I eagerly anticipate this time of the year when the year’s best reads are published. I don’t compare the books I read with the writers/editors choices since most of the books I read (or listen to) in a calendar year are published in other years, I use these lists as books to consider reading next year or later.
With that said, here are my favorite reads of 2019, with only four of the titles published in the last twelve months (and one of them originally released about 1000 years ago). The list is in no specific order except for separating nonfiction from fiction; however, the first three or four titles in Nonfiction are my top reads of the year.
Most books I read/listen to in a given year are nonfiction and of these titles, my favorite are political. It is a hangup of mine that I wish I could shake, but to repeat a popular term, I am a political junkie.
We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End ofBig Money and the Rise of a Movement by Ryan Grim, 2019
This should be essential reading for all progressives. The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim tells the 30-year story of a popular movement that started with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Collision and has culminated in the rise of Bernie Sanders into the national conscience and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise into American politics (who may have coined the name of the book: “We’ve got people. They’ve got money”). Grim expertly shows how Ocasio-Cortez did not grow out of a vacuum but is part of a movement that’s time may have come. If I had to pick my favorite read of the year (regardless of when it was published), it would be this one! Note to audio book listeners: Chapter 16 is a mess, but after I contacted the author via Twitter, he sent me a clean recording of the problem chapter. For audio book enthusiasts, note that reader, Sean W. Stewart must have recorded the book on his back porch—you can hear birds tweeting in the background!
Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, 2017
If Grim’s book is my favorite read of 2019, “Utopia for Realists” comes in a close second. The same goes for the authors: Grim is as gracious as he is knowledgeable. Equally, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, journalist, and author is a brilliant thinker who is not afraid to tell it like it is, even when surrounded by multimillionaires and billionaires. If you haven’t seen him dressing down of the elite during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, click here. It is a thing to behold! He has become one of the champions of universal basic income or UBI. Check out his 2017 Ted Talk. His book–that came out the same year–tackles that idea in detail as well as the 15-hour workweek, and open borders. He wasn’t convincing about the 15-hour workweek. I vaguely remember him writing about how John Maynard Keynes brought it up in the depths of the Great Depression, but reducing the workweek (without reducing pay) in America is an idea which time has come.
On Fire: The Case for the Green New Deal by Naomi Klein, 2019
Naomi Klein is quite possibly the most significant thinker of our times. I once read someone saying Klein is the next Noam Chomsky. An absurd statement. Chomsky is Chomsky, and Klein is Klein. Still, the idea that the Canadian author, journalist, and activist has risen to the heights of a Chomsky is an achievement. She is absolutely essential.
“On Fire” is a continuation of one of her masterpieces, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.” It reports from the front lines of the people and ideas that are looking for solutions like The Green New Deal. It is not as thorough and as in-depth as “This Changes Everything,” but I think it is meant to be a companion piece to it. Worth a read!
Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by William Pollan, 2008
Pollan’s manifesto is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, when he says “food,” he is not referring to Twinkies, Snickers, all processed foods. There are 64 Food Rules in the book. Each rule is simple, and its explanation is only about a page long. For being a tiny book, it is deceptively dense in wisdom. I’ve been trying to lose weight, and this book has helped, though “Food Rules” is not, by definition a diet book, but rather a guide on how to eat right.
What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States by Dave Zirin, 2005
For some time now, my son has been trying to get my wife and I to read “Welcome to the Terrordome” written by someone named “Check D,” a wrapper myFor some time now, my son has been trying to get my wife and me to read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” written by someone named “Check D,” a wrapper my son apparently likes. He hasn’t been successful, but on a long car trip, he had me cornered. I finally looked up the title and found out the book is actually written by The Nation Magazine‘s sports editor Dave Zirin. (Chuck D, turned out to write the Forward.) As a long-time reader of The Nation and a one-time listener to Zirin’s podcast, “The Edge of Sports,” I knew and appreciated Zirin. So I ended up ordering the book, and in the meantime, Zirin’s previous book, “What’s My Name, Fool?” was available in audio, so I started listening to that. I was not disappointed.
“What’s My Name, Fool?” (a refrain Muhammad Ali asked his competitors who insisted on calling him by his “slave” name, Cassius Clay) is about the confluence of sports and politics. The book’s main topics are Ali and his fight for dignity against a white establishment, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ expression of Black Power and racism 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City and how the two continued to fight after the blowback. Zirin also compassionately expressed the other side of when George Foreman waved a small U.S. flag after winning his gold medal in boxing during those same Olympic Games. Zirin covers Jackie Robinson and the racism he had to face every day when playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the long-term effect that had on the ballplayer’s life. Other topics include the plantation mentality of the multi-billion-dollar NCAA, the Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match, and other issues. I’m glad my son, indirectly pointed me to this book. Perhaps n 2020, I’ll read “Welcome to the Terrordome,” which, if the critics are correct, is a sequel to “What’s My Name, Fool?”
Lightly: How to Live a Simple, Sceren, Stress-Free Life by Francine Jay, 2019
I don’t read very many self-help books, but I have read a couple of books on minimalism: the elegant “Goodbye Things” by Fumio Sasaki, and my first book on the subject, “Everything That Remains” by Joshua Fields Millburn, but “Lightly” is the first book that doubles as a field guide. That is, it is part theory, part “how-to” manual that someone like Marie Kondo might appreciate. It has been a while since reading the Sasaki and Millburn books, but I believe what I really love about Jay’s beautiful book is how she addresses global issues. While the other authors focus mostly on personal issues, Jay also talks about the importance of reducing your carbon footprint.
The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future by Andrew Yang, 2018
I like Yang, even if he is against minimum wage (a deal-breaker if he wants my vote). He has some good ideas: his “Freedom Dividend” (read: UBI. No better yet, read Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists,” mentioned above). His idea on how to pay for the $1k a month to every adult American is refreshing, but I prefer Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s better. Yang doesn’t seem to want to ruffle the elite’s feathers—he believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming like a runaway train, and there’s nothing we can do about it, but take the $1k and deal with it. He does a great job here explaining how the Fourth Industrial Revolution (automation and artificial intelligence (AI)) is going to make a lot of blue-collar and even some white-collar jobs obsolete, but, as I recall, he offers few solutions besides a monthly check to remove some of the sting and the way he will pay for his “Freedom Dividend”—implementing a European-style Value Added Tax. (A tax that is placed on all products whenever value is added at each stage of the supply chain.)
Since I’m a socialist, I don’t think we should just roll over and let Big Tech and corporations steal all these jobs. AI and automation should be for the benefit of labor, not for the board of directors and shareholders. AI and automation should work to reduce the workweek, not the paycheck. Still, there are a lot of great ideas in this book. It’s worth a read.
Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean, 2017
Just when I thought how the radical right took control of America, my friend at work handed me this hardbound bomb. I was ignorant enough to think the attack on the liberal gains of FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society started with the Powell Memorandum in 1972. The Powell Memo was indeed destructive, but that was only one volley and Powell played a minor roll in the rise of neoliberalism in America. There was a far bigger player in this successful dismantling of the social programs and institutions that even Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon accepted as established. His name was James McGill Buchanan Jr.
“Democracy in Chains” is an explosive expose of the radical right’s most successful attempt at destroying labor unions replacing them with Right to Work laws, privatizing public education, privatizing the prison systems, hobbling health care, replacing pensions with 401k plans, launching multiple attempts to privatize Social Security, keeping as many of us as possible out of the voting booth, and, in general, disenfranchising the middle class. MacLean does an excellent job of revealing the hidden political establishment behind far-right foundations thought to be started by billionaires like the Koch Brothers. Buchanan stands head and shoulders above highly visible thinkers like Milton Friedman, Richard Fink, Friedrich Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises.
The most fascinating thing I found about this book is Buchanan, and his like-minded thinkers attack “democracy” in favor of “freedom.” I’ve never heard of democracy referred to as a dirty word in America until reading this book. Too, the term “freedom” has the convenient definition as something that benefits wealthy white men–a greater opportunity for the rich to get richer and for everyone else (especially poor people of color) to remain disenfranchised. The Nation awarded “Democracy in Chains” Most Valuable Book of 2017. It deserves the accolade.
Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action by Seane Corn, 2019
I should take it easy on the political books and podcasts. I didn’t know who to kill after reading “Democracy in Chains”–maybe start with me? I always feel better reading/listening to works like “Revolution of the Soul.” Seane Corn is a singular yoga teacher and this is an excellent read for being her first–part memoir, part the kind of instruction Corn’s followers have come to expect from her.
Her publisher, Sounds True writes, “Seane’s real purpose is to guide us into a deep, gut-level understanding of our highest Self through yoga philosophy and other tools for emotional healing – not just as abstract ideas but as embodied, fully felt wisdom. Why? To spark a ‘revolution of the soul’ in each of us so we can awaken to our purpose and become true agents of change. Seane writes, ‘When we heal the fractured parts of ourselves and learn to love who we are and the journey we’ve embarked upon we will see that same tender humanity in all souls. This is the revolution of the soul.'”
Each chapter of this memoir includes practical tools from the author: instructions on the chakra system, pranayamas, healing, forgiveness, the subtle body, and more. Not into yoga? Perhaps this book isn’t for you. What can I say? It’s my blog.
Heart of a Lion: A Lone Cat’s Walk Across America by William Stolzenburg, 2016
The author traces the steps of an embattled mountain lion from the Black Hills of North Dakota, across the Great Plains, through the Midwest to Connecticut’s Gold Coast–a two-year odyssey. It’s a fascinating and, at least for me, tragic tale of how we are slowing killing off some of our most majestic mammals due to human encroachment and misunderstanding. Goodreads.com calls it “a testament to the resilience of nature, and a test of humanity’s willingness to live again beside the ultimate symbol of wildness.” I couldn’t have said it better.
The Hidden Life of Wolves by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2013 andThe Wisdom of Wolves: Lessons from the Sawtooth Pack by Jim Dutcher, Jamie Dutcher, James Manfill, 2018
This was the first year I ever started reading about wild cats and dogs. First, I read “Heart of a Lion” then I read “The Hidden Life of Wolves” followed by the he beautiful pictorial “The Wisdom of Wolves.” I came away with a similar feeling had had when a read books on sharks after seeing the film “Jaws”: how misunderstood these predators are.
What was especially fascinating about the Dutcher books is how the couple and Manfill were able to become accepted in the Sawtooth Pack in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. (At one point Jamie Dutcher is allowed into a she-wolf’s den after after she has given birth to pups!) The products of this kind of acceptance is an excellent study on how wolves live and some absolutely stunning photography.
America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis, 2016
“Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wallis writes, “America’s problem with race has deep roots, with the country’s foundation tied to the near extermination of one race of people and the enslavement of another. Racism is truly our nation’s original sin. It’s time we right this unacceptable wrong.” I have read Wallis’ books and editorials for years in his Sojourners Magazine–a Christian progressive monthly.
In “America’s Original Sin,” Wallis tells of how he was driven away from his faith by a church that didn’t want to address the problems of racism in the 1960’s. He turned to working with civil rights groups. He returned to the church when he found a faith that commands racial justice. “Yet as recent tragedies confirm” he writes, “we continue to suffer from the legacy of racism. The old patterns of white privilege are colliding with the changing demographics of a diverse nation.”
I probably read one book of fiction for every three nonfiction books, but afterreading each of these books I felt I was missing out.
American Pastoral by Philip Roth, 1987
Roth won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for this masterful work of loss and distrust recounted by a family friend during a high school reunion and spans about fifty years, starting in the early 20th century where Seymour “Swede” Levov’s father starts a profitable glove manufacturing business and continues through the idyllic 50’s when the son, All-American college star, Swede Levov, and his trophy wife, Dawn, watch their seemingly perfect life, with their daughter, slowly unravel through the tumultuous ’60s. For me, it is one of the most heartbreaking yet compelling books I have ever read, and the first book I have read by the lauded Philip Roth.
Ohio by Stephen Markley, 2018
Shortly after Philip Roth, one of the most significant figures in American letters died, Stephen Markley publishes his first novel. I’m not trying to claim Markley has taken Roth’s mantle, I’m only saying “Ohio” is worthy of a master’s offspring. “Ohio” is a brutally vivid story of a community in the rust belt where the American Dream is all but dead, and the opioid epidemic is in full swing. Told from the perspective of four former classmates who return home after the untimely death of a friend in Iraq. The four return on the same night, with different motives and none of their homecomings, go as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.
Vox by Christina Dalcher, 2018
Something like a fundamental Christian theocracy takes over the U.S. government and begins to roll back liberties–especially for women and young girls. On the day, the government decrees that women are allowed to speak no more than 100 words a day. At first, Dr. Jean McClellan thinks this will pass, but it doesn’t. She, her daughter, and all females have a counter fascinated to their wrists to monitor and govern their speech. Soon, women lose their jobs, girls are no longer taught to read or write in school. A moment comes when McClellan can step up and do something about this injustice. This is no “Handmaiden’s Tale,” one reader commented, but “Vox” is clearly not trying to be that story. It is more subtle and, in a way, that makes “Vox” more terrifying.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 2014
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.…”
Nope, that wasn’t a spoiler, that’s how the book starts, and it is because of this setup that everything that follows so tragic. Lydia is torn between the demands of her mother and the different expectations of her father while her own desires ans aspirations are ignored. Thus paving the way to the established climax.
The structure, while not completely novel, is executed expertly. “Everything I Never Told You” is a moving story of a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970’s Ohio. It is a moving story about a family divided by cultures, gender, and generations.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen, 2015
Pip (Purity) Tyler, a young woman, straddled with college debt and a burning question: who is her father. Her eccentric mother knows but won’t tell her. She fled from him before Pip was born, changed her name, and retired to live in anonymity in the woods of Northern California. Pip begins an internship with the Sunlight Project, the organization founded by the famous and charismatic German leaker, Andreas Wolf (fashioned after Julian Assange). Pip moves to Bolivia, where the Sunlight Project is based, with the hope of being able to use hacker technology to discover her father’s identity.
I enjoyed the odd sexual tension between Pip and Andreas, the dark secrets revealed in intimacy, and the betrail. Like Franzen’s previous book, “Freedom,” the pacing might be slow at first, but the story picks up momentum and is well worth sticking with it.
Beowulf by Unknown, between the 8th and the early 11th century (Okay, the version I read was transcribed by Francis Barton Gummere and translated by Seamus Heaney)
I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime I have seen the The Lord of the Rings, based on J.R.R. I try to read a piece of classic literature a year. I’ve been meaning to read Beowulf for years. In the meantime, I have seen The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading Beowulf, I see where he got his inspiration. It is one of the most essential works in old English literature and can take credit for a lot of European works from Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” operas to “Game of Thrones.”
The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid The story is set in Scandinavia. Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who has been under attack by a monster known as Grendel, and much gallantry is displayed. After reading the epic poem, I bought and enjoyed Santiago Garcia and David Rubin’s large-format graphic novel version of the seminal piece of Old English lit. It was a nice encore.
This blog started out in part to investigate hamburgers from Sacramento restaurants, bar & grills, and food trucks. That part didn’t last–dieting got in the way. I’ve been trying to lose weight and to cut back (way back) on beef and dairy. This is in part for my health and also for ecological reasons. “Livestock farming has a vast environmental footprint. It contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss acid rain, and deforestation. Nowhere is the impact more apparent than climate change—livestock farming contributes 18 percent of humans produce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.” (Source: “Five Ways the Meat on Your Plate is Killing the Planet” from The Conversation.com) The other part of the original project—checking out local scooter culture, scooter clubs, and run and rallies–was actually a much bigger failure. I’m a reclusive guy, so I didn’t know what I was thinking trying to rub elbows with fellow scooterists. I always ended up in the corner alone during meetups, rallies, and runs. Anyway, scooterists drink like fish–I’m, for the most part, a teetotaler. In the end, I guess I was just excited I had a scooter and initially, couldn’t be happy with just the ride.
Anyway, I don’t miss Royal Bastard Scooter Club events, and I especially don’t mind riding clear of the Vespa Club of Sacramento. The dieting part is far more challenging. And as far as beef and dairy goes–I’ve been far more successful in cutting back on beef than avoiding dairy. (Me likey Half & Half in the morning joe and cheese on just about everything.) One little victory on the cutting back on beef and all other animal-based food, for that matter, is drinking Huel shakes for weekday lunches. I started out drinking the environmentally-friendly shakes for both breakfast and lunch at work. I wrote about it here. Alas, that didn’t last long, but I am back on track, when it comes to most lunches during the work week. I am also interested in vegetarian and vegan alternatives to dairy and all kinds of meat. I still love hamburgers, but often choose a restaurant’s veggie burger alternative to the beef burger. (I know it’s blasphemy from the guy who started this blog writing about Squeezeburgers and Fatboys.) When I started seeing ads for a place called Burger Patch, I wrote down the address without reading the whole advertisement. A week later, I had my poor vegetarian-curious son driving me around Midtown Sacramento, trying to find the phantom place. As it turned out, Burger Patch had no established address at that time but had pop-up events in different locations for about the first two years. I didn’t know that at the time and just gave up–until recently. Last August, Burger Patch opened a brick & mortar joint at 2301 K Street. It took me a while, but I finally checked this place out.
Patch Burger alternative hamburger offers are “Patch Burger,” “Double Patch Burger,” and the “BBQ Patch Burger.” (I know, they’ve got to do something with those names. In that context, they sound less to do with a garden and more to do with how you fix a flat on your bike.) They also offer three alternative chicken items called “Chick’n”: “The Ranch,” the “Crispy BBQ Ranch” (I’ll be back to check out that last one.) and “chick’n” tenders option called “A Bunch.” I ordered the “Patch Burger” and added “Hickory Smoked Strips”–there alternative to bacon. (As if there ever could be an alternative to bacon.)
But I digress.
I also switched out their standard bun for “Pushkin’s GF Bun,” just because I was curious what gluten-free bread tastes like. The bun is from the locally famous Pushkin’s Bakery, a wheat/gluten and dairy-free bakery here in the Sacramento Area. When I asked for the Pushkin’s GF Bun, the young woman taking my order asked if I had an intolerance to gluten. When I said, “Alas, I can eat anything, and that’s my problem,” she laughed, but I followed with why she asked. She said something to do with cross-contamination. Presumably, my order would have been handled with special care if I would have answered in the affirmative, but I didn’t need the special treatment and there was a line forming behind me, anyway.
The instance reminded me of when I used to take my dinner breaks with my work partner, Dawna, at the nearby McDonald’s back in the mid-1980s. I initially thought she agreed with my and our co-worker, Bobby, on Mickey Dee’s because it was the fastest place to get our food. (We only had 30-minute find a restaurant, order, eat, and get back to the grind.) Dawna would order her Big Mac without ketchup and her fries without salt. The kitchen–designed to make food in advance to serve more customers in less time–came to a screeching halt to make a fresh Big Mac and drop a special basket of fries in the fryer just for Dawna. She would watch the minimum-wage workers like a hawk preparing her food special to ensure they made it to her specifications and made them fresh. This alone was annoying–it’s fast food, for fucks sake, Dawna! But after she got her dinner, she proceeded to salt up her fries and squirted ketchup on her burger. I suppose I could have had the folks at Burger Patch dawn their hazmat suits to make my burger special, while the line behind me got longer, but I only wanted to find out what a gluten-free hamburger bun tastes like. I liked it.
I also ordered a “Shovel of Spuds.” One hundred percent vegan, fried in non-GMO rice oil. The “house blend” of herbs they finish the fries off with making this one of the best orders of fries I have had in quite a while. Vegan or not, fries are fries, fatso, but I can’t help myself. Speaking of fatso, I had a Vanilla Bean, “Earth Quake Shake.” This vegan shake is made with cashew, soy, and almond kinds of alternative milk, and is the equal to most dairy-based shakes I have had. It is also 100 percent vegan and also not a low-calorie item, just a feel-good-about-yourself-and-the-planet shake. And that’s the thing about vegetarian and vegan foods–just a walk through the isles of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op and you can see this shit isn’t exactly Jenny Craig.
But how did the burger taste, Jockomo?
I thought the tomato, and the lettuce tasted fresh, the grilled onions and the melted cheese also added to the burger’s good taste, but the Hickory Smoked Strips simply do not replace bacon, but what are you going to do? I’m trying to live a little cleaner and reduce my carbon footprint. I’m trying, Greta, really I am, but it is hard. The Hickory Smoked Strips are optional, so I suggest you skip them. The Patch Burger also comes with “Patch Sauce”–a slightly spicy version of Thousand Island Dressing. The little bit of heat gives it the burger a distinctive taste. Strangely, the Beyond Burger patty was dry.
What should I expect, the patty to have the consistency of a beef patty? I guess so, I’m at a hamburger joint, right? The only other beef (eh-hm) I had with the burger is how the whole thing fell apart about halfway into eating it. I’m not talking about how a bun will disintegrate while you’re eating a burger due to a combination of a poor bun, too much sauce, and a juicy patty. There weren’t any juices, and the Patch Sauce and the melted cheese didn’t seem to contribute to the breakdown. Was this an end-user issue? Maybe. Only a return visit will determine that. I think it was the patty’s dryness that was the main reason for the breakdown.
How does the Patch Burger compare to Burger King’s “Impossible Whopper”?
Well, aside from all the elements around the Impossible Foods patty, I liked it over the Patch Burger’s Beyond Meat patty, but everything else about the Patch Burger was superior to Burger King’s meatless offering. Too, Burger Patch’s Shovel of Spuds and milkshake were better than Burger King’s, by far. Also, if you check out head-to-head taste tests on YouTube, you’ll see it is–for the most part–a tossup when it comes to taste and juiciness, so I’m betting someone was asleep at the grill when my burger was being prepared.
A final note about the Burger Patch. Make sure to check out their excellent website: https://www.theburgerpatch.com/ They have promising items, not on the limited take-out menu. Also, if you’re a progressive like me, you’ll appreciate their commitment to sustainability. Also, take a look at their Patch Match page where each month, Burger Patch selects a charity and donates a portion of every burger sold. Another reason to patronize this burger joint. If I was rating burgers like I used to, I would give them a pass and try a Patch Burger a second time. Who knows, maybe they will have changed the burger’s name by then!
It was tune-up time for my Vespa GT 200 L. Which means taking my ride into the shop. I have no idea how to work on engines short of filling them up with gas and adding/changing the oil. This job required more work, so I took my Vespino to Scooter City. Mike, the mechanic, said it would take an afternoon to complete, but when I told him to check a growling noise I experience most times I accelerate from an idle that put a question mark at the end of the estimated time of completion.
This sound was not consistent: I would hear it, and then it faded away, and other times, I wouldn’t hear it at all. I reported this to my old mechanic. He slapped a strip of duct tape across the front of the frame and the center panel because I assumed the sound was coming from the front of the scooter instead of the engine. The tape didn’t stop the growling. I put up with that sound for a few years—crossing my fingers all the way.
The source of the growling (or what might have been the source) ended up being significant, and I was glad I told Mike about it. When he opened up the crankcase, he found dust, rust, and severe wear. Ultimately, the drive belt, rollers, guides, the o ring, the Bellville nut, idler pulley, and pulley bolt had to be replaced. What are these parts, and how do they work in the Vespa GT 200’s Leader engine? Short of the drive belt, I don’t know. That’s why I pay a mechanic. As per law, the shop gave me the replaced parts, and I could tell there was some serious wear—the drive belt looked like it would snap at any time and the idler pulley (I think that’s what it was) sounded as if it was the primary noisemaker, and when I tried to spin it with my fingers, the sound it made was as if it would break any moment. The bag of worn parts was a photo op missed, but, as usual, whenever a mechanic gives me the replaced parts, I always play with the shit as if I have some idea how the stuff works, then leave it on the counter asking the shop to dispose of the bag of junk.
Out of the garage, my Vespa felt tight and smooth, but a day later, the growling came back, but it was a faint sound, and it wasn’t as frequent. I have no idea what all of this means. Maybe I should have been a master mechanic like my old man, or the late venerated Vespa sage, Rolf Soltau. Nah, I am sure it will be alright. Anyway, I’ve mastered the art of operating my Vespino with fingers crossed on both hands!
I’ve been practicing yoga for over five years. At that time I started, I am happy to report I was not one of those guys who “checked out” women while practicing yoga. I was too busy trying to nail my asanas (yoga poses) to think about nailing the pretty lady in front of me. Anyway, at my old age, just the thought now makes me cringe; the attractive fellow students with the leggings are young enough to be my daughter. Unfortunately, there’s a first for everything.
I was starting a new class with a teacher of whom I have never worked. When she walked into the studio, the first thing I noticed besides the standard leggings many women wear in yoga classes was her top. She wore something similar to a camisole rather than the conventional crop top or other types of exercise shirt that revealed more of her dark skin the most tops. I’m guessing there was a camisole under the thing that looked like a camisole since there were two sets of spaghetti straps on her shoulders. One would expect a thicker bra strap, but it wasn’t. Jesus! Stop looking at the teacher’s brown shoulders, Jack! Okay, I don’t know what to call the outer camisole thingy. I felt creepy skulking around Forever 21, Spanx, and Saks of Fifth Avenue websites getting the proper names for “leggings” and “crop top” but never see the kind of top this 40ish-year-old woman was wearing. Just know that it looked like a camisole, okay, and it was delicate–not the kind of stuff you usually see women in during practice.
So, she’s got this exotic name to go with the dark bare shoulders. Another thing, she walks in with her hair down–way down. Black, curly hair that she wears in front of her. She smiles a toothy, but a cute smile that betrays the name, the top, and now hair. She walks over to one of the mirrored walls and puts her hair up. I could use this time to meditate like Patrick across from me. Frickin’ perfect Patrick with his perfect young body and his superior asanas. Must he roll out his mat across the room from mine and remind me how he can stick a pose better than me? Why does that bother me now–that kind of comparison crap hasn’t bugged me for years?
She turns to the few people in the class and introduces herself. Soledad. Damn, even the name is sexy or at least exotic. We all say, hi. She asks me if I attend other yoga classes here. I say two, with Heather. I then babble on about why the few early birds have our mats in this current configuration–an idea Heather started. She gives me that cute if incongruous smile and says something like she might be changing this up later. I feel like an ass. She didn’t ask about how the mats were set up, so why did I offer up this worthless piece of information. I look down and notice her feet. Can feet be sexy, or am I now attributing everything (sans the smile) to her general sexiness? I Check her left finger. Not married. (Be advised, I do this to everyone: women and men/attractive and not so attractive. It’s a weird tic, and no, I’m not bi.)
She rolls out her mat in the center of the room close to mine. From a standing position, she crosses her feet, then bends her legs until her rear quietly lands on her mat in Easy Pose without the use of her hands–they have been in Namaste the whole time. (Challenge and explanation to any readers who didn’t get that last sentence: While standing, cross your feet. Now sit on the ground while keeping the palms of your hands together as if you were praying, “Please God, preserve my tailbone!) I didn’t notice this graceful move until she was on the mat. I was too busy looking at her hair and shoulders. Damn it, Jack! You’re not here to check out females. She then starts to talk to us about what she hopes we will get out of this class. It seems like she is looking at me a lot as she tries to make eye contact with everyone. I doubt she spends a second longer looking at me and my lazy eye more than anyone else, including Perfect Patrick, it’s just that she has these big, beautiful, dark eyes.
When she’s looking and someone besides me, I can help but fixate on her top. I don’t mean her bust, I mean the thing she’s wearing. I examine the delicate straps until she swings her face towards mine again. Then I look away, embarrassed. This is horrible! I never do this shit in yoga. My other two teachers–Heather and Brenda–are both attractive, but besides that observation, I am all business with them–none of this stealing glances shit. I have quickly become one of the guys women talk about in funny YouTube videos–the guys who attend classes only to check out attractive women and their tight yoga clothes. I swear that is not me, at least not until now.
There was that one yoga teacher I practiced under for a short time. I forgot her name. She was also beautiful in an exotic way, but I didn’t get all worked up over her looks. It was a good class. She taught Yin yoga (a type of yoga where postures are held for a more extended time than most yoga practices). Even during Savasana, when she would walk around during this cool-down period and administered shoulder massages and finish us off with aromatherapy–a delicate rub of eucalyptus oil between the eyes–the Ajna chakra, I couldn’t say I was aroused only emotionally stimulated. Soledad is a different story, and it’s distracting and embarrassing.
I like to come to my yoga classes early. I have a spot, and I want to claim it. I roll out my mat, set up my blocks, and place a blanket at the back of the carpet where I sit and attempt to meditate until the teacher arrives. I am not as early for Soledad’s class as I am for Heather’s due to church on Sundays, but on one day, we skipped service, and I got to the club about as early as I do on the other days. When I got to the studio, I noticed the double doors were closed, and music was coming from the studio; it sounded like–Astor Piazzolla? When I opened the door a crack, Soledad was dancing an Argentine tango with a man. She was wearing the same top she practices in during our yoga classes, but she was also wearing a flowing skirt.
Before I could think up some romantic engagement between the two, Soledad stopped the music coming from her phone, gently criticized the man–who seemed about ten years her minor, then re-started the tango. I tried my hand at tango, but I wasn’t very good at it, and I knew it. Suddenly, a woman came into my narrow view. She gently cuts in, leaving the man out. At this point, Soledad and woman embraced in a salon-style dance pose, and after Soledad restarts the music, the new couple begins to dance. At the time, I realized my yoga teacher was instructing a couple in Argentine tango. Just then, as I’m starting to feel like a peeping Tom, I heard someone say from behind me, “Excuse me.” I backed up, embarrassed, and a fellow yoga student walked through the door. Soledad smiled at the woman who walked into the studio and rolled out her mat. Soledad then saw me, smiled, and said welcome. She then told the couple whom she was dancing with that she was about to teach a yoga class and that they would talk soon.
Before the yoga class started, Soledad removed her skirt (or is that thing called a wrap? I’m not looking that up!) revealing her leggings and explained to the class that she was teaching a couple how to tango for their wedding reception. The next Sunday, my exotic yoga teacher wore regular yoga clothes. Presumably, the young couple completed their lessons. My teacher’s clothes were more typical. Unfortunately, my web search results are anything, but. Thanks, Google Search Engine Marketing! Now every time I perform a Google search, I get ads for camisoles on the sidebar!
Maybe it was the change of clothing, or I just got used to the new teacher and her natural sexiness. She still comes to class with all that beautiful black curly hair draped over her chest, but after she puts it up in a Marge Simpson bun, it is no longer obtrusive. Still, I felt pretty creepy over my thoughts when I was recently reminded of Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury is the infamous hot yoga guru who, in 2013, was hit with several lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault. Some of these allegations are explained–at times–painfully in the Netflix documentary “Bikram: Yogi, Guru, Predator.” See the trailer below.
For those who don’t have Netflix, but do have HBO there was an article from the previously aired sports show “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” Check out Choudhury doing his best Donald Trump impression!
I like David Doel’s The Rational National. It is my favorite channel on YouTube.com. (Though I have to admit, lately I am watching more and more of The Hill’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti insightful Rising.especially as the Democratic Primaries approach. The clip below is from TYT’s No Filter with the excellent Ana Kasparian. Here she interviews Doel about a recent piece he did on Meghan McCain’s foolish criticism of the Medicare for All issue. I know it seems better to ignore McCain and The View, but as long as nearly three million people tune in to the show every weekday, these kinds of stupid comments–especially coming from someone of privilege–need to be exposed.
I ran across this the trailer to the film “Mister America” while reading Louis Proyect’s blog and was fascinated with this satirical performance piece by the actor/comedian/writer/musician Tim Heidecker. Heidecker plays a variation of himself, eschewing a character name. Proyect likens the performance to something similar to the late Andy Kaufman and it is easy to see the similarities.
Heidecker (I’m referring to the character) decides to run for District Attorney in San Bernardino County, California, though he isn’t a lawyer, doesn’t live in the county, and was prosecuted for the murder of 18 people who bought toxic e-cigarettes from him at a music festival he organized. He’s not in jail due to a mistrial. Still, he wants to get back at the DA that almost sent him to prison by challenging him in an election.
I discovered an interesting site a few days ago. Carrot Ranch Literary Community is a boon to the writer. The site is a place to submit work and see other writers’ work as well. I entered the recent Flash Fiction competition and had it published here, though you can read it below.
Ethan was walking to the office and was listening to a podcast: “Global Meltdown.” He loved his new noise-cancelling headphones. They made everything around him seem insignificant. The world is coming to an end! That Swedish girl is right, and no one is listening to her, except Ethan, Ethan was all ears. Behind him, a driver was unloading Red Bull from a truck when he fell off the ramp, spilling cases of the drink all over the street. Ethan didn’t hear the crash nor the sound of the exploding cans as the carbon dioxide gas released into the atmosphere.
1975, Rio Americano High School’s AV Room: Born to Run It was late in the fall of my junior year in high school. I must have been roaming the halls during a period where I had dropped out of a course. The dropped class was most likely Ceramics where I spend nearly the whole semester flirting with Sandy, a big girl–the only kind who would flirt back. The teacher warned me to drop out, or he would give me an “F” for not submitting enough fired work. (Let it be known that Sandy was just as unproductive as I was. She claimed she would be receiving a passing grade solely on the fact that she was the younger sister of the teacher’s protégé.)
It was during one of these “open periods” when I ran into Marc. Marc and I were not close, but we both knew Jesse–a close friend of mine. Marc invited me into the high school’s AV Room. I never gave much thought to the students who worked pushing around the large video players and TVs on black carts and who setup overhead projectors in classrooms for teachers. I thought it seemed like a boring class if AV was considered a class.
The AV Room was chalked with overhead projectors, large CRT TVs and big video players on black carts with white “SJUSD” (San Juan Unified School District) stenciled on them. I vaguely remember one of the VHS players on a table with the cassette caddie out, pieces and tools lying around it. One thing I wasn’t expecting to find in the room was an old couch. Marc invited me to sit down while he walked over to a receiver with a turntable build into it with the same ubiquitous SJUSD sprayed on it. He pressed a lever on it and a few seconds later, over the crackle in the speakers, the drum roll of what I later found out to be “Born to Run” started. I’ve never heard this music before. It was very different from The Beatles, Bad Company, Chicago, and Aerosmith albums I had in my modest collection of scratchy LPs. It sounded both old and new at the same time. When I asked Marc what band this was, he said “Springsteen,” flipping the album cover onto the couch next to me as if to say, “Here, see for yourself.” I would later look back on this as a teaching moment lost. If I were Marc, I would tell him all that I knew about Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band. But Marc just said the artist’s last name in a dispassionate tone. He didn’t answer my follow-up questions with any depth or enthusiasm, either. It was just an album to him–good enough to bring to school (if it was his) and play.
The guy on the cover looked more masculine than any rock and roller I have ever seen (with the exception of the guys on my brother’s Bachman-Turner Overdrive album). His hair wasn’t down over his shoulders like John Lennon or Steven Tyler, but long enough. He wore a leather jacket–something I always wanted but felt I would look stupid in one. To use a current idiom: “He rocked that jacket.” He had a more serious-looking guitar than most rockers–no flames or sunburst finish. It meant business. He wore the “axe” with absolute confidence–as if he was born with that chunk of wood, wire, and nobs on him. I took guitar lessons in my freshman year and–just like Ceramics–I ended up dropping out. Last, but not least, he wore a warm smile for the guy he was leaning on–Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. It was as if he was sharing a private joke with the Big Man. I didn’t have a friend I could lean on as Bruce seemed to have with his saxophonist. Bruce Springsteen was everything I was not but wanted to be, and his sound–at least to my untrained ears–was unique and very macho.
Marc said something about the bell ringing and having to go to the next class. If I felt I could talk him into it, I would have asked if I could lock up behind him and listen to the entire record. Anyway, I was doomed to drop out of the next period I was supposed to attend. Another thing, this album had printed lyrics! It was the first time I ever saw lyrics on an album. (I would later discover my sister’s copy of The Beatle’s 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had lyrics printed on the back of the album, but that was the only album I ever knew about that predates Born to Run.) Printing the words to the songs was a validation of the artist’s seriousness–the words were right in front of the listener. It was a confident, no-bullshit move for its time, I would think later.It was an entirely new experience in listening to music, and I wanted more of this stuff. Over the years, I would tire of the album, especially the title track, due in part to playing the hell out of it and hearing it on the radio. (I would never tire of “Thunder Road” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”) I believed I was on my third copy of Born to Run when I traded it and all my other records in for classical Compact Discs (CDs). Looking back on my eleven years of listening to rock music, I am sure Born to Run was not my favorite. Still, I played no other vinyl more than that album. It was the gateway to a short, but intense time of music appreciation and criticism.
This post is about my brief love affair with music: my hero-worshiping of a lovable guy from New Jersey, my obsession with LP collecting, my interest in reading, and writing about music, late-night skanking with a college buddy and a local band. This post is also about mosh pits, flying loogies, and a skating rink-turned hallowed concert hall where this blogger saw two unforgettable concerts. This post is also about listening to music, sometimes at the expense of friends, family, and wait staff. Finally, this humble post is about leaving all this stuff behind.
1976/77, Disposable income and Tower Records: Becoming an avid record collector
Before my first regular job at Taco Bell, I rarely had any money to buy vinyl. There was lawn-mowing money, but that opportunity dried up after I became allergic to cut grass. There were occasional jobs at my father’s shop, but that didn’t happen very often. Also, when my dad paid me, I rarely spent my money on records. The Christmas season always brought with it Tower Records gift certificates. The yellow and red money order-sized card stock bills seemed to me kind of like the golden tickets in “Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Not only was it free tender, but it also freed me up from the decision of what stuff I was going to buy with them–either music or books. Not only was it free tender, but it also freed me up from the decision of what stuff I was going to buy with them–either music or books. I can remember when I was around twelve when my big sister–trying in vain to talk me into buying The Rolling Stones compilation album Through the Past, Darkly. She had designs on listening to the Stones’ record. I ended up using my certificate on The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Both of these LPs were in the New Releases section. That makes this event occurring in 1969-70. The Beatles were still a band (if only on paper).
With 1976 came a driver’s license, a car, and my Taco Bell job and with the regular paycheck–disposable income. I also had a few friends who liked rock music. Collecting records started slowly: Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ debut album, Bad Company’s first two records, Boston’s debut album, Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak. I also enjoyed a lot of the stuff my friends listened to, and I didn’t listen to music at the interpretive level. I was more interested in soaring guitars, bad-ass drum solos, and androgynous screamers like Steven Tyler. It was all very white, hard-rockin’ stuff. Then there were peers’ “suggestions,” like when this loud-mouthed bully at school hassled me for going on about how cool Dark Side of the Moon was. He said something like, “Pink Floyd hasn’t done shit since Meddle.” I took a chance on this jerk’s suggestion. (This wasn’t the same as blowing a golden ticket I only got in December–I now had the cash to take chances on an asshole’s opinion.) After only a few spins of Meddle, I filed it next to my other two Pink Floyd records (the other being the exceptional Wish You Were Here). I didn’t like it much, but by 1978 or 1979, I was playing the hell out of Meddle. Around that time, I would pick up Animals I enjoy that as well. Imagine my disappointment after playing The Wall a few times! I found it to be full of itself (save for the monumental “Comfortably Numb”). By the time I sold off all my LPs, I still hated the album.
1978, Winterland: The Sex Pistols, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band In late 1977 I got a job at Florsheim Shoes where I was reacquainted with an old childhood friend, Rick, who was the manager. We became best friends. On January 14 of 1978, we were working in the shop, and he said something like, “Hey man, let’s go see The Sex Pistols. They are playing at Winterland tonight!” The only thing I knew about The Sex Pistols was that they were called a “punk” band. I hadn’t heard one note of punk music. (Of course, my idea of punk was very narrow at the time; I assumed it was purely a British phenomenon. I was unaware it was around when I was sitting in the Rio AV room having my mind blown.) We hopped in my VW Scirocco, stopped by a convenience store where Rick bought a bottle of Bacardi 151 and a six-pack of Dr. Pepper.
As we flew across the Yolo Bypass on our way to San Francisco, Rick handed me a can of Dr. Pepper to drink halfway down. Then he filled the half-drained can with 151 and started drinking. The next day at work, I couldn’t stop talking about the concert. The flying bottles, the guitar that sounded like a DC 10 was about to crash into the building, the faint obscenities the crowd hurled at the stage and this Johnnie Rotten guy sending them right back to the crowd amplified, and that moving, jumping mass of humanity directly in front of the stage was nothing I ever experienced before.
I recall Rick writing the evening off as some aberration, but I kept thinking about how different the music was. At the time, I couldn’t articulate my feelings–that it was an insurrection from the status quo. The status quo being bands like The Who–the guys that sang, “I hope I die before I get old.” This stuff pushed the boundaries even farther than The Who and Led Zeppelin. Rick drank so much that the evening was a blur to him. But my ears were opened and still ringing. I had to check out this punk thing. It was a hell of a lot badder than Bad Company or Badfinger!
After The Sex Pistols concert, Rick turned me onto Rolling Stone magazine as well as the popular culture critic Greil Marcus. It was at this time I started collecting records in earnest: two or maybe even three a week. I had a method: I’d buy a relatively new release that sounded good on the radio or got a favorable review in Rolling Stone magazine. (Back then it would have been albums like The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls or The Clash’s Give ‘Em Enough Rope.) I’d also buy a classic I had read about e.g., Elvis’ Sun Sessions, Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On, “The Harder They Come” soundtrack or Velvet Underground and Nico’s debut album. My carefully selected record assortment grew to the point I needed a bigger container for my music, then another big box, then another. And to match the ballooning size of my music reserve was my insufferable, superior opinion of the music.
Another friend I had around this time was Matt, an affable guy who, unlike Rick, wasn’t arrogant or judgmental. Looking back on my friendship with Matt, I realize I was quite the backstabber. Matt liked bands like REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Journey. He also liked The Bee Gees and to be fair, so did I. I had Main Course and the soundtrack to “Saturday Night Fever,” but I didn’t play them much. Also, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a Styx or “Oreo Speedcookie” album in my collection! So like a piece of shit, I criticized Matt’s taste of music to Rick. Looking back on it now, Rick could be cruel and judgmental towards me like he was towards Matt and our other friends. Matt was always warm and accepting. I fancied myself a burgeoning rock critic and would soon start submitting music reviews for my college paper, but my ego was way ahead of my chops. While I was adventurous when it came to music outside the mainstream. I listened to (bands like The New York Dolls, Robert Johnson, Parliament-Funkadelic, Howlin Wolf, Hank Williams, Sr., Run-DMC, and Phil Ochs. I wasn’t very adventurous when it came to mainstream, Top 40 stuff. Admittedly, that was my Achilles Heel as a professional critic. Maybe I would have found something redeemable in a band like Styx. I’ll never know now, but I want to duck and cover my precious ears whenever I hear the opening bars of “Lady.”
In December of 1978, Rick told me Bruce Springsteen was playing at Winterland. Bill Graham was closing the old concert hall that was best known for The Band’s final concert (immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Waltz.” Springsteen agreed to swing back around from his Darkness on the Edge of Town tour to honor the place with what ended up to be two concerts. I think I was so into punk/New Wave at the time that I hadn’t got around to buying the new Springsteen LP despite how much I loved Born to Run.
As Rick and I made our way to Winterland, we were booze-free, thankfully. What happened in that run-down old skating rink on the night of December 16, 1978, was the greatest concert–by far–I would ever experience. As it turned out the night before the band put in a performance so incredible to the fans and writers that were in attendance that it has become a part of rock legend. It also didn’t hurt the the bootleg of that night was supposed to be one of the greatest live recordings in all of rock history. I didn’t see that one, but for me the next night’s performance nearly ruined concert-going for me–nothing ever came close to it.
I am sure I bought Darkness on the Edge of Town the next day and played it nearly every day for the longest stretch. The album—even with its flaws– became my all-time favorite record (until I discovered The Clash’s 1977 debut album a year or so later). Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop listening to or reading about Bruce Springsteen. Even after I abandoned rock music I still–even to this day have a YouTube channel of the artist to see what’s up with him.
1980 and beyond: listening to, reading and writing about music After Darkness on the Edge of Town, I became more secluded than I was before. This is significant since I was always a loner and a daydreamer–lost in my own thoughts. Now I spent hours nearly every day listening intently to music at the expense of everything else. My family and friends could attest to my wandering off from conversations. Think of a millennial looking down at their smartphone at the expense of what’s going on around them. Now remove the gadget in their hand. That was me–staring at the ground in front of my shoes. Now a song could become my smartphone–making me break entirely off from everything around me. I have always been a loner and have shopped, seen films, and ate out alone far more times than with company. So this kind of activity on the outside was nothing new. Now, suddenly hearing Sam Cooke singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” could snap me out of the rare one-on-conversations I might have in a public place.
Another byproduct of all this record collecting and interpretive listening was my interest in reading about popular music. I became absorbed in popular culture, 60s counter-culture, Elvis, Dylan, and the stuff that came before them. I also became interested in popular music criticism. I read Greil Marcus’ brilliant “Mystery Train,” Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons radical “The Boy Looked at Johnny,” and perused guides like “The Rolling Stone Record Guide.” I also thoroughly read Robert Christgau’s “Rock Albums of the Seventies.” I read almost the entire 480-page guide to get the hang of the critic’s style, which I never achieved. Part of the impetus for spending time reading about music was, of course, to get suggestions on more albums to buy (as expressed earlier). Another reason was to develop a critic’s parlance or an authoritative voice when it came to conveying my opinions on
songs, albums, concerts, artists. I picked this up from my friend Rick. I admired how he could carry a conversation about music with authority even when talking about a band he liked and I didn’t. I wanted to speak that way. I also wanted to write the way critics wrote. I had followed Rick to American River College’s newspaper The Beaver (Now The Current) where I ultimately became the Entertainment Editor. I was now going to concerts by The Talking Heads, Devo, The B-52s, and Iggy Pop, to name only a few–many of them on the college’s dime, and writing reviews of the performances. I also wrote record reviews for the campus newspaper. I struggled to express myself but never achieved my goal of being a professional music critic.
One thing I didn’t struggle with was my self-indulgence. When my father brought home the first Macintosh I cataloged my record collection with it. Soon after finishing my inventory I would rate each album using “The Rolling Stone Record Guide” five-star rating system. A few years after that I would dump the computer–for some reason–and catalog my swelling collection by hand, now using my own ten-point rating system. Both the computer-generated and handwritten inventories are lost to time.
1981, CSUS and around town: Following Mod Philo with Nolan Shortly after I transferred from American River College to California State University, Sacramento (CSUS), I joined the campus newspaper (The Hornet). It was there that I met Nolan. Nolan and I had one specific thing in common: we loved ska, especially The English Beat. We also liked The Specials, but I wasn’t crazy about the other ska bands. Nolan loved them all: The Selecter, Madness, and the god-awful Bad Manners. Nolan told me about a local ska group called Mod Philo (presumably short for Modern Philosophy, whatever that means). I remember going with Nolan to one of their gigs.
My hopes were not set high. I was attending many
punk concerts that had such headliners as X, Black Flag, and The Blasters. They
were all outstanding, but the local bands that opened for them were laughably
bad. I figured Mod Philo would be the ska versions this local punk groups. When
I finally saw them, I was impressed. I got this feeling whenever we saw them
that these guys would land a recording deal. We went to many of their shows
where we would “skank.” I couldn’t tell you how to skank now, but I
recall skanking all over the place while listening to Mod Philo back in 1981.
The great thing is, like slam dancing, you didn’t have to ask someone to dance
with you. At twenty-five, I rarely dated and was hopelessly intimidated by the
opposite sex. So, I loved that I could skank with myself and not look like a
loser–everyone seemed to dance with no one in particular!
I’m not sure how many Mod Philo shows Nolan, and I attended. I think we were in the basement of a house in Midtown Sacramento skanking to Mod Philo when Nolan yelled to me that the band is selling an EP. I was too busy skanking to look into how I could buy this record, but I planned to purchase
one that night or soon after, but something happened that night that changed my whole opinion of the band or at least the vocalist, Paul Clark. Near the end of their set, I saw Clark picked up a guitar for what would be their last number of the night. I skanked around and noticed Clark wasn’t playing the instrument. When the set was over, I asked Nolan what was with Clark and the guitar. Nolan smiled and just said, “I don’t know.” (Nolan knew more about the band than I did.) Before I could ask him where I could buy the EP, I just had to ask if Clark knew how to play the guitar. Nolan smiled and said no. I replied to him that I thought that was a lame gesture. Nolan smiled as if he knew, but didn’t care. It was a great gig. But the fake guitar shit bugged me. It was as if Clark wasn’t a serious musician. That was it for my relationship with Mod Philo, though I am sure the band made out fine without “The Critic,” Jack Keaton. I miss Nolan, though. I believe he’s an attorney doing pro bono work for college students at CSUS, but that’s just what an outdated Facebook page says. At any rate, it was a short, but sweet time skanking to some good local music.
1980-1984, Galactica 2000/Second Level/Club Can’t Tell and two kinds of heatwaves Through the early- and mid-80s, I continued collecting new and old/classic records as well as albums that were critically acclaimed but were dark horses when it came to viability and sales. (How many readers can say they listened to Graham Parker’s Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment? With little doubt two of the best albums to come out of the 70s and utterly ignored by everyone except the critics and people who read the critics.) What I remember about this time better than the albums were the concerts. A few punk rock enthusiasts who used to work at the Tower Theatre with me turned me on to a local club at 15th and K Streets–now the Capitol Garage restaurant. Galactica 2000 was an old disco club-turned punk palace. Think of it as the Ace of Spades of the 80s, but with an big spinning disco ball in the middle twirling over the mosh pit. Because New Wave was–well–new, even the best bands (or at least the most popular) in this genre played in small markets like Sacramento. Incredible bands like X, Black Flag, The Blasters, X-Ray Spex, Gang of Four, The English Beat, The Germs, Public Image LTD, The Talking Heads, Devo, The B-52s all played small venues in Sacramento and neighboring Davis.
I rarely attended any concerts that weren’t punk, new wave, or alternative during this period and I’m not sure why. One non-alternative rock concert I couldn’t pass up was a Motown revue at Hughes Stadium sometime in the early 80s. It was a sunny day when I sat down around the 20-yard line to watch a series of gray-haired and balding legends do their best to bring us all back to the Golden Age of Motown. We all got to see The Four Tops, Martha & the Vandellas, and, I think, The Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Missing were two of my favorite groups: Smokey Robinson with/without the Miracles and Diana Ross with/without the Supremes. Unfortunately, the most memorable thing about the concert was that I failed to bring sunblock or a hat for my balding head. So while Martha Reeves twenty years after recording “Heat Wave” still blew the doors off of Linda Ronstadt’s cover, my scalp had a heatwave all of its own. My dome was so severely burned that it had blisters.
One of the last shows I attended at s Club Can’t Tell venue was Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers. I covered the show for The Hornet. I had seen some rough groups at The Second Level (nee Galactica 2000) and had come to expect rocking shows. While I knew Richman had changed his act since his proto-punk debut, I guess I expected something beyond the G-rated style he had adopted since retooling the once seminal band. Now I was watching a group that was inadvertently featuring Richman’s toddler son walking precariously on the stage to music that sounded like it was composed, arranged, and performed for him–the audience was an afterthought. When I interviewed Richman after the show, I asked him why he no longer played songs from his first album The Modern Lovers. Richman said he still did, but never ‘Pablo Picasso,'” checking to see if his son was within earshot then finishing, “because it has the word ‘asshole’ in it.” Looking back on it now, with the toe-headed cutie tottering around the cables and (presumably) Richman’s wife frequently pulling junior off the stage while the band plunked away, it seemed like an absurd coda to my Club Can’t Tell days. At the time, though, I was hoping for more “Roadrunner” and less “Dodge Veg-O-Matic.”
1985, The Completist: Beethoven and the beginning of the end In the fall of 1985 my girlfriend, Judi, bought me a couple of classical CDs. They were Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonic Orchestra’s recordings of some Beethoven’s Symphonies; I think Nos. 3 & 4 and 7 & 8. Before hearing one note from either of these recordings, nae before I began the arduous task of removing the rapping from the poorly designed jewel case (I should have stuck with vinyl!), I remember thinking when was I going to go out and complete the set: 1, 2, 5, 6, and 9. “I can’t help it, I’m anal,” as Alvy Singer’s character said in “Annie Hall,” or maybe a better way of saying it is that I am a completist. About eight years previous–when I started buying Beatles albums–I spent my taco-stuffing paychecks buying up the twice as expensive British EMI recordings of The Beatles albums from the import section of my Tower Records. No way was I going to buy the chopped up, Capitol Records versions of the early Beatles albums. They weren’t the original Beatles albums (at least not until Rubber Soul onward). So I felt compelled to collect all nine Beethoven symphonies. Later, this completist thing would drive me to purchase all nine Mahler symphonies, all four Brahms symphonies, and other full sets of music. Thankfully, for my wallet, the completist thing was not a complete obsession. I only bought about four or five of the Mozart symphonies, but then there were complete piano concerto series of big-name composers to buy, same with Violin concertos. I purchased all of Beethoven’s String Quartets: all three periods–hours of listening. The music was so intense–especially the late period of quartets–that I barely scratched the surface of them. As with Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 the last period of string quartets were composed when Beethoven was stone deaf. And I thought it was miraculous that a blind man could create such works of genius as Innervisions, Talking Book, and Fulfillingness’ First’s Finale.
It was around this time my good friend Jimmy began inviting me to Sacramento Symphony (now the Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera) concerts. Since Jimmy had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he bought two season tickets for the worst seats in the house to ensure that no one would sit near him and add to his anxiety. So he offered me the other ticket as long as I sat somewhere else in the empty upper balcony. It was up in the nosebleeds where I was introduced to many classical works without me having to shell out a shekel.
Judi’s occasional classical CD gifts and Jimmy’s free classical concert tickets ended up being an unintentional conversion therapy from a die-hard worshiper of Springsteen and The Clash to an enthusiast of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and indirectly, the Minimalist masters (Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, etc.). I didn’t know it at the time, but in September of that year, I saw one of my last rock concerts. A bunch of guys from work bought tickets to see Springsteen at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum. We were on the second deck between home and third base. The stage was in center field. The intimacy I felt during the Winterland concert wasn’t present here. Bruce put on a good show, but I knew it wasn’t that magical to my friend Gerry when he commented after the show, that it wasn’t as good as the Kenny Loggins concert he saw recently. (Kenny fucking Loggins?!) Shortly after the Springsteen show, I was at the Unitarian Universality church on Sierra Blvd listening to some incredible 20th Century chamber music performed by the Kronos Quartet, a group I liked so much that I went out and bought nearly their entire catalog. The conversion was in full swing.
1986 and Beyond: “The Standard Repertoire,” Jazz,and the mystery case of the Swordfishtrombones album I was still single and dating Judi when, in early 1986, I traded in my entire curated collection of well over 400 albums of rock, soul, country, and folk vinyl for store credit at Records–a now-defunct used vinyl, CD, and video store on K Street here in Sacramento. I would use the store credit for building my classical music collection. At first, I exchanged in piecemeal and then later by the cases. I recall asking the store owner, Ed Hartman, for the use of his hand truck as I started trading LPs for credit en masse. Hartman was impressed by how I kept my vinyl in such pristine condition. He stopped examining my vinyl after the first dozen or so. I proudly told him all the records were in the same excellent shape save for an out-of-print copy of The Kinks Greatest Hits (1966). At the time I bought it, it was the only album I could get that had all the early great songs without all the shit that usually comes on Kinks albums.
I can’t give the reader a logical reason why I decided to trade in all my once-cherished album collection. Rock & roll didn’t break my heart or betray me. It didn’t laugh at my penis size or tell me it was leaving me for another listener. For that matter, classical music didn’t seduce me into dumping all my rock albums. I could have kept all those albums and continued what my girlfriend started–buying classical CDs and maybe a rock album from time to time. (I shudder to think of how many recordings I would have right now if I kept all my records and continued to buy albums. While I am sure married life would have slowed my acquisition pace, I still think my house would look like a used record store. I’m reminded of Rob Gordon’s record collection in one of my all-time favorite films, “High Fidelity.”
Even if I kept buying popular, classical, and jazz albums, it would be at a significantly slower pace. Also, my wife and I occasionally thin out our books, which we accumulate at a fast pace even though I usually listen to audiobooks and she often reads books from a her Kindle. It would make sense we would pare down the music collection every once in a while. Still, I haven’t answered the Sixty-four Dollar Question: why did I decide to end a relationship I was so passionate about only a year or two previous. The answer is lost on time. What I got in exchange for all my old LPs was a new albeit shorter-lived new passion. Besides classical music, I also bought books on classical music, started listening to the local PBS classical station, and, just like with rock music, I became interested in what the critics had to say. I religiously listened to The Record Shelf with Jim Svejda. I became enamored with listening and collecting classical music. I was also hell-bent on buying up titles from the “Standard Repertoire.” The Standard Repertoire is a body of work that varies depending on which person you ask. Generally, it contains the best works from famous composers (J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, etc.). It also includes outstanding works by some “one-hit wonders,” to borrow a pop music idiom. (Though I doubt Karl Orff would like to be referred to as a “one-hit wonder,” his Carmina Burana is a widely acknowledged masterpiece, while is other work never reached that critical success.) It is what the above word “best” means that makes the Standard Repertoire seem at times arbitrary: all of the Beethoven symphonies are pretty much bolted down, but some sticklers would have only Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7, and 9 in the pantheon.
Then there are the actual recordings–the various interpretations of, say, Beethoven’s 9th–some great, some good, some horrible. Mozart’s catalog is immense, and it is virtually impossible to get critics to agree on which specific recordings of, say, his Symphony 41 in C major, k 551 is the current best recording. And don’t get me started on the whole “period instruments” thing. I quickly found out–no matter how full of shit I was as a “rock critic”–this stuff was far too dynamic, far too sophisticated, and intelligent for me to just switch tracks from “Louie, Louie” to “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” without, what felt like, a degree in music theory. But I didn’t know all of this at the time I started collecting classical music. Who knows, maybe I would have stuck with classical music (or jazz for that matter) if I didn’t dive into the stuff as if I thought I was going to understand it like I understood rock music. What I mean is, when I was collecting rock LP’s, I patronized a used record store on Douglas Blvd in Roseville, California. I think the owner saw through my arrogance when we would have a friendly argument about The Grateful Dead (I didn’t like the band, he loved them). The same goes for The Clash (I thought their debut album was the greatest rock album of all time, he thought of the band as just another punk band). The thing that annoyed him was how I tried to over-analyze music. He would smile and say something like, “Just listen to it, man!” Years later, when I was struggling to understand classical music the same way I thought I understood rock music, his words would come back to me. I finally relented. I should have done so years ago.
A short time after selling off all my LPs I broke up with Judi and started dating Carol, the woman who I would marry about a year later. She was disappointed that the man she knew as a friend (the guy who had hundreds of rock albums), now only had classical music CDs. I had become a bit of a wannabe classical music expert, lamely attempting to “Name That Tune” whenever the opening bars of a familiar symphony or concerto came over the radio. “Ah, Mozart’s ‘Horn Concerto No. 1.'” Then, about ten minutes later, long after Carol forgot I was talking about the music on the radio (that’s if she was ever listening to me in the first place), “No wait, that’s ‘Horn Concerto No. 3.’ Yeah, I knew it was an odd number.” Or maybe the concerto would finish, and I’d find out it wasn’t a Mozart piece at all. No need to be humble about this gaffe, Carol stopped listening to me minutes ago. She didn’t mind the classical music I played in her apartment; she just missed the old rock and roll maven.
The stories behind many of the rock concerts I told her about had comedic elements that I used as a way to court my mate. There was the time Dee Dee Ramone nearly crushed my hand. Then there was the time the Dead Kennedys opened for The Clash and singer Jello Biafra dove into the mosh pit where the crowd of unruly punks stripped him naked only to have the roadies pull him out in time to finish the song buck naked. And the time Iggy Pop hocking a big green loogie into a UC Davis crowd and it landing on some preppy’s cardigan in front of me, where it stayed the whole performance inches from his face. I love describing the look on my friend Paul’s face (who listens only to musicals) the night I took him to see the band Fear. His jaw dropped on seeing the mosh pit, and the dumb opening acts with their monotonous music. Then the main act with the band’s long-haired biker-sized roadies flanking the stage, catching punks attempting to stage dive and tossing them like dolls off the sides of the stage where there were no soft bodies to break their falls, just instrument trunks, mic stands, and the unforgiving cement floor. And, finally, serenading my love by the retelling of The Sex Pistols concert. Some of these stories I still whip out from time to time, and my wife to this day continues to laugh at them. Good marital bonding stuff, even after 30 years. There’s no stage diving at a chamber music performance, no loogie hocking by the conductor or concertmaster during an orchestral piece. Besides listening to traditional classical music and tuning into The Record Shelf every Sunday, I was also listening to a lot of minimalist music. This stuff didn’t go over with the girlfriend/fiancé/wife. Shortly after our wedding, I stopped going to classical performances. A few years after that, I ended my pursuit of buying classical music. I was doing the domestic thing with her and her child, now my step-son, Peter.
I still listened to music. Now it was jazz, but my purchasing and collecting recordings were not in the same spirit as classical, which was nowhere near as passionate as my collecting of rock music. Also, unlike rock and classical I never attended a jazz concert. In films the performances were always in bars, which isn’t my scene. I’m sure I could have attended concerts, but I was losing interest so fast that I never looked into seeing any artists. I liked John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Bennie Goodman, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, and some others. Full disclosure: some of these artists and a lot of others not listed were in compilation albums like Ken Burns Jazz (the soundtrack to the excellent PBS documentary) and The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Right out of the gate, I was getting into compilations, and I wasn’t even embarrassed. Also, I wasn’t reading about jazz like I tried to learn with classical music, and I voraciously read about popular music. It was as if I knew I wasn’t going to be interested in jazz very long: I wasn’t investing in the time, money, or passion as I did the other forms of music. Then again, maybe it was the wise words of the used record store owner coming back to me.
Sometime in the late 1980s, I was rummaging through some stuff I had at my parent’s house when I found two rock LPs I never got around to trading in Springsteen Live 1975/1985 and Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones. The Springsteen box set was a gift–I didn’t ask for it, and–except for the powerful cover of The Temptations’ “War”–I didn’t play it much. I rarely used my turntable by the time I received the Springsteen live collection. The existence of the Waits record in this near-empty box perplexed me, though. It may have been the last popular music album I ever purchased before cutting completely over to classical, but I could barely remember buying it and listening to it. Also, I knew I didn’t have any other titles by Waits in my long-gone collection so; to buy this album so late in the game was strange. Swordfishtrombones was probably the climatic milestone to a decade of loud music, hopes & dreams, late nights, and vinyl, plenty of vinyl. If my guess is correct, it was a strange coda to my popular music record collecting considering I wasn’t a fan of Waits. I’m not sure what my first album was. Perhaps it was the Abbey Road album I disappointed my sister by buying, but I’m almost certain Swordfishtrombones was my last. At the time I found the album, I no longer had a turntable so I couldn’t play the songs for clues to why I bought it. The best guess I have now is how critics compare this album to the better works of Captain Beefheart–an artist I liked.
Married life brought rock music back into my life if only a little and indirectly. Carol bought me Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love in 1986. She also bought us tickets for a U2 concert the same year at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum. I figured that this show would be the last rock concert I would ever attend, but it wasn’t. Nor would the Waits album technically be the last rock album I would buy. Carol would tire of the classical music and jazz I was getting into. She wanted some rock music in our new house. I had been out of the popular music scene for so long that I needed help with what albums to buy. I asked my friend and fellow blogger, Chip, for some help. He suggested I buy Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend and Lenny Kravitz’ Let Love Rule. About ten years after those purchases, I installed the relatively new iTunes onto the family’s new computer. I was purchasing rock music again, but this wasn’t a complete revival. Most of the time, I was buying nice-sounding elevator music. I just didn’t care that that much about the stuff as I did fifteen years ago. Also, the old rock and roll “critic” had some misgivings of the iTunes concept: buying singles from albums that were meant to be played in album format. It was as if Apple had created a big Compilation Album Making Machine. Steve Jobs admitted as much in the authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, where he enjoyed hacking up Dylan albums in creating his own mix (with not a cut from Empire Burlesque, as readers of the bio know all too well). Though maybe it would be more generous to call iTunes a Mixed Tape Maker. (Everyone loves mixed tapes, right?) But I didn’t care anymore. I, for the most part, wasn’t listening to the music–it was now just ambiance. These days, if I purposefully listen to music at all, it is usually rock or folk on Pandora at work. I know there are much better apps out there than Pandora. That’s how much I don’t care. Still, I can thank Pandora and Springsteen’s YouTube channel for enticing me to buy, via iTunes alas, Springsteen’s The Rising and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions albums and watching the cringe-worthy “Springsteen & I,” the fascinating “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and his nearly bloodless Broadway show on Netflix. I guess the new “Western Stars” is next, but I’m not sure when I’ll get around to seeing it. I’m not the fan I used to be.
Recently, I attended two shows in my post-rock or post-music days. I saw an excellent Springsteen concert at the Oracle Arena in 2012 and a respectable if not inspiring Black Flag concert the following year at the local Ace of Spades with my 23 year-old son, (who kept muttering in wonder, “I can’t believe I’m at a Black Flag concert with my dad”). I didn’t pursue tickets for either of these shows. They, figuratively, landed in my lap. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have attended either event. The funny thing is while writing and rewriting this post I starting looking into local live classical music–the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Sacramento Chamber Music Society. I’m also looking into the Kronos Quartet hoping–probably in vain–to see if/when they are touring near the Sacramento area. I don’t know how long this feeling will last, though.
Today, Oblivion Comics & Coffee: coffee and trying not to care about what comes over the speakers I’m having my morning coffee at Oblivion Comics & Coffee one of my current haunts, an ingenious combination of a comic book store and coffee house. I like graphic novels, but for the most part, my tastes are eclectic–too eclectic for this store that mostly sells superhero titles. But I order the graphic novels that interest me through this store after I have discovered them online. As for the coffee, I’d prefer to drink the higher quality, Fair Trade stuff down the street at Temple Roasters, but this place is right across the street from my job. My taste in coffee and espresso is not as discriminating as I wish it to be.
I’m in my 60s and decades past the time I took rock music so seriously, but there are still remnants of the old snob. (At my age, maybe the appropriate noun is “grouch.”) Earlier this place played an inventive cover of an 80s song I recognized, but couldn’t name. No matter, I think to myself, these days the only things I listen to are political podcasts and audiobooks. Then I hear “More Than a Feeling” from Boston’s debut album. An album I acknowledged to be excellent, but I grew to hate by the early 80s due to radio saturation. I haven’t heard it in years except here, where management plays it too much. (If they’ve played it twice in a week that’s too much for me.) It’s as if I’m back in the 80s again. That’s what I get for hanging out here so much. Why don’t they play a Van Morrison album like “Astral Weeks,” “Moondance,” or my favorite, “Into the Music?” (Yeah, I know, they’re all old ones.) How about “Tempted” by Squeeze or what about some Los Lobos! I was reminded what a fun song “Last Night I Got Loaded” is when I was watching “Bull Durham” for what seemed like the millionth time the other night. Shut-up, Jack, you old crank. You haven’t been passionate about music in thirty years, why should you give a shit, anyway. Oh no! Now its Foreigner’s “Jukebox Heroes.” Come back Styx; all is forgiven!