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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ben Stein's Rant on Work

I enjoy Ben Stein's writings, although I don't always agree with all of his positions. I have heard him speak a couple of times in the past two years (at industry events relating to my day job) and he is articulate, funny and energetic. here is his latest rant on work - it is called "All Play and No Work Makes for a Poor Life."
Posted on Wednesday, November 21, 2007, 12:00AM

As I near my 63rd birthday, I'm stunned at a phenomenon I observe among a number of my friends: They don't know how to work.

That is, they literally don't know how to get up in the morning, eat breakfast, get dressed, and then do a day's work for a day's pay.

With Friends Like These...

One of them, who used to be dabble as a consultant at an advertising agency, quit a few years ago with a modest inheritance, and now has simply no idea of what to do to feed his family. Did I mention that he ran through his money in about 18 months?

Another friend, who was my college roommate and is one of the smartest, most well-read and witty writers I've ever met, hasn't held a regular job in his entire life -- and he's the same age I am. He has a well-to-do wife, luckily for him, and he teaches when he feels like it in local community colleges on a volunteer basis. What he would do if he had to earn a living I have no clue.

Yet another one is a former salesman of Internet ads. He's terribly smart, good-natured, and pleasant, but he simply has no clue of how to make a living aside from sales of somewhat dicey goods online, so now he just hangs out. How he pays the rent is beyond me.

Down, Almost Out

Then there's the makeup artist who would rather die than work at a department store, or at any 9 to 5 job. And since there are a heck of a lot of makeup artists in L.A. and not many stars who are without makeup, she's always one check (courtesy of her boyfriend) away from homelessness. She has fantasies of being a self-help guru, and she's a wonderful woman, but she has no idea of how the world works.

Finally, there's the former ad saleswoman who never really had a grasp on how to do a day's work. Instead, she's spent her whole life cadging jobs from wealthy boyfriends, and fills her days at work gossiping on the phone. Now she's facing disaster on many different fronts as her beauty fades and her intellect, never very formidable, is devastated by alcohol.

This is just scratching the surface.

Notes on Camp

What occurs to me is that while almost everyone I know went to college, very few learned how to actually work -- i.e., how to give an honest day's labor for a paycheck. So here's an idea for a remedy to this lapse: summer work camps.

At these camps, young people would be taught how to get up and get dressed in the morning when the alarm goes off, instead of going back to sleep. After being made to eat breakfast, they'd go shovel cow manure or dig ditches or sort laundry or mail -- actually work every day for eight weeks in the summer.

They would learn that they can't talk on the phone to their pals, text-message (in fact, they wouldn't have cell phones at the camp at all), send email, or play computer games while at work. They wouldn't be allowed to leave early for a phony medical appointment or to look for another job instead of doing the job they're being paid for, and they would have to actually complete a certain quota of work to get their dinner.

This dinner would be followed by a very short lecture or movie about the merits of work, preferably by someone who actually works and has done well in life by working. Once at camp, the campers couldn't leave except for a verifiable death in the family, and then only for three days, which would be tacked onto their stay.

Life Redeemed

You may think this is harsh, but it's not. Hard work is the single most important thing you can learn in life besides devotion to spouse and parents. One reason people become failures and/or criminals is because they never learned to work.

People who develop the habit of hard work don't become bums or drug addicts, and don't wind up in middle age with suicidal self-loathing. "Work, generally speaking, is the single best cure for any malady of soul or mind," said the greatest thinker in English history, Samuel Johnson. (I'm paraphrasing here. The exact quote is slightly different.) Work elevates the spirit, disciplines the mind, conveys self worth -- redeems life itself.

Since so many of us simply never learn to do it, why not have camps to teach it? The kids who went to such a camp would feel a lot better when they did their course than the kids who learn horseback riding or tennis. They would learn pride.

Of course, since they can't go into a summer work camp, there's always the United States Marines.

Make Your Money Work, Too

By the way, let me say it again: I don't pick stocks for the short term, ever. For the very long term, I think the financials are cheap. If you can devote 10 years to waiting patiently, you may well be happy if you dip your toe into the financial services index, the XLF, right now.

The mortgage crunch won't last forever. The commercial paper problems will end. And we'll always need banks. The best time to buy stocks is when everyone hates them, and that's where the financials are right now. So maybe buy a few dollars' worth of the XLF, don't look at it for 10 years, and then check in with me in 2017.

Still, it's no substitute for hard work.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Mr. G and his fam fled Chicago for the Thanksgiving holiday - we went off to Portland OR to visit the eldest brother. Hey, I love Chicago and its muscular vastness, but Portland has to be one of the top urban locations in the U.S. Yes, it is small and still a little provincial, but what beauty! Trees! Hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the city limits! Powell's Books! Insane variety of tasty beers! Oh yez.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast joint, the Terwilliger Vista House. This is a terrific place, built in the 1940's situated in the hills above the city. The two innkeepers were a pair of 20-something youngsters that did a great job of hosting a broad variety of guests - families, old codgers, college kids, etc. We even had a fireplace in our room - a nice item to warm up the cold Oregon evenings.

We bought a smoker at Home Depot and prepared a 22 pound turkey outdoors. The hickory smoke eliminated the blandness of the bird; the overnight soak in brine kept the damn thing from drying out. I haven't shared a Thanksgiving meal with my brother and his family in over 20 years, so this was a wonderful event for ol' Mr. G.

We returned to Chicago on Saturday night - it was cold, but not much colder than Portland. The city is still fabulous, but everything looks flat and treeless here after five days in Portland. But Chicago has a larger, richer music scene (although Portland is pretty hip, with a decent blues community). There is a connection between the blues communities in Chicago and Portland - several ex-Chicagoans are playing the blues in Oregon now. In addition, Powell's Books traces its roots to Chicago - Michael Powell opened his first bookstore in 1970, in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood (his dad opened a Powell's in Portland in 1971, and they joined forces in Oregon in 1979).

I can imagine living in Portland, but I don't want to leave Chi-town.....yet.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Living Musician I Love - Susana Baca

Susana Baca is an Afro-Peruvian vocalist, probably one of Peru's best-known musicians. Like Bonnie Raitt, she has the ability to convey a wide range of emotions with her voice - it is a plaintive, keening instrument. She has recorded four CD's in the past ten years. To my ear, Susana is singing the Peruvian version of the blues - the landos, sambas and alcatraz song forms have that lamenting sound that I have always associated with the blues. This is great stuff, and Susana presents it with wonderful precision - almost like chamber music in a way.

Here is Susana's own description of her life, snipped from the her record label's web site:

“I was born in Lima and grew up in a small town in Peru called Chorrillos. My father was a chauffeur for a wealthy family and my mother worked as a cook and sometimes washed clothes. In Lima we lived in an alleyway, the kind where the servants lived, off the main streets past the fancy neighborhoods. My father played the guitar. He was the official musician of the alley. Whenever there was a party they called him. He played serranitas which are tales of the Golondrinos, people who came from Los Andes near the coast in the time of cotton-picking. My father learned the serranitas from them in his childhood. They are sung at Christmas: (singing) Ay, my dove is flying away, she’s gone. Let her go, she’ll soon return.

“I have an older sister and brother, and the three of us would sing together. My mother taught us how to dance. She’d say, "How can my children not know how to dance?" And so we sang and danced every afternoon. Later, my mother bought a record player, which was a big event. I imitated everything. My sister enrolled in a singing contest on the radio, and we went to watch the broadcast. It left a very strong mark on me. I saw her there and felt as though that was where I wanted to be. My brother made me a stick with a can on the end, which was the microphone. People came and we put on a show. I would drop anything for music.

“I tried not to become a professional singer, mainly for my mother’s sake. She thought I wouldn’t be able to earn a living. That’s my mother’s image of musicians. My mother told me many stories about musicians who were not famous like Felipe Pingo, a renowned musician and composer who died of tuberculosis. She said, "This is the destiny of my daughter," and she pushed me to become a teacher. I liked studying to be a teacher; I dedicated myself to being a singer later. When I first met my husband, Ricardo, I was active as a musician, but everything moved so slowly. I dedicated myself to music, and couldn’t devote myself to looking for work or figuring out how to record an album. I thought that if I worked hard enough, I’d find someone who was interested in working with me. I realized, after many years, that no one was interested in what I was singing, which was poetry. I was black, singing black music. It was a big problem. In Peru the black population is very small—you find mixed people, like me, or even lighter. But as a culture it is present everywhere. And another thing: blacks also segregate themselves. By class or by skin tone. I’ve heard my aunts say, "Marry someone lighter, even an Indian, so that your children will have hair they can comb."

“I would like to be remembered for my voice, of course. But also for helping to spread the music of my ancestors—all those people who were never recognized for their work or for their beautiful culture.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Blogging into the Void

So Derek Gordon, Vice President-Marketing for Technorati (the blog search engine), claims that his firm tracks 109.2 million blogs. He says that more than 99% of the blogs tracked by Technorati get no hits over the course of a year.

This confirms that blogging is not really about communication. For the vast majority of bloggers, it is like masturbation, but with no pay-off.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Five Living Musicians I Love

I am into the music of many people who have shuffled off this mortal coil. But there are lots of folks that I love who are still with us. I admire dozens of musicians - maybe hundreds. Here are five, not listed in order of preference (because I love them all):

Bonnie Raitt: I am Bonnie's loyal dog. Her voice is an unique, exquisite instrument, capable of expressing love, lust, anger, longing, joy, sorrow - and every other emotion that a human being can experience. I was a fan boy long before she broke through with the "Nick of Time" album in 1990 - I bought her first album in 1971 when I was a junior in high school. She was and is a frequent visitor to Chicago, and supported the blues people from whom she drew her inspiration - Robert Johnson, Son House, Sippie Wallace, Muddy Waters, A.C. Reed, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and all the rest. While her voice is what captures me and reduces me to a puddle of emotions, her slide guitar work is also outstanding - unhurried, tasty and instantly recognizable. Stevie Wonder is among the fans of her slide guitar prowess, adding her as a guest musician on his most recent album. She is also an individual with strongly-held convictions, and she devotes considerable time and energy to pursuing those convictions. Hard to come up with a more admirable person among the upper echelons of popular music....

Sonny Rollins: Miles, Dizzy, Bird, 'Trane, Monk, Duke, Dexter.....and Sonny. Sonny is surviving member of this exclusive club of jazz heroes. He is the Saxophone Colossus. Here is a link to an interview of Sonny, conducted by Clint Eastwood on the eve of the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (it is well-known that Clint is a dewey-eyed jazz fan, bless his heart). At the age of 77, Sonny is still blowing up a storm - in his sixth decade as a jazz giant. His exuberent and joyful music is a blessing for all humans. It was my great honor to play trombone in the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensemble that supported Mr. Rollins back in 1975 when he was the featured artist at the Pacific Coast Collegiate Jazz Festival in Berkeley. Listening to him play, working through the arrangements that he wrote, being in his was one of the peak experiences of my musical life. Sonny is a constantly striving musician - his practicing regimen is legendary. He is famous for dropping out at the peak of his bebop fame in 1959 to play alone for two years under the Williamsburg Bridge in Lower Manahattan. There are many things I love about this musician, but one of my favorite things about him is his affinity for unusual material - "I'm an Old Cow Hand, "Tennessee Waltz," "Someday I'll Find You" (which is the theme song from an old radio show called "Mr Keene - Tracer of Lost Persons"). Sonny gets my vote as the coolest man alive. His look, his way of speaking, his devotion to his craft, his focus and refusal to wallow in the fruits of his success are all very cool. The intensity, humanity, humor, and tenderness of his playing are absolutely unmatched by any other musician, living or dead.

Tom Waits: I discovered Tom Waits in 1974 when I bought his "Closing Time" CD at a used record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley CA. I spent $1.50 for the record, and I got $150 worth of juice out of one cut - " Ol' '55" - a great song. And that is one aspect of Tom Waits - he writes great songs. Sentimental, heart-breaking, weird emotional songs. Bruce Springsteen covers Tom - "Jersey Girl" is the tune, if I remember right. This is my favorite "nice" Tom Waits song. And then he does some stuff that is WAY....OUT...THERE. Man - he can squeeze so much emotion and intensity out of a limited vocal range - but it isn't his range that is important. He can evoke a wide spectrum of tonal colors and craziness with his voice and his shenanigans.

Tom is also a terrific actor - his current movie role is in "Wristcutters - A Love Story" Can't wait to see that flick - it hasn't been released in Chicago yet.

Curtis Fuller: Back when I was a mediocre high school trombonist, I discovered Curtis Fuller. He is now 73 years old and still making the trombone do things that are hard to believe. He played 'bone with John Coltrane on the "Blue Trane" LP; he played with Art Blakey. Mr. Fuller was one of those cats that had talent that refused to be denied - his Jamaican parents died when he was a child, so he was raised in an orphange in Detroit during the WWII years. He joined the U.S, Army in 1953 - one of the few places where black men were treated like human beings. He was a J.J. Johnson protege, but he developed his own style - edgier, faster, crazier. When I used to play trombone, I would listen to his records and weep. He is the reason that I changed my major from music to economics at Cal Berkeley.

Kim Wilson: Kim is my blues harmonica idol. He is devoted to the post-war Chicago blues tradition. He is also an official rock star; has written major hits and fronted the Fabulous Thunderbirds for almost three decades. The royalties from "Tuff Enuff" and all of the T-Birds hits allow Kim the freedom to play straight-up blues with true believers like Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn, and a long list of other blues fanatics. I feel deeply connected to this man due our similar histories - Kim is three years older than I am, he played trombone as a kid, he found the harmonica and the blues when he was a senior in high school (I bought my first harmonica when I was a junior in high school). I have had the honor to meet him a couple years ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. He is the best Chicago blues harp player alive today, in my opinion. He also is a very solid, skilled vocalist with a very flexible and powerful baritone voice.

So that is five that I love...the list of living musicians that slay me is much longer than this. Watch for more profiles in future posts....

Monday, November 05, 2007

Mystery Band Hits Buddy Guy's Legends - 11/4/07

So E.G. McDaniel called me at 9:15 PM on Sunday night. I was winding down from a pleasant day with the fam, thinking about hitting the sack. E.G. is one of the "go-to" bass players in the Chicago blues community, an absolutely awesome musican, and he anchors the Mystery Band for most of its gigs. So E.G. opens with, "Mr. G - we can play Buddy Guy's tonight - the band that was booked didn't show up." Whaaaa!? Now why on earth would a blues band blow off a gig at Buddy Guy's Legends? This is the top blues joint in Chicago, probably one of the best in the world - you don't want to mess with these guys. Getting black-balled at Legends is not a positive career event for a blues musician.

Well, it turns out the the booking agent for Studebaker John & the Hawks made a little boo-boo. He booked the band at Legends at the same time as their European tour. Studebaker John was in Belgium Sunday night - a bit too far away to allow him to make the gig at Buddy Guy's place. I hope Studebaker John can make things right with the Legends folks...he is a great performer.

This snafu provided an opening for the Mystery Band. All the cats were available; E.G. whipped them together. E.G. on bass, Cool James on drums, DC on keyboards and vocals, the Fretburner on guitar, yours truly on harmonica and vocals. We hit the first tune at around 10:15 last night - the debut of the Mystery Band at Buddy Guy's Legends!! I was stoked!! Thank God I have an understanding family that didn't freak when I went dashing out the door on a Sunday night.

Legends is Mecca for blues fans and blues musicians from around the world. Even on a Sunday night in the face of a busted booking, there was a decent crowd in the club. And the folks that come to Legends on a Sunday are generally knowlegeable, not casual, blues fans. We did our best to give the folks their money's worth. The sound mix and size of the club caused some problems for the band - our volume crept up and my harp was getting squashed by the rest of the band. The amp I brought along was too small for the task at hand - the cherry old Princeton wasn't cutting through, even when miked to get into the PA system. I shifted to a larger house amp. That allowed the harp to be heard, but served to bring the volume up even more. But the first set was pretty successful; the crowd seemed happy.

E.G. had also called a guest star for the last-minute gig - Wayne Baker Brooks, the son of the great Lonnie Brooks. He came up for the second, late set. WBB is an awesome guitarist, can hold his own with my man, Anthony "the Fretburner" Palmer (most guitarists pale when compared to the Fretburner). But WBB comes from the School Of Maximum Volume. Yikes! It is now 34 hours after the WBB set and my ears are still ringing. I am a fan of restrained volume and dynamic variety. But, hey, I am a grumpy old man, what do I know?

So I heard from E.G. McDaniel again today - Buddy Guy hisself heard our set on Sunday night!
Glad I didn't know he was in the audience - I would have shit my pants in fright. He wants us to come back and play again. Huh! So I have the mobile number of Harvey (aka "H-Bomb") the house manager at Legends. I am going to call him today.

Maybe I need to get a little more serious about this blues hobby of mine.....