Monday, November 30, 2009

Strange Things Are Happening


What in the Sam Hill is going on here? Tiger Woods, married to one of the most beautiful women in the world, is purported to be cheating on his wife (I know he's Tiger Woods, but even at his house is a five iron that readily accessible at two in the morning?), Grady Sizemore, up until now I guess a reportedly shy baseball player for the Cleveland Indians (come on, Grady, we Cleveland sports fans don't need any more embarrassment at the moment), sends his Playboy Playmate girlfriend racy photos of himself that get accidentally leaked on the Internet (speaking of leaking, put the toilet seat down when you're taking pictures, Grady, and really, a tea cup? this is a shot and a beer town!), and the editor of Newsweek is calling for Dick Cheney to run for president in 2012.

Just when I thought maybe I had been teleported to some parallel universe, I scanned some more news and found some old tried and true stories that have reassured me that I am still inhabiting my usual world, even if that world is undergoing a bit of a bumpy spin presently: Notre Dame has fired another football coach after another fully dissatisfying season, and not only has Jesus made an appearance on somebody's iron, but Michael Jackson's visage has shown up in a pregnant woman's sonogram--thank God for the humdrum, I say.

After digesting all of this, though, for some odd reason I started to think of the relatively recent musical phenomenon of mash-ups, where clever re-mixers take two or more popular songs and mash them up into one funny and/or intriguing song. What if we could do such a thing with all this purported news that seems to be clogging up the air and web waves? What if Charlie Weis and Tiger Woods's wife were having an affair? What if Grady Sizemore sent Dick Cheney an e-mail photo of his tea leaves which kind of had the image of Bert Convy in them? What if the Second Coming took place in the form of Jesus taking over the reins of the Fighting Irish football team, and in a package deal, Michael Jackson took over ND's theology department? What if Dick Cheney accidentally shot Charlie Weis while hunting, the bullet bounced off Charlie's staples-have-come-undone stomach and ricocheted off Tiger Woods's fire hydrant and ended up obliterating Grady Sizemore's last tea bag, forcing him to get in his SUV at 2:30 a.m. and start driving to Giant Eagle where he encountered Michael Jackson bagging groceries for Bert Convy? The permutations are myriad and certainly not that farfetched, wouldn't you agree, given the news of the day.

All of this is just to bolster my claim that really, I swear, today on e-Bay I won the auction of a bent-shaft five iron on whose clubface is the spittin' image of Spiro Agnew. I chatted up the seller, some woman named Elin, and well, we'll be trysting this weekend in the South Bend Ramada Inn's Charlie Weis Honeymoon Suite (the price nosedived today) which includes the Bert Convy vibrating bed, complimentary tea, massages by one D Cheney, and free clothes pressing by Jesus Jackson. Top that.

Vic Chesnutt-Dick Cheney

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Andy Warhol Is So Yesterday


Okay, time to fess up. Despite my infrequent bashing of "numbers guys," I must come clean and admit that I am indeed quite a numbers guy. I just don't like to admit it, let alone flaunt it, but the time has now come to admit and flaunt. Tonight on the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt (that might be the root of the problem: my favorite TV newsperson, Lester Holt, was "off" tonight), they aired a rather insipid story centered on the couple who recently crashed the White House state dinner. Instead of offering some new juicy tidbits about the fakers, the story, with copious footage of all the "Balloon Boy" antics, was all about reality TV and the lengths people now go to achieve their "15 Minutes of Fame."

In case the extent of your pop cultural knowledge is no greater than reading a six-month-old copy of People Magazine in your dentist's office once, you may not be familiar with the whole 15 Minutes thing. Uber pop cultural icon Andy Warhol famously once said, "In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." So, of course, everyone who has anything to say about flash-in-the-pan celebrities now references the quote. Unfortunately, Warhol made the observation in 1968. 1968! Some perspective: If David Brinkley (the only other NBC newsperson who could hold a candle to Lester Holt) had remarked in 1968 that "in the future, everyone will pay $1.00 for a gallon of gas," everyone would have thought him as mad as Andy Warhol, and then, lo and behold, when his prediction did indeed come true, a couple years later, we would have hailed him as a genius. Of course, by now, inflation has done its job and we now look back on buck-a-gallon gas with nostalgic longing. My point is, 15 minutes of fame in 1968 is not the same as "15 minutes of fame" today (and yet Andy is still an icon and no one even thinks of saying, as everyone rightfully should, "That Lester Holt is the next David Brinkley, mark my words"; is it just the wig, or am I missing something?).

There needs to be some major adjusting for inflation in this whole Warhol 15 Minutes thing, and that's where my usually-kept-under-wraps numbers expertise comes in, because this ain't no simple multipy-by-four-and-add-a-few-random-decimal-points-to-make-it-look-good job. At the risk of boring you, and worse, making you feel inferior, I'll spare you all the formulae (including the brand new Beta version of the TLC/Baker-Freddie Mac Positive-Mediocre-Negative Fame-O-Meter/Spectrum, Mach 7), logarithms (God knows what those are and how to spell the word) calculations (including the slope rating of the Brentwood Country Club golf course [celebrity tees, naturally]), equations (including the now proven-beyond-a-doubt Geraldo's Theorem Law, E!=CNN cubed) arcane symbols (the Prince glyph crossed with the TMZ logo, which represents ancillary spin-off marketing potential), and chalk dust (though if you're interested in all that [and if you are, you're obviously reading the wrong blog] you can check out my sister site, spitoutyourslideruleand yourdamnprotractor.com). Suffice it to say, I've checked the numbers several times, run them through thousands of computer simulations (including several dozen accounting for the shutting down of all cable TV outlets, gossip magazines, social networks, and the Internet, which as all you right-minded people know, Obama will be undertaking with due diligence and speed after the mid-term elections next year), got a thumbs up from my ten-year-old neighbor and all-around whiz Tao Welschmertz O'Brien, and even got it all vetted by a NASA guy I know (thanks, Tim!). In conclusion, what with all the post-1968 factors weighed conservatively and relatively (among which, but not even really scratching the surface, are Larry King's miraculous longevity and ratings, Barbara Walters's entire gestalt, and medicinal marijuana) everyone can now expect to be world-famous for a whopping half-life of 142 days, 16 hours, 15 minutes (amazing how that one worked out), and 3.14 seconds (except in Presidential election years or The Big One hitting--i.e., the inevitable death of Elizabeth Taylor [keep kickin' Liz, we luv ya!]--when the half-life of one's fleeting fame will be reduced by a factor of 3.Sean Hannity rants).

Capiche? Now can we let Andy rest in peace and finally get to the bottom of the whole Tiger Woods/Elin car wreck (wink wink) thing?

Mission Of Burma-Fame and Fortune

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dressed To Perplex


I've been told I clean up nicely. Which is a polite way of saying that I usually look pretty ragged, but in a necessary pinch, I can look respectable. And although I can't say I've ever aspired to be, today I found myself wondering about the expression "dressed to the nines." Once again my beef with numbers was stoked when I went looking for the story behind this seemingly common phrase and found virtually nothing, not even some good theories. Apparently the phrase dates back to the 18th century, but that's about it. So, in the spirit of "those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it, and that for which there is no history, fake it," here goes my numerical chart for dressing:

  • Dressed to the Negatives: any kind of unconventional hairstyle, boots, black jeans and a t-shirt, preferably black, whose image and/or words will make any half-sentient grandparent scoff
  • Dressed to the Zeros: naked as a jaybird (and no such luck, either; no good theories out there about why a pretty sporty bird happens to be the figurative representation of nakedness)
  • Dressed to the Ones: the jury's still out: either an aroused naked man or a t-shirt, sweats, and flipflops
  • Dressed to the Twos: cute twins under the age of ten, and get-over-it-and-on-with-it twins over the age of ten
  • Dressed to the Threes: any get-up that provokes people into comparing you to Moe, Larry, Curly, or even Shemp
  • Dressed to the Three point one four...: any of the above or below complemented with a pie in the face
  • Dressed to the Fours: Any sartorial ensemble that makes people think they're watching the 1975 Masters golf tournament on ESPN Classic
  • Dressed to the Fives: the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned; comfortable, non-ostentatious, looks fine even after you've been forced to sleep in it
  • Dressed to the Sixes: anything seen on a VH1 Heavy Metal Weekend
  • Dressed to the Sevens: anything you wouldn't be caught dead in
  • Dressed to the Eights: anything that makes you as cool as Paul Westerberg (see video below)
  • Dressed to the Nines: anything you'd like to wear but can't afford
  • Dressed to the Tens: cornrows and a slinky one-piece bathing suit
  • Dressed to the Umpteens: what you wear to shovel snow in Cleveland; it's coming folks
Po' Girl-Nine Hours To Go

Friday, November 27, 2009

'Tis The Season Over Yet?



What working retail on Black Friday, let alone the next four weeks, will do to a man...


The Ugly Aftermath:
The 12 Days of Christmas, Six Weeks Later
by Dan Rourke

First of all, the birds. The house is a goddamned aviary from hell. I can’t take a bath without the seven swans joining me, the partridge craps all over the almost-ripe pears, and one of the turtle doves has knocked up the sauciest French hen so now I’ve got some mutant chick hopping around who looks likes he’s going to grow up to be Rodan. And don’t get me started on the geese. They’re a-laying, that’s for sure, taking turns with the four calling birds, naturally. Feathers everywhere you step.

You’d think a guy like me would appreciate eight maids a-milking on the premises, but my God are they brawny--a little too corn-fed for my tastes, and their fingers are all gnarled. Don’t even ask me about the nine ladies dancing. A gaggle of prima donnas, that’s what they are. It’s always too cold for them, but at least they don’t eat anything.

Once the ten lords discovered I have cable, they kind of lost their zeal to leap. Now they sit around all day and night running up my bill with all their pay-per-view gay porn. I’ve got Queer Eye For the Straight Guy in my damn family room.

Five gold rings. What am I, Sammy Davis Jr.?

The drummers are all junkies of course. When they’re not nodding off in the living room they’re hitting me up for cash and threatening to cook up the geese, which is fine by me, but they never get it together enough to actually do it.

You don’t want to know what eleven pipers piping sound like or look like after a night on the town.

All I wanted for Christmas was a Snuggie and a Japanese putting mat bra. My “true” love hasn’t even read the copy of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue I bought her. I hate Christmas.

The Eels-Everything's Gonna Be Cool This Christmas

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Untagged, I Tag The World (Under That Apple Suckling Tree, Oh Yeah)


As a kid, I loved playing sports, and while I may not have been all-world, I held my own. Rarely if ever the first one picked in pick-up games, I don't think I ever suffered the cliched cruel fate of the last one picked, either. Thus, my bemusement at not being a part of the cyber game of tag that's lately been going on. It seems that among music bloggers, a game of tag has broken out. You post a song that makes you happy and write some glowing words about a blog you like, thus "tagging" that blog(ger), who in turn does the same and tags another blog(ger). I've been waiting, but, alas, the game seems to have passed me by.


But I will not weep! If the world of bloggers will not have me in their game, I will tag the world, Mother Earth, this mortal coil, third rock from the sun, our gorgeous home this spinning orb. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for this extraordinary planet, the best I've ever known. I thank it for flat ground, which always amazes me when I realize it's really rounder than Santa's belly. How does it do that?

I thank it for the (literally) thirty minutes a year I get to stand in an ocean's surf, never failing to remember Melville's claim in the first chapter of Moby-Dick that all men are drawn to the sea.

I thank it for being the only place I know with guys named Gary and gals named Dottie: I've never met an unpleasant Gary or Dottie.

I thank it for wind.

I thank it for spinning madly and never making me dizzy, unless cotton candy and rollercoasters are involved.

I thank it for clouds.

I thank it for the words "open late nite."

I thank it for the holy gulps of orange juice it provides.

I thank it for all its various musics.

Speaking of which, this song here, Bob Dylan and The Band's "Apple Suckling Tree" is, or me, the antithesis of sadness. It's been on the top of the charts of my funeral dance songs list forever (I call it this because I think the songs should be played at my funeral, just to make sure I'm truly gone, because upon hearing them, I cannot keep still).

Most people, probably none of them named Gary or Dottie, tend to pass the song off as a mere nonsensical trifle, which, unapologetically, it is, but nonsensical trifles as joyous as this demand to be celebrated. Listen how Bob's primitive, percussive piano baits the others for a long ten seconds at the start, tempting them to join him in exploring just how ebullient music-making can be. You hear Garth Hudson (organ) and (probably) Richard Manuel (tambourine) kick the dirt a little, maybe shy about hitching a ride on this crazy train. But then daring Rick Danko revs up his bass like a bull scratching in the dirt and the whole thing sets sail (I know I'm mixing metaphors, but with nonsense like this, you have no choice). And the drums. Most people seem to agree that Robbie Robertson, guitarist by trade, is the one pounding and kicking, though Manuel and even the long-absent Levon Helm get some votes, too. Whoever, praise be. He sounds either like Adam discovering percussion before he's even named the animal, or a drunk fumbling for a misplaced bottle, pounding on a set of drums that sounds more like a collection of boxes the boys rummaged from the garage (or, if you prefer, the Basement) of Big Pink, the house at 2188 Stoll Road in West Saugerties, New York, where in the summer and fall of 1967 Dylan, recovering from his motorcycle crash of the year before, and the Hawks, soon to be The Band, were making daily music for the best reason: for the sheer exuberant hell of it.

Dylan, "always the thief," adapts the tune from the ancient mind-blower "Froggie Went A-Courtin'"--which he then waited 25 years to record in its own right quite wonderfully. And the words, well, yes there are words, not that it makes much difference. I've seen about seven completely different transcriptions of what Bob is supposedly singing here, and none of them make complete sense, probably because Bob didn't know what he was singing half the time. It's holy gibberish that makes you sing along with your own noises and half-words. I prefer to hear one word as "Bartholemew," maybe the only Bartholemew in popular song, though you're free to hear anything you want. All that matters is the inviting, salacious, raucous, innocent, humane wish/desire/prayer/insistence that just "you and me" are going to be "underneath that apple suckling tree." Oh yeah, don't forget those "oh yeahs" with Rick and Richard joining in, the foam on the tall cold draft beer of this song. The rest is just snatches of coherence: "take a look," "on the avenue," "seven years." But hear, oh please hear, the ecstatic glee with which Bob sings, on the verge of cracking up throughout, cracking up not into laughter, really, but out of sheer delight. Ululation, speaking in tongues, what have you, deliriously.

The Bird Flu, H1N1, any old mere virus you can muster can't hold a candle to infectiousness this potent. And then, nearly two minutes into the two-minute, forty-nine-second song, when you realize you'll be happily sick with this song for the rest of your life, it leaves the stratosphere entirely. Garth Hudson, ladies and gentlemen, on organ. What, you need words? This is beyond verbal. How about a lone skater on a frozen country lake basking in the realization that he is indeed the happy genius of his own world? Sam Phillips famously once said of the music/voice of the legendary Howlin' Wolf, "This is where the soul of man never dies." Well, Garth Hudson's organ solo, from 1:58 to 2:22 on my digital counter, is where the soul of man dances endlessly, completely inebriated with love, life, solitude--all the old verities. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, if reincarnation is our fate, I want nothing more than to come back as this organ solo; 24 seconds of sheer bliss, replayed forever through headphones, car radios, bedroom boomboxes, and living room speakers, beats nirvana every time. And then the singing comes back for one more chorus, with a couple Garth fills just to remind you, yes, that was me granting you a glimpse of heaven. And then Robbie, or whoever, packs up the song with a few more feral beats, and we're back to the humdrum of our lives.

Thank you, Bob, Rick, Richard, Robbie, (maybe Levon), and especially Garth. On behalf of the whole world, thank you. Oh yeah!

Bob Dylan and The Band-Apple Suckling Tree

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The "T" Word


Let me just nip this in the bud right here at the start. After reading what follows, and considering yesterday's post, one might conclude I've got a bit of an obsession going on here. Not true, though I might be guilty of subconsciously hankering for some turkey breast meat come Thursday.

It started off innocently enough. I was driving home tonight, listening not too attentively to talk radio, and the talker used the phrase "...describes him to a t(ee)." Desperately trying to come up with something enlightening to relate to you all, I started to ponder this familiar phrase. Why t(ee)? Is it t or tee? What is so famously exact about t or tee that has made for the ubiquitous phrase? Could it be possible to describe someone to a q? Could something or someone suit someone to a ballmarker or a chin strap, as opposed to a golf tee or football tee? It was dark, deer are all over the roads these days, and I had kielbasa on my breath; I didn't need any further distractions. I needed answers and some mouthwash.

Turns out, like most words and phrases that interest me, it seems, no one is quite sure of the origin of the phrase, which explains, I guess, why "to a t" and "to a tee" are used pretty interchangably. The phrase dates back several hundred years, so it seems that tee, as in golf tee or football kicking tee, are right out. There's even talk of the tee in curling as a source, but I ain't no Canadian (not that there's anything wrong...) and I'm saving the act of brushing ice for when/if hell freezes over if/when I wind up there, so we're not going to consider that explanation at all. Some wags seem to want to attach the phrase to the carpenter's friendly T-square (we're talking exactness here, after all), but I dismissed that notion straight away because I can't tell a hammer from a nail (which always made listening to Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa" an exercise in aural dyslexia for moi); besides, as I read on, the phrase pre-dates the invention of the T-square, so hah!

The best that anyone can do with the phrase, it seems, and several sources do do with it, has to do (get ready) with a little word that goes by the name of "tittle." It seems that this particular word means something like a jot or some mark with a pen or pencil indicating a letter (a very precise, exact mark, get it? I'm summarizing, it's from hundreds of years ago, it's even Biblical to an extent, trust me, or better yet, read this or that but no other for yourself). In effect, you might doodle some tittles when you're bored in a meeting (just don't tittle your doodle; it's frowned upon in most of the lower 48).

Now, if you're anything like me (and if you are, drop everything immediately and click this), it's one small step from digesting the new word tittle to pondering just what's the deal with the word titter, as in giggle. Well, the answer is best left to the argot of the wordsmiths: origin: 1610–20; perh. < Scand; cf. ON tittra to quiver, Sw (dial.) tittra to giggle. Gotta love those 17th century Scandinavians, and ya gotta love the word tittra.

So I'm thinking, all of this could lend itself to a good litmus test of your family come Thanksgiving dinner, to determine just where it--your family--lies on the levity spectrum. At some time during the course of your gratitude gorging, pipe up with a comment such as this: "Gosh, Aunt Madge, that cornucopia sweater you're sporting this evening suits you to a tittle." Or this: "That kids' table in the other room sure has a case of the titters." If such comments result in a slap, a gob of yams forked over into your face, or dishwashing duty with cousin Ned, your family is definitely jocularly challenged. If, however, such comments result in titters galore, great-grandma Lucy smiling and saying to no one in particular as she points fork tines at you, "I always liked that one," or best yet, a chorus of "so you read spitoutyourgum, too?!!" give extra thanks that your family is a mirthful one.

Now I suppose I could go on and run through the alphabet and try to describe just what exactly could be meant if _________ describes someone to an a, b, c, etc. And you know I would (and probably will some day) but the kielbasa's sitting heavy in my belly and I need to conserve energy for my 6 a.m. call to duty on the front lines of retail hell come Black Friday, so I must beg off for now. But also, I'd like to think that we (inclusive, not the Royal) are a little community here at spitoutyourgum, so I invite you to send me your notions about any or all the letters in the alphabet and how they might pertain to the question. Don't be bashbul. Make us tittra.

The Everly Brothers-T For Texas

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Yen for Putt Putt


In case the Kush wasn't quite your cup(s) of tea, you might consider this...



As George Carlin said, "You nail two things together that have never been nailed together before, and some dumb schmuck will buy one." As for me, I'm heading to my workbench, see if I can't fashion a roll up pool table out of an old athletic supporter.

Violent Femmes-Step Right Up

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Q&A: The Liechtensteiner Dullest Man Ever?


I'm beginning to believe Memphis Mafioso Lamar Fike's maxim: There are no coincidences. I'm at a party the other night, and my friend Margo Mathis is regaling us all with stories about teaching at a certain prep school in the Ohio hinterlands. She's going through her English department colleagues offering bon mots about each one's eccentricities (eccentricities uniquely Englishy) when her non-stop hilarity hits a pregnant pause as she comes to a guy named Roy. Suddenly she seems to channel a character from a long-lost Nathanael West novel and says, "A duller man, you'll never meet." In the context of her monologue and the spirits flowing at the party, the statement is the funniest sentence I've heard in months. When we all revive ourselves from our respective laughing fits, somebody asks, "How dull?" "That's just it," Margo explodes like Minnie Pearl on laughing gas, "there's nothing more to say about him." And then, as if fate and Fike were guiding me, I had to ask, "What's the guy's last name?" And Margo replies innocently, "Roy Whittier, only he spells it with a 'y,' W-h-y-t-t-i-e-r. That's the only thing not dull about him. His last name that begins with 'why!'" Another fit of laughter from everybody except me. Could it be, I thought.

Roy Whyttier, AKA The Liechtensteiner, bass player for the sub rosa, sui generis early 70s rock band from Dayton, Ohio, United Notions. If you've heard of United Notions at all, you're either obviously a music obsessive like I am, or you had your ears fine-tuned to an AM station in April of 1973 when the band's one and only "hit"--"Pacify Me"--briefly bruised the pop charts for a week or two. You might even recall that United Notions was (in)famous for its members' official names: The Tongan on guitar and vocals; The Albanian on lead guitar; The Sri Lankan on drums; and The Liechtensteiner on bass.

Like much of my musical knowledge, I learned about United Notions second-hand, from my crazy freshman college roommate Alex Hoke, who disdained studying in favor of writing and distributing his amazing fanzine, Hoke's Plunderer Fortnightly, a horribly scrawled and photocopied rag he'd distribute outside of the most boring mainstream rock concerts of the era (we're talking Toto, Foreigner, Styx, et al.) in hopes of converting one or two mullet-sporting mall-rockers every two weeks. "If loving music isn't about evangelizing like the Jehovah's Witnesses, you're doing it a grave disservice," he liked to say. United Notions was just one of the many artists Alex turned me onto in those days. He hated the band's one and only album, Assembly, on which "Pacify Me" is found, calling the album "a crock of crap" and the single "mere pablum." But he could and did wax ecstatic about the early single, "I'm Your Shadow" b/w "Lazy Tune." "The b-side's just that, a lazy instrumental," he told me upon first showing me the 45, which was signed "Lovingly, The Tongan," "but my God, the a-side is sheer noisy manna. One of the half-dozen uber-great lost 45s of the era."

In the nearly thirty years since first hearing "I'm Your Shadow" in a musty dorm room, I've never been able to argue with Hoke's assessment. When I listen to it now it sounds simultaneously before and after its time, as if The Byrds had had Nine Inch Nails play on an outtake from The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The trippy, stalker-like lyrics, the primal drumming, the shimmering yet somehow stuttering guitars, and the highlight for me, always, the bass runs that sound to my ears now like the product of Mike Watt after a ten-day crystal-meth jag. All of this in 1972 on a 45 on the obscurely legendary Earsaatzz label. Absolutely stunning.

"How could a band make one record so astounding, and then never even come close to scaling such heights again?" That was Alex Hoke's last sentence in his 3700-word treatise on the song/group. In the pre-Internet era yet, Alex had somehow tracked down a blurb in a Dayton weekly about United Notions, which "unmasked" the band. The Tongan was Tommy Corvello, The Albanian was known only as Clark, The Sri Lankan was Louis Pettigrew, and The Liechtensteiner was one Roy Whyttier. Who knows, when I can't remember where I've put my wallet half the time, why I can still recall with absolutely no prompting the full line-up, stage names and real names, of United Notions? Alex made me a dozen or so cassette tapes from the year we roomed together, tapes I mostly still have and play infrequently. Over the years I've dubbed songs from those tapes onto tapes I made for friends, and I'm pretty sure "I'm Your Shadow" was the song I dubbed the most. Imagine my delight, then, when about eight months ago I received an e-mail from Alex Hoke. I hadn't heard from him since probably 1987, but he tracked me down on the web, just to say hello. He's a corporate lawyer now, unnaturally. Anyway, he asked for my address, and a week later I received a package with a long screed about his musical obsessive past and his new pride and joy: a turntable that enables him to digitalize all of his old wax. He included three CDs of what he thought might have been some favorites of mine from way back when. Track 3 on disc 1: "I'm Your Shadow." So I've been listening anew to the song for months now, and then Margo Mathis mentions she works with a guy named Roy Whyttier. Too much. I had to pursue. After the party I cornered Margo, who thought I was nuts to claim that her Roy Whyttier could have ever been in a rock band. Nevertheless, she e-mailed me the guy's phone number, and last Saturday afternoon I called. Paydirt! What follows is a rough transcription of my conversation with Roy Whyttier, bass player on one of the craziest psych-out songs of all time, and, truth be told, "a duller man, you'll never meet."

SPITOUTYOURGUM: So how did you hook up with the guys in United Notions?
Roy Whyttier: I knew Lou Pettigrew, the drummer, through shop class in high school. He called me a couple years later and said his band needed a bass player.

SOYG: When did you pick up the bass?
RW: At my audition for the band. I was, well, still am, a sousaphone player. Marching band and all. But I was pretty handy with any instrument back in those days. I told Lou I never had played the bass, but he said something like, 'It's only the bass. You can do it.' Well, I was working my way through night school at the time and my mother always said I needed a diversion, so what the heck, right?

SOYG: What can you tell me about "I'm Your Shadow"?
RW: It was the first song we recorded. About two days after they accepted me in the band. Tommy Corvello wrote the lyrics, which I never really liked. Or understood, to be honest. They kind of offended my sensibilities. But I was a hired hand, I figured. I had been playing the bass for all of three days, so I didn't really know what I was doing. We did it in three takes.

SOYG: How did you get that sound, though? It's really mind-blowing.
RW: I don't know about mind-blowing. Like I say, I didn't really know what I was doing, and I think I had turned the knobs all wrong. Plus, the engineer, some guy named Dayton Dickie or something, was quite inebriated, and just after that third take started I guess he passed out on the soundboard and did something to the bass. I hated it when I heard it, but Tommy thought it sounded frisky or freaky or something. Plus, we couldn't really record anymore because Dayton Dickie was incapcitated. I always liked the other side of that record, "Lazy Tune." That was my composition.

SOYG: Where did your names come from?
RW: That was all Tommy. When I joined the band they had their names already. After meeting me for five minutes and hearing me play, Tommy just said, "Right, you're in. You'll be The Andorran, no, you'll be The Liechtensteiner." That's it.

SOYG: What can you tell me about the whole "sex and drugs and rock'n'roll" thing? Any good stories from the road?
RW: Oh, we played here and there. Never tried any drugs myself. I've seen them and seen the havoc they wreak, though.

SYOG: Any groupies? Everybody always says they joined a band for the girls.
RW: Well, I was betrothed at the time. To Muriel, my wife of thirty-four years now.

SYOG: What about the album and your one hit single, "Pacify Me"?
RW: They cut the whole thing in two nights. I wasn't there, though. When I joined the band I made it clear that I had my priorities. There was a stamp collectors convention in Moline that I had made plans to attend months before, so I went. Always have clear priorities, that's what I always tell my students.

SYOG: Stamps?
RW: I'm a lifelong philatelist. Been moderationg the philately club here at school for twenty-three years. Still keep in touch with the twenty-nine former members.

SYOG: So you didn't even play on the album, or the hit single?
RW: No, I think the Tongan did all the bass. Always sounded pretty good to me. In fact, I never played with the guys again. After they cut the album and I returned from Moline, they told me I was out. I think that's when Clark started taking over, which ultimately proved to be the band's demise.

SYOG: What was Clark's last name?
RW: I thought it was Clark. He was kind of a guarded guy back then. Well, he still is, I guess (slight laughter). He's in prison for burning his house down. Unfortunately a wind kicked up, I guess, and burned two neighbors' houses down too.

SYOG: Wow. Have you kept in touch with any of the other guys over the years?
RW: No, I moved on. Tommy is a born-again Muslim I heard. And Lou tragically died in an elevator accident just a few years ago.

SYOG: So you teach English. What's your favorite book to teach?
RW: The Elements of Style. Strunk and White.

SYOG: Well, I mean literature.
RW: E.B. White is literature.

SYOG: How might one of your students describe your classroom demeanor?
RW: Hmmm. Exacting.

SYOG: Ever tell your students stories from your rock'n'roll past?
RW: To be honest, I haven't thought about United Notions in decades. When you called I thought you were asking about the limited edition of United Nations stamps that were issued ten years ago.

SYOG: Well, I just have to say, "I'm Your Shadow" has given me hours and hours of listening pleasure over the years, and I want to thank you for your contribution to such a wonderful song.
RW: I hear my wieners boiling. I have to go now. Nice chatting with you.

Margo don't lie. But neither does thirty-seven-year old digitalized wax.

United Notions-I'm Your Shadow

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Something To Crow About


"Boy, why's up," my daddy Uncle Evelyn said when I was walking outta the outhouse.

"Cause that rooster crowed. Why else?"

"Now that right there's what I'm talking about. You gonna have to be smart this weekend. Your Uncle P's seeing fit to pay us a visit."

"Is he gonna bring me some glossies? I like at Nashnal Joegraffik."

"Yeah, well, daddy's gonna inspect that first."

"I always get unfused. Is he yourn bigger or littler brother?"

"Pickwick's younger. Only wish he'd act it."

"Pickwick?"

"That's his name, boy." I'll be. I thought all this time his real name was Lenard cause Granpa Lick always call him the Lenard One. Uncle P for his badder control cause he always running off to some tree to leave hisself. "Tho I think I'm gonna start calling him Dantick. Yeah, Uncle P Dantick. I like at."

"Why Dantick?"

"He got a dip-loma now."

"Ain't he go to St. Jude's and get it moved like Aunt Conestoga got her mel-loma moved?"

"Boy," daddy Uncle Evelyn laughed, "stick to sayin thank you and ain't that inneresting, Uncle P. That kind of talk is just what I'm talkin bout."

I cant wait till I get whiskers and I can start talkin about things no one knows what I'm talkin about.

Anyway, this was all after Fine Tune my cousin who aint neither my cousin and DeLorean one of ourn cows got sucked up by the youfoe and ain't been seen after. And after then the govment men and woman came and took Fine Tune's little brother Curdle to St. Jude's for wrecktifryin. Tho why they had to take him two counties over for that I don't know cause you could tell after seeing Fine Tune and DeLorean get ubskonded by that youfoe that Curdle was plenty wrecked already.

Well the next hour just like daddy Uncle Evelyn said Uncle P did sure drive up in his yellow Duster just as we was finishin off the last of the fried umbles for breakfast. I sure like em umbles. Daddy had finally shot that buck that had broke that fence and sold off all the scrap meat and we got to eat umbles for a week or more. Honey on it for breakfast and ketchup for supper, that's what Rayleen says and I usually abide but a little snuck honey in with the ketchup at night is the best way to enjoy umbles. I learned that from Granny Lick. She show don't tell cause as Granpa Lick say the good Lord in his mercy done took Granny Lick's voicebox out afore I was hatched.

Uncle P had one of those goats on his face and a whole box of glossies for me, Nashnal Joegraffiks and Poplar McCanniks and some other books with no glossies in em which Rayleen uses to even out all the chairs and tables and beds but which daddy Uncle Evelyn had lifted up and put on the shelf after he moved Granpa Lick's coffee cans this morning I reckon.

"Evelyn," Uncle P said when he got outta the Duster.

"I told the boy I'm calling you Dantick from now on," daddy said. "Uncle P Dantick."

"I see you've been nosing around the books I bought for Roswell. I guess it's never too late."

"I aint dumb Dantick. I just smart enough to know I aint smart and never will be. Take heed."

"The place looks good."

"It aint. Fact I got some repair work I been waiting on you to help me with. If'n you still get your hands dirty, Dantick."

"Actually, I've got a second job doing some maintenance work at WCC."

"Always got somethin to crow bout, dont you P?"

Next thing I knowed we was startin to head out to the back fence down at the branch where that buck'd ruined it. I hadnt even time to look thru the glossies.

"Aren't we going to need a toolbox, Evelyn?"

"This here is the only tool you almost ever need," daddy Uncle Evelyn said as he showed Uncle P the end of his crowbar up close. "Dont need schoolin for that, do you?"

"Gotcha, Cain," Uncle P laughed.

"I got my pistol case we spies any lunch," daddy Uncle Evelyn said as he pounded his holster. "Boy'll carry the wood. I dint want you to heft anything. Figure luggin that brain around was enough for you to handle."

"What about nails?"

"Any good man's always got some in his pockets."

"Better than in your head, I guess. How's the truck running?"

"It aint. For now. We walkin."

"But that's like three miles."

"We run that truck down there be pushin it back. Asides it only two miles as the crow flies."

Five minutes into the hike Uncle P says, "Actually, crows don't really fly that straight. Their flight is more of a swooping arc. As my lovely English professor Salome Dove might say, that idiom's a bit of a misnomer."

"I think I had a bit of a Miss Nomer one time. How's that for an idiom, idjit?"

"Actually, that was more of a pun. A misnomer is..."

"How come the first words outta yourn mouth is always actually?"

"Actually, you know, in fact. It is what it is. I'm just stating what is, actually, true, what is."

"Dantick, this here is Waynesboro County. Where cows and pee-dantick little boys get sucked up into flying saucers and uncles aint uncles and sisters aint sisters. Nothing is what it is here. Don't they teach you that at WCC?"

"Speaking of Rayleen, brother Evelyn, she's not such a pert thing anymore. She's got some crow's feet, near as I can tell." I dont know about that. She collects titmouse feathers I know but I aint never seen no crow's feet in her special box. Have to slice em right off I expect.

"She only wrinkles when you come round. Sort of like a skunk spraying."

We kept on walking but I could tell Uncle P was getting tired and a little mad at everything daddy Uncle Evelyn was saying so I tried to cheer him up making daddy Uncle Evelyn look dumb.

"Hey Uncle P," I say, "Uncle Evelyn aksed me why I was up this morning after leaving myself of last night's umbles. As if he didnt know that rooster crowing waked me up as always."

"Actually," daddy Uncle Evelyn said real funny like, "I told boy to why's up on accounta yourn visit."

"Actually," Uncle P said back, "I better why's up. I forgot I won't be able to sleep in tomorrow because I'm back in the land of the crowing cock."

"Watch the language," daddy Uncle Evelyn said, showing Uncle P the crowbar close up again. "Able."

"Roswell lives on a farm, dear brother. Roosters are called cocks. It is what is, Waynesboro County or not."

"Speaking of crowing cocks, Dantick, how come yours never crows."

"Uncle Evelyn!" I says hardly believing daddy could be that dumb. "Uncle P lives in the city. Cocks dont crow there. They use larm cocks there, actually."

They both laughed which made me feel good but I don't know why.

"Actually, " Uncle P looked at Uncle Evelyn funny, "them WCC coeds got me crowing a little bit, brother."

Daddy Uncle Evelyn stopped walking then and kind of regripped his crowbar. "What does WCC mean," I aksed.

"Evidentally, Where Cocks Crow, hunh P?" Daddy Uncle Evelyn laughed.

"Actually, actually." They laughed again. "Waynesboro Community College, actually, Roswell. And once I get out of there I'm going to put some money aside so you can go there someday, too." Daddy Uncle Evelyn grunted then like one of the nails in this pocket got turned the wrong way. My wood was getting heavy by then but thank God Uncle P had to stop and leave hisself in some scrub so I got to rest a bit.

Over the next hill we come upon the old scarecrow that Uncle P helped me and Fine Tune and Curdle build a long time ago. It aint never scared no crow that I seen only Curdle but Curdle scares easy so it aint no credit of the scarecrow. Sure enuf like to prove the point when we got close to it there must a been thirteen crows settin on it just lookin at us as we walked by em.

"How come crows never crow Uncle P?"

"Actually they caw. Roosters crow, crows caw, for some reason."

"What kind of noise do them WCC coeds make when you ruffle they feathers, Dantick?"

"Oh, Pickwick, actually."

The fence werent too bad broken when we got there actually. Uncle P even said, "We came out all this way for this?" But daddy Uncle Evelyn kind of laughed a little laugh and crowed the planks from the post that I could of pulled off with my hands actually. Him and Uncle P then pushed and pulled the old post out and threw it down toward the branch then put the post that I had lugged into the hole. After digging up some fresh dirt with the crowbar and making me pat it around the bottom of the post, daddy Uncle Evelyn fished out a few nails from his pocket.

"What do you say, P? Three planks, two nails apiece. I say I can make it all snug in no more'n ten wacks."

"With what? That skinny curved crowbar end? Let me have some of that moonshine for lunch that you've been drinking.Ten wacks? Go ahead. I wanna see you eat some crow, big brother."

"Whattaya bet?"

"Twenty bucks."

"It was just one buck that ruined this fence, and I ain't got twenty dollars lessen I raid Granny Lick's snuff box, and you and me both know why that aint gonna happen."

"I still got the scars."

"Actually, you said it. Eat crow. I been meaning to murder one them ugly birds just for sport."

"Actually, that's what you call a group of crows. A murder of crows. Professor Salome Dove gave a complete lecture on colorful collective nouns just last week."

"Get you big head out of Professor Dove's nest and back to our bet, Dantick. More'n ten wacks, I shoot the crow and eat it for lunch. Ten or less, I shoot you eat."

"Does it taste like umbles? I want to eat some crow too."

"Interesting, actually. To make the idiom literal. Professor Salome Dove will be amazed, and quite shocked. Oh Pickwick, indeed. Actually. You're on."

"Boy can count to ten, I reckon."

"Five hundred last count, daddy Uncle Evelyn."

"Unseasoned. Heat it any way you like, but no fixins."

"Start hammerin already. I can tell you're gettin hungry."

Daddy Uncle Evelyn had Uncle P hold the plank and he dug a nail in just enuf so it would stand up. I was ready to count. He wacked once and he wacked again and the first nail was in tight. With the next one he did the same.

"Impressive, actually," Uncle P said as he lifted up the second plank, "but at that rate it'll be twelve wacks, in case you forgot your multiplication tables. Professor Salome Dove will love the digital pictures I'm gonna take on my phone."

"Actually, I'm just warming up. Ready boy?"

"Four so far. Five's next."

"See P, you aint the only genius in the family."

One wack, I swear, and the next nail was snug. Uncle P kinda shivered. Daddy Uncle Evelyn kind of slipped on the next wack but finished that nail off with another wack. "How many boy?"

"Seven wacks so far."

"How many nails left?"

"Two."

"Mathematically still possible, actually, hunh P?"

"Don't get cocky. Or crow before all your nails are nailed."

"Rare or well done?"

"Pretty good so far I'd say, daddy Uncle Evelyn."

"That's my boy."

Wack wack. Wack.

"You did it!"

"Well I'll be."

"You'll be eating crow I say."

When we got back to the scarecrow, daddy Uncle Evelyn took his pistol out, aimed and fired one shot. Twelve crows scatter-flew. One dropped off the scarecrow's right arm. "Go fetch Uncle P Dantick's lunch, boy."

"I smell a rat," Rayleen said back in the kitchen after figuring out Uncle P's cellphone camera at daddy Uncle Evelyn's insistence and taking a few pictures of Uncle P eating the crow.

"Funny. All's I smell is well-done crow, aint that right, boy?"

"Howzit taste, Uncle P? Can I have some?"

"Hush up boy, Uncle P Dantick is the only one eating crow today."

"Y'all set him up. That ole fence dint need no mendin. You just wanted to sport with your brother. Shame."

Daddy Uncle Evelyn laughed. "All I want to do is have some fun."

"Actually, it's not too bad," Uncle P said, wiping his chin. "Tastes kinda like squirrel, actually."

"And I got the feeling I aint the only one."

Next year when daddy Uncle Evelyn lets me shoot that pistol like he promised, I'm gonna get me some crow to eat. Actually.

The Crows-I Love You So

Friday, November 20, 2009

Everyone's A Critic; Mom Is Always Right


You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you never take all of the classroom out of the teacher. My mother, a retired teacher after decades in front of the blackboard, recently commented on one of my postings. She liked it (phew!) but she noticed a couple of typos/misspellings. Cocky me, I thought for sure she had misread, but I checked anyway. Oops. She was right. The posts (yes, they were multiple) have now been corrected.

On a similar note, I always remember a song my mother spoke about when I was a wee lad. She claimed there was a song that went something like this:

She's got freckles on her but
She's nice...

Not that I didn't believe her, but I just assumed it was some playground thing that was popular back when she was a girl. Well, I stand corrected. While snooping around Uncle Gil's Rockin' Archives, a wonderful site to find some great old tunes, what should I find but "The Freckle Song" by one of the Hanks, Hank Penny to be precise. And it sounds just the way my mother described it. Good God she's smart.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Thursday



Poor Thursday. It's the Rodney Dangerfield of the days of the week, the runt of the litter.

Let's start at the beginning, Genesis (now I'm no strict creationist, but at least the Bible accounts for the days of the week). What was created on Thursday, something big like the heavens or man? Hardly. “God created the great sea monsters, all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems, and all kinds of winged birds.” Fine, the Audubon Society, Loch Ness freaks, and cable-TV fishermen love Thursdays, but really, I don't mean to get picky, but God kind of had an off day that day, don't you think?

I like chicken salad and a nice blackened catfish like the rest of humanity, but sea monsters? I hereby chalk up my lifelong fear of water recreation to that gooey phrase, “all kinds of swimming creatures with which the water teems.” So God slept walked through Thursday, dreaming of the weekend, too. What chance do we mere mortals have with the day? Thursday, after all, is named after the god of thunder, Thor. I'm sorry, but not being a heavy metal kid or a closet meteorologist, I'm not impressed.

Bathroom-needle-point tradition has it that “Thursday's child has far to go.” Being a Thursday's child myself, I always kind of liked that: I dreamt of exotic dwellings and top-of-the-heap views for my life. But now I see what that treacly proverb really means. No wonder I always get in the wrong check-out line at Wal-Mart.

And don't speak to me of Wednesday's child being “full of woe.” At least that kid gets a ton of sympathy. With us Thursday offspring, it's just, “Oh no, don't rest now, keep going. You've got a long way to go yet.”

I don't have to mention all the PR Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday get, do I? But even the other mid-week days—Tuesday and Wednesday—get plenty of ink. Tuesday is election day, even Super Tuesday sometimes. The radio plays back-to-back hits by the same artist on “Two for Tuesdays.” On Tuesday afternoon the Moody Blues are just beginning to see. Maundy Tuesday and Tuesday Weld, say no more.

Some people claim Wednesday is Hump Day, the lucky folk. I hazily remember an episode of The Addams Family when somebody playfully asks Wednesday Addams if her middle name is Thursday. “No,” she replies scornfully, “Friday.” I tell you, Thursday gets no respect.

I defy you to name a song (any or, if you're a music geek, a good one [no peeking below]) with Thursday in it. Besides, of course, “Friday On My Mind,” with its melancholic exasperation that “Thursday goes so slow.” Yeah, I know, we've got a long way to go.

So what's Thursday good for, according to our culture? Thanksgiving. Not bad. It's one of my favorite days, a day to give thanks and gobble down one of God's great winged birds. But why Thursday? Call me a paranoid conspiracy buff, but it smells to me like the Pilgrims said, “What the heck, it's Thursday, nothing happens anyway, so let's have a party.”

I bet Buddhists have a tough time being “here now” on Thursdays. The day seems to be nothing more than a prelude to the weekend, a necessary tollbooth to negotiate until the wild freedom and heavenly respite of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Dues are paid on Thursday.

The only time I've ever encountered any kind of celebration for Thursday, for its own sake, was in the lovely mountain air of Asheville, North Carolina. The minor league baseball team there, the Tourists, used to host Thirsty Thursday nights during the season. I moved there in November, and the locals were talking about it all winter long.

Come spring, I realized what the fuss was about. For a stadium whose average attendance was about a thousand folks on other nights, McCormick Field would sell out its four thousand seats on Thursdays, though hardly everyone in attendance would actually watch the game. No, they'd be in line at the beer stand, patiently waiting to get their hands on a cold 24-ounce draft beer for a buck.

The catch was, you could buy only one at a time. I quickly learned the ritual of the young Ashevillians: get in line, buy a beer, get back in line and drink the beer in the time it takes for you to be in the front of the line again—repeat until beer sales close. Nothing says America like southern college kids getting tanked while standing in a line, oblivious to any baseball game going on, yelling “Hey, Bud!” at everyone.

My purpose here is to raise a metaphorical 24-ouncer to Thursday. Devoid of hoopla, hype, and poetic praise, it just is. It is life itself, always here and always reaching for something else, and always with a long way to go.

You know that moment of coming down the steps and seeing the Christmas tree all lit up with unopened packages piled deep? That's Thursday. Before you know it, there's paper all around, somebody doesn't like the sweater, and the toys all need to be assembled—that's the weekend, complete mayhem that somehow never fully satisfies. But oh, Thursday, when everything is within reach, when everything seems so full of potential and glee. That's the moment to savor, to imbibe, to cherish. Thursday is the idea of life itself; the rest of the week is merely living. Enjoy it.

Chip Taylor-Thursday Night In Las Vegas Airport

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Mechanics Of Smiling


I've heard the commercial for days now, even though I have no idea what it's advertising. I always get distracted by the beginning, where the age-old claim is made yet again: it takes 17 muscles to smile. I'm not sure if the commercial goes on to say that it takes many more muscles to frown, because by then I'm off wondering about this muscles to smile claim. The web experts (Wiki, Snopes, The Straight Dope) all seem to agree the claim has long been made, with varying numbers of muscles, although only the venerable Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope consults a facial expert, who makes the astounding claim that frowning takes 11 muscles vs. smiling's 12! That's a full, genuine smile, by the way; a fake smile takes only 2, supposedly. Interesting reading, all of it, but I'm keeping straight-faced until I get some specific answers to some real smiling questions.

To me, the main question is one of exertion rather than quantity. And, as Cecil dips his toe into a bit, certainly there must be a helluva lot more different kinds of smiles than different words for snow even the most loquacious Eskimo can conjure. I mean, don't try to tell me the smile one muscles up in greeting a nutty co-worker can be equated to the smile one involuntary beams upon hearing a certain pro football coach has just been fired. Despite my recent blasting of numbers and numbers guys, I want some hard, empirical numbers involving g-force, torque, psi's--whatever they might be--to show me the technical difference between smiling politely at the winner when you've just been informed you're a mere runner-up and smiling proudly when you've just been informed on the playground that Jimmy said that Debbie told him that Susie is pretty sure that Barbara has a crush on you. Smiles are too precious and too diverse to be sloughed off with just one, probably specious number. Most of all, I want to know the toll of smiling through pain. Anybody got any answers?

The Hackensaw Boys-Smilin' Must Mean Something

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Doing Windows


Well, we had to come to this word eventually: defenestration. Which is, the act of throwing someone or something out of a window. No one I know who knows the word dislikes it, despite its often tragic consequences. Why its universal appreciation (for the word itself, not the act, I presume)? It probably starts with the sheer sound of the word, five syllables (custom-built for haiku) that simply sing off of one's tongue and out of one's mouth to perfume the air around one. Not to downplay the, uh, gravity of the word's meaning, but it seems to be one of those words that sounds dirtier than it is (e.g. exacerbate--try teaching that word to a class full of teenage boys). Jay Leno should do a cable show and ask random people on the street to explain what the couple were doing in this sentence: "Dick and Jane were caught in the act of defenestration." Descendants of the Marquis de Sade might be calling the FCC over that one.

Odd then, that for such a poetic sounding word, its derivation is rather humdrum. According to the Wikkians, the word comes from the Latin de- (from) and fenestra (window or opening). (Just once I'd like to hear a would-be maid tell the would-be employer, "I don't do fenestras" [fenestrae?].) Still, though, I think a large part of the word's appeal comes from the very fact that there is a word, a single word, glorious as it is, to sum up the entire action of throwing someone or something out of a window. As far as I know, there is no word to sum up cementing someone's feet and throwing him/her in a scummy river, or finding one's lover in bed with someone else, or being marooned on a deserted island, or lying on a psychiatrist's couch, or gouging one's eyes out watching the Browns on TV--occurrences that Hollywood, or cartoonists, or real life, makes one believe happen all the time. But the act of throwing someone or something out of a window gets its own five-star word. What an amazing language.

Makes you think there must have been a lot of high-powered defenestrations through the ages, so many, in fact, that wordsmiths took off their spectacles, rubbed their temples, and said, "There's gotta be a word for all these throwings out of windows," and then defenestrated their reverse dictionaries when they couldn't find one. Well, we can tip our joyous tongues to the wordsmiths of Prague, because, again according to the Wikkians (click the link, they've got a great list of real and fictional defenestrations), it seems that that great Bohemian city is responsible for the word defenestration. Incidents two hundred years apart in that city of beautiful fenestrae, one in 1419 where seven town officials were defenestrated (makes one wonder if the word lemming originated there as well) and another in 1618 when two Imperial governors and their secretary (still taking dictation, "AAAAHHHHHH!"?) were defenestrated, became known as the Defenestration(s) of Prague (not to be outdone, the Commies got in the act and defenestrated politician Jan Masaryk in Prague in 1948, for his opposition to a putsch [no wonder my grandmother always said, "Be careful of opposing putsches"]). Thank God for romantic, artistic, classical Prague and its violent politicos and inviting windows, because something tells me if there had been a rash (maybe sash?) of throwings out of windows in somewheres such as Timbuktu, Gdansk, or Scranton-Wilkes Barre, we'd be missing a great word.

But something bugs me. Why is the word defenestration only used pejoratively? Many throwings of someones or somethings out of windows can be quite positive. Sure, when someone dies via a window, copy editors go mad showing off their erudition by using the word defenestration, but when someone is saved from a burning building by jumping out of a window, do we ever see this headline: Flames Erupt; Defenestration Saves Man, 52? In a jocular sense, do we ever see the word in a headline such as this: Ho Hum, Rock Band Defenestrates Another Motel TV? If they, well, threw in (or out) a groupie or two, then sure, Charges of Defenestration (And Other Questionable Moral Acts) Brought Against Rock Band. People, for the umpteenth time, I urge you to make frequent use of a great word, in this case, to save the word defenestration from its benign/positive desuetude. How simple could it be to throw a few sentences like this into your daily verbosity? "Excuse me George, I just have to defenestrate some birdseed." Or, "Just a second Marge, the Yankees are having another victory parade. I need to defenestrate some confetti." Or, "Quick, Fabio! I hear my husband. Defenestration!"

And lest some of you think it is impossible for me to be critical of Bob Dylan, ever since I learned the meaning of defenestration, I have never forgiven the usually dictionally-correct Dylan for taking the mundane, easy way out in the first verse of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" by singing, "Throw my ticket out the window/Throw my suitcase out there too." Imagine the lexiconal good if that dulcet voice had just sung, "Defenestrate my Amtrak ticket/Defenestrate my suitcase too"?

I don't think Amtrak goes there, but one day I will achieve my dream of making it to Prague. But now I'll be wiser: I'm staying away from the windows there.

Robert Wyatt-Blues In Bob Minor

Dion-Windows

Monday, November 16, 2009

See The Stars Tonight


I've been waiting for a sign from the heavens to share with you one of my all-time favorite songs, and what better time than tonight, when the annual Leonid meteor showers take place? I can't say I know much about astronomy (but I do know that one and one is two), although I did take an astronomy class in college. I remember writing my term paper on the dud comet Kohoutek because I liked the R.E.M. song by that name, and I remember laughing hard when the nice but nerdy prof took us out to an observatory and let us spy on the heavens and a student got all excited because she could see the stars "twinkle." "No, that's just the refineries around Gary you're seeing." Another time, the same girl asked why the rings around Saturn were made of ice. "Because they're umpteen trillion miles away from the sun," the professor informed her and us. I can still hear her "Oh" echoing off the concrete and metal walls of the observatory.

Around this time of year in 2001 I remember taking a thirty minute drive out into the country to see what was promised to be the best meteor shower show in decades. I couldn't believe the amount of people out and about and looking up at four in the morning. It was cold, but the show was amazing and well worth it. Anyway, this being November in Cleveland, clouds will probably obscure the celestial fireworks, but they say the pre-dawn hours will be the prime viewing time, so I just might get myself out of bed an hour early. I've got my first three wishes ready for the first three shooting stars I see: 1). a happy 21st birthday for my nephew 2). that Sarah Palin's book, which comes out tomorrow, becomes the quickest book to be remaindered in the history of publishing and 3). that a speck of stardust falls on me and singes me benignly but enough to be able to call in sick and go back to bed and then get to be a guest on George Noory's Coast to Coast AM radio show tomorrow night. After those wishes are taken care of, I'm open, as always, to suggestions/comments.

But the song. Part of me wants to keep it a secret because it's a song I never hear or read anyone talking about and it's nice to think I'm the only one who appreciates it, but it's too beautiful to keep all to myself: "Have You Seen The Stars Tonite" by Paul Kantner and David Crosby. It appeared on Kantner's first solo album, Blows Against The Empire, in 1970 under the name Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship, years before the Jefferson Airplane officially changed their name to Jefferson Starship. It's gorgeous. Rumbling piano, rudimentary space sound effects, beautiful ensemble vocals, jaunty acoustic guitars,and some nice pedal guitar, from Jerry Garcia, I'm pretty sure. It's such a warm, welcoming song. Enjoy it, and get to sleep early and get up early and look up.

Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship-Have You Seen The Stars Tonite

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Balancing Idiocy


While doing my usual Sunday morning thing today, reading English versions of German newspapers, I came across an interesting interview with the author Umberto Eco (sad to admit, I have never read any Eco [and how many times has an interviewer interrupted Umberto to inquire, "do you hear an Eco in here?"], though I've always liked his remark about the motivation for writing The Name of the Rose: "I wanted to poison a monk"). It seems Eco is curating a new exhibit at the Louvre all about lists in art. He says some pretty fascinating things about lists (among them, "We like lists because we don't want to die," which begs me to ask, "Hey, um, Berto, outside of shopping at Marc's, watching the Browns, and listening to Boston, isn't everything we do because we don't want to die?") all which lead to the interview's last sentence: "If nothing changes, you're an idiot."

Having spent probably a cumulative ten months or so of my life contemplating the cruel truth that the middle word in idiot is "I," obviously this maxim of Umberto's attracted/repelled me. In a world of constant and inevitable flux, I guess the easiest thing to do is just to go with the flow. But then again, as somebody either very wise or having a rather icky job once said, "Only dead fish go with the flow." Which I guess all points to the profundity of the serenity prayer: change what you can, accept what you can't, but above all, figure out the difference, damnit!

I love a lot of changes. I love how the highway west from Cleveland to Chicago turns from stark rural to harried urban right at that left bend at Gary, Indiana. I love how after days of walking on thick slabs of ice on your driveway, one day you hear and feel crackage. I love all the changes in The Beach Boys' incomparable "teenage symphonies to God": the myriad changes in "Good Vibrations" that only get more exciting the better you know the song (and I love how my appreciation of the song only deepens with age, after first being exposed to it via a soda pop commercial in the 1970s), and the brusque change from the dreamy "Cantina" section in "Heroes and Villians" back to the frenzied onslaught of words and music signaled by "You're under arrest!" I love the changes in tone, outlook, and rhythm in each of the four sections in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. I love the change from sophomores to juniors in high school--so much growing up in a year or so. I love the change in my pocket of four quarters, two dimes, a nickel, and four pennies.

Of course, there are changes I despise. The turning of road construction season to winter in the Midwest. The transformation from dusted to dusty. The change from Beatle Paul to Wing Paul. James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. Agile to lumbering, red to gray, 20/20 to umpteen/20. A dime, three nickels, and two pennies.

But these are trifling changes, I know. The bastards are the changes within. And the slippery ones are the changes we shouldn't make, permit, bow to. If nothing changes, you're an idiot. Sure. But if every anything changes, you're still one. God grant me the wisdom to balance my idiocy.

I also love the change from hypnotic drone to sprightly country ditty in the Byrds' "Change Is Now," spurred by the bass that for much of the song is like a relay runner running in place waiting for the baton, and then all of a sudden realizes it is the baton and takes off. And I like how the Meat Puppets' "I'm A Mindless Idiot" doesn't change when you keep thinking it will or should. Echoes of Eco, I guess.

The Byrds-Change Is Now

The Meat Puppets-I'm A Mindless Idiot

Saturday, November 14, 2009

If I Were A Sneeze



I'm sure by now you've seen the story about the girl who can't stop sneezing. If not, here it is. Reminds me of a long-ago poem, inspired by Patti Smith's comment that she wanted to be reincarnated as a guitar solo, and a girl's story about her devious friends.


If I Were A Sneeze



If I were a sneeze
the sneeze I'd prefer to be
would be no whomp-rush
of mini cardiac arrest
monsooned from some over-bellied blowhard
who'd use such cacophonous skull catharsis
as an excuse to wrangle some well-oiled
wrinkled rag from his right-ass pocket
and set about rearranging the interior
of his proboscis with gnarly fingers
cloaked in the handkerchief like
gargoylish finger puppets.

Nor would I be the sneeze
that issues out sequestered
and apologetic from a habited nun
ever-vigilant with her pink tissue-twined
fingers, a body embarrassed eh-choo
so delicate it never echoes off the
statued marbled walls of dank chapels;
such a celibate sneeze I would not
permit myself to be.

And don't trifle me with the quotidian
out-of-nowhere sneeze that follows shortly
with its own shadow sneeze,
or the bloodshot, Puffs-badgered nose-expulsion.
My sneeze, the me sneeze,
will not be so merely functional.
And I won't bother with the reality slap
of the after-sex sneeze—
the mind's Apollonian call of attention
to the body's Dionysian surge'n'sag.
No, the sneeze I perceive me to be
will be excited and fraught with sentience,
a sneeze animated with a God's blessing.

I will be the curfew late sneeze
of the blond fourteen-year-old girl
whose guinea pig breasts rest uneasy
'neath a white t-shirt in summer's couth moonlight,
whose cuffed denim shorts bookend tanned leg skin
with ankle-scrunched white socks
emerging from faceless cheap sneakers.

Her friends Debbie and Laurie and Jenny and Goof
use her for periodic entertainment,
taking her out to the parking lot
to tell her a you-won't-believe-it story
about Drew and Didi.
And this girl—Christine—looks and talks
and laughs dumber than she is,
but she still hasn't caught on from
slumber parties and school lunchrooms
and Huntington Beach afternoons
because she likes her friends,
so they start their inept story
and wallow in it with their
“Oh my Gods” and “like she didn't knows”
until Christine, dumb-trusting again,
sips her Snapple Kiwi-Strawberry
and all four friends shout fingernail
blackboard-like
“Got you!”

Laughing, Christine hunches immediately.
Her bitten-nail fingers cover her face.
She burps most ungirl-like
and Kiwi-Strawberry Snapple gushes
from her nose through fingers
down her shirt
splashing uneven the black pavement.
“You guys!” she stomps her right foot hard,
surfing somehow the mess
on her face and hands.
Then, laughing too hard again,
she sneezes.

Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars-God Bless 'Em All

Friday, November 13, 2009

Paraskevidekatriaphobia, anyone?


Yes, not to be confused with triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number 13), paraskevidekatriaphobia is the fear of Friday the 13th (although it seems to me by the time you manage to pronounce the word correctly, it will probably be Saturday the 14th or maybe even Sunday the 15th). I've only met one person in my life who suffered from paraskevidekatriaphobia, so I thought I'd take the opportunity of the date to tell you the story.

Coincidentally, the story takes place on this very date, November 13, in the year 1998, which also happened to be a Friday. I was settling down for my usual patty melt in Daffy's Bar & Grill, on the outskirts of Cleveland, waiting for the night's entertainment, Seether, a punk tribute band to the music of Pete Seeger, to take the stage when a disheveled guy walks in wearing black jeans and a dark gray anorak. He sits down unassumingly at the bar a few stools away from me and orders a chocolate milk and wheat toast. Nothing seemed odd until he called after Duffy (Daffy's twin brother who was minding the B&G because it was Friday evening and Daffy, who had converted to Judaism a few years prior, was home observing Shabbat), "And burn that toast good."

Can't be, I thought. Never in a million years. But that voice. I tried to look over nonchalantly and get a look at what just could be that famous profile, but the hood obscured even the nose. Well, I believe, I said to myself, and if nothing else I can tell the story for the rest of my life about how I sat three stools away from the man himself and quietly ate my patty melt as he drank chocolate milk and ate burnt wheat toast. And the toast, when it arrived, was very burnt. Smoking, even. "Hey man, you're an artist." Bingo. The way he said the word artist, the first syllable aggressive like a pistol shot, the second abandoned--it could be nobody else. Bob Dylan.

I'd rehearsed this moment in my dreams for years. I'd simply say, no introduction or anything, "Hey Bob, how important is finding the appropriate hat?"

Well, my courage was at best half-mustered when all of a sudden he turned to me, chocolate mustache beneath that nose and a well-gnawed burnt crust in his hands (it was Bob Dylan all right) and said, "Hey man, are you from around here?"

"Yes, Bob, I am." I felt there was no need to pretend I didn't know him.

"Man I been walking around all day, trying to find the place Alan Freed lived in when he lived here. Not my lucky day." He shook his head and gulped the last of the chocolate milk.

"Friday the thirteenth, what did you expect, Bob?" I had no clue where Alan Freed had lived when he lived here, but I had Bob Dylan, for the moment, hanging on my answer, so I wasn't going to make it easy for him.

"No," dragging the word out and running his crumb-laden fingers into the hood and through his famous hair, "shit." He burped then. "No wonder. I thought maybe it was Wednesday the 15th or something. Paraskevidekatriaphobia, man. I got it bad. Hey man," calling to Duffy, "get me something, anything, with alcohol in it."

"Tell me about it, Bob," I said, moving over to the stool next to him (not an "I know exactly what you mean" tell me about it, but an "I'm here, I will listen, unburden yourself" tell me all about it; hell, Blood On The Tracks alone had gotten me through at least 113 dark nights of the soul by then, I owed it to the man).

"In the wee hours of Friday morning, December 13th, 1963, I drifted off to sleep, and maybe it was the Beaujolais, but I had a helluva dream, my thirteenth, don't you know. A flat out nightmare. I was in a parlor somewhere in upstate New York, 1800s, and who was talking to me but Millard Fillmore, the former president of the United States. The thirteenth president, only because the twelfth, Zachary Taylor, had died of gastroenteritis. I mean, who doesn't get gastroenteritis just listening to the Eagles, but you don't die from it, man. Anyway, old Millard was retired by then, married an heiress, nothing to do but find Buffalo University, and he's bald, talking to me. Telling me all about his times with the Know-Nothing Party. Well, he wasn't all bald, he had a few hairs combed over across his head, you know? Like a bar code. Anyway, all of a sudden, one of the hairs, the thirteenth from the front, of course, stands up from his head and kind of points at me, like it's pointing a finger, and then the hair turns into some Texas lawyer named Wade from the present day, 1963, and he's pointing fingers and telling me I'm too young to know anything. Tells me I don't know shit. Man, I woke up sweating and I don't think I slept again for two nights. And, well, you know, that night, Tom Paine and all. Paraskevidekatriaphobia."

He hung his head over the bar, buried his hands deep into the anorak, and just shook his head. Feeling buoyed by the trust he showed in me for knowing the arcana of his life, I took my left arm, patted him gently on the back and said, "Midnight's approaching, Bob. Saturday the fourteenth is nigh."

"Thanks, man."

And so we drank away the rest of the night knocking back Chocolate Russians, ignoring Seether, and telling each other knock-knock jokes. Just after midnight Bob turned to me and said, "Man I ain't stupid. I know it's not Wednesday the fifteenth. But that's the only way, one, two, three times a year, whatever, I can cope."

"I understand, Bob."

"And goddamnit, you know who Wade was?"

"Tell me, Bob."

"The guy who prosecuted Jack Ruby for killing Oswald. And the Wade in Roe versus. Put a couple innocent people in jail, I think, too."

"It's a small world, Bob."

"Yeah, screw Alan Freed." With that he pulled out a crumpled c-note from his jeans, put it on the bar and said, "The night's on me. I owe you so much more, though." Then he stood up.

"No problem, Bob. Sweet dreams."

"The best kind, man. I'm up to four thousand something umpteen by now."


Behind the Curtain:

I swear this is how it happened. I'm puttering around this afternoon, trying to think up something to write for Friday the 13th. For whatever reasons, my brain fixates on the story of a man's thirteenth strand of combed-over hair. And I get the notion of finding out who the Wade in Roe v. Wade is and working him into the story. I also think of telling the story of Bob Dylan's 13th dream (of course there are the songs "Bob Dylan's Dream" [1962] and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" [1965], so I figure there's got to be a 13th dream, somewhere in 1963). Then I start the research, find out Millard Fillmore was the 13th president (and Zach Taylor did die of gastroenteritis), there's actually a word for fear of Friday the 13th, and all about Henry Wade. Now I've got the ingredients. My last thought is to see if I can find out what Fridays in 1963 fell on the 13th. Two seconds later on Google I'm looking at a calendar for 1963. I see a Friday the 13th in December, and then, oh my God, I'm thinking. Could that have been the date? Run upstairs to find my Bob Dylan day-by-day book (you mean your house doesn't own one?) and hot damn, there it is, the very day!

Long story short: On December 13, 1963, Dylan received the Tom Paine award given by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committe at its annual Bill of Rights dinner. As Clinton Heylin tells it, Dylan, 22 at the time, was a bit uncomfortable and supposedly drank heavily. In his speech, he insulted the audience, among other things for their lack of hair, and infamously said he could sympathize with Lee Harvey Oswald, who of course three weeks earlier had killed JFK. Well, there was a bit of an uproar, and Dylan, "profoundly embarrassed by his behavior" (in Heylin's words), later wrote an apology and offered to reimburse the committee for any loss in donations they suffered.

Mesmerized by finding out all this happened on a Friday the 13th, and somehow connecting (a wee bit only, perhaps) with baldness and Wade, I Googled a bit more and found this amazing page, with a transcript of Dylan's remarks that night (I think Heylin is right; drink seems to have gotten the best of Bob that night), a letter from the committee's head defending the choice of Bob as recipient of the award, and--new to my eyes--Bob's typescript of the rather fascinating letter of explanation/apology. Great reading.

Finally, I recall watching the Dylan documentary No Direction Home a few years ago and being somewhat amazed, even a bit disappointed, that years later, Bob seems to have dismissed his own embarrassment (which is pretty obvious to me in his letter) and now regards the incident as a kind of proud, standing up to the establishment moment. Alas, I searched in vain for the clip from the documentary that talks about the episode, but I couldn't find one. Anyway, more lattice of coincidence stuff. Happy 13th.

Marley's Ghost-Bob Dylan's Dream

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Don't F with the F-Word


"I don't fuck with decaf."

Johnny said that to me today when, after telling me he doesn't drink coffee at night because it keeps him up, I asked if he ever drinks decaf. Now I like Johnny; he's down to earth, nice, and pretty funny. But he's seriously off base about this whole thing. Decaf is harmless, the weak link in the liquid refreshment chain. I should know. Owing to a freaky night years ago I don't want to re-visit for you all just now, I was made to swear off caffeine. Horrors, some of you might think. Actually, it's not too bad. You get used to the taste--it does have some--and really, after a short while, there is definitely a placebo effect. If might be just decaf, but believe me, you NEED it in the morning, and a few sips into it you're feeling refreshed and ready for the day, just like caf. It's fine, really, and that's what takes me to my real point about Johnny's remarks: there is absolutely no reason for him to use the F word in his sentence.

Now, don't accuse me of being a vocabulary milquetoast. F is a valid word and has its place (many places, actually, it being one of the language's most flexible words), and I certainly have utilized it here and there. There are certainly many people, places, and things one should not F with--drunken Philadephia fans, the town of Hell, Michigan, and the IRS, for starters. But decaf is not one of them. Drink a gallon at midnight, pour it on your begonias, use every imaginable permutation of the F-word to insult its (perceived) lack of taste and pick-me-up--decaf will abide and not bite back in any real or metaphorical manner. Go ahead Johnny and everybody else, F with decaf to your heart's content. You'll be fine.

Caf, on the other hand, is to be F-ed with (if you so choose) very carefully. I have arrived at that conclusion empirically and somewhat accidentally. You see, in my years of strict decaffing, once in a while I have been "slipped a mickey" by absent-minded (I prefer to give one the benefit of the doubt) hosts and hostesses, baristas (our pierced brethren and sisteren who work at coffee shop[pe]s), and wait staff. Believe me, after being off the stuff for some time, if you pound a cup or mug of the stuff unknowingly, prepare for take-off. The ensuing warp-speed ride your mind will involuntarily embark on will without a doubt F with you, whether or not you want to F with it or not.

But, like Ishmael, I survived such accidental infusions. And so, not without first silently humming a few bars of "I Will Survive" to myself, I will now infrequently indulge myself in a small amount of caf, not for any jolt beyond the one decaf provides me (maybe in my delusionment), but mainly because the Burger King I drive thru every morning sold me one too many cups of last night's decaf (my apologies, Johnny; you do not want to F with overnight, cold decaf).

I guess my point in all of this is, choose wisely not only what you agree to F with in life, but also choose wisely what you label as F-ing with: mess with, try, sample, tango with, dabble in, play with, dip my toes in--all of these are more precise terms for many experiments in engagement.

And while I'm at it, I can't stand people who F with (in any way shape or form) the words frickin' or friggin'. As the estimable Joe Martin used to say all the time, shit or get off the pot. Either use the F-word or don't. Frickin' and friggin' are the unquestionable decaf (in Johnny's estimation of decaf) of the F-word. I believe the word "stupid" will substitute accurately and quite appropriately for anyone wanting to use the words frickin' or friggin'. To put it another way, think of the Blues as the F-word. Sometimes you're in the mood to hear, sing, or play the blues. Fine. Do so. Just don't think listening to, singing along with, or playing frickin' George Thorogood is the real friggin' thing. Got it?

As my college roommate (named John,coincidentally) used to say, "F, what a great word." Like gourd, fester, scruple, and moist, it can be, when used appropriately.

And since we've dipped our toes into festering waters a bit here, enjoy some gloriously off-color George Carlin, or to balance it out, some sweetly twee Bee Gees. (Sorry. I was asked to take them down.)

The Bee Gees-Words