Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Weekend Update

Our quick trip to Richmond was good times, with good weather for January, and what I need to think about today instead of the Supreme Court continuing its long and sordid record of perfidy, from pro-slavery "decisions" through the 1886 bit of trickery which established corporations as persons with extraordinary rights (but few concomitant responsibilities), to their recent gifting of us and our country to said corporations. Some things are rotten and stay that way, but...
Some things are good and as they age, get better (like all of us!).
This is the inside of Philip's Continental Lounge which Cliff took us to twice, on Grove Avenue in the Westhampton area. It's been there since 1938, getting funkier and sweeter with each decade. Although it's a University of Richmond hang-out, and I don't think I'd ever been there before. In the next block is the corner site of the fondly remembered Tempo Room, now unrecognizable as a chic framing shop -- it too had inexpensive suds and food and a friendly-sleezy vibe. It was one of the few places that served 3.2% beer to the 18-to-21 group, when that was the law, and the juke box was stuffed with soul favorites and oddities like "98 Tears," whatever type of music that was. "Mustang Sally" and the Four Tops and mass quantities of the thin brew -- and our youthful enthusiasm -- well, we can afford better beer now, and except for the departed Bogart's, T-Room, and Grace St. hangouts (especially the old Village), these worn but lovable retreats let us love life again in an insane world.
Cliff and I stumbled through the new gubernator's inaugural parade downtown (attended by about a dozen people) to get to and spend several pleasant hours in the Penny Lane Pub, run by the delightful Jerry since 1978. There's so little left to what was once a fine downtown that we three went back there for dinner before the Thompson Band reunion concert because there was only one other place open and it had a line. Cliff wondered about the residents of all those roomy apartments above the uniformly closed first floor retail sites -- it's too dangerous to go out at night and there are no groceries, markets or drug stores, so you still need a car and have to brave the distance to get to it. One hotel is left operating and there is nowhere for their guests to go either. Memphis has the same problem trying to make its similarly compact and once vibrant downtown work.
The older residential neighborhoods are where the warm favorite places were and still are; the housing is too expensive and parking is tight, but they work while downtown has as much hope as a refrigerated body in the morgue.
The National Theater is the one exception. Old and just the right size, with a couple of bars to keep the crowd happy and pay the bills, it hosts a full calendar of world-quality talent. The perfect place for the five members of the Robbin Thompson to reunite after 27 years and play as well as they ever did. We got to talk to Rico briefly at the end, but our planned get-together on Sunday had to be postponed as he was going to see Dave Segal in northern VA who was suddenly confronted by a very serious health issue.
They had the crowd from the beginning -- everyone knew the words and loved the original songs. The two covers were a delight: a Beatles song given a roadhouse country band treatment, and the Jeffersons TV theme as a gospel rave. A night, as they say, to remember.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Raga Muffin

While looking into the influences that Dick Dale drew upon for his iconic Miserlou for the earlier surf music blog, I found the melody came from hearing his Greek uncle playing oud in Massachusetts cafes. Flashback time! Mention of the arabian lute brings to mind two players whose albums I had played constantly: Hamza el-Din of the Sudan and New Yorker Sandy Bull. World music was not available outside of bigger city record stores 45 years ago, but I was lucky to find these Vanguard treasures in D.C. (and of course I found out about Vanguard through Joan Baez, who was available at less obscure outlets). Very sadly, the original Vanguard label is gone, but these are available now on CD. Someone in Texas with (I think, anyway) good taste bought the Bull albums a while back, and I hope he is enjoying them as much as I did.
No stringed instrument was beyond Sandy's mastery: banjo, guitar, bass, oud, steel guitar, and probably several more. He started out as a folkie, but was absorbing classical Indian ragas, middle eastern modalities, and the Western classical canon early on. He joined that band of angels who loved blending exotic traditions and improvising dreamscapes in another dimension: John Fahey, Robbie Basho and Peter Walker, for example. All must have been made of sparkling cosmic dust left by a 100-year comet's passing...
Think what was on the radio in 1963, when Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, his first album, was released! Nothing like his no-egotistic-frills overdubbing, nothing like his version of Carmina Burana for banjo, no trips across the world and time like Blend.
Sandy died in 2001 of lung cancer, but had been a daring troubador for four decades.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Slo Mo

I came across something just as strange as the picture of Lady Gaga meeting the Queen...
In 1927, a Professor Parnell at the University of Queensland set up a demonstration experiment that is still ongoing 83 later. The intrepid physicist heated a chunk of pitch, a substance derived from tar that was used to caulk boats throughout history, and poured it into a glass funnel with the stem stoppered. In 1930, when the pitch had returned to its normal solid, brittle, state, he unstopped the funnel. And he waited.
This is slow stuff: the pitch has 100 billion times more viscosity than water. The ninth drop is now forming (and nobody has seen one fall, so anticipation is high among those excitable science guys). And to add to the suspense, it's taking about 12 years between drops recently since the building has been air-conditioned. Video camera, you say? It's being observed by one, but at the previous drop event the camera failed at that very time. And you thought waiting for Christmas when you were a kid took too long.
We were told as students the reason very old glass window panes looked rippled and sagged was that glass was actually a liquid. An oversimplification, it turns out, as glass has properties of both solids and liquids, and is not definably either one. I think all we really understand is that everything's on its way to somewhere else -- maybe just for something to do.
We sure don't know what Lady Gaga is either.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Little Gods, Little Demons

On the "Opinion" page of the newspaper (any one), you can tell immediately by the headline over the letter in what idea or concept the writer is a true believer. And these hot air blasts are clearly just another example, among millions, of the propaganda tactic of endless repetition used to recruit believers among the masses.
Taxes: We hear that their massive reduction is the only way to benefit the economy. The top tax rate in our most prosperous era of expansion, the 50s, was 90%. All of these beliefs, like this one, are simplistic and only part of the equation. The goal behind pushing this concept is to destroy government so business and exploitation of our resources may proceed unregulated and unhindered with the cost borne by us, not the developers and spoilers who take the gains and run. They started with California (Prop 13 and Gov. Reagan's "kitchen cabinet"): look at the results. Government bankrupted intentionally to prove we shouldn't pay for its functions. Electricity de-regulation in California: Enron went wild, billions were lost, huge bills to be paid by the people who voted for it. Whatever works, break it. Despite former Senator Phil Gramm and the Reagan juggernaut's wildly successful efforts, it would be better for us to be mindful that Wall Street, energy giants and utilities have to be reined in like career criminals on the loose.
Competition: It does good, it does harm. It is not, in itself, a little god to believe in fanatically to the exclusion of thinking through a situation. Cooperation is usually better for the human tribe; Ultimate Fighting-rules competition has no thought for tomorrow, no idea of community and how it works. We get today's incredibly cheap price at WalMart and then, inevitably, we suffer the unstoppable loss of American jobs in production to poor overpopulated countries. The economics of Aesop's grasshopper. Our new Chinese-made printer failed to print the second day it was here. Its three predecessors were similarly cheap, easily available, and long gone; and there are no real alternatives to choose from at retail or on-line. I could make a long list of things that went into the trash because of the failure of some small cheap electric part. Competition has little to do anymore with providing quality. We're forced to go on buying this junk produced by global outsourcing. But as the letters state every day, competition is all good. When RCA dominated American electronics up to the 60s, before Asian competition killed them, their products were built like tanks by people in Camden, NJ, who took a lot of pride in what they produced. (Their mass consumer products, like the early color TVs, were another story). We had an old RCA control board at WFMV-FM, used around the clock for decades, that never failed once. At home, we had a Hallicrafters B&W TV that lasted 20 years; you got a replacement vacuum tube at the drugstore (they provided a tester -- you weren't on your own to buy testing equipment) when it needed one. Now the basement fills with TVs and electronics that can't be repaired, or certainly not by you. But when Michelin steel-belted radial tires showed up, we found out how poor and unsafe our domestic brands were. There is a case to be made for what the Japanese and Chinese have done: copy what's great and employ trade barriers quietly and effectively (ours are usually just those pushed by lobbyists) to keep domestic industries alive. Use competition -- don't commit suicide because you believe in the concept so unreflectively.
Journey implored, "Don't Stop Believin'," but we had better. Those little gods we're pushed to follow are demons in disguise. I'm more with George Harrison: "Think for Yourself."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Not So Close Encounters

It's 1 degree wind-chill outside. The holiday decorations are down (those that didn't blow away). Those who trudge to work in the private sector have no holidays until...almost forever. In this brown season, it's too cold to do much so we start thinking about planning the garden (must put out more effort and do better this year) and traveling to some sunny place. We watched three "Samantha Brown's Travels" shows last night: she cruised, went riding a zip line through the rain forest in Jamaica and traipsed through Naples -- ah, the dessert course of life.
Nothing much exciting on the horizon except the new $1 movie rental kiosk at Tom's convenience store, and going to Richmond soon, where it will be almost as cold but youthful highjinks are on the agenda.
If you don't get out, nothing except appliance failure is ever going to happen. My first adventure out of the far-suburban cocoon of my youth in Richmond was when Dad arranged to take brother Ron and I on the company jet to New York. He traveled all over then, often to New York but to the Netherlands, Great Britain and Greece also, and a chance to experience a little of that was thrilling. The company apartment on the Upper East Side was three levels and looked like a ski chalet. The company sponsored the Richmond tennis tournament at the time and Arthur Ashe was the big deal. He stayed there sometimes and partied it up so hard they asked him to vacate. They were throwing out his clothes, so I took home a silk shirt and satin-lined leather pants handmade in Bangkok, but couldn't wear them because they were so small. Of course a teenage white guy would look beyond ridiculous trying to be SuperFly anyway. Strangely enough, around 1977 or 78 we interviewed Mr. Ashe in the Jefferson Hotel for Part II of the Richmond History film we were making for the Public Schools (Jon Parks was writer, director and camera; I just recorded the audio). He had a bodyguard and was very cold, formal and distant. I didn't say a word about the disco clothes.
The apartment was in the Yorktowne neighborhood, originally a German ethnic settlement. I'd never seen anything so foreign as a European ethnic neighborhood: deli's with more than one kind of mustard (I had no idea), newspapers in German, Yiddish and Polish -- going to your apartment home up an elevator, for heaven's sake! Uniformed doormen -- couldn't figure out what they were for. I really jumped when Dad returned from the deli next door and said he was behind Xavier Cugat and his too-hot wife, Abbe Lane, in line. It was possible to run into famous people, not just their images on screen or through their words in books? Who knew? We've never seen anyone at the L.A. or other California airports, but it's not uncommon in New York. If you gawk, though, a cab will run you down. Dad took us to the Playboy Club, but I didn't see Gloria Steinem who had left their employ a little while before and of course wasn't famous then. But still. The bunnies looked very uncomfortable and artificial, but paid attention to Ron and I, which wasn't bad at all.
Nancy and I sat next to comic actor Richard Kind (Spin City) and another TV actor whose name we couldn't recall, at the bar/lobby of a comedy improv club in Santa Monica once. When she was little, she got Elvis' autograph at the Graceland gates when he still did that sort of thing, and got Carl Perkins' too, much later. I walked by football player Jim Brown in New York years ago and was about to say I'd enjoyed his book, but someone else engaged him and I kept going on my way. I was surprised to see how short he is.
In the fall of 1970, while sitting on the curb in a daze at National Airport in D.C. waiting on the bus to Ft. Myer (having gotten up at 3 a.m. at Fort Knox for the flight), former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and his wife Muriel walked right by. She was wearing her famous blue, as always, and I didn't have to get up and salute because HH wasn't Vice President anymore. I did salute General Westmoreland on the Pentagon steps as I was going down and he was going up, but I don't think he noticed. Probably had weighty things on his mind. I was just glad to get out in the sunshine. Secretary of the Army Harold Brown made a tour of our area in the second basement of the Puzzle Palace one evening, and I pretended to type a telegram (bet a teenager today doesn't know what either word means) to look productive. We gave each other a polite nod, but haven't exchanged Christmas cards or anything.