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Monday, December 27, 2010

Thinking About Songs

Song-writing is often referred to as a craft, not an art. That makes sense to me. There are rules that you can apply to constructing a song, and a good song is usually a brief collection of words, carefully chosen. Songs have verses and choruses. They often have two contrasting sections, the theme and the bridge. They have "hooks" that repeat and grab the listener's attention. All these components can be studied and, with effort, mastered. I have also heard that there are many more sad songs than happy songs - sadness generally contains more drama and conflict than happiness, and thus provides greater opportunities to grab and hold the listener's interest.

If you sit down and read song lyrics, they often are not terribly impressive. The rhymes can be obvious and a bit banal, the thematic material can be weak. Most song lyrics don't qualify as great poetry. But if those lyrics are combined with a well written melody and a talented singer, a magical transformation can occur.

Since this is the holiday season, we have been hearing for the past several weeks, over and over, some incredibly banal lyrics - Christmas songs! OK, some songs get a pass due to their long history and connection to the Christmas story ("Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "We Three Kings," et al) but others are incredibly bad ("Jingle Bells," "Frosty the Snowman," and the horrific "Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer!"). But even in this wasteland of terrible lyrics and simplistic tunes, there are some gems. In 1944, Judy Garland sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in the film version of "Meet me in St. Louis." Here is a video of that performance. This is a GREAT song - this version contains the original melancholy line "until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." "Merry Little Christmas" struck a chord with the Greatest Generation - they were fighting in WWII when this version of the song came out; it articulated the longing for home and hope for a more peaceful future.

Hugh Martin wrote the lyrics for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." His original version was even more downbeat than the version that Judy Garland recorded. Here is the alleged original draft:

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, pop that champagne cork
Next year we will all be living in New York
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us no more
But at lease we all will be together, if the Fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
And have yourself a Merry Little Christmas now

So this song contains all the components of greatness - intense lyrics, relevent to the time and the audience, yet universally appealing to anyone who has been separated from looved ones during the holiday season. Great craft is at work here - notice the internal rhymes in the two-line bridge ("olden days...golden days," "dear to us...near to us"). And the melody is both memorable and beautiful - it contains slow arpeggios and artful modulations that take it outside the "Jingle Bell" zone of stupidity.

Hugh Martin is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It is easy to understand why.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day 2010

On the day after Christmas, we are getting dumped on here in Chicago. We have big snowcakes on our yard furniture outside the window (full disclosure - the picture above is a random Chicago snow photo grab from a Google search, not my backyard).

This is Boxing Day, the traditional day for tipping service folks and giving money to the poor in Commonwealth countries. It is also known in some religous circles as St. Stephen's Day, or the Feast of Stephen - Stephen being the first Christian martyr. You might remember the words of the Christmas carol:

Good King Wencelaus went out
On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Cool and crisp and even.

We don't pay much attention to Boxing Day in the USofA. December 26 is "Exchange the Presents and Hit the Sales Day." But in this time of economic weakness, high unemployment and other tribulations, hitting the "alms box" with a little cash is more important than usual. Food banks are my preferred charity this year. This is a good day to make a deposit.

I just finished thumbing theourgh the Sunday New York Times; December 26th is also the day for the NYT's "Year in Pictures" section. From the deep tragedy of the Haitian earthquake to the giddy elation of the San Francisco Giants World Series championship, the images were well-chosen. Everyone has memories of the personal high points and low points of the year. Whatever your personal reality might be right now, the best path is the one that leads forward. For me, on this Boxing Day, my first step on my path forward is to resume my close personal realtionship with my snow shovel.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I know this guy...

I know this guy who can take a $25 harmonica, disassemble it, apply amazing focused skill upon it and transform it into a high-quality instrument - the harmonica version of a Martin guitar. He is completely booked by professional harmonica players; you can't hire him to build a harmonica if you aren't already a client.

I know this guy who is an unbelievably talented electric guitarist - blues, jazz, R&B, soul, funk, country - you name it, he can play it. He is a deeply intelligent and well-educated person. If you are lucky enough to convince him to play in your band, your band will sound 200% better. But he absolutely abuses his health; very overweight, diabetic and almost unable to walk these days.

I know this guy who will tell you that he was married for "29 years, 11 months and 21 days" when all hell broke loose. His wife read "Eat Pray Love" and that was that. It was not a nice divorce.

I know this guy who is a gifted business executive. He worked far fewer hours than most people in his industry - so smart, he could get it all done quick. He called out a borderline psychotic CEO regarding dodgy business practices and he received a massive severence payment (the CEO launched him; his contract paid out). He received options in his next employer, a very sleepy insurance conglomerate, instead of a cash bonus; a big European company bought the sleepy conglomerate and the options generated yet another massive payment. His good luck never seems to end. He is retired now, at the age of 54.

I know this guy who is a wicked fit, tall, military man, a captain in the Illinois National Guard, who has done two tours in Iraq and two tours in Afganistan. His hobby - raising miniature dachsunds.

I know a lot of unusual guys.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A very Bad Day For the Harmonica Community

Robin Rogers and Chris Michalek both passed away within a 24 hour period. I never met either of them, but I admired them greatly. Since I sing a bit and play harmonica, I can recognize great singers and harmonica players. Robin Rogers was a marvelous, traditional blues harp player with a gorgeous voice - a true blues singer. She has been fighting cancer for a long while and was told that her time on this earth was soon to end. She faced that truth bravely. Listen to this interview, if you dare. My heart broke when I heard it.

Chris Michalek did not have advance notice. He collapsed and died yesterday. I assume that he was a victim of heart failure. Chris was one of the top diatonic harmonica players on the planet. He was a master of blues, jazz, rock, funk -- you name it. He had nailed the overblows and overdraws that frustrate lesser players (like me). He knew how to properly amplify the instrument to turn it into a massive musical presence, driving the band. Here is a YouTube Video of Chris playing some awesome jazz.

Chris hadn't reached his 40th year. Robin hadn't reached her 54th year. Those of us who love harmonica blues and jazz are bereft. It hurts to lose hugely talented people.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Musical Ditch-Digging: Potbelly at Adams and Wacker, Chicago IL

The ultimate musical ditch-digging gig in Chicago is playing at a Potbelly restaurant. Potbelly is a chain of sub shops with a cutesy decor and "quasi-cool" demeanor. One of the touches - live music in most stores, usually a singer-guitar banger. Most of the folks that take these gigs are young, mediocre wannabees. For the past few months, I have been buying my lunch at the Potbelly shop at Adams and Wacker. It is a 2 story joint, and the musican's nook is on the second floor balcony. When I came in for my turkey sandwich today, I was startled - I heard good music from pouring out of the poor soul that was in that tiny nook on the balcony!!

Imagine this - you have a passion for music. You are a young, attractive female. You have a lovely voice, somewhere in the alto/soprano range. You are a decent acoustic guitar player and do a great job of backing up your own vocals. You have been breaking your ass writing songs and hoping to get attention from somebody, anybody. And you are playing a 3 hour solo gig for peanuts on the second floor of a sandwich shop and NO ONE is listening!!! Yes, my friends, this is called Musical Ditch Digging.

The artist at my local Potbelly was Starina Catchatoorian. I heard her play a few tunes, including a very emotional and sincere cover of the Beatles tune, "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away." This is a talented musician. She said that she was a bit tired because she was up until 3AM last night recording songs.

So if you like female singer-songwriters, check out Starina. Here is a link to some of her music. Think good thoughts about this striving, talented person.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The voice of Ron santo

The Tribune put together an MP3 containing snips of Cubs broadcasts. Ron Santo and Pat Hughes were a great team. And just listen to the humanity in Ron's voice! Chick here for the link.

Is it OK to grieve over someone you never met?

Friday, December 03, 2010

Losses, and the Cold

The cold air has moved into E-Town and the rest of the Chicagoland region. When the calendar reaches December 1, the serious chill hits. Tonight, we should see six inches of snow. I still have a few things to do to prepare for winter - turn off the pipes leading to the outdoor faucets, that sort of thing. The warmth and the birdsong and the flowers in Amanda's garden are lost, for a while.

I sat with an old colleague of mine recently, drinking coffee. I hadn't seen this guy in 20 years or so. I remember him as a big, handsome, fit Alpha Male. He is 65 now and fighting through his second go-round with cancer (he beat prostate cancer, now on to melanoma). The real estate investment firm he works for has delivered losses to investors over the past couple of years. He is moving reluctantly into retirement. He is still handsome, but he has a haunted look around his eyes these days.

And today we received the news of Ron Santo's passing. For Chicagoans with any interest in baseball, Ron was a brother, a fellow fan that wore his emotions on his sleeve. I feel like I have lost a family member, which is ridiculous - I never met the man. But I listened to him broadcast Cubs games all summer long for many years. It was a strange connection; impersonal yet intense. Ron Santo fought diabetes his entire adult life, lost his legs to the disease, yet he kept moving ahead and achieving great things while staying connected to everyday people. In Chicago, we grieve for our loss in this cold season.

The season will turn, the Christmas and New Year holidays will distract us, the flowers will bloom again. But for now, at the front-end of a long winter, it looks like a cold, cold world.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Goodbye, Stan "Sarge" Davis

The Chicago blues community has suffered another loss. Stanley "Sarge" Davis, owner of Lee's Unleaded Blues died of cardiac arrest on November 12. The funeral is today; I feel bad that I will miss it due to a business trip. Though I did not know Stan Davis well, I admired him greatly. He was a retired Chicago police officer, a genial man pursuing his passion for the blues after hanging up his service revolver. Lee's Unleaded Blues is one of the few remaining "true blues" clubs on Chicago's South Side. It has been around a long while - it was the Queen Bee Lounge in the 1970's.

So we have lost one of the unsung heroes of the blues world in Chicago. We can only hope that this great blues club will survive the owner's passing.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Who Gives Care to the Care Giver?

A few weeks ago, I had my annual check-up (I learned I am in disgustingly good health; nothing to whine about at all). I have been under the care of the same internist for many years. We have aged together; he knows all of my medical history. I don't have to explain my past to my doctor; I don't have to fill out forms. He remembers, and the things he doesn't recall are in my medical record.

As he poked and prodded me, he plied me with polite inquiries - "What's new? Did you have a nice summer? Any special plans for the holidays?" I answered, then turned the questions back on him. He told me that he just returned from Germany (my doctor is a naturalized U.S. citizen; born in Berlin). He also said that this was his first visit to his home country as a single man in 35 years. He told me that his wife died of cancer in June.....

As he shared this sad piece of news, he squared his shoulders and pulled his mouth into a straight line. I asked him how he was doing; he said "Well, I am working a lot - 14-15 hours a day. I get home, eat a sandwich and walk the dog. Walking the dog is the highlight of my day."

Then he caught himself, changed the subject back to my health. I gave him my card and told him to call me, come over for dinner. He was embarrassed, I think. He moved briskly through the rest of the appointment, shook my hand, and hurried out of the exam room.

He seemed to be radiating pain. He is burying himself in his work to avoid his grief. And I wondered - who gives care to this care giver? He didn't want to receive it from his old patient, that's for sure.

That meeting was over two months ago and I haven't heard from my doctor. Maybe today I will give him a call.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Randomness Rules

I woke up at 3AM this morning, worrying about various things. It is amazing how many topics generate concern in the wee hours! Since I was awake and needed to distract myself from my cares, I picked up a book that I had been reading off and on for the past few weeks and finished it. It is called "The Drunkard's Walk; How Randomness Rules Our Lives," by Leonard Mlodinow. Dr. Mlodinow is a physics PhD and teaches at Caltech. This is a very good book. Here are a couple of concepts that the author presented:

There is a view that is sometimes called "determinism" - the concept claims that the current state of the world determines precisely the manner in which the future will unfold. One outcome of this viewpoint is the belief that one's personal qualities/character lead directly to specific consequences. In order for determinism to be true, the laws of nature must dictate definite outcomes and we have to know all of those laws. We also need to have all the data necessary to describe the system, and can't miss anything -no unforeseen effects. We also need to have enough brain power (or computer muscle) to analyze this vast quantity of data and draw the right conclusions.

I am going on record right now - I repudiate, reject deny and vilify determinism! Whenever I hear someone say "Everything happens for a reason," I want to tear my hair out. No, things DON'T happen for a "reason!" Things happen due to random events, which are things that can't be foreseen. The best humans can do to manage their futures is to build useful skills and keep trying persistently to catch a break.

Let me illustrate this with a long story.

In 1988, a young woman got on a bus in downtown Chicago, heading home after her work day. On the seat next to her was the classified advertising section of the Chicago Tribune. The woman didn't generally read the Tribune, and the ad section wasn't full of interesting news, but she picked up the paper to pass the time as she rode home. There was a column of personal advertisements - this was the "pre-Internet" era; personal ads were all the rage. The woman had recently ended a long relationship, so she looked at the "Men Seeking Women" section; she got out her pen and circled two ads, and took the paper with her when she got off the bus.

Back in her apartment, the woman called her brother. "I am thinking about answering a personal ad. Listen to these two and tell me which you like best." She read the personals to her brother, and he said, ""Hmmm...Well, the guy in the second one said he is a father. You like kids; maybe you should answer that one."

Ten days later, a tired divorced guy got home from work. In his mailbox was a large envelope from the Chicago Tribune, containing about 70 letters in response to his personal ad. He opened a beer and sat down at the kitchen table to review them. Many were sad; from women that seemed desperate. Some were from lonely professional women - doctors/lawyers/executives. And one was from the woman on the bus.

The guy opened the letter and glitter fell out, all over the floor. "Excellent attention-grabbing device," he muttered under his breath. The letter was short, but well-written. And it was typed, so he didn't have to decipher sloppy handwriting. The woman from the bus included a snapshot. She was very cute. He sat and pondered. Then he picked up the telephone and called the number she included in her note.

We have been married for 20 years now, and our oldest daughter is applying to college. She helped me raise the 2 kids from my first marriage and we are working on raising the 2 girls.

Random Events: (1) Someone left the classified section on the bus. (2) Woman gets on that bus. (3) Woman happens to sit near the newspaper. (4) Woman decides to pick up the newspaper and read the personals. (5) Woman picks 2 ads from the paper. (6) Woman's brother recommends that she answers one of the ads. (7) Woman decides to type letter. (8) Woman decides to put glitter in the envelope. (8) Guy notices these two touches. (9) Out of the 70 letters, guy decides to answer the woman's letter.

Actions that the Humans Took To Manage Their Futures: (1) Divorced guy wanted to meet a new person and was having trouble, so he took out a personal ad. (2) Woman that just left a relationship wanted to meet an new person and decided to answer the ad. (3) Woman took the time and used creativity to make her letter stand out. (4) Guy had the courage to call a complete stranger and ask her out on a date.

One could say that my two daughters owe their existence to glitter. How random is that?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fall in the Upper Mississippi, and Mitch the Ice Cream Guy

It hs been unseasonably warm in the midwest - over 80 degrees on October 10. We decided to leave Chicagoland and head out to the country to see some fall colors. With teenagers in the back and wife by my side, I pointed the Volvo northwest. After about five hours, we arrived in Ferryville WI. Our cabin was a few miles from the Mississippi River and it was blessedly quiet there. But we wanted to see the mighty Mississippi and the river towns. River towns always have been slightly disreputable - transients have rolled through for generations, looking for food, alcohol and hanky-panky. Ferryville is really small, but across the river is a somewhat larger town - Lansing, Iowa. The locals have almost scrubbed away the river town sleaze (except for a few grungy bars down by the riverfront). We saw an interesting establishment in a very old small commercial building. It was called "Wall-Marks Deli, Ice Cream and Antiques." We had to stop in, and we encountered a gentleman named Mitch - His handsome face is pictured above. Mitch served up cones to the teenagers and a chocolate milkshake for me - thick and rich.

I had a conversation with Mitch, which is recounted below. I am operating from memory here - did not tape his comments (or mine):

"This deli stuff is a new experience for me. I am a welder and a machinist; been working in the factories around here for over 25 years. I worked for a long stretch for a chemical company up in LaCrosse. I got laid off last year; the whole plant shut down and the production was moved to Juarez, Mexico. There were 850 people let go. Now I heard that the plant in Juarez is shutting down. They can't get skilled workers and the drug violence is beginning to screw things up. The plant might come back to the U.S. or maybe to China. I could care less, at this point.

So I got together with a couple of buddies and we opened Wall-Marks. You can see that there are marks on the brick wall outside from one of the floods that happened over a hundred year ago, so we used that to come up with a name. The WalMart people haven't sued us yet.

We opened in April, and like I said, I am new to the restaurant game. We had a good season; lotsa traffic. doncha know. With the boaters and the bikers, we did okay. I thought it would die off after Labor Day, but we have had a big rush of leaf-peepers, like you - I have met a few folks that live near you in Chicago. This is the peak weekend for colors. The bikers did a big charity ride yesterday, cancer charity of some kind. I ran out of a lotta stuff, we were totally slammed with hungry bikers.

We get flocks of Harley people all the time in this town; I really don't know why. They like the Sandbar down by the river. They do drink specials there pretty much every night. Sometimes it gets a little hairy. But most of the bikers are as old as I am and know how to behave. They like to stop in here for lunch and dessert. I think they like the meatball sandwich the best - "Mitch's Magnificent Meatball." Oh, sure, its the best meatball sandwich you'll find in the Upper Mississippi Valley.

I heard that some biker hit a deer last night. Killed the dear, but he walked away unhurt. Motorcycles and deer don't mix. We had another collision about a week ago - guy had his wife on the back of his Fatboy, hit a buck, his wife flew off and got run over by another Harley. Broke her pelvis, messed her up pretty good. I got rid of my bike about 10 years ago. Woke up one day and said to myself "What the hell are ya doin'?" Too much risk, man.

The missus and I moved up here a few years ago. We used to live in Prairie du Chien, about 30 miles south on the Wisconsin side. I was doing independent welding stuff for machine shops and such. We had a chunk of land up in Victory; its an unincorporated village about 15 minutes from here in Wisconsin. We had a trailer on the land and a utility hook-up. It was quiet and beautiful, a stream runs through it. Pretty soon, we were up here every weekend. I had a hard time going back to Prairie du Chien on Sundays. So a few years back, we sold the house, built a new place in Victory and came up here. I am really glad I sold my place when I did - couldn't have got the price now that I got then.

So I am scaping out a living here. We are going to close for the season on November 1. I will try to get some welding work to carry me through the winter. This isn't the life I expected. It could be a helluva lot worse, though. As long as the bikers and the boaters show up and buy stuff from Wall-Marks, I should be OK. I might have to work until I fall over dead, though - tough to save money with this type of working life.

I visited Chicago once; I ain't ever goin' back. I don't understand how people can live like that, so much noise and the crowds, traffic jams and such. Great meatball sandwiches, though."

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Top Ten Reasons that the Harmonica is an Awesome Instrument

10. When played in a particularly shrill fashion, the harmonica will induce all dogs within earshot to howl lustily.

9. You can buy a good quality diatonic harmonica for well under $50 - this is the cheapskate's favorite instrument.

8. You can practice your harmonica while driving your car. Try THAT with a trombone!

7. A harmonica provides you with something to do while riding the elevator (although you might not want to play it when you have fellow passengers in the elevator).

6. The harmonica is almost as flexible and interesting as the human voice.

5. You can front a blues band if you can play the harmonica and sing a little.

4. Harmonica players can say that they play the same instrument as Howard Levy - although Howard plays the harmonica like no one else in the universe (he is a very scary monster of the harp).

3. Harmonica + a bullet microphone + a vintage tube amplifier = world's best contemporary musical sound.

2. The harmonica is a wind instrument that plays chords!!! Try THAT with a trombone!

And the Number 1 reason why the harmonica is an awesome instrument:

1. It fits in your pocket, so you can express yourself musically at any time. My trombone most certainly does NOT fit in my pocket.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Proctologist Defrauds Medicare

I know I should be incensed and angry about this story, but I am giggling over it instead. First of all, the name of the proctologist is Dr. Boris Sachakov (funny name). And he claims to have removed 85 hemmoroids from a single patient (Owwwwwww!!). Heee heee.
Here is the article.
The good doctor allegedly stole $3.5 million form Medicare. His claims would make him the busiest ass man in the country.
This guy is a true butt-hole.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Next Gen

Here he is, folks - my grandson, Patrick Christopher Blackwell. He has taken a lively interest in the harmonica, as you can see from this picture. Pat grabs it, stuffs it in his mouth, and does the ol' huff & puff. That is how harmonica players start.

When I feel tense and stressed from my work or from other aspects of my life, some time with little Pat is blessed relief. He is full of hot boy energy. He runs everywhere and vocalizes with joyous abandon. He loves music and beats. He is too young to feel worried. He is fearless. I fervently hope he does not lose these qualities as he gets older, but he probably will.

A grandchild expands your circle of concern. I used to stew over what might happen in the next 70 years (the life span of my children). That has now expanded to 80-90 years now that Pat has arrived. Will life be OK in 2060? I will be dead and buried; little Pat will be middle-aged.

The Next Gen faces a world full of wonder and challenges. When I think back on the changes that have occurred during my lifetime, I am amazed. Pat will feel the same way when he reaches mid-life and looks back. What changes will he see, experience, perhaps create?

I am deeply thankful that I get to be a grandfather.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What mental illness can do

I was awake the early Tuesday morning - I got up at 2:30 AM to use the restroom and was struggling to fall back asleep. I was beginning to drift off when I heard a deep-throated "Boooom!" I popped up and said "What the hell was that?" My dear wife did not hear the explosion because she sleeps with ear plugs. I thought it was a lightning strike, but it wasn't raining. I listened for sirens and heard none. Then I thought, "Maybe I dreamt it." I went back to sleep.

Three hours later, I was heading to the cleaners to pick up my laundry. I noticed that Nichols Middle School was cordoned off by the police and the area was crawling with cops. That was weird. I thought perhaps that there had been some kind of bomb threat - the middle schooolers do that sometimes to try for a day off.

Soon, there were news choppers over head. I got my Blackberry to tell me the story - "Headless Body Found in Park Next to Nichols Middle School." The poor dead guy is pictured above - Colin Dalebroux, from Wisconsin. Unbeknowst to me, Colin was my neighbor - he lived less than 2 blocks from my house. I don't remember seeing him in the 'hood.

Colin apparently was struggling with depression. He decided to exit, but he did so in a most weird manner. He constructed a pipe bomb. He actually built two bombs. Then, he arose in the middle of the night and walked 3 blocks to the park next to the middle school He held the pipebomb to his neck and detonated it. Death was instant - and very nasty. His head and neck were gone. A guy found him at 5:15A M while walking his dog. The authorities closed the school while trying to figure things out. When the family surfaced, they said that Colin had suffered from depression since childhood.

Isn't it amazing what mental illness can induce people to do? How incredible - a clinically depressed guy musters the energy and skill to build an explosive device in order to make sure the world knows about his Final Solution. Weird, sad and sick.

Keep this 21-year old suicide victim in your thoughts. It's a shame and a pity.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Staycation - Meeting Mo at the Firehouse

Yesterday was the last day of my short staycation. I went to the gym, fiddled around the house a bit, then decided to write a get well note to an old friend who has had a rough time with health issues this summer. I walked down to the local post office to mail the note, then thought I would do a vacation thing - sit at a bar and drink a beer at happy hour. I wandered over to the Firehouse Grill, a Southeast Evanston establishment that is housed in an actual old fire station (Fire Station #2, which was closed when a new, modern facility was built 2 blocks away). The Firehouse Grill is a solid family lunch and dinner joint, with a nice bar and decent beer collection. I walked in and pulled up a stool next to an older gentleman (pictured above). He greeted me politely, I reciprocated and we began a conversation. His name is Moselle, aka Mo, and here is what he told me (I am paraphrasing since I didn't record the conversation):

"I am 81 years old now. Been retired for 13 years. I came to Chicago in 1951 because there was no work for me in San Francisco - that's my home town. I came home from the Korean War kinda messed up. On October 23, 1950, the North Koreans blew me out of my foxhole. I lost my eye and I had lots of cuts and small injuries, but I recovered. Some might call me a disabled veteran, but I worked from 1951 until 1997. I was a long-haul trucker, and I loved it. No damned boss breathin' down my neck.

I been healthy all my life, except for my eye. I started smokin' cigarettes when I was 14, and I still smoke 'em when I got 'em. I will need to step outside a little later for a smoke, no offense.

I got four children - 2 girls and 2 boys. They all live out west. One of my daughters is a doctor. The other is a stewardess; I get free flights because I am her daddy. You get taxed on those free flights, though, so they ain't completely free. My daughter pays the taxes for me.

I just live a block and a half away from the Firehouse Grill so I come over here alot. I slipped on the ice and broke my hip last winter, so it is harder for me to get around. It takes a long time to heal a busted bone when you are 81. I hafta use a cane now. It's a good thing I live close to the Firehouse. My wife still works; I come when she is working. She works nights sometimes.

I love to fish. When I was younger, I hated fishing, but I love it now. I go all over. In the Chicago area, I like to fish on the Fox River, up north toward Milwaukee.

I sometimes get together with a few other Korean War veterans. We understand each other. It was a terrible war. People have sorta forgot about it, but it is still going on in a way. The North Koreans were a nasty bunch; looks like they still are. We might have to mix it up serious with them pretty soon.

I feel pretty good for an old man. I got used to having one eye a long time ago. The hip still bothers me; probably will until I'm dead. What the hell can you do about it? Can't expect an 81 year old body to stay strong."

Mo is an awesome guy in my neighborhood that I have never met until yesterday. Striking up conversations with strangers can be a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Staycation - Kayaking off the Evanston Shore

Due to some scheduling issues, kid activities and work commitments, I was unable to to escape for a summer vacation this year. Now that the season is coming to a close, I decided to stay home for a couple of days and try to capture a little bit of vacation attitude without leaving town. I took the girls to the Morton Arboretum yesterday - I am ashamed to say that I have never been there over my 31-year residency in the Chicago area. We enjoyed the massive garden, and barely scratched the surface of the place during our 4-hour visit.

Today, I am planning on renting a kayak at the beach office in Evanston and paddling around the lake for a bit. It is a cool morning - the coolest we have had in several weeks, with temperatures in the 60's. The sun is out, however, and the air is calm. So I am going. I have invited the missus and the kids.

But I have to say that Staycations are challenging. The household chores still nag at me. I am still in my everyday environment, even though I am avoiding the office. I feel my everyday stress - things undone, lawns to mow, bills to pay. Changing my headset with no change in scenary is hard for me.

And there are significant family changes in progress. My 18-year old overcame her various set-backs and graduated from high school last Friday - an emotional experience because she had more than her share of struggles to reach that milestone. Now the high school graduate is facing her future, which currently includes employment and planning a gap year before heading to college. My youngest is gearing up to start Evanston Township High School on Monday. ETHS is a big urban school with lots of excellent features and some difficult issues. So we worry about out 5-foot tall, 14-year old girl.

But on this day, I want to float on Lake Michigan. With luck, this tightness in my stomach and in my mind will release as I paddle offshore, my chores left on the land.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Old Memory - Laffing Sal

When I was a kid, growing up on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, there was a place that I longed to see. It was an amusement park over on the Pacific side of San Francisco, called Playland at the Beach. It was near the Cliff House; in fact, the owner/developer of Playland also owned the Cliff House. This was a classic Depression-era amusement park. By the time I got to prime Playland age, the facility had begun to decay. This made it creepier and more alluring to me. And the creepiest thing about Playland was Laffing Sal, pictured above.

I have learned that there were many Laffing Sals at many amusement parks across the nation. I think there still may be some in operation. Sal was a terrifying thing - 7 feet tall, ugly, and mechanical. At Playland, Sal was positioned on the second floor of the Fun House, on a balcony. She bowed at the waist, waved her arms and twisted about while a manical female laugh was blasted continuously from nearby loudspeakers at very high volume. Sal was the first of the animatronic figures - Disneyland/Disneyworld owes a lot to this old hag.

I was about 10, I think, and I really wanted to go to Playland. I don't think I had ever visited the place. I was pestering my dad to take me, and he wanted no part of it - a long drive, crowds and expenses did not fit my father's idea of a good time. My mom overheard our interaction and weighed in forcefully. "You never take your son anywhere! It isn't like he asks for much. Why can't you do something nice for him once in a while?" I was horrified and delighted with my mom's intervention - horrified to hear the argument, delighted that I was going to get my way. My dad was shamed into taking me to Playland at the Beach.

It was surreal.

We drove in silence, parked and caught a trolley over to the park. I walked through the place, rode the roller coaster, stared at scary Laffing Sal, went into the Funhouse and tried to knock down the milk bottles with baseballs at the arcade. My dad followed along behind, picking up the tabs, looking grim. It was not a Hallmark father-and-son experience.

I think I enjoyed myself somewhat, but I never went back to Playland after that. The appeal of amusement parks ended for me on that day.

Playland at the Beach was demolished in early September, 1972 - about the time that I started attending UC Berkeley. I think they built condos on the site. Laffing Sal is in an obscure museum (Musee Mecanique) at Fisherman's Wharf. My father has been dead for 19 years now. I should erase this old memory; it serves no useful purpose. But it keeps popping up, often when I am surprised by loud, raucous, female laughter........

Monday, August 09, 2010

James Brown Again

We had a Sunday family dinner, and my adult daughter, son-in-law and grandson were in attendance. Little Patrick (aka the Pie-man) started walking about 2 weeks ago; he has the 15-month old toddler swagger, the confidence of a first-born son. He also has music in his head already - beat-boxing and chanting his happy nonsense syllables. I thought that he might like to hear some tunes, so I plugged in the iPod to the sound deck and hit the James Brown section of the device. JB was a crazed genius; it still saddens me that he is gone. JB and Ray Charles - I think about them often.

And when "Popcorn" came through the speakers, the Pie-man started to dance. James Brown, comin' 'round again, with the next generation.

As the Tower of Power tune said, "It may be a different age; but I'm on the same page; 'Cause there is one thing I've found; I'm still diggin' on James Brown."

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"Delayed Due To A Medical Emergency"

I am a Chicago commuter, climbing aboard the Metra North Line at Main Street in Evanston. The train is a lovely experience - quick, relatively quiet and somewhat retro (no WiFi, people still read newspapers). An extra plus - you can buy a beer in the terminal for the ride home and exit at your station with your attitude nicely adjusted (not that I do that, of course).

This morning seemed pretty typical. We had rain, but my train was on time. When we hit the Ravenswood station in Chicago, we stopped and didn't move. The conductor got on the intercom and announced "Ladies and gentlemen - we will be delayed due to amedical emergency. We are waiting for an ambulance to revmove the passenger from the train. We should be on our way in a few minutes." We sat for about 20 minutes, then headed into the Loop.

I can't seem to get the afflicted passenger out of my head this morning. What happened? Heart attack? Stroke? Are there defribillators on the Metra trains? Who was the afflicted passenger? Did he/she survive? There was no announcement, of course, and I didn't get a chance to quiz the conductor.

This unfortunate person probably started his/her daily routine with no expectations of drama or tragedy. He/she was my fellow traveler today. I hope that he/she didn't end up at a surprise final destination.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Fred Anderson Stricken

I just heard that Fred Anderson, avant-guarde jazz saxophonist and leader of the Velvet Lounge, had a massive heart attack about a week ago. Here is the Tribune's report.

Fred was a Chicago treasure in many ways. He kept a gang of creative musicians employed. He provided a convival environment for music and comaraderie. He was on a mission to spread the sound around. At 81 years of age, he is the joyful grandfather to Chicago's jazz community. Fred is a much-loved artist.

It sounds like his condition is grim. Let's hope the doctors are wrong.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pulling back

I have pulled the plug on the Mystery Band and gone back to being a harmonica noodler, playing in the backyard to annoy the dog. I like to play, but lining up gigs, trying to get paid, organizing my wonderful fellow musicians - it starts to feel like work. I already have a full-time (plus) job (which, by the way, deserves more of my attention). I was subsidizing the gigs because club owners can't afford to pay a living wage to musicians in this era of iPods and downloads - it gets to be a burden to "pay to play" at every gig. My family also deserves my full engagement. Life is busy, and sometimes you have to pull back in order to go forward.

Maybe I will go back to it some day. Maybe not. The band was starting to feel like a form of self-indulgence, a stupid ego trip for an aging white man who has no business playing the blues. So I will start acting my age and living clean. No more late nights in dive bars for me. My favorite dive bar has closed, anyway.

If anyone wants a couple hundred copies of the Mystery Band CD, let me know.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Conversion of a Newspaper Fanatic

When I arrived in Evanston, Illinois on September 8, 1976, the first thing I purchased was a copy of the Chicago Tribune. That was how I got my bearings in the sprawling Chicago metropolis. I was a dedicated newspaper reader - grew up on three local papers in the San Franciso Bay Area, and I believed the Chicago Trib was a superior rag to any of the papers I read (although the San Franciso Chronicle came close at times). I tracked world events, followed the local news, read music reviews, enjoyed the columnists and kept up with sports via the Trib.

I am now done with the Chicago Tribune.

With its bankruptcy and the horrific changes made to save money and attract folks with limited attention spans, the Tribune is no longer worth the paper it is printed on. It makes USA Today look good. Local news is avaliable on-line and on the tube. The only reason to buy the Trib was to read the funnies - which have been cut, too. So after 30+ years, I have let my subscription expire.

Of course, the entire newspaper industry is in free-fall. Those of us who grew up non-digital are fading/dying, or converting to new media. The generations that follow us see newspapers as anachronisms. Advertisers are migrating, subscribers are bolting. The reporters are gradually finding different outlets. Some oldsters are wringing their hands and moaning about how our nation will be damaged by the fall of newspapers.


We are flooded with news and opinion, the news cycle has accelerated beyond belief and a few dead newspapers won't matter at all. Local sources of information are still doing OK (I get my free local paper on my porch once a week, and it is pretty good - oh, and local businesses advertise aggressively in its pages).

I am still subscribing to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; this allows me to keep getting my fingers dirty every day. But I am thinking about going digital with these papers, too. My recycling bin will be lighter, as will my briefcase.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Pat Hall Tribute

Pat Hall, the rollicking, rowdy keyboard man who has entertained Chicagoans for several decades, died on January 24. He was ill for a while, but his passing was sudden. There was to be a healthcare fund-raiser for him on February 14; it is still going forward to raise money to cover his final expenses and establish a fund for his son, Brian (contribution is $20). The event will occur at the Red Line Tap, 7006 N. Glenwood in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago (773-274-5463). Pat was a long-time Rogers Parker, and he played frequently at the Red Line, the Heartland and Dukes Bar. If you are in Chicago on Valentine's Day, stop by and raise a glass to Pat.

Pat was the leader of the Fat Guys Band, a very entertaining blues-based group that has been active in the Chicago area for many years. He also has performed as a comedian in the Coupla Fat Guys videos - you can find them on YouTube. I had the good fortune to sit in with Pat a couple of times at Duke's Bar in Rogers Park. He was a strong vocalist as well as a talented keyboardist. He died too young, and he will be missed by the Chicago blues community.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Farewells in 2009

We are into the second week of 2010, and I wanted to say my good-byes to ten of the great blues and jazz musicians that shuffled off this mortal coil in 2009.

First and foremost, farewell Koko Taylor, Queen of the blues! She left us on June 3; her gravelly, powerful voice is sorely missed. She performed up to a month before her death and her funeral was on the first day of the 2009 Chicago Blues Festival. She was 80 years old when she died.

He wasn't a blues artist, but Les Paul still had a major impact on blues music - so many blues players used the solid-body electric guitar that he invented. He was a fabulous jazz player; he also played country music under the name of "Rhubarb Red" Les departed on August 12; he was 94 years old.

It was a shock to lose Norton Buffalo so quickly last fall. This fantastic harmonica player bridged many musical worlds, from rock and pop to blues and jazz. Cancer took him on October 30; he was only 58 years old.

New Orleans lost a treasured musician when Snooks Eaglin (born Fird Eaglin, Jr.) died on February 18. Snooks was blind and he could play almost anything on the guitar. His vocal style evoked Ray Charles. Folks used to call him "the human jukebox" because he knew thousands of songs. He was 72 when he died of a heart attack.

John Cephas, one of the foremost practioners of the Piedmont finger-picking acoustic blues guitar, passed on March 4. He was 78 years old. For the past 30 years, John Cephas played and sang in a duo with harmonica player Phil Wiggins. Phil is only 55 years old and now he has lost his partner.

Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, better known as Louie Bellson, was a fabulous Italian American jazz drummer. He pioneered the use of the double bass drum kit. He played with the legends - Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughn, Louie Armstrong; even James Brown! He was married to Pearl Bailey, the African American singer and Republican, until her death in 1990. (I had the honor of playing with Louie back in my days as a young trombonist with the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensembles - what a wonderful guy he was!) Louie left us on February 14; he was 83 years old.

Edwin Joseph Bocage, better known as Eddie Bo, was a New Orleans jazz pianist who switched to rhythm and blues in the 1950's. He wrote several minor hit tunes ("Check Mr. Popeye," "My Dearest Darling," "Pass the Hatchet," etc.). and he recorded for more than 40 different record labels. He produced many records for artists such as Irma Thomas and Art Neville. Eddie Bo died on March 18, 2009 of a heart attack.

Samuel Lee McCollum, aka Sam Carr, was one of the top blues drummers of all time. His father was the influential blues guitarist and vocalist Robert Lee McCollum, who recorded under the names Robert Lee McCoy and Robert Nighthawk. Sam played with a long list of great bluesmen, including Sonny boy Williamson I, (John Lee Williamson) Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller), Big Joe Williams, Big Jack Johnson, Frank Frost, T-Model Ford and Buddy Guy. Sam died on September 21 at the age of 83.

The great blues guitarist/vocalist and political activist, Willie King, died after a massive heart attack on March 8; he was almost 66 years old. He was an old-school juke joint player that specialized in playing and singing what he called the "struggling blues" - tunes that reflected the realities of his life as a social activist.

Mark Sallings was an Arkansas-based blues harmonica player and vocalist. He didn't achieve much fame and little fortune, but he could really play the harp. He was a skilled saxophonist and pianist, too. Mark was one of those dedicated and hard-working journeymen that make up the bulk of blues artists in the world. He died at the tender age of 56 on February 25, in a car accident on the way to a casino gig in Tunica, Mississippi.

This is an arbitrary list of 10 great folks; we lost many other wonderful artists in 2009 - Mighty Joe Young Jr., Jesse Fortune, Al Harris, Tim Lamb, James Gurley and many others. We are lucky to have shared the planet with these musicians.......

Friday, January 08, 2010

"It's A Mystery" Reviewed by James "Skyy Dobro" Walker in Blues Blast Bagazine

Many, many thanks to James "Skyy Dobro" Walker for his kind and generous comments.....

Mr. G & The Mystery Band - It's A Mystery
Self Release / G-FreeThoughts Publishing
11 songs; 73:07 minutes; Suggested
Styles: Harmonica Blues; Chicago Blues

Well, well, these are mysteries:

Who is Mr. G?

Who will be in his band at the next live show?

How can this group put out a really good, all original music, debut Blues CD using “a live in the studio approach with limited overdubs and few takes” while others invest excessively and come out with crap?

“Why can’t we all just get along?”

“Why can’t some people tell right from wrong?”

“Why are some people kind and generous and others are rotten to the core?”

“Why do we all love to sing and dance?”

“Why does a pretty girl get a tattoo?”

“Why do young men wear those saggy pants?”

Some of these puzzlers found in the title track have answers while others will remain unknown. First, “Mr G” is Chris Gillock, a singer, songwriter, and harpist who started life in California but finished his education in Chicago and put down area roots. He became a student of Chicago Blues and traded his California funk and jazz trombone for the Blues harmonica.

Mr. G established the Mystery Band on Thanksgiving evening in 2003, filling in for a busted booking at the now defunct Bill’s Blues Bar in Evanston, Illinois, where he was a “hanger-on” and investor. In the six years since, Mr. G has convinced over 45 of Chicago-land’s top blues and jazz players to join the Mystery Band’s mission: “to jam and have fun.” The liner notes list most of those recruits, and the “A Team” on this CD are very talented Chicago stalwarts and pedigreed, indeed: Guitars – OSee Anderson and Anthony Palmer; Drums – James Carter; and bass – Greg “E.G.” McDaniel.

As a reviewer, I receive too many “Blues” CDs that are not. It is a joy to receive this set of solid Blues with first rate playing, unique chromatic harp tones, and eleven original songs with both thoughtful and humorous lyrics. Some of Mr G’s raucous harmonica is rightly featured in the first track, which poses both deep questions (“mean people”) and funny mysteries (the “tattoos” and “saggy pants”).

Sometimes, Mr G juxtaposes a light hearted look and heart break in the same verse like in “My Dog and Me,” a swampy guitared story of marital breakup. “When I first met my wife, I thought she was so fine / But the longer I lived with that woman the more I loved my canine / I couldn’t satisfy her no matter how hard I tried / But now she’s gone and I must confess I feel dead inside.”
Back to fun in track three; “Hey José,” is a traditional 12 bar Chicago Blues shuffle with great harp soloing and guitar breaks by OSee Anderson. As the story goes, José is a best-friend bartender, and the narrator is in clearly in Chicago because he keeps ordering “another Old Style® beer.” This one is headed for a fun spot in my radio show!

Another must play song is the set’s real standout, a minor key chromatic workout, “Cheat Me Fair.” This slow Blues is an eight minute expose of love gone wrong featuring torturing vocals, harp solos and Anthony Palmer’s gut wrenching guitar. The narrator indulges in a curious fantasy about “driving an old Dodge Dart down to Mexico to find a Mexican girl who will follow him everywhere and always tell the truth.” Now that’s funny!

My first ear-worm (song that repeats later in your head) came from the chorus on “Get Out and Walk,” written when gasoline prices were over $4.00 per gallon in 2008. The special effects harp sounds come from a low D harp muted by a coffee cup. The rhythm guitar percolates like a mountain brook on this Country Blues flavored, go green themed number.

One song has Reggae flavoring, one a Bo Diddley beat, another is a rumba. There is an ode to square shouldered working folk, a “Payin’ Taxes” protest, and themes from after hours partying to both sides of love. Bottom line: every track on this CD is a winner. Put this CD in a blind listening test for Blues fans and friends, and they will agree that there is enough going on here to elevate to a national level this band that’s slowly building a following in the intensely competitive Chicago Blues market.

Reviewer James "Skyy Dobro" Walker is a noted Blues writer, DJ, Master of Ceremonies, and longtime Blues Blast Magazine contributor. His weekly radio show "Friends of the Blues" can be heard Thursdays from 7 - 8 pm and Saturdays 8 pm - Midnight on WKCC 91.1 FM and at in Kankakee, IL

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