Monday, October 01, 2007

All good things

October marks the fifth anniversary of Back With Interest, and it seems a good time to take stock. You probably can see where this is going. I have decided to cease blogging here for the foreseeable future.

For five years this blog has been many things to me. It has been a journal, a chronicle. It has been a great way for this ever-budding writer to practice his craft for actual reading readers, to whom I am so grateful. (Is it a coincidence that I started the blog at more or less the same time that I decided to try writing for a living?) Most importantly -- and this is what I think of when I reminisce over past Back With Interest entries and comments -- it has been a superb way to stay in touch with family and with friends, old and new.

But for now I have, as Dick Cheney might say, other priorities.

Of course, you still can read my web writings at, and you Madisonians also can read my stuff in the pages of the fine newspaper the people call Isthmus. And should the urge strike, you can, God help you, read the Back With Interest archives, which aren't going anywhere.

And so till I see you again: Keep smiling.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

I got my first real six-string, bought it at the five and dime

In a recent comment Quiche asked if I could recommend a method of learning guitar, and how I long I played before I felt proficient.

I'll answer the second question first. I don't feel proficient.

I'm a competent rhythm guitar player, served as well as anything by a solid education in music theory. My guitar playing is good enough for bandleading purposes. But don't ask me to play a solo.

It's not quite through lack of trying. At various times over the years I have put energy into improving my guitar playing. I've taken lessons, and checked out instructional videos, and practiced scales till my fingers bled. All of that did indeed improve my guitar playing, which is to say that I became a better rhythm player, which is something. But I don't play solos.

For what it's worth, I came relatively late to guitar playing. I was mostly a pianist and keyboardist -- and singer -- until about age 25. That's when my friend Dave and I discovered our mutual interest in country music. A seasoned guitarist, he showed me some chords, and we spent long, inebriated nights playing and singing. It was great fun.

He had a very fine Martin guitar, so for practicing purposes he lent me his beater, a bright blue, plastic-bodied Applause that looked a lot like this, except it wasn't a cutaway. (Years later, one Hippie Christmas, a hippie handed me a very similar Applause that is now my go-to beater.) I think of that blue Applause as my first guitar, even though it wasn't mine.

Not long after that I got a guitar of my own, and I set to playing in earnest. It was some months before my wrist stopped aching, and years, really, before I felt confident. And in truth, that confidence resulted as much from steady gigging as from practicing -- which is to say that I didn't feel especially confident when I started gigging, and also that, except for those occasional bursts of activity I mentioned, I don't practice guitar all that much.

I do wish I played better, but I think of the time I was bemoaning my lack of chops to my bandmate Adam Davis, a very gifted guitarist. He responded: "You're the singer." He was right. Singing comes far more naturally to me than guitar playing, so why not focus on my strength?
Facebook is funny

Friday, September 28, 2007

With a song in her heart

Read, too, my Daily Page profile of singer and MadCabaret cast member Jessica Lee.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

News on news

And look, the guy who delivers coffee on a tricycle has filed a report of his own about me reporting on the guy who delivers coffee on a tricycle.
More bad news

In Spanish class last night, when I tried to tell the group that I got a haircut on Saturday, what came out was that I cut my head off. On Saturday.

My teacher, Magda, observed that surgeons are doing remarkable things nowadays.
Similes gone wild

"It's like saying every mother is a whore. Every mother's had sex, so is she a prostitute then?"

-- Kingston, Wis. dog breeder Wallace Havens, on why not every kennel is a puppy mill

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Java on wheels

Read my Daily Page report about a guy who delivers coffee on a tricycle.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Not all '90s Nashville country sucked
There's 1,352 guitar pickers in Nashville

Nashville regularly produces stars -- Randy Travis was one -- who are hailed as revivalists of traditional country music, and defenders against the country-pop pap that is the Music City's lifeblood. I love traditional country music (though I'm actually more okay with country-pop pap than you might expect), so I always take note when the latest savior comes along.

One of them was Brad Paisley, the West Virginia native who is the youngest cast member of the extremely tradition-bound "Grand Ole Opry." I like some of his music very much, especially the witty 1999 single "Me Neither."

But I can't say that I am awed by him, or that he has singlehandedly ushered in a new era of ubiquitous old-school honkytonk. His singing is fine, though on his records it sometimes has the slightly metallic quality that lets you know savvy Nashville sound engineers may be digitally correcting his pitch. His songwriting, too, is fine, but to these ears he relies too heavily, as seemingly most Nashville songwriters do now, on the shortcut that is slant rhyme.

Still, one thing Brad Paisley has is astonishing guitar chops, and I have long appreciated the fact that, in what is very definitely a retro choice, he includes instrumental cuts on his albums. Whatever else you can say about Nashville country, Nashville musicianship is as good as you'll find anywhere. So bravo to a mainstream artist who maintains the great old tradition of the country-music instrumental track -- like the one I am celebrating here, the thrilling "The Nervous Breakdown," from Paisley's 1999 debut Who Needs Pictures.

As you'll hear, Paisley can sling a Telecaster with the best of them. Look on these works, ye guitar geeks, and despair.

Brad Paisley - "The Nervous Breakdown"

Friday, September 21, 2007

The message

Confidential to the crowd of drunk young nitwits shouting "faggots" at each other on the 400 block of State Street at 10:20 last night:

Shut the fuck up.

To you University of Wisconsin Badger fans miffed that the cable company Charter Communications doesn't carry the Big Ten Network, and that therefore you won't be able to watch certain Badger football games on television at home, here's what you can do with that time on a Saturday instead:

1) Read a book.
2) Read a newspaper.
3) Read a magazine.
4) Read a web site.
5) Go for a walk.
6) Call an old friend.
7) Balance your checkbook.
8) Play with the dog.
9) Journal.
10) Volunteer.
11) Watch "How Do I Look?" reruns on television.
12) Watch anything on television.
13) Listen to the game on the radio, the theater of the mind.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Good word

"In a few years, the Badger cheerleaders will be pouring shots on the rocks in a bar, while the Citadel cheerleaders will be shooting at Iraqis in Anbar."

-- Christian Schneider @ Atomic Trousers

Thursday, September 13, 2007


What was the first question everyone asked when I told them that last weekend I was going to the Professional Golf Association's BMW Championship, in the Chicago suburb of Lamont, Ill.?

"Do you play golf?"

Well, no. I did once spend a frustrating afternoon at a driving range, though. I also don't play football, baseball or basketball -- or indeed any sport with a ball -- but that hasn't kept me away from big-time football, baseball or basketball games.

But never mind. I understand the question, since I imagine a lot more people play golf regularly than those other sports. And on Sunday, spectators around us at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club talked about their golf games lavishly, mostly in bemoaning how poorly they play compared to Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker and the other pros moving down the fairways.

All of the chatter was very hushed, of course, and that was what I liked best about my first PGA tournament. Unlike other pro sports events, a golf match is all but silent. The quiet was very restful, and part of why the tournament was an enormous pleasure. The day was gorgeous and the golf course well-tended, and I could see myself happily spending a peaceful afternoon there regardless. Watching pro golfers work their magic was like a bonus.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The moviegoers

When you are relaxing and shopping for books on the South Side of Chicago, as Ereck and I were Saturday afternoon, and you suddenly realize that Andrei Tarkovsky's three hour and 41 minute epic Andrey Rublyov is playing that night at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in the Loop -- well, you go.

My mistake was in misreading the showtime. I thought it was 6:30. So we sprinted downtown, hampered by the fact that I drive a pickup truck and am therefore banished from Lake Shore Drive. We struggled to park amid festival traffic, and then in the interest of time ate a rushed, largely uninspired dinner at a Corner Bakery. It's a shame to dine at a chain in the great culinary capital that is Chicago. But we were out of options.

Then we hurried to the theater, where the snide young box office attendant (is there any other kind at an art house?) informed me that the film started at 7:30. He did so by wordlessly hooking his thumb in the general direction of the showtimes posted on the wall. We morosely killed an hour at the Borders down the block.

But never mind. The film was awesome, in an older sense of that word, and the filmgoing experience was wonderful. I dread going to films in Madison because the audiences are consistently nattering and awful, even at the estimable Cinematheque. The Film Center audience was reverent, respectful, silent.

Before the movie I noted with satisfaction that many of our fellow filmgoers had arrived alone, and were reading books before the lights went down. That's my kind of audience.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


If a certain new upstairs neighbor of a certain blogger placed a really, really big pile of flattened cardboard boxes on the lawn in front of the apartment building...and if said pile was, predictably enough, not picked up by recycling workers because it was not (per the city's guidelines, which are clear, and reasonably well publicized) either in a recycling bin or tied into bundles...and if weeks passed and pentateuchal rains came and made a giant mess of the pile of cardboard, which also killed a sizable patch of grass...

Would the blogger be smarter to approach the neighbor, or the landlord about the still-rotting pile of cardboard? Bear in mind that the blogger might be growing weary of the years-long symposium he has been conducting -- for an ever-renewing crew of neighbors -- in the subtleties of Madison waste removal, which is actually not that subtle.

Or is the blogger better off simply quitting the rental racket, buying a house and moving to a neighborhood where people don't leave their trash on the lawn?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Good word

"I went through a depression after 9/11, and the start of the Iraq war and all the missed opportunities this country had...But I found when I put on Judy at Carnegie Hall, I became completely optimistic and was reminded of all the hope and glory the U.S. once represented."

-- Rufus Wainwright

Monday, September 03, 2007

Good word

"(The graffiti in cottages was all part of the fun: On the toilet wall at Paddington Station was written: 'I am 9 inches long and two inches thick. Interested?' Underneath, in different handwriting: 'Fascinated, dear, but how big is your dick?')"

-- Christopher Hitchens

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Close encounter

Last night my country band the World's Greatest Lovers played a gig up in Princeton, Wis., a private party that was a self-styled hoedown, complete with barn dance and barbecue dinner. A great time.

But driving back to Wisconsin, pedal steel player Adam Davis and I had a frightening experience. Drummer Scott Beardsley, who lived for a time in nearby Green Lake, warned us as we were leaving to watch out for deer. I took the warning seriously, because you hear just awful stories about deer and cars.

And sure enough: At about 2 this morning, Adam and I were on state highway 23 just west of Montello. He was driving. Suddenly, 100 yards or so down the highway I saw...something. A strange, unidentifiable something in the middle of the road. Then an oncoming car swerved in the distance, and I realized what I was seeing. It was a young deer, looking startled and darting back and forth in the highway. My index finger shot forward. "Look out!" I yelled. "Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!"

Adam slammed on the brakes and somehow managed to avoid being hit by the car that was following us a little too closely. Fortunately we were moving slowly when we finally hit the deer. It was more like a tap. Looking even more startled, the deer scampered into the brush.

Terrifying. I'm glad it was only a tap. Hope the deer's okay.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Lazy river

Although I have visited Townsend, Tenn. hundreds of times, till earlier this month I had never gone tubing there.

Which is something. The hamlet just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bills itself as The Peaceful Side of the Smokies, which is city officials' coded way of promoting the fact that Townsend largely forgoes the garish, Wisconsin Dells-like attractions of nearby Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. But Townsend does seem to have a lock on one popular tourist activity: Floating down the Little River in giant inner tubes.

There are tubing concessions all along Townsend's main drag -- which runs alongside the Little River -- and the arguably most popular one, River Rat, is just down the pike from my family's place. As our vacation unfolded, Ereck and I drove past River Rat again and again, and by its competitor across the street, River Rage. We agreed we would tube. (Ereck is a native of the area and an experienced tuber.)

But I was apprehensive. Tubing seemed vaguely hazardous. "Do you get a personal flotation device?" I asked Ereck. "The tube is your personal flotation device," he counseled.

Finally, as the vacation was drawing to a close, we went. We paid our $13, grabbed our yellow tubes, made our way down the path to the river and hopped in. And I'm here to tell you:

Tubing is delightful.

I somehow had envisioned it as an almost violent experience, all white water and rapids. In fact the pace was glacial because the drought had made the river quite low, as the yellow T-shirted concessionaire warned us. "You'll drag in parts," she said.

But I loved the pace. I loved slowly drifting and spinning and relaxing. I entered a trance-like state as I journeyed through my ancestral hometown of Townsend. I looked at birds, and greeted a guy as he hosed off his deck. I listened to dogs barking. I studied a cow grazing near the river, and the cow calmly gazed at me. I marveled at the shimmering patterns of light reflected from the water onto the undersides of leaves. It was a gorgeous day. And the periods of drifting alternated with brief interludes of fast water, which were exciting enough.

After a couple of hours -- and too soon -- we came to the rendezvous spot: the swinging bridge where a River Rat employee driving an old school bus collected us and brought us back to our truck. "Did y'all have fun?" queried the apple-cheeked lad. Yes, we did.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Good grief, indeed

Speaking of cartoons and the tears of this clown, I nearly wept when I read yesterday's installment of "Hi and Lois":

Whatever happened to daily newspaper comics? This one is so unspeakably unfunny, and it's very much par for the course. True, I know my response is partly informed by the fact that I've gotten a little older. I used to drool over the Sunday color comics in the newspaper (and, BTW, now that color comics aren't just on Sunday, at least on the web, then what's the point?) -- especially "Cappy Dick". Now I throw that section out with the Boston Store circular. But I mean, really.

Daily newspaper comics have been on my mind of late, largely because on my recent vacation I read a biography of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz I found at my grandparents' old house. (Okay, if you must know, it was a Reader's Digest condensed biography of Charles Schulz (Rheta Grimsley Johnson, Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz). My grandparents loved Reader's Digest condensed books.) Reading it I was reminded of what most people already probably know: That his massive success and vaguely unseemly marketing and licensing strategies notwithstanding, Schulz was kind of a troubled guy who wrote strips that were genuinely, often darkly, funny. I loved "Peanuts" when I was a kid and still have many "Peanuts" books, several of which I've just re-read. This strip is exemplary:

Schulz' material is so thoroughly familiar at this point that it's hard to imagine how revolutionary it must have seemed when it was new in 1950: Little kids cracking bleak jokes about psychotherapy and the Pauline epistles.

Schulz's draftsmanship was also, I think, radical in its simplicity for the time. Compare it to the lush shading and detail of a 1953 "Pogo" strip by Walt Kelly, my favorite newspaper cartoonist ever:

Now I haven't researched this, but I would accept the premise that "Pogo" and "Peanuts" seemed as unusual and superior in their heyday as they do now, and that the comics page then also had its fair share of lame shtick of the "Hi and Lois" variety. (I'm surprised to learn from Wikipedia that "Hi and Lois" dates back to 1954. Was it as forgettable then? (Except I always did like the drunk guy.))

Still, as we read more and more bad news about the newspaper business, I can't help but wonder: Why not try to attract and retain readers by spiffing up the comics page with material that's actually funny?
It's not just Police concerts that make me cry

This Gawker mashup of Playboy and New Yorker cartoons made my sides hurt.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Good word

"Twice in his statement, Craig, speaking beneath sunny skies, apologized for the 'cloud over Idaho' caused by his arrest. Actually, the cloud is over Craig, not his home state.

But it's easy to see how Craig might overestimate the size of his shadow: He has a wide stance."

-- Dana Milbank

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Good word

"At the front we used to have a lot of teenage females fainting. Now we have grown men weeping."

-- Police drummer Stewart Copeland, on concertgoers circa 2007

(P.S. I wept at a Police concert last month.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Good word

"An animal may be ferocious and cunning enough, but it takes a real man to tell a lie."

-- H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

I has a poster

I remember this gig, but not the flyer. Yet there it is on the World Wide Web.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Apropos of the Shriner's convention that's taking place in Madison this weekend, allow me to share with you the 1980 track "Shriner's Convention" by Ray Stevens, the country satirist who has given us "Ahab the Arab" and other dubious legacies.

I thought "Shriner's Convention" was pretty funny when I was 9, and I still think it's pretty funny. And judging from what I saw and heard of the Shriners' antics downtown this week, it seems like Stevens gets a lot right.

I love the laugh track. I wish I had my own laugh track.

Ray Stevens - Shriner's Convention

Friday, August 17, 2007

I'm the operator

On our vacation we stayed at my family's farm in Townsend, Tenn. It's been in the clan for something like 200 years -- historians at Middle Tennessee State University commemorate it as the H.V. Burns farm (H.V. was my grandpap). The old house still exists, but we stayed in the house my grandparents built in the 1960s for their retirement.

My grandparents died a few years back, but much of their stuff is still there. Dad invited us to take mementos, so we chose a few things, including one I am very excited about: A vintage Sears calculator, complete with glowing red LEDs. Watch me add and subtract!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Better mud everywhere

The Starbucks package on Slate this morning takes me back to the halcyon days of my 2007 summer vacation -- i.e., to last week and the week before, when Ereck and I drove to Townsend, Tenn. for outdoorsy fun plus the odd Weird Al Yankovic concert.

Time was a trip anywhere except France or Italy meant drinking terrible coffee; I drank a lot of Nescafe in Bangkok. Understand, my java tastes are not sophisticated. Since high school I have drunk boring drip coffee, black. (Slate informs me that this means I am Lame, which I knew.) I like it very, very strong, though, but until recently what passed for coffee in many parts of this country, and especially in my native Dixie, was little more than brown water. That stuff doesn't work for me -- if I don't get a big whallop of caffeine early each morning, something like the D.T.'s sets in.

That's why, when I travel, I often bring a product that the South got right: Durham, N.C.'s own BC, a powdered pain reliever that's one part aspirin and one big part caffeine. If, some morning, a strong cup o' joe appears not to be forthcoming, I down a BC. Better that than brown water.

But my recent trip cheered me, because I learned that, as never before, the blasted wasteland that is rural interchanges on the Interstate highway system has a new fixture: Starbucks, which has quietly been opening standalone outlets on those sites alongside the Cracker Barrels and McDonald'ses. Which means that in more and more towns, there is reliably okay coffee.

Now I recognize there are all sorts of reasons to object to Starbucks, reasons having to do with globalization and corporatization and sprawl and the cost of milk. But the chain also is teaching a nation accustomed to culinary mediocrity that there's more to coffee than brown water. I applaud that.

Of course, we didn't need Starbucks by the time we got settled in Townsend, because we brought our espresso machine and everything else we needed. Which was just as well, because the nearest Starbucks was -- panic! -- 15 miles away in dreadful Pigeon Forge. But certainly we were grateful for the chain as we were coming and going.

Monday, August 13, 2007

All I ever wanted

Just back from a two-week vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains. Lots to tell. But for now, sleep.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Good word

"Although every time Mitt Romney walks on stage, a sodden Irish setter is going to flash before my eyes."

-- Gail Collins

Friday, July 27, 2007


I like that on this receipt from Culver's, the word "CURD" is printed in red ink, as though it were uttered by The Big Guy Himself.

What would Jesus do? He just might eat Him some fried Wisconsin cheese curds.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Good word

"Cheney unleashed is Nixon without regrets."

-- Sidney Blumenthal

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Atitude of platitude

I try never to use clichés in my writing (unless I'm on a tight deadline). The problem is that although I'm pretty familiar with the old ones, new clichés have a way of popping up, especially in the blogosphere, and they can seem pretty funny/powerful/whatever at first. But they're still just clichés.

So here are two newish clichés you won't catch me using (unless I'm on an extremely tight deadline).

1) I just threw up in my mouth a little (as here, here and here).

2) I'm looking at you, ... (this and this and this).

And qualifying these with as the kids say doesn't fix the problem.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Not all '90s Nashville country sucked
Toby Keith is someone's daddy

I said in a Back With Interest comment the other day that the next edition of Not All '90s Nashville Country Sucked would be about the melding of comedy and tragedy. I'm still excited to write that one, because it's about what is probably my favorite country single of the '90s. Meantime, though, there are some topics I want to write about while they're still fresh in my mind.

Chief among them:
Sting. Two weeks ago I saw him perform with the Police at Wrigley Field, and I'm pleased to report that the show lived up to my expectations. Sting still has palpable charisma on stage, and those old Police songs proved sturdy at the big ballpark.

I was surprised to find, though (or maybe not), that seemingly simple tunes from the first Police album ("So Lonely," "Next To You") are holding up better than the self-consciously political songs of later records ("Invisible Sun," "Walking In Your Footsteps"). As Sting sang the refrain of the early track "Can't Stand Losing You" over and over, and as the audience sang along, those concisely sad words took on a kind of anthemic power.

I mention the Police show because today's track was written not by one of Nashville's vast corps of professional songwriters but by, yes, Sting. "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" originally appeared on his 1996 release Mercury Falling, and his recording of the song is a credible facsimile of modern country music, thanks especially to the doleful pedal steel.

And the song itself is great, a very sad meditation on a bedrock country-music theme, divorce and its aftermath. What makes the lyrics especially potent is the plainness of their language (this from a songwriter otherwise given to rhyming "apprentice" and "Charybdis"):
The park is full of Sunday fathers and melted ice cream
We try to do the best within the given time
A kid should be with his mother, everybody knows that
What can a father do but baby-sit sometimes
I find those lines chilling, in part because as a child of divorce I know just what "Sunday fathers" means. There's a directness to the storytelling that Sting otherwise has slipped away from over the course of his career, as early tunes like "Can't Stand Losing You" remind us.

But Sting's recording of "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying" is missing one thing nearly every first-rate country record has: An ass-kicking vocal performance. When it comes to singing country, his tenor lacks the keening eerieness of great country tenors like Bill Monroe, much less the booming depth of great country baritones.

Which is where Toby Keith comes in. The Nashville star is much-maligned, of course, because in the wake of 9/11 he released some perfectly awful music that cravenly exploited the bloodlust of those terrible days. But he also has recorded some very fine songs over the years, including the sly 2002 hit "Who's Your Daddy" and the funny sobriety lament "You Ain't Much Fun" ("I sobered up, and I got to thinkin' / Girl you ain't much fun since I quit drinkin'").

And then there is his recording of "I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying," from his 1997 album Dream Walkin'. A number-one country hit, the song is a splendid melding of thoughtful songwriting and rich, expressive singing. Keith really does possess one of the finer country singing voices of our day, and it lends a gravity to the song that Sting's version lacks (Sting does briefly appear on Keith's recording).

But mostly the song's power comes from the songwriting, including the title refrain, which is so much smarter and more mysterious than what the Music City machine generally churns out these days. This tune made me weep the first time I heard it, and it still makes me weep.

N.B.: This mp3 is very slightly glitchy.

Toby Keith - I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Read my Daily Page report from the Blooming Butterflies event at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Gig alert

Be aware that my honkytonk band the World's Greatest Lovers will play our only public show of the summer next Friday, July 27 at Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills. The brewco is at 1025 Owen St. Showtime is 6 pm. No cover!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Good word, or: What Would Thurgood Do

"[Thurgood] Marshall had many similar stories of putting people on. A favorite of his involved unsuspecting tourists who mistakenly entered the Justices' private elevator. Finding a lone black man standing there, they said, 'First floor please.' 'Yowsa, yowsa,' Marshall responded as he pretended to operate the automated elevator and held the door for the tourists as they left. Marshall regularly recounted the story, noting the tourists' puzzlement and then confusion as they watched him walk off, and later realized who he was."

-- Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong, The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Pickin' and/or grinnin'

I have long made a habit of naming my computers after country singers. Don't ask me why. My desktop is called Tanya, after Tanya Tucker, and I have a Linux PC named Willie, and I don't mean Stargell.

But did you know I also have a laptop named after "Hee Haw" comedienne and banjoist extraordinaire Roni Stoneman? Do you suppose it's the only computer in the world named after Roni Stoneman?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Good word

"Her email reminded me of another, one a friend received some months ago: 'I took the W off my car today,' it said on the subject line. It sounded like a country western song, like a great lament."

-- Peggy Noonan

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On the mend

I'm glad Roger Ebert is better.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


If 8-tracks are your bag, then check out my Daily Page article about 8-track culture at the east side eatery Tex Tubb's Taco Palace.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A sense of place

Web sites that let me track the movements of packages are Satan. Look, it's in San Jose. Look, now it's in Sacramento. Meanwhile, life passes me by.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bad word

"'There are innumerable examples of warm items,' [President Nixon] wrote, saying that he had been 'nicey-nicey to the cabinet, staff and Congress around Christmastime' and that he had treated cabinet and subcabinet officials 'like dignified human beings and not dirt under my feet.'"

-- Neil A. Lewis, The New York Times

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Save me a spot

It is a Wednesday in July, which means that tonight is Concerts on the Square. From my office window overlooking Pinckney Street just off the Square, I already can see groups of music lovers staggering toward the Capitol with their coolers and camp chairs.

The time is 1:56 p.m.; the music starts at 7. Just how early do people start showing up for this thing?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Blast from the past

Lo, I have unearthed some of my earliest journalistic creations, including an unsigned short I wrote during my tenure as an intern at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, ca. 1998-1999. The topic: fallout shelters. I also wrote a couple of entries in the magazine's short-lived Web Watch series.

Read my Daily Page report on the always-interesting window dressings of St. Vincent de Paul.

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Just back from Chicago where I a) saw the Police at Wrigley Field, b) viewed giant ferns at the Garfield Park Conservatory, c) was sad to learn that Trader Vic's at the Palmer House has closed, for now at least, and d) saw a Preston Sturges film I'd never seen, Christmas in July -- on the big screen of LaSalle Bank Cinema, no less, plus a Merrie Melody ("Robin Hood Daffy") and a Three Stooges short.

Attesting to the savvy of the LaSalle Cinema folks is the fact that the Stooges flick, "Healthy, Wealthy and Dumb," had virtually the same premise as Christmas in July: a poor sap wins a slogan contest on the radio, or seems to, and hilarity ensues.

More on the Police soon, but just now I'm exhausted.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Be heard

In this brave new world of my updated Blogger template, reader comments seemed not to be working for a time. But I have fixed that.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hello, world

It's a new day.

What's that device

Time for another installment of What's That Device, the Back With Interest series that explores the use of rhetorical figures in the culture around us.

Today's example I read in Sunday's edition of Listen Up, the Wisconsin State Journal column that every week features lyrics from the popular hits of the day, in order to "provide parents with a better idea of what their children are hearing." Listen Up actually was the inspiration for What's That Device, in ways that even I don't completely understand.

So behold this pop lyric. It's from the tune "Nobody's Perfect" off the soundtrack album of "Hannah Montana," the smash Disney Channel series:
Everybody makes mistakes
Everybody has those days
Everybody makes mistakes
Everybody has those days
Everybody knows what I'm talkin' 'bout
This is an instance of anaphora, which Richard Lanham's indispensable Handlist of Rhetorical Terms defines as "Repetition of the same word at the beginning of successive clauses or verses."

A frequently cited example of anaphora is Winston Churchill's "we shall fight on the beaches" speech ("
we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, blah blah blah"). But as it happens, "Hannah Montana" features the country icon Billy Ray Cyrus, whose daughter Mylie plays Hannah herself, and his signature line-dancing hit "Achy Breaky Heart" provides an example of anaphora that's even catchier than the Churchill:
You can tell the world you never was my girl
You can burn my clothes when I'm gone
You can tell your friends just what a fool I've been
And laugh and joke about me on the phone
I guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. The tree with the mullet.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Get happy

Check out my cover story in this week's Isthmus, wherein I muse on what it means to pursue happiness. Also, read my Daily Page post about a ramble through the North Unit of the Cherokee Marsh, with photos taken by my own Cutie Patootie.

Friday, June 29, 2007

What's that device

Time for another installment of What's That Device, the Back With Interest series that explores the use of rhetorical devices in the culture around us.

Today's rhetorical device is chiasmus, which Merriam-Webster defines as "an inverted relationship between the syntactic elements of parallel phrases." A famous instance is from John F. Kennedy's inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."

Chiasmus gets its name from the Greek letter X, or chi, because examples of it make an X when they're diagrammed in a particular way. Thus the Kennedy:

Today's example of chiasmus comes from Paris Hilton's post-jail interview with CNN's Larry King the night before last. (In the first -- and till today only -- chapter of What's That Device, I said the series would focus solely on pop lyrics, but never mind.)

Hilton said, famously: "Don't serve the time; let the time serve you."

Or, diagrammed:

I hoped she might also take the opportunity to throw down some amphidiorthosis, but no luck.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Not all '90s Nashville country sucked
Welcome to the debut installment of a new Back With Interest feature, Not All '90s Nashville Country Sucked. I'll be sharing some of my favorite tracks from a time when many music lovers wrote off the Music City and its wares -- and, indeed, started a genre in response, alternative country. (It was about the third or fourth time a country genre has been founded in response to what was coming out of Nashville's mainstream.)

I came of age in Nashville in the 1980s, and at the beginning of that decade country music was having one its recurring commercial peaks, thanks to the crossover success of artists like Kenny Rogers, plus the national boot- and hat-wearing fad inspired by the film Urban Cowboy. As things quieted down, though, it seemed to me that Nashville music was coming to be dominated as never before by thoughtful singer-songwriters like Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, Hal Ketchum and Suzy Bogguss, Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett. Which was a good thing. Yay thoughtful singer-songwriters!

Enter Garth. After Garth Brooks' eponymous 1989 debut and, especially, his 1990 sophomore effort No Fences, Nashville music changed. Thereafter country stars melded soft-rock arrangements and arena-rock histrionics, and often the only thing identifying the artists as country was their cowboy hats. It was, for fans of traditional country music, a grim time, and in many ways it is still with us.

I've performed what I guess you would call alternative country for many years, and I can't tell you how many times a sneering audience member has come to me during a break to specifically decry Garth Brooks (as well as Shania Twain, about whom I'll have more to say later). And I sympathize. Anyone who loved Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson was perfectly justified in being depressed by the state of Nashville country in the 1990s.

But I never have forgotten the fact that Garth Brooks actually recorded some very fine country songs, which is one reason he was so successful. His knack for authentic-sounding twang secured him an audience of traditional country fans, even as his ass-shaking antics broke new demographic ground for Nashville.

Yes, Garth put out some good tunes, and so did other '90s Nashville artists. You just have to know where to look.

Thus I give you the Garth Brooks song that made me pull the car over the first time I heard it, back in 1990. It's the #1 hit "Friends in Low Places," penned by Dewayne Blackwell and Earl Budd Lee. This is simply terrific country music, what with the snappy hook, the crisp internal rhymes, the wailing pedal steel, the smirking class politics. You can often tell a great tune from its great opening line, and this one's a classic: "Blame it all on my roots: I showed up in boots."

Side note: I believe this is the song that bequeathed us the now-ubiquitous Nashville trope of the boozy sing-along choir (cf. Brad Paisley, "I'm Gonna Miss Her"; Gretchen Wilson, "Redneck Woman"). Correct me if I'm wrong.

Garth Brooks - Friends in Low Places

Tuesday, June 26, 2007


I read the headline of this Editor & Publisher article. Sufficiently intrigued, I read the lead paragraph. Then I didn't need to read anymore.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Good word

"If this is paradise, I wish I had a lawnmower."

-- Talking Heads, "Nothing But Flowers"

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Small children have their uses

Writes Bookish Barbara (who's now a mom -- congrats, BB!):
Tip of the week: take small smiley baby shopping with you. Checkout girl will be so busy cooing and talking to the baby that she will completely forget to scan everything in your basket and you'll save a few quid.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Good word

"Jesus wept, he felt abandoned."

-- Elvis Costello, "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Don't touch

My museum series on the Daily Page continues with a report from the UW-Madison geology museum. And looky, now my museum reviews have a page all their own.
Good word

"I learned how to swim, and I learned who I was."

-- Alan Jackson & Jimmie Ray McBride, "Chattahoochee"

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A little off the top

These are my people.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Be heard

Polling has begun for Madison's Favorites, Isthmus newspaper's annual reader survey. So do your part and go here to vote. Note that one of the categories is Local Newspaper Writer. I'm not sayin'; I'm just sayin'; is all. Deadline is June 21.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Distant early warning

Mark your calendar for July 27, when my country group the World's Greatest Lovers will play its first Madison-area club date this year (and so far the only one scheduled): a happy hour gig at Tyranena Brewing Company in Lake Mills. The brewery, a lovely spot, is at 1025 Owen St. in that fair burg about half an hour east of Madison.

Showtime is 6 p.m. There is no cover charge.
Good word

"She's pure as New York snow."

-- Jackie DeShannon, Donna T. Weiss, "Bette Davis Eyes"

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Recently my computer at home stopped working, and I spent the better part of a Saturday learning that the culprit was a one-gigabyte memory module I bought from Kingston some years back. How did I know? Because after I had littered the apartment with the pieces of several computers, I determined that when the memory was in the computer, the computer did not start, and when another memory module was in the computer, the computer started. Q.E.D.

It was a relief to solve the problem, and to know that I wouldn't need to replace the computer, and to recall that the memory has a lifetime warranty. But more than that: I enjoyed myself. For some reason it pleases me enormously to tinker with computers, to troubleshoot, to get things working. For many years I did that for a living: assembled and disassembled PCs, installed PC networks, showed people how it all worked.

There was much about the job I didn't like -- for one, computers and their immediate surroundings can be surprisingly filthy, at least in the workplaces of my clients. But often there came magic "aha" moments like the one I had last weekend, when I figured out what the problem was, and how to fix it. These are supremely gratifying.

A therapist might tell you that I find these moments so satisfying because I have control issues. Now hand me that screwdriver.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Short, shameful confession

I keep confusing Hollywood celeb Zach Braff and Madison District 7 alder Zach Brandon.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Good word

"Zach [Braff] snuck his way into famousosity through Garden State, a tour de force which singlehandledly called a cultural truce between the I Heart Huckabees/Wolf Parade/Unbearable Lightness of Being crowd and those who list The DaVinci Code among their favorite books on Friendster."

-- Gawker/The Stalkettes

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Short, shameful confession

Yesterday I said Orwellian when I meant Kafkaesque.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Someone please explain what on earth this means, besides what it seems to mean

Too much tragedy

This week, yours truly wrote Isthmus' cover story, a profile of a Waunakee woman convicted ten years ago in the death of an infant. The Wisconsin Innocence Project of the University of Wisconsin law school says she was wrongly convicted.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Some dome

On Friday I toured the Wisconsin state Capitol, and you can read my Daily Page account of the ramble.
The weather gods smiled

Yesterday's Beat the Street event was a great success. It rained for much of the morning but cleared up just in time for the acts to hit State Street and raise a little consciousness. No problem! Check out video of me singing "Long Haired Redneck" on the Daily Page. Also, Dane 101 put together a nice gallery from the event, as well as a video montage that includes me singing, yes, "Long Haired Redneck." My segment kicks in at about 3:38, if you're impatient like me.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Live aid, part deux

Check out this map for a lineup of all the performers at the Porchlight benefit I'm participating in tomorrow.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Live aid

On Saturday I'll be participating in Beat the Street, a musical benefit for the homeless-support agency Porchlight. The event will see local songsters stationed at corners up and down State Street, here in Madison. I will be singing all your old favorites at the sweet intersection of State and Gilman Street, in front of the Chocolate Shoppe ice cream joint.

All the music starts at 1 p.m., so come on down and throw a buck in my guitar case. It's for a good cause.
Yee haw

When I was a lad back in Nashville, in the 1980s, the rock scene cooked, and no band cooked better than the seminal cowpunk band Jason and the Scorchers. In case you missed the whole thing, here's the video for one of their best tracks, the smokin' cover of Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie."

The clip is of interest not only to music fans but also to nostalgic former denizens of the Music City like myself. The video takes place on Lower Broad, the downtown drag that now is a thriving tourist scene of great music venues and tacky Western wear stores. Back then, though, the district was seedy, even as some downtown retail outlets hung on. (They're all gone now.) Hence the shot of the old Purina store, and the one of Adult World.

But then there is Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, the storied honkytonk where the performance footage was shot. From the bugout of the "Grand Ole Opry," through the decline of the downtown and up to its revival, Tootsie's has endured. I hope it endures through much more.

At Tootsie's I once danced with a marine who then pulled a knife on a guy. Enjoy.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Oh well

I'm disappointed to learn that anchor Elizabeth Hopkins has left WKOW (Ch. 27) for Providence. I liked her. What is my anchor now?!?!?!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Making it so, or nearly so

It's taken us a while, but Ereck and I have finally watched just about all of "Star Trek," the original series, and have moved on to "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which the Spike cable channel recently began showing from the beginning of the run. We think Lt. Yar swings both ways.

At this rate, we'll have finished watching all the "Star Trek" series roughly around the time of the Andromedan invasion.

What's your favorite episode from the original series? Mine is "The Enterprise Incident," with the vaguely Jeanne Moreau-y Romulan commander in the minidress.
Short, shameful confession

I just ate an entire roll of Wint-O-Green Life Savers over a period of about two hours.

Monday, May 21, 2007

New attitude

At the suggestion of fellow Madison blogger Hastings Cameron, I finally syndicated Back With Interest using Atom. You can subscribe to the feed here.

Meanwhile, there are other changes that might be nice to make, revolutionary new ideas in blog technology that have come along since I last tinkered with the design of this blog back in -- wait for it -- 2002. Hey, what can I say? I don't like change. (I still use Word 97.)

I gather that some of the changes I'm contemplating would require me to update my Blogger template, though, and this makes me wary. Seems disruptive. I don't want to make the switch if it means breaking a bunch of stuff I then have to fix or, worse, needing to come up with a brand new design. Design is not my forte, and I like this layout just fine.

Has anyone else upgraded their 2002-era template? Is it painful?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Please don't choose "My Humps"

I'm surprised Hillary Clinton is letting the people pick her campaign theme song, because the presidential campaigns of her husband -- remember him? -- always had great soundtracks, and I don't recall those being up for a vote.

I'm obviously thinking, in part, of "Don't Stop," the Fleetwood Mac ditty that seemed pitch-perfect when Bill Clinton used it in his 1992 campaign. But more than that: One of my favorite pieces of political theater ever involved the music at the climax of the 1996 Democratic National Convention.

At the end of Clinton's acceptance speech he told the roaring masses, "I still believe in a place called Hope -- a place called America." Immediately the throbbing coda of Chicago's "Beginnings" began to play, and it was a brilliant choice. Chicago was a combo Baby Boomers loved almost as much as Fleetwood Mac, after all -- and the convention took place in the Democratic stronghold of Chicago, after all. (Bill Clinton knew who buttered his bread.)

Beyond that, though, the lyrics struck a fitting, if slightly overwrought, theme for a re-election campaign: "Only the beginning of what I want to feel forever." He waved, Al Gore waved, their families waved, confetti fell, the crowd cheered.

When the Chicago song concluded, what happened next was very Clintonian: Alabama's labor anthem "40 Hour Week" started up. Hey, if the theme song doesn't convey the whole message, then have two theme songs!

Watching the display at home I remembered Clinton's sunny campaign for the 1992 election, the first one I voted in, and felt energized. Who knew what horrors lay ahead? Only the beginning, indeed.

For what it's worth, the choices for Hillary's song mostly suck. If I had to choose one I might go with "I'm a Believer," if it were a recording by anyone but Smash Mouth. Barring that, I'd have to pick the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," which come to think of it is a perfect campaign song. Didn't I hear it in a yogurt commercial or something?

You can watch Bill Clinton's convention speech and the big finale on if you search for "1996 Democratic convention." The song kicks in at about 1:08:00. Meanwhile, here's the Chicago track.

Chicago - "Beginnings"
Still pickin'

Read my Daily Page review of last night's Doc Watson concert.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Out of curiosity I downloaded Paul Wolfowitz' dissertation. Now what the hell am I going to do with it?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Boyfriends unite

Paul Wolfowitz is a boyfriend, and so am I. Read all about it on the Daily Page.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Better late than never

Just in time for the series finale, I finally started watching DVDs of "Gilmore Girls," the widely hailed family dramedy that, I'm told, was sharply written until the most recent season, and then not so much. Ereck has had the discs for years, but for some I reason I resisted. Now I have fully dug in, and I've laughed and cried, even though I've only seen the first season's first eight episodes.

What finally prompted me to start watching was, strangely enough, a mock television listing in The Onion.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sugar sugar

Read my Daily Page report of still another weekend bicycle excursion, this one on the Sugar River trail.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Sign up

I'm thinking of starting a Facebook group called Dudes Who Read Chick Lit. Who's with me?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Leaving on a jet plane, or not

Anyone who uses Madison's Dane County Regional Airport should read this piece by Raphael Kadushin from the latest Isthmus. He tells an all-too-familiar tale of airline horror.
18 again

Here's a fun meme, and I rarely do memes: Five things about freshman year.

Five really 1989 things about my freshman year in college:

1. For the last time I wrote papers on a typewriter. I was weirdly phobic about computers.
2. The Berlin Wall came down. Who knew?
3. A popular Halloween costume for couples was Zsa Zsa and the cop.
4. I affected a taste for scotch. I never really did like scotch.
5. Greatest show ever: The B-52's, Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, Nov. 27.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The quiet Junker

Enough praise can't be heaped on the songwriting of David Junker, bass player and namesake of my old alternative country band the Junkers. The typical Dave Junker-penned Junkers song had a patina of cheerfulness that masked deeply troubling, often death-obsessed themes. A good example is a tune by him that actually never made it out of the practice room, "Embalmed." It went: "Embalmed in the image of life, embalmed for a reasonable price." Staggering.

Yet there can be disarming tenderness and wistfulness in his songs, as in what is perhaps the most subtly mysterious Dave Junker song, and my favorite one, "Pretty Cups and Saucers" from our 2003 album Live Characters Nightly:
When we first met we talked over a coffee
You baked for me, and I brought you love
Our kitchen table held us like a wedding bed
Now I go to sleep alone and underfed
I bring his songs up because this morning I found myself humming another Dave Junker classic, "Can't Stop the Bleeding," from the debut Junkers album Hunker Down. That's the song whose acidly funny lyrics feature perhaps the greatest line of the entire alt-country genre: "I hope that my corpse don't scare your boyfriend."

The Junkers - Pretty Cups and Saucers

The Junkers - Can't Stop the Bleeding

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Read my Daily Page report from the Military Ridge bicycle trail.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Meet me at the food court

Modern shopping malls fascinate me, perhaps because I misspent much of my youth at one. So I'm glad to know there are Web sites whose authors turn gimlet eyes on these retail behemoths. One,, I learned about today from a Wisconsin State Journal article, and another I have been a fan of for ages: Happy shopping at your local dead mall!

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Total consciousness

Read my Daily Page report from yesterday's talk at the UW-Madison by the Dalai Lama.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The kids are all right

I don't think I properly mourned Paul Zindel, the novelist and Pulitzer-winning dramatist who died in 2003 at age 66. But I'm a fan, and in the last few days I've been delighted anew by his 1976 young-adult novel Pardon Me, You're Stepping On My Eyeball!, which was a favorite of mine when I was 12 or so. (I bought it at Waldenbooks in a Nashville shopping mall, if memory serves.) This book is so funny, and far smarter than I was equipped to appreciate in 1983. It's about high school students in the mid-1970s, when the youth culture had lost the political preoccupations of just a few years earlier but retained the obsessions with sex and drugs.

It was a chaotic time, at least in Zindel's telling. I love this vivid passage about a trip the young hero, Marsh Mellow, takes to Los Angeles:
The day they got off the Greyhound bus in downtown L.A., he and Paranoid Pete rented a Dollar-a-Day Rent-a-Pinto and went crusing down Hollywood Boulevard looking at all the belly-dancing emporiums near Vine Street. That was the great thing about Hollywood. From the moment they got there they could tell it was a weird place. There'd be things like a kid standing on a street corner yelling out "Remember that today and yesterday are the good old days someone will talk about tomorrow." Everybody seemed to be spaced out on drugs or religion. There was a terrific hypnosis institute near Hollywood and Vine. And Marsh always read the billboards. There was a terrific cigarette ad for Tramps all over the place that exploited a shot of Charlie Chaplin, and they had Yul Brynner on another sign saying how he drinks a special kind of Scotch. And there were a lot of weirdo stores. They even had a store that thought it was so special because it had huge signs saying that they sold living plants and trees. What a triumphant drive it was down Hollywood Boulevard! Past the Great American Food and Beverage Company, which looked like a plain old hamburger place, all hyped-up. There was a bar called Filthy McNasty's where Pete stopped and threw down a couple of boilermakers. Some woman was standing in front of a restaurant called the Lost-On-Larrabee Burger Palace, and she was yelling "Cancer cures smoking! Cancer cures smoking!" That's what kind of a nifty place Hollywood was.
I also enjoyed Zindel's novel The Pigman, back in the day. Then I grew up and ceased reading young-adult fiction until I turned 36.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Headline to remember

Courtesy of the Chicago Maroon, student newspaper of the University of Chicago.

Are you ever late for the party? Certain facts, certain blindingly obvious facts, become clear to me only much time has passed. It was years before I grasped why the French have the same expression for 69 that we do.

Another late insight came to me as I made coffee this morning. It has to do with the Rod Stewart song "You Wear It Well," which is on his 1972 LP Never a Dull Moment, my favorite album when I was a junior in college. The last line of the song is "After all this, it's still the same address." What this relates to, I now realize, is the fact that the lyrics are, apparently, a letter. They begin: "I had nothing to do on this hot afternoon but to settle down and write you a line."

It's a great song, a series of wistful remembrances, many of them elliptical details of the type I was trying to describe here yesterday ("Remember them basement parties, your brother's karate, the all day rock n' roll shows"). The last line is the final detail, a poignant coda.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

They write the songs

The night before last, at the cheap cinema, we finally caught up with Music & Lyrics, the romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. I'm something of a connoisseur of romantic comedies, and this is a better one. I give it a very solid B, possibly a B+. It's far superior to the execrable yet wildly successful While You Were Sleeping, but of course nowhere nearly as good the sine qua non of the modern form, Annie Hall, the rare romantic comedy in which the boy and the girl aren't together at the end.

More than anything else, what Music & Lyrics has going for it is its stars, both of them favorites of mine, both lovely to look at. I especially adore Drew Barrymore. In the film, she plays the girl who waters the plants of the Hugh Grant character, an aging '80s pop star reminiscent of Andrew Ridgely, the member of the British duo Wham! who wasn't George Michael. Grant is stuck trying to write a song, and by the standard magic of romantic comedies, Barrymore turns out to be so adept at writing lyrics she practically breathes them. Love ensues, then brief estrangement, then triumph.

I was surprised at the seriousness with which the film treats songwriting, a craft I know a little something about. I especially know what it is like to be blocked, as the Grant character is. Barrymore has a helpful insight when she says a good way to find inspiration is simply to walk around, to look and listen. John Lennon read newspapers for ideas, as I recall. In fact, he wrote a song referencing that very method.

Another good songwriting lesson the film offers, by example: be detailed. (It's good lesson for any kind of writing.) Late in the film, Grant earns redemption by singing a lyric he has written. The song simply recapitulates several of the film's plot points, but it's full of humorous details that the characters recognize, and so does the viewer. They're the sort of seemingly throwaway details ("You killed my plants") that can really bring songs to life. An example is in the Prince song "Kiss," which goes: "You don't have to watch 'Dynasty' to have an attitude." Why "Dynasty"? Why not?

As it happens, many of the tunes in Music & Lyrics are by the brilliant songwriter Adam Schlesinger, of the rock group Fountains of Wayne. He excels at coming up with just those kinds of details, and at pop songcraft generally.

What the film shows of the act of songwriting doesn't seem quite right, though. Instead we see -- appropriately enough, I guess -- a romanticized version of the task, where people gather around a piano and crank out the material. The film has a pop starlet character modeled on Britney Spears, and my sense is that songs released by the likes of Britney Spears don't so much get written around a piano. Instead, songwriters often write by recording these days. They lay down a groove in the software program Pro Tools, then come up with some lyrics that fit. It's one reason, methinks, that today's pop songs don't have hooks as indelible as the ones of yore.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

They make good police cars, too

For some reason I have always liked the Ford Crown Victoria, one of the last full-size sedans made an American car manufacturer. I could see myself buying one if I needed a new car, which I don't. They're roomy.

At the gas station this evening I was admiring the Crown Victoria that belonged to a woman at the pump across from mine. We both were waiting for our gas to finish pumping, and I began asking her questions about the car. It's very roomy, she noted.

Something else she said made me laugh later. She was not quite elderly, but she certainly was a woman of a certain age, perhaps 65. When I asked what year her car was, she laughed and said -- this woman in her 60s said -- "It was my mother's. We don't let her drive anymore." I'd estimate the mother, then, to be in her 80s, which mean I share a predilection for this car with a woman in her 80s.

People in their 80s have refined taste. They've been around long enough to know what they like.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


The alternative-weekly journalist Stephen George, staff writer for the Louisville Eccentric Observer, certainly is to be commended for his current project. He is giving up his car for a month and blogging about the experience at Share the Road.

But the project also makes me a little sad, and grateful. I grew up in a Southern city near Louisville, Nashville, so I know what Southern cities are like, and I can only imagine the challenges of car-free living in Louisville. A friend tells me that to commute by bicycle in the Music City these days is to invite constant heckling and worse. (Later we can discuss whether Louisville is a Southern city.)

Now, though, I live on the east side of Madison, Wis., mere feet from the bicycle path that I follow to my job downtown. My home is within a couple of blocks of something like 12 bus routes. I live steps away from a fabulous natural-foods supermarket, a pharmacy, a hardware store, a great video store, a storied nightclub, a print shop with roots in the counterculture, and zillions of locally owned restaurants and coffee shops. There is a Community Car Prius permanently stationed in the parking lot across the street from my apartment. My city is hardly a metropolis, but I could live perfectly well without owning a car.

I do own a truck, however, which comes in handy for road trips and movie excursions. But these too would be doable, especially with the Community Car. Just takes a little planning. (Car-free cinephilia is getting harder and harder for Madisonians.)

All of which is to say, wonderful Madison is great town for living car-free, and what's remarkable about that fact is that it is unremarkable, by local standards. Unremarkable enough that no one, I notice, has started a blog about it.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Good word

"Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you...which is something many recent college graduates -- myself included -- could use."

-- Jennifer Weiner

Thursday, April 19, 2007

From Hitler to chick lit

In case you wondered, I finally came to the end of William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the 1,599-page history that I despaired of ever finishing. I read the last page early this morning, during a bout of insomnia. The Germans lost.

Without missing a beat, and knowing that the insomnia was likely to continue, I grabbed the book I had placed on my nightstand in preparation for that moment: the copy of Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes that I found on the community bookshelf at the Willy Street Co-op. I like this book. It makes me laugh, which is more than I can say for the Shirer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The cruelest month

I'm relieved that I finished my taxes last night, just in time.

After defiantly filling out ever-more-complex paper forms for past tax years, last year I finally started using TurboTax, which has eased matters considerably. As someone who does freelance work -- mostly playing music, and writing in previous years -- I file the ever-popular Schedule C. And although I have filled out that form before, TurboTax does a much better job.

I started working on my taxes weeks ago, and things were going smoothly with TurboTax, as usual. But when it came time to fill out the Wisconsin form, the program told me I might need to fill out Schedule I, which bears this pithy title: "Adjustments to Convert 2006 Federal Adjusted Gross Income and Itemized Deductions to the Amounts Allowable for Wisconsin." Then TurboTax flashed the form in its entirety on the screen, and encouraged me to get cracking.

Now, I thought the point of TurboTax was that it asks simple questions in plain language, and then fills out the forms for us. If all it does is throw up actual tax forms for us to fill out, then what are we paying for? Schedule I intimidated me, so I ceased working on my taxes until last night.

I returned to Schedule I last night, and even downloaded the instructions for the form from the Wisconsin department of revenue's Web site. The instructions begin with these sonorous phrases:
INTRODUCTION – Generally, the Wisconsin Statutes require that the computation of taxable income on the 2006 Wisconsin income tax return is to be based on the Internal Revenue Code enacted as of December 31, 2004. Changes made to the Internal Revenue Code enacted after December 31, 2004, do not apply for Wisconsin income tax purposes.
Is that even English? More to the point, do those words seem particularly introductory? I'm sure my CPA readers are amused that I struggle to read that, but to me, the words all run together.

After some contemplation, I decided I didn't need to fill out Schedule I, and then I was all but finished with my taxes for another dreary April.