Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...

...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Serenade your love muffin with a Singing Valentine!

Hello, young lovers. (Hey, we're all lovers, and young at heart if not in chronology, right? So, yeah, I'm talking to you.)

Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and you're out there thinking (I know, because I can hear you)...

"What can I do to make this a memorable Valentine's Day for my special someone? Flowers? Done that. Chocolates? Done that. Lingerie? How much Victoria's Secret does one relationship need, really?"

I've got the answer right here for you, bunkie.

Send your significant other (or someone you'd like to persuade to be your significant other, or just otherwise impress) a Singing Valentine, delivered by a quartet of talented vocalists from the International Bronze Medal-winning Voices in Harmony, northern California's premier men's a cappella ensemble!

Now, I know what you're thinking (I can hear you, remember? kind of scary, huh?)...

Voices in Harmony is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my sweetness lives way the heck out in the boondocks of East Bumbershoot, New Hampshire. How can VIH serenade my objet d'amour from such a daunting distance?

Have no fear, friend Romeo! (Or friend Juliet — we're equal opportunity Cupids here.)

In addition to our live-and-in-person Singing Valentine service available throughout the central and south Bay Area, VIH can deliver an audio Singing Valentine by phone, or a video Singing Valentine via e-mail, anywhere your heart desires! (Within the limits of current technology, of course.)

Telephonic Singing Valentines cost a mere $20. Video Singing Valentines are a steal at $35. It's a pittance either way, considering the benefits you could score (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) once your dreamboat experiences the ear-caressing, heart-touching vocal magic of Voices in Harmony.

Singing Valentine deliveries can be scheduled throughout Valentine's Day weekend, February 13 through 15. That means triple the opportunities to dazzle your certain someone.

So, why are you still reading this? Pop on over to Voices in Harmony Central and order up some Singing Valentine love!

You know you want to.

While you're visiting the Voices in Harmony site, why not order a copy of our debut CD, Now & Then?

This spectacular album, recorded in the world-famous, Oscar-winning studios at Lucasfilms' Skywalker Ranch, has just been nominated as Best Barbershop Album of 2008 by the Contemporary A Cappella Society.

Don't let that word "barbershop" throw you — Now & Then contains rich choral interpretations of modern classics ranging from The Turtles to Bobby Darin, from Barbra Streisand to Billy Joel, from Disney to Hank Williams. We even toss in a dash of Sinatra, just to show that we can still kick it old school.

A Now & Then CD adds the perfect accompaniment to a Singing Valentine. (Did I mention that Singing Valentines start at just $20? That's practically insane.)

Now go, grasshopper, and let your plastic do the talking.

Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you.

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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's hard in Oakland for a pimp

The Hughes Brothers speak the truth: "Oakland is a pimpin' town."

Apparently, the only people who won't acknowledge that truth are in Oakland city government.

Allen and Albert Hughes, most often referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers (because their last name is Hughes, and they're... well... brothers), are fraternal twin filmmakers best known for their uncompromising depictions of urban street life, as portrayed in their dramatic films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. (The Hughes Brothers also masterminded the comic book adaptation From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as a 19th-century London detective stalking Jack the Ripper.)

The latest Hughes project is an upcoming HBO drama series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure, about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life. The series is set in Oakland, and the Hughes Brothers are eager, for the sake of verisimilitude, to film the show on location.

So far, Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland City Council are having none of it. The council has to date refused to approve the Hughes Brothers' permits to begin filming on the streets of Oakland. According to Mayor Dellums, a TV show about pimps doesn't fit his vision of what Oakland is.

Never mind the fact that the rest of the world — including a slew of big-name hip-hop artists from Oakland — sees the city exactly that way.

It's no secret to anyone who follows American popular culture that Oakland is one of the hubs of the hip-hop/rap scene, which has made a cottage industry out of "pimps and hos." (The hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song four years ago, for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.") Hyphy, an entire "brand" of hip-hop music and style, originated in Oakland and its surrounding communities. Rap pioneer Too Short, perhaps the biggest hip-hop star to arise from the East Bay scene, built his entire career explicitly proclaiming the glories of the pimping life in Oakland.

The Oakland city fathers may not like that image. It's disingenuous, however, to deny that it exists, or to stand in the way of legitimate artists documenting it.

For their part, the Hughes Brothers have stated that if the City Council won't grant them permits to lens Gentlemen of Leisure in Oakland, they'll move the production to another city, while leaving the show's fictional setting in Oakland. That means another community will benefit from the economic uplift and job creation that follows a major television production, while struggling Oakland will lose out, even as its likeness — for better or worse — is portrayed onscreen.

If you can't change perception, Mayor Dellums, you may as well pimp it out.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Maybe we're just flamboyant

I'm a huge fan of The 5th Wheel, the often-hilarious blog about barbershop singing written by Mike McGee, the original baritone of one of my favorite quartets, the recently retired Metropolis.

Yesterday, Mike posted a list of the competitors in the 2009 Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Contest. Because next July's International will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, Mike jokingly assigns each chorus a "convention host" from Disneyland's cast of characters.

Who did Mike assign to my chorus, Voices in Harmony, the reigning Far Western District Chorus Champions?

"The gay parade dancer."

Seriously, is that any way to talk about northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus? I think not.

As Molly used to say... "'Tain't funny, McGee!"

(Okay, maybe it's a little funny.)

I suppose that any all-male performing organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area will occasionally get tagged with some measure of gay stereotype. After all, residents in sizable swaths of the country are convinced that everyone in the Bay Area is gay. (We, in turn, might characterize folks in those swaths as rednecks, which likewise may not be entirely accurate.) That perception may be especially strong when applied to male choral ensembles, given that one of the largest and most iconic such groups here is the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

Before Voices in Harmony formed, I sang with another ensemble, originally called the Pot o' Gold Chorus. Although Pot o' Gold had relocated eastward to Pleasanton by the time I joined, the chorus had been founded in the city of Dublin — hence the quasi-Irish name.

Fittingly, Pot o' Gold's insignia consisted of a rainbow streaming downward into a kettle filled with gold coins. Our stage costume was a black tuxedo accessorized with a rainbow-striped cummerbund. On many occasions, people saw a bunch of guys in stage makeup and rainbow cummerbunds, and from there leaped to a certain conclusion that you've probably already surmised.

Over time, the rainbow logo and accouterments were phased out, as was the Pot o' Gold name. The ensemble performed for several years as the Bay Area Metro Chorus before the merger that created VIH.

One of my fellow singers tells of an incident that occurred the last time BHS International took place in Anaheim, in July 1999. He was enjoying an adult beverage in the bar of the Anaheim Marriott following the chorus contest, while still clad in his Pot o' Gold tuxedo. A patron of the bar saw my comrade's cummerbund, and mistook the rainbow striping as a covert invitation to hot man-on-man monkey love. My friend — who, as it happens, is not gay — demurred.

Like the population of the Bay Area itself, Voices in Harmony is a diverse assemblage. Our membership reflects a variety of ages, ethnicities, occupations, lifestyles, and yes, sexual orientations. Different though we are, we share a common element (where have I heard that term before?) — we're men who enjoy singing and performing at a high level of musical excellence. And I'm proud to share the risers with every one of them.

If that Disneyland parade dancer can carry a tune, he's more than welcome.

Now, I'm off to rehearsal.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

"Unwrap the Holidays" on Saturday, November 29

So, there you sit, planning your post-Thanksgiving weekend assault on your friendly neighborhood megamall, and you're thinking...

Okay, I've got Black Friday covered. But what am I going to do with myself on Saturday?

Have I got an idea for you, bunkie!

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, anyway.

Voices in Harmony, Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, is hosting its annual holiday music spectacular on Saturday, November 29, at the historic California Theatre in beautiful downtown San Jose. It's a 3 p.m. matinee concert, so you'll have plenty of time to hit the morning sales before the show and the nightlife afterward. Is that strategic, or what?

In addition to VIH, you'll enjoy the scintillating sounds of our sister chorus, Pride of the Pacific, and the crowd-pleasing male quartet Late Show. It's more entertainment than any one afternoon should offer, quite frankly, but we'll let you come because we like you. I can't think of a better way to begin the festive season — at least, not one that you could share with Grandma, Grandpa, and Cousin Fred and his new trophy wife.

You can order advance tickets via this link. At $35 for excellent seats so close to the stage you can practically feel the body heat, and a mere $25 for almost-as-excellent seats a few rows further back, this fusillade of holiday cheer would be cheap at twice the price. (If you feel obligated to pay extra, I'm positive that our treasurer will not object.)

Tell the ticket people that your Uncle Swan sent you, and you'll probably get a warm handshake and a sincere smile of Yuletide gratitude.

Incidentally, this year's concert is entitled "Unwrap the Holidays." I wonder whose brilliant idea that was...?

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Comic Art Friday? I can't help myself

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Levi Stubbs, lead vocalist of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members, the Four Tops.

Stubbs, whose inimitable baritone propelled such tracks as "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "Reach Out, I'll Be There", "It's the Same Old Song," and my all-time favorite Tops classic, "Standing in the Shadows of Love," died earlier today after nearly a decade of failing health. He was 72.

In addition to his contributions to American popular music, Stubbs will be remembered by film fanatics as the voice of Audrey II, the anthropomorphic man-eating plant in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors. If you were going to hire someone to belt out a tune entitled "I'm a Mean Green Mother From Outer Space," I can't think of anyone better than the bombastic Stubbs. Neither, apparently, could the producers of the movie.

Speaking of bombastic, here's a recent entry in my "Bombshells!" commission series. The beauty playing "Peek-A-Boo!" with danger is Miss Masque. The talent behind the pencil is pinup artist Anthony Carpenter.

Miss Masque debuted in Exciting Comics #51, published in September 1946 by Nedor Comics (later known as Standard Comics). Nedor, which started out in the pulp magazine field before branching into comics, was the brainchild of entrepreneur Ned Pines, who also founded the paperback original book imprint Popular Library. If you read genre fiction extensively anytime between the 1940s and the early 1980s, you probably perused some Popular Library titles.

Back to Miss Masque: Vivacious socialite Diana Adams donned a short, bright red dress, a rakish fedora, and a black domino mask (hence her code name — I guess 1946 was a mite early to call herself "Miss Miniskirt") to battle evildoers. With no superpowers to call upon, Miss Masque relied upon good old-fashioned firepower in the form of twin .45s to dispatch the bad guys.

During her three-year run, Miss Masque proved to be one of Nedor's more popular characters, making frequent cover appearances in artworks by such luminaries as Frank Frazetta and Alex Schomburg. Her enduring popularity has resulted in several revivals in recent years, most notably in AC Comics' Femforce, America's Best Comics' Tom Strong and Terra Obscura, and the current Project Superpowers series, created by writer Jim Kreuger and artist Alex Ross for Dynamite Entertainment. (She's known as "Masquerade" in the latter book.)

Artist Anthony Carpenter is one of the most unique stylists represented in my collection. Anthony's deft tonal pencil technique creates a spectacular sense of warmth and depth, and his whimsical, nostalgic sensibility made him an ideal choice to add to my "Bombshells!" series.

In addition to retro-flavored pinup art, often with a kitschy-cool "tiki" or "jungle girl" theme, Anthony specializes in pastiches of 1960s genre film posters. His creations in each of these areas embodies a singular, charming imagination unlike any other artist working today. If you like Anthony's stuff, I recommend a tour of his Comic Art Fans gallery or his Sketchville! blog.

I think even Levi Stubbs would have enjoyed Anthony's first contribution to my Common Elements commission series, in which Alan Scott, the original Green Lantern, and Saturn Girl from the Legion of Super-Heroes find themselves facing a "mean, green mother from outer space." Could this be a cousin of Audrey II?

Time to reminisce with a few Four Tops sides. You might consider doing likewise, if you have any soul.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gateway to Fresno

They say there's no such thing as a coincidence, and perhaps they're right. (I'm still not certain who "they" are, but that's a conversation for another time.)

If it's not coincidental, it's definitely ironic that, after winning its first bronze medal in International competition in Nashville this past July, my chorus should win its first District championship in the city dubbed "Nashville West." That's Bakersfield, California, the former home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, for those of you not up to speed on your country music trivia.

For indeed, it was in Bakersfield — so named because one Colonel Thomas Baker planted an alfalfa field on the site many moons ago — that Voices in Harmony (Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus; but then, you knew that) found ourselves this past weekend, for the annual convention of the Far Western District of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Of the Society's 16 districts, the Far Western District spans the largest population base, encompassing California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii. It's also a talent powerhouse: Both the reigning International Champion chorus (the Masters of Harmony, from Los Angeles County) and International Champion quartet (OC Times, from Orange County) hail from the FWD. (As noted above, Voices in Harmony is currently the third-place International chorus. Just thought I'd throw that in again.) Thus, winning in this ultra-competitive region marks a significant accomplishment.

This is my third time as a member of the FWD chorus champion. My former chorus won back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, the second of which was contested on the very same Bakersfield stage. That last was a challenging time: KJ was first diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks prior to the contest, and she had just undergone the surgical phase of her treatment. I was inclined to stay home, but she insisted — vehemently, as I recall — that I make the trip anyway. When I arrived in downtown Bakersfield, the streetlights were festooned with banners reminding me that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As I said... a challenging time.

Now, eight years later, KJ accompanied me to the tailbone of the San Joaquin Valley. Despite her often excruciating physical limitations, we had a fine time. We witnessed an outstanding quartet contest, won by a stellar foursome called Masterpiece (my fellow Voice, Alan Gordon, is the baritone in this future International champion). KJ renewed several old acquaintances within the Voices in Harmony family. And of course, there was that District chorus championship business.

Most of our contingent lodged at the Doubletree Hotel, which happened also to be hosting a group of hot rod automobile enthusiasts who, like ourselves, were convening in Bakersfield over the weekend. It appeared to KJ and me that the local "professional women's community" (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) made a sizable profit entertaining the gents from the hot rod (no pun intended) convention. At the very least, the legitimate female companions of the hot rodders shop for their clothing and accouterments at the same purveyors that cater to the local "professional women's community." Suffice it to say that copious quantities of alcohol were consumed, and that a well-lubricated (no pun intended) time was enjoyed by these sons of the open road and their lady friends.

When we weren't in rehearsals, attending the contests, or stepping over inebriated courtesans in the hotel lobby, KJ and I managed to find several surprisingly decent places to eat in Bakersfield. If you happen to be passing through, we recommend that you stop in at any of these fine establishments:
  • Coconut Joe's Island Grill, a kitschy joint in a downtown shopping center that specializes in faux-Hawaiian "beach food." If you like Jimmy Buffett records and the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, you'll love this. Try the fish tacos — they're served with a delightfully tangy sauce that would probably render chunks of drywall edible.

  • J's Place, a funky little hole-in-the-wall that dishes up the tastiest Southern-style cooking I've had since the late, lamented Terry's closed up shop here in Santa Rosa. I ordered a bountiful plate of fried catfish that was as delicious as any I've eaten. KJ liked their enchilada special. I'm advised that the fried chicken and waffles are excellent, too.

  • Hodel's Country Dining, where we enjoyed a very respectable Sunday brunch. KJ's custom omelette was nicely prepared, and I enjoyed the quiche-like egg-and-cheese concoction enough to go back for seconds. Hodel's biscuits deserve their sterling regional reputation. Bonus points: Our waitress shared her first name with our daughter.
So that's the view of Bakersfield from my rear-view mirror.

If you happen to live (or are spending Thanksgiving weekend) in the Bay Area, and you'd like to kick off your Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa / Tet / insert-your-favorite-celebration-here season with the newly crowned Far Western District champions, buy your tickets now for our annual concert extravaganza, Unwrap the Holidays with Voices in Harmony. It's Saturday, November 29, at downtown San Jose's historic California Theatre. We've got music, we've got laughter, we've got glorious red tuxedos. Join us!

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Hot pants!

Today's Comic Art Friday is going to be performed James Brown style. That means I only have time to hit it and quit.

So let's hit it.

One of my favorite comic book reads last week was Supergirl #34. It's the book's first issue with its new creative team, writer Sterling Gates and artist Jamal Igle. Tough to be certain after just one issue, but so far, I like the direction that Gates and Igle have mapped out, both narratively and visually. Anything that takes Supergirl back to the fun and fascinating character she was in her 1970s heyday works for me.

Speaking of the '70s, artist Gene Gonzales shares my affection for Kara Zor-El, and for the costume she wore back in the Disco Age.

I love Jamal Igle's work, but if he ever gets tired of drawing Supergirl's adventures, Gene would be a fine next choice.

It was the late, great Godfather of Soul who once said, "Hot Pants — she got to use what she got to get what she wants." Perhaps the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business was a Supergirl fan, too.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.


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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The grapevine is silent

Norman Whitfield, one of the songwriter/producers who defined the Motown Sound in the 1960s and '70s, died yesterday. He was 68.

In case the magnitude of this loss to the musical community doesn't strike you immediately, here's a random (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of the hits Whitfield composed, usually in partnership with lyricist Barrett Strong (of "Money: That's What I Want" fame):
  • "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"
  • "Cloud Nine"
  • "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"
  • "I'm Losing You"
  • "I Wish It Would Rain"
  • "I Can't Get Next to You"
  • "Ball of Confusion"
  • "War"
  • "Smiling Faces Sometimes"
  • "Just My Imagination"
  • "Car Wash"
Not impressed yet? How about this?
  • "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
Yeah, I thought that would do it.

Whitfield and Strong were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. As you can see from the list above, they practically earned an entire wing all to themselves.

Thank you, Mr. Whitfield, for all of the legendary music, and the treasured memories that music evokes. The airwaves of my youth would have been an infinitely less interesting place without you.

And that's the name of that tune.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

A little music, Now and Then

One of the things that I hope our regular readers appreciate is that we don't often attempt to sell you stuff here at SSTOL.

We don't have ads on this blog — I'm not criticizing blogs that post ads, mind you; I'm merely observing that we don't — and I don't take up your valuable reading time by pitching products at you nonstop. Oh, sure, on occasion I'll mention a coffee I enjoy drinking or a great book that I've read, but I don't get a kickback if you run over to Starbucks or Amazon and buy something. We're just friends sharing information.

Today, however, is that rare day when I hope to persuade you to spend a few bucks. Fifteen, to be precise.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony — winners of a third-place bronze medal in International competition this past July 4th — is announcing the release of our debut CD, entitled Now and Then.

The album features an even dozen songs performed by northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus (it says so right on the CD jacket), spanning six decades of American popular music (it says that, too).

As added bonuses, the CD includes one cut each from two exceptional quartets: Realtime, the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Champions in 2005; and Late Show, whom I predict will be International Champions sometime in the not-too-distant future. (Memo to Late Show: I accept cash.)

Here's the track list:
  • Happy Together
  • Beyond the Sea
  • The Way We Were
  • Pieces of Dreams (Little Boy Lost)
  • Hey Good Lookin'
  • Surfer Girl (performed by Late Show)
  • There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here
  • This Is Some Lucky Day (with a guest appearance by Realtime)
  • And So It Goes
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
  • With a Little Help From My Friends (performed by Realtime)
  • Diane
  • Little Pal
  • In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town
As I've mentioned in this space previously, Now and Then was recorded at Lucasfilm's world-famous Skywalker Ranch, which means that the audio quality is nothing short of phenomenal. If you close your eyes and listen attentively, you can hear Wookiees trilling (or whatever it is that Wookiees do) on the low notes. Even if you've heard a cappella choral recordings before, trust me — you've not heard a blend quite like this. (Even my thoroughly average singing couldn't muck this up.)

Sadly, as much as I love every SSTOL reader, I can't afford to buy you each your own copy of Now and Then. (Unless your name is Donna and you live in Stephen King's backyard, in which case, yours is in the mail.) The good news is that for a mere fifteen simoleons (plus a nominal shipping and handling charge), you can buy a copy your own darn self. And I highly recommend that you do.

So skedaddle on over to the Voices in Harmony order site and slap down your plastic. (While you're there, you can listen to some enticing preview tracks from the album.)

Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you, and our ace fulfillment staff will... I don't know... wave a lightsaber over your CD before they mail it. Or something. Who cares? Just go buy one. You'll be gloriously ecstatic that you did. (We will, too.)

And may the Force be with you.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

Shocked, stunned, and saddened I am this morning to learn of the death of voiceover superstar Don LaFontaine, better known to millions of television viewers and movie attendees as "the Movie Trailer Guy." He was 68 years old.

LaFontaine's booming, gravelly, sonorous-yet-compelling voice graced literally hundreds of motion picture trailers and advertisements during his lengthy and lucrative career. And when I say "lucrative," I'm not just tossing around random adjectives. LaFontaine was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild as the single busiest actor in the history of the union, meaning that he fulfilled more contracts for acting work — and yes, voiceovers are acting — than any other member of SAG, an organization whose membership is 90 to 95 percent unemployed at any given moment.

The guy was so huge in the industry that he was driven in a chauffeured limousine to his voiceover jobs. Now that's stardom.

LaFontaine's celebrity grew to the point that Geico Insurance recently featured him on camera in one of its quirky commercials, in which he stood at a microphone in a woman's kitchen, providing his trademark commentary behind her tale of "Geico to the rescue." It was a fitting affirmation of the ubiquity LaFontaine had achieved in 21st century American popular culture.

Around our house, we often referred to LaFontaine as "the 'In a world...' guy," because so many of his trailers began with that trademark phrase... "In a world where evil triumphs..." "In a world where man fights for survival..." "In a world where life is cheap and death is expensive..."

The irony of LaFontaine's passing at this particular moment in time is that I've been listening to his work extensively in recent months. I haven't discussed this here much (if at all), but I'm currently studying voice acting, with a view toward a new career as a voiceover artist. Because LaFontaine resided at the pinnacle of the profession, I've been reviewing his demo reels (along with those of dozens of other voice actors) to learn the subtleties of his inflection, expression, and timing.

What I soon learned is that while LaFontaine was blessed with a magnificent natural instrument — you can't just pop over to Wal-Mart or Target and buy a voice like that — it was his skills as an actor that gave him transcendence. He understood how to turn a phrase perfectly, how to lean into (or back away from) a word to enhance its meaning, how to add character or clarity to his tone at just the right time and in just the right way. At the end of a Don LaFontaine trailer, you wanted to see that movie — and getting you to buy tickets was, after all, the man's job.

A few years ago, LaFontaine teamed up with four other voiceover artists who specialize in film trailers (John Leader, Nick Tate, Al Chalk, and Mark Elliott) for a fun bit of business entitled "Five Guys in a Limo." This hilarious short film offers both a clever slice of self-parody by LaFontaine and his colleagues, and a dramatic testimonial to the evocative power of the human voice. If you've never seen it, dash over to YouTube this very second and check it out.

In a world where true talent often struggles to be heard over the cacaphony of mediocrity, Don LaFontaine was The Voice. I admired his work. And I'll miss him.

(This post is not yet rated.)

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making love in a Subaru

You veteran dementians and dementites are now cackling with glee at the title reference.

The rest of you... at least I have your attention.

After weeks of peering through brochures, scanning countless Web sites, and fielding dozens of phone messages and e-mails from eager automotive salespeople, KJ bought her new car Monday night: a sage green 2009 Subaru Forester with all the bells and whistles, including a power moonroof, a six-CD stereo, and gray leather upholstery.

All together now: Oooooooooooh. Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

Needless to say, KJ's as giddy as a schoolgirl over her purchase. And I'm happy because she's happy. (We all know the song: "When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy.")

She negotiated the deal via e-mail. When the price was set, we trekked across the bridge to not-so-beautiful downtown Oakland, where a pleasant gentleman named Kay obtained our signatures on what seemed like reams of duplicate forms, gave us a tour of the dashboard as he fueled the car at a nearby gas station, swapped two sets of ignition keys and door remotes for the largest check KJ has ever written in her life, and sent us merrily on our way as Subaru owners.

And yes, it's a nice car. (I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial in which the late Fabio-tressed tennis hunk Vitas Gerulaitis chauffeured his aged father about in his snazzy new ride, only to hear the senior Mr. Gerulaitis say, "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas. Now when you are getting a haircut?")

For those of you still mystified by the title of this post, "Making Love in a Subaru" was a novelty record popularized way back when by cult radio personality Barrett Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento. The song, recorded by the good Doctor's frequent contributor and occasional sidekick Damaskas (whose real name, I'm told, is Dan Hollombe), extols the virtues of carnal pleasure as performed in the cramped confines of a 1970s-vintage Subaru.

Back in my high school days, I enjoyed many laughs over that song, because (a) that kind of puerile humor is hilarious to teenage boys, of which I was then one, and (b) my best friend at the time drove a Subaru — an oddly boxy little white vehicle with the then-novel feature of all-wheel drive.

Did my pal ever test the Damaskas theory? That, friend reader, is a tale best left untold, on the advice of my attorney.

As for KJ and I... let's just say that we're not in high school any more.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going to a hukilau

Among my delightful Father's Day gifts was a bag of this delectable new coffee from the Sign of the Mermaid: Starbucks Kopelani Blend.

According to the package, kopelani means "heavenly coffee" in Hawaiian. Although I've retained a fair amount of local-style pidgin from my childhood in the Islands, I can't vouch for the veracity of this translation. For all I know, kopelani means "empty your wallet" in the mother tongue.

Whatever the name means, this sure is some heavenly coffee. I'm celebrating my half-birthday with a gently steaming mug even as I type. (I believe the word is multitasking.)

Despite the Hawaiian handle, Starbucks Kopelani Blend contains only 10% Kona coffee, that savory varietal from the leeward shores of the Big Island. The balance of the beans comprise a blend of African and Latin American coffees, resulting in a tangy, fruity, slightly acidic flavor palate that's perfect for early-morning quaffing.

Kopelani Blend brews up light and aromatic, not at all overpowering. It's a pleasant accompaniment alongside your favorite breakfast fare, or just for smooth and easy sipping. It would make a nice, summery iced coffee, perhaps for serving at your next hukilau.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my ukelele awaits...

We'll throw our nets out into the sea
Where all the ama-ama come a-swimmin' to me
Oh, we're goin' to a hukilau
A huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

What I sacrifice for my music

Performing with the third-ranked men's a cappella chorus in the world is a mighty awesome avocation.

Every now and then, it conflicts with my other avocations.

For example, today (and tomorrow too, for that matter, but Sundays are always out for me anyway) is Super-Con, the second of the Bay Area's two huge annual comic book conventions. For a comics fanatic, and especially an original comic art collection, a con of this magnitude is as close to nirvana (the state of spiritual bliss, not the grunge band fronted by that guy who blew his brains out) as it gets. Last year at Super-Con, I picked up several amazing new commissions for my gallery.

This year, I'm singing.

Today, the two Northern California divisions of the Barbershop Harmony Society mount their regional competitions in beautiful downtown Stockton. (Remember Mudville, in the poem "Casey at the Bat"? That's the place. Yes, I'm excited too.)

My chorus, Voices in Harmony, will be one of 17 choruses in the contest, which also will showcase 24 male quartets. It's our first step toward next year's International competition, as well as our major tune-up for this year's International, coming up the first week of July in Music City USA. (That's Nashville, Tennessee, for the benefit of the culturally impaired among us.)

To all of my artist friends accustomed to welcoming my commission dollars at Super-Con each year, I'll miss you. I will especially miss acquiring fresh examples of your work to salivate over for years to come. Some of you I'll catch up with at WonderCon next February. Don't injure your drawing hands before then.

Although part of me regrets skipping the con, my heart knows the score. When I've gotta sing, I've just gotta sing. There is no substitute.

As I read on a T-shirt once...

Singing is life. Everything else is just details.

(Did you order your tickets yet for Voices in Harmony's upcoming concert, on Saturday, June 7, in San Jose? If not, you're ten steps behind all the cool kids, buckaroo. Score yourself some ducats today — it's the right thing to do.)

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bring me the head of Brian Dunkleman

Has this been the most tedious American Idol season in history, or what?

When this year's Top Twelve were announced — what seems like a geological epoch ago — I commented that this field seemed like the least interesting in the show's seven-year history.

Things haven't improved since.

But at least we're down to the final three, and that's something. No more false starts by Brooke White, no more dead-fish stares from Kristy Lee Cook, and as of last night, no more agonizingly soporific performances by Jason "I'm Too Sexy for My Dreadlocks" Castro.

Not that what we're left with is all that much better.

Syesha Mercado is the surprise pick in the remaining trio. I didn't expect Syesha, who's been in the bottom tier more consistently than almost anyone else this season, to survive anywhere close to this late in the contest. For my money, she's the most listenable of the three singers left, and she's not hard to look at, either. But she's never shaken her penchant for selecting ill-fitting material to perform, nor has she developed much of an engaging stage personality. As I sit here typing, I can't recall the title of a single song Syesha has sung. That's not a good sign. She'll probably be the next to depart.

David Archuleta — "Archie," as I like to call him — was everyone's early-season favorite to be anointed American Idol #7. The kid does zip for me personally. He sings pretty well, in a high school musical sort of way, but I can't say much else in his favor. He's awkward, uncomfortable to watch, and indefinably creepy in a manner that makes me fear for his household pets. If there's a market for Archie's recordings, I can't imagine of whom that market would consist. He doesn't have boy-band sex appeal, rock star charisma, or Broadway vocal power. As I said at the beginning, though, in this tepid field, I would still not be surprised if he won.

David Cook is, to my mind, the least of the three evils left. Alt-rocker Cook, who has outlasted the other Cook and one of the two other Davids in the Top Twelve, could best be described as Chris Daughtry-lite. I'm not sure why anyone would want Daughtry-lite when the real Daughtry is alive and well and appears to be doing just fine with his career, but there you go. Cook is the most talented of the Big Three, both in vocal skill and in ability to adapt effectively to a variety of material. Were I among the teeming millions who vote each week — and I can assure you that I am not — Cook would be the one whose digits I'd dial.

Looking at and listening to Syesha and the two Davids, I'm stunned that Idol — still the most popular show on television, despite a ratings slump this season — couldn't come up with a more potent final trio. Where's the Kelly Clarkson in this group? The Fantasia Barrino? The Taylor Hicks, for that matter? (Speaking of Taylor, I believe the last time I saw his face on Idol, it was backstage, on the side of a milk carton.)

In most of the show's previous seasons, even the second- and third-place contestants would have performed dervish-like circles around any of these three. Just imagine such Idol also-rans as Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, or the aforementioned Daughtry competing against this motley crew.

This snooze-inducing contest would already be over.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Amazin' armor

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 3, in case you're stumbling into the room a trifle late — is Free Comic Book Day.

Your participating local comics retailer will have on hand a selection of comic books from which you're welcome to choose, absolutely free of obligation. (If your retailer is really cool, he or she may even allow to pick up more than one.) The choices run the gamut from superheroes — the kind you've actually heard of, most likely — to kids' comics featuring Gumby or Disney characters, to Japanese manga. Such popular franchises as Superman, Archie, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and X-Men are represented in this year's offerings. You'll even find some stuff that's next to impossible to categorize. Whatever your taste in fantasy fiction or humor, you'll find something to like.

Do yourself a favor. Whether you're a long-time comics reader, or you haven't read a comic in a long time, or you've been on Earth for a long time and have never read a comic, swing by your participating local comics retailer tomorrow and snag a free comic or (if your retailer is really cool, like my local comic shop is) two. When you find one that interests you, take one more step: Ask your retailer, "If I like this, what else do you have that I might enjoy?" Then let her or him show you some options.

If you have a kid or two to accompany you, take 'em. What could it hurt? Worst case scenario: The kid gets a free book that ends up in the recycling bin. (You recycle, right?) Best case scenario: You've opened a door for a young person to experience the joys of reading, and visual storytelling, and sequential art appreciation.

Your Uncle Swan thinks that's not such a bad outcome.

Speaking of this weekend...

Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
As Iron Man, all jets ablaze
He fights and smites with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, he's Iron Man!
Ablaze in power, he's Iron Man!

Yes, the cinematic version of Iron Man premieres today, as you certainly know unless you've been living among the Amish for the past several months.

How excited am I about this? Excited enough to do something I never do — go to a theater on a film's opening day. Everything I've seen and heard about the film suggests that Iron Man will rank among the better cinematic representations of superheroes in recent years. The trailers have looked incredible, and Robert Downey Jr. couldn't be more perfectly cast as industrialist-slash-playboy Tony Stark, the man inside the famous red-and-gold supersuit.

As I related on a previous Comic Art Friday, Iron Man was one of my favorite Marvel heroes in my earliest days of comics reading. I still own the little hand-carved Pinewood Derby slot car, hand-painted gold with red accents, that I made nearly 40 years ago when I was a Cub Scout, that I nicknamed Iron Man.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for old Shellhead has dimmed considerably. Marvel's editorial department has seemed bent of late on destroying everything that made the character interesting and likable, in favor of portraying him as a ego-consumed, monomaniacal chump. I liked Tony a whole lot better when he lived in acute awareness of his own humanity, and didn't think he ruled the world.

Still looking forward to the movie, though!

An Iron Man film and a Free Comic Book Day... could a weekend get any better than this? Actually, it can.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony (currently ranked third internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society) begins its annual weekend retreat — we call it an Advance, because we never "retreat" — this evening, in preparation for this year's competition cycle. Three days of grueling work, but great fun nevertheless. (Have I mentioned yet that our first concert of 2008 is only a month away, on Saturday, June 7? Great seats still available!)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the still of the night

I just read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News, that Ronnie I has passed on.

Ronnie I (his last name was Italiano, but I never heard anyone refer to him as anything but Ronnie I) was a legend in a cappella music circles as the world's leading proponent of old-school, 1950s-style R&B vocal harmony — the kind of music you might call doo-wop.

You didn't call it that in front of Ronnie I.

Ronnie I didn't just love vocal harmony, he actively promoted it with his heart and soul. He owned a record store in New Jersey called Clifton Music, where he sold both old and new vocal harmony recordings. Clifton Music also recorded artists who might otherwise have remained unknown and unheralded, and provided an outlet for aficionados of the style to hear them. For many years, Ronnie hosted radio shows featuring his beloved music on several New York area stations. He founded the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA), an organization joining vintage-style vocal groups and their fans. Ronnie I and UGHA hosted frequent concerts that brought these musicians together.

I never met Ronnie I, but from all the stories I heard about him from within the a cappella community, I felt as though I knew him. He had a reputation for being crusty, hard-nosed, and single-minded. But no one doubted his passion for the music he championed.

Back in the '90s, Ronnie I was the director of the New York regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championship. If I recall correctly, he judged the finals, which are held at the Marin Civic Center on the first Saturday in May, on at least one occasion. (KJ and I had a 14-year streak of attending the finals broken two years ago, when she was too ill to go. I missed last year, and will miss again next Saturday, because my chorus now schedules its annual retreat on that weekend.)

My a cappella library boasts at least a couple of Clifton Music CDs, including a magnificent recording by a long-defunct quintet called Charm, whom Ronnie I considered one of the greatest R&B vocal groups in the history of the style. I'll have to dig that one out and give it a spin in Ronnie's memory.

Ronnie I succumbed following a long fight with liver cancer. His legacy will live on... because the music he loved will never die.

On a cheerier note, I understand from John Neal's blog that Sony Entertainment — my old friends via Jeopardy! — just purchased the rights to develop a reality show centered around the Harmony Sweepstakes, for which John — who has owned the Sweeps for the past dozen years or so — will be serving as a consultant. Congratulations, John!

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My stone gas tank runs dry

The final Train has left the station.

The 22nd Annual Soul Train Music Awards, scheduled for later this year, have been canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of both the public and the potential honorees.

Which should come as no surprise — Soul Train, that venerable television dance party, itself vanished from the airwaves two years ago.

Back in the day, Soul Train was, in its own hyberbolic words, "the hippest trip on television." It was a Saturday institution — impossibly limber dancers shaking what their mamas gave 'em to the latest R&B hits.

But what seemed ineffably cool in the swinging '70s had pretty much worn out its trendiness by the early '90s, even though the program chugged along on fumes for another decade or so. Train's creator and longtime host, Don Cornelius, bailed out a few years back, rendering the enterprise almost completely pointless.

In its time, though, Soul Train delivered a weekly dose of unstudied funkiness to TV sets across America. Everyone who was anyone in rhythm and blues — and its temporal offshoots soul, disco, and hip-hop — appeared on the Soul Train stage to lip-synch their latest releases. And was there a cool kid anywhere who didn't secretly long to take just one booty-swiveling boogie down the Soul Train line? Come on — you know you did.

Those days, alas, are forever gone.

Just the other day, as I was loading music onto my new mp3 player, I dug out my copy of Soul Train Hall of Fame, a three-CD box set released in 1994, encompassing 59 legendary R&B cuts made popular during the first 20 years of Soul Train's run.

A few of the track selections are questionable: Why, for example, was the Commodores' sappy ballad "Three Times a Lady" chosen, instead of the funk classic "Brick House"? Why is Prince's early career represented by the fun but lightweight "I Wanna Be Your Lover," instead of, say, any of the singles from the Purple One's most influential album, 1999? In the main, however, the collection provides a vivid, mostly danceable snapshot of the music that Soul Train pioneered.

From this abundance of musical treasures, the following are the ten that most make me want to get up off'a that thang.

1. "Cold Sweat" — James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business gets busy.

2. "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" — Parliament. Could we get George Clinton to run for President, instead of the other one?

3. "Jungle Love" — Morris Day and the Time. In a word: O-E-O-E-O.

4. "Bad Girls" — Donna Summer. Say what you will about the Queen of Disco, but she could rock a groove like nobody's business.

5. "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again" — L.T.D. One of the hottest jams ever recorded by a band named after a Ford sedan.

6. "I'm Every Woman" — Chaka Khan. Maybe not every woman, but woman enough.

7. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" — Tina Turner. Come on, Ike, answer that question.

8. "Word Up" — Cameo. Try to stand still when this one comes on. I dare you.

9. "O.P.P." — Naughty By Nature. Yeah, you know me.

10. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" — Lou Rawls. Forget side one of Led Zeppelin 4, guys. This is the track you put on when you want to impress the ladies.

Somewhere out there, Don "No Soul" Simmons is smiling.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

What's Up With That? #62: Ain't no party like an Uncle Sam party

Pop diva Alicia Keys opines that gangsta rap was created by the United States government as "a ploy to convince black people to kill each other."

Umm... what?

I'm trying to envision a collection of Caucasian policy wonks holed up in a bunker in Washington, D.C. writing the material for N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. The imagery just isn't working for me.

Even if we assume, for the sake of ludicrous argument, that shadowy figures at the Justice Department did in fact concoct the idea of gangsta rap, there's an element that I still don't comprehend:

How did the government persuade the performers who ostensibly began the gangsta rap phenomenon to begin recording this stuff?

Maybe the conversation went something like this...

FBI Guy: Hello, Mr. Ice-T. Thank you for meeting with us.

Ice-T: Whatever.

FBI Guy: Mr. Ice-T — may I call you Mr. T.?

Ice-T: Naw, man, that's the brother with the Mohawk and the bling. Just call me Ice.

FBI Guy: All right, Ice. Recognizing that you are a loyal American and a decent, law-abiding citizen, your federal government would like to make you the point man on a unique public relations project.

Ice-T: I'm listening.

FBI Guy: Your government is taking note of this hip-hop — do I have the term correct? — business that's all the rage with the young African-Americans these days. We believe there's a wonderful opportunity here to accomplish something very special for this country, and for the black community in particular, utilizing this exciting medium. And we would like for you to take a leading role.

Ice-T: What do I have to do?

FBI Guy: Our crack staff — no pun intended, Ice — has been composing some funky-fresh — did I say that properly? — lyrical material for the hip-hop genre, which we want you to record. We believe that if you were to make this material popular with the African-American youth, other performers would follow suit.

Ice-T: A'ight. Lemme see what you got. (Pause.) "Six in the mornin', police at my door..." Are you kidding me, man? (Another pause.) "Cop Killer"? What the [expletive deleted] is this?

FBI Guy: We realize that some of this material may seem — how should I put it? — extreme. However, it's our position that...

Ice-T: This crap has me advocating the murder of police officers! Man, some of my best friends are cops!

FBI Guy: I know, it sounds somewhat counterintuitive. But...

Ice-T: I can't record this. It'll incite people to violence. I'm a lover, not a "cop killer."

FBI Guy: Ice, are you familiar with the concept of reverse psychology? That's what we're going for here.

Ice-T: I don't know, man. This seems like crazy talk.

FBI Guy: This isn't crazy, Ice. It's your federal government at work. Some of the brightest minds in Washington are hard at work on this project.

Ice-T: Whatever. So what's in all this for me, man?

FBI Guy: International fame and a multimillion-dollar recording career, for starters.

Ice-T: You gotta give me more than that. I'll lose all my friends in the 'hood once they find out I'm working for The Man.

FBI Guy: How would you feel about a permanent costarring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?

Ice-T: Dick Wolf? I'm down.

FBI Guy: You're a true patriot, Ice.

Ice-T: Whatever.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Arranger, unlimited

I was saddened to read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News blog, that Gene Puerling, the legendary vocal artist, composer, and arranger, passed away last week.

Anyone who loves vocal jazz knows Gene Puerling's work. He first came to renown in the 1950s as founder, arranger, and musical director of the seminal vocal group, the Hi-Lo's. The Hi-Lo's (named for the group's top-to-bottom vocal ranges, as well as the strikingly disparate heights of its members) enjoyed enduring popularity until they parted company in the 1960s, though they reunited to record from time to time as late as the 1990s.

In 1967, Puerling formed one of the most amazing singing ensembles ever created: the Singers Unlimited. Using only four vocalists — tenor and former Hi-Lo Don Shelton, bass Len Dresslar, Puerling himself at baritone, and the incredible Bonnie Herman singing all of the female parts, sometimes as many as 30 in a single recording — pioneered multitracking at a time when almost no one in the recording industry outside of four guys from Liverpool was making music in that way. Puerling brought the Singers Unlimited together to record advertising jingles and commercials; however, the foursome also recorded a series of magnificent albums that stand as classics of vocal jazz.

The Singers Unlimited's A Cappella and Christmas are two of my favorite albums ever. You haven't fully appreciate all of the ways that human voices can be combined until you've heard the amazing harmonies of Puerling, Shelton, Dresslar, and Herman layered together on the Beatles' Michelle and Fool on the Hill.

Perhaps no other musician in the contemporary idiom lent as much to the art of vocal arranging as did Gene Puerling. Groups such as the Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, and Take 6 owe their intricate approach to harmony to the work Puerling created for the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, as well as numerous other artists. His spectacular a cappella arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," written for and recorded by the Manhattan Transfer, won a Grammy in 1981. Puerling received a total of 14 Grammy nominations during his five-decade career.

I had an opportunity to meet Gene Puerling a few years ago, during one of his appearances as a judge at the finals of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championships. It was just a fleeting moment — we actually passed one another at the entrance to the men's room. (No, we did not shake hands.)

For fans of vocal music, Puerling leaves behind a tremendous legacy. It's fair to say that the contemporary a cappella movement would not exist without his influence — not, at least, in its present form and style.

You'll find an excellent interview with Puerling here. (Scroll about halfway down the page.)

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hey, Nineteen!

My daughter KM is 19 today.

Nineteen is my lucky number. My daughter is most certainly the luck of my life. Great student (Dean's High Honors in her first semester of college), excellent horsewoman (with a wall filled with ribbons to prove it), solid citizen (beloved by all who know her), and all-around wonderful person ('cause I said so).

KJ and I could not have bargained for a better kid.

Which reminds me of a Steely Dan number...
Hey Nineteen
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growing old...
KM does, in fact, remember the Queen of Soul, who just happens to share her birthday.

Happy birthday, Aretha.

And happy birthday to you, Punkin. May my God and yours grant you long life and good days.

You go, Supergirl!

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Your Idol Top Twelve, America

Yeah, yeah, I know... I've usually weighed in on the season's American Idol contestants long before we get down to the Deadly Dozen.

But I've gotta be honest here.

As much as Seacrest and the Gang of Three keep pounding us every week with the proposition that this year's cast is "the most talented ever," I'm just not seeing it. Oh, there's some talent in the bunch, as we'll discuss in a moment, but seriously, this is the most charisma-challenged collection of wannabe Idols since... well... last season, when a freaky kid who couldn't sing a lick ran far deeper into the competition than he ever should have, simply because he was mildly interesting amid a tepid field.

This season, we don't even have Sanjaya to kick around any more.

In Idol's best cycles, it's had drama. Sometimes, that drama derived from a clash of similar styles — as in Season Three, when a trio of massive-voiced R&B divas (LaToya London, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and 2007 Academy Award honoree Jennifer Hudson) vied for the crown. At other times, the drama surrounded a coterie of equally likable contestants with disparate, but roughly equal, talents — the triumvirate of Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken, and ultimate victor Ruben Studdard in Season Two; the four-headed popularity contest between Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, and winner Taylor Hicks in Season Five.

Alas, no drama tonight.

So far this season, it's tough to build much enthusiasm about any of the hopefuls, each of whom is bland and vanilla in her or his own bland, vanilla way. I can't imagine wanting to download a single, much less an entire album's worth of material, by any performer in the Class of '08.

But since we here at SSTOL never permit overwhelming ennui to stand in the way of blogging, we press ahead. Wiping the sleep gunk from our crusty eyelids, let's review the Top Twelve for Idol Season Seven. We'll take 'em in — oh, what the heck — reverse alphabetical order, so as not to impose upon the (yawn) suspense.

Brooke White. As exciting as her name. A perky blonde Mormon kid from Arizona — with all the thrill potential that impliezzzzz... — Brooke is one of the contestants leveraging the new-for-'08 rule permitting performers to play their own instruments onstage. We've seen her tickle the ivories during Hollywood Week, and strum her way through a downbeat cover of Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" on guitar. What we haven't seen is even a modicum of personality. Brooke can sing just fine, but man, is she boring. Her skills and the Rocky Mountain LDS voting block should keep her in contention for the top five.

Carly Smithson. Irish-born chanteuse Carly is one of several "ringers" in this year's field — contestants who've previously signed recording contracts, and, in Carly's case, recorded at least one major-label album (2001's MCA Records release Ultimate High, recorded under her maiden name Carly Hennessey). (I know — this seems antithetical to Idol's entire "discovering unknown talent" concept. But I just report the facts.) Carly, in fact, passed the Idol audition phase back in Season Five, but was unable to continue in the competition due to visa problems. Not surprisingly, Carly is the most polished performer of the finalists. She'll steamroll her way at least into the top three.

Amanda Overmyer. Perhaps the only real surprise in the Top Twelve, Amanda's a raspy-voiced rocker chick — think Janis Joplin without the heart or nuance, and with a hideous faux-Goth makeover. She really can't sing very well — her rendition of one of my favorite '70s classics, Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son," made my eardrums scream for mercy — and her stony-faced demeanor is off-putting, to say the least. Amanda found her niche last week, however, with an acceptable cover of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I'll be shocked if she lasts long enough to make the Idol summer tour, which traditionally features the top ten finalists.

Syesha Mercado.
In most seasons, Idol serves up a plethora of female hopefuls who appear to believe they're the next Whitney Houston. This year, there's only one diva: Syesha (it's pronounced Cy-EE-sha). She's got a decent enough voice, but has a penchant for abominable song selection — she growled a hideous version of "Tobacco Road" a couple of weeks back, and delivered an oddly gender-flipped rearrangement of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Purely from an aesthetic perspective, I hope Syesha sticks around a while — she's the most attractive of the female contestants, in a year when attractiveness is in short supply — but she'll have to pick more effective material. She's a mid-round elimination at best.

Ramiele Malubay. This year's edition of Season Three's Jasmine Trias, Ramiele is a petite Asian-American girl who'll pick up a lot of what I call the "stuffed animal" vote — she's the cutest and cuddliest member of the cast, and ratchets up her adorability factor by bawling uncontrollably whenever a fellow contestant is eliminated. In her defense, however, Ramiele can also sing, with a startlingly powerful voice encased in so diminutive a package. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see her in the top half of the draw.

Michael Johns. Like Carly, Michael's another of the ringers — he was twice signed to Madonna's record label, albeit without actually releasing an album — and also like Carly, a candidate to be American Idol's first non-American-born Idol (he's an Aussie from Perth, and even bears some slight resemblance to his late homeboy, Heath Ledger). He is, if I'm not mistaken, the oldest-ever Idol finalist at age 29, and he could easily pass for a decade older. He's a talent, but after the Taylor Hicks fiasco of two seasons ago, I suspect that Idol's producers will undermine his chances at every turn. Middle of the pack, most likely.

David Hernandez. One of three Davids in the Top Twelve, David H. is this year's sex-scandal Idol. Prior to his moment in the television spotlight, he worked as a stripper and lap-dance provider at a gay bar in Phoenix — an establishment bearing the none-too-subtle moniker "Dick's Cabaret." Unlike the fabled Frenchie Davis of Season Two, who was booted from the show when news came to light that she had posed nude for a pornographic Web site, David H. has been given a free pass by Idol's producers. He won't last more than a couple of weeks, though — he's not much of a singer, and — surprisingly, given his background — he's not a very captivating performer, either.

Chikezie Eze. The only male soul singer in this season's cast, Chikezie (who, in the manner of Fantasia and Mandisa before him, appears to have deep-sixed his surname somewhere on the way to the finals) seems like a nice fellow. Unfortunately, that affability is all that he has going for him here. His vocal style approximates that of the late Luther Vandross in the later years of that legend's life, but Chikezie doesn't have Luther's ability or charisma. He'll be a candidate for the exit every week until he's gone, which will probably be soon.

Kristy Lee Cook. Yet another ringer: Kristy was signed by BMI Records in 2001. No less a celebrity than the now-notorious Britney Spears showed up for a cameo in Kristy's first music video — a video that earned the country singer from Oregon the nickname "KKKristy" in online forums, as she performs a portion of her number standing in front of a Confederate flag. The second coming of Kellie Pickler — only with even less talent, if you can imagine that's possible — Ms. Cook will likely draw some niche votes from country fans, but not enough to propel her higher than eighth or ninth.

David Cook. The field's most identity-challenged contestant, in that he shares his surname with one of his competitors and his given name with two others. I'll confess that I didn't think much of David C. the first couple of weeks of competition — to me, he sounds pretty much like a dozen other grunge rockers I could name, and a zillion more no one could name — but he impressed me last week with an arrestingly good alt-rock remake of Lionel Richie's "Hello." (I would not have thought it possible to do a listenable alt-rock cover of a Lionel Richie song, but I learn new things all the time.) If David C. can keep pulling that kind of rabbit out of his musical hat, he'll stick around for a few weeks.

Jason Castro. Dreadlocked Jason vaulted from obscurity last week with a gorgeous, sensitive rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the most familiar cover of which was recorded by Jeff Buckley (literally hundreds of other singers have recorded the song also). As with David Cook before him, Jason needs this level of artistry to break loose every week, because before this, I was sneaking a bathroom break every time he stepped on stage.

David Archuleta. Young David A. is problematic — he's an unquestionably talented kid (he also competed, and won, on the revival of Star Search a few years back) who wouldn't appear to have much, if indeed any, potential as a popular recording artist. His is the sort of musical performance ability that would have, in an earlier generation, made him an ideal candidate for The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney, Justin, and the rest. But unless he's hiding some serious Timberlake in his hip pocket, he'll spend his career singing in cruise ship lounges and theme parks. (Not that that's a bad thing.) I would not be surprised if David A. survived until the final round. I would not even be shocked if he won. I just can't imagine him selling many CDs.

So there you have it, America. Vote early, and vote often. We'll check back in a few weeks to see who's still standing.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Seeing the light at last

I was totally bummed to learn of the death yesterday of guitarist Jeff Healey.

Blinded in infancy by a rare form of retinal cancer, Healey battled the deadly disease throughout his 41 years of life.

During that time, he also made some spectacular music. His 1988 album, See the Light, combined Healey's unique guitar stylings — he played with the instrument lying flat across his lap, and strummed it sideways — with his raw, blues-edged vocals.

Viewers of late-night cable remember Healey's appearance in the B-movie classic, Road House, in which the hard-rocking musician was featured as Cody, the leader of the title establishment's house band. Healey's musical numbers were the best thing about that improbable, yet oddly compelling, little piece of cinema magic... unless you're into Patrick Swayze's sweat-sheened pecs. But that's not how I roll.

In recent years, Healey had gravitated toward jazz, releasing a string of well-received albums in that genre. (Uncle Swan's favorite: the 2006 release It's Tight Like That.) His latest recording, however, reportedly marked a return to his blues-rock roots. Mess of Blues will be released next month, and you've gotta know I'll pick up a copy.

Jeff Healey leaves behind a wife, two children, and a legion of fans, among whom I'm proud to be counted.

Rest in peace, blind man.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

My dinner with George (Lucas)

Okay, full disclosure...

I didn't actually have dinner with George Lucas.

Or lunch.

Or breakfast.

I've never even met George Lucas. (I did once ride the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland with Maclean Stevenson, but that's a story for another time.)

I did, however, spend last Saturday in the mammoth soundstage recording studio at Lucas's fabled Skywalker Ranch, tucked away in the hills of bucolic western Marin County. My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, just like it says on my official coffee mug — is enjoying the privilege of recording our debut CD (entitled Now and Then, and available for advance purchase, if you're so inclined) at Skywalker Sound.

Over the years, I've known a number of folks who worked at the Lucasfilm complex — none of whom are either space aliens or robots, so far as I can tell — so I was aware going in that the Skywalker Ranch experience would be nowhere near as visually amazing as the kajillion-award-winning film and recording output of the place might suggest. Just to quell a few rumors:
  • The security guard at the front gate does not wear a Stormtrooper's white armor. (I did, however, use my Jedi mental powers to persuade him that my van's passengers and I were not the droids he was looking for.)

  • The crosswalk signs do not read, "Caution: Wookiee Zone."

  • The soundstage does not resemble the Imperial Hall of Alderaan — from the exterior, it looks like a decrepit old winery — and, sad to tell, is not staffed by slave girls in gold metal bikinis. (Although it was Saturday, so the slave girls might have had the day off.)

  • Our audio engineer did not carry a lightsaber, or wear a rebreathing helmet.

  • The only Ewok in evidence was a diminutive, furry-faced fellow standing in our baritone section, and I'm pretty certain he came with us.
Prosaic accoutrement aside, our initial recording experience was still powerful and awe-inspiring. Anyone who loves the cinema couldn't help but "feel a stirring in the Force" while standing in the vast hall where so many memorable orchestral scores have been performed. Looking up at the studio's great movie screen, I could imagine our voices — like a Greek chorus of the Aristotelian period — providing dramatic background for some epic battle sequence between the defenders of truth and the purveyors of evil. (Or perhaps Spaceballs: The Musical.)

The last time I recorded with a chorus, we were 40 men crammed into a narrow bandbox of a joint tiled with carpet remnants. We were lucky to create two or three usable takes in a day's labor. On Saturday, the 85 of us — under the guiding hand of one of the world's most accomplished choral conductors — generated celestial sound that, I'm sure, had angels harmonizing along. We laid down half the tracks for a 16-song CD that would be an insane bargain at five times the cover price. (Hint, hint.)

As we departed the legendary confines of Skywalker Ranch at the end of an exhausting yet productive and enormously gratifying day — our voices weary, our lower extremities in agony, but with rapture in our hearts — I reflected upon the wonder of our communal experience. Making music with a group of talented and like-minded folks truly delivers an ineffable satisfaction to the inner being. I wish you all could have been part of it.

I wish Mr. Lucas could have been part of it, too, but I'm guessing that he was otherwise engaged. His organization is currently busy filming the third Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel. (I think it's called Indiana Jones and the Comfortable Recliner.) Had he been present, I'm certain that he would have been moved.

I know I was.

Is that a tear in my eye...

...or just the sunlight reflecting off the ice fields of Hoth?

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Bombs away, dream babies

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of John Stewart, the singer-songwriter who passed away last Saturday at the age of 68.

Stewart was most familiar to music aficionados as a member of the seminal folk group, the Kingston Trio, with whom he performed in the early to middle 1960s, and as the composer of the pop standard "Daydream Believer," a hit for both The Monkees and Canadian songstress Anne Murray.

For me, though, the quintessential John Stewart recording was his 1979 solo album, Bombs Away Dream Babies, with its Top Ten single, "Gold." ("Midnight Wind," from the same album, was a pretty decent tune, also.) The album features stellar backing vocals by Stevie Nicks, and guitars by her Fleetwood Mac (and one-time real-life) mate, Lindsey Buckingham.

As a college radio DJ in the early '80s, I gave that platter frequent enough airplay that Stewart's label should have slipped me payola. (First Dan Fogelberg, now John Stewart — I am burning through my street cred at a horrifying rate.) I was mildly surprised to learn from his obits that Stewart lived just down the freeway from me, in Marin County, for the last several years of his life.

Bombs Away Dream Babies may very well be one of the five or six coolest album titles ever. So cool, in fact, I swiped it for this next installment in my Common Elements comic art series.

Artist Andy Smith, who contributed some sensational pencils to a Red Sonja/Claw the Unconquered crossover miniseries a while back, brings together two of comics' greatest "dream babies." That's the improbably monikered Horatio Hellpop — better known as the cosmic superhero Nexus — at left. His fetching companion is Nura Nal, the precognitive heroine whose Legion of Super-Heroes code name is Dream Girl.

Like the rest of her Legion teammates, Dream Girl has been a fixture in comics since the early 1960s. Although she's one of the least imposing Legionnaires — to be honest, the ability to see the future in dreams isn't exactly the most scintillating superpower — she's retained her position as a mainstay of the popular squad for more than four decades. And finally, after years of snore-inducing, solid white costumes, she's finally obtained a visually interesting uniform — the cloud-themed ensemble Andy Smith depicts in his drawing above.

The creation of writer Mike Baron and artist Steve "The Dude" Rude, Nexus is a young man living in the far-flung future who receives amazing superpowers in exchange for bringing the galaxy's mass murderers to justice. Horatio experiences painful nightmares about his intended targets' crimes that only subside when the evildoers are executed by the powers of Nexus. It sounds a lot darker than it actually plays — Baron and Rude infuse the material with a propulsive sense of fun and wonder, and never take themselves (or their hero) too seriously.

One of comics' most recognizable stylists, Steve Rude has become something of a legend in the industry with his dramatic line and clutter-free design sense. That combination is evident in this commission Rude created for me a couple of years ago, pitting Mary Marvel against an onslaught of guided missiles. Bombs away, Mary!

Rude's work is heavily influenced by such artists as Jack Kirby, and especially by Alex Toth, to whose Space Ghost character Nexus bears some (not entirely unintentional) resemblance — as you can see in this Common Elements drawing by Scott Rosema, in which Space Ghost appears alongside the Western hero Ghost Rider.

Nexus, incidentally, is that extreme rarity in comics — an independently distributed, creator-owned superhero comic that's both well-reviewed and reasonably successful. Nexus's adventures first began appearing in the early 1980s, ran more or less regularly for a decade (with an occasional shift in publishers), then resurfaced periodically throughout the '90s. Baron and Rude relaunched the series last year after a lengthy hiatus. They also just reissued Nexus's origin story — a great way to introduce new readers to this terrific character.

And that, dream babies, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas, dream babies

With sincere good will (at least, as sincere and good as we get around here), I wish each and every SSTOL reader and his or her loved ones the happiest, healthiest, and most joyous of Christmases.

I can't say it any better than did Mel Tormé — the renowned vocalist nicknamed The Velvet Fog — and his songwriting partner Bob Wells, all those years ago...
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,
Jack Frost nipping at your nose,
Yuletide carols being sung by a choir,
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey and some mistletoe,
Help to make the season bright.
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow,
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa's on his way;
He's loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.
And every mother's child is going to spy,
To see if reindeer really know how to fly.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase,
To kids from one to ninety-two,
Although it's been said many times, many ways,
Merry Christmas to you.
Or, in the words of Tiny Tim Crachit, "God bless us, every one!"

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Yet another auld lang syne

So much for the '70s... and the early '80s, too.

Dan Fogelberg has left the planet.

I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I both owned and enjoyed Dan Fogelberg albums back in the day. (So did you. Admit it. Just try and convince me that you're not recalling that dusty copy of Twin Sons of Different Mothers — Fogelberg's hit collaboration with flautist Tim Weisberg, featuring the most ambiguously gay album cover ever attached to a record by two straight guys — at this very moment.)

Call me a wimpy, flaccid girly-man if you will, but I dug Fogelberg's plaintive singing and his simplistic guitar stylings. Plus, I'm a sucker for a song that tells a story, whether it's Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band" or "Another Old Lang Syne," or Young MC's "Bust a Move." I appreciate lyrics that take me somewhere and give me cause to reflect, and Fogelberg's songs did just that.

Not everything Fogelberg ever recorded was elevator music, despite the numerous wisecracks made at his expense by stand-up comics. My favorite Fogelberg song is "The Power of Gold," an uptempo riff on the seductive influence of filthy lucre:
Balance the cost of the soul you lost
With the dreams you lightly sold
Then tell me
That you're free
Of the power of gold.
"Part of the Plan," from Fogelberg's album Souvenirs — produced by rock guitar legend Joe Walsh — is a pretty tasty rocker, too.

In one of my earliest experiences in ensemble singing, I performed in a mixed octet whose repertoire mixed religious music with contemporary ballads. (We sang at a lot of weddings. Funerals, too.) When we covered Dan Fogelberg's "Longer" — a popular wedding staple back in the day — I sang the high harmonies. I can feel my Fruit of the Looms cinching up even now, as I think about it.

Dan Fogelberg has been battling prostate cancer for the past three years. His battle ended at age 56.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007

And the boss don't mind sometimes if you act a fool

A woman in Syracuse, New York, spent three days in a hospital after her dentist broke a drill bit in her skull while dancing to the theme from Car Wash.

Needless to say, litigation ensued.

As patient Brandy Fanning was undergoing preparation for an emergency tooth extraction at the Syracuse Community Health Center, the dentist — Dr. George Trusty — got his Rose Royce groove on. According to Fanning's lawsuit, Dr. Trusty "performed rhythmical steps and movements to the song 'Car Wash.'"

The boogie-down continued until Dr. Trusty (who, at least on this occasion, was not) snapped off the tip of his drill into the roof of Fanning's mouth. Trusty's efforts to extract the drill bit with a metal hook only succeeded in jamming the bit deeply into the sinuses behind Fanning's left eye socket. Emergency surgery saved the eye, but the patient continues to suffer "facial swelling, nerve damage and chronic infections," according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, in the afterlife, Richard Pryor is laughing his head off over this.

Car Wash is one of those "traffic light" movies for me. I've seen it dozens of times, but anytime I'm surfing the tube late at night and it's playing on some cable channel, I can't help but stop and watch, at least for a few minutes.

Although the music and styles in director Michael Schultz's now 30-year-old flick show the ravages of time, the many humorous moments remain as funny as ever, with the cast of colorful characters still engaging:
  • T.C. (stand-up comic Franklyn Ajaye), the lovestruck dreamer with the humongous Afro who imagines himself a superhero called The Fly...

  • Lonnie (former Hogan's Heroes costar Ivan Dixon), the senior employee struggling to rebuild his life after a criminal past...

  • Duane — pardon me... Abdullah (actor-director Bill Duke), the angry Muslim who attracts constant ridicule from his less-serious coworkers ("Say, brother... is ribs pig?")...

  • Lindy (Antonio Fargas, mack daddy Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch), the flaming gay stereotype...

  • Floyd and Lloyd (Darrow Igus of the '80s sketch comedy show Fridays, and Dewayne Jessie, the unforgettable Otis Day in National Lampoon's Animal House), who imagine themselves the second coming of the Temptations — despite the fact that they are undermanned and undertalented...

  • Marsha (Melanie Mayron, who went on to a successful career as a director), the lonely cashier who's having an uninspiring affair with the car wash's married owner (character actor Sully Boyar)...

  • The cabbie (comedy legend George Carlin, added to the cast to give the film more name recognition), who wanders through the movie looking for the "tall, black, blonde hooker" (Lauren Jones) who skipped out on a fare...

  • Dueling pranksters Goody (Henry Kingi, founder of the Black Stuntmen's Association and one-time husband of Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner) and Chuco (Pepe Serna, sidekick Reno Nevada in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai)...

  • ...and of course, money-grubbing televangelist Daddy Rich (Pryor, who later admitted that he was coked out of his gourd while filming his only scene) and his backup singers, the Wilson Sisters (the real-life Pointer Sisters).
Who'd ever guess that this hip urban screenplay was written by the terminally Caucasian Joel Schumacher, who went on to direct such varied films as the classic horror spoof The Lost Boys, the biopic thriller Veronica Guerin, the Vietnam War drama Tigerland, and the screen version of The Phantom of the Opera — as well as such abysmal dreck as 8MM, Bad Company, Phone Booth, and the synapse-dulling Batman & Robin?

Brandy Fanning probably thinks that Dr. Trusty is a refugee from a film Schumacher had nothing to do with: Marathon Man.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'm shakin', baby

Hey, that was some earthquake last night. Of course, they'd schedule a quake epicentered in San Jose on the one night of the week when I happen to be in that fair city.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony, was about a half-hour into rehearsal (my carpool buddy and I arrived late, because traffic on the Nimitz Freeway sucked) when the temblor struck. We'd just finished breakout sessions for the four voice parts, and were just returning to the risers when we heard a low boom that sounded like nearby thunder. Immediately, the entire building started vibrating. The risers swayed crazily beneath my feet — I probably looked as though I were surfing as I attempted to hold my balance.

Our esteemed director, a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, was standing beneath a chandelier as the quake rocked the house. Fortunately, one of our members had the presence of mind to grasp him gently by the shoulders and guide him out of potential danger.

No harm befell either our singers or our rehearsal venue. Being the consummate musical professionals that we are, we continued on with the evening as though nothing had happened.

This magnitude-5.6 shock was easily the strongest seismic action I've felt since the infamous Loma Prieta quake that interrupted the World Series between the Giants and A's. A little exciting, a little fun even, but only as long as no one gets hurt.

Just serves as a reminder that in our part of the world, the terra isn't always as firma as it might appear.

Speaking of Voices in Harmony...

If you're in or near the Bay Area, the best tickets to our two spectacular holiday concerts are already flying out the door. Pop over to our official Web site and purchase your ducats while the getting is still good.

We'll be headlining at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center on Sunday, December 2, with our special guests, the UC Berkeley Men's Chorale; and at San Jose's splendiferous California Theater on Sunday, December 16, with our special guests, the Menlo Brass Quintet. (We're not planning any earthquakes, honest.)

Ain't no party like a VIH party, so bring your family and friends to see and hear northern California's world-class men's a cappella chorus (currently ranked third Internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society).

We now return you to our post-earthquake coverage, already in progress.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Unclear on the concept of "boys"

Here's the stupidest (yes, I know that "most stupid" is correct; sometimes, you've got to fight fire with fire) thing anyone not employed by the Bush administration has said this week, courtesy of Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys:
We were never a boy band. We always thought of ourselves as a white vocal harmony group... Maybe things started off a little boy band-ish but after a while you shed that.
Hey, Nick: "Boy band-ish"? The name of your group is Backstreet Boys, slick. If you look up "boy band" in the Oxford English Dictionary, there's a picture of you, AJ, Brian, Howie, and Kevin in all your Tiger Beat glory.

Saying the Backstreet Boys were never a boy band is a little like saying the Supremes were never a girl group, or the Village People were never gay icons.

Now, Nick, if you said, "We were never talented," or "We were the Pat Boone of the '90s," or "People confuse us with N*SYNC," that I might believe.

Otherwise, shut up, you boy band singer, you.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Kisses and love won't carry me 'til you marry me, Bill

We just got home from the supermarket a little while ago, and now "Wedding Bell Blues" is stuck in my head.

Thanks a ton, Muzak.

The awesome reality about this song, of course, is that Marilyn McCoo — who sang the lead vocal on the classic 5th Dimension hit — and Billy Davis, Jr. — the "Bill" of the plaintive line, "Come on and marry me, Bill!" — actually did get married in 1969, a few months after the song was released, and are still (allegedly happily) married 38 years later.

Ain't love grand?

Still doesn't help me get this doggoned song out of my head, though.

Although many people presume that McCoo and/or Davis wrote "Wedding Bell Blues," given how inextricably entwined with their professional and personal lives the song has become over the past four decades, it's actually the work of the tremendously talented Laura Nyro, also the creative genius behind such standards as "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Sweet Blindness," and "Save The Country," also recorded by the 5th Dimension; Three Dog Night's "Eli's Coming"; and the unforgettable "And When I Die," made famous by David Clayton Thomas and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

It's one of the great tragedies of modern music that Nyro, perhaps one of the most brilliant composer/lyricists of the pop era, remains largely unknown today, for two reasons: (1) most of her better-known songs are more closely associated with other artists who covered them, as is the case with "Wedding Bell Blues"; and (2) she disliked performing in public — and particularly on television — and thus was not seen and appreciated as a performer by all that many people. Despite this relative anonymity, Nyro is frequently cited as an influence by musicians as diverse as Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell, and Alice Cooper.

Laura Nyro died of ovarian cancer in 1997, at the age of 49.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

I was standing on a corner in Phoenix, Arizona

Notes from my weekend junket to the Valley of the Sun with my chorus, Voices in Harmony:
  • My first observation about Phoenix, from the air approaching Sky Harbor International Airport: Brown. Everything is brown. The land is brown. The buildings are mostly brown. Would it be too much to ask to broaden the color palette just a touch?

  • High marks for the Wyndham Phoenix Hotel. My 18th-floor room was nicely laid out and well appointed. I especially liked the bathroom, with its separated vanity and toilet/shower areas, full-length mirror (mighty handy when one is donning a tuxedo), and spacious closet with ample hangers. The bed may have been the most comfortable I've found in a hotel. All of the staff I dealt with were friendly and helpful. The one meal I ordered from room service arrived in a timely fashion, and was palatable to boot. My sole request: More (and faster) elevators to the guest rooms, please.

  • The Wyndham has a Starbucks right in the lobby — that's a gold star all by itself. In case you were curious, a vanilla latte at Starbucks tastes exactly the same no matter where in the world you drink it.

  • My hotel room window overlooked the Chase Tower, Arizona's tallest building, across the street. In its mirrored windows, I could watch jet aircraft landing and taking off.

  • I was surprised by the number of homeless people wandering the streets of downtown Phoenix. (Almost as many as in San Francisco. But not quite.) Although, after I thought about it, this made perfect sense. If you had to sleep outdoors, where would you rather do it: in Phoenix, where it's dry and warm (if not downright hot) most nights during the year, or, say, Minneapolis?

  • For a city relatively close to the border, I would have expected to find better Mexican cuisine in downtown Phoenix. Both of the meals I had in Mexican restaurants, however, were unimpressive. If I had a ballista in my backyard, I could hurl a boulder and hit three or four better Mexican joints.

  • Phoenix Symphony Hall makes an excellent venue both for performing and for enjoying a performance. Attractive environment, great acoustics, and surprisingly comfortable seats.

  • If you want to know what's really going on in a community, read the alternative weekly newspaper. Phoenix has a terrific one: Phoenix New Times. (So does Sonoma County, by the way. The folks at the North Bay Bohemian do an outstanding job.) Although I have to admit, I didn't know that a single locale could boast as many adult entertainment options as are advertised in the back pages of the Phoenix New Times. I suppose that when you live in a city where it's hot most of the year, it's easy to find people who are eager to get naked.

  • The best business to be in right now, apparently: Urban infrastructure. In both of the major cities I've visited in the past few months — Denver, and now Phoenix — half the streets in the downtown area are undergoing major construction. Somebody's making a killing in that racket.

  • The big story in Phoenix over the weekend: A would-be traveler wigged out at Sky Harbor Airport on Friday, after arriving late for her US Airways flight and being denied opportunity to board the already-departing plane. The 45-year-old woman from New York City later died while in police custody. I hereby affirm that I personally did nothing to provoke this incident.

  • On my flight coming home, I ran into the world's greatest vocal percussionist and live-looper — the astoundingly gifted Andrew Chaikin, better known these days as Kid Beyond. The Kid and I hadn't crossed paths since he was performing with San Francisco's a cappella pioneers, The House Jacks, a decade ago. (Frankly, I was stunned that he remembered who I was.) If Kid Beyond comes to your town, you owe it to yourself to buy a ducat and check out his act. In an era of talentless pretenders, this guy's is the real stone-cold deal. Drop by his Web site while you're thinking about it, and get a taste of his awesomeness.

  • I'd been saving a book for the plane trips to and from Phoenix, and it rocks like a house afire: Promise Me, the latest novel by Harlan Coben. It's Coben's first book in seven years to headline his favorite protagonist, former basketball star turned sports agent Myron Bolitar. If you enjoy a crackling suspense read in the modern style, hie thyself over to Amazon and pick up a few Cobens. You'll be glad you did.

  • As for the competition: Voices in Harmony came in second, as expected, with a score of 89.7%. That's a full two percentage points higher than our sixth-place score at International three months ago. (We'd have been fourth with these numbers.) Not bad for a contest set that included a ballad we began learning only eight weeks ago. Sweat equity pays off.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

By the time I get to Phoenix

My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, as it says on all the merchandise — is heading off to Phoenix this weekend for our District contest. We're debuting a new ballad ("Diane," popularized in 1964 by the Irish trio The Bachelors) in our contest set, so it'll be a fun trip.

I've never been to Phoenix before. My previous excursions into the Grand Canyon State have been limited to the Interstate 40 corridor, which we used to call Route 66 back in the day. Not being a fan of extremely warm weather, I am less than encouraged to know that the original Navajo name of the city now called Phoenix was Hoozdo, which translates to "The Place Is Hot." I'm told that it's a dry heat, though I find that small comfort. Supposedly, it's a trifle more temperate by this time of year. I can only hope.

Fret not, true believers: I will post this week's Comic Art Friday before I venture off.

And, if you're a denizen of the Arizona capital — or simply familiar with the place — I'm open to recommendations for good, inexpensive restaurants in downtown Phoenix.

If I run into Glen Campbell, I'll say hello for you.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

They tried to make me use a condom; I said, "No, no, no"

Easily the worst idea I've heard this month:

English pop star Amy Winehouse and her junkie husband are desperately trying to conceive a baby.

Call Parenting Magazine. I think I've found the cover girl for their Mother's Day issue next year.

In case your copy of Billboard got detoured in the mail, Winehouse (a namephreak of the first order — RIP, Herb Caen) is the drugged-out, booze-addled Goth songstress best known in this country for her chart-topping hit "Rehab," the lyrics of which begin:
They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, "No, no, no."
The British tabloid News of the World last week published photos of Winehouse and her partner in addiction, hubby Blake Fielder-Civil, lounging on a beach in the Caribbean sporting fresh heroin needle tracks, as well as bruises from a recent, much-publicized domestic brawl, prior to which Amy was admittedly "cutting herself and about to do drugs with a call girl."

Aren't there enough children being born into corrosive home environments without these two losers contributing to the epidemic? I'm not in favor of involuntary sterilization, generally speaking, but Amy and Blake make a pretty fair argument for the practice.

A friend of the couple — presumably one who was sober and straight at the time of the interview — told the tabloid, "[Amy] really wants a baby and thinks it will help get her life back on track."

That must be a typo. I'm sure she said "on crack."

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Candle in the wind

Ten years ago today, the world lost one of its real-life heroines: Diana, Princess of Wales.

I remember vividly the moment I heard the news. The girls and I had gone to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. We were playing a tape in the car as we drove home, so we didn't have the radio on. Just as we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, the tape ended, and I switched on KCBS, the local news radio station. For the first few moments, we didn't know whose death was being reported. Then, Diana's name was mentioned, and reality sank in.

Princess Diana and I were the same age — she was a only few months (July to December) older than I. In a way, I think, her mortality serves as a continual reminder of my own. To a very real degree, we are all "candles in the wind."

In tribute to "The People's Princess," I offer a few thoughtfully chosen selections from my gallery featuring the comics' Princess Diana of Themyscira, better known to the world as Wonder Woman. Comic Art Friday regulars will have seen most of these artworks before, but all deserve another look.

A pencil and ink sketch by Amazing Spider-Man artist Ron Garney:

Diana in a pensive pinup, by Silver Age veteran Dan Adkins:

Diana in patriotic mode, rendered by longtime Green Lantern artist Darryl Banks:

Diana in battle against a fearsome foe — a scenario conceived and penciled by Brazilian legend Al Rio, and embellished in ink by Suicide Squad artist Geof Isherwood:

Diana leading an airborne assault — pencils by rising star Michael Jason Paz, with inks again contributed by the great Geof Isherwood:

Diana standing strong in a classic pose, as portrayed by Wellington "The Well" Diaz:

Diana aloft, wielding her golden lasso — Geof Isherwood pencils and inks:

Diana and her invisible airplane, rendered in Golden Age style by one of the true masters of the art form, Ernie Chan:

Diana in moonlit wonder — a unique presentation by James E. Lyle:

In the words of songsmith Bernie Taupin:
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind...
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in.
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills;
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will.
We still remember, Diana.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Bright college days

I have officially become an obsolete parent:

My only child started college today.

KM is a freshman at our local junior college, a fine institution of higher education with a Starbucks across the street and a Taco Bell on the nearest corner. (Hey, she might get hungry.) She's taking four classes #151; English, psychology, art history, and her fifth year of Spanish.

Since KM is only just beginning to drive, Dad's taxi service will shuttle her to and from campus for the time being, giving the old man a daily opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of academia and pine for lost youth.

I recall my own first day of college as though it were only 28 years ago. (Which, not entirely coincidentally, it was.) That first evening, with the summer waves lapping at the distant Malibu shore, our resident assistant gathered everyone in our dormitory's main living room. He passed around a roll of toilet paper, telling each student to take as many sheets as he felt he needed. Once the roll had circled the room, the RA announced that, for every sheet of TP one had taken, he had to reveal a fact about himself. (The first sheet counted for name, hometown, and major.)

Being no one's fool, even at the callow age of 17, I had taken a mere five sheets — hardly sufficient to peel back the veneer of mystery with which I prefer to enshroud myself. One of my fellow dormies, conversely, unspooled so many squares of tissue that he was compelled to expose knowledge to which none of the rest of us really needed to be privy, such as his favorite sexual position (I'll give you a hint: it's a two-digit number) and his preference in pubic grooming (I'll give you a hint: Gillette).

Living at home, KM will escape such torture. At least for this academic year.

In the immortal words of the legendary Tom Lehrer:
Bright college days — oh, carefree days that fly,
To thee we sing with our glasses raised on high.
Let's drink a toast as each of us recalls
Ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls.

Turn on the spigot,
Pour the beer and swig it,
And gaudeamus igit-tur.

Here's to parties we tossed;
To the games that we lost —
We shall claim that we won them someday.
To the girls, young and sweet;
To the spacious back seat
Of our roommate's beat-up Chevrolet.
To the beer and Benzedrine;
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all.
To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.

To the tables down at Mory's
(Wherever that may be),
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

Soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.
But as we go our sordid separate ways,
We shall ne'er forget thee, thou golden college days.

Hearts full of youth,
Hearts full of truth,
Six parts gin to one part vermouth.
For the record, the first college punk who shows up at my house to pick up my daughter in a beat-up Chevrolet will be invited to admire my knife collection.

Up close.

[UPDATE: Now there's an odd coincidence. After I posted this article, I took my daily stroll through my blogroll. Two of my favorite bloggers, Mark Evanier and The Ferrett, both riffed on Tom Lehrer in their posts today. Great minds really do think alike. That, or my tinfoil hat has stopped working, and aliens have infested my brain.]

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

All of the leaves have gone Green

Every time the girls and I head off to church, we drive past a massive construction site on the Sonoma State University campus. Rising from the hardware-strewn landscape is the nascent structure which, according to the attractive billboard on the corner hillside, will someday blossom into the Green Music Center, a state-of-the-art concert venue rivaling the finest performance halls in the nation.

But I'm not holding my breath.

As you'll learn from this excellent article in today's San Francisco Chronicle, the Green Music Center has become both the biggest white elephant in the history of Sonoma County, and the albatross around the neck of SSU President Ruben Armiñana. Ten years in the making, with no completion date in sight, and bleeding cash like a stuck bank vault, the Green is a local laughing stock — to everyone but the faculty of SSU, who are sick and tired of losing much-needed educational funds to President Armiñana's pet boondoggle.

Of course, as a musical performer and patron of the arts myself, I'd love to see the Green completed. Heck, I'd love to sing on its stage someday. But I'll be older than Tony Bennett before that happens. At this writing, the Green is only about one-quarter finished after a decade in the works. Its budget has boomed from a tidy $20 million or so to a figure rivaling the gross national product of half the Third World. Even though construction proceeds in occasional fits and starts, no one — including Ruben Armiñana — has any clue where the megamillions needed to wrap up the project are going to come from.

I know one thing: They're not coming from my wallet.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Just blew in from Denver, and boy, are my lips tired

I'll cut right to the important stuff: We came in sixth.

"We" refers to my chorus, Voices in Harmony. The "came in sixth" refers to the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Chorus Contest, in which VIH competed last Friday.

This was VIH's first International as an ensemble, although about half of our members — myself included — had previous International experience in other choruses. From that perspective, being judged sixth-best in the world in our musical discipline is an awesome accomplishment. But for a contingent that had worked diligently for months hoping to debut in the top five at International, falling short of our goal felt a good deal like failure. At least for the first 36 hours.

Now, Denver's in the rear-view mirror, and we're looking ahead to next July's International contest in Nashville.

Onward and upward.

Post-competition disappointment aside, Denver was a blast. VIH performed in a talent showcase on Tuesday evening, and merited a standing ovation from one of the most accomplished chorus directors in the Society. We had three terrific rehearsals and enjoyed a fun dinner celebration on Thursday evening. We witnessed a spectacular quartet contest, won by a fine foursome of vocal musicians known as Max Q who'd finished second three years running. We cheered as our southern California neighbors, the Westminster Chorus, emerged victorious in the chorus contest. And we were treated to a warm welcome from the good folks of the Mile-High City.

For me, Denver was a pleasant surprise. Never having spent any time there, I expected something far less cosmopolitan than the city I discovered. The downtown area, highlighted by the 16th Street Mall — a mile-long outdoor pedestrian shopping stroll, complemented by free shuttle bus service, a Hard Rock Café and five Starbucks outlets — would be an asset to any American community. Even the weather was a surprise — the altitude suggested cool, breezy mountain days, but instead it was hot and steamy (and at brief times, thunderstormy) all week.

The city of Denver rolled out the red carpet for our International convention. Everywhere one wandered downtown, banners proclaimed, "Denver Welcomes the Barbershop Harmony Society." Practically every shop and restaurant window bore a similar sign of greeting. Sure, I know the idea was to charm more money out of our wallets, but still, it felt nice to be so politely suckered.

Another surprise: I savored one of the tastiest sushi lunches I've had in a while, at Sonoda's Sushi on Market Street. I walked in skeptical that a mid-continent burg could dish up the quality of sushi to which this West Coast/Hawaiian homeboy is accustomed. I waddled out 90 minutes later stuffed to the gills, to borrow a cliché. If you're in Denver and hankering for the raw stuff, stop by Sonoda's and they'll hook you up. Tell 'em the chubby brother from the barbershop convention sent you.

My accommodations at the Adam's Mark Hotel were satisfactory, if unremarkable (no pun intended) for the price. On the plus side: the air conditioning in my room delivered nice, cool air nonstop for five nights; the room service staff delivered decent food promptly whenever I ordered a meal; the free in-house high-speed Internet connection delivered consistent bandwidth throughout the week, justifying the hassle of toting my spanking new Dell laptop all the way from Cali. On the down side: the view from my window (which prominently featured a mammoth AC unit on an adjacent gravel-covered roof) was lacking; TV channel selection was sadly limited (three flavors of ESPN, but little else in the way of variety); and the one meal I ate in the hotel's restaurant took forever to arrive. In addition, the Adam's Mark is easily the most confusing hotel I've ever attempted to navigate, and I'm a veteran visitor to Las Vegas, where hotels are intentionally designed to obfuscate logical movement.

The cheerful minions of Southwest Airlines managed to transport me safely to and from Colorado without crashing or misplacing my luggage. I did, unfortunately, find myself stuck in a row either fore or aft of a screaming infant on each leg of the trip. But I can't blame Southwest for other people's procreation.

I missed my girls, my dog, my own bed, and my pocketknives. (Fortunately, scans of my comic art collection can travel with me anywhere.)

It's good to be home.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Check out that purple mountain's majesty

Happy birthday, USA. You're looking pretty good for 231. Well, except Georgie and Dickie and that whole Iraq thing.

I'm blogging from Denver, Colorado, a mile high amid the Rocky Mountains. As previously noted, I'm here for the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Convention — my chorus, Voices in Harmony, is competing in the chorus contest on Friday afternoon.

So far, Denver seems like a pleasant enough city. I've never spent any time here before — my family passed through (without stopping) on a cross-country drive sometime in the 1970s, but that's the extent of my previous Mile-High experience. They've certainly rolled out the red carpet for us here — everywhere you go in the downtown area, there are signs welcoming the BHS. It's nice to be welcome. We'll try to leave a few bucks.

I'll let you know how the contest goes on Friday. And before I depart on Sunday, I'll attempt to give you a fuller flavor of the impressions Colorado's capital makes on me during my stay. (Quick summation thus far: I love the Pepsi Center and the 16th Street Mall.)

So if you're a Denverite (Denverian?) and you see me strolling about your fair city, feel welcome to offer any good dining tips. I'm always interested in the local cuisine.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Let's all get Mile-High

In exactly seven days, I — along with the other 100 or so active members of my chorus, Voices in Harmony — will descend on Denver, Colorado to compete in the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Chorus Contest.

It's been six years since I last attended International. My previous chorus, from which Voices in Harmony evolved via a merger with another Bay Area men's chorus, made three consecutive appearances at International — Anaheim (1999), Kansas City (2000) and Nashville (2001) — finishing as high as 16th. VIH approaches its first-ever International ranked seventh, and we're working like mad to climb into the top five.

Obsessive soul that I am, I like to find out as much as I can about places to which I plan to travel. Thus, I've been combing the 'Net for the past several weeks, learning the ins and outs of Denver. My family and I passed through Denver once on a cross-country auto trip back in the 1970s, but this will be my first substantive visit to the Mile-High City. So far, here are some of the more intriguing infonuggets I've plowed up.
  • Denver was founded in 1858, and named after James William Denver, the governor of what was then the Kansas Territory. The idea was that naming the town after Governor Denver would predispose the bureaucrat to designate the newly populated burg as a county seat. By the time the news of his namesake reached the governor's mansion, however, Mr. Denver was already out of office.

  • At the turn of the 20th century, Denver was the third-largest city in the American West, after San Francisco and Los Angeles. Today, it ranks 27th in population among U.S. cities, although Denver International Airport is the fifth-busiest in the country and tenth overall in the world.

  • Denver's professional basketball (the Nuggets) and hockey (the Avalanche) teams play their home games in the Pepsi Center, the same venue where our International contests will be held. I am not certain whether there will be a blind taste test at the door.

  • The 2008 Democratic National Convention will also be held in the Pepsi Center. Apparently, Republicans prefer Coke.

  • The University of Denver boasts a number of prominent alumni, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Peter Morton, founder of the Hard Rock Café; Peter Coors, CEO of the brewing enterprise that bears his family name; and the comedian known as Sinbad (whose real name is David Adkins, and who, to the best of my knowledge, has never been a sailor).

  • The late country-pop singer John Denver was not actually a Denver at all. He was born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. On the other hand, Robert Osbourne "Bob" Denver, the guy who played Gilligan, was a genuine Denver, although not from Denver (he was born in New Rochelle, New York).

  • In 2005, Denver became the first major American city to legalize the personal possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for personal use. But I believe it was known as the Mile-High City long before that.

  • I was shocked to discover that you do not get officially inducted into the Mile-High Club by having sex in Denver. Apparently, you have to do it on an airplane, many of which travel at altitudes far higher than a mile. I'm not clear on why that is, but I'm told that those are the rules.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

A day in the life

It was 40 years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

I refer, of course, to the fact that on June 1, 1967, the Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United Kingdom (the record hit American shelves the following day). Popular music would never be the same again. In fact, it's impossible to imagine what the last 40 years of popular music would have sounded like, without the sonic and thematic innovations introduced via Sgt. Pepper.

Not that this has anything at all to do with Comic Art Friday.

Except that when I think of the Beatles, I think of Ringo. Comic artist Mike "Ringo!" Wieringo, that is, who drew this charming portrait of Superman and Wonder Woman sharing a tender moment.

They don't call me the Sultan of Segue for nothing.

This weekend, comic fans from throughout northern California will descend on the San Jose Convention Center for Super-Con, the third of the Bay Area's major annual comic fandom events. (WonderCon and APE — the Alternative Press Expo, which focuses mostly on independent, small press comics — were held in late winter and early spring, respectively.) In the past couple of years, Super-Con has grown from a relatively small gathering to a mega-event, prompting a move from the con's former home in the East Bay to the hub of Silicon Valley. The lineup of industry guests has expanded also, with this year's headliners including comic legends Jim Lee, Frank Cho, and Terry Dodson.

I've connected in advance with a couple of my favorite artists, who will be bringing newly completed commission pieces to the con for me. Steve Mannion, whose vintage-style pinup (seen below) is the pinnacle of my Mary Marvel gallery, is working on a new addition to my Supergirl theme...

...and the artist known as Buzz, of whose exquisitely brush-inked work I can never get enough, is creating a Storm piece to accompany this Black Panther drawing he did for me in advance of last year's Super-Con.

Speaking of Storm, here's a lovely rendition of the Wizardress of Weather, recently fashioned by another favorite artist, "good girl" specialist Michael McDaniel.

Check back here in seven days, to see the new art I pick up at Super-Con this weekend.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Remember: I get by with a little help from my friends. (That means you.)

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Voices in Harmony in concert Saturday!

All right, already — I'll get back to my usual arcane mutterings in just a moment. But first, a word from our sponsors.

Those of you living in the San Francisco Bay Area — and you know who you are — would be doing your ears a ginormous favor if you dropped by Spangenberg Auditorium in Palo Alto this coming Saturday. (That's May 19 — Armed Forces Day, in case you don't have a calendar handy.)

Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, Voices in Harmony — currently ranked seventh in the world, and looking to leap into the top five this summer — will rock the house as only 100-plus perfectly synchronized, testosterone-fueled larynges can. Under the direction of world-renowned conductor Dr. Greg Lyne, ViH masters the musical gamut from show tunes to jazz, from pop to gospel. (And yes, we'll throw in a little barbershop for you hardcore fanatics.)

Special guest performers for this concert date will be the stellar vocal jazz ensemble Clockwork, and one of the West Coast's top male quartets, Late Show. As the great Don Cornelius used to say, you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey.

Or, to be a tad more contemporary, this is one bomb-diggity fresh joint, yo.

Trust me, kids — you haven't heard anything like Voices in Harmony. You just haven't. I don't care how many choruses, choirs, or vocal groups you've experienced previously. And I'm not just saying that because of that handsome smiling devil in the center of the second row. (At least, not entirely.)

So what are you waiting for? Go buy some ducats for either the matinee or evening performance, clear your Saturday schedule, and prepare to be blown away.

Believe the hype.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.

We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.

A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.

Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.

As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.

(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Brandy, you're a fine girl, but a lousy driver

Brandy — noted pop singer, sitcom star, and David Hasselhoff sidekick — was reportedly involved in a freeway accident last month in which a 38-year-old mother of two was killed.

According to the muckrakers at, Brandy told witnesses at the scene that the crash, in which Brandy's 2007 Land Rover apparently rear-ended the Toyota driven by the deceased victim, was her fault.

Brandy's publicist released this statement today:
Brandy was involved in a car accident December 30, 2006 in Los Angeles, where there was a fatality. She wishes to publicly express her condolences to the family of the deceased. Brandy asks that you respect the privacy of everyone involved at this time.
Reading the subtext:
Brandy hopes the deceased's family doesn't sue her britches off before a financial settlement can be reached.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Seven for the RockHall

Just in case we haven't had enough Hall of Fame chatter here this week, what with posts on the latest inductees into the Rock and Roll and Baseball Halls, someone asked me today what performers I believe ought to be in the RockHall, but aren't there yet. After all, I always mention the worthy players who fall short of election to Cooperstown every year.

The difficulty, of course, is that evaluating musical performance is infinitely more subjective than assessing athletic prowess — especially in a sport such as baseball, where statistics can be obtained for even the most obscure or minute aspect of the game.

On the other hand, I love a challenge.

Therefore, here's a brief, far from comprehensive list of bands and solo acts — seven in all — I believe should by now have been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I've limited the choices to acts who are already eligible under the Hall's criteria — basically, anyone whose first recording was released more than 25 years ago.

In alphabetical order:
  • Alice Cooper. I was actually surprised to see, when scanning the list of current enshrinees, that Alice isn't in the RockHall by now. Extremely influential even now (ask Marilyn Manson), and hugely popular back in the day.

  • The Doobie Brothers. On the scene forever, with more hits than you can shake your moneymaker at. Maybe the problem is the stylistic dichotomy — the rough-and-tumble biker bar band of their early hits, contrasted against the blue-eyed soul of the band's Michael McDonald period. Maybe it's the near-constant lineup changes (although that didn't keep out, say, Santana). But you can't argue with their level of success.

  • Genesis. Another group I thought was in the RockHall already, but for whatever reason isn't. Genesis, like the Doobies, enjoyed a bifurcated career: first, as a hardcore progressive rock band behind lead singer Peter Gabriel; then, as a more commercial hitmaking trio when drummer Phil Collins stepped to the forefront. The fact that Gabriel, guitarist Mike Rutherford (as leader of Mike + the Mechanics), and especially Collins went on to mammoth solo success doesn't alter the fact that the band itself is worthy of recognition.

  • Heart. Perhaps they're still struggling to overcome the old "Led Zeppelin with bosoms" stigma, but the talent of the Seattle powerhouse built around sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson deserves a place in the Hall. Easily the most storied and successful hard-rock act fronted by a female lead vocalist (Ann) and a female lead guitarist (Nancy) in the history of the genre. If Chrissie Hynde's Pretenders are in the Hall, Heart should be also.

  • Jethro Tull. Baffling again. I can only suppose that the Hall voters are still steamed about Tull winning the first-ever Grammy for heavy metal — which Tull is most assuredly not. A unique assemblage of talent, with one of the most inventive and distinctive frontmen in the business in Ian Anderson.

  • KISS. Go ahead and laugh, but just try and write a history of rock music in the '70s and '80s that doesn't feature them prominently. When a mainstream Hollywood feature film can be made about your fanbase (Detroit Rock City), you're big time, baby.

  • Donna Summer. I realize that some hardliners would be up in arms about the Queen of Disco finding a niche in the RockHall, but when you strip back the glitter-ball bias and concentrate on the talent — not to mention the star power — how do you keep her out? The woman sold in excess of 120 million records, for crying out loud. Somebody thought she was onto something.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Hey hey, my my — the Rock and Roll Hall will never die

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced a new gaggle of inductees. Here's how we assess the about-to-be-enshrined:
  • Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. The first hip-hop act to be inducted — mostly because the RockHall only considers performers eligible 25 years after their first recorded work — and there probably isn't a better place to begin acknowledging the genre. If DJ Grandmaster Flash (real name: Joseph Saddler) and his crew of MCs (Melle Mel, Kid Creole, Cowboy, Mr. Ness, and Raheim) didn't invent hip-hop, they certainly gave it the flavor that made it the juggernaut it became. I was a college radio DJ when "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel," the group's first landmark single, was released, and we all knew then that this was the start of something mammoth. Turns out we were right. (Interestingly enough, Flash himself doesn't actually perform on the group's best-known track, "The Message.")

  • R.E.M. Okay, I'll confess: It took me a long time to grasp R.E.M.'s appeal. The first few records of theirs I heard were just a bit too weird for my (plainly unsophisticated) tastes. It wasn't until the band started cutting more accessible — and, yes, more commercial — fare along the lines of "Stand," "Losing My Religion," and my favorite R.E.M. tune, "Texarkana," that I began to appreciate their musicianship and phenomenal creativity.

  • The Ronettes. Three words: "Be My Baby." No less an authority than Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys once dubbed it "the most perfect pop record of all time." The Ronettes became Phil Spector's launching pad for his innovative, industry-changing Wall of Sound recording technique, which influenced artists from John Lennon to Bruce Springsteen. It'll be interesting to see what mention Spector gets at the induction ceremony. (In case you've forgotten, Spector is scheduled to begin trial next week for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.)

  • Patti Smith. Not a fan myself, but I can't argue with the selection. Frankly, I'm one of the people who often confuses her with Patty Smyth, the lead singer for the '80s band Scandal, and current wife of former tennis superstar John McEnroe. I always liked Patty-with-a-Y better than Patti-with-an-I, anyhow. She was way cuter, and could actually sing. Plus, she turned down the chance to replace David Lee Roth as lead singer of Van Halen. How cool is that? Oh yeah... this is supposed to be about Patti Smith. Umm... "Because the Night" was a good song.

  • Van Halen. Speaking of Eddie, Alex, and company, the chartbusting arena rockers round out this year's RockHall field. When I was in college in L.A. in the early '80s, regulars of the local club scene spoke about Van Halen in the reverential tones most of us reserve for Deity. I suppose now that's appropriate — when it comes to crank-it-up, decibel-busting American hard rock, VH is about as close as it gets. I'm in the minority who liked the band equally well whether Diamond Dave or Red Rocker Sammy stood out front. (It's interesting that the RockHall's official press release mentions both Dave and Sammy but excludes third lead vocalist Gary Cherone, who replaced Hagar in the late '90s. Man, it sucks being Gary Cherone.)

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Unca Lloyd

Most of the people who merit eulogizing in this space are celebrities of one sort or another — whether famous or infamous — and usually significant in my memory or experience in some way.

Today, I memorialize someone who, though not a celebrity in the usual sense of that word, and not particularly famous outside a rather narrowly specific sphere, was by virtue of a few brief interactions significant in my experience, and will remain so in my memory as long as I live.

In the fraternity of barbershop singers, we called him Unca Lloyd.

I knew of Lloyd Steinkamp for several years before I actually met him. He fit that oft-repeated cliché as a person of whom everyone who spoke, spoke fondly. Few people I've known deserved the accolades more. He was a tireless promoter of the hobby he loved, both as an official Barbershop Harmony Society representative for many years, and as an enthusiastic coach and instructor — especially of young people — for many more.

When I at last met the legendary Unca Lloyd, I was astounded that so immense a reputation could fit a man at least a head shorter than I. A boisterous little fireplug of a guy, Unca Lloyd immediately filled any room he entered with his boundless joie de vivre. At any barbershop event he attended, he was always surrounded by folks renewing acquaintances, seeking his advice, or both. Thus, I could hardly believe it when, after a competition in which my chorus had just competed, he buttonholed me and introduced himself.

"I love watching you perform," he said.

Now, I've been praised often on my performing ability. I've been on stage in one form or another all of my life. More than once, judges evaluating my chorus in competition have singled me out for commendation.

But I was never more thunderstruck by a compliment as I was in that moment.

"Do you sing in a quartet?" Lloyd asked me.

"No, sir" I replied.

"Well, you ought to," he said, his eyes never leaving mine. "You've got talent in desperate need of more exposure."

I thanked him profusely, and walked on air for the rest of the day.

A year or two later, I was singing lead in my then-new quartet. Following one of our typically mediocre showings in a contest, Unca Lloyd caught up with me again. "I'm so happy to see you singing in a quartet," he said. "Now you need to be in a better one."

Again, I thanked him, and acknowledged — with absolute sincerity — that I often felt that it was my fellow quartet members who deserved a better lead vocalist. Lloyd would have none of it.

"I see everyone in this Society perform — everyone," he told me. "You're as good onstage as anyone we have right now."

Again, I thanked him. And again, I walked on air for the rest of the day.

That conversation, in one form or another, was repeated at least three times over the next couple of contest cycles. Whenever my quartet competed, I could always count on Unca Lloyd seeking me out to compliment me, and offer a helpful hint or two.

I tell this story, not to flatter myself, but as a reflection of the kind of man Lloyd Steinkamp was. Lloyd knew, coached, and was eagerly sought after by the very best talents in our musical genre. He was an immense fish in our little pond. I, conversely, am an unknown in a Society of around 30,000 singers. I was one face, one tuxedo among a few dozen on a crowded stand of risers; the lead singer in a C-level quartet with no realistic aspirations for greatness. As the pond goes, I hardly qualify as a minnow. It gained Unca Lloyd nothing to single me out for ego-boo, when hundreds of guys with grand reputations and musical gifts dwarfing mine wanted to chat him up.

But he did it anyway.

And I'll bet I was one of several thousand for whom he did.

Lloyd Steinkamp died today after a tough battle with lung cancer. Word of his passing probably won't appear on your evening news, or make the morning edition of your local paper. But it deserves mention here.

I'll miss you, Unca Lloyd.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

The Godfather has Souled out

We interrupt your Christmas revelry for this bit of unfortunate news:

The one and only James Brown, also variously known as...
  • The Godfather of Soul...
  • Mister Dynamite...
  • The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business...
  • Soul Brother Number One...
  • The Night Train...
  • Butane James...
  • The Father of Funk...
  • Mister Please Please Please...
  • The Original Disco Man...
  • Universal James...
  • The Sex Machine...
  • and His Bad Self...
...passed away this morning at the age of 73.

Tonight, the world is a less funky place.

It's a hoary cliché to say that someone's influence cannot be overestimated, but when it comes to American popular music, James Brown is the perfect exemplar of that statement. Every rock, soul, funk, and R&B performer of the last 40 years owes an incalculable debt to the Godfather. Without James Brown, you have no Michael Jackson, no Mick Jagger, no Janis Joplin, no Aretha Franklin, no Bono, no Prince. Hip-hop? Forget about it. Without James Brown, there is no hip-hop; he's the most sampled artist who ever laid a track on wax.

In short, the man had a zillion hyperbolic nicknames, but he earned every one.

I enjoyed the privilege of attending one of the Godfather's legendary performances nearly a quarter-century ago. Brown was in his late forties then, and some of his "get up offa that thing" had already got up and gone, but Butane James still threw down an incendiary 90-minute set that would have put many younger performers to shame. Heck, I was a hale, hearty twentysomething college kid, and the man wore me out just watching him work up a sweat.

It's impossible to distill the musical accomplishments of a seminal artist like Brown to just a few greatest hits, but just off the top of my head, here are my baker's dozen all-time favorite James Brown cuts:
  • "Please, Please, Please": The hit that set the standard for all that was to come.
  • "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag": And it was filled with nothing but stone cold soul.
  • "I Got You (I Feel Good)": Yes, my beloved Giants wore the grooves off this one when they used it for several seasons as their theme song, but there's a reason why it worked.
  • "Cold Sweat": Ripped from the deepest recesses of a man's libido, and survived to tell the tale.
  • "Licking Stick": Mama, come here quick, indeed.
  • "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud": The anthem of a generation of socially aware African Americans. Not to mention a bunch of freckle-faced Irish kids from Dublin.
  • "Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn": Ladies, even if you weren't exactly sure what "doing the popcorn" meant, you knew you wanted James to come in and do it.
  • "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine": I'll buy that for a dollar.
  • "Hot Pants": She's got to use what she's got to get what she wants.
  • "Get On the Good Foot": Just try to listen to this number and not want to shake what your mama gave you. Go ahead. Try.
  • "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing": In which Mr. Brown gets all sociopolitical on your butt.
  • "Papa Don't Take No Mess": Don't even think about starting anything. The Godfather will take you down.
  • "Get Up Offa That Thing": Words to live by.
I'm sad to think that Papa and his brand new bag have left the building permanently. We'll never see his like again.

One last thought, of a personal nature: About 20 years ago, I worked with a very pleasant fellow whose name just happened to be James Brown. I used to refer to him playfully as "the Godfather of Soul," despite the fact that he was as terminally Caucasian an individual as one could find. James, on the other hand, relished the association. He even asked me to record a message for his answering machine in which I imitated the real James Brown's stage announcer's stentorian oratory:
James Brown — the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, the Sex Machine — cannot take your call right now. But leave a message at the beep, and he'll get back to you.
I hope the other James Brown is still alive and well.

We now return you to your mistletoe and eggnog.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

You'll shoot your eye out!

It's officially Christmas: My daughter KM has finished watching the first two hours of "24 Hours of A Christmas Story" on TBS. It never fails to make me chuckle that America's favorite family Christmas movie was directed by the guy who gave the world Porky's.

To SSTOL's friends and fans throughout the Blogosphere, I give you these timeless thoughts from the godfathers of contemporary a cappella, The Bobs:
All I want for Christmas is a house up in the hills
With colored lights and music, frosted window sills
Filled with all my loved ones, all the old and young ones too
All I want for Christmas is you.

All I want for Christmas is to spread a bit of cheer
With people I don't notice every other day of the year
All I want for Christmas is a smile from someone new
All I want for Christmas is you.

May the jolly old elf so enjoy your milk and cookies that he leaves you all the pantookas and bisselbings your little heart desires.

Or, as Luke Cage, Power Man said upon seeing Power Girl for the first time...

"Sweet Christmas!"

Please try not to shoot your eye out.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Neon angel on the road to ruin

I'm frightfully late in reporting this sad news, but I only learned about it this morning while perusing Mick Lasalle's blog. (Mick is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and a crackerjack writer.)

Sandy West, the drummer for the all-girl '70s rock band The Runaways, died in October of lung and brain cancer.

Even if you don't remember who The Runaways were, you've definitely heard their influence if you've listened to American pop music anytime in the last 30 years. Both of the band's guitarists, Joan Jett and Lita Ford, went on to considerable success as hard-rocking solo artists. Their original bass player, Michael "Micki" Steele, later joined The Bangles of "Walk Like an Egyptian" fame. Lead singer Cherie Currie became an actress, costarring in Foxes with Jodie Foster, and making an appearance in This is Spinal Tap.

More importantly, though, The Runaways proved that women could compete in the hard rock arena on equal footing with men. These girls — at the height of their momentary fame, all of The Runaways were teenagers — played their own instruments, wrote at least some of their own songs, and not only fronted the band — they were the band. Without The Runaways, we might never have heard of The Go-Go's, Blondie, The Donnas, Shonen Knife, Hole, or possibly even the Dixie Chicks.

Sandy West wasn't the most visible of The Runaways — Joan, Lita, and Cherie competed for that title. A plain-faced, mousy blonde surfer chick, she wasn't even the cutest. (That title — at least in my testosterone-fueled adolescent opinion — went to doe-eyed Jackie Fox, Michael Steele's replacement on bass.) But Sandy was the band's heart and soul. The Runaways were essentially Sandy's idea, which she pitched to record producer Kim Fowley, who became the band's manager and Svengali. Fowley put Sandy and Joan together, then searched the L.A. music scene to find the rest of the lineup.

In 1976 and '77, The Runaways recorded three studio albums: their eponymous debut, featuring their best-remembered song, "Cherry Bomb"; Queens of Noise, arguably their most representative record, which included "I Love Playin' With Fire" and my favorite Runaways number, "Neon Angels on the Road to Ruin"; and Waitin' for the Night. In the grooves of those LPs lie the seeds of American protopunk, later mined by such bands as The Ramones, as well as a raw talent that belied the youth of the performers.

After the band dissolved in 1979, Sandy West struggled to continue her music career. Sadly, she never enjoyed the rewards of fame that her former bandmates Joan Jett and Lita Ford achieved. In Edgeplay, an independent documentary produced by former Runaway Vicki Tischler-Blue (she replaced Jackie Fox on bass), Sandy spoke of the challenges life held for her in her post-Runaways years — working at various jobs outside the music field, and occasionally outside the bounds of the law. By all accounts, she never stopped mourning the demise of The Runaways.

She was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. When she died on October 21, 2006, Sandy West was 47 years old.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

A Bolton of false hope

Well, that was disappointing.

When I saw the link on the San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate homepage"Bolton Steps Down" — I rejoiced at the thought that Michael Bolton might be permanently retiring from singing.

Instead, the story turns out to be about some United Nations ambassador guy.


In other music news, Greg Page, the yellow-shirted lead singer of the Aussie kiddie-pop group The Wiggles, is retiring due to a rare health condition that affects his coordination and balance.

Hey, now — there's an ideal job for Michael Bolton!

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They stab it with their Steely Dan, but they just can't kill the beast

I've had a Steely Dan song running through my brain nonstop for the past several days.

This is not as unusual as it sounds. I've had one Steely Dan song or another running through my brain pretty much nonstop since 1972, when I first heard "Reelin' in the Years" on the radio and knew I had found my muse.

Thus, for the past 34 years, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — plus their supporting cast of crackerjack studio stalwarts — have been writing and performing the soundtrack of my life.

I'll show you what I mean, album by album, through the band's classic period (1972-80).

Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)
  • "Do It Again" — "You find you're back in Vegas with a handle in your hand." Anyone who knows me knows that I love Las Vegas. The handle in my hand isn't on a slot machine, though. It's the handle of a souvenir mug. I'm drinking from my Paris Las Vegas mug as I write this.

  • "Midnight Cruiser" — My wife drives a steel blue (as in Steely Dan) PT Cruiser. It's a shade lighter than midnight, but work with me here.

  • "Reelin' In the Years" — Am I really going to be 45 in two months? Egad.
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
  • "My Old School" — My daughter is currently a senior at the high school from which I graduated. Her graduating class will be roughly twice the size of mine.

  • "Razor Boy" — I never travel without a knife in my pocket. At this moment, it's a Spyderco Native. Manufactured in Golden, Colorado. Black fiber-reinforced nylon handle, embossed with a spiderweb pattern. 3.125 inch drop point blade in S30V stainless steel. Wicked sharp.

  • "Your Gold Teeth" — I have two; my rearmost upper molars. They went south in my early 20s, after my wisdom teeth were extracted.

  • "Show Biz Kids" — For two years, I attended Pepperdine University in Malibu. I sat next to Charlton Heston's daughter in a poli-sci class. I roomed downstairs from Jack LaLanne's son. I worked at the campus radio station with Joe Garagiola's daughter. I was in a couple of plays with a guy whose dad starred on some soap opera. Need I continue?
Pretzel Logic (1974)
  • "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" — I can't memorize numbers. Even phone numbers I call frequently, I have to write down or store in my computer or cell phone, or I'll forget them. It took me years to imprint my own phone number, which is why I retained it as my business number — I was afraid of learning a new one. I forget my home phone number all the time. I usually memorize phone numbers not by the digits, but by the pattern I punch to dial them.

  • "Night By Night" — I've always been a night owl. I rarely go to bed before midnight, and often not before 1 a.m.

  • "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" — "Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend; any minor world that breaks apart falls together again." Words to live by.

  • "Barrytown" — I've been a diehard San Francisco Giants fan (is there another kind?) since 1976. S.F. officially became Barrytown on December 8, 1992.

  • "Through With Buzz" — My comic art collection contains three original commissioned works by the artist known as Buzz: a Vixen, a Black Panther, and a Ms. Marvel.

  • "Pretzel Logic" — If you're a regular consumer of my contorted prose and wonky sensibility, this needs no explanation.
Katy Lied (1972)
  • "Bad Sneakers" — "You fella, you tearin' up the street; you wear that white tuxedo, how you gonna beat the heat?" I have sung in two barbershop choruses that at one time wore white tuxedo jackets as their performance costume. Wearing a white tux jacket, I somewhat resemble the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

  • "Dr. Wu" — My bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University is signed by the school's then-president, Dr. Chia-Wei Woo. He probably thought this song was about him.

  • "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" — I have written over 100 movie reviews for DVD Verdict. I still owe them a couple. I'll get to them, I promise.
The Royal Scam (1976)
  • "Kid Charlemagne" — "Did you realize you were a champion in their eyes?" Did you realize that I'm the 68th all-time money winner in Jeopardy! history? Of course you did.

  • "The Fez" — "That's what I am; please understand I wanna be your holy man." I've been the minister for our church for the past 19 years. I don't know that I always (often?) qualify as a holy man. But I try.

  • "Green Earrings" — "Greek medallion sparkles when you smile." I lived in Greece for two years — my fourth and fifth grade years — in the early 1970s. Specifically, on Crete. You could get two lamb shish kabobs and a mound of shoestring fries for the equivalent of 25 cents American. I bet you can't now.
Aja (1977)
  • "Aja" — I lived in Asia for two years — mostly my seventh and eighth grade years — in the mid-'70s. Specifically, in the Philippines. Did you know that a number of outstanding comic book artists either hail from or reside in the Philippines?

  • "Deacon Blues" — "This brother is free; I'll be what I want to be." If only I knew what I want to be.

  • "Josie" — One of my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoons was Josie and the Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats.
Gaucho (1980)
  • "Hey Nineteen" — Nineteen has always been my lucky number, if indeed I have one. My birthday, my wife's birthday, and our anniversary all fall on the 19th of the month. (We planned the anniversary. The birthdays we didn't have much say about.) I used to have personalized license plates for my car that read "EY 9TEEN." I still have the plates, but I've never transferred them to my current vehicle.

  • "Babylon Sisters" — "Here come those Santa Ana winds again." I once fell in love with a girl on a warm Southern California evening when the Santa Anas were blowing. She was a terrific kid — smart and funny, with a heart the size of the Andromeda galaxy. We used to listen to Steely Dan together quite often, including this album. I wonder sometimes where she is, and how her life turned out. She'd had a rough go of things before I met her. I'm not sure I improved them any.

  • "Time Out of Mind" — This song contains one of the best backing vocal performances ever, by Michael McDonald. That doesn't have anything to do with anything. I'm just saying.

  • "My Rival" — "The wind was driving in my face, the smell of prickly pear..." When my family used to drive cross-country back in the day, I used to like to buy prickly pear candy from the roadside stands one used to encounter in the Southwest. Usually the stands were owned — or at least staffed — by Native American folks. Do you suppose anyone still sells prickly pear candy?
When I was a late-night DJ in my college radio days, Steely Dan's FM, from the soundtrack of the film of the same name, was my opening theme:
Worry the bottle, Mama, it's grapefruit wine
Kick off your high-heel sneakers, it's party time
The girls don't seem to care what's on
As long as it plays till dawn
Nothing but blues and Elvis
And somebody else's favorite song...
FM — no static at all.
I don't know about you, but I'm going to go put on a Steely Dan CD. After all, my entire life is in the lyrics.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Tom Lehrer was right!

It came to my attention today that the 118th chemical element, temporarily designated as ununoctium, has recently been synthesized for the first time by researchers at the nearby Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the not-so-nearby Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Russia.

This came as somewhat of a surprise to me, inasmuch as the last time I formally studied chemistry — during the Dark Age of Disco — only 105 elements had been officially discovered, and two of those were still more or less on probationary status.

I had no idea that there were 13 more already.

I didn't know that Element 105, which I learned to call hahnium, is now officially dubbed dubnium.

I certainly knew nothing of Elements 106 through 117: seaborgium, bohrium, hassium, meitnerium, darmstadtium, roentgenium, ununbium, ununtrium, ununquadium, ununpentium, ununhexium, and ununseptium.

(I'm relieved, however, to find out that Element 104 is still rutherfordium. Whew.)

I'm sure that my lack of knowledge in this essential area of chemistry would come as a great disappointment to my high school science teacher, a fine fellow by the name of Mr. Buhn. Or perhaps it wouldn't, given my less than stellar scholastic exploits in Mr. Buhn's chemistry and physics classes back in the day.

But really, I should have known this would happen.

Tom Lehrer told me so.

A history lesson is doubtless in order for the age-deficient in our audience. In the 1950s and '60s, Harvard-educated mathematician turned ivory-tickling troubadour Tom Lehrer was the premier musical satirist of his time. Some would argue that he was the premier musical satirist of all time. Lehrer's lyrically convoluted ditties, which skewered everything from Sophocles ("Oedipus Rex") to thermonuclear warfare ("We Will All Go Together When We Go"), became wildly popular through a skein of hit record albums and concert appearances.

By 1964, Lehrer was a featured performer on the political satire series That Was the Week That Was (known to aficionados as TW3), where he regaled television audiences with hilarious lyrical creations making light of current events — everything from National Brotherhood Week to Wernher Von Braun.

In the early '70s, Lehrer lent his talents to the PBS children's series The Electric Company, the very same program that first brought the talents of actor Morgan Freeman (who played the character Easy Reader) to national acclaim. And yet another generation was charmed out of its collective socks by Lehrer's brilliance.

Having exhausted his interest in public spectacle, Lehrer retired from the stage and the recording studio in 1972. Returning to academia, he began a lengthy career as an instructor in mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz (fight fiercely, Banana Slugs!). He resurfaced briefly in the '80s, when Tomfoolery, a musical based on his songs, made the rounds of musical theaters across the country.

Anyway, I've told you all of that just to tell you this.

One of Lehrer's best-known songs is "The Elements," which basically consists of Lehrer reciting the periodic table to the tune of "The Major General's Song" from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Having rattled off all of the elements known to science at that date, Lehrer concludes:
These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard...
And there may be many others, but they haven't been discovered.
(To appreciate the cleverness of the rhyme, imagine the lines being sung by, say, Ted Kennedy. Or the Gorton's fisherman.)

With the confirmation of the 118th element, Lehrer proves himself a prophet yet again.

And what of my old high school science teacher, Mr. Buhn? I run into him every now and again at my local comic book shop, of which he is also a patron. I read Spider-Man and Black Panther, he reads Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck.

But I think we both still dig Tom Lehrer.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

It's getting polyester up in here

I usually refrain from memes and the like, but today's "Tell It to Me Tuesday" over at The Art of Getting By was simply too close to my heart to pass up.

Janet asks her readers to list their Top Ten recording artists or bands of the 1970s. For someone whose musical tastes were shaped during that wild and crazy decade, that's pretty much like asking for my favorite recording artists or bands of all time.

As is typical for me, I had a tough time cutting the list to ten. To make the task at least somewhat manageable, I decided to stick to bands, and save the solo artists for another day. Even with that stricture, I ended up with an irreducible list of eleven. Sue me.

These appear in alphabetical order, because as challenging as it was narrowing the list, attempting to arrange it in order of preference, musical stature, or any other subjective quality would have melted my already fevered little brain into a limp puddle of protoplasm.
  1. Blue Öyster Cult. I was never a big heavy metal freak, but BÖC rarely left my turntable once I discovered them. Dazzling, often confounding lyrics, coupled with a melodic sense rare in the genre, elevated by the nonpareil guitar attack of Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser. No other band alive could have recorded songs like "(Don't Fear) the Reaper," "Godzilla," "R.U. Ready 2 Rock?" or the incredible power ballad "In Thee." Favorite '70s songs: See the preceding sentence.

  2. The Doobie Brothers. It really doesn't matter whether one prefers the hard-edged biker band boogie of their early hits or the R&B-tinged sound of the band's Michael McDonald period, the Doobies did it all with soul and style. Favorite '70s songs: "China Grove," "Long Train Runnin'," "Takin' It to the Streets," "It Keeps You Runnin'."

  3. The Eagles. People who know my flaming antipathy toward country music — which includes everyone who knows me, pretty much — are often surprised to discover that I'm an Eagles fan. They shouldn't be. I love stellar vocal harmonies, distinctive guitar playing, and songs with lyrics that are actually about something. That's the Eagles. Hotel California ranks as one of my five all-time favorite albums. Favorite '70s songs: "Desperado," "Take It to the Limit," "Hotel California," "Wasted Time."

  4. Earth, Wind and Fire. In the midst of the disco era, one band bridged the gap between the new-school production sound epitomized by the great disco artists and the old-school funk of bands like Parliament/Funkadelic. That band was Earth, Wind and Fire. If you can remain still in your seat when an EWF track pumps out of your radio, you're either terminally Caucasian or just terminal, period. Favorite '70s songs: "Shining Star," "September," "Serpentine Fire," "In the Stone."

  5. Heart. As I've written before, Heart may be the most underrated band in rock history. Seriously. On a scale measuring sheer talent and musicianship, you can't name five bands in all of rock who consistently outperformed Ann, Nancy, and the boys. With their unique blend of folk sensibility and heavy metal instrumentation, they truly were the American Led Zeppelin. Favorite '70s songs: "Magic Man," "Crazy On You," "Heartless," "Straight On."

  6. Journey. Go ahead, mock me. Favorite '70s songs: "Lights," "Wheel in the Sky," "Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin'," "Just the Same Way."

  7. Kansas. Not as well remembered today as some of their contemporaries — a lot of people still confuse them with Styx — but when it came to taking an American slant on British progressive rock, no one did it better than Kansas. Point of Know Return, the 1977 album that included the classic rock radio staple "Dust in the Wind," is one of the most innovative and technically brilliant records of the period. I spent my 19th birthday at a Kansas concert in San Francisco's Cow Palace. Those were the days, my friend. Favorite '70s songs: "Carry On Wayward Son," "Dust in the Wind," "Closet Chronicles," "Sparks of the Tempest."

  8. Meat Loaf. I know what you're thinking — I said no solo artists. It must be acknowledged, however, that the "Meat Loaf" who recorded the epic Bat Out of Hell is a perfect amalgamation of the vocal talents of the Loaf himself with the songwriting and production genius of Jim Steinman, plus the phenomenal combined talents of musical chameleon Todd Rundgren, several members of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band (including keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg), and Steinman's usual cast of backup vocalists (including Ellen Foley and Rory Dodd). Bat is therefore no more a solo effort than, say, a Steely Dan album of the same period. So there. Favorite '70s songs: "Heaven Can Wait," "For Crying Out Loud," "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," "Bat Out of Hell."

  9. Queen. Two words: Freddie. Mercury. I rest my case. Favorite '70s songs: Listed here.

  10. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. When rock critic Jon Landau wrote in 1974, "I saw rock and roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen," he wasn't just tossing off hyperbole. The Boss and his band came to define American rock in the latter half of the '70s. Popular music would never be the same again. Favorite '70s songs: "Rosalita," "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."

  11. Steely Dan. I can summarize the impact the music of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker made on my life in a single sentence: Without Steely Dan albums, I would not have survived adolescence. Favorite '70s songs: "Pretzel Logic," "Any Major Dude Will Tell You," "My Old School," "Deacon Blues."

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Twelve magical voices

The other day, I was driving my wife's car and I popped Kimberley Locke's One Love into the CD player. Of course, I've heard her single "8th World Wonder" on the radio a few dozen times, but this was the first time I'd listened to the album all the way through.

The verdict: Many (maybe most) of the songs sucked harder than a Dyson Animal, but the voice? K-Lo can sing. She was easily the most talented female vocalist American Idol has produced to date — yeah, I've heard Kelly Clarkson, and I'm sure you'll pardon my yawn — and was in fact a better singer than either of the two guys who outpointed her the year she competed.

Which got me thinking about other female vocalists whose voices rock my world. I came up with a dozen. They're in alpha order, because I'd be rearranging the list for weeks if I tried to do it any other way.
  1. Pat Benatar. Awesome pipes come in petite packages. Imitated often, from the '80s until now, but never equaled. She could easily be dismissed as just another screaming rocker chick, but Pat's opera-trained voice soars miles above the rest. Essential performances: "We Live for Love," "Heartbreaker," "Treat Me Right," "We Belong," "Invincible."

  2. Belinda Carlisle. Heaven is a place on earth where Go-Go's records are in nonstop play. Essential performances: (with the Go-Go's) "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," (solo) "Heaven is a Place on Earth," "I Get Weak."

  3. Karen Carpenter. I can crack as many anorexia jokes as the next blogger, but the woman possessed an instrument — a warm, rich mezzosoprano — that can only be described as divine. Ask any ten female vocalists who truly know their craft to write down the greatest voices of the pop/rock era, and Karen Carpenter's name will be on nine of the lists, if not all ten. (Karen was also a superlative drummer, just in case you didn't know that.) Essential performances: "Superstar," "We've Only Just Begun," "For All We Know," "Solitaire."

  4. Roberta Flack. Scary good. Go back and listen to "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" or "Killing Me Softly with His Song," and if the hair doesn't stand up on the back of your neck, call the undertaker. Essential performances: "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," "Killing Me Softly with His Song," "Feel Like Makin' Love," "The Closer I Get to You."

  5. Aretha Franklin. Well, yeah. They don't call her the Queen of Soul for kicks and giggles. Taught all of the rest what it was all about. Essential performances: "Respect," "Think," "Chain of Fools," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "Until You Come Back to Me."

  6. Billie Holiday. Sadly, Lady Blue's personal demons and addictions ruined her angelic voice long before she was finished using it. But when she had it, she had it all. Perhaps the most influential name on this list, after Aretha, despite her middling output. Essential performances: "Strange Fruit," "Summertime," "You Go to My Head," "Body and Soul."

  7. Whitney Houston. Sadly, Whitney's personal demons and addictions ruined her angelic voice long before... say, didn't I just write this? It's criminal what she's done to her career — and herself — in recent years, but in her prime, no one else ever wielded a pipe as powerful, as brilliantly controlled, or as sparkling as Whitney's. Essential performances: "Saving All My Love For You," "How Will I Know?" "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "I Will Always Love You."

  8. Annie Lennox. Sweet dreams are made of her incredible singing. One of the most amazingly fluid and expressive alto voices I've ever heard, in any genre. Who else could go vocal chord-to-vocal chord with Aretha Franklin, and hold her own? Essential performances: (with Eurythmics) "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," "Here Comes the Rain Again," "Would I Lie to You?" (solo) "Walking on Broken Glass," "No More I Love You's."

  9. Bonnie Raitt. Perhaps better known as a guitarist — the finest female bottleneck blues guitarist ever recorded, in fact — but Bonnie has the pipes to match her picking. Deserves to be a much bigger star than she is. Essential performances: "Nick of Time," "Something to Talk About," "I Can't Make You Love Me," "You Got It."

  10. Sade. No need to ask — the erstwhile Helen Folasade Adu is one smooth operator. One of the sexiest voices imaginable, she caresses every lyric and seduces every melodic line like an accomplished lover. Essential performances: "Your Love Is King," "Smooth Operator," "The Sweetest Taboo," "Never As Good As The First Time."

  11. Nina Simone. There's a reason why, despite her relatively unknown status in her native United States, filmmakers continue to plug her songs into the soundtracks of their films: No one else sounds like Nina Simone, and no one else had better try. A unique talent, criminally underappreciated. Essential performances: "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," "I Put a Spell on You," "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," "Sinnerman."

  12. Ann Wilson. The lead-singing half of the sister duo at the heart of Heart (although guitarist Nancy is a pretty fair singer herself), Dreamboat Annie deserves a lofty place in the pantheon of rock's greatest vocalists. Essential performances: "Crazy On You," "Barracuda," "Dog and Butterfly," "These Dreams," "Who Will You Run To?"

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Monday, September 11, 2006

How fragile we are

Some called it "the day that changed America forever."

Five years ago today, a band of nineteen outlaws piloted jet airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center and the seat of American military power, the Pentagon. Another jet, bound for the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. plowed into a field in Pennsylvania. At the end of the day, 3,000 lives had been lost, the second and third tallest buildings in the United States had been reduced to rubble, and a nation had been traumatized.

As the fifth anniversary of September 11, 2001 arrives, what’s changed?

Not much, it seems. Want proof? Think about it — what was the biggest story in the news this week? The war against al-Qaeda? Airport security? The potential threat of biological or nuclear attack? Nope — what’s had America buzzing the loudest is the unfortunate death of Australian TV personality Steve Irwin, and heiress Paris Hilton’s drunk driving arrest.

In the aftermath of what we have come to call "9/11," life in these United States has continued pretty much apace. Sure, the check-in lines are a little longer at the airport, but in my experience, airport lines have always been interminably long. It takes a few minutes more to enter a ball game or amusement park, and you can’t take as much stuff in with you as you formerly could. I can live with that. I believe most people can. But has the substance of our lives changed? Not so you’d notice.

I don’t mean to minimize the loss experienced by those whose loved ones died in the terrorist attacks. Without question, their lives were irrevocably altered. But in a materially different way than anyone else who’s had a family member murdered, or killed in an accident, or succumbed to a painful illness? Not really, no. Granted, not everyone’s death is replayed ad nauseum on the evening news. But still, death is death, and will be mourned no matter who, or how many, die.

Many speculated that the tragedy of 9/11 would turn more people to religion. Perhaps it did, momentarily — to that brand of religion that offers gentle homilies and smooth platitudes while demanding no true moral conversion or spiritual growth. That effect, like the effect of all self-centered and materially based religion, fades quickly, like dew evaporating off the hood of a car in summer. I haven't seen any evidence that more people are seeking genuine truth, or that people have been motivated to significantly change their approach to spiritual things. We remain as shallow and superficial a people as we ever were.

Which is too bad, really.

Human beings are remarkably — or perhaps the word is notoriously — reluctant to change. We manifest an uncanny resistance against doing or becoming anything different from what we’ve always done or been. Even the most horrific events in the world around us rarely improve us for very long. And even the sternest warnings of possible disaster fail to cause us to redirect our behavior.

We always seek the silver lining in dark clouds, the happy outcome of every tragic event. That’s why, I think, Americans want to believe that the evil perpetrated on September 11, 2001 has made us a better country. We’d like to hope that out of such bitter catastrophe some good might come. First, though, we’d have to be willing to change.

And that, my friends, ain't gonna happen.

I still believe Sting said it best...

If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the colour of the evening sun
Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime's argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are
How fragile we are

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Between rock and a hard place

In and around doing other things last night, I was checking out a replay of VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. Yes, I'm aware that the series is a few years old. But if you haven't seen it before, it's new to you, right?

I'm not going to run down the entire list here — you can go here to review it, if you're so inclined — but I jotted down a few random thoughts that wafted through my formerly hard-rock addled brain as I watched the program. You'll see that I dug out a few souvenirs to solidify my rocker cred.

96. Meat Loaf. I'd have had the Loaf much higher on my ballot. SSTOL regulars already know that I loves me some Meat Loaf. The singer, too.

90. Rainbow. One of the funniest bits in Cameron Crowe's book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (upon which Crowe based his screenplay for the seminal teenage comedy), involves a kid who skips school every April 14 to celebrate the birthday of Rainbow's lead guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore. That always strikes me as funny because one of my best friends' birthdays also falls on April 14, and when we were in high school together, I never got her birthday off.

89. Lita Ford. One of the great injustices of this list is that the Runaways, the all-girl band that spawned the careers of both Lita Ford and Joan Jett (#66), isn't included. The Runaways' eponymous first album, raw and undisciplined though it may be, rocks harder and is way more fun than anything Lita ever recorded as a solo artist.

86. Foreigner. I want to know what love is. I want Lou, Mick and the boys to show me. In a strictly musical, heterosexual way.

83. King's X. An amazing three-piece musical juggernaut that never got the credit its collective talents deserved for two reasons: (1) because its members had in their early careers been backup players with such "contemporary Christian music" acts as Petra and Phil Keaggy, and thus King's X was stigmatized as a religious act (though their music never fit the CCM mold); (2) because lead singer and bassist Doug Pinnick came out as gay, effectively cutting the band off from the fan base that had supported King's X when they were being marketed as a Christian band.

74. Pat Benatar. I seriously crushed on Pat Benatar back in the day. That was before I saw her live in concert, and discovered that she was this microscopic slip of a woman, maybe four-foot-ten and 85 pounds. How did such a mammoth voice emerge from such a petite frame?

72. Foo Fighters. The VH1 series failed to answer one of the great mysteries in music history: What is foo, and why are these guys fighting it?

67. The Rolling Stones. The Stones, way down at #67? You've gotta be kidding.

61. Jethro Tull. I still chuckle when I recall that Tull copped the first-ever Grammy Award for heavy metal performance. I see they snuck in here, too.

57. Heart. Maybe the most underrated band in rock, ever. The Wilson sisters (that's Ann and Nancy, not Carnie and Wendy) were, at the height of their powers, one of the most sensational songwriting and performing combinations in popular music. The cognoscenti sometimes referred to Heart as "Led Zeppelin with breasts," and they were right. About the Zeppelin comparison, I mean. And yeah, the other thing(s), too.

55. Blue Öyster Cult. I still own a complete collection of BÖC LPs, up through The Revolution By Night. A perfect fusion of science fiction sensibility and heavy metal thunder, led by one of rock's most distinctive guitarists in Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser. How can you not love a band that could create songs with titles like these: "I'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep," "She's As Beautiful as a Foot," "Seven Screaming Diz-Busters," "Baby Ice Dog," "Veteran of the Psychic Wars," "The Great Sun Jester," and "Shooting Shark," just to name a few. Seriously, what other band in rock history could have recorded scary songs about both Godzilla and Joan Crawford?

44. ZZ Top. Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man. Especially one with a waist-length beard and a '34 Ford.

31. Def Leppard. The only band in rock history with a one-armed drummer, although he still had two when Leppard recorded their best album, Pyromania.

25. Cheap Trick. Back when I was a college radio DJ in Southern California in the early '80s, Rick Nielsen once telephoned me in the studio to thank me for playing a Cheap Trick tune. The song, in case you're interested, was "Southern Girls," from Trick's 1977 album, In Color. Hey, Rick, I'm still in the book, man, if you ever feel the urge to reconnect.

17. The Ramones. Riff Randall still fondly recalls the way Joey Ramone slithered pizza into his mouth.

13. Queen. Freddie Mercury was The Man.

8. The Who. Would be Numero Uno on my ballot, with Zeppelin (first on VH1's tally) a close second, and Queen — my personal favorite of the three — in third. No one ever sounded like The Who, then or now. Who's Next remains the greatest non-Beatles album in popular music history, hands down.

4. AC/DC. Dirty deeds. Done dirt cheap. Angus Young always looked like a doofus in the schoolboy shorts, though.

3. Jimi Hendrix. Well, yeah. Duh. 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

2. Black Sabbath. Not my thing, really, but they were half of one of the coolest rock concert films ever shot: Black and Blue, the audiovisual record of Sabbath's co-headline tour with Blue Öyster Cult.

1. Led Zeppelin. All of which reminds me... it's been a long time since I rock-and-rolled.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Only Weekend Warriors need apply

Here's your quote for today, courtesy of rock guitar legend and itinerant gun nut Ted Nugent:
"If you want to be in my band, you have to be a member of the NRA, and you have to love to kill stuff. That's why we're here."
Now, straight shooter that he is (no pun intended), The Nuge isn't sharing the full skinny on what it takes to become a full-fledged member of his performing ensemble. Yes, it's true that one must be a homicidal sociopath. That goes without saying. But other important criteria apply also.

Thanks to intensive research by the nonprofit (it's not how we planned it, things just worked out that way) SwanShadow Foundation for Truth in Rock, we herewith present the Top Ten Qualifications for Aspiring Motor City Madmen. Applicants must...
  1. Be able to articulate the difference between "Nugent" and "Nougat."

  2. Have proof of current immunization against cat scratch fever.

  3. Swear to stomp the everlovin' doody out of anyone who accidentally mistakes Ted for Sammy Hagar.

  4. Be prepared to say "You're absolutely right, Ted," a lot.

  5. Know that "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" is not an orange-flavored breakfast drink.

  6. Possess experience in gutting whole venison carcasses.

  7. Call Derek St. Holmes on the phone and belt out a Tarzan yell in his ear.

  8. Write a 1,000-word essay on the reasons why Damn Yankees was the baddest supergroup in history.

  9. Enjoy the taste of Meat Loaf.

  10. Look totally smokin' in a leather loincloth.
All that, and of course, be an NRA member and love to kill stuff.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I want a new drug

Mario Cipollina, the original bassist of Huey Lewis and the News, is in legal trouble again.

The tall, slender, silent Newsman — you remember, the one who always looked like Bowser from Sha Na Na — pleaded not guilty yesterday to felony drug possession charges. His probation officer turned up heroin and methamphetamine at Mario's house during a routine search, the musician having been placed on probation a couple of years back for stealing radio controlled cars from a local store. Cipollina was earlier arrested for drug possession in 1996, shortly after he left the News.

All of which makes Uncle Swan cry, because I loves me some Huey Lewis and the News.

My first exposure to the band came in the summer of 1980. A new waterslide park called Windsor Water Works held its Grand Opening one Saturday in a town just north of here, and Huey Lewis and the News were the featured entertainment. At the time, the band had just released their first album — to general disinterest on the part of the record-buying public — but some friends of mine had heard them on the local club circuit and told me, "Hey, you've gotta go check these guys out." Since the concert was free to park visitors, I made the short trip up the freeway and heard the News.

Immediately, I was hooked. I loved the News' raucous-yet-refined garage-retro sound, anchored by the smoking guitar riffs of Chris "The Kid" Hayes and the rock-steady tempos of drummer Bill Gibson. I loved the acid-washed vocals and bluesy mouth harp of frontman Lewis, surrounded by the tight harmonies of keyboardist Sean Hopper and dual-threat guitar/saxophone man Johnny Colla. I loved the fact that they dared to sing an entire number a cappella (as they later would perform the National Anthem at Candlestick Park before 49ers games). And I loved Mario, who simply stood stock-still amid the chaos — always dressed in black, his eyes always masked behind aviator sunglasses, his pompadour flawlessly coiffured — thumping out the backbeat on his Fender bass.

By the end of the hour, my list of favorite musical acts increased by one.

I next caught the News live again in 1982, while I was pretending to study broadcasting at San Francisco State University. By this time, the band had charted with their first couple of hits and were becoming household names around the Bay Area. (This time, I had to shell out a fin to get into the show. A pittance, even then. As you can see, I still have the ticket stub.)

Fame hadn't changed Huey and the boys one whit. They still looked and sounded like six guys banging out tunes in a garage after an evening of swilling beer at a bowling alley. No glitz, no glamour, just good-time, hard-rocking power pop buoyed by radio-friendly hooks.

KJ and I saw the News in concert a few times over the years. As the size of the group's venues expanded, they supplemented Huey's harmonica and Johnny's sax with the Tower of Power horn section. But they never varied much afield from the '50s-influenced sound that marked their early hits. We were among the rain-soaked masses huddled on the lawn at the Concord Pavilion on that stormy October night in 1991 when legendary concert promoter Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter accident leaving a Huey Lewis and the News show. We had seen Graham prowling the backstage area earlier in the evening, which made the news (no pun intended) of his death hours later all the more eerie.

Anyway, the News — who were never really stylish to begin with — fell out of style as time marched along. Mario Cipollina left the band a decade ago (willingly or not, who's to say?), as did Chris Hayes a few years later. (Incidentally, Chris's sister Bonnie is a whale of a talent herself. For many years, she fronted a Bay Area band known originally as Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo. More recently, she has written songs and played session keyboards for a variety of artists, from Billy Idol to Robert Cray.)

Although Huey and company last recorded an album five years ago, they continue to tour, mostly county fairs and casinos and such like. This summer, the News shared a skein of performance dates with the band Chicago, another act heavy on the harmonies and horns. They're probably out there somewhere in America tonight, keeping the heart of rock and roll beating.

Mario Cipollina, sad to say, will not be joining them.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Money for nothing, and your chicks for free

On this date a quarter-century ago, American culture plunged headlong into the abyss.

August 1, 1981: MTV unleashed its first salvo of programming. And the collective IQ of Western civilization nosedived into double digits.

Although MTV fired up 25 years ago today — all gaudy graphics, jangling guitars, and attitude — I didn't actually have an opportunity to experience the phenomenon firsthand until many months later. Our local cable provider at the time was a primitive, patrician outfit called Storer Cable, which operated under the principle that paying customers didn't really need all of those newfangled viewing options. Folks in our neck of the woods were therefore denied the wonders of 24/7 music videos (as well as pretty much everything else on basic cable, with the exception of ESPN) until a few years later, when a different company assumed the franchise.

Thus, this mysterious MTV remained merely an enticing rumor until I ventured to Southern California to serve as best man at my best friend's wedding. While the bride and groom scurried about with last-second prenuptial tasks, I plopped myself in front of the idiot box for two days and basked nonstop in the cathode ray glow of MTV. Even now, I vividly recall the videos that were in heavy rotation at the moment: Chris DeBurgh's "Don't Pay the Ferryman," Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," and "Der Kommissar" by After the Fire.

Ah, halcyon days.

And then, there was Martha Quinn.

Oh my ineffable goodness, Martha Quinn.

Martha Quinn was America's sweetheart. A sweet-faced gamine elf with immense dark eyes and charm to burn. If MTV personalities had baseball cards, I would have eagerly traded every Daisy Duke-clad hottie in every hair-metal video then in play on MTV — not to mention a dozen Nina Blackwoods — for just one Martha Quinn.

As time passed, the video craze faded. MTV diversified into all manner of youth-focused programming, most of it not recognizably music-related. Over the years, the network's offerings have veered from the more or less sublime (The Real World, Remote Control, Aeon Flux and many of the channel's other animated shows) to the patently ridiculous (Punk'd, Undressed) to the utterly lacking in redeeming social value (The Tom Green Show, Beavis and Butt-Head, Jackass).

Today, MTV scarcely airs music videos, except in the wee hours of the morning as an alternative to shopping channels and infomercials. Martha Quinn and the surviving members of MTV's original cast of VJs — Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, and the aforementioned Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson having slipped the surly bonds of earth a couple of years back — now ply their talents on Sirius satellite radio.

I guess video didn't kill the radio star after all.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What's Up With That? #33: You can't overlove your innuendo

It's been on the air for more than a year now, apparently without protest. Which may suggest that I'm the only person in America who's creeped out by that pedophilic Fruit of the Loom underwear commercial.

You know the one I mean.

Tell me there's nothing uncomfortably eerie about grown men dressed up like fruit — in the literal sense of the word — singing longingly about "a boy in pure white briefs" (the boy in question being perhaps ten years old in the video), concluding with the line, "You can't overlove your underwear."

And the title of the ad is "Ripe for the Pickin'." Puh-lease.

What ad agency concocted this spot — NAMBLA?

Actually, it's The Richards Group, a billion-dollar agency based in Dallas, which represents top-shelf companies ranging from Hyundai to Home Depot. They ought to know better. (I suppose I've just shredded my chances of ever writing copy for them.)

And before you ask, no, it's not just the man-boy thing. The ad would be no less hackle-raising if the apple guy was crooning about prepubescent girls in white cotton panties. Or if an adult woman dressed like Carmen Miranda sang the praises of skivvies-clad minor children of either gender. It's the subtext that matters.

The infernal thing is, that jingle is awfully darned catchy. I find myself wandering absent-mindedly about the house, extolling in song the joys of pederasty.

It's icky. That's all I'm saying.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Long tails, and ears for hats

Over the weekend, I stumbled across this article on about the greatest cartoon bands of all time.

Not surprisingly, the currently popular Gorillaz led the writer's selections, followed by Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the Groovie Goolies, and the Misfits (the rival band in Jem and the Holograms).

It was Number Five on the list that caught my attention. When was the last time I thought about Josie and the Pussycats? Umm... probably last week sometime, if I recall correctly.

Bucketloads of cartoon bands paraded across television screens during that bizarre late '60s-early '70s era, when practically every animated series worth its salt was built around a bunch of kids / monsters / funny animals who played music together. I think it was the Archies that really started the phenomenon rolling, although one could argue that the Beatles film Yellow Submarine gave credence to the whole musicians-as-cartoons concept.

Josie and the Pussycats stood out from the Saturday morning crowd for a couple of reasons. One, the Pussycats were three attractive young women dressed in form-fitting leopard suits, and there just aren't too many things on the planet better than that. (The gals also sported what were probably the first prominent bustlines displayed on children's programming since Annette Funicello's heyday.) Second, Josie integrated her band — and animated cartoons in general — at a time when much of America was still struggling to cross the color line in real life.

Plus, the 'Cats produced a wicked awesome sound for a band that only included a guitar, a drum kit, and a couple of tambourines. (How Josie and company managed to lay down that pop-rock beat without a bass player remains one of the persistent mysteries of our time.)

As a kidvid spinoff of The Archie Show, Josie and the Pussycats was relentlessly formulaic, populated with stereotypical stock characters the like of which could be seen in any number of other cartoons. The core team consisted of Josie, the redheaded all-American girl; Valerie, the intellectual (and black — the first person of African-American heritage to appear as a regular cast member in a network cartoon show) Pussycat; and Melody, the dim-bulb platinum blonde. (Arcane trivia: Future Charlie's Angel Cheryl Ladd provided Melody's singing voice, while her speaking voice came from the mouth of actress Jackie Joseph, best remembered as Audrey in the original Little Shop of Horrors.)

The Pussycats' roadies included Alan M., the strong, silent type all the girls fawned over; the bickering brother-sister team of Alexandra and Alex Cabot (essentially the duplicitous Reggie Mantle from the Archies, split into fraternal twins), and Sebastian, the Cabots' trouble-prone cat (a character type much beloved by the folks at Hanna-Barbera, who tossed a similar animal into almost every cartoon they produced, from Scooby-Doo to Wacky Races).

But the Pussycats also had style. The girls clearly were into boys, but their lives weren't defined by their pursuit of the opposite sex, as was the case with Betty and Veronica in the various Archie series. As successful entertainers, the 'Cats were independent young women who didn't need boyfriends to anchor their self-esteem. They shared a sense of sisterly camaraderie that appeared both inspiring and empowering, especially considering that one of the three sisters was actually a sistah, if you catch my drift. There wasn't a real-world all-girl band to rival the Pussycats until 1976 — a half-dozen years after Josie and the girls debuted — when the Runaways, featuring future rock legends Joan Jett and Lita Ford, exploded into the popular culture.

I stuck with Josie and the gang even when their series took a weird, science-fictional left turn and transmogrified into Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, which seemed to recycle most of the plots from the earlier version, only with more bug-eyed aliens. However, I never did get around to watching the live-action Josie and the Pussycats film that came out a few years back, mostly because the reviews consistently indicated that it was awful, and I didn't want to spoil my fond memories of the Pussycats' halcyon days. Although now that I know that Rosario Dawson, who played Valerie in the movie, is a major comic book geek, I may have to satisfy my curiosity one of these days. (You know what curiosity does to cats.)

In my heart, I hope that Josie, Val, and Melody are somewhere kicking out the jams on the nostalgia circuit, playing county fairs and Indian casinos, still wearing those leopard-skin leotards and cat's-ear headpieces despite graying hair, crow's feet, and the inexorable advance of gravity.

If they played in my town, I'd buy a ticket.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Asia: Together again despite underwhelming demand

Yeah, like we were eagerly awaiting this...

The original lineup of Asia is reforming for a 25th anniversary reunion tour.

Let the ennui commence.

Back in the day, circa the late 1960s, when a rock band was hyped as a "supergroup," that handle actually meant something. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, for example, brought together key members of three superstar ensembles: The Byrds (David Crosby), Buffalo Springfield (Stephen Stills and Neil Young), and The Hollies (Graham Nash). Blind Faith combined the already legendary talents of Eric Clapton (The Yardbirds, Cream), Ginger Baker (Clapton's bandmate in Cream), and Stevie Winwood (the brilliant Traffic), along with bassist Ric Grech from the group Family. Even into the 1970s, we were still getting supergroups worthy of the name, such as Bad Company — Paul Rodgers and Simon Kirke from Free ("All Right Now"), Mick Ralphs from Mott the Hoople ("All the Young Dudes"), and Boz Burrell (the seminal progressive rock band King Crimson).

By the advent of the '80s, however — man, that was one culturally bankrupt decade, wasn't it? — the biggest "supergroup" the music industry could scrape together was Asia, which merged the tattered remains of a pair of defunct prog-rock bands, Yes (guitarist Steve Howe, keyboard player Geoff Downes) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (drummer Carl Palmer), with a singer/bassist named John Wetton, who had been in one of the myriad permutations of King Crimson half a decade before.

With much fanfare, Asia's self-titled (I was going to say "eponymous," but I've exhausted my allotment of pretentiousness for this week) first album was unleashed on Top 40 radio in 1982. The singles "Heat of the Moment" and "Only Time Will Tell," trademarked by Downes's screechy, repetitive synthesizer riffs (the guy had just come over from the Buggles, whose MTV hit "Video Killed the Radio Star" may have indeed sounded the death knell for rock and roll as we once knew it) and Wetton's hilariously wimpy lead vocals (if you've seen The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you'll recall that the title character is portrayed as an Asia fan, which partly explains his lack of "experience"), immediately wormed their way into Western consciousness, never to be eradicated.

Fortunately for civilization, Asia's succeeding albums fared less strongly in the marketplace. The band continued to record and tour with various patchwork lineups — something like 16 or 17 different musicians have been members of the four-person band at one time or another — and gradually faded from view.

Until now.

Darn it.


Saturday, July 08, 2006

Congratulations, Vocal Spectrum!

In one of the tightest finishes in the competition's history, Vocal Spectrum of St. Charles, Missouri edged out the heavily favored Max Q to win the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Championship. The margin of victory (or loss, depending on your point of view) was a scant six points out of a possible 9000.

Two quartets from Southern California, OC Times and Metropolis, finished in third and fourth places respectively, while Salem, Oregon's Flipside rounded out the top five.

Vocal Spectrum, the sixth-place International finalist last year, becomes the second quartet to take International gold after first winning the Society's Collegiate Championship. The four young men from Lindenwood University were the Collegiate champs in 2004.

In the International Chorus Contest, Dallas's Vocal Majority narrowly topped Southern California's Westminster Chorus to claim their unprecedented 11th gold medal.

Kudos to all the competitors!


Thursday, July 06, 2006

Four parts, no waiting

Congratulations to the ten quartets — in a field of 47 incredibly talented ensembles — who today qualified for the finals of the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Contest in Indianapolis.

Here's the order in which the Top Ten will perform in Saturday night's showdown:
  1. Storm Front, Denver, Colorado
  2. Vocal Spectrum, St. Charles, Missouri
  3. Saturday Evening Post, Colorado Springs, Colorado
  4. State Line Grocery, Atlanta, Georgia
  5. Flipside, Salem, Oregon
  6. Max Q, Dallas, Texas
  7. Metropolis, Los Angeles, California
  8. Wheelhouse, Wilmington, Delaware
  9. OC Times, Orange County, California
  10. MatriX, Columbus, Ohio
Anyone still laboring under the misconception that barbershop music is nothing more than four old white guys caterwauling in straw hats and candy-striped vests should check out the Webcast of Saturday night's competition. So should everyone else, for that matter, who enjoys tight, soaring a cappella harmonies. It's going to be spectacular.


Monday, June 26, 2006

How can we miss you if you won't go away?

Kevin Richardson, at age 33 the oldest of the Backstreet Boys, has announced his retirement from the once-popular boy band.

Am I the only person in America who didn't realize that the Backstreet Boys still existed?

In other entertainment news, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has signed on to appear in the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise as the father of Captain Jack Sparrow, the character played by Johnny Depp.

Am I the only person in America who didn't realize that Keith Richards was still alive?

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

A run in my Nylons

I was just reading over on A Cappella News, producer/promoter John Neal's clearinghouse for all things a cappella, that Arnold Robinson, the nonpareil bass of The Nylons, has hung up his microphone after 26 years of anchoring one of the world's best-known, best-loved vocal bands.

Most familiar to American audiences for their popular, oft-imitated covers of Steam's "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)," the Turtles' "Happy Together," and the Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the Toronto-based Nylons were a major force in contemporizing a cappella for the general public. As a longtime fan, I've covered hundreds of highway miles with Claude Morrison's soaring tenor and Arnold Robinson's booming bass cascading from my car stereo speakers.

The Nylons were also one of the first mainsteam musical acts at the forefront of AIDS awareness. In 1991, the group's lead singer, Marc Connors, succumbed to the disease.

Enjoy your retirement years, Arnold. Long may you run!


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

You oughta know, Alanis

Some people just can't be happy.

Singer Alanis Morissette and her fiance, actor Ryan Reynolds, have gone their separate ways.

Ryan had better hope that Alanis doesn't decide to write a song about him in the aftermath of their breakup, the way she wrote the venom-dripping "You Oughta Know" after splitting with former Full House star Dave Coulier.

Then again, Ryan should have known better than to get involved with a woman so desperate that she'd sleep with Dave Coulier.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Nothing from nothing leaves nothing

It's been a tough few days for the keyboard section.

Billy Preston, the pianist and singer often referred to as "the fifth Beatle" due to his legendary contributions to the Fab Four's final live performance (the "rooftop concert" seen in the film Let It Be), has passed on.

Preston played alongside everybody — and I mean everybody — during his long and stellar career. He was considered by many in the industry to be one of the greatest session musicians ever. In addition to his appearances on various latter-period Beatles recordings and solo projects by ex-Beatles (he was the only musician other than John, Paul, George or Ringo to receive label credit on a Beatles single, on "Get Back"), Preston can be heard on most of the Rolling Stones' albums of the early '70s, as well as records by Sly and the Family Stone, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Diamond, even folk-rock guru Bob Dylan.

As a solo artist, Preston enjoyed hits with such songs as "Will It Go 'Round In Circles," "Nothing From Nothing," "Outta Space," "I Wrote a Simple Song," "Space Race," and "With You I'm Born Again." He also wrote Joe Cocker's best-known hit, "You Are So Beautiful" (a song vandalized by legions of wedding singers in the decades since Cocker released it).

Now that's a prodigious body of work.

Rest in peace, Sgt. Pepper.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Grateful or not, he's Dead

In local news, my fellow Sonoma County resident Vince Welnick, the fifth and final keyboard player for the Grateful Dead, passed away over the weekend, an apparent suicide.

Before joining the Dead, Welnick was a founding member of the seminal Bay Area band The Tubes, famous for their early MTV hits "She's a Beauty" and "Talk to Ya Later," and the anthemic "White Punks on Dope."

Creepy factoid: Of the five keyboardists The Grateful Dead employed during their "long, strange trip," four — Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Keith Godchaux, Brent Mydland, and now Vince Welnick — are deceased.

I'll bet Tom Constanten crosses the street a little more gingerly from here on out.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

We can work it out... or not

It's one of those good news, bad news days for celebrity relationships.

First, the good news: Nicole Kidman is officially engaged to country singer Keith Urban.

At least, that's good news if you can stomach the thought of poor Nic having to listen to country music for the rest of her life.

Here's what I don't understand, though. Urban was born in New Zealand and raised in Australia. When did the Tasman Sea become a hotbed of country music? Aren't the Aussies and Kiwis more or less British in culture? You'd think their native musical artists would be Beatles imitators or something.

Speaking of Beatles, here's the bad news: Paul McCartney and his wife Heather Mills are separating after four years.

I've long suspected that Sir Macca's May-December romance with Little Miss Save-the-Whales (he's 63, she's 38 — you do the math) was about as stable as a three-legged table.

But saying so would probably be in poor taste.

Macca's worth about a billion and a half American. There's no prenuptial contract. You do the math there, too. Attorneys and accountants are no doubt already rubbing their hands together and singing "We Can Work It Out."

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Living in harmony

Saturday night, KJ and I attended — for the 14th consecutive year — the Harmony Sweepstakes National A Cappella Championships in San Rafael. (It was fourteen straight for me, anyway — as reported here at the time, KJ broke her streak last year due to a bout with the flu.)

Eight stellar vocal groups from around the country, representing a myriad of musical styles, sang their fannies off for the approval of about 2000 hopped-up a cappella-heads.

I look eagerly forward to the Sweeps every year, not only because I enjoy the music, but because it's one of the rare opportunities I have to connect with some of my longtime singing compatriots whom I don't otherwise see. I'm sorry you couldn't be there, but here's a recap of what you missed:
  • 'Round Midnight (New York region). A stylish barbershop-style male quartet, these guys delivered some of the evening's tightest harmonies. They weren't flashy, which probably cost them points with some of the judges, but they sang a wonderfully sweet set that included "Tonight," "Tin Roof Blues," and a novel arrangement of "Take the A Train." It's a distinct disadvantage to perform first at the Sweeps, though — I can't recall the last time a group that kicked off the contest actually won.

  • elmoTHUMM (Chicago region). A few years ago, the Sweeps finals would often consist almost entirely of all-male contemporary groups modeled after such legendary vocal bands as Rockapella and the House Jacks. These guys were a throwback to those not-always-thrilling days of yesteryear. I wasn't impressed with their set — their singing was ragged and raucous (their rendition of "America the Beautiful" never did come together), a couple of the individual voices were subpar, and they suffered from frequent tuning issues. They also used manual percussion instruments, which I thought (perhaps incorrectly) were disallowed in the Sweeps. But where else are you going to hear a cappella covers of the Monkees ("Last Train to Clarksville") and Bad Company ("Shooting Star") in the same 12-minute set?

  • Curious Gage (Denver region). The evening's first mixed-gender ensemble, this five-voice group (four men, one woman) mined some of the same general territory as the preceding act, but with somewhat greater success. Their female singer, Carleen Widhalm, did a nice lead vocal on "Any Way the Wind Blows," and I also liked their cover of one of my favorite Doobie Brothers tunes, "Long Train Runnin'." One of their singers, however, wandered in and out of tune almost the entire set, which distracted me from fully enjoying their performance.

  • Hi-Fidelity (Los Angeles region). When I heard that Hi-Fidelity made the finals, I knew immediately they'd be a front-runner. They're a talented barbershop quartet that specializes in comedy, and they performed their set costumed as the Addams Family (Gomez sings lead, Uncle Fester sings tenor, Cousin Itt sings baritone, and Lurch sings — what else? — bass). I've seen the act several times before — in fact, I've been the master of ceremonies on two previous shows when they've done it — but it never fails to bring down the house. All Hi-Fidelity had to do to finish in the medals was sing up to the level of their comedy. On this night, they did.

  • Regency (Mid-Atlantic region). This male quintet sings in the classic streetcorner doo-wop style, and after 20 years together, they do it awfully darn well. Regency last graced the Sweeps finals the time KJ and I attended, so it was a delight to see them again after all these years. Their energetic set included such standards as "Johnny B. Goode," "Jump, Jive and Wail" (accompanied by some fast and furious dance steps by the lead singer) and an unusual arrangement of "Only You."

  • Clockwork (Bay Area region). Local favorites Clockwork were back for their second shot at Sweeps glory — they were in the finals two years ago — with more of their customary polished vocal jazz stylings. Clockwork's five singers (four gents, plus the nonpareil Angie Doctor) are all incredibly skilled musicians, and their performance abilities have improved since I last saw them. Vocal jazz ensembles have a spotty history of success in the Sweeps, mainly because they seem a trifle staid opposite the more flamboyant pop-contemporary groups, but Clockwork acquitted themselves quite ably this year.

  • Tongue Tied A Cappella (Pacific Northwest region). Like many a cappella groups out of the Northwest, this youthful male quintet owes a stylistic debt to popular 1994 Sweeps champs the Coats (originally known as the Trenchcoats). And, like most of the Coats-inspired groups I've seen, they don't hold a candle to the original. It didn't help them any that the familiar songs they covered — "Sunglasses at Night" and "We Built This City" — are without question two of the cheesiest hit songs in pop-rock history. Entertaining enough, but not at the level of several of the other competitors.

  • Traces (Boston region). The sole returnees from last year's finals, Traces is a fine female gospel quintet, anchored by one of the most phenomenal female bass vocalists I've heard. Their set this year was tighter and smoother than I remembered them from the last contest. Like the vocal jazz groups, gospel performers tend to fare poorly at the Sweeps, but these ladies did a lovely job. (Even if KJ thought their all-white outfits were just a bit much.)
As the judges (including my good friend and vocal coach, Phil DeBar) tallied the scores, last year's champions Groove For Thought delivered a superb swan song performance. Hi-Fidelity won the Audience Favorite balloting, affording them the opportunity to sing the evening's only encore.

When the final results were announced, Hi-Fidelity emerged the victors, with Regency second and Clockwork third. Congrats to Craig (Uncle Fester), Tom (Gomez), Gregg (Cousin Itt, and Thing, too!), and Martin (Lurch) — good fellows all.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Killer Queen

Having endured the indignity of listening to this season's American Idol cast butchering the songs of one of the greatest rock bands of all time — Queen, featuring the talents of guitar hero Brian May, percussionist extraordinaire Roger Taylor, bassist John Deacon, and the inimitable Freddie Mercury on lead vocals and piano — I feel the urgent need to compile my list of all-time favorites from the Queen catalogue.

Get on your bikes and ride...
  1. Fat Bottomed Girls. If I have to explain to you why I love this song, (a) you don't know me — or my predilections — very well, and (b) any explanation won't help.

  2. Keep Yourself Alive. Back in my disc jockey days, those words were my customary signoff. Queen's first single, and still one of their most enjoyable rockers. Fun, energetic vocals by Freddie.

  3. You're My Best Friend. One of several Queen hits written by bassist John Deacon, it's unusual in that it features Deacon on electric piano (an instrument keyboardist Freddie despised and refused to play).

  4. Don't Stop Me Now. If I ever got the chance to direct a motion picture about a superhero, this song would be on the soundtrack. It just has that anthemic feel.

  5. Another One Bites the Dust. The least Queen-like number in my Top Ten, but I like it anyway. Another John Deacon original. Remember Weird Al Yankovic's parody, "Another One Rides the Bus"? I thought of that before I ever heard of Weird Al.

  6. Bicycle Race. Freddie Mercury's paean to the Tour de France — only with hot naked chicks instead of Lance Armstrong. Maybe the only hit song in the history of rock to use a bicycle bell as a percussion instrument. On the single, it's the A-side to "Fat Bottomed Girls" — which strikes me as being entirely backwards.

  7. Somebody to Love. One of the most amazing choral arrangements in popular music — somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 vocal overdubs of Freddie, Brian, and Roger — as well as one of the greatest power ballads in rock history.

  8. Tie Your Mother Down. Built around one of Brian May's most distinctive guitar riffs, this was one of the highlights of Queen's live show. The title started as a joke — Brian intended to write a new lyric to replace it, but Freddie talked him into leaving it in.

  9. Seven Seas of Rhye. Queen's first UK hit, it stands as a monument to the band's straight-ahead early sound. Supposedly, Freddie wrote it about a fantasy land he made up when he was a child.

  10. I Want to Break Free. I'm not as much a fan of Queen's '80s material as I am of their songs from the '70s, but this 1984 number is as good as it gets. Even if it did end up as a Coke commercial.
I know what you're thinking: Where's "Bohemian Rhapsody"? You know me — I never take the road most traveled.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

The turn of a friendly Nugget

KJ and I spent this past weekend hanging out with the quartet and a gaggle of other barbershop singers and enthusiasts at a regional convention in Reno, Nevada. (Technically, we were in Sparks, as the convention site was John Ascuaga's Nugget Hotel and Casino. But since you can pretty much hurl a spitwad into Reno from any location in Sparks, I doubt the distinction makes much difference to anyone other than the locals.)

We had big fun. As a foursome, we probably gave the best big-stage performance of our career on Saturday evening. We also got to hear quite a few amazing quartets, most of whom were far younger and immeasurably more talented and good-looking than the four of us. So we hated them. (Just kidding. Sort of.)

I always enjoy a trip to Reno, even at the tag end of winter when the weather is still dicey. (A number of years ago, KJ and I got snowed in at Circus Circus for an extra two days past my December birthday weekend.) Reno's like a friendlier, more intimate Vegas — less glitzy and adrenalized on the downside, less crowded and costly on the upside. And as mini-resorts go, you could fare a good deal worse than at John Ascuaga's Nugget. The accommodations are congenial, parking is both convenient and free of charge, and the restaurants serve tasty fare accompanied by solid service. (Even the buffet is reasonably decent, as casino buffets go — and anyone who's ever risked his or her intestinal tract choking down the toxic steam-table spread at Circus Reno can attest to the measure of compliment that is.)

I can't testify to the quality of gaming in the Nugget casino, because I've never played there. (People who know of my near-rabid fascination with Las Vegas and Reno are often surprised to learn that I'm not much of a gambler. I play a considerable amount of online poker, but mostly free games or low buy-in tournaments. And I garner more enjoyment playing my other game of choice, blackjack, solo on my computer in an environment where the air is unsullied by tobacco and alcohol and my tablemates are both sober and silent.)

KJ put three bucks into a quarter slot machine without positive return. She did, however, get to see the real live John Ascuaga wandering his casino floor. She thought briefly about telling him how much she enjoyed his Nugget. But she figured that might come out wrong.

For those not as enraptured by barbershop music as we, the featured headliner in the Nugget's Celebrity Showroom over the weekend was the Alan Parsons Project. The hotel was liberally festooned with placards advertising the show, all of which featured a photo of Alan Parsons looking as though he'd just come off a lengthy bender and wanted to be anywhere other than onstage at the Nugget. For what they were probably paying the guy, you'd figure he could at least smile for his picture. Then again, it's been 25 years since The Turn of a Friendly Card, which was the last time anyone gave a royal rip about Alan Parsons or his Project.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Let me call you Sweetheart

For the third consecutive Valentine's Day, the quartet and I delivered Singing Valentines in support of the local barbershop chorus. Red roses and greeting cards were dispensed. Smiles were generated. Tears were shed. Hugs were exchanged. Warm fuzzies and affirmation of the joys of romance and friendship remain.

Today's itinerary took our intrepid foursome to:
  • A veterinary hospital, where we serenaded the receptionist, and the doctor took time out from aiding animals in distress to take our photograph with the lucky lass.

  • The county administrative offices, where the grateful recipient threw open the doors so that her coworkers could hear and share the magic.

  • A luncheon for the local Rotary Club chapter, where we held the roomful of sated Rotarians and their spouses spellbound for half an hour, and even taught everyone present a few lines of barbershop harmony.

  • A local restaurant, where we reduced a lovely grandmother to a puddle of mush, and made her love it.

  • A physician's office, where we reduced a young bride to blushing embarrassment on behalf of her loving hubby.
When four average shlubs like us can bring that much joy to people just by warbling a couple of venerable and syrupy love ballads, it almost gives one hope for the future of man- and womankind. Music may be a cheap gift, but its power is undeniable.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Skate your love

Thanks to her stint on the lame Fox reality show Skating with Celebrities — basically Dancing with the Stars, only colder, and with a lot more falling down — '80s pop diva turned Playboy pop tart Deborah "Don't Call Me Debbie" Gibson has decided that she loves ice skating.

At least she's not pregnant with Mojo Nixon's two-headed love child again.

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Thursday, August 25, 2005

Uncle Swan rips 'n' reads

Random synapse-firings from the pop culture cosmos...

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

The girl with kaleidoscope eyes

In a sad bit of news, Lucy Richardson, who nearly four decades ago inspired the Beatles hit Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, has died of breast cancer at the age of 47.

John Lennon wrote the now-famous lyrics in playful response to a drawing made by his son Julian, who had a youthful crush on the girl whose family owned an antique shop in Weybridge, Surrey, England.

Lucy Richardson grew up to be a successful motion picture art director, with such films as Elizabeth, The Saint, and Chocolat among her flashier credits.

Now, I suppose, she really is in the sky with diamonds.

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Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas, and stuff

I believe the great lyricist Sammy Cahn said it best:
The little gift you send
On Christmas Day
Will not bring back the friend
You've turned away
So may I suggest
The secret of Christmas
Is not the things you do at Christmas time
But the Christmas things you do
All year through
Even as inveterate an anti-Claus as I can get behind that sentiment.

May you and yours share good things today. Even if it's nothing more tangible than a hug, a kiss, and a heartfelt "I love you."

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