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Monday, February 16, 2015

Dumpstaphunk - Second Generation Stankiness

Alright now let's tick it off:

1.  Dumpstaphunk is from New Orleans, where funk was born in that stanky debauched atmosphere. Yezz...
2.  The personnel includes second generation funkmasters, from the Neville family no less.
3.   TWO BASS PLAYERS!! Now that is a helluva funky idea! The bottom is punched up in this band fer sure! And both of the bassmen sing!!
4.   Sly & the Family Stone - type vocals; extra greasy and sweet. The vocalists toss lines around amongst themselves, just like the Family Stone did.
5.   Wah-Wah pedals!  This band works those puppies to death.

This New Orleans syncopated funk is damned hard to execute.  All the casual offbeats, intricate hesitations and locked-in grooves take mad skills to pull off.  Listen to these folks show us how its done!

When I was an impressionable young punk in the 1970's, this music infected me.  In New Orleans, funk never faded.  This is what young people listen to and play down there.  When I listen to Dumpstaphunk, I feel transported to a different world - a world in which  mastering an instrument is considered a noble calling; a world where music is performed, not programmed.  I am very thankful for Dumpstaphunk and their fellow travelers in the old school world of real funk musicianship.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Moving On

In December 2002, my family moved about four blocks.  We moved into an old house - very old, built in 1880. It is a local historical landmark - there is a plaque on the porch declaring its status. The place was being sold by a divorcing couple - the former husband was living alone in the rambling old building.  He was having a tough time, struggling with Lyme disease and the loss of his marriage.  When he moved out, he left lots of stuff behind, including some very cool beer mugs that I still use.

The house had "good bones" but was in need of attention.  It was a wooden structure that really had never been properly scraped, prepped and painted since it was built. There were non-functioning bathrooms and a funky, do-it-yourself finished basement with warped wood paneling on the walls and smelly wall-to-wall carpeting laid on top of a cold, damp concrete floor.  We moved in, my wife and our two girls, and we rolled up our sleeves.  The old house ate money at a rapid pace, but we got it into decent shape.  The list of projects is never cleared in a 125+ year old house.  I replaced two rotted porches and re-painted the whole house again last year.

Like the previous owners, our marriage fell apart in this old house.  After almost three years of litigation, the divorce became final last month.  Our home  must be sold .  The two young kids that moved into the house with us in 2002 are now young adults.  We will be closing on a two-flat, pictured above, in a couple of days.  Two-flats are a common form of housing in Chicagoland - they are great for extended families or live-in owners that need some income from a renter. I will put my two young adults in the downstairs unit and I will take the upstairs unit.

It will be good to be out of this old Victorian.  It takes too much attention and diligence.  The place will never be completely "fixed up."   The old house echoes with memories and scenes from a family in turmoil.  We had some terrific, happy times in this old house, but also some nightmare experiences. It is definitely time to move on.

We are downsizing and getting ready for a different situation.  There is quite a bit of uncertainty around this transition - we are all a little jittery.  And the two-flat needs work, too, so I will have a new list of projects.  The conventional wisdom ranks moving as number 3 on the list of most stressful life events - of course, death of a loved one is number 1 and  divorce is number 2.  Loss of job is number 4.

This feels like a new start, but there is no joy attached to the event.  I am 60 years old and the idea of a new start is not exciting.  But we will grind through this.  With luck, we will be settled and centered by the fall.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Two Virutous Concepts that are Not Really That Virtuous

The Good Provider:  This is a well-known and honored concept - a  virtuous individual, stepping up to take care of a group of people, usually blood relations (but not always).  It is a "talking point" when folks describe their primary relationships.  A wife tells her friends at the play group, "I can be a stay-at-home mom because my husband is a good provider; I don't have to work."   The husband tells his buddies at the bar, "I can pursue my passion for music/art/golf/whatever because my wife is a good provider;  I don't have to work."  Offspring of the Good Provider tell their friends, "I can use mom's/dad's credit card to buy dinner for all of you because he/she is a Good Provider."  Those receiving the support of a Good Provider have economic security and a less difficult path through the financial jungle. The Good Provider gains contentment and a sense of fulfilled responsibility through his/her ability to "take care" of the family. 

But there is a dark side to the Good Provider concept...

The working member of the single-earner household may be physically absent from the family or emotionally distant or abusive or sodden with drink every night, but he/she can wrap himself/herself in the golden banner of "the Good Provider" to offset these faults.   The Good Provider concept is totalitarianism on a very small scale.  It is a concept that breeds dependency and authoritarianism.  It is corrosive to human relationships - those receiving support are fearful of losing it and resentful of the power of the Good Provider.  The Good Provider may be angry and judgmental when the dependents do not perform up to his/her standards, and can engage in economic blackmail to force compliance.  The folks that depend on the Good Provider learn how to be helpless, or may develop a sense of entitlement, or may turn consumption into a weapon to keep the Good Provider focused on his role. And the Good Provider is trapped - he/she has to labor diligently to maintain the flow of treasure required to support the family unit.  If a job is lost, or a business fails, or health problems prevent continued employment, the Good Provider can sink into despair over the loss of his/her purpose.

The Good Provider can be a virtuous concept, but it often leads to misery and pain for all that have believed the hype.

Never Give Up:  "Never Give Up" is a concept that is hard to resist.  Steely determination and persistence in the face of resistance and adversity are almost always judged to be virtuous.  It is memorialized in clichés - "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  If you Google "never give up quotes" you will find nuggets from Winston Churchill,  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Clint Eastwood, Alice Cooper and Nicki Minaj.   Successful people almost always overcome some setbacks before achieving success, right? 

Well, yes, but...

I had a great boss who once told me, "It is always best to escape with your life."  People sometimes end up in dire circumstances because they refuse to accept a core reality - some things can't or won't happen no matter how much effort and determination are expended to achieve those things.  And, yes, there are clichés backing this concept, too - "Cut your losses."  "Live to fight another day." And so on.  Fighting for an impossible outcome, or clinging to a doomed relationship, or pursuing goals without the resources to achieve them - these are examples of times when it is best to quit trying.

These two "virtuous concepts" have guided me my entire life.  It is humbling to realize that the organizing principals of my life may be fatally flawed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Jeff Bond, drummer and great guy - RIP

I know that there are massive tragedies happening in the world - Syria, Israel/Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and on and on.  But tonight I want to talk about an individual human tragedy.  Even great disasters are just a mass accumulation of individual human tragedies.

I went to high school with a guy named Jeff Bond.  Jeff was the son of the choral music/drama teacher at our school.  Everyone in his family had talent.  His dad was an operatic baritone, his brother, Bill, played the tuba; his sister Claudia was an excellent violinist.  Jeff was a very high-energy drummer.  He could kick the high school jazz band and make that group of youngsters swing harder than teenagers are supposed to swing.  He could play funky drums that would make James Brown squeal.  He was a dancer and a trickster.  His sense of humor was infectious.   It was an honor to play in the jazz band with him; he was an exciting fireball of a percussionist.  Whenever I hear that old Todd Rundgren tune, "Bang on the Drum All Day, " I think of Jeff.  I found 2 pictures of Jeff - his high school yearbook pic from 1973 and another, more recent shot. I also found one of his drum solos on the web.  Jeff just wanted to play, man.

So Jeff graduated from Pacific High and headed out to beat the drums for a living.  He played with some very big names - Mel Torme' was one that I remember, but there were many others.  After doing the road thing for a while, Jeff settled in Reno and made a living playing drums in the casinos.  He married, had a couple of kids and worked at being a good family man.  Like most working musicians, Jeff felt the impact of the digital revolution and the  "music for free" cultural shift - the casino work became less plentiful.  He finally took a full-time non-musical job as a school bus driver in Carson City NV.

So we lost Jeff last Friday to cancer.  I thought of him often, and we communicated once in a while via email.  But I let the friendship slip away - I knew better, but Chicago is far away from Reno and I was wrapped up in my family and work. I didn't see Jeff much at all after I left California in 1976.   I heard that he was sick a little while ago; Jeff was not one to call old friends with his troubles, so the news had to come via third parties.  He died too goddamn young.  He left a wife and two daughters who loved him to pieces, I'm sure.   Jeff's death is another individual human tragedy.

Jeff, I am sorry you are gone, brother.  And I apologize for being a shitty friend.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Main & Chicago Avenue, Evanston IL - Update on a vacant lot

Feast your eyes on this ugly beast of a building!    It is what has been proposed for the vacant lot on the southeast corner of Main Street and Chicago Avenue.  Yes, it does match the other ugly beast buildings on the northwest and northeast corners of the intersection, but that doesn't make this a good idea. For those of us who live in south Evanston, this is another injury.

I see this vacant lot almost every day, and have come to appreciate the open space.  There used to be an old two-story commercial building at that location called "the Main," but it was knocked down by some developers right before the financial crisis.  I wrote about the loss of The Main when it happened.  The vacant lot is sometimes used by dog owners now.  It is good to have a vacant piece of land in the concrete valley.  The new building will increase the grimness of the landscape.  It also appears that the developers are not including enough parking for a multifamily development of this scale, so there will be more folks searching for street parking - already a scarce commodity in the neighborhood.

The new development will add a bunch of living units to the neighborhood.  Congestion is already a problem and this building will make things worse.  There will be first-floor retail space; the neighborhood is rotten with empty storefronts already.  I foresee more national chains/fast food places taking up the slots (we have a Subway and a Starbucks at the corner already; I expect Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread and the rest of the usual crowd of homogenized retailers.

I sound like a grumpy NIMBY.  Certainly we need tax revenues in our town, but it isn't clear that this development will make a significant difference (especially in view of the Tax Increment Financing deal that the city government has awarded to this parcel). I know that this vacant lot needs to be filled and the location at the transit hub of Main and Chicago makes this a great place for a high rise.  Nevertheless, the proposed structure will not be attractive and will increase the hassle of living in the area.  Maybe I am wrong and it will be prettier in real life than it is in an artist's sketch.  Maybe the congestion won't be any worse.  But I think these outcomes are quite unlikely.

For anyone who is interested, here is a link to the presentation the developers made last fall to a community meeting.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finding the lost key


This little story began a few weeks ago.

Like many people, I have a safe deposit box.  I use that box to store important stuff - some valuables, some papers, etc. - that I want to protect in case my house burns down.  I also get a kick out of having a safe deposit box; I like going into the basement of the bank building, pulling out the old-school key and unlocking my box, which is in a wall of boxes, all protected by a two-inch steel doors.  The safe deposit vault smells like the bank of my childhood, metallic and slightly stuffy.

I had an important item that I wanted to put in the safe deposit box a few weeks ago.  I went to the corner of the kitchen where I store the key, and it was GONE!  I often shuffle things around absent-mindedly, so I wasn't too alarmed.  I put it on my list of things to do ("find lost key").  It has sat on my list for a while.

My daughter woke up yesterday and decided she wanted to open a bank account.  We went to the bank but couldn't finish our chore - the bank needed to see government-issued ID and my daughter doesn't have a driver's license yet.  We went home to get her passport, but we couldn't find it.  I thought, "maybe it is in the safe deposit box."  "Find lost key" moved to the top of my list.

I turned the first floor of the house upside down, emptied out drawers, looked in the car, went through my coat pockets, etc. etc.  This took a few hours and killed my Saturday, basically.  I ended up feeling frustrated, dispirited and angry with myself for misplacing such an important item.  Lack of organization has been the bane of my existence, and I truly hate it when I lose stuff.

So I gave up and tried to forget about it.  I couldn't, of course.  It is hard work to kick yourself all day for being a scatter-brained idiot.

As part of my effort to get more organized, I am going through each room of my house slowly to de-clutter, categorize and file.  A good friend of mine used to do this type of work for a living, and she has been kind enough to lead me through the process. My friend came over late in the day yesterday, and we attacked one corner of my basement office.  On the corner of my desk was a pile of papers that my daughter dumped into my office last fall.  My friend and I attacked it - old bills (all paid), junk mail, 3-year old birthday cards, the usual pack-rat pile.

And in the middle of the pile I found.....

the lost safe deposit box key!

There is no joy on earth quite the same as finding an important item that has been lost.  I was hopping up and down in relief and excitement.  It is a huge hassle to drill into a safety deposit box, and they charge at least $100 for the service.  A load of worry and self-loathing was lifted from my shoulders.

Now, it is tempting to insert a cheap metaphor into this narrative.  I won't.  All I am saying is it sure feels good to find a lost safe deposit box key.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Following Your Musical Dreams vs. Facing Harsh Reality

I was in New York a couple of months  ago and looked up an old friend - a really old friend.  I met Chuck when we were both about 13 years old.  We were in the John Muir Junior High School bands together - concert band, jazz band, orchestra, etc.  We were in thrall to the high-energy music teacher at Muir, Tony Caviglia.  Mr. Caviglia played lead trumpet in the Oakland (California) Symphony and  he was also a monster jazz player. Chuck was a Caviglia protégé on trumpet.  I was a mediocre, but ambitious, trombone player.  We both had dreams of musical glory then, and throughout high school.  Chuck made a commitment - he was going to play trumpet for the rest of his life, and he would do the best he could to become an elite player.  I was a big chicken and hedged my bets - I went to Cal Berkeley and became a music major with an economics minor.  Within a year, I was an economics major and my musical pursuits were restricted to extracurricular activities. 

When you are a brass player (especially a trombonist), you eventually have to face harsh reality.  Fact #1:  It is a stone cold bitch to become an elite brass player.  It takes 5 - 10 hours work each day; mostly solitary, physical, tedious work.  Of course, this work will only pay off if you have talent and passion, but fierce determination to master your instrument is the most important thing.  I lacked the steely will to master my horn.  Chuck had the will, in spades.  Fact #2: Even if you succeed in becoming an elite brass player, that doesn't mean you will make a decent living.  There are many more aspiring trumpet and trombone heroes than there are paying positions for brass players.  You must possess  a thick skin and a certain Zen-like serenity to get through the ordeals and rejections associated with auditions.  You have to patch together multiple sources of revenue - teaching, private lessons, gigs, and perhaps even the hated non-musical job.  I know great musicians that are part-time IT consultants, restaurant wait staff, bus drivers, you name it.  The time you devote to making a living outside of music is time you can't spend practicing or seeking employment as a brass player.  The day job keeps you alive, but reduces your chances to succeed as a musician.

I threw in the towel early and became a working professional person in an office with a MBA and all that.  The trombone went into the closet; I took up harmonica (easier to carry and you can practice while driving to the office).  I felt some regret because I didn't pursue my dream, but I was convinced not every dream should be pursued.  I still believe this.

Chuck refused to give up.  He went to San Francisco State and received degrees in music education and performance.  He moved to New York and got a masters from the Manhattan School of Music.  He studied and practiced the trumpet for countless hours, he taught others, he auditioned, he got gigs, he became an adjunct professor at a college in New Jersey.  Chuck is one of the top classical trumpet players in the country, but it is a hard profession.  This is not a path to massive wealth.  If you are a top player, and hustle, you can make a good living.

I have deep respect for my old friend Chuck.  He is still working on his art and taking auditions.  The quest for musical excellence is a lifelong pursuit.

I have forgiven myself for putting away the trombone, but I still feel a small ache when I think about this road not taken.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Depression -Why?

Several months ago, I heard on the radio that depression is not simply caused by low levels of serotonin in the brain.  This is a canard, embraced by people that yearn for simple solutions to questions that are complex and mysterious.  And of course, the prescription drug industry loves the theory because they sell zillions of pills.  Researchers don't know if low levels of serotonin cause depression or whether depression causes serotonin levels to drop.  Correlation and causality are two very different things.
Depression is caused by a mix of factors – biological, genetic, and environmental.  I am feeling more confident in my own theory that the only way to combat this problem is through discipline and force of will.  Taking care of your physical self, doing things that are good for you when you don’t feel happy, and refusing to be defeated by negative emotions – that is the path.  It isn’t an easy path.  The negative emotions may never go away.  The fight will continue for as long as you live - every day, every minute.  It is daunting, but it is the only way.  Talk therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, a sustainable life structure, pursuit of passionate interests, the human touch – these are the tools.  But they don’t cure a damned thing.  They just keep the beast outside, growling and scratching at the door, instead of inside, creating terror and sadness.  And when the beast gets inside, don't panic!  Tolerate the misery, and use the tools.  Soon, the beast will be outside the door again.  The good news about depression is if you fight it, you will win - eventually.
I laugh when it is suggested that depression is a sign of weakness.  Depressed people have to be much stronger and resilient than people that aren't afflicted with the disease in order to function; to even stay alive. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Linda Twyman Murder - Update

The brutal murder of Evanston single mom Linda Twyman remains unsolved.  Her friends and neighbors have not forgotten her, however.  This is a "cold case" for the Evanston Police, but the case is still being actively pursued.  The Evanston chief of police Richard Eddington granted an interview on Evanston's murders (solved and unsolved) to the local community newspaper, the Evanston RoundTable.  here is a "snip" of the article in the paper that dealt with Linda:

The 2005 murder of Linda Twyman remains unsolved, said Chief Eddington, though “we continue to work the case [and] there is a person of interest” whom the police are pursuing. It is “not anybody on the public radar,” he said. The person of interest is currently in prison and “not going anywhere,” said the Chief. He added the case is “a tough one, but there is some hope that we’ll eventually prosecute” someone for Ms. Twyman’s murder.

This is not very edifying, but it is the first public police comment on Linda Twyman's murder in a long time.  It is important to Linda's memory to find and bring justice to the perpetrator of this atrocity.

Monday, January 06, 2014

A Highly Skilled Stranger Saves My Butt

You want a "feel-good" story for this new year?  Here ya go.....

My two daughters and I were driving our 12-year old Subaru Outback wagon home to Evanston IL from Santa Fe NM, having finished a great visit with my eldest son, his wife and baby.   Santa Fe to Evanston is a 1,352-mile journey.  The old Subaru cruised through the long drive on the way out to Santa Fe.  The car was working well as we hit Highway 40 to go home on January 3.

We crossed the New Mexico border and around 4:30PM, I noticed that I no longer had power steering.  We pulled off the highway into a gas station and topped up the power steering fluid.  This did no good.  I was worried, but got back on the road. Immediately, my car started freaking out.  The gauges all went to zero, all the hazard lights went on and the engine began to cough and sputter. I got off the highway at the next exit, pulled over and called the roadside service folks.

We waited an hour for the wrecker to arrive; the bearded good ol' boy winched the Subaru onto his flatbed and drove us to the teaming metropolis of Clinton OK - population under 10,000 located 100 miles west of Oklahoma City.  The good ol' boy dropped our car at K&S Tire and drove us to a motel near the highway where we piled into a couple of adjoining rooms for a restless night.

I was convinced that the alternator was dead.  I began to worry about finding an alternator for a 12-year old Subaru in Clinton OK.  I worried about the quality of mechanics employed by a tire shop. I worried about being stuck in the middle or rural Oklahoma for quite a while.  Flying back from Oklahoma City would be impossible because we were traveling with Tai, the one-eyed wonder dog.  I would never put Tai in the cargo hold of an aircraft.

I begged a ride from the motel desk guy and showed up at K&S tire at 7:45AM on Saturday.  At about 8:05AM, the guy pictured above loped into the store.  His name is Martin King, a new resident of Clinton originally from Austin TX who is the lead mechanic at K&S.  He looks like an Austin guy - lean, shaved head, scraggly goatee, and a tattoo on the back of his neck that traveled halfway up his skull.  I wasn't sure if his appearance indicated extreme expertise or extreme incompetence.  I took hope in the guy's demeanor - he moved purposefully and confidently.  I crossed my fingers - really needed to get home to meet scheduled obligations...

Martin went into the shop, popped open the Subaru and took off the engine cover to have a look.  He came out to see me and said, "Sorry dude - I can't fix this.  Your idler pulley threw a bearing and the serpentine belt is shredded .  Nobody in this burg has the parts and it will take until Tuesday to get them delivered.  You could tow the sucker to the Subaru dealership in OK City but I think their service department closes at noon."

Well, this wasn't happy news, and I fell silent while I absorbed it.  I finally asked the mechanic to show me the problem so I could better understand it.  He took me into the shop and pointed out the wrecked bearings in the pulley and showed me the shredded belt (it looked like black, rubbery spaghetti).  Martin held up the pulley and stared at it and said "Hey, wait a second."  He turned abruptly, threw open a drawer in a cabinet and started rummaging through used parts.  He made a triumphant noise and held up a part - another pulley.  "Took this off an old Chevy truck I was re-building."  He held it up to the Subaru pulley - it looked about the same!  "Let's see if this sucker will go on your car."  He bent over, whirled his wrenches, and said, joyfully, "Sumbitch!!"   The old truck pulley fit perfectly.

"Now we need a belt."  He started working the phones, talking to various sources of parts.  One of the local auto parts stores had a belt that was almost the right size - just a bit shorter than the original, but the right width.  Martin dispatched a sleepy-looking kid to the parts store to fetch it.

Once he had the belt, Martin called up the diagram of my car's pulley and belt system on the internet.  He, threaded the belt through the various rotors and pulleys.  He got in the car, turned the ignition key and Presto!  It worked!! Power steering functional, all gauges working, all systems go!!  Time elapsed from Martin's statement of defeat to his glorious victory - 30 minutes.

This service cost me about $50.  I drove 900 miles to Evanston IL on a rigged repair job with a junked part.

So I tip my hat to Martin King, mechanic extraordinaire, Austin hipster in a small Oklahoma town, just fixing cars and feeling justifiably confident in his ability to rig and hack his way through problems.  Martin, you rock!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Lost Businesses in E-Town

We lost five retail establishments in Evanston IL in the past two days.  A fire destroyed three businesses on Davis Street at Oak.  The Pine Yard Chinese restaurant, Technicolor Nail Salon and Taco Diablo are shut, perhaps forever.  Taco Diablo inhabited the space previously occupied by Bill's Blues Bar, a venue that I loved (see this entry, and also this entry, for more on BBB).  The Pine Yard has been operating in Evanston for over 35 years.  The other two lost retail establishments were the two Dominick's stores in town, which closed when Safeway pulled the plug on its effort to profitably serve the Chicago area grocery market.  Dominick's market share dropped by 66% in about 10 years.  Safeway threw in the towel.

Retail shops and grocery stores are very important to a community.  The act of buying something from local people in a local shop strengthens the bonds in a community.  Commercial transactions are amazing examples of everyday trust. 

I was a regular customer of one of the Dominick's stores that closed.  I know the layout of the place and could whip through my grocery shopping quickly.  I knew the staff. They were dependable, decent folk who are now out of work.  I am a businessman and realize that reality cannot be denied - no profit means the end for a commercial enterprise.  The rise of Aldi's, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Walmart/Sam's Club, Food For Less and other players made the market too tough for Safeway.  Safeway's mistakes made a bad situation worse.  In spite of the inevitability of this failure, I feel bad that "my store" closed and honest, hard-working people will suffer through no fault of their own.

The three small businesses may have insurance and may rise again.  I sure hope so.  The Pine Yard in particular is an Evanston institution.  The owners of these places are classic small business people, creating local jobs through solid service businesses.  They keep our communities vital. 

It will not be a happy New Year for these closed businesses and the people that work in them.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Murder and Mayhem - Eric "Guitar" Davis, Azim Hakeem, Mobeen Hakeem and Kevin Ross


If you look at the historic crime records in Chicago, you learn that the number of murder victims have trended down steadily since the mid-1970's.  There were 970 murders in Chicago in 1974. The number dropped to 435 in 2011 but bumped up to 513 in 2012 (which led to media focus on Chicago as "murder capital").  Thus far in 2013, the number of murders is down by around 20%.

None of these "big picture" numbers matter, though, because someone shot and killed Eric "Guitar" Davis.  He was found, shot in the chest,  in his car early on Monday morning.  He was over at the Kingston Mines blues club Sunday night and into the early Monday morning hours, playing and hanging out.  To his family and friends, the decline in Chicago's murder rate is not at all relevant. They have lost a beloved person to mindless violence and that is the only fact that matters.  In some Chicago neighborhoods, the murder rate did not decline.

Eric was one of those hard-working musicians that became fantastic through force of will.  He was a drummer, originally, and the son of a drummer.  Buddy Guy told Eric that guitar players get more attention, so Eric picked up the ax and started working.  I used to see him at jams years ago when he was in the early stages of his musical journey.  I saw him later fronting his band, figuring it out.  More recently, he emerged as a giant blues guitar shredder and passionate vocalist, got records out on the Delmark label and began to tour all over the place.  He was married and had 6 children - sometimes he would bring them up on the bandstand and play with them; his son on drums, his daughter on bass.  Eric was young and muscled-up.  He looked like he could be rockin' the mic at a hip-hop show, but he was a stone-cold bluesman.  It hurts to lose this guy. No suspects.  The murderer may never be caught.

Azim and Mobeen Hakeem were two brothers that operated an old-school tobacco shop on Davis Street in Evanston IL.  Mobeen had autism, and was very effective at the shop - the customers knew and liked him.  This past July, both of these harmless, low-key brothers were found shot to death in the basement of the shop.  They had been shot multiple times, and their wallets were missing.  Nothing else was taken from the shop.  The Evanston police were baffled, the family was devastated, the community was disrupted and frightened.  Since Azim and Mobeen were Muslims, there was concern that this was a hate crime.

This past Monday December 16, a man robbed the Chase Bank branch at 900 Grove Street in Evanston.   The bank personnel called the police, and they quickly ID-ed a guy matching the robber's description walking near the intersection of Maple and Davis streets, in front of the Bennison's Bakery.  They confronted him, the guy pulled out a 9 MM pistol and refused to drop the weapon (but he didn't shoot).  The cops shot and killed Kevin Ross.  He had a duffle bag full of the bank's cash.  The cops searched his apartment and storage lockers and found the social security card and ID's of Azim and Mobeen Hakeem.  Kevin Ross apparently was a one-man crime wave, with multiple bank robberies. Perhaps he killed a bunch of people, too. 

Every murder creates deep agony.  The losses accumulate.  A rising blues star is randomly murdered, leaving behind 6 kids and a wife (and legions of friends and admirers).  Two quiet brothers are ruthlessly murdered, a family grieves, a business closes, a community is damaged.  A criminal is shot and killed; perhaps his crimes were unknown to his friends and family.  They, too, are devastated by grief, and perhaps by shame.

Now think about 450 - 500 stories like this every year in the City of Chicago.  Think about the murder rate in the United States; 14,827 people killed in the U.S. in 2012, a murder rate over 4 times higher than Japan, Australia, Britain, Germany and France.

It is a helluva lot of loss and agony.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Robert W. Gibson: 1945 - 2013

It was one of those moments that was both devastating and guilt-producing.  I came home from on Monday, work, picked up the mail that had been shoved through the slot in the front door and found a holiday card from an old friend in Portland OR.  To be specific, the card was from the wife of my old friend.  This didn't surprise me, since Julie sometimes sent out the Christmas cards for her husband. I opened the card and discovered that my old friend and mentor, Bob Gibson, had died. I was shocked and was immediately awash in grief.

Then I found out that Bob Gibson died in May.  The next wave was guilt.  I allowed our relationship to atrophy and I was out of touch for three years; I didn't know about his situation.  I didn't help Bob or Julie.  I feel bad about this, because I owe Bob so much.

Bob was my first boss at my first job after graduate school - I joined the Chicago office of Bank of America. I was 23 years old; he was 32.  He was a wicked fit, former Division I college fullback (from Northwestern University - he played for Ara Parsegian in the 1960's before Ara left to coach Notre Dame).  Bob was also wicked smart, and hardworking.  I learned so much from this guy - how to take charge of a high-conflict meeting, how to behave with clients and senior management of the bank, how to analyze financial data, and much more.  I still use the things Bob taught me, every day.

Bob was also a kind person.  I never remember him raising his voice when I screwed up (which I did regularly).  He invited me over to his house, where I first met Julie (then his fiancé).  He was a very active person - physically, intellectually, socially.  He climbed mountains, skied, played handball, bicycled Europe.  He had a big heart for dogs.  He knew a lot about wine.  He was an astute observer of the economic scene.  He was a venture capitalist.

Bob was a Chicagoan, from the north side.  He attended Lane Tech High School (the famous public school in the northwest part of the city) and people there still remember him.  He lived in San Francisco and London before settling in Portland OR.  I would visit him when I traveled to Portland to see my brother.  I also spoke to Bob when I was in need of advice or insight into a difficult business situation.

I last saw Bob during my trip to Portland during Thanksgiving of 2010.  He had just survived prostate cancer, and he looked lean and mean.  I thought he had soundly beaten the  "Big C".  Then earlier in the year, Bob was afflicted with acute lymphoblastic leukemia ("ALL"), a particularly nasty cancer.  It can come on suddenly, with illness occurring within days of its appearance.  The survival rate for adults with ALL is around 40%.

I am left with that old cliché - remember your friends and family, stay in touch, cherish them while you can, because they can be snatched away at any time.

Good bye, Bob.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Think About Others

Maybe this has happened to you:

You are striding purposely down a big city street.  Perhaps you are walking from the train station to your office.  It is not a good weather day - it is cold, grey  and there is snow on the ground.  Many other commuters surround you; you are moving in the flow of pedestrian traffic, making quick alterations in your direction and trajectory to avoid collisions with other purposeful people.  You glance to your right and you see him.

He is not dressed adequately for the cold weather.  The whites of his eyes have a yellowish hue.  He is not very clean, and he is rattling a plastic Big Gulp cup that has about 6 quarters in it.  He is holding a sign that might say "Broke and All Alone."

You pat your pockets for a couple of single dollar bills - pulling out the wallet to contribute to this fellow would break your momentum and you are in a big damned hurry, as usual.  There are no singles in your pocket; you grimace and walk on by.  At first, you berate yourself for not being a "good person" and providing some small bit of help to a troubled human being.  This causes you to feel guilty, and the guilt quickly morphs into resentment.  So whose fault is it that the guy is "Broke and All Alone?" Not yours!  Maybe he is a DRUG ABUSER or CRAZY or A DANGER TO OTHERS!  He needs to take care of his own self, goddammit, take responsibility for his circumstances, make better decisions, etc. etc.  You work like mad to justify your lack of compassion.

I am a lucky person.  I live and work among lucky people.  Through some combination of good fortune, strong cognitive skills, family status and clear-headed decisions, these folks are settled and secure in circumstances that are quite comfortable. Some of these folks might think that homeless people are a nuisance.  "They should pull themselves together and get a job!" And so on.  The lucky people don't know how to think about others who are not lucky.

Here are the facts - some people are ill.  They have brain disorders that make it difficult to perform the activities of daily living, let alone the activities of a successful careerist. It is not easy being dirt poor.  Getting the basics to survive can involve a very long day of very hard work, lots of walking from one place to another, coping with rejection, dealing with unfriendly police and unkind fellow citizens.

I learned some time ago that just because I can do something with relative ease (due to my fortunate background, the color of my skin, my outstanding education, etc.), that doesn't mean that the homeless guy on the corner can "buck up" and succeed just like I did.  I also learned that just because I have done my "stuff," that doesn't make me an expert in how others should do their "stuff."

It is true that everyone bears some responsibility for their condition, and that perseverance and determination can overcome adversity.  It is also true that random events make a huge difference.  What is your genetic make-up?  How rich were your parents?  How much trauma did you experience in your life?  It is important to think about these things when you think about other people.  Think about these things before you spout glib opinions.  Think about these things before you pass judgment on the guy who is "Broke and All Alone."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thankful that I was allowed to know these places and people

Thanksgiving is over and I am thinking about the places and people I have been fortunate to know.  I can't possibly list them all, but I am especially blessed to have known certain places and people  because they are gone now.  Here are four that make me feel grateful.

Bill's Blues Bar:  It was open from August 2003 through November 2009 - a decent run for a juke joint off the beaten track in a college town.  The location was not ideal, the room was undersized and the ambitions were huge relative to the economic opportunity.  Evanston loved the place but didn't always support it.  I had many interesting evenings there, both on-stage and in the crowd.  James Cotton, Son Seals, Eddy Clearwater, Big Time Sarah and dozens of other stellar performers  played this joint.  I had a friend that liked to say "They can take away all your money and all your stuff, but no one can take away the good times you have had."  Bill's Blues gave me lots of good times, and I am grateful.

The UBAA Tap:  This was the bar closest to my first home in Evanston.  When I arrived, there were very few places in town that would serve adult beverages, and none whatsoever near the Northwestern football stadium where I had a room as a grad student.  The UBAA was a good hangout, with a U-shaped bar and a long history of serving thirsty Evanstonians (it was just over the border in Skokie). The cheeseburgers were tasty and the bartenders were friendly. Every now and then, a fight would break out in the parking lot. The place closed, the building was sold and I drove by the location yesterday - the UBAA has been torn down, and the vacant lot will soon be filled by a Walgreens or some other abomination.  I am grateful for all the beers and burgers I consumed at the UBAA.

George Kubin:  George was my third boss at Bank of America's Chicago office.  I was a 26-year old punk with more ambition than sense.  He was a former teen-aged freedom fighter that sabotaged Nazi military bases in Czechoslovakia during WWII.  George made it to the U.S., became a citizen, got through college and created a career as an international banker.  He retained his Eastern European accent and Continental flair, and his heart was enormous. George died in 2003, I think.   He was world's kindest banker, and I am grateful that I was under his wing for a little while.

Frank Pulaski:  I met Frank in the trombone section at John Muir Junior High School.  We were high school buddies.  Frank was quiet, but a bit devilish.  He is the one that procured whiskey and dirty movies for his friends.  Frank was also an accomplished guitarist, and we put together a duo for a while - Frank on his 12-string acoustic and me on harmonica and vocals.  I am sure we stunk, but it was a lot of fun. He was a real friend, a stand-up guy with a big smile and calm approach to life. Frank died of cancer a few years back; I am grateful that he was part of my teenage years.

These two places and two people were not world-famous, but they were still huge.  Thanks to all of them for making me a slightly better person.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Working Band - R. Gang

Last Saturday night, I wanted to hear some good live music but I was seized with laziness.  I also was feeling cheap - paying the ticket prices at my favorite venues seemed like an extravagance.  When this combination of issues arise, I head to Pete Miller's Steakhouse in Evanston.  Pete Miller's has live music every night and no cover charge.  I like to order one drink to nurse while I sit at the bar and enjoy some tunes. 

Pete Miller's booking preference is jazz.  I have heard Bobby Broom lay down a smoking guitar set and Chris Forman pumping out awesome soul-jazz B-3 organ from the little stage near the front of the house.  This past Saturday, Pete Miller's booked R Gang.  I didn't know the group, but figured out their story within 30 seconds of my arrival at the joint.  This a Working Band!!  Have a look at the shot from the Downer's Grove Rotary Fest at the top of this post.  See what I mean?

What are the characteristics of a Working Band?

(1)  They exist to entertain.  They try hard to figure out what the audience wants, and they strive to fulfill those wants.  They want the people to dance!!
(2)  They play lots of covers.  R Gang specializes in vintage R&B.  They were playing Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, etc. etc.  Folks in the crowd were singing along.
(3) They have more than one singer, and they can handle harmony.  R Gang has two male singers - a tenor/falsetto specialist (Rick Owens) and a baritone (Robert Davis).  Rick and Robert had the chops and the moves to handle a long list of classic R&B tunes. The keyboard guy (Mike DalValle) sang, too.  The voices blended well - these guys have been singing together for quite a while.
(4) The musicianship is stellar.  R Gang's guitarist, Will Crosby, is a monster - he played the hell out of every tune.  Crosby has a glossy resume, including a stint in the band that backed Mavis Staples on her world tour. The rhythm section was super tight, and nobody played too loud.  Pete Miller's is a small room; volume control is critically important.

You might run into R Gang at a suburban roadhouse, a wedding reception or a summer neighborhood festival.  It ain't easy to produce this type of music - it takes energy, skill and dedication.  I also suspect that the Working Band is an endangered species.  DJ's are displacing them.  A single DJ is a lot cheaper than a 6-piece band.

So hats off to R Gang and all the other Working Bands out there!  Entertainment is an art, too.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fathers and Sons

I don't know why, but I love this rather creepy "Photoshopped" image.  The poet said "The child is father to the man," but I don't think this is what he had in mind.
My belief is that a son can't begin to understand his father until he becomes a father, too.  The emotions and reactions to the life-changes that accompany the arrival of a child are hard to comprehend  from the outside looking in.  Many men finally start getting serious when they have a kid. 
As I begin my sixtieth year on this planet and wind up my 33rd year as a parent of kids under 18, I find myself thinking about my own father quite a lot.  My dad was a gentle person in many ways, but he struggled.  He was diagnosed as "manic - depressive" in the 1960's (I always preferred this term to the less precise "bipolar disorder.")  I didn't understand the guy at all, and viewed him as a "negative role model."  Everything he did and everything he was bothered me, so I strived to be the opposite.  He did not have much career success and finally went on disability in his 50's due to his brain disorder - my mother went to work when I was young to relieve the financial strain on the family.  He smoked like a chimney and he was a major league couch potato - my mom is the parent who played catch with me when I was a kid.  He was silent for long stretches and would break out with flashes of white-hot rage at random moments.  He was raised in the Southern United States and was a casual bigot.
He also had a great sense of humor and could be a very charming guy.  He cared about his community and volunteered many hours to improve it.  He was active in local politics and helped several folks with their campaigns.  He served as the parks commissioner in our home town (an unpaid position).  To generate a little extra money, he distributed World's Finest Chocolate bars to schools for their fundraising efforts.  He brought cases of dented, unsalable canned goods home from his job at the warehouse to supplement our sometimes meager food supply. He worked the Dad's Club grill at the school carnival.  He was authentic and engaged at times, and people remembered him.   His funeral was a packed house of people he had touched along his path.
In other words, he fought against his condition and did what he could.
Before I became a father, I had no compassion for my dad.  After three decades of fatherhood, and significant experience with the mental illness of family members, I understand him.  I still don't want to emulate him, but now I finally admire him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Weird Bicycling Hazard

I am a recreational bicyclist.  It is great exercise, and the bicyclist is fully exposed to  the environment, enjoying speed, wind, and the scenery.  Riding a bicycle is also risky in our car-centric culture.  Automobile drivers sometimes kill bicyclists and don't even get a ticket!  Here is an article on this reality.  When I get on my bike, I avoid automobiles - I try to stick to bike paths so I won't become a speed bump for an SUV.

On a recent gorgeous autumn Saturday afternoon, I hit the bike path that runs through Evanston's Lake Michigan parks and beaches. It is safe - no cars allowed!  The path continues when it hits Northwestern University, and there is a particularly satisfying stretch along the peninsula that juts out into the lake.  I crossed the bridge to that stretch of path and saw a woman with her back to me; I was biking into the sun.  She was in the middle of the path, so I veered to the right to avoid her.  She suddenly started screaming  at me, and I belatedly realized that she was walking a dog.  The dog was on a retractable leash, and she had allowed the little pooch to wander 30 feet away.  The very thin, impossible to see, retractable leash was stretched across the bike path, and I slammed on my brakes.  I was a bit late, and the leash clotheslined me.  I am glad to report that I was not decapitated or seriously injured - I ended up with a painful thin rope burn where the crazed woman yanked the leash across my neck.  And the little dog was fine.  But the dog's owner was quite interested in loudly displaying her mastery of every profanity in the English language.  Being a competitive sort, I responded in kind.  Since I was bleeding a bit and quite furious, the woman turned and bolted.  I felt like an idiot for cussing at her; that certainly didn't solve anything.  This woman was creating a danger to her dog, herself and others with that damned retractable leash and she should have been educated about it, not yelled at.  I had experienced a weird bicycling hazard I had never thought about before.

I am a long-time dog owner, and I refuse to use the nefarious retractable leash.  They are evil.  They have led to amputations, major cuts, even death for pets and humans.  Here is a link to the  Consumer Reports article on retractable leashes. If you are using a retractable leash, you are not being a responsible pet owner.  It is the lazy person's solution - "I can walk my way, the dog can walk his way and I don't have to wait for him to finish sniffing the tree or try to get him to obey me."  If you don't want to keep your dog under control, and safe, get a goldfish. 

I am now sporting a hairline scar across my throat - it looks like I had thyroid cancer surgery in my past.  I am sure it will fade, but my hatred of the evil retractable leash will not.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


A wise person once told me that it takes three years for one human being to deeply bond to another human being, and that it takes an equal amount of time to successfully detach from that person.  When a person cares deeply about another for a long time, that person blends his/her energies with their partner in the form of hopes, dreams, plans and expectations.  Two people "couple up" and head down the same track.

When a relationship ends, the participants go through a process of individuation; de-coupling and rolling in different directions. If this has ever happened to you, you may remember the process of pulling back, trying to reclaim yourself and your evolving identity.  You might remember feeling like a part of you is missing.

This is unpleasant.  It can cause low spirits and significant distress.  The longing for what is lost can lead to desperate thoughts, intemperate actions and hasty decisions that  lead to regrets.

The way out is to focus on the parts of life that can be controlled - your own thoughts, actions and plans for the future.  It takes effort and commitment to pull out of social isolation and regretful rumination.  You have to accept that an egg can't be un-scrambled; a bell can't be un-rung.  The sun keeps rising every day and you are still breathing. Things could be worse.

Learn,  and remember - just get up every morning and give it another try.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

John Pizzarelli Quartet at SPACE in Evanston - October 6, 2013

My daughter, Lizz, and I caught John Pizzarelli at our local venue earlier this month.  Lizz is my one offspring who is into "old school" jazz.  My eldest kid, Ben, is more of a world music guy, and my two younger daughters are Nicki Minaj fans.  With Lizz, I feel that I have one success in implanting my musical tastes into my child.  Nothing is better than sharing a passionate interest with your kid. 

While this gig happened two weeks ago, I find myself reflecting on the evening frequently.  It was the first time I have heard a small jazz group perform at SPACE.  The venue is perfect for jazz - the acoustics are designed for music with dynamic variation and subtlety.  When a loud group plays the room, things get kinda ugly and painful.  At SPACE, the volume knob needs to stay below "5."

So the music presented well, and John Pizzarelli is a stone cold killa on the seven string electric guitar.  He plays an instrument with a low "A" string which allows him to play very cool bass lines when he plays solo guitar.  His use of the low A reminded me of a stride pianist's left hand.  In addition to being a true virtuoso, Pizzarelli is also clever and charming - New York hip in a pleasant, amusing, winking style.  The man can talk and digress far afield, but it works very well.  He is a Cafe' Carlyle player - full of banter and able to make every member of the audience feel like part of his life.

John is also a great singer. He has a casual, breathy tenor sound.   He sounds like a cheerful, energetic Chet Baker.  He can sing along with his guitar solos a la George Benson, but his solos are a helluva lot faster and harmonically complicated than the typical Benson offering.  Here is a video of John doing his solo thing.  Wickedly good and fun, too.

The highlights of the set for me were a mash-up of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and Tom Waits' "Drunk on the Moon" and a minor key, quasi-kletzmer version of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." Pizzarelli is extremely creative.  He is a musical omnivore, covering a broad range of tunes - from Nat King Cole to Dickey Betts.

The trio that backed John was an extension of his musical consciousness.  The bass player is his brother, Martin.  Larry Fuller is Pizzarelli's long-time pianist and is the sideman every jazz player and singer would love to have on the bandstand.  The drummer is the newest member of the group, and the youngest.  He had the taste and chops to hang with these veteran players.  Unfortunately, I did not get his name...maybe Lizz remembers.

The John Pizzarelli backstory is very cool.  He is the son of guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli, a legendary player still performing at a high level at the age of 87.  John is married to singer Jessica Molaskey - they often perform together, and they have a radio show (Radio Deluxe - 2 hours of great jazz and sparkling repartee').  Pizzarelli has worked hard to become a fabulous artist, but he certainly had exposure, guidance and support from his family.  John's wife retained her maiden name - Molaskey - and her comment about that decision is priceless - "I thought of changing it to Pizzarelli, but I thought that was a lateral move."

So the question lingering in my mind - is "Pizzarelli" Italian for "little pizza?"

Friday, October 18, 2013

Emotional Pain

I ran across an article by Leon Seltzer regarding emotional pain.  He included a list of self-referencing assumptions or interpretations that lead to emotional wounding.  It is an intimidating collection of feelings:

1.   Unworthy or worthless
2.   Disapproved of, invalidated, or rejected
3.   Not listened to or understood
4.   Like a non-entity--or invisible
5.   Unloved, not cared about or wanted
6.   Insulted, disparaged, disrespected, distrusted, devalued, or discounted
7.   Aggressed against, taken advantage of; betrayed
8.   Inadequate, defective, incompetent, behind the curve, inferior or looked down
      upon, unacceptable
9.   Slow, stupid, foolish or silly; contemptible
10. Dishonorable or cowardly
11. Embarrassed or humiliated
12. Weak, helpless, or defenseless
13. Undeserving of time, attention, or recognition
14. Like a failure; "loser"
15. Guilty, shameful--or a bad person generally

When someone is experiencing one or more of the items on this list, they often keep it quiet.  There are good reasons for this.  We hide our emotional frailty to avoid appearing  pathetic to others.  If other people see you as weak, bad things can happen.  Even more interesting - we hide these emotions from ourselves, too.  Admitting self-loathing generates a feeling of powerlessness, incompetence. So we deny these emotions if we can.  We hide our vulnerabilities and tender emotions because we are afraid - of being judged by others, of being rendered helpless by our own pain.  Withdrawal and silence can feel self-protective, but it really isn't a good long term strategy.  The challenge is to find the ability to regard these emotions for what they are - perhaps valid, perhaps not, but not subject to acceptance or rejection by others.  Seltzer talks about "psychological courage" - the ability to honestly and unashamedly admit our needs and fears.

Our emotions can't victimize us unless we give them the power to do so.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A Stupid Situation That Achieves Nothing But Damages Everything

Happy October 1st, everybody!  It is a great day for anarchists, I guess.  Or maybe not.  We still have government, but we don't have leaders - or at least, we don't have good leaders.

I don't generally blog about politics, but today I will break my rule. This is STUPID!  It achieves NO GOALS!!  If it goes two weeks, it will trim 0.3% or so off the 4th quarter GDP growth rate and will have negative effect on employment.  And Obamacare sails ahead.  No one wins, but the losses are felt by about 2 million folks - the  workers that get no paychecks.  And many more folks will be inconvenienced - no National Parks, no issuance of important government data, no Centers for Disease Control......

We have had 17 government shut-downs since the 1970's, all of them pretty short except for the 3-week hissy fit between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990's.  The economy was experiencing stronger growth in 1995 than it is today, so this shutdown will cause more damage.  With luck, this one will end quickly and we can get down to avoiding the next disaster - a U.S. Government default due to a urination contest over the debt ceiling. 

As a nation, we are pretty equally divided between folks that want the government to do more and folks that want the government to do less.  There is lots of room for constructive disagreement and principled compromise on the huge issues that face us. Our system of taxation is broken - major U.S. corporations are moving their headquarters overseas due to our extremely high corporate tax rates (Aon and Eaton are two examples) and more folks are working "off the books" to flat-out evade taxation.  We have a structural deficit that will get worse without serious action as our country ages and a flood of oldsters like me start slurping up government benefits.  We have insanely high unemployment rates and millions of people are becoming "downwardly mobile" due to the jobless recovery.  The largest mental institution in the United States is Cook County Jail in my home state of Illinois due to the collapse of public mental health services. We really can't afford a bunch of elected officials that refuse to negotiate.

Here is a one guy's story.  My family has a very good friend -  a young fellow named Dustin Cammack.  Dustin led a military police platoon in Baghdad in the worst part of the war (2005-2006) and led 55 combat missions.  He also served in Afghanistan.  He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service. This man is a badass with a heart of gold.  Dustin is now the head of public relations for the Illinois National Guard, which is a surprisingly intense job due to the National Guard's  interaction with so many constitutencies (state and local governments, media, schools, etc.).  President Obama signed an emergency bill guaranteeing that active military personnel will get paid during the shutdown, but Dustin and his colleagues in the National Guard are not covered.  He will get to figure out how to pay his bills without a paycheck.  Dustin and lots of other folks like him are the economic collateral damage of the political bombs our elected leaders are dropping on the government.

So, let's re-cap - the government has shut down, Obamacare is going "live" today, the economic impact of this stupidity will be widespread and nothing positive will be accomplished.  And guys like Dustin Cammack, who have sacrificed to carry out the military policies of this country, end up getting laid off by their government.   Thank you, Congress and Mr. President. 
In the immortal words of Mercutio, "A plague o' both your houses."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Be Better

I found myself saying something to a family member I love very much.  I said "You need to take steps necessary to be better, to get well."  Right after that,  I saw the  picture above, which is a piece by photographer John William Keedy.  This started me thinking about how we perceive normal and abnormal behavior.

One of the interesting features of mental illness is the tendency of some sufferers to resist  treatment.  The resistance is caused by many things. One issue is the desire to avoid the stigma associated with the "mentally ill" label. The mind-altering/personality-altering effects of psychotropic drugs is another hurdle.  When a mentally ill person has full-blown anosognosia, they really believe that they are fine.  It is confusing and alarming to these folks when others tell them they are mentally ill.

Here is the other thing I am learning about mental illness - it is similar to physical diseases in some ways.  If you have diabetes or a heart condition or any other difficult malady and you don't get the appropriate treatment, your disease will progress and you will become  less healthy until you die.  This rule applies to serious mental illness, too.  Serious mental illnesses are progressive.  Untreated sufferers get worse, and often kill themselves when their misery and confusion becomes too much to bear.

Dr. Xavier Amador wrote a book in 2002 entitled "I Am Not Sick, I Don't Need Help."  As I struggled with my own confusion over relatives with mental illness, I ran into a wise person who recommended the book.  I read it, and learned how well-meaning actions can drive a wedge between a mentally healthy person and a mentally ill person. The book is well-written and understandable with a clear blueprint - L.E.A.P., which stands for Listen, Empathize, Agree, Partner.  While the blueprint is clear, executing the plan is hard.  "Sane" responses to the behavior of a mentally ill person get in the way of Dr. Amador's steps.  All the natural feelings that occur when dealing with mentally ill folks - frustration, anger, worry, fear - also impede progress.

After a discouraging series of events, I find myself clinging to hope.  These diseases can be controlled, people do recover.  Good things can happen to the people that I love who are suffering.  While the events "on the ground" may be challenging, this hope remains. 

This will sound trite and corny, but I will never give up that hope.

Monday, September 23, 2013

6th Annual Chicago Blues Harp Bash Featuring Johnny Sansone

I have retreated from the harmonica community over the past few years due to a spike in family needs and work commitments.  I still try to "visit" from time to time.  Since devotion to the harmonica is a decidedly peculiar passion, all devotees tend to bond immediately to each other and treat each other with kindness and empathy. It is the friendliest community of musicians I have found - not much ego and few "cutting contests" amongst harmonica players.  Of course, it is a somewhat nerdy community, because only nerds spend countless hours studying the output of deceased  blues harmonica players.

One of the leaders of this community is a fellow from Joliet IL, Joe Filisko.  Joe is a fantastic harmonica player with ferocious curiosity - he wants to know all about the tin sandwich, he seeks out the music of obscure players that died decades ago and he travels the world playing and teaching at festivals.  He has probably taught more aspiring harmonica players than anyone on the planet.  I am one of his former students, and I am very lucky to have fallen under his tutelage. He is generous with his knowledge and patient when dealing with  incompetent harmonica players.  He also customizes harmonicas (converting store-bought mass-produced pieces of junk into marvelous, high-end musical instruments).  Every serious harmonica player dreams of owning a Filisko harmonica; most never achieve that dream.  Filisko harmonicas are not, as Joe says, "for the general public,"  and he believes that most harmonica players are members of "the general public."

Six years ago, Joe realized that some of his student were serious performers.  He launched a harp bash featuring a handful of local Chicago harmonica folks (mostly his students) and one serious professional "ringer."  The "ringers" at past bashes have included Billy Boy Arnold, Jim Liban, Jerry Portnoy, Sugar Ray  Norcia, and Gary Smith.  If these names mean nothing to you, then you are not a blues harmonica aficionado.

This past Sunday evening, the 6th Annual Chicago Blues Harmonica Bash was held at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  The featured "ringer" was Johnny Sansone.
Sansone is based in New Orleans although he was born and raised in New Jersey.  There are tons of gigs in and around N.O. so Johnny doesn't get to Chicago much these days (he did spend time backing some of the Chicago greats when he was younger - Jimmy Rogers, Robert Junior Lockwood and others).  Sansone is part of the tight New Orleans music scene - hangs with Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Cyril Neville and a host of others.  He is featured at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  He is a formidable songwriter, and he plays accordion to boot!

Johnny Sansone closed out the night, playing a mix of originals ("The Lord is Waiting and the Devil Is, Too," "Once It Gets Started") and blues standards ("I'm Just a Bad Boy," "She's Nineteen years Old," "Raining in My Heart").  His harmonica work is technically adept and aggressive.  His tonal choice is edgier than the traditional "fat" Chicago blues harp tone.  He is closer to Paul DeLay; not quite as close to Big Walter Horton.  It is a great, large, passionate sound.  The sound matches Johnny's physical presence.  On stage, Sansone is like a more menacing version of Baloo from Disney's "The Jungle Book."  He commands the stage, and the whole room.  This is not a man to trifle with, no sir.  He played his ass off, and told some amusing stories, too. 

Near the end of his set, Sansone called out Jim Liban, another harp master who was in the audience.  Johnny asked him to come up and play; Jim demurred, saying "I left my harps in Milwuakee."  Joe Filisko quickly produced a full set of Filisko Customs, and Liban came forward.  The combination of Sansone and Liban was a harmonica summit that generated slack-jawed amazement and screaming ecstasy from the harp players in the audience. Liban is a Jedi master of the blues harp, the Yoda of the Mississippi saxophone.  All other professional blues harp players are Liban fans.  He cranked it so hard that Sansone began to complain, "Liban is kicking my ass!"

The Bash performers prior to Sansone's set did not disappoint.  Scott Dirks is a highly skilled harmonicist, author, educator and advocate for the blues harmonica.  He brings deep love and respect for the genre (not to mention chops and decades of playing experience).  Tall Paul Sabel is a member of the younger generation (under 45 years old) of blues harmonica players, and he is definitely an "up and comer" amongst the harp blowers in Chicago.  Grant Kessler and Kirk Manley are long-time Filisko students and local performers that have many gigs under their belts - both have achieved the "big tone harp" sound the Filisko strives to teach his minions.

But the biggest kick came from the opening act, Zoe Savage.  Ms. Savage began taking lessons from Joe Filisko when she was 10 years old.  She has studied hard, played in the advanced Chicago blues harp classes at the Old Town School and is now a formidable performer - and she is also teaching harmonica classes at OTS.  It is unusual to see a woman in her early 20's channeling Little Walter Jacobs, but Ms. Savage can handle the L.W. licks, the tone and the vocals.  This is a young blues harp player who might be famous some day.  It is very gratifying to old fossils like me to see a young person like Zoe come forward and respect this music.

The band that backed all of the harp players was a trio led by Shoji Naito, an excellent traditional blues guitarist.  Shoji is also a skilled harmonica player, so he knew how to support all of the performers that walked the stage last night.

This annual event is always interesting and full of surprises.  Let's hope that Joe Filisko and his crew keep it up.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

James Cotton at SPACE in Evanston IL

First of all, I have to thank the founders of SPACE - the Society for the Preservation for Arts and Culture in Evanston.  Stuart Rosenberg, Craig Golden, Dave Specter and Steve Schwartz.  The combination of Union Pizzeria and SPACE has created a destination dining and entertainment landmark within walking distance of my house.  This is the best thing to happen to the Evanston entertainment scene since Bill's Blues closed - maybe since Amazingrace closed.  I can also have a couple of beers and walk it off after the show on my way home - what's not to like?

James Cotton came to SPACE for the first time last night - that is a picture of him in action last night at the top of this post.  Mr. Cotton is now 78 years old - a contemporary of Buddy Guy, part of the "second great blues generation" that came up to Chicago from the Delta in the 1950's.  Mr. Cotton learned his craft with Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters.  He cut his first records at Sun Records in Memphis when he was 15 years old.  In 1954, Muddy Waters heard him in Memphis and hired him to replace Junior Wells, who had abruptly quit Muddy's band.  So Mr. Cotton ended up in Chicago.

James Cotton was a cross-over blues artist.  He became "Mr. Superharp" and played big rock venues in the late 1960's through the 1970's.  Mr. Cotton served as mentor for many aspiring harmonica players; his furious licks and showmanship were much imitated, but never duplicated, by a gang of younger folks.  I have copped Cotton's licks myself, listening to his records over and over with my harp at my lips.  He is a titan of the tin sandwich.  I was excited to see him in my town - Mr. Cotton played Bill's Blues around 2004 or so, but he doesn't play the suburbs of Chicago much.

Mr. Cotton's voice is gone, but he still is a crazed monster on the harmonica.  His joy and enthusiasm have survived his voice.  He plays seated now (like B.B. King and other aging giants of the blues), but he runs the band and projects charisma and showmanship.  When a blues singer loses his voice yet still projects heart and power, you know you are in the presence of greatness.

The tunes that the band played were pretty predictable - "That's All Right" by Jimmy Rogers, "Honest I Do" by Jimmy Reed," "Rocket 88," which was a big hit for Cotton, and other chestnuts.  The beauty of blues music is in the depth, not the "newness," of the music.   Mr. Cotton brings that depth.

The sound man was having trouble getting the balance right between the harmonica, the vocals and the guitar/bass/drum unit.  Volume crept up through the evening until it became a crushing wall of pain by the end of the set.  SPACE is a mid-sized venue.  I don't understand why folks don't respect the size of the joint and amplify/mix accordingly.  This is not meant as a criticism of the sound man, by the way - sound engineers have the most thankless job on the planet, and their skills are underappreciated.  Everyone has an opinion about the sound, and the sound engineer has to listen first to the venue management and the artists.  I know that a sound engineer often gets many conflicting instructions.  And artists often do unpredictable things in a performance; a good mix can turn bad in a heartbeat due to those surprises.

My friend Tom Holland has been Mr. Cotton's guitar player for almost 10 years now.  Not only is this a great gig that offers ample opportunity for exposure and education, it has provided Tom with multiple "reps" so his chops are sharp as a razor these days.  Tom is very confident on stage, and carried the band as the only guitarist - and no keyboard player, either.  I have played a number of gigs with Tom back when I had my own little blues band, and I am really happy for him.  It is great to see a young guy carry the torch and grow as an artist.

Harp man Matt Skoller and guitarist Lurrie Bell opened for the Cotton band.  They warmed up the crowd and returned to the stage at the end of Mr. Cotton's set to jam.  James Cotton knew Lurrie and his dad, stand-out harmonica star Cary Bell, from the Chicago days.  And Mr. Cotton served as mentor to Matt Skoller.  Topping out the evening was Dave Specter taking the stage to play on "Black Night," the old Charles Brown standard that has been covered by everyone from Dr. John to Bobby Blue Bland.  It was good to see the SPACE founder cutting loose.

Since Mr. Cotton can't sing anymore, Darrell Nulisch sat next to him and filled that role.  Darrell has a solid, soulful voice and can mine the tunes for the emotion within them.  He is also a great harp player, so there were three harmonica guys (Cotton, Skoller and Nulisch) blowing on the stage at one point -   not something you see very often, and for good reason. I love the harmonica, but three guys showboating at the high-end of the harp at the same time can be very painful to the sensitive listener.  But, hey, it was still an awesome celebration of Cotton and his legacy.  And these three guys are all killer harp blowers, now doubt about it.

The festivities wound to a close at a respectable hour (11-ish) and I walked off my Guinness on the way home.  Thank you, SPACE!

Thursday, September 05, 2013


I am an "old school" curmudgeon. I believe that it is OK to have a tattoo if you are a Maori warrior, a sailor, a biker or a hooker. If you are a clerical employee riding an elevator in a highrise, a tattoo might not be a great idea.

I hopped in my elevator the other morning and was joined by a thirty-something woman in a scoop-top skirt. She had a long script phrase tattoo-ed around her collarbone region. It was not a work of art - it had the look of hasty graffiti. I am guessing that her choice of neckline was intended to allow this body art to be examined by the general public. This wasn't an opportunity that I seized - the last thing I want to do is stare at a female stranger's neckline in order to read her sloppy tattoo. I ended up feeling very awkward in the elevator and stared intently at my shoelaces until I reached my floor.

I have loved ones that sport tattoos. I understand that I am an inflexible grump that doesn't understand the significance and beauty of permanently marking your skin through a procedure that would be called "torture" if the CIA did it to suspected terrorists. I know that tattoos are in the mainstream now; I am a fossil not to embrace them. My loved ones have added my insensitive comments regarding tattoos to my long list of "invalidating behaviors." 

But tattoos are a form of permanent clothing, and styles change.  I will hang on to my bad attitude on this issue. So there.