halloween Uncategorized video

The Great Sexy Halloween Costume Debate 1 of 4

My favorite singer/songwriter, Jill Sobule, has been charming us with this little ditty for several autumns now. It’s pretty much become a Halloween standard.


Tunesday video

Tunesday : 1988 Revolution Music–Tracy Chapman

1988 was probably the most pivotal year in my developing taste in music. Until that point, I’d pretty much been a bit of a drifter, taste-wise, taking what I liked from what 51jMBp+m6pLmy friends exposed me to–I could still remember being excited for months before the first “Asia” supergroup album came out in when I was junior high, and a year later I was sitting in my friend Andy’s room, blown away by bands I’d never even heard of before, like Husker Du, The Minutemen and The Jam.  Thanks, Andy!

The radio soundtrack to my youth was vintage Pittsburgh Classic Rock, pretty much the same three dozen songs iconic radio station WDVE still plays today: Journey. Zeppelin. Styx. That shit. I knew all the words to way too many Kansas songs, and like a lot of people  I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Journey.  Those summer nights are callin’.  Don’t stop believin’ , man.

In college I listened to what the local college radio played–some cool stuff and some not so cool stuff.  We joke in hindsight–it was the eighties, but on the other hand, it was the eighties.  Billy Joel was the King of Rock, and Bono was just some Irish Dude with a bad haircut standing in the snow--not the most earnest dick in rock spending the rest of his career trying to match that big, perfect anthemic single.

In 1988 a lot of things changed.  I’d been listening to more hippie music thanks to a room-mate in that old yellow craftsman bungalow on South Sixth Street, a great college house with beautiful woodwork and a ping-pong table that we nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” after meeting Kurt Vonnegut, who was an both an unapologetic asshole and just as magnificent as I’d hoped.  We thought it was a cool name, but it never stuck–not even with us.  We called it “the house.”

1988 was the year of N.W.A.’s eye-opening and mind-blowing album Straight Outta Compton, the subject of Part 3 of this post (coming next week at this time), and the equally fantastic Eric B. & Rakim album Follow The Leader, the playing of which earned my a “what the fuck are you listening to?” from another roommate.  This, of course, made me want to play it again.  And louder, if only to drown out his John Cougar Mellancamp.

It was against that background that I stumbled into some very different revolutionary music–a friend and I took some girls to see my favorite band, Cowboy Junkies (another 1988 band, deserving of their very own post), in the Dormont Theater, and the opening act was an unknown folk singer named Tracy Chapman.  None of us knew the first thing about her, and we were curious.  Now, our idea of what a folk singer should be was an amalgam of, say, Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez filtered through the only contemporary folkie getting any college radio play at the time, Suzanne Vega.

We expectied a soft spoken little pale girl–not a waif, but maybe a sprite. Probably in a little sundress. What we didn’t expect was a powerful, yet quiet and unassuming young black woman who stunned us to near silence for the entirely of her too-short set.  She was dressed all in black, like Johnny Cash. I still remember the uncertainty in her eyes, the embarrassed smile at our applause, and the way single spotlight reflected off the frets of her acoustic guitar.  I’d never before seen an audience demand an encore from an opening act, but we couldn’t get enough.

I also remember thinking: and this is what regular people get from church.


Tunesday: Lindi Ortega

lindi_ortegaAnother great, slightly under-the-radar singer/songwriter: Lindi Ortega doing “All My Friends.”  I picked this song in particular because not only is it a fantastic song by a talented artist with a mesmerizing voice, it would make the perfect opening song on a soundtrack of my nearly-finished novel, which opens with a whole lot of the protagonist’s friends wanting to see him dead.  Of course, with Ms. Ortega as the soundtrack, there would definitely be worse ways to go.


Rod McKuen, RIP to the King of Troubadours

150129-rod-mckuen-poet-725p_796b820602c383d4fc91346b42951db1.nbcnews-ux-520-400Does the name Rod McKuen mean anything to you?  It should, if you’re in your mid forties or older and had a mother or grandmother (or were one yourself) with a pulse in the mid 1960’s to late 1970’s.  At that time, a modestly talented San Francisco-based self-styled troubadour played on his ruffled good looks, sandy hair, and unique, scratchy voice to cultivate a beach bum schtick that made the guy millions.  He sold books of cheap, heart-wrenchingly saccharine verse to armies of misty-eyed young women, and toured the a0407909312_10country to sold out shows in large theaters. In short, he was a cultural enigma–an American poet who enjoyed wild popularity and remarkable commercial success who also happened to be a throwback folk/pop singer.  He would later go on to compose, arrange, and conduct classical music.

There was nothing groundbreaking about McKuen’s folk music or poetry–he was more a performer than an visionary, and it is certainly easy to mock his songs as simple and derivative, and his verse as simplistic and more worthy of greeting cards than anthologies–and yet, he wasn’t a “pop” artist in the truest sense of the word.  He didn’t so much tap into the trends of the time as he mined the zeitgeist of the world around him, infusing his performances with soft-focus romanticism and and outwardly heavy-handed humor which, on closer inspection, was a lot more sly than it appeared at first glance.

The three women who live with me derive great pleasure from roasting me over my frustratingly emotional, sentimental, and romantic nature–despite all the efforts of my inner misanthrope to dominate the sniveling dweeb who cries at movies and can’t manage to lie about anything important while maintaining eye contact.  It is a failure I blame urlon my mother, who played Rod McKuen records around the house and had several dozen of his books strewn about here and there, as well as Rod McKuen himself.  If he hadn’t been a sap its quite likely that I wouldn’t be, either.  I mean: look.

And now he’s dead, and it’s a little depressing.  I’ve never returned to those books or songs from my childhood, but when I see them in thrift stores and estate sales, which is almost always given the volume of his retail success and the burgeoning mortality of his fanbase, I smile a little.  To myself.  Indeed, I just read an article that classified him as “a beat poet alongside Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac,” and nearly spit out my whiskey.  It’s difficult to imagine McKuen’s kitsch held up alongside Ginsberg’s Howl, for example.  Kerouac, a more sensitive soul who, like McKuen, suffered from bouts of depression, isn’t so much of a stretch–not if you’ve read some of his verse.

And there’s the fact that Orson Scott Card, that motherfletcher disprected McKuen mightily, which is as good a reference as any.

Or that Frank Sinatra covered his music.  And Neil Diamond.

So, I admit it, knowing full well that my mom is never going to know that I said this after all the crap I gave her over the years: I still think McKuen was a lousy poety, but that doesn’t matter.  I liked the guy, and I’m forced to wonder if I’d love poetry today with the passion and intensity that I do if all that lousy poetry hadn’t been laying around the house when I was a kid.  So thanks, mom.  And to you to, Rod.

If you want to read a great essay about McKuen, check out Claire Dederer’s “Rod McKuen Appears In The Desert.”



Friday Morning Rock n Roll Idols: Poi Dog Pondering (video link repaired)


Poi Dog Pondering–I can’t think of a better band to throw out here as we enjoy the first truly warm days of spring.

One of the most enjoyable shows I ever saw was in the old Graffiti Lounge in michelle_shocked_cd_cover_high_2500Pittsburgh, late Spring 1990, for a triple bill featuring John Wesley Harding, Poi Dog Pondering, and the mercurial Michele Shocked.  The show started off on a great note–I’d picked up two comp tickets from the now-legendary progressive rock radio station WXXP.  You can’t beat a free show.

I remember nothing about Harding, and Shocked provided a solid if unspectacular show–though I liked her at the time, the album she was touring to promote, 1989’s “Captain Swing” wasn’t a favorite.

The real highlight of the evening turned out to be the quirky Texas-Hawaiian Folk-Pop-Rock-Hippie fusion collective Poi Dog Pondering, who had launched out of Austin Texas on the strength of a fun little song called “Living With The Dreaming Body” and landed in Pittsburgh with, it seemed, about two dozen members–including a flutist, a mandolin player, a fiddler, and a bunch of hippie-looking folks  banging on drums and looking like they’d been picked up at the youth hostel and added to band the night before.  Whatever was going on, Poi Dog brought the goods, and I was hooked.  Hard to believe it was 24 years ago.

Bonus: my favorite PDP song, recorded with Abra Moore in a motel bathroom (read the description on the youtube page)


Commentary Uncategorized



I took a free online course on Coursera recently–read some good old books.  For each selection, students were required to write a brief, 350-word essay that was then distributed to five random classmates for peer review.  The following dreck was my first offering, which was modestly reviewed–two of my five peers, one English and another American, complained that I used “too many big words.” Another American was appalled that I abandoned the accepted 5-paragraph essay form by editing out both conclusive (reiterative, it seems to me) paragraph and let the little essay dangled there from the edge of it’s own cliff.  The content, of course, was mostly stream of consciousness bullshit–I was going for sound as well as substance, but it was still an interesting exercise both in making a succinct and intelligible response and in observing that unlike most of our mass art today, the Grimm folk tales are almost anti-moralistic.  I haven’t taken another Coursera class, but the experience was certainly worthwhile.

 Ubiquitous in western culture, the tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are most familiar to modern readers as homogenized “Disney-fied” fantasies of plucky, rosy-cheeked protagonists set upon by, and ultimately prevailing over, evil—often psychotically so—villains. In a modern reality defined by the expectations of Hollywood accountants, the innocent victims—preferably princesses—prevail despite the devilry and magic summoned against them by armies of jealous Queens, cackling witches, and sociopathic stepmothers. Justice is delivered and all is set right in the world. 

Interestingly, the Grimm stories as translated by Lucy Crane present a much different and arbitrary chain of action between villain (where there is one), victim, and resolution. One might presume that social and cultural changes, specifically the conditions of a largely agrarian, pre-industrial society and the greater exposure to and familiarity with the often capricious forces of nature, result in a more nuanced, grittier and often less formulaic depiction of good, evil, and justice.

In the very first selection, The Rabbit’s Bride, it is difficult to even discern which character is villain and which is the victim: the lonely Rabbit, raiding the cabbage patch and seducing the maiden, or the maiden who allows herself to be seduced and betrothed before betraying her suitor and breaking his heart?  We see this unconventional approach again and again, from the bloodbath that is The Death of The Hen to The Straw, The Coal, and The Bean and on.  There is no justice in these sad tales, and the only possible moral is that tragedy and terror are only a few heartbeats away.

Even a seemingly traditional tale like Rumplestiltskin delivers questionable justice. However unfavorable the heroine’s condition, she strikes a deal with the odd little man and spends her time seeking a way to renege her contract. The story seems almost unfair, but justice in the Grimms’ stories often has less to do with right and wrong, or good and bad, than it does with elevating wit over stupidity.  Time and time again, the wily character prevails and the idiot suffers—whether that idiot is a dolt like Hans In Luck or Prudent Hans, or an inept villain like the Red Riding Hood wolf or the Hansel and Grethel witch.