Friday, December 31, 2004

Good word

"No body can play and sing country music with long hair. Waylen Jenkins has got long hair and you cant hear all of his words sometimes and his band is beatnicks and rock and roll."

--Lester "Roadhog" Moran
Home at last

I can't wait to tell you all about the trip to Tennessee, especially the motherfucking backstage passes to the motherfucking "Grand Ole Opry," but for tonight all I want to say is: I'm glad to be home. I'm glad that tonight I will sleep in my bed with my four pillows, and tomorrow morning I will brew coffee so strong it will hurt me to drink it.

I also can't wait to tell you about the exciting flat tire on Illinois' exciting Northwest Tollway, but that, too, is a topic for a later blog. (Don't worry: we're fine, and it was as painless a flat tire as a northern Illinois flat tire in late December could be.)

Monday, December 27, 2004

Let's not go shopping

After doing Christmas with the family all day yesterday, I was excited to show Ereck around Nashville a bit today. But once we had hit a few highlights--this is my prep school; this is the large university next to my prep school--I began to remember one of the realities of Music City on Sunday afternoon, a reality brought into sharp relief on Boxing Day: there's not much to do. So I showed him where I went to grammar school.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Deep freeze

The subzero temperatures finally prompted us to put plastic over our windows. We did the same last year--having paid a staggering amount to heat this drafty old place the winter before.

We also resolved to plug up some cracks in our ancient windows. Lacking any fancier material, we used newsprint, which I guess is appropriate for the apartment of a newspaper journalist. Ironically, although our recycling bin contains zillions of copies of Isthmus, the paper for which I usually write, we mostly used Rick's Cafe for insulating purposes. No staples to remove.

When we visited San Francisco over Thanksgiving, our window plastic came up in several conversations. Our friends especially wanted to know whether we use a hair dryer to make the stuff taut. I admit there's something fascinating about the hair dryer process, and the instructions on the box even suggest it. However, we've gotten fine results just stretching the plastic with our hands.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Sweet music

I had a frisson of recognition when I read this on Terry Teachout's blog:
(You know your emotions are up in the air when every piece of music you hear, good and bad alike, makes you cry.)
Damn if the same thing hasn't been happening to me! I've lately found myself choked up by, among other things: "Somewhere in Texas, Pt. 1," a 53-second song on the Willie Nelson album Tougher Than Leather; "Remmem Valsen," a slow, sweet instrumental waltz by the Norskedalen Trio, a Wisconsin polka band featured on Smithsonian Folkways' Deep Polka compilation; "Ethiopian Jokes," a sloppy but earnest cri de coeur by the 1980s Knoxville band Smokin' Dave and the Primo Dopes; and everything the Madonnas sang at their show last Saturday.

As Teachout notes, this is a tough season for some of us, but I actually feel better about the holidays this year than I have in a long, long time. I've already been to two smashing parties, heard and sung some fabulous holiday music and gone shopping. So far, so good.

P.S. Also Loretta Lynn, "Van Lear Rose."

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Joy to the world

Tonight at Hilldale Mall there was a Salvation Army kettle staffed by a troop of girl scouts, average age about eight. They caroled as they rang the bell but had no music, so although the melodies were just fine the words were a little--sometimes a lot--off. But they were most enthusiastic. Cute.

Which is a bigger disaster, Vietnam or Iraq?

The question assumes they are both disasters, obviously. Some may disagree.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Let's go shopping (again)

I have had it with my web and e-mail service provider,, but after four years with one company I dread the chore of finding another one. So I put it to you, faithful readers, especially you faithful readers with your own web pages: who's your web-server provider? Do you use e-mail through them, too? Are their services expensive? Reliable?
This just in

OMG, Joyce blogged.
Sis boom bah

I made a point of watching "60 Minutes" last night, because I was dying to see Mike Wallace's interview with Ricky Williams, the star running back who abandoned his contract with the Miami Dolphins so he could study a spiritual healing practice in California.

My interest in sports has always been passing at best, but my ears prick up when I hear about maverick athletes like Williams, 27. Sports doesn't know what to do with these characters, whose utterances tend to be atypical of sports interviews; most athletes tell journalists things like, "We gotta get out there and compete down the stretch," but last night saw Williams saying, among other things, that NFL salaries are "blood money." That was before he went on to talk about his spiritual discipline, Ayurveda, and to mention that his hero is Bob Marley, for whom he named one of his daughters. Till recently Williams wore dreadlocks in tribute to his hero; I always loved this offensive picture of Williams and Mike Ditka.

Ricky Williams is my new favorite outsider athlete. Before him it was Billy Bean, the first openly gay professional baseball player, and before Bean it was the late Bison Dele, the former Chicago Bull and Detroit Piston who left pro basketball to live in a tent in Australia.

Back in the day there was speculation that Dele might be gay, and I wasn't a bit surprised when Wallace prompted Williams to talk about his sexuality. Williams has three children with three different women but is single now, and when asked by Wallace who the right girl might be, Williams replied that "they" haven't come along yet. Gay sports fans everywhere noted the gender-neutral pronoun.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Long live polka

My article "Primal Polka" is up on Isthmus' web site, and I've linked to it over on the right. I'm as happy with the piece as anything I've ever written, and it prompted someone to send the newspaper a letter praising the story and calling for the piano accordion to be made a Wisconsin state symbol. (The polka is Wisconsin's state dance.)

Let's hear it for the piano accordion.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Pay no attention to these signs

OK, it's probably not a conspiracy--no, really--but what's the deal with those displays that fraternal organizations put up at the outskirts of town? You're driving into some city, and suddenly there's a clump of little signs put up by Elks, Lions, Rotarians, Kiwanis, Knights of Columbus, Shriners, Masons, Illuminati, God knows who--it's hard to read the signs at 55 miles per hour. What's going on? Why are these signs at city limits? Are they the remnant of some weird medieval practice? Do the Optimists own my town? And what, exactly, are all these organizations for?

I wanted to link to an image of one of these collections of signs, but I CAN'T FIND ANY SUCH IMAGE ON THE WEB (!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!).

I got to thinking about all this because yesterday I was listening to Ray Stevens' classic novelty recording, "Shriner's Convention."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Today's random public library find

Kenny and Julia Loggins, The Unimaginable Life: Lessons Learned on the Path of Love (New York: Avon Books, 1997). It comes with a CD.

Quote found at random: "I'm vulnerable to all of Kenny's moods, and skeptical of my own. I, too, am in detox" (147).

Monday, December 13, 2004

How strange the web is

Would you believe I started out looking for images of sausage balls and, through a series of links I now forget, somehow wound up here?

P.S. Some fine images of sausage balls are here and here. And that's just scratching the surface. Of the balls.
The void

I think the days of expanded basic cable in our home are numbered, but this afternoon I decided to watch an example of what is arguably cable television's signature phenomenon: the breaking news story. Yes, today Scott Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife and her unborn child, was to learn what sentence the jury recommended, death or life in prison without parole. I turned on CNN about half an hour before the scheduled time and listened to a long, dull debate of the ramifications.

Turns out the jury recommended death, but I missed the reading. I had switched over to Jane Pauley's talk show.

We can't get rid of expanded basic cable soon enough.
New bits

Hey kids, over on the right I have posted seven of my music articles that appeared in Isthmus over the last few months: reviews of CDs by Reverend Horton Heat, Rufus Wainwright and Arena Venus; "So Happy Together," about Sector Five, a new record label in Madison; "All Things Must Pass," about indie rock deities Luna; "Tune Town," a paean to commercial radio; and "Poster Children," a story about a local married couple who make beautiful silkscreen posters for rock shows.

I'm especially pleased with "Poster Children."

In other exciting news, last week Isthmus published several of my book blurbs, those short reviews I've been writing that also appear over there on the right. How fabulous! To look at the list today you might think I stopped reading for a month, but in fact I have been grinding my way through a single--long--book for several weeks. I'll blurb it anon. Once I'm done reading it, that is. (It's due back at the library soon.)

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Brave new world

My new cell phone lifestyle means, among other things, that I no longer use my Cli�, the Sony-made handheld computer I bought a couple of years ago. It's about time: for all that I like it, the Cli� is getting a little battered and finicky. Ereck loves to play Scrabble on it, though, so it can contentedly retire to that use.

I'm able to jettison the Cli� because my phone lets me keep track of contacts and appointments. That wouldn't mean much if I weren't able to synchronize the phone with Outlook, but happily the phone has an infrared port for just this purpose. So I bought an infrared adapter for my computer and, after much fiddling, got the devices talking to each other.

I hit a snag when it turned out that the phone can hold only 500 contacts, and my Outlook count was approaching 1,000. Lots of these were not relevant, however, like the number of an automobile glass shop on the South Side of Chicago whose services I needed ten years ago. So I winnowed down my list.

Another thing I can do is load my phone with ringtones. These are MIDI files, those tinny approximations of pop songs that are endlessly available on the Internet. I have long loathed MIDI files that play, unbidden, when I visit certain web sites, but what with my new cell phone lifestyle, MIDI files are my new best friend. What song currently plays when I get a call? "We Like To Party," natch.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Good word

"I feel great and I look great."

--Backstreet Boy A.J. Mclean, upon leaving rehab in 2001
Eye candy

Last night I went to the budget cinema and finally caught up with a film that has long been on my list, the science fiction epic Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I'm glad I didn't wait for the DVD. The movie is gorgeous, and its computer-generated imagery looked great on the big screen (even at the budget cinema, where someone seems to have thrown food at the big screen).

Set in 1939, Sky Captain is about scary, giant robots that attack New York and other cities around the world. No one can vanquish the robots except Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law), a mercenary gadget freak who goes everywhere in a beautiful Flying Tiger plane. Sullivan and his old flame, journalist Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), fly all over creation looking for whoever is running the machines.

It's a pretty thin plot. Some critics have complained about that, and also about the silly dialogue, but I was so delighted by the sheer spectacle that I hardly noticed.

Writer and director Kerry Conran must, like me, be a transportation buff, because his characters get around in all kinds of interesting ways. The movie opens with the sight of an airship docking at the top of the Empire State Building, and there also is a giant airborne aircraft carrier suspended on propellers (it's commanded by Angelina Jolie, who wears a jaunty eyepatch), as well as planes that fly underwater, not to mention that Flying Tiger.

I love the malevolent robots, which fly like planes (and sometimes like birds) until they land and start killin' people and smashin' stuff. Fabulous.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Good grief

Tonight at 7:00 Central time, ABC airs the 1965 special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The show still moves me. There is a lot of silence, rare in kids' animation, and the soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi is a stunner; the sad, slow waltz "Christmas Time Is Here" is probably my favorite Christmas song.
International affairs

Two years ago I was busking on State Street, and someone slipped a Canadian $20 bill into my hat. I carried it with me for two years, not certain what to do with it. But during a layover at Midway airport last week I noticed a tiny booth that offered currency-exchange services. (It was a proper currency exchange, not one of those Chicago currency exchanges where you can buy a bus pass.) I figured I had held onto to the twenty long enough, so I exchanged it.

Granted, the dollar being what it is these days, it is not the best time to swap currencies. Also, the bank exacted a $3 service charge. The whole thing was ridiculous, but I did walk away with twelve smackeroos, American, plus change. I spent it on breakfast.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Apropos of my list of music videos (I forgot two important ones, BTW: the Tubes' "She's a Beauty" and Aldo Nova's "Fantasy"), it occurs to me: 'tis pity the Internet does not have a comprehensive database of music videos along the lines of the Internet Movie Database, or, or the Internet Broadway Database (or, for that matter,, not only a fine e-commerce site but also a great reference work for information about books).

Someone enterprising, please get on that.

That reminds me of another idea I had for a web site. (Remember when simply having an idea for a web site could make you a zillionaire?) I'm a great lover of songs, and I'm also a great lover of Google because, among other reasons, it helps me identify songs based on fragmentary information. Type in a snippet of lyrics, and voila: there's the song. It's like magic.

But what if I can't remember any words? What if all I remember is a melody? It could be an instrumental, or a classical work, or one of those pop tunes that doesn't have much of a hook. I suppose I could hum the melody to everyone I know and hope that someone identifies it.

But why can't I hum the song into a computer and let the Internet identify it?

So that's my idea: Google for Melodies. Someone enterprising, please get on that too.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Them was the good old days

Because I am insane, I made a list of videos I remember from MTV's earliest days. My family didn't get cable until a few months after MTV first started airing in August 1981, so I may have missed a few important clips. I have arbitarily cut off the list sometime in the spring of 1983 for reasons that are so subjective they could not possibly matter to you.

Please feel free to contribute.

.38 Special
Caught Up In You
Hold on Loosely
Adams, Brian
Cuts Like a Knife
Run to You
Ant, Adam
Ant Music
Heat of the Moment
Only Time Will Tell
It Ain't What You Do
Really Sayin' Something
Basil, Toni
Beatles, The
Love Me Do
Benatar, Pat
You Better Run
Blue Oyster Cult
Burnin' For You
Bow Wow Wow
I Want Candy
Bowie, David
Ashes to Ashes
Buggles, The
Plastic Age
Video Killed the Radio Star
Carnes, Kim
Draw of the Cards
Cars, The
Shake It Up
Since You're Gone
Cheap Trick
If You Want My Love
She's Tight
My Girl
Clash, The
Rock the Casbah
Collins, Phil
In the Air Tonight
Costello, Elvis
Oliver's Army
Cougar, John
Hurts So Good
Jack and Diane
Crenshaw, Marshall
Someday, Someway
Whenever You're On My Mind
Crosby Stills and Nash
Southern Cross
Daltrey, Roger
Free Me
Love Without Anger
Through Being Cool
Whip It
Dexy's Midnight Runners
Come On Eileen
Dire Straits
Dolby, Thomas
She Blinded Me With Science
Doors, The
Touch Me
Duran Duran
Hungry Like the Wolf
Planet Earth
Easton, Sheena
For Your Eyes Only
Fagen, Donald
New Frontier
Fleetwood Mac
Hold Me
Flock of Seagulls, A
I Ran
No Reply At All
Haircut 100
Love Plus One
Hall and Oates
Private Eyes
Harrison, George
All Those Years Ago
Hendrix, Jimi
Human League
Don�t You Want Me
Iris, Donnie
Love is Like a Rock
Sweet Merilee
Iron Maiden
Run to the Hills
J. Geils Band
Freeze Frame
Love Stinks
Jackson, Joe
Breaking Us in Two
Steppin' Out
Jefferson Starship
Jett, Joan
Crimson and Clover
I Love Rock and Roll
Joel, Billy
Johansen, David
We Gotta Get Out of This Place/Don't Bring Me Down/It's My Life
John, Elton
Still Standing
Jones, Grace
Demolition Man
Joplin, Janis
Tell Mama
Judas Priest
Hot Rockin'
Kinks, The
I Love It Loud
Lewis, Huey
Do You Believe in Love
Hope You Love Me Like You Say You Do
Working For a Living
Loggins, Kenny
I'm All Right
Workin' for the Weekend
House of Fun
One Step Beyond
Our House
McCartney, Paul
Ebony and Ivory
Take It Away
Miller, Steve
Missing Persons
Destination Unknown
Motels, The
Only the Lonely
Musical Youth
Pass the Dutchie
Newton-John, Olivia
Nicks, Stevie
Stop Draggin' My Heart Around
Numan, Gary
Palmer, Robert
Parsons, Alan
Eye in the Sky
Petty, Tom
You Got Lucky
Plant, Robert
Big Log
In the Mood
Police, The
Don't Stand So Close to Me
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Invisible Sun
Spirits in the Material World
Pretenders, The
Brass in Pocket
Tattooed Love Boys
Under Pressure
Reed, Lou
Rolling Stones, The
Going to a Go Go
Hang Fire
Start Me Up
Time is on My Side
Waiting on a Friend
Tom Sawyer
On the Loose
Hold On
Specials, The
A Message to You Rudy
Split Enz
Six Months in a Leaky Boat
Springfield, Rick
Don't Talk to Strangers
Springsteen, Bruce
Atlantic City
Black Coffee In Bed
Stray Cats
Rock this Town
Stray Cat Strut
Mr. Roboto
Too Much Time on My Hands
Talking Heads
Once in a Lifetime
Taylor, James
Used to Be Her Town
Thoroughgood, George
Bad to the Bone
Tom Tom Club
Genius Of Love
Townshend, Pete
Face Dances Pt. 2
Rough Boys
Tubes, The
Talk to You Later
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Van Halen
Oh, Pretty Woman
Vapors, The
Turning Japanese
Wall of Voodoo
Mexican Radio
Who, The
Another Tricky Day
Don't Let Go the Coat
Eminence Front
You Better You Bet
Wright, Gary
Really Wanna Know You
Senses Working Overtime

Night flight

We took the red-eye back from San Francisco. This was mostly because the flight was cheap, but also because I get a little thrill every time I say the words we took the red-eye. The plane took off at about 11:30 p.m. Pacific time, and it was 5:00 a.m. Central time when we stepped onto solid ground on the South Side of Chicago.

The flight was completely full, which surprised me. Who wants to take the red-eye? Except that as my friend Ben in San Francisco pointed out, all the flights are full these days.

Ereck and I were apprehensive about the overnight flight. In the end, however, we agreed that it was an unmitigated success, because we slept the whole way, as did everyone else. This was no mean feat for me, since I'm the world's lightest sleeper, but the plane was completely silent and almost completely dark. I awakened only once mid-flight, when we hit some turbulence, and then again when word from the flight deck came that we were getting ready to land.

I was up from then on, and I sleepily gazed at the tiny television screens that were silently showing, of all things, the video for "Easy Lover," the 1986 hit by Philip Bailey and Phil Collins. The plane was shuddering violently at this point, and as I watched Bailey and Collins mouth the words ("She's an easy lover / She'll get a hold on you, believe it"), I thought: what if this is the last thing I see before I die?

Friday, December 03, 2004


Just added a ton of shows over there on the right. Check 'em out.
The big house

Almost as soon as we hit San Francisco, locals urged us to do Alcatraz. The recommendations' general thrust was, it's touristy but great, and the audio tour is awesome. So on our last day in town, we headed for prison.

Unfortunately this meant our second trip to Fisherman's Wharf, the tourist district on the north edge of the city. Mention of Fisherman's Wharf prompts San Franciscans to roll their eyes, and for good reason: it's a gaudy, depressing thicket of souvenir stands and chain restaurants. A few days earlier I had dragged Ereck there so we could visit the Maritime Museum, a National Park Service site that has its charms. But one visit to the Wharf seemed like plenty. But Alcatraz beckoned.

We took the cable car from Powell Street, and when we disembarked we were at pains to figure out where to catch the boat to Alcatraz. Various touts loudly urged us to take their ferries, but we wanted the real McCoy, which eventually we found: the Blue & Gold Fleet at pier 41. We bought our tickets--$16 each for boat fare plus audio tour--and immediately boarded the good ship. After a brief ride across the bay, during which we eavesdropped on Australians sharing travel secrets, we stepped onto Alcatraz Island. A volunteer gave a brief speech, and then we entered a long, low, rather scary old room in which we watched a short video, which covered the history of Alcatraz Island: the early settlement, the prison era, the 1969 takeover by Indian activists. I enjoyed the film, though the prig in me was vexed by an abundance of typos in the subtitles.

At last it was time to tour the prison. A young man slung audio devices around our necks, and we entered the cellbock. What immediately struck me was how small Alcatraz is. Modern prisons are giant, rambling affairs, but Alcatraz is mostly just five shortish hallways, which have grimly humorous names like Broadway and Michigan Avenue. There's also a library, a dining hall and a cavernous shower.

People are right to rave about the audio tour. The narration is by former guards and prisoners (I thought one of the prisoners sounded like Bill Cosby, especially when he talked about how inmate Frank Morris dug his way out with "a spooooon"). The audio's production values recall National Public Radio's, and stereo is used unnervingly for sound effects like marching feet and slamming cell doors. As we walked through the passages, the narrators pointed out the cells of famous inmates like Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. We walked into several cells, which are small and painted green. (The toilets are filled with concrete, so don't get any funny ideas.) We also got to check out the inside of the hole, the collective name of some creepy isolation cells along the prison's west wall.

Once the tour was over we were free to roam the island, but there's not much more to see. Lots of the structures, like the warden's house, were destroyed during the Indian occupation, and their eerie ruins remain. Barriers and fences keep visitors out of many areas, but most accessible areas have stunning views of the city.

Visiting the Rock was unsettling. Our prison system is so fucked up, and one can only imagine what kind of horrors went down at Alcatraz. The fact that it's now a popular tourist attraction is mindblowing. Maybe someday there will be an audio tour of Abu Ghraib.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Computer world

It's complete: our household has made the transition from landline phones and DSL Internet to cell phones and cable Internet--and cable TV. So far, so good, though that last bit scares me a little. I keep flashing back to the time about eight years ago when I discovered my apartment had free cable, thanks to an oversight at the cable company. After a while, concerned friends had to bodily remove me from my abode just so I could get a little fresh air.

I'm relieved to learn that the one program I hoped to watch a lot on cable, old-school "Star Trek," is only aired by the Sci-Fi Channel on random Tuesdays and Sundays at 4:00 a.m. I had this idea that the Sci-Fi Channel's programming consisted solely of old-school "Star Trek" reruns, but it looks like I won't be watching much of this show--one of my all-time favorites--unless a Tivo somehow magically appears in our home (Santa, are you reading?).

I like the cell phones, which were indispensable on our vacation. I must admit, however, that I'm unnerved by how few calls I've gotten at my new number. I hope people--friends, clients, colleagues, potential employers--got my e-mail about the change, but in case you missed it, let me reiterate that my digits spell NOW GLIB.

As for cable Internet, we ordered a special from Charter: for three months our Internet access is very, very fast, and cheaper than the regular service. In March the price goes up, or we can switch to the slower connection. So far I have used our new abundant speed to watch a Kelly Clarkson video.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Shellfish heaven

On your next visit to San Francisco you must not miss Swan Oyster Depot, a delightfully old-fashioned lunch spot in the Nob Hill neighborhood. The watchword is amazingly fresh seafood, and it's served at a counter with only about a dozen and a half stools. We arrived at 2:30 on a Tuesday and had to wait a few minutes to sit.

We ordered a dozen oysters, which our friendly young waiter shucked right in front of us. The oysters were delicious with cocktail sauce, and also without. (I think eating an oyster on the halfshell is like tasting the ocean itself.) I had a bowl of fine, creamy clam chowder and then the combination seafood cocktail, which was a sundae bowl filled with fresh shrimp, prawns, clams and crab, all of it slathered with yet more cocktail sauce (next time I'll ask for the sauce on the side). Ereck had a combination salad, with roughly the same meats. It looked glorious.

Despite Swan's ramshackle interior, the food is not particularly cheap. With tip we paid about $50 for all of the above, plus half a loaf of sourdough bread and a cup of coffee. The prices made me think of Doe's Eat Place in Greenville, Miss., a tumbledown shack of a joint that charges an arm and a leg for the best steak I've ever eaten.

Seafood cocktails, salads and chowder make up most of Swan's menu, which is a charming, hand-lettered affair that hangs over the counter. You can also get a whole lobster to eat, and the smoked salmon platter looks tasty. We can, in fact, vouch for the salmon--a man was slicing a huge salmon right in front of us as we ate, and he wordlessly tossed us each a sample. Delicious.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Jiggity jig

We're just back from vacation in San Francisco! And my arms are beyond tired. We took the red-eye from California, and that was followed by a three-hour layover at Midway plus a flight to Madison on a plane that looked like something from a World War II movie. Happily, all of the preceding was quite pleasant.

I'll have lots to tell about San Francisco soon. I debated blogging from there or at least letting you know I would be away, but I worried that hooligans would be tempted if I announced to the blogosphere that our apartment would be empty for a week. Not that Back With Interest readers are hooligans, necessarily, but you can't be too careful these days.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Good word

"But like Jung said about people using religion to avoid a religious experience, I have managed handily to avoid a religious experience. I don't know where I fall. Spiritual Green Party?"

--Robert Downey, Jr.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

A new millenium

We have officially cut the cord. Well, not yet, but by the end of the month our home will be free of traditional phone service. Ereck and I have brand new Nokia cell phones, and I can't resist telling you that my number spells NOW GLIB. How appropriate.

This feels weird and exciting. Can we live without a real phone? Will our opinions never be tabulated in presidential tracking polls? Why do I have to pay extra to have "Hot in Herre" as my ring tone?

Having made a series of fairly major consumer choices in the last couple of days--cell provider, phones, plan, plus cable TV and cable Internet--I can't help but worry whether we're getting screwed. I particularly fret that our cell plan doesn't have enough minutes, but we have a little bit of time to decide. Also, as Ereck knows, I research these sorts of things obsessively, so I feel reasonably confident that if we're getting screwed, then at least so is everybody else.

Our experience buying the phones at the East Towne US Cellular went smoothly. The woman who helped us seemed generally troubled by life but otherwise perfectly gracious and knowledgeable, and Ereck and I agreed that we had done well to randomly end up with her and not one of those type-A sales guys milling about.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

This just in

The date of the Danger's upcoming show at the Slipper Club is Dec. 10.

Headline in today's Daily Cardinal: "UW, city implement alcohol overseer."

Is that the same as a kegmaster?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Rock that rocks

Last Saturday I went to the King Club to see the Hat Party and Colony of Watts, about whom I'll be writing in an upcoming Isthmus column. You can check that out when it hits the street, but meanwhile I want to tell you about the bill's third act, who completely blew me away: the Danger, a young Milwaukee band that combines power-pop hooks expertly played, neo-garage bombast, impish humor and boyish good looks.

The Danger cite British Invasion groups as influences, including the Beatles. Now many bands who claim Beatle influences take after the Fab Four's worst quality, their preciousness. But the Beatles I hear in the Danger's music is the groovy, rocking Beatles; I swear I heard the "Taxman" bass lick at least three times on Saturday.

And the Danger certainly take some stagecraft cues from the Who: bassist Michael Stanley does very convincing Pete Townshend windmills on his instrument, and singer Thomas Culkin whips his microphone cable around like Roger Daltrey (although in what is probably a fiscally smart move for a young band, Culkin removes the mic from the cable first). Also, some of the Danger's songs have pretty, strummed guitar chords that could be straight out of one of those instrumentals on the Who's great rock opera Tommy.

But what's really great about the Danger is their words. People from religious backgrounds often write the best lyrics, and it's clear that someone in the band has been to Bible school, because their tunes have lots of irreverant scriptural references. My favorite couplet is from their creepy, great song "The Pharoah": "Rippin' pages out of Genesis / All the way down to Memphis."

The Danger have a December date at the Slipper Club with the Hat Party, but I'm having trouble tracking down specifics. I'll keep you posted. You simply must see the Danger.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Living on the edge

Ereck and I are the last people in America who don't have cell phones, but we're thinking of breaking down and getting them. Which is the best provider?
Hail the bean

A scary thing happened some weeks back: I quit drinking coffee, and I couldn't write! I couldn't blog, I couldn't write breezy e-mails, and most distressingly, I couldn't write for the very kind people who pay me to write! Oh, I was able with much effort to squeeze out what I had to squeeze out, but it was torture.

Fortunately, I relapsed. First I started sneaking black tea, and now I'm back to my old regimen of two cups of strong black coffee per day. The writing has improved, as has my mood.

I dislike being chemically dependent, and when I don't get the dosage right coffee makes me absolutely insane. But I think I can live with that. Not drinking coffee was, at least for the month or so I was off the stuff, bad for business. I imagine if I had kept at it things eventually would have improved, and maybe I would have ended up even more productive than before: look at the Mormons.

But dammit: I love coffee. Who wants to join me in a cup? Do you think we'll fit?
Shame on me

I'm nosy, and one of my favorite nosy pursuits has long been eavesdropping on couples when they fight in public. But there's a new variation, in some ways a more fascinating one: eavesdropping on people when they are having emotional conversations on cell phones. In a drugstore just this week I overheard a young woman having a breakdown on the phone about her physics class, which is hard. I was transfixed.

Angry conversations also are interesting (as are romantically embittered ones).

Monday, November 15, 2004

Good word

''Rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read.''

--Frank Zappa

The holidays are nearly upon us, and the media deluge in all its weirdness is beginning. I'm definitely not the first to point this out, but it's remarkable how during the holidays, we get massively exposed to culture from periods that most people probably don't much think about the rest of the year: baroque music, a certain Victorian novelist, Bing Crosby.

Too bad we can't get massively exposed to this stuff all year round, but at least it's something.
Found a peanut

Every so often--never often enough--a song I like gets in rotation on country radio stations. There's one now: Gary Allan's "Nothing On but the Radio." It's a slow sex jam with a Latin beat, and the hook is hilarious.

More, Mr. Allan, more.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Good word

"Voting is nothing more than gathering and validating data on a huge scale, which these days is almost entirely the province of IT. And like many other really big IT projects, this touch screen voting thing came about as a knee-jerk reaction to some earlier problem, in this case the 2000 Florida election with its hanging chads and controversial outcome. Punch card voting was too unreliable, it was decided, so we needed something more complex and expensive because the response to any IT problem is to spend more money making things more complex."

--Robert X. Cringely

Saturday, November 13, 2004

More stuff

Isn't that what Chuck Barris used to say on "The Gong Show"? Anyway, Back With Interest has an exciting new feature: a book log over there on the right. Check out what I've had my nose in.
Cover brand

My obsession with television jingles brought me to this small collection of jingle covers. I can only recommend the Juicy Fruit one, which is truly inspired. The other two are, well, um. But check out that Juicy Fruit one.

Much as I loathe them, public radio fundraisers like the one going on now are good for me. They force me to change my habits and explore the dial, which I need to do since I recently started writing an irregularly scheduled radio column for Isthmus.

Fortuitously, I just bought a terrific radio for browsing the spectrum, the GE Superadio III, an inexpensive but powerful and great-sounding device that's very good at picking up weak signals. I'm a giant fan of the "Grand Ole Opry," and after dark this radio pulls it in on Nashville's WSM (650 KHz on your AM dial) like nobody's business. (The "Opry" also is broadcast on the Internet, but it sounds better on the radio.) I also can pick up 105.9 FM out of Janesville, a great hip-hop station that also is the area's sole outlet for the fabulous sex-advice show "Loveline," of which I also am a giant fan.

The thing is, although my column is about Madison radio, when I'm not tuned to public radio I most enjoy listening to big AM powerhouses out of Chicago, especially WGN-AM at 720 KHz. WGN is an example of the venerable "full-service" format and has lots of breezy, nonpolitical talk, as well as shows about current events, dining, travel, film, music and sports, including Cubs baseball games. I'm a big fan of WGN from way back.

But when WGN isn't working for me, I tune into a station only a Chicagoan or former Chicagoan could love: WBBM Newsradio 780, from which I learn all I need to know about the Windy City's latest scuttlebutt. I relish having this radio connection to my former hometown, 150 miles distant.

And even though they have no direct bearing on my life now, I retain a nostalgic fondness for the traffic reports WBBM delivers every ten minutes. Back in the day it was point of pride when I was finally able to decipher these, which every Chicago station provides. Radio reporters, all of them affiliated with a mysterious entity called Shadow Traffic, deliver these updates at methamphetamine tempo, and they are filled with arcane roadway lingo that's meaningless to the uninitiated.

So say it with me, everybody: inboundedenstwentyfivelakecooktothejunction.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Terrible news

I'm devastated to learn that Iris Chang committed suicide. Chang, the 36-year-old author of The Rape of Nanking, suffered from clinical depression, and although it's impossible to say whether her work documenting wartime atrocities contributed to her illness, I know from my own labors that spending a lot of time thinking about violence and mass death is not good for the spirit. I've gotten away from those kinds of inquiries, but I strongly identify with the fascination and outrage that drove Chang's writing.

I'm really sad about this.
End of an era

Check out this beautiful article about the closing of an important bar on Nashville's Music Row. I've never heard of the place, but then I never much hung out on Music Row when I lived in Nashville.

The story quotes a song one of the regulars wrote about the place's demise:

Does anyone know where the memories will go
When they give the last last call?

Wow. That's good.
Reading is fundamental

What I learned last night reading the National Examiner at the Walgreens magazine rack:
  • Liza's on a bender
  • You can buy wigs for $29.99 from a company that advertises in tabloid newspapers
  • George Strait is country music's most reticent star because two family tragedies turned him inward. One was his parents' divorce when he was quite young, and the other was the death of his 13-year-old daughter in a car accident in 1986. The pain made him throw himself into his work. But his 35-year marriage is rock solid

Sometimes when I am goofing off at a newsstand I scan the mass-market paperback books to see if there is anything I could bring myself to read. The only thing I came up with this time was John Grisham's comic 2001 novel Skipping Christmas, which is the basis for the upcoming film comedy Christmas with the Kranks. The book is available in a new movie tie-in edition with a picture of Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis on the cover. I've seen the preview for Christmas with the Kranks several times and it looks incredibly lame, but John Grisham novels are OK.

I have this thing for movie tie-in paperbacks. My copy of Less Than Zero with Andrew McCarthy, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jami Gertz on the cover is one of my most prized possessions.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

The critics speak

Hey, look what's on page 28 of the November 2004 issue of Rick's Cafe, the Madison music trade monthly: a review of the Junkers' 2003 release Live Characters Nightly! It's a pretty good review, too: 16 out of 20 stars. I don't see Rick's reviews online, so I'll key it in fer ya.

I see the reviewer's point about "(Baby Let Me Be Your) Desert Storm" not fitting the CD, but one of the things I was trying to do with the track was update the long country-music tradition of war ballads, like "Battle of New Orleans" and "Ballad of the Green Berets."

Being compared to Lester "Roadhog" Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys is the highest praise I can imagine.

Remember, Junkers CDs make great holiday gifts! Write me for details about how to get your Gramma copies of Live Characters Nightly and the Junkers' 2001 release Hunker Down.

Live Characters Nightly
2003 Self-Release

Style: Honky-tonk country
Titles: Tie One On (2:16) Friend of the Family (2:38) I Always Cry at Divorces (3:19) Cowboy La Cage Aux Follies [sic] (2:22) Grizzly (3:43) Pretty Cups and Saucers (3:35) Bad Dog (2:40) Saturday Morning Cartoon (2:39) It's Only Funny (3:00) Too Drunk For Church (2:51) Hollow Log (3:58) Desert Storm (2:56)

Musicianship: ***
Composition: ****
Lyrics/Interpretation: ****
Production: ***
Packaging: **
Total 16

The Junkers were a great country band and it's really unfortunate that they broke up. They played honky-tonk country like nobody else. You can almost hear the scratches on your grandma's Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Thompson 78s while listening to this CD. A real treat would be to hear this on vinyl.

Live Characters Nightly is a pretty straightforward recording without a lot of Pro Tools tricks. Start the tape and let it roll, boys! The musicianship is not first-rate like most recorded country today, but it's suitable for this style of music, with the drums appropriately audible.

Two cuts that truly stand out are "Tie One On" and "Too Drunk for Church," with suberb instrumentation and very funny, classic country lyrics. Other tracks such as "Cowboy La Cage Aux Follies [sic]" (about cross-dressing country singers), "Grizzly" (swamp rock licks a la James Burton), and "Friend of the Family" are well-crafted songs that could have been recorded in the early fifties yet do not sound dated. This album is like taking a trip back in time to hear the way country music started out, and why it was called "hillbilly" music.

The only clunker is "Desert Storm," a song about service people in love in the Middle East, which doesn't seem to fit the CD. The packaging is minimal like the recordings. If readers loved Lester Moran and the Cadillac Cowboys they will love Live Characters Nightly.

Mighty fine, boys, mighty fine!

Andy Ziehli

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

What will they think of next

Speaking of my Russophilia, you oughta know that now you can get your favorite rock bands in Russian doll form. Check 'em out here. I like this set best.
Gorby's gettin' old

The birthmark on Mikhail Gorbachev's head looks like just another liver spot now. Check him out in this picture of his Gorbatude giving a peace prize to Yusuf Islam, a/k/a Cat Stevens. I think Misha might be starting to look a little like Malcolm Forbes, which would be the ultimate irony.

Has it really been 13 years since the USSR collapsed? Speaking of which, I could use a little perestroika myself. Mostly in the abdominals.
All natural

How I love the Willy St. Coop. Just now I overheard a young mother say to a toddler, "No, honey, we have some at home." At what was the child gesturing frantically? Candy? Cookies? No. Frozen baked tofu.

I don't think that last blog conveyed what I was thinking very well, but I'm not going to worry about it right now.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

What the world needs more of

Radio promos with little snippets of an exuberant Homer Simpson. Yes, that's what the world needs more of.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Point taken

As we learn from Lisa "Blair on 'Facts of Life'" Welchel's web site, Christianity means always having something to blog about.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Way back when

As I've reported before, I'm obsessed with TV theme songs and commercial jingles, so I was really excited to run across a web page that has an abundance of both, and all from my period: What's staggering to me is that the site features the theme from "Thinkabout," an educational program I watched at school in fifth grade (the link is on this page, about four-fifths of the way down). The "Thinkabout" theme, played dazzlingly on a Minimoog, has stuck with me all these years, and I nearly wept to hear it again.

The site's comedy page has multiple versions of the "Alice" theme (you did remember there were multiple versions of the "Alice" theme, didn't you?), as well as the theme from the first season of "Facts of Life," which featured the vocal talents of Charlotte Rae.

On the action page, I'm pretty jazzed about the theme from the 1982 season of "Trapper John, M.D." (was that an action show?), and the page devoted to network promos nearly gave me a heart attack. I love tacky network promos more than just about anything. Of particular interest is a video clip of David Letterman on the "Tonight Show" talking about NBC promos.

Thank you, webmaster, whoever you are.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

The entrepeneurial society

I'm thinking of starting a restaurant with a "Battlestar Galactica" theme. I'll serve Lorne Collard Greenes and Dirk Eggs Benedict, and you can wash it all down with Ceylon Warrior Iced Tea.

What do you think?

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Good word

"Every president in my adult lifetime who won a second term ended up being involved in a whopper of a scandal."

--Lesley Stahl, Reporting Live (New York: Touchstone, 1999), 266

I will save my campaign voice mail from Jake Gyllenhaal forever and ever and ever.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The transformer

For my costume this year I wore the cap and gown from graduation plus Groucho nose and glasses and cheap cigar, and voila: Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush from the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races.

I knew that master's degree would come in handy.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Que tal

I have slacked off on blogging for what feels like weeks now. I've been throwing an occasional link or quotation or brief, wry comment up, but not much of substance. I'm not sure what's going on, except that I quit drinking coffee, which has sapped my energy considerably. But I have in the last few days begun drinking a little black tea now and then, so look for some improvement. In the meantime, I can tell you about a few things:
  • The World's Greatest Lovers played a wedding a few weeks ago, and I identified strongly with this kid who shyly approached me after the show. One of only a handful of youngsters at the reception, he was 13 and wanted to know what kind of guitar I play. I showed him where it says Telecaster, and he said he wants a Gibson SG. I told him this is an excellent choice. He said he plays in a band that till recently was called Hormones, and now is called something he couldn't remember. I said it was a shame they hadn't stuck with Hormones, which is a great name for a teenage band (or a greying-thirtysomething band, for that matter), but I encouraged him to keep rocking.

  • Thanks to my loving partner Ereck, I was able to buy a relatively inexpensive domestic-partner membership to the gyms at UW-Madison. As the coldness approaches, you'll find me doing much less running by the lakes and much more on the giant indoor track at the Shell, the super-old-school gym next to Camp Randall stadium. I've also begun to do a bit of work with the weight machines, though I can't shake the nagging feeling that I ought not to mess around with machines and instead should use the free weights. But these intimidate me.

  • The World's Greatest Lovers have added Adam Davis, a superb pedal steel player. If you ever wondered what Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" sounds like with pedal steel, you can find out at an upcoming World's Greatest Lovers show (check the column on the right over there for dates).

  • H�agen-Dazs dulce de leche is where it's all happening.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Home archeology

In the fall of 2000 my friend Marjorie and her housemates got to wondering about a padlocked door in the basement of the home they rented. Their curiosity finally got the better of them, and so, like Howard Carter in Tutankhamen's tomb, they pried the door open. What they found blew their minds: a perfectly preserved rec room fully appointed with vintage 1970s furnishings and electronics--waterbed, wet bar, eight track player, black-light Jim Morrison posters. The housemates dubbed the room the 70s Room, appropriately, and at their frequent parties the 70s Room was the place to be.

Ereck and I attended one of these parties. It was a Ralph Nader fundraiser, and our suspicion of Nader notwithstanding, we purchased raffle tickets. How could we not? The grand prize was a night in the 70s Room.

There was some mixup about the drawing--a foreshadowing of that year's election debacle?--but it finally emerged that the winner was Ereck! We were so excited. We had just begun dating, and a night in the 70s Room sounded most romantic.

Unfortunately, although we made a few inquiries, we never did get Ereck's night in the 70s Room. Marjorie has since moved away, and sometimes I wonder whatever became of the 70s Room. They probably built condos on it.
Now he's a solo artist

During game four of the World Series I enjoyed the singing of "God Bless America" by Creed's Scott Stapp. He's got an interesting voice, and hearing him sing at a ball game is a damn refreshing change from the vocalists who usually show up for these events. You know who I mean: they sing in that generic "American Idol" style that sounds like it comes from computers.

I was listening to the AC/DC album High Voltage earlier today. I wonder if Bon Scott ever sang "God Bless America."

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Overheard on State Street

"And then what I want to sing is--have you seen Beaches?"

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Good word

William Jefferson Clinton on Being and Time

Is "is" is, or is "is" ain't?
"Is" is is, with one constraint:
"Is" is never is, becuz
Once you've said "is" is, "is" wuz!

--Source unknown
In country

Candid snapshots of American GIs in Vietnam fascinate me, and you can find them on the Web. This is one of my favorites.

There are more here and here. And, doubtless, elsewhere.

Friday, October 22, 2004


A little blog perestroika: I now list shows I've got coming up over on the right there. I've also posted links to articles I recently wrote for Isthmus' Madison Music Project.


Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Take me out

What is it about the playoffs that can get even confirmed baseball agnostics like me interested? These Boston-New York games have been thrilling. I have developed a crush on Red Sox reliever Bronson Arroyo.
Well I never

I learn from my new alumni magazine that Elvin Bishop, of "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" fame, went to the University of Chicago. Who knew?
At the movies

Yesterday afternoon I finally saw Fahrenheit 9/11 on the big screen. I laughed a lot. I would hate to be the woman who screams "Blame Al Qaida!" at the grieving mother whose son was killed in Iraq. I wonder if that nasty person saw the film.

There are a lot of sad people in Fahrenheit 9/11. After I saw it, I came home and popped in the screener of Wellstone!, a documentary about the late Minnesota senator that's playing at the Orpheum this weekend. There are lot of sad people in that film too.

It was quite a day for lefty documentaries with sad people.

Friday, October 15, 2004


It pleases me that my hometown of Mt. Juliet, Tenn. has rescheduled Halloween this year so it doesn't conflict with church services.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Yrs. truly

Today, Isthmus newspaper's Madison Music Project insert hit the streets, and I wrote a big ole chunk of it. Check it out online at

There's a nice picture of me in the insert, and also here.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Splendid nature

Autumn in Wisconsin surprises me every year. It's so beautiful, and I'm almost more in love with the sight of falling leaves than I am with the bright colors of the leaves themselves.

On Sunday Ereck and I felt ambitious after brunch and headed north in the Ranger to check out the foliage. It was very pretty, especially a particularly breathtaking valley east of Lodi. We also enjoyed the red barns, and the pumpkins everywhere.

North of Lodi we encountered a mass of idle cars, and we wondered what was happening. Then we realized: it was a crowd of Sunday drivers eager to get in one last ride on the Merrimac ferry before it shuts down for the winter. We were tempted, but lines were long. Another time, we said. Besides, it runs 24 hours, so we could go tonight if we wanted to.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Oot and aboot

Happy National Coming Out Day, everyone. My coming out four years ago coincided roughly with National Coming Out Day, as well as with Ereck's birthday (October 8) and the premiere of the Bette Midler sitcom.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Seen your video

On a run just now I had an ecstatic moment when ZZ Top's "Legs" came on the radio, and I began marvelling at the fact that ZZ Top successfully made the transition to the MTV age--and, in a sense, defined the MTV age.

So many big bands of the 1970s didn't, like Styx and Journey and Fleetwood Mac. Even KISS, who you'd think were ready-made for video, sputtered in the early 1980s and didn't come back until they got rid of the makeup and the lizard costumes.

But some 1970s bands were great on MTV, like ZZ and Hall and Oates and Talking Heads. In all three cases, their success probably had a lot to do with the fact that their videos were imaginative, as opposed to boring. (Did you ever see one of those Journey videos?)

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Sick day

My god, what's happened to me? Yesterday I felt fine, except for the effects of caffeine withdrawal. I'm trying to kick caffeine--again--and yesterday was my first day clean after a long tapering-off period.

Today I had a headache early. I figured this was just my body crying out for java. But the headache got worse and worse. I still have it. It seems like a sinus headache--a dreadful throbbing below my right eye. But there also has been nausea and a concomitant inability to keep food down. This suggests a bug of some kind, or food poisoning.

At any rate, today was a total wash. I lay in bed, dozing fitfully and, when not dozing, reading fitfully (Susan McDougal's memoir, The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk: my Clinton obsession persists). But I discovered that I couldn't read in my usual position, on my side, because this made my face hurt more. Upright was better. I sat in bed that way for long periods, not reading, not doing anything, just contemplating the throbbing. During one of my few trips out of bed, I read on the Internet about sinus headaches and, following some advice, tried alternating hot and cold compresses on my face, with mixed results.

I hate sinus headaches and get them from time to time, but I'm still not convinced this is one. (You sinus headache sufferers: has one ever made you pukey?) Today reminds me of a malady I suffered immediately after returning from Cambodia about five years ago. My face throbbed then as it does now. It might have been sinuses, or it might have been something I picked up in Siem Reap (or at O'Hare). But it sucked. So does this.

Perhaps my physical being has launched a full-scale protest over the caffeine thing? Will my coffee-starved body next start to jettison limbs?

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Intrepid sleuth

I interviewed Al Franken today, apropos of the broadcast of his radio show from the UW-Madison campus. I was in line behind a Wisconsin State Journal reporter, but then a Capital Times reporter showed up and bumped me. And then a team from WORT bumped me. But I did get my 4.5 minutes in.

Franken referred to me as "that reporter with the bike helmet."

Tuesday, October 05, 2004


I just want to say again, for the record, that some people think I look like TV impresario David Kelley.
Good night

Watched Poltergeist last night. I'm a little surprised I'd never seen it before--even if I didn't catch it in the theater, it played endlessly on pay cable during a time in life that I obsessively watched movies on pay cable. But no matter.

I want to point out that the film is predicated on something that no longer happens: the late-night TV sign-off. Gather round, kids, and I'll tell you about it. TV stations used to go off the air late at night, and they ended their broadcast day with the national anthem. They'd show a short film that featured "The Star Spangled Banner" and some patriotic imagery--fighter jets, amber waves of grain, that sort of thing. I can't imagine when I last saw one of these films, but I loved them when I was a kid. That had partly to do with context: it felt transgressive to stay up late enough to see the sign-offs. But I also found the films moving and inspiring.

In Poltergeist, a little girl talks to ghosts via the TV, and she gets the best results in the static and snow that follow sign-offs. "The Star Spangled Banner" is the movie's theme music, and the opening credits are displayed over creepy, extreme closeups of a sign-off film.

Maybe this is why I don't feel as patriotic anymore: no more sign-off films. Or maybe it was Iran-Contra.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The entertainer

The World's Greatest Lovers played a show last night at the Great Dane, a spacious brewpub in downtown Madison. During a break, a woman came up to me to complain that our first set was too short. Then she slipped a quarter into my shirt pocket and said, "Please play the Black Crowes' 'She Talks to Angels.'"

"I don't think I know all the words to that," I replied.

"It's okay if you just hum some," she said.

At that point our bass player Chris distracted her by asking the perfect non sequitur: "What do you do for fun?" I'll have to remember that one.

When I got on the stage later, she and her date were at the nearest pool table, and she again asked for "She Talks to Angels." Chris and drummer Scott weren't there yet, so I strummed and sang softly, "She never mentions the word addiction..."

"That's it!" she cried.

"But that's all I know," I said regretfully.

"That's enough," she said.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Mighty nature

The news that Mount St. Helens is active again takes me right back to May 1980, when the volcano's catastrophic eruption made a big impression on nine-year-old me. There was a big feature about the eruption in Life magazine, and I remember thinking that the pictures of the exploding mountain looked a lot like hell. But I was confused by all the greyness and dust and ash: where was the red hot lava? Lava fascinated me. But Mount St. Helens wasn't that kind of volcano.

That summer my family visited friends in Centralia, Wash. My brother and I were delighted to see that their yard was coated with volcanic ash, and we scooped up as much as we could for a souvenir. We kept it in a margarine tub. What do you with volcanic ash? A couple of years later, I tried bagging the stuff and selling it a garage sale, but there were no takers.

Friday, October 01, 2004

On Chicago

I enjoyed this Doug Moe column in The Capital Times about the words to UW-Madison's fight song, "On Wisconsin." I've loved the song since I moved here five years ago, and I have been known to sing it while busking downtown on a football Saturday.

But I flinched at this passage about an early version of the song, which was written by William T. Purdy:

The original Purdy lyrics . . . urge the fellows to run the ball "clear 'round Chicago," though now, of course, the University of Chicago no longer has a football team.

Let it be known: the University of Chicago, my beloved alma mater, has a football team, the Maroons, a Division III squad since 1969. President Robert Maynard Hutchins indeed disbanded the original Big Ten Maroon team in 1939, but there is football at Chicago.

I seem to recall an episode of "King of the Hill" in which Hank disparages the University of Chicago for not having a football team.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Who's the wise guy

But what about this headline from a Sept. 7 article in The Capital Times:

Size matters

This morning my editor and I had an amusing exchange about a line he singled out for praise in a theater review I filed. I told him I had cut the line, then reinstated it, but I did not do this out of any great aesthetic committment. I just wanted the piece to be the right length.

This took me straight back to graduate school, when I was always in awe of people who turned in papers far longer than the assigned length. For these folks--and sometimes it seemed that everyone did this but me--a ten-page assignment meant a 25-page paper. For me, a ten-page paper was a ten-page paper, which usually meant that I wrote (at most) twelve pages of utter crap, then began revising.

What can I say? I'm stingy with my ideas.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Music makes the people come together

Jeez louise, it has been a long time since I posted! Apologies for the silence, and I vow not to let that happen again.

I've been a busy boy. Since last I blogged, on Wednesday, I have played four gigs: a solo acoustic show at Maduro Wednesday night, a World's Greatest Lovers gig at Babe's on Thursday, an appearance with Amelia Royko at Overture Center on Saturday, and--most gloriously--last night with the White Mule Country Blues Band, in an opening slot for Sleepy LaBeef at the Crystal Corner.

Sleepy's show was everything I hoped for. What an amazing performer! Like a Grateful Dead completist, I took notes during the first set. I'm looking them over now, and I'm stunned. What can we say of a 69-year-old man who, in the course of an hour-long club set, covers Ray Price, the Surfaris, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Tammy Wynette, Nancy Sinatra, Patti Page, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Dave Dudley, Elvis Presley, Ernest Tubb and John Lee Hooker? All that, plus a medley of "Don't Mess With My Toot Toot" and "Elvira." The man is a genius.

But the real treat came in the second set, when Sleepy invited me, Joe and Travis from White Mule and, later, Caitlin of the Kissers up to rock with the band. I sang "She Thinks I Still Care," strummed along to songs like "Boppin' the Blues" and "I Still Miss Someone," and had an out-of-body experience. Me, playing with Sleepy LaBeef!

After the show I watched Sleepy work the entire room. He greeted people, shook hands and posed for pictures. He's really adept at making people feel special, fans and musicians alike. I took note.

For your delectation, here are some fabulous pictures Ereck took of the event. The last two are of Sleepy's transportation, a bitchin' custom van.

All hail Sleepy LaBeef!

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Then came the sadness

On Sunday Ereck and I took his Pilates instructor's advice and went to Overture Center to see Kanopy, the Madison dance troupe. Unfortunately, when we arrived, there was a throng of people easily twice the size of Promenade Hall's 200 capacity, so we were out of luck. That left us with some time to kill before the next event I was covering for the newspaper, a performance by Madison saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor. It was a beautiful day, so we decided to stroll over to Monona Terrace for some lake breezes.

I had just read that a memorial to Otis Redding is on the terrace, which surprised me as I'd visited the place many times but had never seen this. (Redding died in 1967 at age 26 when, shortly before he was to play a show in Madison, his plane crashed into Lake Monona.) We searched, and I had all but given up when, as we approached the terrace's northwest corner, Ereck spotted the memorial, a bronze plaque and a semicircle of marble benches whose legs are sturdy, stylized R's with inset circles that look like O's: O.R.

We sat and read the inscription, which among other things has a joke to the effect that it was the only gig Redding ever missed. Then I looked out at the lake and thought about Redding and the other musicians the plaque mentions: Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles. I grieved. I thought about "Pain in My Heart" and "Try a Little Tenderness," and I wondered why Redding had to die so young--why anyone has to die so young.

Then I thought about Lawrence Olivier as Zeus in Clash of the Titans. The gods sure can be capricious.

Only as I sat to write this did it occur to me why the Redding memorial is a place to sit: because his most famous song is "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay." As always, I'm a little slow on the uptake.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Good word

"Satire doesn't have to be fair to be funny."

--Pauline Kael

I just banged out a piece about the two full days I spent taking in opening weekend at Overture Center, the gleaming new arts facility downtown. I also saw Broom Street Theatre's new play, Flowers for Dubya, on Friday, which means that if I consume much more local culture in the next few hours, my heart will explode.

Read all about both events in this week's Isthmus.

Friday, September 17, 2004

You oughta know...

...that the fabulous rockabilly legend Sleepy LaBeef will be at the Crystal Corner Bar on Sunday, Sept. 26. Sleepy is one of my very favorite artists, and he has influenced my music hugely with his long sets and breathtakingly huge repertoire and, surtout, his tremendous baritone.

And I'll be opening! The Cash Box Kings' White Ass Joe put this show together, and he brilliantly proposed that he, several Cash Box Kings and I join forces to create an exciting new roots-music band: the White Mule Country Blues Band. A few days ago we played a show at the Slipper Club that went swimmingly, and we'll do our best to warm up the Crystal crowd for a Sleepy extravaganza.

Showtime is 7:30; admission is $10. The Crystal Corner is at 1302 Williamson St. in Madison.

And just look at the great poster that Madison designer David Michael Miller made for us!
Good word

"But I say when people bring music into the world, it's a gift. It's a spiritual gift, regardless of who sings it."

--Brian Wilson

Thursday, September 16, 2004


About a year ago I was reading about divorce. I've never really understood my parents' divorce, and although I'm past the point of blaming my problems on it, except at certain dark moments, I got curious about how other kids experienced the big D. I turned up some so-so self-help books and made a few notes. The other day I found one of these notes, which referred to the John Updike story "Separating," about a married couple who tell their kids they're splitting up.

So this week I dug up the story--it's in Updike's collection Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories--and read it. It's sad and gently funny and not much like my family's story. But I was struck by this passage:

Years ago the Maples had observed how often, among their friends, divorce followed a dramatic home improvement, as if the marriage were making one last strong effort to live.
This is eerie, because just before my folks split up in 1980, they enlarged our house with an addition that included a big master bedroom for them to share. After Dad moved out, I remember standing in the new rooms and thinking, "So why did we build this?"
Must be love

I just noticed that in this montage I created some weeks back, a photographer seems to be making eye contact with Beach Boy Al Jardine.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Who will teach the teacher

Friday, Oct. 15 will find me in Whitewater for the Kettle Moraine Press Association's annual Scholastic Journalism Conference, at which I'll be talking to teenage journalists about writing movie reviews. Joining me at the colloquium will be such luminaries of Madison journalism as John Nichols and Jake Stockinger of The Capital Times and Natasha Kassulke, former music writer extraordinaire for the Wisconsin State Journal. I appear to be the only Isthmus writer.

The association promotes school journalism in the region. I'll do what I can. If you're dying to, you can download a brochure about the conference here.

I didn't write the description of my talk in the brochure:

Writing about a movie without revealing too much of the plot, especially the ending, takes certain skills. How do you focus on acting, dialogue, cinematography, social effects and tell just enough to entice or discourage your reader about the film? This session will help answer these questions.

Fair enough, although I forget what social effects are. So if you're a high-school journalist and want to learn about my exciting career--which last night got me into a free screening of Resident Evil: Apocalypse!--mail in your twelve bones (ten bones for members), and I'll see you at 10:15 that morning.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I'm so sick of the election. Bush and Kerry are both goons. I can't remember an election season in which people were as worked up as they are in this one, but what this means is that everyone talks about it, all the time. I find it all very dull, and sometimes I have the impulse to be like the hermit in Life of Brian who lives in a hole in the ground for 20 years, doesn't speak and subsists on juniper berries.

May the better goon win.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Critic's lament

I'm delighted my writing about the new documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster prompted at least one reader to seek the film out--despite Marcus Theatres' dismaying efforts to keep it in celluloid purgatory.

But in rereading my piece, I'm struck by something: although I really liked the film, not enough of that comes across in the review. Overall I'm pleased with what I wrote, but I wish I had praised the film as unambiguously as I did on this blog the other day: "The movie is great!"

OK, maybe not that unambiguously, although it seems to me the lifestyle of the blurb whore does have its advantages. But if I fail in a review, including this one, to firmly state a like or dislike, it may be because I'm struggling with a verity of arts and entertainment writing I've learned in my 22-month career as a newspaper critic: it's not always easy to come up with opinions on deadline. My fondness for the Metallica movie has grown in the weeks since I saw it, and today I would write a different, more enthusiastic review.

This may fall in the category of well, duh, but it bothers me that my critical reactions have a pesky way of changing over time. For one thing, when I'm reviewing a film, book, play or CD, I'd like to think my reactions are always relevant, but I confess they sometimes relate immediately to things other than the work: whether I'm hungry, for example, or sitting in an uncomfortable seat. (I do, of course, strive to compensate for an empty belly or a sore rear.)

Also, I don't always have enough time to take in a work fully, although this is mostly a concern only for CDs. I know I can competently evaluate a film or play based on one viewing, or a book on one reading, but CDs generally take repeated listenings. So I fret that I don't always give CDs enough attention. I mean, I'm still discovering things about albums I loved when I was nine and have listened to hundreds, even thousands of times. So can I really come to appreciate a CD over just a few days of listening? Probably not. But I try.

Fortunately, the act of writing has a way of helping me coax out my reactions, and I'm learning to trust my opinions, even when they provoke hate mail. But I sometimes can't help but look back and wish I'd written something differently.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Snap snap

Cowboy shirts sure do make a racket in the dryer.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Paranoia sucks

All week I lived in dread and fear that someone whose friendship and patronage I cherish had begun to hate me. This was on the basis of something I wrote in a newspaper that then got discussed in an Internet forum. I was living in dread and fear on the basis of gossip I heard secondhand in an Internet forum. What's wrong with this picture?

When I finally ran into this person last night, I watched her body language for evidence of loathing. I saw none. Next I hinted at the unpleasantness, but she didn't comment. So I tentatively, but explicitly, raised the topic of the unpleasantness, and it soon became clear that she had no idea what I was talking about. I explained; she listened and then affirmed what I wrote in the newspaper. Then she changed the subject.

Why am I so crazy?

Friday, September 10, 2004

Movie makeovers, part 2

In case you missed it--I almost did--SF Fan responded definitively to my recent query about movie makeovers. Here's the lowdown; I'm not worthy, etc.:

I've been blogging this one in my head for a long time:

Cher in Moonstruck is my favorite. Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (Or in Something Wild--does that one count?). I've been told to check out Barbra's makeover in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Julianne Moore's slow-mo perm in Safe is an important one. And what about Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie? (The last one's questionable, I know, but it may be the only MTF drag transformation that qualifies in my book. Not at all like that clowny To Wong Foo shit. )

SF fan 09.07.04 - 11:50 pm #

Thursday, September 09, 2004

What kind of monster

I sometimes get the sense that the business of movie distribution is more chaotic than I'd ever guess. Case in point: the new rockumentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. I attended a press screening of this film back in July and filed a review, which is running in today's Isthmus, six weeks later.

Some Kind of Monster originally was supposed to open here early last month, but then didn't, and then didn't. It finally opened last week at Westgate, but the distributor apparently didn't tell anyone, so my review didn't run. It played one week there and then seemed to close, but this week it is showing at South Towne, of all places, with nightly showings next week at 6:30, only. Huh? This weekend there also are screenings at 9:15, if 6:30 doesn't fit your schedule.

For those of you not from around here: South Towne Cinemas is the last of Madison's mall-based multiplexes showing first-run films; the others long ago gave way to the exurban megaplexes. South Towne is a troubled shopping center in a troubled neighborhood, and it's the last place I would go to see a movie. In fact, I've never seen a movie there. So I'm a little amused that the Metallica documentary has ended up showing there and only there.

But the movie is great! There should soon be a link up on Isthmus' web site, but meantime, here's my review. I urge you to make a special trip to South Towne to see this fine documentary. While you're there, you can buy a cell phone.


Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

With Spinal Tap, it was drummers. Intentionally or not, the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster keeps evoking This Is Spinal Tap, the faux documentary about a rock group that hemorrhages percussionists. Metallica's personnel crisis is over bass players, but much else is the same: the baroque hairstyles, the snits that evolve into longstanding resentments, and above all the unflinching solemnity with which Metallica's permanent members discuss their work.

You'd be solemn, too. One of the most successful groups to emerge from the 1980s metal revival, Metallica produces music with a fierce integrity that has kept the group respectable, even as pop-metal excess drove competitors like Poison and Warrant toward bubblegum insignificance. Metallica's CDs sell in the zillions, but alt-rock dabblings in the 1990s alienated some fans, as did the group's 2000 campaign to keep their music from being traded on Napster, the then-illicit Internet music service.

So much was at stake when, in 2001, Metallica began recording what would become the 2003 release St. Anger. Fatefully, the group allowed the documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to film the sessions (and, endlessly, the meetings surrounding them--this rock movie could use, as the radio people say, more rock and less talk). In films like Paradise Lost and Brother's Keeper, Berlinger and Sinofsky examined troubling events and teased out threads of ambiguity and uncertainty. So the Metallica boys must have known Berlinger and Sinofsky's film would be anything but VH1-banal.

And the filmmakers probably never dreamed they would be privy to such juicy stuff. As the sessions begin, Metallica looks, after 20 years of recording and touring, to be suffering from a collective case of nerves. The group hires a therapist to help manage their differences and tap creative energies, but by the time singer and guitarist James Hetfield decamps for rehab, halfway through the film, the future of Metallica looks bleak. In scenes reminiscent of Let It Be, the film that documents the Beatles' demise, Metallica members angrily swap insults and slam doors.

Of course, the sessions were ultimately successful, a fact foretold early on in snippets of television interviews promoting the new album. But it's clear that recording St. Anger was dismally frustrating for the band's members, especially Hetfield and cofounder and drummer Lars Ulrich. Like John Lennon and Paul McCartney before them (not to mention Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins), Hetfield and Ulrich were just kids when they started their band, and in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, their marriage is showing its age.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Overheard in the Burns-Jarvis household

"I'm not angry; I'm just copyediting."
Jingle this

Like King Midas, I have a super power that is at once my bane and boon: I recall just about every commercial jingle I have ever heard, and as Ereck will tell you, I am liable at any moment to sing one. (I just remembered that I have mentioned this skill before.) For example, a trip to the conventional produce section at the co-op the other day found me breaking out into, "Nothing's too good for Daddy and me / Mom brings Del Monte home."

So I was delighted recently to run across this page, which has links to sound files of numerous jingles from my youth. Listening to these gives me Proustian moment after Proustian moment.

I'm inordinately fond of the Big Red song. Also, my recent viewing of a local production of Oliver! makes me excited about "Cheese, glorious cheese."

Monday, September 06, 2004

More exciting news

I'm using a new AOL Instant Messenger name: KennethRBurns. Chat me up, won't you?

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Today's exciting news

You now can reach this blog by pointing your browser at

Friday, September 03, 2004

While I'm thinking about it

I rarely get so excited about a Madison theatrical production that I go around recommending it to everyone I meet, but Madison Repertory Theatre's Love is the Weirdest of All: The Music of Lou and Peter Berryman is, hands down, the best locally written show I've seen. It's superb, and it's playing at UW-Madison's Mitchell Theatre through Sept. 12.

Go see it.

At the co-op just now I just ran into two of the stars, Marie Barteau and Michael Herold, and I began gushing. They in turn thanked me for my Aug. 27 Isthmus review, which I'm pasting below. "And you're so young!" Barteau said.


Wisconsin wry
Quirky folkies the Berrymans get their own revue

There is a short list of musicians who can rightly be called Madison institutions. Lou and Peter Berryman are on that list, thanks to a three-decade career playing music that is, come to think of it, a lot like Madison itself: modest, charming and not a little quirky. He plays guitar, she accordion, and together they compose and sing droll songs about unlikely topics like refrigerators and automobile travel. (He writes the lyrics, and she writes the tunes.) The Berrymans' tunes are as distinctive as their idiosyncratic singing voices, and it's hard to imagine anyone else singing those songs; it's even hard to imagine wanting to hear anyone else sing those songs.

But that's precisely what happens in Madison Repertory Theatre's Love is the Weirdest of All: The Music of Lou and Peter Berryman (now playing at UW Mitchell Theatre), and the results are brilliant. A strong revue of 24 Berryman numbers, the show invites audiences to consider the Berrymans' songs as songs, and this repertoire holds up very well indeed. The four principals (Marie Barteau, Colleen Burns, Michael Herold and Jack Forbes Wilson) have strong show voices, and their solo and ensemble singing does particular justice to Lou Berryman's inventive melodies, as do music director Wilson's tasteful arrangements of strings and piano, played by an ensemble upstage.

It would be enjoyable enough simply to hear this quartet sing these songs, but a clever book knits the tunes together in a loose format: Wilson and Burns, who wrote the book, are husband and wife, and they have invited Wilson's sister (Barteau), and a friend (Herold) for an evening's entertainment at home. The attractive living-room set, designed by Vicki Davis, is the perfect backdrop for the Berrymans' songs, which often are about a sort of benign domestic paranoia, one perhaps induced by owning too many consumer products. But the players dispense with the unifying conceit as needed, so that songs can take place on a horse trail ("Double Yodel") or in a bizarre, junk-food-induced dream ("Down by the Boathouse").

Many of the songs are broadly comic, and Peter Berryman's wry observations and crisp internal rhymes keep the laughs coming. Burns, especially, brings the house down multiple times with hysterical numbers like "A Chat With Your Mother," in which a mom delivers a lecture about a vulgarity she particularly dislikes. But at moments the show turns unexpectedly wistful, as when Wilson smiles sadly and performs the bittersweet "Forget-Me-Not." Or maybe these moments aren't so unexpected: sometimes committed satirists like the Berrymans turn out also to be delightfully incorrigible sentimentalists.
Love czar

I think Mikhail Khodorkovsky--oligarch, political prisoner, Russia's wealthiest man--is a hottie. What do you think? Check him out here and here. Keep those jibes about his pretty mouth to yourself.

No matter what happens, I want my next musical project to be called the Selfish Hedonists.
Good word

"I also came to understand that when I was exhausted, angry or feeling isolated and alone, I was more vulnerable to making selfish and self-destructive personal mistakes about which I would later be ashamed. The current controversy [over the Lewinsky affair] was the latest casualty of my lifelong effort to lead parallel lives, to wall off my anger and grief and get on with my outer life, which I loved and lived well . . . There was no excuse for what I did, but trying to come to grips with why I did it gave me at least a chance to finally unify my parallel lives."

--Bill Clinton, My Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 811
Jump in the line

I studied this picture in Bill Clinton's memoir My Life for a long time before it dawned on me what was happening.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

New 411

Hey y'all, from now on you can send me e-mail at kenneth@kennethburnsdotcom.

Of course, you'll need to replace the word dot in there with a bona fide dot. (I'm somehow na�ve enough to think that spammers won't be able to figure this out.)

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Hitting achy breaky bottom

This is what happens when Kenny drinks.

In Tootsie's Orchid Lounge.

Now you know.
Presto chango

At the wedding gig on Saturday, the DJ played "You're the One That I Want," the John Travolta-Olivia Newton-John duet that concludes Grease. I enjoyed hearing the song, and I particularly enjoyed thinking about the number, which--I'm going out on a limb here--features the second-greatest movie makeover of all time, wherein Newton-John goes from prissy deb to sultry sexpot. Hubba! Have you never been mellow, indeed.

As for the greatest movie makeover of all time, surely no one would dispute that the nod goes to Kim Novak in Vertigo.

What are other great movie makeovers? No fair citing disturbing body transformations � la Jason Bateman in Teen Wolf Too. I mean true makeovers, those radical interventions in hair, makeup and clothes, those real-life fairy tales in which wishes come true and we change our looks, our lives and our destinies.

OK, I cribbed that last part from the "Extreme Makeover" web site.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

McLaughlin I ain't

But: Charles, your thoughts on the Beach Boys' "Sail On Sailor," plz.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Good word

"But what's the good of lovin' John Travolta/If he's always draggin' you through the mud?"

--June Carter Cash