Thursday, December 26, 2002

Back when I was a kid and still putatively Christian, I had this idea that heaven was a place you could go and meet all the celebrities you wanted to meet when you were alive. It wasn't like a big party or awards ceremony--the notion was just that you would know how to find everyone you ever wanted to meet, and they would be happy to see you.

What strikes me now is that according to the Christian ideology that then informed my beliefs, not everyone got to go to heaven, and perhaps especially not the people I most wanted to meet. For example, I know of Christian theologies according to which Paul Lynde--center square, one of the idols of my youth--would not get to go to heaven. Paul Lynde, after all, was a boy who liked boys. Such theologies are, among other things, dreadfully boring, so thank God they're not true. But I was thinking of this last summer when I saw Willie Nelson at Ravinia. Waylon Jennings had died the previous winter, and Willie played a bunch of Waylon songs--and when Willie began one, he would point reverentially heavenward. I mentioned this to my dad, who replied, "I'm not so sure Waylon's in heaven." Dad was kidding, but it was still a mean thing to say, though again: I can imagine a theology according to which Waylon would not go to heaven. But I say, if Waylon Jennings doesn't get to go to heaven, then to hell with heaven. To me, heaven is hanging out with Waylon Jennings. And Orson Welles. And Jack Benny.

The other thing my youthful idea of heaven makes me think is this: it works only if the celebrities are willing to spend the time. One thing I have learned as a demi-demi-demi-celebrity is that people want to talk to me. And sometimes I'm tired, or busy, or upset, but it's in my direct economic interest to rise above that and chat. All of which is to say, perhaps celebrities are fascinating to us not because they're regular human beings, but because they're scintillating on the Tonight Show (which in heaven still stars Johnny Carson). Which is to say, they're fascinating when they're selling. Which is a little disturbing. But aren't we all selling, all the time? Paging Milton Friedman.

I'm not sure I still believe in an afterlife, though this year I did come to believe in a nameless spiritual force, which is something. Actually, I lack the theological vocabulary to say this elegantly, but I have this hunch: if there's a heaven, this is it, baby. So put on another Waylon Jennings record.
I learn from the baby book of which I took possession this Christmas that my maternal grandmother, Kern Duckett Johnson, was named after Kern Lunsford, one of the daughters of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina fiddler. Evidently the Lunsfords were family friends. I don't really understand this connection, but apparently the country music was in me from early on. Here's an oral history that mentions Kern Lunsford.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

So now Whip Don Nickles says Senate Republicans should vote again on Lott's leadership. My question is, do Lott and Nickles have a platonic relationship, or are they doing it?

Friday, December 13, 2002

I'm watching the Trent Lott news conference on C-SPAN.

You'll be interested to hear that Lott just said he and Strom Thurmond have a platonic relationship.

I think Lott protests too much.
This punchline in today's Doonesbury is hilarious.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Kids--don't forget to check today's Isthmus for my review of Attack of the Mini-Musicals!
The striking thing about Trent Lott's antics is not that they reveal him to be a racist--duh--but that he does such a poor job of hiding it.

Today's lead editorial in the New York Times carries this headline: "Fire Trent Lott."

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

I love when the Republican leadership does things like belatedly endorse Strom Thurmond's Dixiecratic presidential campaign. Makes me smile. Kind of reminds me of the good old days of 1995, when Newt Gingrich et al. shut the government down and made themselves look like wackos. "Look," Clinton got to say, "they want to close your national parks." And the fun went on and on. Though I doubt any current Democratic leader is as adroit as Clinton was at sitting back and letting the Republicans cause their own trouble.

But all questions of Trent Lott's competence aside, what in God's name is Strom Thurmond doing in power? He's too old.

Friday, December 06, 2002

Scanning the Associated Press headlines on just now, I encountered this striking juxtaposition:

Streisand: 'This kid Eminem is really interesting'

Vatican says gay priests unsuitable

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

"I forgot to remember to forget." --Willie Nelson

The point of this blog is to tell you about something that made me sad earlier today, but that something will make more sense if I first talk about the craft of songwriting a moment, and I need to tell you an anecdote from childhood, too. So bear with me.

I seem to remember every song I ever heard. I'm not always happy with this skill, and sometimes it seems like a curse. Just ask Ereck what it's like to live with someone liable at any moment to burst into the TV jingle for Pac-Man Cereal.

However, I'm much more likely to remember songs with strong hooks, which is why I seem particularly to recall jingles--they're designed to get in your brain.

Which brings up the matter of hooks. I'll skip the esoteric songwriting theory and instead just point out that hooks--those memorable, repeated phrases of words or musical notes--are what make us remember songs. Also, while a given song can have more than one hooky element, we sometimes speak of a song's primary hook--or, The Hook.

Often, the song's hook is the title, as in (to name the first example that sprang to mind), the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love." Other times, a song has a strong lyrical hook that's not the title, as in Dylan's "Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35," which you'd swear for all the world was called "Everybody Must Get Stoned." (Once I saw a hapless contestant on Rock & Roll Jeopardy fall for this; host Jeff Probst could barely hide his contempt.)

Still other times, the hook is some instrumental riff--for example, the funky synthesizer line in Gary Numan's "Cars," or, to turn again to the Beatles, George Harrison's sitar line in "Norwegian Wood." However, the instrumental hook is an economically chancy thing, it seems to me, since one reason lyrical hooks are valuable is that you can identify a song based on very little information, if you sing the hook to a friend or a record-store clerk. Trying to reproduce an instrumental hook is bound to be less successful; words out of context seem easier to recognize than musical notes.

Which brings me to the next part: our carpool growing up. We carpooled with some neighbor kids in their giant custom van, and this family liked to listen to Top 40 radio in the car. (Yes, it was still called Top 40 radio, even then--this would be the late 1970s.) I still vividly remember many of the songs we heard on that radio, and I daresay this was my earliest regular exposure to hits music. One of the songs I remembered, though, had only an instrumental hook--a big saxophone line. No lyrical hook. For twenty years I wondered what this song was. Finally, about two years ago, I identified it: Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street." If you know the song, you can understand why it didn't fully register with me in 1979: it's not such a great song. But I was glad finally to have identified it. In fact, it was an enormous relief.

But there's one other category of hook I wanted to mention: the absence of hook. That is, some songs have no discernable lyrical or instrumental hook, but we remember them anyway. The best example probably is "Unchained Melody": the title definitely is not the hook; that phrase isn't even in the lyric. But the refrain, such as it is ("Oh my love, my darling...") is not particularly memorable. Probably the best clue to what makes us remember the song is in the title itself: the melody of "Unchained Melody" is unmistakable.

But this in turn brings up yet another carpool song, one that also has no discernable hook, just a line that stuck in my head from some unknowable date in the Carter administration until last week. The line: "It's the promise of spring." That and a three-note melody haunted me for more than twenty years.

The song, it turns out, is by Antonio Carlos Jobim, of "Girl From Ipanema" fame, and its title is "Waters Of March." Based on my researches, I suspect the version we heard in the car was Art Garfunkle's.

But what happened last week was that I went to see Comedian, the documentary about Jerry Seinfeld. At the end of the film, the credits rolled, and what did I hear over the credits: that three-note melody--and then, the line: "It's the promise of spring."

I felt--it's hard to describe how I felt. My childhood memories are so tenuous that's it's striking, almost incapacitating, to encounter in adulthood something I remember as vividly as I do that song, and the circumstances under which I heard it. The song has a confusing lyric, a string of seemingly unrelated images, and I remember that the carpool kids and I exchanged puzzled looks about it before we dismissed it entirely. Maybe this carpool memory stays with me because I often loathed the carpool: sometimes the neighbor kids weren't so nice.

Regardless, this chance encounter with the past was only the first surprise.

Today, I went to the illicit file-trading service WinMX to settle the matter. Turns out "Waters Of March" has been covered by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to David Byrne. I counted about twenty versions, but the first one I downloaded, by Susannah McCorkle, was the one from the movie. It's killer; absolutely breathtaking.

Naturally, I looked up Susanna McCorkle, and then came the second surprise: she's that cabaret singer from New York who threw herself off a balcony last year. I remember being moved by her obituary when it ran in the New York Times: she was well established in the New York cabaret scene, but her relationship with her record company was souring, and she'd lost her eleven-year gig at the city's preeminent cabaret venue. That, plus the clinical depression for which she took medication only sporadically, led to her untimely end.

Why does this story move me? First of all, I know what it's like to have a passion for music, and to get enough of a taste of success in it to want to try to make a life of it. And truth be told, I've also had a taste of despair, though not a despair nearly as dire as Susannah's; and fortunately, I seem to be on the mend.

But when I learned more about Susannah's story today, what was already a beautiful song became really upsetting, sublimely so. I've listened to it probably a dozen times today. (What is it about sad songs that makes me punish myself by listening to them over and over? I wrote a song about this, "Warning: Country Music.")

It's weird that two things that moved me at very different times in my life--"Waters Of March" twenty years ago, and the death of Susannah McCorkle the May before last--came together in one coincidental moment. At a Jerry Seinfeld movie.

Incidentally, I was puzzled at first as to why the movie producers used the song in the end credits. The song's sort of about everything and nothing, almost a nonsense song. It struck me, though: the movie's about people trying to make it in a particularly competitive and unprofitable aspect of New York entertainment--stand-up comedy--just as Susannah tried to make it in another competitive, unprofitable market, cabaret. I think the producers were paying tribute to Susannah, a show-business casualty. Another one.

At any rate, here, in violation of all copyright laws, is the song. I hope you listen to it. Remember Susannah as you do.

Monday, December 02, 2002

I read with interest this letter in today's e-mail dispatch from the Daily Cardinal, one of the University of Wisconsin newspapers:

To The Editor:

I know parking is horrible on campus, and there is a need for parking enforcement--but these guys have gone way too far. I live across the street from the Islamic center on Orchard street, and many cars were parked in a "private property" parking lot where the Budget Bicycle Center is. Sadly, there was a funeral in progress and they were wheeling out a coffin to the coffin car [

And who is there handing out parking tickets to about 70 mourning people? Madison Parking Enforcement.

They had no sympathy or regard for these people, and even handed out tickets to crying people who were getting into their cars to head out to the funeral procession. Hey Madison Parking Enforcement, I hope you have a nice time roasting to a nice crisp in Hell.

Richard Yu
UW-Madison junior

I too have felt the blunt end of Madison Parking Enforcement. Madison is one of those few cities lucky enough not to have much crime, so the authorities have plenty of resources for parking enforcement. Which is fine. Laws are laws.

But the parking enforcement people are really compulsive, alarmingly compulsive. They always, always, always ticket. They scrutinize. They lecture. They stake out. And, after they ticket, they mail a letter to the unlucky motorist. They know exactly where we are.

This surprised me, coming from Chicago, where the state apparatus's parking tactics are rather less intimidating, probably because the city bureaucracy is too inept or corrupt to muster a lot of aggression. (I blush to report that I took a casual attitude toward paying parking tickets in Chicago: I paid the ones I thought I really deserved.)

This said, I also have discovered what happens if I blow off Madison parking tickets: they suspend my registration. Ouch. Needless to say, I've paid all my parking tickets and learned to park on the right side of the street. The way the authorities like it. Nice and orderly.

But I'm not surprised to learn the city was ticketing mourners. Which brings to mind an old joke, one I'll paraphrase: What's the difference between a Madison wedding and a Madison funeral? One less car to park.

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

I just finished A Streetcar Named Desire, which I started last night. In typical Ken Burnsian fashion, I watched it piecemeal, out of antsiness, and I think my appreciation of the film suffered from not watching it all at once. Live and learn. Or unlearn.

That said, Streetcar proved riveting, devastating. I tried to think when a movie last made me so upset, and what sprung immediately to mind, oddly enough, was The Hustler--the Piper Laurie character has something of Blanche DuBois about her, though God helps us, Piper Laurie is no Vivien Leigh. I guess what I find compelling and upsetting about both these characters is that I've been close to people like them, beautiful, wounded souls with obsessive, self-destructive tendencies.

The Roger Ebert article I link to above focuses on Marlon Brando, and with plenty of justification, I suppose. After I watched the first hour or so last night, Ereck asked me how it was going. I told him somewhat bitterly that nothing iconic had happened yet, except for Brando in a tee shirt...and then I realized that the iconic thing had happened, in spades. (And that is some tee shirt! Hubba!) Still, Brando's Stanley Kowalski leaves me a little cold, perhaps because Brando's Method mannerisms no longer cause the stir they did in 1951, and also just because Kowalski is so awful.

But if Brando is the reason I rented the film, Vivien Leigh is the reason I wept at it. I've underrated Vivien Leigh in the past, perhaps because she's most famous for Gone With The Wind, a film of which I am sometimes dismissive (even though it also makes me weep). But her Blanche is unforgettable. I'll forswear a thorough analysis right now, but allow me two observations: I love her devilish reading of Tennessee Williams's poisonous comic lines, as when she says of Kowalski, "A thousand years have passed him by!" And Leigh does something remarkable with her voice during a harrowing fight with Karl Malden; as we learn unpleasant truths about Blanche's past, Leigh drops her voice about an octave, into Bea Arthur's range.

I gather from the Ebert article that I watched the 1993 rerelease, with added footage that supposedly reveals a lot more than the censors allowed in 1951. Funny--I was just saying to Ereck how vague the film seems around its tawdry themes.

I rented Streetcar as part of an effort to fill in some holes. There are so many important movies I still haven't seen. More Brando needs to happen, for example. And then some Bergman. And some Kurosawa. (And some Vivien Leigh?) Would you believe I've never seen Casablanca?


Apropos of my linking to the Roger Ebert article: I've gotten funny reactions from people when I've told them I'm a giant Roger Ebert fan, have been one since I read him regularly in the Chicago Sun-Times. I think people have formed unflattering opinions about his film criticism on the basis of the fact that he's goofy on television. Which is true, and I find "At The Movies" a little maddening when I watch it, mostly because it's so short, and there's so little time for substance.

But Ebert's newspaper reviews are first rate, in my opinion, and also in that of the Pulitzer jury. More often than not, he has thoughtful, elegant things to say about all kinds of movies, and damned if he doesn't see everything. He also writes a question-and-answer column that I like, and--you'll pardon the morbidity--he writes superb tributes to movie legends when they die. I was particularly fond of one he wrote about Robert Mitchum, who died just after Jimmy Stewart did. Of course Ebert noted the synchronicity, but he also lamented the timing, since the death of the arguably more famous (and certainly more beloved) Stewart threatened to overshadow Mitchum's legacy. And then Ebert proceeded to present a case for Robert Mitchum as one of the greatest of all American movie actors. It's a risky claim, but I was grateful to Ebert for pointing me in the direction of a lot of Mitchum performances I might otherwise have missed. It seems to me that this is what a thoughtful, well informed critic can do--point us in directions. Ebert does it well.

Sunday, November 24, 2002

Last night Ereck and I went with Josh and Travis to see Far From Heaven, the new Todd Haynes film that's a remake of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, which I haven't seen. Nor have I seen any other Sirk, and it seems like I oughta.

I enjoyed the movie. Julianne Moore is terrific, and so is Dennis Quaid, who I always liked. (I seem to recall that my first Dennis Quaid experience was 1984's messy Dreamscape, a forgettable movie notable only perhaps for its being one of the earliest PG13 releases.) Set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957, Far From Heaven is a lavishly designed period film that has something or other to say about injustice, and constricting social mores, and dishonesty in relationships, and some other things. I found its racial politics a little heavy-handed, and I groaned inwardly when the Julianne Moore character said of her romantic interest, "He makes me feel alive." Pauline Kael once wrote something about the sort of moment in films that makes audience want to throw jujubes at the screen. This was one of those moments.

But apart from that, there was a lot--a lot--I liked about Far From Heaven. As a matter of fact, the 1950s have been something of a pet topic of mine for a little while, roughly since Ereck and I went to see Kubrick's Lolita at the late, unlamented Majestic. On the basis of the Kubrick film I suspect that not everything we believe about the 1950s is true, that it was an entirely constricted, repressed time--or, more importantly, that now is somehow an unconstricted, unrepressed time. I may blog more about this later.


Before the show we went to Sa Bai Thong, which disappointed me, again. Give me one good reason we can't have a decent Thai restaurant in Madison--or, if we're stuck with mediocre ones, why there can't be some Thai in the $7-a-dish range, rather than the $10-a-dish range. Just tell me that. Please. It's depressing.

Saturday, November 23, 2002

Since we became Willy Street denizens we often stroll over to Jamerica for dinner. Like many Madison restaurants it's a tad overpriced, and I probably wouldn't go all the time if it weren't so close. But it's the closest eatery to our little house (not counting the hot-dog-stand freakout in front of the thrift store), and it's pretty tasty. They jerk pork, they jerk salmon, they jerk scrambled eggs--let's face it, they jerk everything.

We like the wall of effluvia. There seems to be an infinite number of pictures of Bob Marley, and one or two of Haile Selassie. There are lots of bikini girls, and children's scrawled essays, and guys smoking spliffs. There's John and Yoko in Maoist drag, and the Jamaican soccer team (named, somewhat disappointingly, the Reggae Boys). There's a promo shot of Madison scenester Ken Fitzsimmons from his Little Blue Crunchy Things days. There's also a promo shot of music legend and Velvet Undergrounder John Cale. There's a poster of a dog wearing sunglasses and saying, "Yah Mon."

The place always seems a little grungy, and the silverware is cheerfully mixed. Ereck got a fork last night that looked like something a Viking would eat with. The young chap who seats us is attractive and gracious and always seems a little uncomfortable. We like him, too.

We like the pulsing dancehall music and the ginger beer, and we like the esoteric Carribean groceries, including an item behind the cash register that always makes me laugh: soup mix that is, to quote the label, Cock Flavoured.

Friday, November 22, 2002

Drove to Wawautosa with Tag last night to see the big Richard Buckner shew. What we saw was mesmerizing if not dazzling, which is to say that Richard Buckner is not so into the hard sell. Granted, I was largely unfamiliar with the material and might have been more engaged, otherwise, but Richard's songwriting is more meditative than hooky. Supposedly his sound-system specifications (the rider, as they say in the business) got lost somewhere, so because there weren't enough mics and stuff, he didn't get to use all the equipment he brought--including, tantalizingly, a pump organ. Instead he switched between steel-string and classical guitars. Richard wins plaudits for his original capo usage: I've never before seen a man put two capos on a guitar at the same time. But his songs are unrelentingly ethereal and bleak: the only line that stays with me today went something like, "My death will be my revenge." After the show, in the theatre office, Richard seemed a little sad. About half the audience had left by the time he finished--in part because it was freezing in the theatre--and he didn't play an encore. I hope he's okay.

Opening was Wisconsin's own Jeffrey Foucault, a folkie with altogether less gravitas than Buckner, but a little more stage presence. He endlessly retuned his Martin between numbers, which I found very boring. (I'm all for alternative guitar tunings, except maybe I'm not.) And he told anecdotes that were not altogether fascinating, one of which began on this perhaps accidentally hilarious note: "With the money I made from my last tour, I put a new muffler on my truck." Mostly his stories provided insight into what it must be like to sing and tour the mid-level folkie circuit: a lot of house concerts in the Downers Grove, Illinoises of the world, a lot of crashing on friends' floors.

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

I bought a new computer.

I got one of those $200 computers from Wal-Mart with the defiantly anti-Microsoft operating system Linux on it--or more precisely, Lindows.

I promptly erased Lindows and replaced it with a Microsoft operating system. So sue me.

This is like a year-2000 era computer at best, maybe 1999. It has 128 megabytes of RAM and an 800 MHz processor. (The processor was manufactured not by industry titan Intel or even also-ran AMD, but rather: Via. Via?) On the other hand, it cost $200. And, appealingly, it has Ethernet built in.

It came with no modem, no floppy drive, and no CD burner. But I just all but retired my old computer, which is called, affectionately, Hank (this is not just frivolity: our computers here at the house are networked and each one has to be named something). So I took the modem, floppy drive, and CD burner out of Hank and put them into the new computer, called, even more affectionately, Faron. Faron also came with only a 10-gigabyte hard drive, but soon the old drive will come out of Hank, and then Faron will have two hard drives.

Things already seem much faster and better. Hank has a lowly, 90 MHz Pentium chip, with 40 megabytes of RAM. Slow. Reliable, but slow.

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Show-Business Rivalries

There's nothing like a show-business rivalry to generate publicity for the combatants.

Often show-business rivalries are good-natured. One of the most famous ones took place between radio stars Jack Benny and Fred Allen. This consisted largely of the comedians' issuing friendly gibes at one another over the air. The rivalry culminated in their appearing on one another's shows. Ratings were through the roof.

Another radio rivalry was between honkytonkers Marty Robbins and Ernest Tubb: Robbins traditionally hosted the final segment of the Grand Ole Opry on WSM-AM, and often he would delay ending the broadcast in order to tweak Tubb, who, at his record store across the street in downtown Nashville, was waiting to start his Midnite Jamboree broadcast on WSM.

Unfortunately, show-business rivalries are not always so friendly. Particularly distressing was the dispute between East Coast and West Coast rappers, which climaxed in the untimely deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

As for me: it has been suggested that the Junkers pick a (friendly) show-business rivalry with Lil' Kim. I say, bring her on.

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The anime feature Spirited Away is still playing at the Point, you Madisonians. Go see it. I loved it.

Movies I also want to see before they go away, and why:

Auto Focus. I'm a "Hogan's Heroes" fan from way back. My favorite moment in that curious series's run comes when Hogan and the Richard Dawson character and another POW are chatting in the camp, and up walks Colonel Klink. Hogan says to Klink (I paraphrase), "Mein Commandant, we were just trying to decide, who's the most perfect Aryan, Hitler, Himmler, or Goebbels?" Klink's immediate reply: "Hitler? Himmler? Goebbels? They're all perfect!"

Femme Fatale. I'm also a big Brian de Palma fan from way back. I could talk for a long time about The Fury, Phantom of the Paradise, Raising Cain, Carlito's Way, Blow Out and other relatively obscure de Palma releases, to say nothing of his more prominent releases, like Carrie, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and Mission to Mars, each of which I also liked. I'm the only person I've met who enjoyed his film of Bonfire of the Vanities; the key is to read it not as a retelling of the Tom Wolfe book, but as a satire of same. Anyway, Femme Fatale looks to have all the hallmarks of a juicy Brian de Palma sex thriller, and what's better than that?

8 Mile. I loved Wonder Boys, another film by Curtis Hanson, the director of 8 Mile. Plus, that Eminem's all right with me. "Controversy" was a terrific single last summer, and I'm glad all the hooha has died down. If I were taken to task for everything that came out of my show business persona's mouth, I'd be in no end of trouble.

Frida. Good word of mouth. Oo la la.

Plus, some films not out yet, but that I'm excited about.

Die Another Day. I've blogged elsewhere about James Bond, but suffice it to say that this franchise's theatrical releases had been uninteresting to me my entire adult life until the last one, The World Is Not Enough. Since then, I've made substantial reforms of my understanding of James Bond movies, and I'm looking forward to this one. I may even go back and watch a Timothy Dalton one.

Solaris. I've been excited about this ever since I saw a creepy preview for it before Minority Report. I can't say I'm intimately familiar with the Tarkovsky ouevre, but I have seen the 1972 Solaris, and it's a terrific film. It made me wonder what other brilliant art came out of the Brezhnev-era USSR; someone tell me. At any rate, I've been a fan of many Steven Soderbergh movies (sex, lies and videotape, Out Of Sight, Erin Brokovich), and I've come around to George Clooney.

In Chicago I used to go to what seemed like a movie a week. Since moving to Madison I have curtailed this diet considerably: the choices usually are lousy, and good films seem to stay around for only a week or so. Which is to say, I can't think of the last time there has been a comparative wealth of first-run movies I'm eager to see. Mazel tov.

There probably are good reasons not to give out your phone number on your blog, but I did want to share just now that ours spells GHB-Gigi. Thank heaven for little girls.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Today I journeyed to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and returned with the newest paperwork the state apparatus has deigned to issue me: my Wisconsin driver license. It has been three years since I moved to Wisconsin, and I've hung on to my old Illinois license till now. I'm not sure why. Suffice it to say, no one rushes the Ken Burns. It also seems worth pointing out that this is, if I'm not mistaken, only the second time in life that my driver license has matched my checks.

All told, it was the pleasantest experience I've had at a DOT. The good-government 'sconnies have seen fit to implement a--gasp--take-a-number system. Complete with chairs to sit in. This stands in contrast to the endless lines in which I have stood to obtain Illinois driver licenses, which reminds me of the time I was standing in one of these lines on Chicago's South Side. Unable to contain myself, I farted--silently but, as they say, violently. Two teenage girls stood next to me, and one turned to the other and said, with wrinkled nose, "Somebody farted." I was busted. But I digress.

To the Wisconsin DOT I brought my book, Pat Conroy's The Prince Of Tides (more about the book in a moment, and I promise also to blog on Pat Conroy soon), and I whiled away a not unpleasant hour before my number came up.

For those neither foresighted nor bookish enough to bring a book, the DOT supplies a couple of those red LED displays, the kind used to fine effect by the artist Jenny Holzer. These flashed news and entertainment items, but they moved so slowly I found them excruciating. I took notice when the display flashed that Jonathon Harris had died (I already knew this, but I always liked him), and I learned from a dull quiz that Jennifer Aniston's godfather is Telly Savalas. I'll take Facts That Make You Shrug Resignedly for $200, Alex.

Once it was my turn, the paperwork went smoothly, as did the eye test. I proudly declared that I use neither glasses nor contacts, and I silently thanked whoever invented LASIK. Now is it just me, or is it true that when your face is stuck in that eye-test machine of doubtful cleanliness, and the civil servant administering the test asks on which side the light is flashing, it's always both sides? It seems to me the new has worn off this trick.

I was all set: it was time to get my picture taken and go. And now I encountered the one sad moment of the visit. I watched as time after time, a woman photographed people's faces, and time after time, they looked at their new licenses and groaned. Finally the photographer lamented to me, "People never like my work!" And it's true: the driver-license photo has attained iconic status as a Bad Picture, but it seems to me--and Susan Sontag might have something to say about this--that in portrait photography, more so than in other kinds of portraiture, the subject collaborates with the portraitist in how the photograph turns out. That is to say, smile! Or whatever. On the other hand, at the DOT, you generally only get one chance.

All of which is to say, when she handed me my license, I complimented her, and sincerely. I like the photo. As I made ready to leave, she in turn complimented me on my choice of reading material. It seems that she, too, liked Pat Conroy's The Prince Of Tides. I wanted to ask her which part she liked better, the part where the guy is anally raped by the escaped convict, or the part where angels hang from nooses while their genitals bleed. This didn't seem like a fitting DOT topic, so I said something noncomittal instead. But the exchange points to how Pat Conroy occupies a really peculiar spot in American letters. With Conroy, everyone remembers the Barbara Streisand movies and stuff, but no one talks about the bleeding angel genitals.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

To commemorate the election, I give you: Clever Wordplay Of The Right

What with the GOP's rise to congressional power in the last ten years or so, we have learned not only that Republicans are sophisticated thinkers, but also wordsmiths of the highest order. I give you, then, two of the party of Lincoln's most effortlessly clever bons mots. The first, of course, was a staple of late fall 2000, but I gather from browsing through newsgroups that it has since then become a go-to insult for conservatives to use every day:

Sore Loserman

The other one I turned up recently is, simply, a paragon of incisiveness. Oscar Wilde in his gayest moment couldn't have put it better:


What are your favorite puns of the right?
Call me a morning-after pill, but I find it hard to get too exercised about the election results. I'd rather the Democrats have fared better, of course, but more and more these days I find following politics a bit like reading accounts of chess matches in the New York Times--I can summon mild interest at best. Plus, if I have any pet political concern it's gay rights, and this fall the most unfortunate anti-gay statement and insinuation came from Democrats in, respectively, South Carolina and South Dakota. Besides, any election season that produces the sound bite, "Two gay men and a Shih Tzu" can't be all bad.

This morning I'm grudgingly of the opinion that maybe Nader was right--increasingly the parties are indistinguishable. Don't get me wrong, though: I'll vote Democratic every chance I get, and I'll never forgive Nader for killing my baby.

Mostly I'm just glad I don't live in either South Carolina or South Dakota. I live right here in delightful Madison, where we proudly reelected our lesbian Congresswoman--insert "you go girl" here, because I can't bring myself to--and threw the Republican bum out of the governor's mansion. Part of me wishes the quixotic gubernatorial campaign of Rev. Dr. Aneb Jah Rasta Sensas Utcha Nefer-1 had succeeded, but there's always '06.

Monday, November 04, 2002

There-Oughta-Be-A-Word-For-This Dept.

I promise to blog soon on the Junkers' fabulous show in Chicago this weekend, but till then, do know that honkytonkers Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams will appear on the David Letterman show tonight.

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Ereck and I realized we both have plans this Halloween evening, so now we're stuck with a lot of Kit Kats.


All props to my brother, Steven, whose blog yesterday was inspired by Anthony Lane's meditation on the James Bond movies in the new New Yorker. I found the piece exhilirating, mostly because James Bond movies exhilirate Lane, and it shows.

If I have any quibble with Lane, it's that he dismisses Sean Connery's 1983 Bond outing, Never Say Never Again, as "tired." I have long admired this movie, though admittedly my fondness for it relates to my having seen it at a particular time. It was the first James Bond movie I had a close relation to in its theatrical release, when I was twelve, and I saw it around the time I was getting acquainted with Connery's Bond films on video. I was familiar with the Bond franchise from pay cable, but I recall that my viewings of For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy left me cold: the appeal of Roger Moore escaped me, not least because I began watching his Bond films late in his tenure and did not have at hand fond memories of his better Bond movies, like Moonraker and, especially, The Spy Who Loved Me. (Lane singles out Spy for praise, and rightly so: it captures a gauzy opulence that, in retrospect, seems as important to the Bond milieu as the relative tautness of the earliest Connery films.)

Never Say Never Again may indeed be a "semi-spoof," to use Lane's limp term, but the Bond series has been self-parodying nearly since its inception. Meanwhile, the movie contains much that was dazzling to my early-adolescent eyes. Nuclear missiles are lost and found. Bond tangos with a kittenish Kim Basinger. In a funny bit of timely satire, Bond and archnemesis Klaus Maria Brandauer match wits in an elaborate video game that administers pain to the loser. And deadly Barbara Carrera delivers one of my favorite Bond-film lines as she is about to inject heroin into a hapless civil servant the bad guys have enslaved: "Nursie will give baby his candy."

As I've written here before, you probably had to be there. But I'll defend Never Say Never Again till I'm blue in the Bond-girl bikini.

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Ereck and I agreed that Kit Kats were the way to go for Halloween solicitors. This is the first time in my adulthood I've lived in a neighborhood where I suspect the kids come around. I've lived in some freaky neighborhoods.

At the thrift store just now, there was a Hillary Clinton rubber mask, but I declined. I did, however, buy some exciting Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr. records.


The news out of Israel today is encouraging. Anything that looks to get that nut Sharon out of power is okay by me, especially a leftist defection.


Lately I have taken to evening strolls, like around 11:00. Each time I go a different direction--last time brought me by Mickey's to say hi to Bob (and Martin, as it turned out), and I left wearing eau de honkytonk. Which is fine.

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Now that Walter Mondale is back in the national spotlight, I decided to dig up the speech he gave when the Democratic National Convention nominated him to run for president in 1984. Mondale has always kind of fascinated me, perhaps because the 1984 campaign is one of the first I remember taking an interest in, and also because he chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, a moment that seems at once the triumph and the death knell of ERA-era feminism.

In reading the speech with an eye for discovering why Mondale lost that election so resoundingly, my eye lit upon these words: "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

Note to self: when running for public office, don't promise to raise taxes.

Monday, October 28, 2002

Back from Knoxville yesterday on a 6:30 AM flight. The trip reminded me that a) the difficulty of the hour notwithstanding, 7:30 AM is a pretty good time to be at O'Hare airport and b) I have a troubled relationship with sports. The first theorum needs no defending, so let me talk about sports for a minute.

The purpose of the trip to Knoxville, among other reasons, was to go to the football game between the University of Tennessee Volunteers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide. As someone who, thanks to coincidences of rearing and capitalism, supports the Vols, I found the game dismal, a disappointing rout. Perhaps because the game left me in a dark mood (me and hordes of jeering fans at Neyland Stadium), I started thinking about my curious relationship with this thing called college football, and sports more broadly.

I grew up loathing sports. My parents took me to University of Tennessee games from when I was very young, and anyone predisposed to like sports would have viewed these as fabulous opportunities. Tennessee football is, as Dick Cheney might say, big time, and matches between Tennessee and its storied Southeastern Conference rivals--the University of Alabama, the University of Florida--sit in the first tier of important American sporting events. That said, as a boy I found the games enormously dull, and a crisp fall afternoon often found me in Neyland Stadium with my nose deep in a book, irritated that the noise of the game disturbed my reading. Such was my relationship with all sports at the time. Football, baseball, basketball--I found them stultifying to watch and, perhaps not coincidentally, frustrating to play. Telling statistic: in little league baseball, my batting average was .000.

Something happened in the years after college, though, and sports began to pique my interest. Maybe it was living in Chicago, as sports-hysteric a city there is; certainly it helped that during my time in the city, the Chicago Bulls franchise of the National Basketball Association won many championships. The excitement surrounding the Bulls team was pervasive, contagious, and I think the Bulls were fascinating to me and other non-sports-obsessed Chicagoans not just as atheletes but as templates of a particular kind of eroticism--with an emphasis on handsome Michael Jordan but also on sexually ambiguous Wunderkinds Dennis Rodman and the late Bison Dele (or Brian Williams, as Bulls fans knew him).

All of which is to say, by the late 1990s, I was mildly interested in sports. This interest brought me back to the Tennessee Volunteers, who were winning games and doing well, despite my pointedly reading Judy Blume books at them in the 1970s. Coinciding with my new enthusiasm was the Vols' winning the national championship in 1998, and in the last few years I have been to several Vol games--as well as a number of matches of the University of Wisconsin Badgers, who also have done well in recent years. These games have been enjoyable, by and large, and there is something honest--as opposed to ironic--about my fondness for the matches, the fall weather that accompanies them and, perhaps especially, the often freakish pageantry surrounding the marching bands (what means majorette?) and cheerleaders.

So this belated enthusiasm was what brought us to Neyland Stadium Saturday evening. Maybe it was just the drubbing the Vols received from the Crimson Tide, but I found myself as troubled as I was excited by what I saw. First and foremost, whatever the merits of the game itself, sports fans can be unspeakably hostile toward their rival fans, and this hostility often reinforces other troubling behaviors. I'm thinking in particular of a group of young Tennessee fans who, at a crowded Knoxville intersection before the game, taunted crimson-clad Alabama fans with chanted obscenities--until suddently before us, a traffic cop confronted an African-American lad of twelve or thirteen for jaywalking, and without missing a beat, the Tennesseans chanted at the child, "Nigger, nigger."

We saw nothing quite so upsetting at the game itself, but I was a little surprised at the crowd's sheer nastiness, as the Vols' ineptitude made itself more and more apparent. In particular, when the referee made an unpopular call, on the basis of which Alabama scored, the crowd jeered and booed him so loudly my ears hurt. It seems to me this confrontation lies at the heart of all that is paradoxical--and telling--about organized sports: the fans clearly were frustrated about the Vols' playing, yet the angry fans misdirected their derision toward the referee as casually and unthinkingly as drunk racists outside the game taunted a child with slurs.

So the game was a mixed bag, though I don't mind saying that I might not be writing this sweeping critique if the Vols had won handily. That said, I think for the moment I prefer University of Wisconsin football games. Wisconsin fans are politer when they're hostile.

Thursday, October 24, 2002

Mark Russell: Feeble satirist, parodist; racist

Last night WNED-Buffalo presented still another Mark Russell comedy special on PBS, and I again found myself asking: That was comedy? That was special?

It's the songwriter in me that finds these shows particularly disappointing. Song parody is an admirable sort of tunesmithing, and in capable hands the results can be sublime. Witness the 70s Mad magazine lampoon of "Star Trek," in musical form, which featured this number to the tune of "Aquarius":

As your ship goes through the galaxy
To distant worlds way past Mars
Make sure that your adventures
Do not kill off your stars!

And you can do it with a crew that's dispensible
A crew that's dispensible

I also relish Tom Lehrer's take on Gilbert and Sullivan:

There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium

On the other hand, we see in Mark Russell's song parodies--the core of his act--numerous examples of precisely how not to write songs, much less rewrite them: weak rhymes, poor scansion, witless jokes. Russell is even known from time to time to mess with the structure of songs, by inserting a Russell-composed bridge, for example. There are no professional standards for this sort of things, of course, but my feeling is that if the original song is unrecognizable in the song parody, then what's the point?

But it's not just Russell's music that stinks; his comedy is no better. There is ample proof in the efforts of for-profit ventures like The Onion and The Late Show With David Letterman that vigorous, funny satire is alive and well in America. So why are PBS viewers subjected again and again to Mark Russell's lame shtick? At best his comedy is puzzling ("I played a show for the liberal wing of the NRA! Nuns with guns!"), at worst retrograde and offensive ("An Iraqi luau! How do you like your dog!?").

And why, insofar as we expect political satirists to possess a certain awareness of the times, does he choose such hoary tunes to parody? Last night's broadcast included send-ups of such recent hits as "We're Off To See the Wizard" (1939) and Allan Sherman's "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah" (1963)--itself a song parody of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours" from "La Gioconda."

Indeed, I correctly prophesied (using absolutely no effort) that Russell would turn his musical sights upon hapless Martha Stewart, but I gave him far too much credit in the song I predicted he would use: the Beatles' "Martha My Dear." What ditty did he spoof instead? The flower-power anthem "I've Been Working On the Railroad."

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

I couldn't help but notice, as I get my blog off the ground, that Doonesbury this week is about blogging. I'd like to blog at some point about Doonesbury, which I like enormously but which is sometimes about as subtle as a Jackie Mason routine. (Although, to paraphrase a line in Annie Hall, G.B. Trudeau's a bigot for the left, so it's okay.)

At any rate, the Doonesbury series on blogging is pretty funny.

You might not even know, love, that I'm a Space Buff. Manned space exploration fascinates me. During space shuttle missions, I endlessly watch NASA TV broadcasts on the web. I dragged Ereck to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry (which has human body slices) so we could watch an IMAX movie about the International Space Station (narrated by Tom Cruise). In a particularly obsessive moment, I transcribed a David Letterman interview with space tourist Dennis Tito and posted it on

I also like my space lore in book form, though breathlessly hagiographic tomes like Andrew Chaikin's Man On The Moon tire after a while. That's why I was pleased recently to pick up The Final Frontier (London: Verso, 1988) by Dale Carter, an American historian at Aarhus Universitet, Denmark. This is a critical-theoretical analysis of the U.S. space program, and it draws heavily on a reading of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (which I haven't read, so I find myself skimming a lot). Typically of a Verso book, the methodology of The Final Frontier is appealingly Marxian, and we get bits like this description of the American astronauts: the extent that any propagandized society systematically undermines friendship, trust, independence, and security and systematically fosters feelings of frustration, guilt, inferiority, and the desire for power, a hero, leader, or celebrity will appear effortlessly to satisfy those needs (174).
To me that's even more exciting than a Revell model of Skylab.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

What album can't I get enough of these days? It may surprise you to learn that the side in question is Boz Scaggs's Down Two Then Left, which I've played at least every other day for the last couple of weeks. The reviewer to which I link dismisses Scaggs's lyrics as "meandering, almost incoherent," but I find something exhilirating in silly, throwaway lines like these from "Still Falling For You":

He's hearing voices, seems the choices really are but few
He makes a break, gets out of there
He acts like a fool, stands and stares
See, the joker's acting like nothing's happenin'
He just ate his cocktail napkin

You probably had to be there. I can't get behind everything Scaggs has done--the lite-FM staple "Look What You've Done To Me" has a weak hook--but the 1976-1980 trifecta of Silk Degrees, Down Two Then Left, and Middle Man makes a solid case for Boz as a memorable blue-eyed-soul crooner cum dystopian rocker.

Monday, October 21, 2002

Things that occur to me:

* The show Saturday was great. I think all us Junkers were worried about what was going to happen, but Ed came through with flying colors. It is, to quote Evita, a new Argentina.

* There is a lot of negativity in the world. Let me illustrate with an anecdote from the King Club show: Because I wanted to buy some water, and because being in the nightclub before the show makes me nervous, especially if attendance is spotty (attendance ended up being very healthy), I left the bar about half an hour before the show. As I was returning, a group of four young men were walking by the King Club. I watched them in hopes they would enter, but instead one of them gestured derisively toward the club and sneered, "What the FUCK is the King Club!?" I hope that later he found, to quote Poe, surcease of sorrow. But the mere fact of the King Club's existence seemed to enrage him. Curious.

* The #1 Dad show last night, on the other hand, was slow, but I'd wager not our slowest. If that's consolation. My favorite moment came when, before we played "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," I introduced it by saying we were going to play one of the few David Allen Coe songs that is not racist, sexist, or homophobic. In response, a voice came from the back of the bar: "BOOOO!"

* I installed the bracket shelves in the bathroom this morning. These have been sitting in a corner since late August, but today the spirit moved me. Maybe it was reading yesterday in the Times about the genesis of PBS's "This Old House" and the home-improvement-show juggernaut that followed. (Speaking of which, I was surprised recently to learn that "Home Improvement"'s Jonathon Taylor Thomas once played a hustler in what looks by all evidence short of actually watching it to be a forgettable indy flick.) Stuck to the brackets were some pesky stickers, and these I took off with 80-proof Jim Beam rye. This came from a bottle Ereck received as a birthday gift in October 2001. In earlier times (so to speak), a fifth of rye would not have lasted a day in this household, much less a year, and it would not have been used toward home improvement; quite the opposite.

* Celebrities who appeared in my dreams in the last week: Richard Gere; Beyonc� Knowles.

Friday, October 18, 2002

Everyone and his evil twin has a blog now. Here's mine. I have another blog on the the Junkers web site, but that's just with Junkers news, and I don't think the boys in the band would appreciate my putting yet another vanity project under their aegis. Mostly I'm just wowed by the efforts of our Bob Hemauer and Martin Price, and I want to be a part of this.

Just got back from playing "Dr. Dave's Hootenanny" on WORT. In the spirit of the times Matthew and I played "(Let Me Be Your) Desert Storm" and "Sam Stone." "(Let Me Be Your) Desert Storm" is a love song I wrote about the Persian Gulf War, and "Sam Stone" is a John Prine song par excellence, a really sad song about a soldier who comes home addicted to morphine. It's possibly the saddest song there ever was, and it's a staple of Junkers and #1 Dad sets.

I'm off now to practice at Thomas's. It will be the first full-on Junkers practice with Ed. It will be our only full-on practice before tomorrow's big King Club show. Yipe. I hope the fans are forgiving.