Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Those items are food

Letters like the one I just read in the Willy Street Co-op's newsletter are the reason to belong to the Co-op. It begins:
Kindly advise your cashiers not to shove food towards customers in an effort to make them bag groceries more quickly. It's a bit indecorous. Those items are food that we've spent our hard-earned money to buy.
While you're at it, cashiers, stop pressing those keys so hard. Hurts my ears. And by the way, I work.

The letter about undue stress brought on by the article about green breastfeeding also is a keeper. Ah, Madison's fashionable east side.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Thursday, December 25, 2008

The true meaning

Glad tidings of the season to you all.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rockin' in the pleasure-dome

I'm fascinated by YouTube clips of the opening and closing credits for The Krofft Supershow, a live-action Saturday morning broadcast I recall fondly. It aired in the 1970s, when I was a child, and was one of a slew of trippy kids' shows produced by the puppeteer team of Sid and Marty Krofft (cf. Land of the Lost, H.R. Pufnstuf).

Critical sequences were taped not on the coasts but in downtown Atlanta, Ga. This is because the show existed partly to promote an indoor theme park: the World of Sid and Marty Krofft, which opened in the Omni hotel complex as part of a big urban-renewal land deal. As a Southern kid I felt great regional pride that Dixie could claim so wondrous a park and TV show. A fine remembrance of the park from Creative Loafing, the Atlanta alt-weekly newspaper, is here.

Like other 1970s downtown revitalization efforts, this one flopped. The park closed six months after it opened in 1976, and the hotel went bankrupt a couple of years later. It is now CNN Center.

In about 1978 my family drove down from Nashville to spend an Easter vacation at the Omni. The theme park was gone, but there was still lots to do: an ice-skating rink, shops, restaurants -- including Burt Reynolds' own Burt's Place. The Omni is where I encountered my first mall-style cookie store, complete with a love-testing machine from the penny arcade.

But all the fun aside, I remember standing in the vast atrium of the hotel -- I was 7 or 8 -- and gazing longingly up to where the theme park had been. When I squinted I was able to imagine puppets, rides, even a performance by the Krofft Supershow's glam-rock hosts, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs. But it was all gone, utterly gone.

In the still below, Kaptain Kool and the Kongs urge viewers to follow them -- on foot, on an Interstate highway -- to central Atlanta.

A crowd forms:

Now a sea of people make their way down the shoulder to the Omni:

A camera captures an aerial view of the Omni complex, which sits like a gleaming science fiction fantasy, a high-tech entertainment wonderland amid the abandoned ruins of the city. (For another view, check out this postcard.) In the foreground is the distinctive roof of the now-demolished Omni coliseum. Wrestling matches were held there:

Inside the Omni, Kaptain Kool, the very picture of kool, sings and plays the guitar. Behind and above him tantalizingly looms the World of Sid and Marty Krofft:

Kool is joined by his backing band the Kongs, among them Superchick, seen here performing elaborate stage moves in front of the theme park. Above her is what was billed as the longest free-standing escalator, which visitors rode up to the park. It is now part of the CNN studio tour:

Adieu, World of Sid and Marty Krofft. You burned brightly on The Krofft Supershow. You were the indoor theme park of my dreams, a glittering beacon of hope for the New South.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Business barometer

From day to day I assess the state of the economy based on the facial expressions of Betsy Stark, business correspondent for ABC News. She delivers financial reports on "World News With Charles Gibson," and the outlook lately has been bad:

Some relief came on Tuesday, when the Fed cut interest rates and the stock market rallied. It wasn't all good news, of course, but Betsy finally allowed herself a wry, tight smile:

Keep smiling, Betsy Stark! When you're happy, everyone's happy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Good word

"Torture, among its other applications, was part of Stalin's war against the truth. He tortured, not to force you to reveal a fact, but to force you to collude in a fiction."

Martin Amis, Koba the Dread

Monday, December 15, 2008

Good word

"Eisman knew subprime lenders could be scumbags. What he underestimated was the total unabashed complicity of the upper class of American capitalism."

-- Michael Lewis, "The End"

Friday, December 12, 2008

What I'm doing now that it's wintry in Wisconsin
  • Moisturizing. There's hell to pay if I don't.
  • Taking the bus to work. Kudos to Madison's winter bikers for their perseverance. I'm no winter biker.
  • Running at the gym. You won't catch me running in this, though the neighbors do.
  • Shoveling snow. Sometimes I do this in lieu of running at the gym.
  • Formulating new rituals for taking out the recycling. I don't want to track snow and mush all over my nice clean (?) floors by hauling the recycling container back and forth. So I have to get creative.
  • Staying indoors. Fuck it's cold out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


If on the left hand side of an accordion you press the C root button and the A minor chord button, you get a C6 chord. Likewise, if you press the C root button and the E minor chord button, you get C major 7. What this means is that if you throw in the obvious C root-C major chord combination, you can play the exciting C major-C6-C major 7 vamp that begins "Begin the Beguine." All on the left hand! Leaving the right hand free for skeetily bop bop, skeeby da doo.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Good word

"Womanizer woman womanizer you're a womanizer oh womanizer oh you're a womanizer baby you you you are you you you are womanizer womanizer womanizer."

Britney Spears, "Womanizer"

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Strange basement

In his memoir Witness to Power, Nixon White House counsel John Ehrlichman describes FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover's rumpus room. Stupefying:
After dinner we were led down the narrowest of basement stairs to "the recreation room" for an after-dinner drink. Again, every inch of wall space held some framed memento. In this room the prevailing motif was horse racing. There were pictures of Hoover with winning horses; Hoover with jockeys; Hoover in his box at Del Mar with movie stars, heavyset men, even a child.

Near the door was a small bar. All the walls over and near this counter were decorated with girlie pinups of the old Esquire vintage. Even the lampshade of a small lamp on the bar had naked women pasted on it. The effect of this display was to engender disbelief -- it seemed totally contrived. That impression was reinforced when Hoover deliberately called our attention to his naughty gallery, as if it were something he wanted us to know about J. Edgar Hoover.

Nixon had enjoyed the dinner conversation, but he was not comfortable in this strange basement. After one drink, he exercised the Presidential prerogative; he said good night and we left.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Like a drug

I feel smarter and funnier after watching Curb Your Enthusiasm reruns. The effect usually lasts a couple of hours. I feel the same way after watching Thin Man movies.
Attention shoppers

Despite massive crowds, the mood in Chicago's central shopping district Saturday was buoyant. A salesclerk at Macy's in the Loop initiated friendly banter with me about Thanksgiving fun, and elbow-to-elbow throngs on Michigan Avenue chattered brightly in the crisp fall weather. On a street corner I watched a tout in a cumbersome teddy bear costume receive aggressive hug after aggressive hug from boisterous passersby.

Aggressive hugs on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Why not?

In H&M Ereck shopped in the ever-shrinking men's department on the third floor as on the first floor I sat on a bench next to the escalator. There was considerable turnover at the bench, but I noticed that at moments when all the benchwarmers were men, passing women nudged each other comically and said, "Look at the poor guys" -- the gag, of course, being that the exhausted men had to wait as their significant others shopped. Near the bench was a rack of extravagantly awful fake fur coats that prompted many smiles, and some women mockingly tried on the atrocities. But none were bought.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Man from Midland

Last night I finally saw W., the Oliver Stone biopic of our decider-in-chief. I mostly admired it, especially the painfully studied performance of Thandie Newton as Condoleezza Rice and the grim determination of Josh Brolin as W. himself. Brolin's portrayal struck me as sympathetic, even though the film serves up plenty of Bush buffoonery.

Mostly W. brought me back to the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Back then I was, amid all the administration's interweaving justifications for war, baffled as to why the president was intent upon invading Iraq. It just didn't make sense to me, and I still am baffled. The movie floats a couple of explanations that at least are plausible -- that W.'s war was an Oedipal blow at his father, who spared Saddam; that the invasion was part of Dick Cheney's plan for total global domination.

But neither explanation seems sufficient. What I am mostly left with from the film is the scenes of Bush underlings bickering in the run-up to war, and these suggest another explanation, one that actually makes more sense to me than any other: That the war simply resulted from bureaucratic ineptitude. I'm thinking of the sort of blunder that can happen in any workplace: A bad idea is allowed to come to fruition only because no one stops it. In Stone's telling the members of Bush's war-making team are, many of them, limp yes-men, too weak to stand up to their boss, terrified of losing their sinecures. I include Secretary of State Colin Powell in that group -- he argues against the war up to a point, then accedes.

In this light the war is like the Edsel, or New Coke -- a poorly conceived product doomed to fail, the result of bureaucratic deliberations in an airless conference room, an embarrassing flop. Plus dead people.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Better dressed

Lately I can't get enough of What Not to Wear, the TLC makeover show that every week sees its two catty hosts destroying the ego of some wan schlub, then building it up again with structured jackets and pencil skirts.

What appeals to me most are those hosts, Clinton Kelly and Stacey London. For one thing, unlike many TV hosts, they come from the world of print journalism. I respect that. I think I may have heard Stacey London use the word gerund once, or was it Faustian. More than that, the two remind me of the University of Chicago undergraduates I went to college with: Overbearing, rather pretentious, given to lashing out, ultimately well-meaning. Reasonably attractive, also well-spoken. Doubtless deeply troubled, or they wouldn't dispense so much abuse.

Except that what really appeals to me most is Carmindy, the makeup maven. There's really no problem she can't fix with lip gloss.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Staying alive?

Random thoughts on Saturday Night Fever, which I had somehow never seen till last Friday night:

* Why did I deny myself this pleasure?

* The Brooklyn disco is much shabbier than I expected. I think that based on the promotional imagery, I expected the nightclub to be sleek and chic, almost like something out of science fiction. But it really just looks like the crummy neighborhood bar, except with a flashing plastic floor.

* That said, the film reminded me that in the disco era, when I was a lad of 7 or 8, I thought disco lights were wonderfully sophisticated and evocative, and I wanted nothing more than to decorate my bedroom with them. At the mall I would stand in the darkened, disco-light section of Spencer's and covet every whirling bulb.

* The line-dancing sequence to "Night Fever" made me weep a little. Like the other dance segments -- which are electrifying -- it is a moment of beauty, conviviality, focus in an otherwise depressing milieu of violence, racism, homophobia, desperation, chaos.

* The Bee Gees' "More Than a Woman" is perfect.

* It is chill-inducing to see iconic cinematic imagery in context. Yes, I nearly melted at the sight, finally, of Travolta in the white three-piece suit -- and was surprised to learn that when Travolta dances in the white suit, his face is grotesquely bruised and bandaged as a result of brutish street violence. The bandage doesn't appear in the promotional stills. Seeing Travolta in the suit reminded me of when, ten or so years ago, I went to see The Seven-Year Itch in a morning matinee at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. There I was, enjoying the film, and then suddenly the universe stopped turning as the moment arrived when Marilyn Monroe steps onto the subway grate and her skirt is blown up by the draft. My mouth went dry. I had never known that was in Seven-Year Itch! I think on some level it had never even occurred to me that this image was actually in a film, that it occurs as a moment in an unfolding narrative -- granted, as a searing, heartstopping non sequitur of a moment in an unfolding narrative. My mouth also went dry when I saw the white suit.

* The credit sequence, with Travolta strutting and swinging a paint can to "Stayin' Alive," is sheer joy.

* The disco is called the 2001 Odyssey, and the cinematic reference is striking. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Saturday Night Fever is a film about transformation, evolution, human development, about people striving to move beyond messy, violent origins. The flashing lights of the disco remind me of the psychedelic freakout segment of 2001, and the gracefulness of the dancing reminds me of 2001's elegant "Blue Danube Waltz" sequence, where the spaceships spin lazily around. Of course, one of the messages of 2001 is that even in the Space Age, man remains the animal that murders. I'm not sure the Disco Age is any less grim.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Logging off

I'm struck -- but not surprised -- that PC Magazine, the venerable technology periodical, is dropping its print product. I'm a longtime reader and subscriber and have noticed that the magazine is not the phonebook-sized thing it was in the 1990s. I also noticed when it dropped back to a monthly, not all that long ago.

I was reminiscing just the other day about PC Magazine in connection with one of my first post-college jobs, at a Chicago software firm 15 years ago. Like the entry-level employees who came before and after me, I had the task of maintaining the company's library of computer periodicals, including PC Magazine. Something tells me they no longer keep that library.

It makes sense that a technology magazine would be among the first to go all-Web. But as an editor with a general-readership periodical, the Madison, Wis. alt-weekly newspaper Isthmus, I gotta say that the change is unsettling.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Paging Thomas Wolfe

I'm happy to announce that I Grew Up in Donelson, Tenn., a Facebook group I started, is going great guns with 52 members and counting. Yes, I am That Guy, and I started one of Those Groups. It pleases me that from this group Facebook points members to other, possibly related groups, like I Took Dance at Miss Hill's and Still Know the Spaghetti Rag.

I liked growing up in Donelson. So far we have reminisced about Western Auto, Western Sizzlin and Coiffures Hair Design. Oh yes, and the Lad and Dad.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Critics' choice

As a weekly writer of entertainment blurbs myself, I must say these three- and four- and six-word television blurbs in a 1983 New York Times are paragons of the form. Sheer poetry, and I do mean haiku.

Titans blurbed then. "Not bad. Try it."

Friday, November 07, 2008

Bad word

"Among new information surfacing from inside the McCain campaign is that Palin didn't know that Africa is a continent rather than a country unto itself."

-- Kathleen Parker

Monday, November 03, 2008

Match made in Valhalla

Some weeks back I posted about a computer video card I briefly owned. The card -- which is meant to go inside a computer, mind you -- was emblazoned with an illustration of a pretty, busty young woman brandishing some sort of martial arts weapon. What's it all about? I wondered.

I'm still not ready to answer the question, but I do have a response of sorts. I just bought still another video card, and on the outside of the box is an illustration of a pretty, busty young man who appears to be a bit player in Norse mythology, or else a professional wrestler.

So how can we get these kids together?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

He is special

Charlie Rose's 1994 interview with Fred Rogers makes me weep continuously.
Stiff upper lip

There aren't enough mustaches in presidential politics. For a mustachioed major-party candidate, I think you have to go back to 1948. And what a year that was.
Good word

"Sarah Palin didn't need the best clothing and stylists money could buy; she needed tutoring and coaching on the issues."

-- Joan Walsh

Friday, October 10, 2008

Good word

"As for our current adventure in Mesopotamia, consider this lustrous alumni roster. Bush 43: Yale. Rumsfeld: Princeton. Paul Bremer: Yale and Harvard. What do they all have in common? Andover! The best and the brightest."

-- Christopher Buckley

Friday, September 26, 2008

Viva Berrymans

In my new editing gig at Isthmus I don't have much time to write magazine-length features. That's too bad, since that writing is the most satisfying work I do, and also the most challenging.

But I'm delighted that in this week's paper is an article I wrote about Lou and Peter Berryman, the local legends of comic folk music. It is here. I hope you read it. I am proud of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Walk these hills

On our summer vacation in Townsend, Tenn., I was glad to spend some time relaxing at the place my folks own there: Reading, playing music, idling. But the property's great draw is its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the forested wonderland whose underutilized Little Greenbriar entrance is about eight minutes away from the old homestead.

Many -- most? -- visitors to the park explore it by car. But it is crisscrossed with hiking trails, and the best way to take it in is to strap on sturdy footwear and walk. So Ereck and I went on strolls of lesser and greater lengths, hikes that took us to roaring cascades, to groves of mighty, old-growth poplars, to stunning, damp grottoes of rhododendron in lush bloom.

Something strange happened as I walked those paths. I kept flashing back to, of all things, vacations I took as a kid to Disney World, and I especially remembered the paved paths I trod at the Frontierland attraction Tom Sawyer Island. Like many Disney attractions, Tom Sawyer Island is about storytelling, of a kind. As with Space Mountain, It's a Small World or the Haunted Mansion, you start at some point; you move through the attraction, either on foot or in some kind of transport; you take in imagery, words, music. A narrative unfolds, and in the process you are, the designers hope, variously thrilled, frightenened, amused, charmed. The same goes for tourist attractions of many kinds: museum exhibits, house tours, caves. The difference with Tom Sawyer Island is that there is freedom, or at least the illusion of freedom. You don't follow a single path. You're free to roam around -- or, more accurately, "free," since your movements are in fact limited by the attraction's design.

I got the same feeling of freedom/"freedom" in the Smokies park. On the one hand, it was liberating to choose from the hundreds of miles of paths, to experience the almost total solitude of the park's remote areas, to encounter flowers, deer, tiny frogs in their wild state.

On the other hand, the Smokies park is in some ways no less an artificial construct than the Disney park. The Smokies park exists partly as the result of an act of preservation, of course, but also acts of creation. Those trails have been blazed, preserved. They are well marked by handsome wood signs. They travel by campgrounds, roads, parking lots.

The weirdest thing about the Disney flashbacks is that I unconsciously kept waiting for the narrative to solidly kick in. Disney attractions let you experience stories immersively: Mr. Toad has a wild ride, Tom Sawyer runs around in the woods, Snow White's prince comes, etc. But although you can pick up on hints of narrative from the Smokies' paths, they're very different kinds of stories. Years ago, mountains were formed, and plant and animal species evolved. More recently, Native Americans lived here, and then European settlers. There were quaint folkways, and also acts of violence. Now, for the most part, no one lives here. Very different from Mr. Toad's wild ride.

But mostly what I contemplated on the paths weren't stories but rather mysteries. Why is this roaring cascade here? Why this lush rhododendron?

I still haven't come up with an answer.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Big screen

I'm fascinated by the New York Times' take on the Blu-Ray release of How the West Was Won, the rare narrative film made in the original, three-strip Cinerama process. Dave Kehr writes: "The images are so crisp as to feel almost unreal; the depth of field seems dreamlike, infinite, with the blades of grass in the foreground as sharply in focus as the snow-capped mountains in the distant background."

I'm transported back more than ten years, when a friend and I made the 10-hour round-trip drive from Chicago to an art cinema in Dayton, Ohio to see This Is Cinerama, the first film made in the three-strip process, back in 1952. Some nut -- um, enthusiast -- had cobbled together enough equipment and film reels to reproduce the Cinerama process, which has three projectors going at once to create a giant, wide image. Like most three-strip Cinerama films (only a handful were made), This Is Cinerama is a travelogue, with scenes shot on a roller coaster; in Venice; and at a Florida water ski show.

I loved the experience, not least because the various bits of film had been gathered from different sources and had aged differently. So sometimes the image in the middle was, say, pinker than the others. Okay, that aspect was more interesting than I'm making it sound.

And 50 years later, old prints notwithstanding, the presentation looked simply wonderful -- as enthralling as Kehr makes it sound, except that I was looking at a huge movie screen, not a television. Widescreen TV is great, but you still can't beat moviegoing. I want the film of my life to be in three-strip Cinerama.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

That's sure not to backfire!

An Obama proxy links Sarah Palin, tenuously, to the Nazis. Or Nazi sympathizing. Or something.
Good word

"When Republicans aren't complaining about someone's lack of experience, they are calling for term limits."

-- Michael Kinsley

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Arugula-induced amnesia

I'm as effete a Blue Stater as you'll find, but I'm regularly dismayed to see members of my latte-sipping cohort willfully misunderstand their fellow Americans. I'm thinking most recently of today's Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times on Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who's John McCain's vice presidential pick. Here's smug Dowd:
Obama may have been president of The Harvard Law Review, but Palin graduated from the University of Idaho with a minor in poli-sci and worked briefly as a TV sports reporter.
Now Dowd and I may be impressed by Obama's Harvard Law Review credential. (Especially Dowd, who went to Catholic University of America (where?).) But does she remember why Republicans took over the government some years back? Because Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and a couple of generations' worth of Western and Southern Republican politicians mobilized a great many voters who either a) didn't care about Harvard or b) hated Harvard a lot, and either way thought a University of Idaho education was a fine thing.

If Obama wants to win, what he must do is expand his base beyond Prius-driving, Harvard-enthralled gays and lesbians and convince a whole lot of voters that he's a great guy despite having been president of the Harvard Law Review.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

There's always YouTube

I skipped the Obama speech. Instead I watched Unfaithful with Diane Lane on Lifetime, where she cheats on Richard Gere with an impressively stereotypical French guy and manslaughter most foul is committed with a snowglobe.
Good word

"Who knew that Alaska even had a governor?"

-- David Blaska

Friday, August 29, 2008

Can you hear me

Even though Doris Lessing's shattering first novel The Grass is Singing is set in 1940s South Africa, I can't help imagining that in this paperback edition's cover illustration, Mary Turner is talking on her cell phone.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Burns in the news

"One guest, Kenneth Burns, brought in a lunchbox filled with 45s, half of it disco. It inspired a group jam of ABBA's 'Dancing Queen.'"

I was just sorry we didn't have time to listen to my Charlie Daniels 45s. Read all about it here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

That old thing?

Disregard any suggestion you read on the New York Times' web site that your crappy rabbit-ears antenna won't work after the digital television transition in February. It will. But you may need a convertor to plug it into. It's surprising that the Times is still getting this wrong, with the transition just months away. But there's been a lot of confusion.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Hidden meaning

I regularly tinker with computers, which is why some months back I found myself in possession of this video card. Note that the card -- which generally you'd find inside a PC case, completely out of sight -- features an illustration of a thin, pretty, busty, scantily clad young woman brandishing some kind of martial arts weapon. (In a craggy snowscape.) Why? The likely reasons are too depressing to contemplate.

I eventually returned the card, but not because of her.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Football time in Tennessee

Chilhowee, Tenn., July 20, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008


"There's no reason Big Brother -- or Big Sister, in this instance -- couldn't be attractive and well groomed."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Now with 18 1/2 minutes of special features

Just in time for the conventions, on Aug. 19 drops a new video release of the Oliver Stone romp Nixon, starring Anthony Hopkins and wondrous Joan Allen. It is being packaged as a special Election Year Edition! The irony of course is that if Nixon had had his way there wouldn't be any election years.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Good word

"Never's just the echo of forever."

-- Kris Kristofferson, "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends"

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I meant to tell you, my fabulous blog readers (and the many people who find their way here because I once linked to a picture of a nearly nude Rachael Ray -- welcome!), that as of a couple of weeks ago I have switched from Isthmus features editor to Isthmus arts and entertainment editor, while my wondrous colleague the longtime A&E honcho takes a hiatus. Wish me luck!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Not all NASA-themed novelty disco songs sucked
Chicken Little didn't lie

As a musician who is interviewed by journalists, and as a journalist who interviews musicians, I know all about a question that every music writer learns in Music Journalism 101. Musicians dislike the question because it isn't a very good one:

What are your influences?

Musicians dread the question because they know music writers may not like the answer. For example, I am an alternative country singer, so I might plausibly respond as the writer likely believes I will: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams. Senior.

But although I admire those artists tremendously, musicians who have influenced me at least as much include ones I loved when I was a kid: Styx, Donna Summer, Thomas Dolby. And there are more contemporary sounds I like that might not make sense as country influences: Kelly Clarkson, Outkast, the Whitewater polka artist Steve Meisner. But I suspect those answers wouldn't end up in the article. Or if they did, they would be only the punchline of a not very illuminating joke.

The point is that, for this musician at least, there's no telling what will influence me musically. Which brings me to today's featured track.

Years ago I blogged about being moved when I identify songs I dimly remember from childhood. That happened just the other day when I played a 45 given to me as a present by my very thoughtful boyfriend: The Astronuts, "Skylab Is Falling." Incredibly, he turned the record up on eBay based on my pitifully vague description. It is a novelty disco song I remembered, if faintly, from the summer of 1979, when the pioneering American space station Skylab crashed to earth. I was 8.

Actually, all I recalled was the title refrain, fraught with pathos. But the memory of Skylab's demise stayed with me, and years later I mentioned the event in a song of my own, the Junkers' "Susan B. Anthony Dollar Rag," about the ill-fated coin:

Now 1979 was the year for disaster
Three Mile Island was ailin', Skylab met the master
And ol' Brezhnev said Hey, I never been to sunny Afghanistan

Those are all events I remember from that year, and indeed they are my earliest political memories. And for my memory of Skylab's falling I can thank the Astronuts, whose charming, propulsive disco ditty planted the seed for what has turned out to be a lifelong fascination with manned spaceflight. But that's another blog entry.

The Astronuts - Skylab Is Falling

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Good word

"It's not possible to watch two weeks' worth of performances by athletes of Olympic calibre without having your capacity to be thrilled and inspired enlarged, especially as you get older and there is not much about your own life that is gravity-defying."

-- Nancy Franklin

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Good word

"The piano ... is capable of a rapidity and clarity of utterance of which the organ is incapable; and no other instrument but the organ approaches its resources in chords, range, and brilliance. Except the organ, it is the only self-supporting instrument; it can furnish absorbing employment for the four hands of two performers. The chief lack is the inability to swell a sustained tone, and some method of adding this final touch of human interest will doubtless be devised in time by some of the many minds engaged upon the problem."

-- Rupert Hughes, Music Lovers' Cyclopedia (1912)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Good word

"Women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I do not avoid women, Mandrake. But I do deny them my essence."

-- Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Hello from computerland

The power supply I bought when I built a computer a few months ago is quieter than the one that was in the computer I'm using as a home theater PC. It's important for an HTPC to be quiet, so I decided to swap the power supplies. But I was temporarily stymied when I realized that the power supplies' motherboard connectors didn't match. The old power supply has a 20-pin connector, but the new one has a 24-pin connector. I eventually learned, though, that a 20-pin power connector can work with a 24-pin motherboard, and that you can disconnect the extra four pins from a 24-pin power connector, making a 20-pin connector. So that all worked out. Now the HTPC is quieter, though I'm still not quite convinced that this beta of the DVR software that supports QAM is ready for prime time. I guess that's why it's a beta.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Today in comedy

I love the lead of this Wall Street Journal editorial about the indictment on corruption charges of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens:
Yesterday's seven-count indictment of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens is another blow to the Republican Congressional reputation for honest government...
The wha? Oh, I suppose Congressional Republicans have a reputation for honest government, in the sense of reputation as erroneous notion wildly promoted by ideologues in spite of flood tides of evidence to the contrary.

(Don't even get me started on Teapot Dome.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Short confession

At the end of the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "Redemption, Part 1" (you remember, season four's cliffhanger finale), which I watched last night, I got a little teary when Picard and the Enterprise crew gave Worf a surprise formal send off as he left the Federation and threw in his lot with the Klingon High Council.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Good word

"Sickness will surely take the mind where minds can't usually go."

-- The Who, "Amazing Journey"

Monday, July 21, 2008

All I ever wanted

Back from vacation! We just spent two glorious weeks in Tennessee and North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains, as we did last summer. We hiked steep paths; saw frogs the size of your thumbnail; ate grits; took shelter from a thunderstorm in a 150-year-old cabin; and explored Knoxville's glorious Sunsphere, a treasure with or without the wig store.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Good word

"The left wing fears the right, but the right does not fear the left."

-- Vincent Bugliosi

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Good word

"Indoor fireworks can still burn your fingers."

-- Elvis Costello, "Indoor Fireworks"

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Good word

"Things get complicated when you get past 18."

-- The Statler Brothers, "The Class of '57"
Good word

You can’t have your Kate and Edith, too
You rascal you, yodelayheehoo

-- The Statler Brothers, "You Can't Have Your Kate and Edith Too"

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Whose space?

Remember MySpace? Well, I've got a music page up on MySpace now, at www.myspace.com/kennethburnsmusic.

That would be music that is my own music, the Kenneth Burns music, as opposed to the music of the various groups I play with. Plain old Kenneth Burns music (except there's nothing plain about it!), including a listing of upcoming gigs. Okay, there's just the one. At the moment.

So check it out. Friend me. Forever.
Good word

"It's all right to be little bitty."

-- Tom T. Hall, "Little Bitty"

Monday, June 30, 2008

Not all Country Music Hall of Famers sucked

They're all pretty wonderful, in fact, and I'm delighted to learn that yesterday in my hometown of Nashville was the ceremony inducting the Statler Brothers and Tom T. Hall into that august group. They're two of my favorite country acts, and it only means -- ulp -- I'm getting older when I can say that I'm a lifelong fan of both.

The Statler Brothers, like their contemporaries the Oak Ridge Boys, sing secular, contemporary country music in the vocal style of old-time Southern gospel quartets. It's a sound I love. But unlike the Oak Ridge Boys, the members of the Statler Brothers bring extraordinary songwriting chops to their work. Their hit "Flowers on the Wall," by late Statler tenor Lew DeWitt, is a breathtaking, sui generis song for the ages. Also first-rate is "Bed of Roses," which I'm including here. Written by bass singer Harold Reid, "Bed of Roses" is sung achingly by brother and baritone Don Reid. It's a love song, but a sad and desperate one.

Speaking of extraordinary songwriting chops, the Tom T. Hall nod is well deserved, and then some. He's one of a small number of mainstream Nashville songwriters who craft material that's very personal, but also very accessible -- even, dare I say, commercial. Although he can turn a memorable hook as well as anyone (viz., "That's How I got to Memphis"), his stock in trade is story songs -- sad or funny or poignant narratives, told with great wit, humble insight, unadorned language and, generally, a heaping helping of ambivalence. One of his best in this vein is "Margie's at the Lincoln Park Inn," a motel song to beat all motel songs.

Congrats, gentlemen!

The Statler Brothers - Bed of Roses
Tom T. Hall - Margie's At the Lincoln Park Inn

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Good word

"In the Ziegfeld audience, meanwhile, the scattering of live men and boys was greatly outnumbered by the 18-inch-tall inanimate members of the audience, who sat stiff and unblinking as their companions squirmed, giggled and whispered."

-- A.O. Scott, "The Age of American Girl: An Empire of Mixed Messages"

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Back to basics

It's a sick joke, the likes of which I can't say I expected to find in Palmer-Hughes Accordion Course, Book 1. When I first got this volume and paged through it, I of course noticed "Vegetables on Parade," in part because it's got a great illustration, in part because it reminded me of the psychedelic Beach Boys song "Vegetables," a current favorite. But I only glanced at the music, then flipped on.

But tonight I picked up the squeezebox and played through Book 1, and I was surprised, when I came to "Vegetables on Parade," to realize I already knew the tune. It's familiar from many a polka dance at the Essen Haus, and indeed is probably the third or fourth best-known polka tune (after "Beer Barrel Polka" and "In Heaven There is no Beer" (and "Chicken Dance"?)).

It is, yes, "Too Fat Polka," featuring the indelible refrain, "I don't want her, you can have her, she's too fat for me (hey!)." The song doubtless was considered a hoot in 1947, but these days it can induce cringes. The sentiment is not so friendly.

So I am left bemused by the 1952 Palmer-Hughes rewrite. "To be healthy, you must eat your vegetables each day," go the lyrics to "Vegetables on Parade." True enough, but are these words meant to rebuke the poor woman in "Too Fat Polka" -- to warn her she ought to eat better? Or is "Vegetables on Parade" meant as a snarky send-up of "Too Fat Polka" itself? The mind reels.

By the way, part of me feels silly about working my way through the youngsters' material in the Palmer-Hughes books. (Book 1 begins, "Dear Parents, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO BE PROUD!") But I've had this beautiful accordion a few years now, and all I've done so far is get it out every six months or so and clumsily play "Tennessee Waltz." These books, at least, are structured, which is something. Maybe I'll break down and take some lessons. At any rate, soon, I think, I'll get past these simple songs ("Charlie the Chimp" is a highlight) and on to bigger things.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I love David Letterman

If you missed the broadcast, I could try to explain to you what this image from Tuesday's "Late Show With David Letterman" means -- the gasoline, the blindfold, the platter of luncheon meats, the cocktail dresses. But I'm not sure it would make sense anyway, and that's not really the point. The point is that it was another moment of inspired lunacy from Letterman, who commented on the image with the note-perfect quip, "That looks like something Amnesty International would be looking into."

I've been a Letterman fan since I was 13, and my dad would storm into the family room late at night demanding that I shut off "Late Night With David Letterman" and go rest up for school. (He had a point, and I started taping the show instead.) Much of what Letterman pioneered a generation ago has pervaded all of pop culture, especially his glibness. But I say no one does it better than Letterman, all these years later. No one is smarter than Letterman. No one is funnier than Letterman.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Good word

I like to listen to Hank
While I'm being spanked

-- Jerry Dale McFadden, "Country Beats the Hell Out of Me"

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Shoes that fit

Read my Daily Page article on Le Dame, a Verona, Wis. company that sells women's shoes in men's sizes.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Inside politics