Friday, February 27, 2009

My Life in Rock 'n' Roll

Clyph's blog on why we rock, or don't, got me remembering today. We were young once, and eager for everything.

I met Bob (Roberto Enrico) Antonelli in Biology class in high school. He had a riotous head of dark curls and was uncontrollably funny. His passion wasn't school, but his drums. So I went over to his nice home, met his lovely mother and handsome father (they're Italian, they can't help it), and he laid down his groove. Bob's been able to pretty much make a living at music and has never lost that enthusiasm and innocence that people love him for.

He introduced me to the band he was joining, Morning Disaster, a little later.

Joe Sheets' gold-top mid-50s Les Paul was the perfect voice for his rockabilly soul. His mother was a devoted Elvis fan and supported Joe's music wholeheartedly. The highlight of any set or party was when he finally let loose with "Great Balls of Fire." (April 2009: I just found out from Bob that Joe died suddenly a few years ago. That is a tragedy.)
Lynn Franklin played a huge red Gibson EB-2 hollow-body bass, and didn't say much, but he possessed an impressive intelligence. Founder Stanley Rose, keyboardist and composer, melancholy and wise, was detached from this world but as good a businessman as he was an artist.

Joe in an earlier band, the Spiders, had recorded a single that got local airplay. Of their original material, the Disaster recorded "Opening Black Leather Books," but I guess it didn't do what they hoped it would as a demo.

Since I had a VW bus, I became Kwipment Krew. Bob's sweet squeeze Mae drove her Pontiac Tempest with a U-Haul trailer, and that was our caravan to Charlottesville or central North Carolina, the only two places the booking agent seemed to have any live contacts. One night, in a scene right out of "Animal House," the frat boys chased us out as we were loading up (no reason, we just didn't look like them), but lost us because we had rented a big green Pontiac sedan that weekend and they were looking for the Tempest. When we saw them turning mean, we knew it was time to slip away. We drank a whole lot of their bad, thin beer, so it was a win-win for us.

A good memory, though, was playing in Shafer Court at VCU in front of the Hibbs building on a sunny afternoon. Someone else remembered that day in an alumni publication 30 years later; I was thrilled to read it. Last time I was there I looked for and found the electric outlet we used -- because my first job after finding safe parking was to locate the juice. Just a devoted servant of the Muse.

The Disaster was one opening act of several for Iron Butterfly in a huge arena in North Carolina. They had six tractor-trailers. We still felt like hot stuff.

But the outstanding night was an encounter in a very unlikely place: a pizza joint in Pineville, N.C. We didn't know who they were, except that they were very New Jersey and not friendly at all. I remember it was Steel Mill, Springsteen's early band. I don't remember him, just the cool name; they were just thin guys dressed in black. Recently I saw an import CD of Steel Mill in a used record store; dedicated fans know that they were called Child originally. The poster above was from a show on November 20, 1969 at the Center of the Free University (I believe it's the old Asparagus Farm venue where I saw probably the weirdest show ever from Dr. John of New Orleans). The Disaster couldn't make it, so Mercy Flight, who opened for Bruce several times in the Richmond area, filled in.
The last I heard, Stanley was operating a rental plant business in Norfolk, and Bob is living large near Mechanicsville. I wish them all the best, and will never forget Joe. They weren't ponytailed posers; they rocked.

And people remember.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fixing a Hole

"I've got a headful of ideas
and they're driving me insane"
--Bob Dylan

In a good essay from AP in today's paper, old Ted Sorensen (from the Kennedy years) was quoted: "Even when times were good it was recognized that the roof had a lot of holes in it. But no president or Congress in the last 20, 30 years has had the courage or wisdom to fix those holes. It's tough to fix them now with the rain pouring in."
Those who had that courage and vision were all murdered in the 1860's and the 1960's. In Republican Rome, the Gracchi brothers met the same fate for the same reasons. I was once told, in a most rare moment of candor, by a fellow employee that neither he nor his like-minded allies were going to countenance improvement, change, or increased effort because "everyone has their comfort zone." People, companies, and civilizations drive over the cliff, eyes stuck to the rearview mirror.
While we busy ourselves debating ways to paper over those holes in the roof, we'll waste energy talking and taking wrong turns to avoid, rather than confront and solve, the big challenges.
1. We're the only developed country without national health care (I don't mean insurance, which can't control costs and resource allocation directly; it just writes checks). Ontario manufactures more vehicles than Michigan because labor is 15% cheaper -- companies don't have to spend their research and development funds on health insurance for the employees there. Why big and small business are so vehemently against this is unfathomable. Despite a half century of propoganda to the contrary, citizens of all those countries with national health care love it. They don't understand how we can live with the threat that an illness can bankrupt us, as our wacky system has already bankrupted and destroyed manufacturing in the U.S.
2. 1970. That's the year of peak production of domestic U.S. oil which has been declining ever since. Coupled with the oil and gas embargo by OPEC in 1973, a monumental change took place: the balance of power moved from us to other (often unstable) parts of the world. Our post-WWII economy was based on cars, highways, and the frantic build-out of suburbia. The one-legged stool supporting this was abundant, cheap domestic fuel. The "malaise" of the 70s wasn't just a psychological fatigue; we felt the symptoms but didn't diagnose the disease. The nausea from that power shift could have been " treated" by a forceful dedication to electric transportation power (cars, trains and local transit) generated by existing technology such as natural gas and nuclear while working on green and sustainable methods to supplant them partially in the future. But we didn't, because Big Oil and sunbelt real estate billionaires put dim bulb Ronnie R in power to avoid any such basic change in strategy which would have only benefitted the country, the world and all of us. It was morning in America! Huge new oil fields coming on line in the North Sea, Prudhoe Bay and Mexico (development spurred by high oil prices during the embargo) made Reaganonics and Thatcherism look like genius when they were just the unwitting beneficiaries of a temporary windfall fortune. Was this money used to free us from imported oil or filthy coal energy dependence? Once again, a great opportunity was missed because moving in a bold, positive new direction is intolerable for most people.
3. Empires (and we are one) never learn: you can't afford war, except for self-preservation.
In a forgotten book that all leaders should read, Rome Across the Euphrates, by Freya Stark (not to be found in libraries, of course. You can find 200 volumes of Danielle Steele, though), you can see how great states overextend, take on useless and unprofitable fights far from home, then after bankrupting themselves and losing their best and brightest, do it again. Rome wasted the resources in expeditions against the Parthians (Persians) in Iraq that it needed to face the real threat, the Goths and Vandals to the north. We spent more on the Vietnam War than on the New Deal; it's $1 trillion and counting on Iraq so far. What exactly have we gotten for an investment that could have paid for national health care and green energy independence?

It's like roaches in a frying pan. Lots of activity, but nothing's accomplished.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

From The Rubaiyat

The moving finger writes and, having writ,
moves on:
nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back
to cancel half a line, nor all
your tears wash out a word of it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Call Any Vegetable

The economic front is in full retreat, harried by the relentless armies of Reality (wasn't conservative economic theory supposed to be the truth that set us free from seeing, thinking or learning anything?? ) $2 trillion in tax cuts for the rich and $1 trillion for neocon military adventures was surely "Country First" in action. We don't need no education!

When looking ahead just gives you a headache, look back to writers, musicians and artists who speak to your better nature--your spirit, emotions and soul. As the old song says, They Can't Take That Away From You...

In that vein, here's a poem I've committed to memory just for fun, by my old fave Robert Louis Stevenson:

Let first the onion flourish there,
a rose among the roots,
the maid-fair, wine-scented
and poetic soul
of the capacious
salad bowl.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And The Award Goes To...

As you know, a number of Academy Awards are not camera-worthy and don't make it to the Oscar show. Your intrepid reporter has ferreted some out, for your enjoyment:

Best crustacean in a comedy bit: Tie between the crab reaching out from the soup and latching onto Curly's nose, and Woody Allen chasing the lobster around the kitchen.

Best apple: The Honeycrisp

Best sauce: Argentina's second greatest contribution to the world, after the tango: chimichurri

Best celebrity bottom: Jennifer Anniston

Best breakfast place in the world: Jeannine's, Santa Barbara and Montecito

Funkiest coffeehouse: Java Station, Santa Barbara

Best, and funkiest, movie theater: the West Shore, New Cumberland, 70 years old next year

Worst idea, like, ever: deregulation

Best axes: classic Fenders, of course

Lifetime achievement award: writer Wendell Berry

You heard it here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Genius loci

It's 27 degrees and very windy. The sun has given up and the afternoon winds down.
BEING SOMEWHERE ELSE is looking real good. At this time of year, at these latitudes, people think of planting their gardens in a few months or making a daring escape to some gentle and warm place that just makes you go, aahhhhh...
Ancient peoples believed in the spirit of a place. Receptive to muses silent to most of us, writer Lawrence Durrell felt it strongly in places he lived in and loved, like Cyprus and Corfu.
Some of us strain at our bonds and yearn to breathe such rare air. Others feel rich and comforted in their homes, and live easily with their local spirits. They understand each other and are not beggared by desire.
My grandparents went on only one vacation, from Pennsylvania to Florida in the 50's. They didn't like it and never repeated the attempt. I've never seen anyone happier in his home, where he belonged, than my grandfather. Happiness is where you find it, but I would rather be a bird than a pond fish.
The strangest place I ever saw was Rockland County, New York, just north of New Jersey. It is almost completely inhabited by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. Not so strange, you think, as Amish communities are a similar thing. The cognitive dissonance of seeing those people living parts of a 16th or 17th century life in a modern setting was unsettling; the Amish keep modernity at bay as much as they can. It was unconvincing, like a Renaissance Fair by an interstate highway.
The most beautiful small place (leaving out the supermodels like Italy and California) I've seen is the rose and Japanese gardens which are side-by-side in Portland, Oregon. Put it on your bucket list.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fun Facts to Send to the Letterman Show

Before we introduce tonight's guest, how about some FUN FACTS?

Morrie the Moose, seen in the opening credits of TV series "Northern Exposure," died at the young age of 5 from a mineral deficiency.

The Bozos are a traditional fisher people along the Niger River in Africa.

Wang Chung was actually a Chinese philosopher from 2000 years ago. He's probably wondering what someone wants to do with him tonight.

Speaking of which, the Celts originated in northwestern China (Xinjang).

The country with the least variety of surnames is Korea; France has the most variety.

Pennsylvania has many more hate groups than Alabama. Makes ya proud.

The liquid in the coconut is sterile and can be used as an emergency IV fluid.

Some of the best westerns ever written were by Karl May, a German who never saw anything west of Buffalo, New York.

The European Union is to phase out incandescent light bulbs by 2012. One of Reagan's first acts was to kill the American solar industry to please his Big Oil financiers. They're trying. We turned our backs on winning the future in 1980.

How to understand inflation: a dollar dropped in value to 5 cents from 1900 to 2000.

The eggplant, used as a vegetable, is really a berry (as is the tomato).

Infomania, the irrational collection of information, has just been described as a mental disorder. Must go now.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

That Thing You Do

Thinking about Clyph's blog on terrible experiences as a customer, especially in that sad environment known as fast food...
Neither of us has to supervise employees any longer, thank heaven. How do you get low-quality people in a high-turnover situation, destabilized by recurring personal dramas, to commit, to care, to take pride in the task at hand? If hell is other people, being in the position of mid-level manager is like herding mentally challenged cats, for eternity, in that hell. How does a teacher motivate students who are only there because it's compulsory, or lead people in retail who have no stake, economic or personal, in the endeavor?
In my Army job, our small all-military section each week did more than twice the work of the 60 civilians in the section next door. And errors were not acceptable (I made one small one, and got skinned for it). They had places like Alaska to send you if your attitude/performance slipped. Two guys across the hall found that out the hard way. But if there are no serious consequences, or as manager you have no authority (just lots of responsibility!), things aren't going to go well for your customers.
Whole Foods and Wegman's, the premier grocery chains, have a magic formula that works for them: employees first, everyone else second. Sounds like heresy, doesn't it? And it only works in such high-quality enterprises, I would guess. But trust, support, and expectations flow equally between management and employee -- when did you last see that in your life? -- so it works out. Someone who loves to come to work is going to love that customer.
When we were in Italy, I was amazed at what I observed in people at their work (no, not that they're all exceptionally good looking): competence, confidence, and impeccable manners. Jobs are hard to find there; you must rely on family and connections. So one is held accountable by a network of people; you are not anonymous and must maintain high standards in your occupation, however humble. Deep pride instead of cheap arrogance; regard for quality permeates the culture. So it's a question of shared and deeply internalized values: "it takes a village" instead of atomized individualism lost in short-term self-gratification (thanks, Reagan revolution).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The three sexiest things

- Spending OPM (other people's money)

- The left hand on the piano

- The small of a woman's back

What are your three?

Monday, February 16, 2009

The first ones were a charm

Clyph put me up to this. Unfortunately, the devil finds work for idle hands...

Nancy and I were stirring around in the memories pot on Valentine's Day at a very nice, large and new restaurant in the restored Hershey Press Building on Saturday. If you have an overactive mind, that is like poking a bear with a stick: you are going to get a reaction. You turn over those old memories like a jewel-toned glass witch's ball in your hand, and probably polish them a little before putting them back in the velvet bag to be brought out again sometime.

Clyph's story of an unusual start long ago with his Richmond newspaper career sent me in a similar manner into the Way-Back Machine of memory. We took very different paths; I've done most everything except oil wild-catting; once I gained some competence, or things started looking dim, I always felt other directions had to be explored. After much reflection, though, I have no explanation for this odd pattern: that is, the first six regimes/supervisors I worked under were great, and after the critical dividing line of 1973, they ranged dismally from the resolutely amoral to those who were all ambition and no ability.

After a first summer job cutting grass at Hollywood Cemetery among Confederate and local luminaries and early Presidents (my employer, a really nice guy, died suddenly of a stroke), I was doing landscaping for the office building at Willow Lawn Drive and Broad St (the grounds have long been paved over). My boss was an older, taciturn country fellow known to me only as Mr. Henry. We were on excellent terms, since he was happy to have someone who actually worked and didn't mostly smoke all day, and I liked the freedom he gave me. When the DJ at WFMV-FM 103.7 in the building noticed I was looking like walking heat stroke, he invited me in to the airconditioning. I took him up on it when my day was over, since I was curious (we listened to commercial radio back then, mostly to hear the new Beatles songs). WGOE-AM (anyone remember them?) was next door, but I liked the sophistication of the classical music at FMV, and really liked the guys there when introduced around. He offered me a job on the spot (like Clyph's experience), and I thought it looked like a real future, without humidity and wasps. That fellow, Nick, turned out to be a former pianist who had tragically damaged his hands in an accident. The manager was Bill Massie, a real Southern gentleman and a gentle soul. I took long evening and weekend shifts, and did my RPI homework while being paid to listen to, and learn about, music. Sweet.
Ad revenue and corporate support diminished to nothing, and the station was sold many times. I left when I took a semester off to go to Boston. Upon returning, I went right on over to WRFK-FM at Union Theological Seminary, where they hired me to train and supervise student scholarship on-air staff (I was the only paid one!). I had a great time, met some exceptionally rowdy ministerial students whom I went to the neighborhood bar/pizza joint with after work, and got to program 10 PM - 1 AM myself, just like at WFMV. Never any interference from the boss (the Seminary president), just knowledgeable advice and guidance. I also learned audio and video editing tricks in the media department when an employee was on a year-long maternity leave. WRFK carried on the classical format abandoned by WFMV, and I understand they later sold the frequency to WCVE which carries it forward today. A station in South Carolina was assigned the call letters WFMV. They probably don't realize we called it "frog music in Virginia," and had hundreds of frog images around the studio. They may be more serious, but I doubt they have more fun.
After graduation, Uncle Sam tapped me on the shoulder and I had to leave, reluctantly, the exciting and creative radio environment.
Things only got better. I was assigned after training to investigating hot-button cases in the Special Actions Branch of the Pesonnel directorate, U.S. Army HQ, deep in the Pentagon. My co-workers were sharp as a scorpion's tail (we did the NY Times crossword in ink during lunchtime), and my four officer/bosses were real gentlemen, completely honest, very dedicated, people you could respect without reservations. We had a pact, which I was never to see again (they laid it out the first day). That was, you take of us, we take care of you. We never wavered from that commitment to each other. I was so sorry when my three years were up, but I hated DC traffic and life in the outlying NoVA suburbs with a passion.
That was the dreaded 1973, a year of depression just as bad as right now. Nowhere to go, and no savings anyway, due to the cost of metropolitan living. The second worst decision I ever made; should have taken them up on their offer of a plum 3-year assignment in Brussels. The charm was broken. You don't get enough good chances in life that you can afford to pass one like that up.
I never worked for anyone after that who didn't either let me and my co-workers down, or in other cases, deserved any respect at all. Those of you who have been stalled, laid off, driven crazy by the mentally ill in petty positions of're also wondering about how things worked out.
As Bob Dylan said, Nothing is revealed.