such sign of anything like that here. In fact as of about two minutes ago, the local temperature was a bracing 19 (-7C) degrees.

Never mind, though, spring will come, and be all the more cherished for the difference it will make to our lives. My bicycle sits outside the front door looking reproachfully at me as I pass by on my way to the subway, but soon there'll come a day when I'll saddle the old steed up once more and the golden road to all the five boroughs will open up before us. In the meantime, oh yes, I was talking about my electric guitar: well, it had gone a bit out of tune in the couple or three years since I'd played it, and one of the toggle switches had disappeared, and, surprisingly, I hadn't gotten any more musically adept at playing it.

But it still made a joyful (well, to me; perhaps not to the neighbors) noise, and I even had an idea for a new pop-punk song that I ripped off from the bass line I heard emanating from some basement on Metropolitan Avenue the other day. Who knows what, if anything will come of it, but I do know that tonight I heard an advance copy of the new Guts album on Rally Records and it is smoking hot. As if it weren't great enough by itself, it also includes a guest appearance by Ben Weasel, who, you may recall the Guts backed up at last summer's Baltimore Fest. It's about ten times harder and hotter than anything I've heard from the Guts before, not that they were any too shabby before. Don't know the release date, but I imagine it'll be sometime before summer, probably in time for this year's Fest, at any rate.

And that's all the news from here, for now, on a chilly but hopeful New York night. Hope you're all tucked up safe and warm and happy wherever you are.

28 February 2008

Pop Goes The Music

In yesterday's long, rambling post about playing 1890s songs on the piano, I neglected to mention one other reason why late 19th century songs have a special place in my heart: they represent, for better or worse, the dawn of popular music as we understand it today.

Oh, sure, there was always "popular" music of a sort. It's very likely that catchy tunes were being spread from town to town by wandering troubadours at least as far back as the Middle Ages, and probably well before that. It's also a near certainty that some of the most memorable motifs (riffs, if you will) in classical music were lifted ("borrowed," if you prefer) from popular peasant songs.

But because there was no systematized means of preserving such songs - at least if anyone was keeping a 14th century version of the pop charts, it's never been found - and also because historically there was a fairly strict separation between "high" and "low" culture, little notice was taken of what the common people were humming along to.

Until, that is, the industrial revolution turned peasants into an urban working class and gave them sufficient purchasing power to - at least en masse - rival the royalty and aristocracy who had been the traditional patrons of the arts. That, coupled with the process of mass production and standardization meant that instead of it taking months or years for some version or other of a folk tune to migrate from town to town, identical versions of a new song could be in thousands, even tens of thousands of households across the country in a matter of days.

As a boy I asked my dad, who was old enough to remember when phonographs were rare and radio nonexistent, how songs could become "popular" without most people being able to hear them played. He looked at me with surprise, as if wondering not for the first time how any offspring of his could be so clueless. "Why, through sheet music, of course."

He went on to explain how in the late 19th and early 20th nearly every reasonably well-off home had a piano and someone - most often one of the daughters of the family - who knew how to play it. Each week when a new batch of sheet music would come into the local shop, people would rush down and grab copies of the ones that looked interesting or that they'd heard about from others. Then they'd go home and start practicing, and with any luck by Saturday night they'd be leading friends and neighbors in a singalong of the latest "hits."

As much as I was wedded to my rock and roll radio during the 1950s and 60s, the idea of that whole piano singalong thing always appealed to me, and when I first started hanging out in the UK during the 1970s, I was lucky enough to occasionally run into some old-timers who still did things that way. One of my most favorite times was in a tiny town near the top of Scotland on or near Midsummer Night. At midnight it was still light enough for under-14s to be playing football on the village green. Nearly everyone else was squeezed into the one local pub, with no notice being taken of closing times or legal drinking ages. An old lady, who I understand to be either 90 or 96 - between the rowdy din and the Scottish accents, I reckoned myself fortunate to understand anything at all - took a seat at the piano and ran though nearly every song of note from the First and Second World Wars and much of what had come between.

I only knew about half the songs - if that - but I joined in singing with everyone else, wondering at the same time what would happen when the old dear at the piano had taken her final encore. Was there anyone in the town with her encylopedic knowledge of the old songs, or would she be replaced by a jukebox and/or a television?

I suppose it's always been a quiet ambition of mine to be able to play the piano well enough that people could sing along with me, and that in the process I'd be able to pass on some of the great old songs to a new generation or three. But I never practiced enough, was never quite outgoing or demonstrative enough, and maybe just wasn't talented enough to realize that particular dream.

But maybe there's still time. My mother and I are talking about going out to Ontario this summer for her cousin's 100th birthday celebration, and if I keep at the practicing, I'm hoping at the very least I might be able to play a few of the hits from 1908 or thereabouts to mark the centenary. Given that the average age of my audience will skew toward the high 80s, it's possible that they'll let me slide with a less than perfect performance. On the other hand, these are people who really know these songs, so my usual slapdash technique won't suffice.

Not even sure we're going yet, though, as my mother's kicking up a fuss about the new Homeland Security regulations for travel to Canada. Seems she let her passport lapses a number of years ago, thinking that her international traveling days were done, and she is very cross with George Bush for - well, a number of things, but particularly for requiring a passport for a journey which, back in her Detroit days, she made hundreds if not thousands of times with no more than a jaunty wave to the border crossing guards at the Ambassador Bridge (she and her parents were themselves "nickel immigrants," so named because of the bridge toll at the time).

A new passport will cost her about 100 bucks, and while she can easily afford it, she's insisting she's not going to give the Bush the satisfaction of taking her money, even if it means missing out on the party. "But Mom," I tell her, "you're the only one who's going to suffer. I really doubt President Bush is going to be sitting there in the White House cursing his luck at not getting that extra $100 out of you."

"I know," she says, "but it's the principle." And every time we have one of these discussions I learn a little more about how I got the way I am.

In other road trip news, I'm seriously considering going out to follow the Weakerthans around the middle of the country for a few days in early April. I used to do this fairly often, but in recent years have only been seeing them when they came to whatever town I was living in at the time. Maybe I'm just getting restless as winter enters the home stretch, but I think several consecutive nights of Weakerthans plus some long meandering two-lane drives in between might be just the ticket.

And lastly, I got a pleasant surprise in the mail today: the new CD from The Max Levine Ensemble, OK Smartypants AND I Love You, This Is A Robbery, the solo album from MLE guitarist/lead singer David "Spoonboy" Combs. Both are excellent, in very different ways, and inspired me to drag my old electric guitar out of hiding. Tomorrow, after the neighbors go to work, I might even try to plug it in.

25 February 2008

Love's Old Sweet Song

I've been playing the piano most days lately, and it makes me wonder what could possibly have been going on in my head that caused me to go all those years without a piano in the house. True, it's "only" a digital electric piano, whereas in several other periods of my life I had an upright, and even, at a couple glorious intervals, a grand piano available to me. But the digital sounds authentic enough, and offers the added advantage of my being able, using headphones, to play in the middle of the night.

I've actually owned this piano since the mid-90s, but never got around to shipping it over to London on the grounds that it would cost too much or was the wrong voltage or some similarly nonsensical excuse. During the entire ten years I lived in London I'd periodically think, "I really need a piano here," but then I'd get hung up deciding whether to get an acoustic (but it would cost so much, and what if I moved, and what if the neighbors complained?) or an electric (and should I get a new electric or ship my old one over from the States), and ultimately nothing would ever get decided. I'd play my old one during visits back to California, but they were infrequent enough that my painstakingly gained playing and music reading abilities gradually drifted away until I remembered so few songs that playing would rather quickly get boring.

But now I have not only my piano, but most of my old sheet music, and some of the old skills are coming back. A little more slowly than they used to, to be sure, but I'm also able to understand stuff that baffled me back during my last big bout of piano playing in the 1980s, and I'm certainly enjoying it more than ever.

I was really looking forward to reacquainting myself with some of my favorite Cole Porter songs as well as a variety of other Broadway tunes, but lately, for some reason, I've been almost obsessively focusing on the greatest hits of the 90s. The 1890s, that is.

I've probably mentioned here before how I felt as though I'd grown up with one foot in the 19th century, and musically that was certainly true. Hanging in our family's living room was a portrait of my mother's immediate ancestors in full Victorian regalia. It had been taken around 1895, and many of the people in it, my grandfather included, were still alive and a part of my life.

But while my 19th century relatives seemed impossibly old - though on reflection, some of them were barely older than I am now - another, more timeless remnant of the 1890s lingered in our house in the form of music. Not the original recordings, of course - many of my parents' favorite songs predated the phonograph - but faithful renderings, packaged under titles like "Greatest Hits of the Gay 90s," that sort of thing.

"Gay" hadn't yet acquired its modern meaning, and frequently appeared both in descriptions of the era and within the songs themselves. For an idea of just how innocent (or naive, or, if you prefer, structurally and institutionally racist) we were in those days: check out this lyric from a family favorite (and state song of Kentucky): "'Tis summer, the darkies are gay."

That one actually dated back to 1853, and was one of a couple dozen we'd invariably sing on long family car trips (which, in those pre-expressway times, meant anything more than 25 miles or so). Some other perennial favorites included "Who Threw The Overalls In Mrs. Murphy's Chowder?" "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" and the 27 or 49 or however many verses it was of "Abdul Abulbul Amir," a slightly more literate take on the "99 Bottles Of Beer On The Wall" tradition.

As I got older and started learning to play actual songs on the piano, I mastered a few classics from the 1870s through the 90s. Well, tried to master, anyway. One of my more painful memories involves my constant efforts to play a note-perfect version of my father's favorite song, "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."

I never managed it, at least not within his earshot. I'd play lovely versions again and again when I was alone, but every time I'd muster up the courage to try and play it for him, I'd hit some painful clinkers. He was no musician himself, but he knew exactly how the song should go, and even if he was sitting behind me, I could still see his pursed lips and sense his pained sighs the second I deviated even slightly from the rhythm or the melody.

He wasn't so exacting, however, with some of the other old songs, and one of my fondest family memories was the year when everyone was gathered at my house in the mountains for Christmas and I unreeled a solid hour or so of 19th century classics. It was the first time our family had sung together since the 1950s; in fact I'd all but forgotten any of them could sing or ever had sung. I played "And The Band Played On" ("Casey would waltz with a strawberry blonde..."), "After The Ball," "Silver Threads Among The Gold," "By The Light Of The Silvery Moon," "In The Good Old Summertime," with a few Christmas carols thrown in. My dad even allowed how my latest attempt at "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen" was "almost just right."

But the most precious moment came when I went into "Love's Old Sweet Song," which though I'd never been specifically told so, I suspect might have been my parents' song. Even as a small child I'd noticed how they'd get moony, faraway looks when that song came on, and after months of playing it constantly on the piano, it was now one of my own favorites as well. My father, who had a pleasant if slightly reedy baritone, had been singing right along with the rest of us, but my mother had been holding back to the point where her voice was more of a distant murmur, even though she was standing no more than a couple feet away from me.

She stayed at that volume through the verse, but when the chorus of "Just a song at twilight" came round, she burst into full song, and it was as if the voice of an angel had appeared on my shoulder. I very nearly lost my place in the music, so startled was I by the simple yet exquisite clarity and beauty that shone through. When and how had my mother suddenly acquired such a talent for singing?

Gradually it dawned on me that she had always had it, but that as a child I'd either not noticed or taken it for granted, and that somewhere along the line as we'd grown older, she'd just stopped singing. I was still young and callow enough to be surprised that at her age - she was 67 at the time - she still had a song in her heart, let alone was capable of letting it out into the world with the gentle unforced innocence of a child.

Now that I'm not a whole lot younger than she was at the time, I can smile at my arrogance and naiveté in thinking that there was an age limit on the love and appreciation of music, and yet at the same time I note that I've quieted down a lot, and sing much less often, especially if there's a chance anyone will hear me. So even though one of my other favorite things to play on the piano is old Potatomen songs - "Now," "Iceland," "Sam's Song," "The Loneliest Boy In The World" among others - I seldom if ever sing along with myself. Considering that only ten years ago I was regularly singing these same songs on stage in front of (well, occasionally) lots of people, it's strange that I'm so reticent about it now. If this keeps up, some day when I do finally pipe up, some young whippersnapper is going to be going around telling people, "Who would have thought that old codger still had it in him?"

The downside, if there is one, to playing all these old-timey songs is that they tend to be unrelentingly sentimental. They're nearly all lamenting for lost love or reveling in happy-ever-after-ness (proving, you might say, that popular music never really changes that much), which can cause a resolutely single guy like yours truly to drift off into some uncomfortable introspection. What's interesting is that the last time I went on a binge of 1870s-90s music, it was followed shortly thereafter by my starting to write horrible, obnoxious punk rock songs, starting a band, and eventually a punk rock record label. Which prompts me to wonder where this current go-round might be taking me.

Anyway, here's the chorus to "Love's Old Sweet Song." If you're curious, you can get all the words here, and there's even a link for an (albeit awful) mp3 of the tune played on piano and synth. Trust me, I'm no genius on the keyboards, but my version is a lot better.

That being said:

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go.
Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes love's old song,
Comes love's old sweet song.
And oh, what the heck, here's the final verse, which kind of sums up what I, in my clumsy way, have been trying to say all along:
Even today we hear love's song of yore,
Deep in our hearts it swells forever-more.
Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way;
Still we can hear it at the close of day.
So 'til the end, when life's dim shadows fall,
Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

And The Controversial Part Is...?

Erik K. Arnold, perennnial and panglossian apologist for the "cannabis, thizz pills, and top-shelf tequila"-fueled hyphy movement, offers this as one of the reasons the "Get dumb" offshoot of an already fairly moronic and violent Bay Area rap scene has failed to achieve the commercial success once expected of it:

National media made a big fuss over the controversial practice of "ghost-riding the whip" (putting a car in neutral and dancing on its hood or roof while the vehicle kept rolling).
Missing from his SF Weekly article is any explanation of where exactly the "controversy" lies. Is there a significant body of opinion out there in favor of dancing on top of a driverless moving vehicle?

Arnold also recounts how DJs at a local radio station were surrounded and threatened, possibly at gunpoint, by an Oakland group, the Delinquents, and "a large number of thuggy street dudes" because, in the words of one Mr. G-Stack, "They wasn't playing our stuff." Apparently this method of radio promotion is not at all uncommon in the hiphop world, though I must admit it never occurred to me during my own years in the industry when local stations also "wasn't playing our stuff." I think, however, we Lookout pop-punkers might have lacked credibility had we warned them, "It ain't gon' be okay to ride your vans through the 'hood."

24 February 2008

Back To The Future

Back in the 1980s one of the greatest compensations for enduring the intellectual and moral swamp that comprised life in Mendocino County was the Anderson Valley Advertiser.

You've probably heard me mention it before: the plucky little small-town paper and scourge of the booboisie, run by muckraking and hellraising editor Bruce Anderson (no connection, at least not originally, to the Anderson Valley, but by now he has surely put his stamp on it for time immemorial), who came north from the Bay Area in the wake of the hippie back-to-the-landers, bought the struggling local weekly and has been enlightening and tormenting those back-to-the-landers and their descendants ever since.

I used to write a few articles for the Advertiser myself, and even when I didn't, Bruce would feel free to lift them from my own magazine, the Lookout, which was performing a similar function in the slightly less sophisticated cosmopolis known as Greater Laytonville. Long after I migrated out I kept subscribing to the Advertiser for its nonpareil insights into life on the frontier that America forgot, or more likely preferred not to think about.

But a few years back - I can't remember exactly when - Bruce finally gave up on Mendocino County, sold the Advertiser to a local hippie, and headed north to Oregon where he tried, unfortunately without success, to launch the AVA Oregon. David Severn, the new owner of the original AVA, tried his best to keep things humming along smoothly, but despite having the good sense and editorial sensibilities to keep much of the paper's disparate and cantankerous staff on board, he simply wasn't the writer Bruce is. Well, nobody is, really, and when it came down to it, Bruce's inimitable style and unbridled clarity of thought was what set the AVA apart from and above all competitors.

I still kept up my subscription for its window into the life I had lived for a dozen years or so and which, from London, where I was now living, seemed to grow ever more bizarre and implausible. If nothing else, I could show copies of the paper to friends and say, "Look, I didn't make it up, there really are people who think, act and talk like that." But I finally let my subscription lapse when international air mail postage rates rose a couple more times; I suppose I could have kept getting it by surface mail, but all the news, such as it was, would have been a month or two old by the time it got to me.

But recently Aaron Cometbus, who's been wintering in San Francisco, told me that Bruce Anderson had, by some mysterious and as yet unexplained turn of events, retaken the helm of the AVA and that everything was back to normal only moreso. It seemed hard to believe; Mendocino County and the North Coast are such different places (or so one would think) 20 years down the line that it's hard to imagine people getting fired up about the same issues Bruce was hammering away at back in mid to late 80s.

Nevertheless I renewed my subscription, and today my first issue arrived. And lo and behold, it was almost as though I (or the AVA) had never been away. The same tales of hippie marijuana growers and their violent, "non-groovy" doppelgängers, the ripoff artists and "commercial" growers with their bad vibes spoiling the scene for everyone else, the same incompetent, corrupt, borderline insane bureaucrats and politicians bumbling their way to Armageddon, the same woo-woo New Age BS artists peddling the same recylable bottles of organic snake oil. I wrote a note to Bruce welcoming his return to the fray and he fired back, "When are you coming back to Spy Rock, Lar Lar?"

Stranger things have happened, Bruce, but I wouldn't hold my breath. In the meantime, anyone interested can check out some samples of current AVA articles and get subscription info at: theava.com. And if they ever find themselves in need of a Brooklyn correspondent, you may even see yours truly represented there.

23 February 2008

Making A Clean Breast Of Things

I happen to own a lot of t-shirts. I've never attempted to count them all, and the fact that a number of them are identical or nearly so would make such an undertaking too complicated to be worth bothering with, but the net effect is that it's possible for me to put off doing laundry for a long time.

I'd rather not do that, since having clean laundry generally gives me a brighter outlook on life in general. And although I have many things I can wear, I only have a handful of things I genuinely enjoy wearing. So it would really make sense for me to do laundry every week or so and to throw out all the junk that I only wear because everything else is dirty.

But although I say I'd rather not put off doing laundry, some part of me must want to, because it happens time and again. And this latest stretch possibly may have been the longest yet, a month at least, I'm guessing. It's not as though it such a challenge dragging my stuff down to the laundromat, which is all of two blocks away and open 24 hours a day, though I suppose I could rationalize that I'm operating under a handicap, as the last two places I lived had a washer and dryer in the apartment. And it's not as though I can't spare a couple hours from my oh-so-busy schedule of procrastination, dithering, TV-watching and internet doodling.

Even still, from the time I started penciling in "laundry" on my daily "to-do" list (yes, I do keep such a list, if only for purposes of informing myself just how much I still haven't done), it was at least another week or ten days before I finally dragged myself and two giant bags down the block just as the skies were lowering and an after-midnight snowstorm was about to set in.

At least I had the place to myself, well, myself and the night janitor, who looked none too happy to see me sauntering in (on very slow nights, which last night was, he likes to lock the front door and pretend the place is closed so that no one will step on his freshly mopped floors and he can listen to his music as loudly as he likes). I managed to cram everything into three large machines (that whole separating whites and colors has never been a high priority with me, and no, that's not a racial comment) and settled down to read a couple chapters of Ian McEwan's Atonement (yes, I know it's also a movie, and no, I haven't seen it).

I'd never read anything by McEwan before; I was prejudiced against him for the often perfectly sound reason that he was inordinately popular with the Guardianista chatterati. But in this case my suspicions were completely unfounded. I originally decided to give him a chance because Lee Gomes, that Wall Street Journal reporter who interviewed me about Latin (you'll remember if you're longtime readers of this blog; if not, it's not important) recommended two books to me. The first was Eliot's Middlemarch, which turned out to be a ripsnorter, so I decided to give Atonement a chance as well.

And Mr. Gomes was right on the money again; it's an absolutely stunning book. I'm not quite finished with it yet, so please don't write in with any plot spoilers, but I find myself especially riveted by McEwan's powers of description. Much of the book is set on a country estate in deepest Surrey, and for some reason, it evoked powerful memories of my own years in the Mendocino wilderness, especially the sounds of warm summer nights, like the almost deafening clamor of the crickets, the sudden soughing breeze that sent fir branches swaying and bits of leaves and twigs clattering onto the roof.

My next reaction was near-despair at the seeming impossibility of ever honing my own descriptive abilities to anywhere near that level, followed by the usual fit of pouting to the effect of, "Why do I bother writing at all? I don't enjoy it all that much, there's no great demand for it, and with several kajillion other bloggers already jamming up the internet with thoughts and opinions that are at least as interesting and entertaining as my own, why wrack my brain and ruin my posture just to add to the glut?

I would have pursued this line of thought further, but by now my laundry was done and I walked out into a transformed world, whiter and cleaner than even my whitest and cleanest whites. The scattered flakes that had stung my face on my way to the laundromat had turned into massive glops and globules that seemed to hang on the near-motionless night air for a quiet eternity before plunging to earth and piling up on the cars, streets, and sidewalks at an alarming rate. My two bags of laundry, fresh from the dryer, were half-soaked again by the time I traveled the two blocks home. I put everything away, put clean sheets on my futon, and by the time I was finished, much of the night was gone.

The weather forecasters had predicted two to four inches, but by morning they had changed their tune. Now they were talking about seven to ten, which would have been the most snow I'd seen since my Mendocino days. I staggered to the window, having had not quite enough sleep as per usual, and discovered they weren't far off. I decided to give myself a snow day, not that I had planned anything more adventurous than a trip to the gym, and as soon as I got settled in, of course, the snow stopped, and by late afternoon had turned to rain.

At that point I caught a train over to the city, where it was raining harder and the mountains of freshly minted snow had dissolved into rivers of graying slush. Back home in Brooklyn there were still piles of white snow scattered along the edges of sidewalks and in between cars that hadn't been moved, but the magic had moved on. It's still the most snow we've had all winter, but like the other times, it barely lasted a day. Which is all right with me; we're closing in on the tail end of February, and I'm about ready for winter to be over.

Off The Air

Apparently some or all of my segment on yesterday's Weasel Radio was "inadvertently" (that's what they're claiming, anyway) erased, so I guess I'm not on the radio after all.

I think they're going to ask me back again in a couple weeks, though by then no doubt whatever the burning issue was yesterday (see, I've forgotten it already) will be of no interest whatsoever, and heaven knows if I'll have anything significant to say about whatever happens to be the hot button topic come early to mid-March.

Sorry to disappoint any of you who tuned in hoping to hear me, but Ben and Owen are the real stars anyway, and we guests seldom rise above the level of additional ornamentation. In other words, the show's still well worth listening to even without me. Perhaps even more so.

21 February 2008

On The Air

Just got off the phone with Owen Murphy and Ben Weasel, who had kindly invited me to be a guest on tonight's episode of Weasel Radio.

Ben was mostly in the mood for talking about the pop punk community and a little controversy that has been swirling up around this summer's Baltimore Fest; as an elder statesman, I reiterated my view that this sort of thing is not only inevitable but deeply rooted in human nature, and then, pressed to give my opinion about the three best bands today, I narrowed it down to five (Steinways, Leftovers, Ergs, Copyrights and Guts) and totally forgot to mention the Zatopeks, who are always at or near the top of my list, and similarly neglected to talk about anything outside the admittedly fascinating but still rather narrow confines of pop punk - like Delay, the Max Levine Ensemble, or, ranging a bit further afield, the Weakerthans. All right, I'm monomaniacal, so take me out and shoot me. Alternatively, by the time a guy gets to be my age, he's entitled to know what he likes.

Anyway, if you're interested, Weasel Radio is always a good listen, and I'm sure I didn't manage to screw it up too badly in the ten or so minutes I was on. The show streams live, usually on Wednesday nights, but I guess tonight it'll be Thursday, and as a podcast thereafter. Go to their website and follow the instructions. I've managed to find it a few times myself, so it can't be that hard.

Seeing And Believing

A week ago Tuesday I was on the Lower East side visiting a friend, and while I was in her apartment, it began to snow outside. It was only the second time all winter that a measurable amount of snow had fallen, and the first time it happened during daylight hours.

Her block, nondescript by most standards, had been utterly transformed during the couple of hours I'd been indoors. The forlornly bare branches of the street trees were now sinuous and tangled and cast in sharp relief by the white coating clinging to their leeward sides. The normally dull red brick of the building fronts had grown shiny and voluptuous beneath their filigree of jet black and silver fire escapes. The snowflakes tumbled thick and fast as if someone were shoveling them into my face from just above and ahead of me, making it necessary to squint if I was to see anything at all of where I was going, but as a result I saw the city - as I do every now and again - with new eyes. It was staggeringly, take-your-breath-away beautiful, or at least so I thought until I mentioned the experience to another friend later that night.

"Well," he said, "I could say a lot of things about New York, but I'm not sure 'beautiful' would be one of them. Interesting, sure, powerful, impressive, imposing, fascinating, but beautiful? I don't think so, at least not in the conventional sense of the word."

I redoubled my efforts to describe to him how the stark right angles and jutting cornices and the casual collision of the whimsical and the brutally pragmatic had blurred together in an exquisite and evanescent tableau made all the more precious by the swiftness with which it would vanish once the passing snowstorm gave way to a sullen freezing rain. But he brushed aside my efforts, and I thought back to the conversation I'd been having at my other friend's house just before I'd stepped out into the snowstorm.

She's a painter, you see, and a rather good one, and while I know little about the theory and next to nothing about the technique of painting, I like to talk about it nonetheless, especially with regard to the dichotomy between figurative and abstract art. I'll admit it, I don't have a lot of use for abstract art, but at the same time, I'm not especially keen on photo-realism, either. Once the camera, especially the digital camera, became readily available to almost anyone, the function of painting necessarily had to change, I opined, and she, surprisingly - most artists just smile indulgently or simply ignore my attempts at philosophizing - more or less agreed with me.

Someone like Hopper strikes me as an example of what painting can and should do in the modern era: his settings and subjects are instantly recognizable, physically as well as emotionally and - if it's not too high-faluting a concept, spiritually. Yet as vivid as his paintings are, there's nothing remotely photo-realistic about them. If you were so inclined, you could pick them to pieces, showing how what in real life would be crisp and sharply defined lines and shapes turn into vague and suggestive blurs and shadows in a classic Hopper painting.

He's not painting a thing or a place or even people, you see, he's painting an idea, in much the same way as a Chinese character, once inaccurately labeled by Westerners as a "pictogram" is now more accurately known as an "ideogram," literally a map or graph of an idea. And that's exactly what the artist should be creating with a painting, or at least what I would be trying to do if I had the faintest shred of talent with pencil or paintbrush.

Since I don't, I have to try and do the same thing with words, and if I were in a mood to feel sorry for myself, I'd argue that that was even harder than doing it in pictures, though ultimately I don't know if there's a heck of a lot of difference. What I do know is that I saw something of consuming beauty, something I, and, I suspect, quite a few others, hadn't noticed before. Somehow I had to create an image not of the actual street scene I'd witnessed, but of the feelings and ideas and memories and associations it evoked in me.

And why? So that by passing them on to others I could trigger a new set of feelings and ideas and memories and associations in them, ones that might have next to nothing to do with the ones I had personally experienced, but would nonetheless evoke in them a sense of wonder and appreciation somewhat akin to my own. At least I think that's how it works, and ultimately, as hard as it is to do, it's easier to do it than to talk about it.

So let me just tell you: New York was beautiful that day. Incredibly so, and although I only realized this by everything suddenly appearing very different, the lasting understanding was that New York is very beautiful every day, in as many ways and variations as there are people to observe them. Don't want to take my word for it? Go otu and have a look around for yourself then.

The Retro Racist World Of The Village Voice

When I came to New York in April of 1967 for an antiwar march I picked up a copy of the Village Voice. It was the first time I'd ever seen the newspaper, the first time I'd ever seen anything like it. I took it back to Michigan to show people, and ended up hanging onto it for almost 40 years before I finally passed it on to Aaron Cometbus who's much more of a serious archivist when it comes to lefty literature of a bygone era.

Back then the Voice was for sale - I think it was around the price of a subway token, considerably more than the cost of a daily paper. It's been a freebie - and, some would say, worth every penny - for more years than I can remember now, and while the internet has rendered obsolete one of its prime purposes, the listings of music, theater, film and other cultural events, not to mention the once-vital apartments-for-rent listings, the Voice has continued to be a standard-bearer for the retrograde and nihilistic identity politics of the 1970s, so much so that it sometimes makes even San Francisco's raving loony Bay Guardian look like a bastion of squishy liberalism.

That's not to say that there isn't some good writing and analysis in the Voice, though you're more likely to find it on the cultural rather than the political front. Crusty old Nat Hentoff, though he's flagrantly, famously wrong at least half the time, remains a bastion of integrity; no matter how unpopular or bizarrely reasoned some of his convictions may be, you never doubt that the man operates from a position of pure principle rather than personal vendetta or expediency.

Would that the same could be said for the egregious Wayne Barrett, who's been running a one-man war on former Mayor Rudy Giuliani that hasn't even slightly slackened in the more than six years since Giuliani left office. Barrett's hatred for the mayor is two-pronged and self-contradicting: on one hand, he argues ad nauseam that Giuliani's war on crime was vicious, racist, and Ruined The City, on the other, he insists that New York's spectacular drop in crime and the ensuing urban renaissance had sbsolutely nothing to do with Giuliani and would in fact have probably been still more spectacular had the disastrous Mayor Dinkins remained in office.

It's difficult to believe that Barrett's hate campaign is anything but racial/racist in nature; he appears to come from that school of white leftism that interprets everything according to the black=good/white=bad formulation, and you don't need to scratch too deeply beneath the surface to infer that Giuliani went irredeemably into Barrett's bad books the minute he ousted New York's first African-American mayor from office (young people or others who don't have a clear idea of who Dinkins was or why he was swept out of office might refer to his modern-day counterpart, Oakland's Mayor Dellums, a similarly genial and ineffectual African-American of advancing years who dithers while the streets of his city turned into killing fields).

Barrett's vendetta aside, there's a considerable amount of sentiment at the Voice - as one finds wherever bitter lefties congregate - to the effect that today's clean, safe, prosperous New York is greatly inferior to the dangerous, decaying, bankrupt slum of the past, and that this too is something for which Giuliani and his successor Mike Bloomberg need to shoulder the blame. There is an almost romantic fascination with and longing for the days when feral gangs roamed the streets at will, preying with impunity on anyone who wasn't fast, strong or lucky enough.

The fact that a large majority of these criminals were African-American or Puerto Rican is cited as evidence that Giuliani's crackdown was fundamentally racist in nature, ignoring the equally prominent fact that African-Americans and Puerto Ricans were disproportionately the victims of New York's crime wave, and that Giuliani's successful struggle to contain crime undoubtedly saved the lives of more people of color in any given week than all of Al Sharpton's yammering and posturing did in a decade.

Nevertheless, the Voice still champions the right - almost to the point of it being a duty - of young African-American men to act like thugs - particularly if said thugs have a knack for stringing rhymes and beats together. "Cops vs. Rappers" is another of the Voice's recurring bugbears: they're convinced that the police are waging war on "the hip hop community" because they regularly insist on arresting rappers for such culturally motivated crimes as murder, weapons possession, robbery and assault.

A recent story would have us weeping great tears at the injustice of rapper Prodigy being sentenced to prison for carrying a loaded pistol. "Prodigy carries a gun. It's how he was raised," the story reads, as if we're supposed to say, "Oh, well that's all right then." It goes on to explain that while Prodigy came from "a long line of influential men - his great-great-grandfather...founded Morehouse College," he chose instead to pattern his life after his drug-addicted father who "spent much of his life in prison for weapons and robbery charges."

"Pops was a very intelligent person, but as smart as he was, this nigga had a criminal gene in his DNA," Prodigy tells us, and once again you get the impression that we're supposed to cut the guy a whole ton of slack because, well, he realizes how stupid the whole thing is, but you know, he just can't help himself. I mean, this is the same kind of crap you used to hear from racist white politicians in the Old South: "Y'all know you can't expect them Nigras to show any common sense, they just ain't got it in them."

So why is it that this particular man shouldn't have to go to jail for carrying an illegal weapon? Is it because he is black? Or because he's a rapper? Neither seems like a particularly good reason, but in the strange and insidiously racist world of the Voice, it practically goes without saying.

20 February 2008

Losers Of The Year

I don't often miss California or Berkeley, but last week saw a very special event that I wish I'd been there for. Pinhead Gunpowder, the long-lived but very occasional band featuring peripatetic wordsmith Aaron Cometbus and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong played a series of secret and not-so-secret shows capped off by a triumphant return to their spiritual home at Gilman Street.

Actually, I could have been there, but having just been in California for what seemed like a very long week at Christmastime and also having foreseen (fortunately I was wrong) a dire outcome for the Gilman show, I elected to stay put in New York. I had feared that too many people knew about the Gilman show and that the club's capacity and infrastructure would be completely overrun by hysterical Green Day fans, but such was not the case; while there were long lines to get in, everybody eventually did get in, and the total crowd was not even as large as some I've seen for memorable gigs in the past like the last Operation Ivy show or the Green Day-Neurosis-MTX-Samiam record release party.

Oh well; everyone I know who was there says it was simply amazing and wonderful, etc., etc., but then they always say that about any event I miss out on. Apparently the band members were similarly stoked, and I've been hoping that this warm afterglow might result in them agreeing to play the Fest this summer in Baltimore, but so far Aaron is steadfastly dragging his feet on that one. Well, actually, he's doing more than dragging his feet; he's saying just plain NO, and has done so a number of times. I'm actually even starting to believe him. Which is probably wise, since in the 22 years I've known him, I should have learned by now that butting heads with A Cometbus over anything is unlikely to produce anything other than a sore head. Still, a guy can hope, and I may ask him just one more time on the grounds that the Fest is today's closest equivalent to the glory years of Gilman Street, underlined by the totally unexpected appearance this year - their first time on stage together in about 16 or more years - of Gilman's original pop punk heroes, Sweet Baby (for whom, as you old-timers will know, Aaron once drummed).

Anyway, don't buy a Fest ticket hoping to see Pinhead Gunpowder, because you almost certainly won't, but even without them, you'd be nuts to pass up a trip to Baltimore this June. And bear in mind that tickets usually sell out almost literally before they go on sale, so keep your eyes peeled. You might get a heads-up by reading this blog, but don't count on it.

And This Would Be A Bad Thing?

If U2 were starting out in today's music industry, you might never have heard of us.

- Bono

That's more or less a paraphrase of a Bono quote used in a wretched little documentary called Before The Music Dies that I happened to run across this afternoon on IFC.

I didn't watch it all, finding a Law and Order rerun on another channel more scintillating, but I caught enough of it to get the gist: a bunch of has-beens and never-weres from the 70s and 80s whining about how the industry today is "only concerned with image and money," not the "real" and "good" music they had back in our day, blah blah blah...

Yes, another version of "Kids these days are being brainwashed into buying crappy music and so we can't get record deals anymore." It doesn't help their case that the examples of "brilliant" and "genius" music they cite are things like Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, in other words, the kind of crap that the filmmakers obviously grew up with (and were apparently warped for life by).

This "today's music is all style and no substance" argument has probably been going on as long as music has existed; I remember my dad using it against Elvis Presley and the Beatles when I was a kid. And I may have trotted it out myself in some of my more pompous or opinionated moments, but today I'd say that the alleged death of the traditional music industry is one of the best things that could happen for music, and that while there are all sorts of popular music today that I don't care for at all, there is a better and broader selection of music available today - and, via the internet and other modern means of communication, more easily available - than pretty much, well, ever.

Just in my own favorite genre of punk and pop-punk, there is more stuff - and I mean really good stuff - coming out than I can hope to keep track of. And the same is true of nearly every other style of music. And if we can count on the failure of the traditional music industry to protect us from the emergence of another U2/Sting/Eric Clapton/etc. etc., I see that as cause for singing and dancing in the streets.

04 February 2008

It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By February 4, 1968 was already shaping up to be a spectacular year. Spectacularly good or spectacularly bad remained to be seen; there was considerably evidence for both cases.

On the plus side, I was no longer homeless, which was how I'd started the year. On the not so plus side, my new home was rapidly turning into the most demented hippie commune in town. Insanity House, people had taken to calling it, and while we thought of that as high praise, it wasn't generally intended as such.

Originally home to a couple of naive college girls, the one-bedroom apartment just off Ypsilanti's once-genteel but now slightly seedy North Huron Street had quickly become a refuge for an increasingly bizarre assortment of drug-addled misfits and random sociopaths who tended to think of me as first among equals.

The way it worked was generally this: people would show up on our doorstep, having heard that Insanity House was the scene of a more or less constant party, they would take LSD with us, and by the following morning, having shared the intimate bonds of a 12-hour psychedelic adventure, we couldn't imagine sending them back to their own homes, assuming they had any, so of course they had to move in.

Fortunately, it was an unusually large one-bedroom apartment, with the numerous nooks and crannies you'd expect to find in a sprawling 19th century (built 1845) house, so for a while new residents could find places to tuck themselves away where they'd scarcely be noticed. But we seemed to be accumulating people at the rate of one per LSD trip, in other words, one per day.

Well, that wasn't completely accurate. So far this year there'd only been one day I hadn't taken acid, and that had been yesterday, February 3. I hadn't noticed whether anyone had moved in that day, but I knew that the last time we tried counting how many people were living in Insanity House, there'd been over 30. We couldn't be more accurate than that because nobody would sit still long enough for us to finish counting.

But right now I was kind of worried. Partly because we'd run out of acid; at the beginning of the year one of the girls had persuaded some "heavy" dudes over in Ann Arbor to front her 300 hits of acid on the premise that we could sell them to our hippie friends for a good profit. The way we figured it, we only had to sell 200 and then we could afford to eat the rest, but as it happened we never got around to selling any and ate all 300 of them.

So I was mulling over what exactly she'd meant when she referred to the Ann Arbor dudes as "heavy." At the time "heavy" could mean one of two things: either some extra-long-haired guy with an above-average line in cosmic patter, or a drug dealer with guns. I was inclined to think we were involved with the latter.

I was also a bit concerned over something that had happened the night before last, which was the most recent time I'd taken LSD. Just after I'd dropped it, it occurred to me that I'd taken LSD every single day thus far in 1968, and rather brashly announced that I was going to continue to do so for the rest of the year. That string had been broken the very next day, but that wasn't the main thing bothering me (though I did find it slightly annoying to not have been able to follow through on a sincerely made commitment). No, what was troubling me more was the experience I'd had late that night, when I stepped outside to discover that the world had reversed itself and now looked like a photographic negative.

When I woke up the following afternoon, I was nervous about opening my eyes, because I wasn't sure if the world would have returned to its proper color scheme. What actually happened was worse: when I finally did open my eyes, I couldn't tell if it had or hadn't because I simply couldn't remember what color or colors the world was supposed to be. So I moped around the house all day, kind of squinting at things as if by limiting the amount of light that reached my brain I might be able to get a better handle on it.

Another problem made itself evident now that we were out of LSD: a total lack of food and/or money to buy some with. As long as we were tripping, food seemed irrelevant, and we'd gotten by on things like Jello or free pizzas from the hippie who worked at Domino's, but the absence of drugs in our systems made us painfully conscious of the fact that we'd barely eaten in days.

We had one surefire way of raising small amounts of money: this being a college town, there were two big stores where the students bought their textbooks. Whenever they entered either of the stores, they had to leave their own books on shelves at the front of the store (these were more trusting times, so one saw the need for lockers or a bookcheck counter). We'd skulk in, pick up a load of books as though we were the student who'd left them there, and then sidle down the street to the other store where we'd sell them as used.

As high as we usually were, we could see that this was a pretty low thing to be doing, but we figured that as long as the money was going for the cause of the hippie revolution, i.e., to help spread peace, love and drugs throughout the world, ours was the higher cause. "Besides," we frequently reasoned, "those college kids have rich parents, they can afford to buy more books."

But while tactics like that would keep us in junk food and cigarettes, they weren't going to feed 30-some people on a daily basis. Never mind rent; we'd already decided we weren't going to pay it, and if the landlady had an issue with that she was going to have to reckon with the revolutionary wrath of the people. But still, we had to get some money and, more importantly, some drugs.

By early evening our prayers had been answered twofold: our LSD procurer had been been back to Ann Arbor and somehow convinced the "heavy" dudes that if they hoped ever to be paid for the previous 300 hits of acid, they'd have to front us some more. She handed me a vial containing 100 capsules, saying, "Okay, we've got to sell all of these at $5 a pop; that's the only way we'll make enough to pay those guys back."

I raised my eyebrows. "All of them?" "Well, almost all of them. There's probably enough that maybe five of us can trip one time." She then told me she was entrusting me with the stash because if people knew she had it, they'd all be bugging her to give them some.

Meanwhile, I had my own big operation going. A few nights earlier I'd been tripping with some strange guys from Detroit. The acid had been a little speedy and I'd been shooting my mouth off all night about how we were the biggest drug dealers in town and how we were going to use our profits to buy weapons and bombs for the revolutions. It was complete and utter bullshit; most days we were lucky if we could organize ourselves out the front door of our squalid little hippie pad. But the guys from Detroit seemed to take it seriously, especially one shifty-eyed character known as Maurice.

"So, could you get me a key?" he asked, meaning a kilo of marijuana. No problem, I said, I could get a dozen keys if he wanted. In real life the most marijuana I'd ever seen was an ounce, and at $10, that represented considerably more than my life savings.

But here I was on my way to Ann Arbor to do a big dope deal. I was going to bury the LSD stash under the snow in the back yard, but after covering it and uncovering it several times, each time getting more paranoid that someone had seen me or that I wouldn't be able to find it again, and finally stuffed it back in my pocket and took it with me.

The dope deal didn't go quite as planned: my dealer was accustomed to selling ounces and half-ounces to U of M students, not kilos to Detroit wholesalers. He reluctantly sold me all four ounces that he had and I headed back to the car where Maurice was waiting. I was only going to making $5 instead of the $100 I'd planned on, so I felt entitled to grab a handful of dope out of each bag on the way. Even then I was in a foul mood as I climbed back in the car and told Maurice, "Let's get out of here."

But Maurice didn't move, just sat there with a faraway look in his eyes. Across the street I noticed a flurry of motion, which quickly resolved into two rough-looking characters running across the street in our direction. They didn't look friendly, and I said with more urgency, "Maurice, start the car and let's get out of here." Maurice still said nothing, and I made a grab for the keys to start the engine myself, and as I did, I saw that the approaching men were carrying guns.

Ten seconds later I'd been yanked out the door, put face down on sidewalk, and felt the handcuffs snapping into place. I wondered why the cops weren't doing the same to Maurice and then finally put two and two together.

At the cop shop they searched me again, this time finding the extra marijuana I'd pinched and the 100 hits of LSD. They kept me in lockup for a while before questioning me and telling me that I was going to be charged with sales of narcotics (as marijuana was then classified), which carried a penalty of 20 years to life. The only way I'd get off easier was if I testified against the guy I'd bought it from.

Well, that's it, I thought. 20 years old and my life is over. I'd been in jail before, but never for more than a few hours, and now I was going to be locked up for at least as long as I'd been alive. I waited for another hour or two for them to take me back downstairs to the cells, but then they did the last thing I expected: let me go.

"We'll be bringing you back in a few days," the cops said, "but right now you have a little time to think about whether you want to help us out or you want do to the full 20 to life." Later on a lawyer would tell me that what the cops were hoping for was that once back on the street I'd lead them to bigger fish, but at the time I just assumed they were crazy.

Like I'm going to stick around waiting to be locked up for what might as well be life? Fat chance of that that. I hitchhiked back to Ypsilanti, where everyone had already heard the news, and convened a hippie council at one of the neighboring communes. We were supposed to be talking about what I should do, but I'd already decided I was running for it; the only question now was how.

20 or 30 of crammed into a hot, way too brightly lighted room, and a local dealer suggested that we could think better if we all took some LSD, which he duly passed around. By dawn it was arranged that I'd sneak out of town with our friend Jay, who was leaving town and moving back to his parents' house in Brooklyn. He'd hide me there while we figured out the next step, and before it was fully light, we were wrapped up in blankets in his heater-less, headlight-less '41 Mercury, heading south for the Ohio Turnpike.

I only had to hide out for slightly less than a year before things died down. The laws were relaxed, the dealer the cops wanted me to testify against disappeared, and eventually I was able to turn myself in and plead guilty to a greatly reduced charge. But in the meantime, I got to live the life of a fugitive, moving from town to town and state to state, at times relying on the kindness and generosity of the local hippies, at other times eking out a very marginal existence at minimum wage jobs in restaurants, warehouses and canneries.

It was terrifying and exhilarating, often both at the same time. Originally I thought I'd only have to lie low until the revolution came, but a few trips across mainstream America disabused of the notion that that was going to happen any time soon. I lived in squats on the Lower East Side and with a rock band in California, and while I'd never, ever want to go through that year again, I'm kind of glad I had the opportunity to do it once.

If nothing else, it got me out of Michigan and introduced me to California, which turned out to be the place I was meant to spend most of my adult life. In that sense and several others, one of the worst things that could have happened to me turned out to be one of the best, and life often seems to work out that way, doesn't it?

03 February 2008

American Football: Not So Boring After All

When I was a boy, I was quite a big fan of American football. I can still vividly recall the day Bobby Layne led my beloved Detroit Lions to a 59-14 demolitions of the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL championship game. This was long before the AFL or the Super Bowl came into being, of course. This also being before the Livermore family homestead had a reliably working television, I had to listen to it on the radio, which may have made it more exciting for me, since at age 10 my mostly unfettered imagination could create more dramatic pictures than any cathode ray tube could ever muster.

In the 1960s my interest waned along with the Lions' fortunes and my growing conviction that there was something not "cool" about sports, a conviction that became cemented into place by the ascendancy of the hippies, many of whom denounced football as a violent metaphor for the war-obsessed capitalism that we were going to replace with peace and love and free money.

It wasn't until the mid to late 70s that I decided it was all right to like football again, aided by the example of my philosopher/effete esthete friend 327 Dave, who despite burying himself in Wittgenstein's Tractatus, penning lovelorn adolescent poetry and wandering about in a psychedelic daze chanting, "Robert Fripp is God," could also work himself into an all-American testosterone froth over the fate of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Shortly after Dave made it respectable for me to like football again, my cousin (second cousin once removed, but cousin nonetheless) Joe Montana came to play for the 49ers and turned those perennial bottom-feeders into one of the greatest and most glamorous NFL franchises ever. The year the 49ers drafted him, his grandmother enclosed a note in her Christmas card saying, "My Joe has got a new job playing football in San Francisco, so I hope you'll get in touch with him. I don't think he knows anybody out there, so he might be feeling kind of lonely." She gave us Joe's address and phone number, but my dad, who was no football fan to begin with, refused to let us call him, saying it would be unseemly.

"He'll probably have relatives coming out of the woodwork asking him for free tickets," Dad opined, to which I protested, "Well, then we ought to get in there before he realizes that." Dad got his way, however, and within a couple years, the 49ers were on their way to the Super Bowl, at which point even I had to admit that hitting up Cousin Joe for favors would be tacky and probably non-productive to boot.

So I only got to see him play once, and that was just as a substitute against the Chicago Bears during the 49ers last miserable 2-14 season before they started their spectacular climb to the top of the football world. But like most people I knew, I followed the 49ers passionately during those glory years; the day that Dwight Clark caught that Montana pass that put them in the Super Bowl for the first time, I threw myself about in such a frenzy that I almost went through a plate glass window.

Then once again my interest faded. Cousin Joe retired, replaced by the much blander and non-related Steve Young, I got far more involved with punk rock, which, unless you were part of a straightedge youth crew, tended to scorn sports for much the same reasons as the hippies of yore. And then I moved to England.

I was surprised to find that punk rockers over there felt no conflict about supporting their favorite football (i.e., soccer) team in fact it was punks who took me to my first several matches, before I decided I liked it well enough to start going on my own. And from then on you could regularly hear me proclaiming the infinite superiority of soccer (i.e., the real football, something I continued to do after my return to the States, to the considerable annoyance of my many friends who loved American football (the punk strictures against sports seeming to have completely expired by now).

I still follow English football very closely, particularly the (mis)fortunes of my beloved and beleaguered Fulham, and have a greatly inflated cable TV bill to prove it, but today I was stuck in a meeting over in the city while Fulham were playing live on TV. Normally I would have rushed home in a frenzy to find out how they'd done (i.e., how badly they'd lost), but somehow I managed to forget all about it until after midnight tonight (and lo and behold, they'd WON, the first time in almost forever).

And why was that? Super Bowl Sunday, I guess. It was my first Super Bowl in at least ten, maybe 15 years, and my first since the 80s where a local team was playing. And while I'd never had much in the way of feelings, good or bad, for the New York Giants, I'm a fan now. I'm even willing to consider the possibility that Manning's desperate scramble and subsequent pass to David Tyree, who caught it between the hands of a New England defender and managed to miraculously wrestle the ball to the ground without losing his grip, might outrank that heady moment when Dwight Clark put the 49ers in the Super Bowl and me almost through a plate glass window. All the pointless stoppages of play and commercial breaks notwithstanding, this was one exciting game.

And the Giants? They got by on sheer grit and stamina, a greater desire to win, and a fair bit of talent as well. All qualities to be admired in an underdog, and I'm feeling very pleased I had the good sense to move to a city blessed with a team so worthy of rooting for. Congratulations to all the Giants fans who stuck with them through the many lean years, and please don't hate me because I'm an obvious glory hunter.

Oh, and I see 327 Dave, erm, Professor 327 Dave, that is, had a bet on the Giants, at 5-1, to score first via a field goal. Which they proceeded to do. Who says there's no money in philosophy?