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Saturday, October 18, 2008

RIP Mervyn's

So I heard the news that the owners of Mervyn's are throwing in the towel and liquidating the company. A massive "going out of business sale" will occur soon and extend through the holiday shopping season. The owners will get squat, and some of the lenders will get nicked, too. This causes a slight twinge of sadness for me. I shall explain.

Mervyn's was a classic post-war success story. In the summer of 1949, 29-year old Mervin G. Morris opened the first Mervyn's store in San Lorenzo CA, about 20 miles south of Oakland. I grew up in San Leandro CA, the first suburb north of San Lorenzo. My mother would drag me to Mervyn's every fall to buy my back-to-school clothes. Mervin Morris was an innovator. He was one of the first retailers to focus on young families with modest incomes; he was one of the first retailers to offer revolving credit accounts to customers; he was one of the first retailers to advertise sales in large newspaper ads. My family was right in Mervyn's target demographic and I spent many hours in that store in San Lorenzo. The company grew and opened stores all over northern California.

Mr. Morris sold his company to Dayton Hudson (aka Target) in 1978. They neglected it for 26 years, then flushed it in a sale to Cerberus in 2004. Cerberus is a vulture investor/hedge fund. They could give a hoot about the company's history or legacy. And of course, few people care about Mervyn's as a brand - Target, WalMart and the rest of the discounters repeatedly kicked Mervyn's butt.

In 1976, I graduated from college. The economy was pretty weak (sorta like it is now). I had two job offers - one was to join the management training program at Mervyn's, the other was to sell life insurance (gag me). I couldn't stand the idea of peddling budget underwear to the masses, so I went to grad school instead. In a way, Mervyn's is the reason I continued my education, ended up in Chicago, and have the life that I have had.

Thus the twinge of sadness.

RIP Mervyn's.

What's Happening at the Corner of Main & Chicago in Evanston, Illinois

In a word, nothing. The developers that got the plan approved to knock down The Main building have been unable to get enough condo pre-sales to secure construction financing for the building. With the housing industry meltdown in full swing, it is unlikely that the construction will begin any time soon. I wrote about this piece of property back in December 2007 (here is a link). So now all of us who live in the area get to see an ugly chin link fence that encloses a nasty dirt lot. It make me miss the old building even more.

The neighbors got a little press coverage at the end of September when they staged a "protest." Here is the article from the Chicago Tribune:

Guerrilla gardeners attack!

Protesters wage environmental strike on muddy vacant lot in Evanston
Barbara Mahany and freelance reporter Brian Cox
September 29, 2008

In the end, they ditched the guy-in-the-gorilla-suit concept. Same with the cloak of darkness. Instead, armed with a slingshot, souped-up lacrosse sticks, a plastic whiffle-ball thrower and six baskets brimming with 724 seed bombs—yes, seed bombs—the motley mob of guerrilla gardeners attacked in broad daylight Saturday, brazenly circling the cyclone fence that wraps a big dirt lot at Chicago Avenue and Main Street in Evanston. "Bombs away!" cried guerrilla-gardener-in-chief Carla Hayden as the sky filled with a mix of clay, compost and wildflower seeds in what looked like a storm of flying falafel balls. Along with the meadow-making armament, the botanic bombardiers unleashed their vitriol for the developer who had dug a giant hole last year, left it to ooze mud and dust and then, last week, called in bulldozers to fill it after funding for a condominium tower dried up. "We need to take it back," said Charlotte Briggs, co-conspirator of Trowels on the Prowl, the ad hoc group that organized the attack and is plotting more seed-sowing operations. "It's just an ugly hole, with an ugly fence. "You have to think: How can you make change by doing what might not be in other people's plans but you can get away with?"Attempts to reap the developer's reaction were fruitless. But none of the gardeners seemed worried about stirring the constable's wrath."If we do," said Hayden, "I'm going to handcuff myself to a wildflower."

Well, at least the lot will be covered with wildflowers next spring. Wouldn't it be nice if the developer turned it into a park while waiting for the market to turn around? It will never happen....

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Don't Blog About Politics, But..........

I did watch that debate last night. My 16-year old daughter wanted to watch it (and had been encouraged to do so by her teachers at the high school), so I kept her company. Soon, the whole family was in the study gaping at the show. Here is my take - the answers to Bob Schieffer's questions were crappy. The United States is facing insolvency within a generation due to galloping Medicare and Social Security costs; this issue wasn't addressed by either candidate. Since there was no real substance to the debate, one is left with the visuals. Let me tell ya, McCain lost decisively on the visuals. His semi-maniacal smile remains me of the Penguin from the old Batman television series. He looked hunched, anxious and old. Obama looked slim, relaxed and in control. Turn off the sound and you would conclude that Obama had nailed the debate.

I spent some time on the telephone today (like every day). The financial panic and deepening economic downturn is grinding on people. I spoke to several Republicans. One of my Republican friends told me that he has decided not to vote in November - "I violently disagree with Obama on every issue and McCain is an idiot." Another Republican friend said "After eight years to prepare, the best my party could come up with was McCain? God, we deserve to lose." Republican voter turn-out may be below expectations this year.

The Republican base may be excited about John McCain (or Sarah Palin), but many garden-variety Republicans are not. John McCain is an admirable man, but he isn't carrying the day with Republicans, let alone independents.

Sorry, I will get back to musical topics next time.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Chicago Blues Harp Bash at Bill's Blues - Oct. 4, 2008

Joe Filisko came up with the concept - a Chicago blues harmonica confab with a superstar of the blues topping the bill and a collection of enthuisastic local harp blowers providing support. The show hit Bill's Blues Bar in Evanston IL last night - the first official Chicago Blues Harp Bash, featuring the legendary Billy Boy Arnold as the honored guest star. The enthusiastic locals included Shoji Naito (from the Eddy Clearwater Band), Morry Sochat (front man for the Special 20's), Corporate Kirk (from the Shakes), Highway RickEY and yours truly, Mr. G. Joe Filisko is one of the top harmonica players in the world, but he didn't play a note - he served as MC and impressario. Grant Kessler, also from the Shakes, sat in during Corporate Kirk's set. So we had seven different harmonica players in one night. It is not the type of show you see every night in Evanston.....

Shoji Naito is one of those disgustingly talented guys that make lesser musicians (like me) more than a little jealous. He is an excellent bass player, a fine guitarist and an extremely talented harmonica player. I think harmonica was his first instrument, and he plays it with great joy and skill. His phrasing and tone evoke emotionally-charged Chicago blues harp circa 1958. He delighted the audience with several instrumentals, covering Little Walter and Slim Harpo. Then he trotted out his surprise - he sang! Well, Shoji is a fine vocalist, too. He delivered Jimmy Rogers' "Money Marbles and Chalk" with panache, and his slightly Japanese-flavored English added to song's appeal.

Highway RickEY channelled Sonny Boy Williamson II. He also did a "crowd walk" through the club blowing through his wireless harmonica mic rig. We did not get to see HR's famous "tone cup" in action - this is a contraption that he rigged up so he could play harmonica and drums at the same time. The tone cup device holds the harmonica in a mic stand attached to a bullet mic so a drummer can use both hands to drum while playing the harp. HR's invention takes musical multi-tasking to a new level...

Morry Sochat has a 50's greaser thing going on - he looks like an extra from "West Side Story." His set had a heavy dose of West Coast Swing and old time rock & roll. He closed with a killer version of "Rocket 88." His steady gigging with the Special 20's has turned him into a confident and crowd-pleasing front man.

Corporate Kirk and Grant Kessler pulled off a wonderful "dueling harmonica" thing, with Grant on the 16-hole chromatic and Kirk on the trusty "G" diatonic. Grant's work on the chromatic was fabulous! I haven't heard him play the bigger harmonica and his tone and "low end" work was perfect. Kirk's set had high energy and high skill. His harmonica chops have progressed from good to awesome in the past year or two. Sheesh! My pal, Darryl, commented that Kirk looks like Charlie Sheen from "Two and a Half Men," and he has a point there.

Billy Boy Arnold strapped on his guitar and craded the harmonica in his hands and proved to the crowd that he is still a stone killa bluesman at the age of 73. He played his most famous original ("I Wish You Would," which has been covered by scads of artists, including David Bowie). He was fighting a cold but still laid out a 45 minute set that was meat and potatoes for a hungry crowd of blues harmonica fans.

And the crowd was huge! SRO in Bill's Blues Bar, and half of the audience consisted of harmonica players (including Chris Harper, the Swiss harmonica dude that has been hanging around Chicago for the past few years). Bob Stroger, Chicago's elder statesman of the blues bass, sat at the bar sipping a beer and smiling all night. Another stellar bass pl;ayer, Harlan Terson, was also in the house. This was a geeky crowd that cheered famous harmonica licks copped by the guys on stage.

All of these harp blowers were backed by the Billy Flynn Band (Billy on guitar, his brother Mike on bass, and the great Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums). Both Billy and Big Eyes are solid harmonica players, which explains how they can put up with seven harp guys on stage with them in one night.

I played a set of my Mystery Band originals and had a lot of fun. It was an honor to be included on this gig. It made me want to hit the woodshed - I really need to improve my harp chops given the strength of the players in the Chicago harmonica community.

I am sure this will become an annual event - it was a major feat to fill a club at a $15 cover charge for a blues harmonica showcase in these difficult economic times. Way to go, Filisko.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Credit Market Blues

So I am an investment banker during the day (bluesman at night). The day job has been pretty hair-raising over the past couple of weeks. This week has been particularly eventful. We opened with a 778 drop in the Dow when Congress turned down the bailout and we ended with another 158 point drop today - the worst week for the stock market in seven years. I spoke with a lender today and he said "it feels like Monday happened a year ago." Yes -- events are flying fast and furious and the space/time continuum has been disturbed. GE 's short term debt is priced to yield 10%. AIG is in the crapper. Lehman is gone, WaMu is gone, Wachovia is going.

This situation was over ten years in the making. Two core truths were forgotten: (1) Living outside of your means leads to disaster, eventually and (2) If the credit is bad, no amount of mathematic manipulation can make it good. Fulminating about greed and lax oversight is satsifying, but misses the heart of the problem. Lots of good intentions, small errors and moral failures created a firestorm. It will take a couple of years to flush this from the body of our economy. Yup, I am an optimist - just a 24 month decline and recession.

One of my fellow daytime businessmen/nightime harmonica playas just got the news that he will have more time to practice his instument - his employer laid him off. CKM is a bright young guy, an internet marketing professional, he will land on his feet eventually. There are hundreds of bankers treading the bricks; hundreds more will join them. It ain't going to be pretty.

My little firm is sailing along - the dislocation creates opportunities for small fry like us. I can't say how long we will continue to experience good fortune, though...