Buttercup

This is one of the things that got me interested in playing the ukulele. There, I admit it.

Danny Federici died this week

One of my favorite albums of all time is Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.” His first album–the one that would later produce a string of hits for Manfred Mann–hadn’t sold so well, and the band was reduced to making its next record in a way-off-the-beaten-path studio with a creaky piano.

It’s hard to describe, but the album has a…a sound. Springsteen was 24 when he made it, and it’s one of those rare recordings, kind of like the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul,” in which you can tell that the artist really hasn’t made up his mind what he’s going to end up sounding like yet.

The result is an album that contains hard pumping blues, goofy disco horn rock, and sappy, jazz-infused folk ballads. I love it. I spent a million hours as a teenager laying in my room with a pair of gigantic headphones on, listing to it by the glow of the stereo.

One of the keys to that album is Danny Federici. For much of his career, he was Springsteen’s “other” keyboard player, taking a back seat to Roy Bittan. But in the early days, his organ and accordion playing (yeah, that’s right–accordion) were a fundamental part of the band. He was never flashy, but he was always there, and it’s hard (okay, impossible) to imagine what songs like Sandy or Wild Billy’s Circus Story or Backstreets would have been without him.

For the last three years or so, Danny Federici had been fighting melanoma. In November of last year, he left the Springsteen tour to pursue treatment. On March 20, 2008, he made a brief, surprise return in Indianapolis, and played accordion on Sandy. On Thursday, he was gone.

“The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle” is part of what made me, me. Danny Federici was a big part of that. I’ll raise a glass in his honor and wish him well on his journey. He’ll be missed.

It doesn’t count if you don’t fall down

I went out yesterday and bought myself a pair of ice skates. I haven’t owned my own skates since I was a child, although my friends and I spent about three years of our high school existence hitting the Oak Lawn Ice Arena every Friday night.

As an aside, this was actually much cooler than it sounds. Friday nights at the ice rink meant they turned out all the lights except for some colored mood lights mounted on the side walls. Then they planted a couple of rather massive speakers directly on the ice, and for several hours a DJ would blast loud rock and roll throughout the building. The place was filled with women who, granted, were usually dressed in outerwear, but many were cute and even if the cute ones didn’t show up it was fun to slam your friends into the side panels while Jimi Hendrix roared in the foreground.

Since that time, I haven’t skated much. I went back to the rink a few years after high school, and it was a shell of its former self—a bunch of kids skating in circles with all the lights on, some radio station playing through a tiny speaker in the ceiling. Like all things cool, my ice skating experience had been mellowed out by The Man.

But I’ve always liked ice skating. Note that liking something and being good at it are often two different things. I even went through an abortive phase a few years ago in taking my step-son Nick to the rink on Saturday mornings. One, I thought he might enjoy it, and two, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to know how to skate.

One of the things I’ve wanted for a long time was a pair of my own ice skates.

Don’t get me wrong. The Park District skates have come a long way since the worn out leather boots that we used to wear. The new ones are padded and much more comfortable, and they give better ankle support, which is a serious consideration when you haven’t skated in ten years.

But having your own skates means they’re always sitting by the door, ready for action. It means you take skating a little more seriously, even if you still suck at it. It means that when you do skate, you have a little more control over the quality of the experience. And it means less of a chance to contract some sort of fungal foot disease.

So I went to the local sporting goods discount store, and they had skates on sale for 25% off. I ended up with a pair of so-called “recreational” skates. The main difference between these and figure skates, from what I can tell, is a lack of a toe pick—that serrated thing at the front of the blade.

Truth be told, I was a little intimidated by the baldness of the blade. I’ve never played hockey, so I’ve never gotten used to hockey skates. I wasn’t sure how much my skating “technique,” such as it is, might depend on the presence of those tiny ridges. I should point out that I’m not so cool that I wouldn’t have been willing to buy a pair of men’s figure skates, but try finding the damn things in a regular sporting goods store sometime.

Today, I went up to the Oak Lawn Ice Arena. Not the same one that we had when I was a teen. The original one burnt down years ago. Don’t ask me how a steel building filled with ice can catch fire. I don’t know, and I probably don’t want to know. I suspect the answer has something to do with insurance and lots of kerosene. In any event, I went to the new one and skated my ass off for an hour-and-a-half this afternoon. It was cool. Well, at first it was cool. Then it got warm, and then it got downright toasty and wet. But I had fun, and if I keep doing this, which I will now that I have my own skates, I really will skate my ass off. After eating 75 lbs. of Christmas cookies over that last month, that can only be a bonus.

Goodbye Johnny Frigo

I read that Johnny Frigo died this week. He was 90 years old, so I guess it wasn’t unexpected. Don’t worry if you don’t know who he was. I didn’t either, until he showed up to perform for us a couple of years ago in one of my live sound classes at Columbia College.

Johnny played a number of instruments. He was a first-call bass player in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. He eventually hung that up because he didn’t feel he could compete with the youngsters anymore. At that time, he returned to his first instrument, the violin, and basically made a whole new name for himself at an age when many of his peers were moving into retirement homes.

When he visited my class, he told a story about performing in a dance hall when he was just a teenager. At that time, he was playing upright bass, and he would carry this giant instrument on the bus to the club where he was working on the north side. If he played well, patrons would tip him by throwing coins in the f-holes of the bass. When he got home, his brothers would help him shake the bass to get the coins out.

One night, someone inserted a bill in the f-hole. Johnny didn’t remember if it was a five or a ten, but either way it was a lot of money for a teenager back in the ’20s. He told us that he and his brothers had a terrible time trying to get the bill to fall out. The next night, when he went back to the club, he told the owner about how someone had given him such a big tip. The owner replied, “Yeah. That was Al Capone!”

Johnny played with just about everyone from his era, including the Dorseys and Chico Marx and Frank Sinatra. When he died, he still had gigs scheduled.

Higher gas prices? Bring ‘em on!

Before you all go lynching me for demanding higher gas prices, hear me out. As someone who drives 54 miles or so round trip to work each day, I’m no fan of overpaying at the pump. It grinds my gears every time I spend 40 bucks or more to fill up my four-banger, when it seems like it wasn’t that long ago that it only cost me about 25 to fill my pickup truck.

When I was a kid, we had a gas crisis, and we were told that someday we’d just run out of oil, and if we didn’t do something about it, we’d be quite screwed in just a few years. At the time, we believed what we were told, and our parents ran out and started buying tiny, fuel-efficient automobiles with funny names like Honda, Toyota, and Datsun. People don’t talk too much about it now, but those early Japanese imports weren’t very good cars. They were light on gas, but the thin, recycled-steel bodies tended to rust out quickly, parts were hard to get, and many local mechanics either didn’t work on “them foreign cars” at all, or worked on them grudgingly and charged through the nose for the privilege.

It didn’t matter. We were all saving the world, and being smart about it. When oil supplies would start to run low a few years hence, we’d be ready with our cars that sipped instead of slurped. Who cares if a generation of drivers grew up with back problems from sitting in cars that were never designed to hold six-footers?

Then, the impossible happened. We didn’t run out of gas. We didn’t even come close. Gas prices stayed the same. They even went down for a while. When I started driving in the early ’80s, gas was pretty easy to find for about $1.25 a gallon. By the mid-’90s, I was paying under a dollar.

All of this caused the notoriously short-term-memoried American public to go hog-wild once again. While we never quite returned to the heady days of building 8 miles-per-gallon vehicles (Dodge Viper excepted), we began buying sport-utes and campers and strange-looking military machines called “Hummers” by the thousands.

Of course, the impossible happened again, and gas prices began to climb. And climb. And climb. Higher than they’d ever been before. Higher than some would have believed possible in the modern era with all of that cheap oil flowing out of Iraq.

Pardon me while I pause to snicker.

It turns out that we were never really in danger of running completely out of oil. While such a thing is theoretically possible, experts in the ’70s made us believe that one day, the straw would hit the empty bottom of the oil wells and that would be it. We’d hear a sick gurgling sound, and just like that, no more gasoline. We’d be stuck on permanent “E.”

The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that. There’s lots of oil remaining underground, but the more of it we take, the more difficult it becomes to draw out what’s left. Getting at what’s left isn’t impossible, it’s simply a matter of building more expensive and higher risk (and therefore more expensive) wells.

It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out that a more expensive supply, coupled with increased bidding competition from countries that are industrializing (such as China) results in higher gas prices to the consumer. It also shouldn’t take a math whiz to figure out that, short of discovering a new and gigantic really cheap source of oil (which would only delay things anyway), there’s no end to this. Gas prices will continue to rise throughout our lifetimes. Yes, there will be fluctuations, and they will occasionally drop a bit, but the trend will remain upward.

At some point, these prices will begin to take a toll on our economy. All of those pots and pans and clothes we now ship cheaply across the Pacific will begin to cost more. All of those semi-trucks we see tooling along our highways will cease to be a cost-effective means of shipping. Everything that is moved more than a few miles to its destination, which is to say everything, will rise in price faster than our ability to pay for it.

At that point, we’ll be screwed.

What do we need? We need better public transportation, so we all don’t have to sit on a highway every morning smogging up our lungs at 3 bucks a gallon. We need a nationwide rail system that isn’t the punch line to a joke. We need alternative sources of fuel that are cleaner and cheaper. We need you and me to buy fuel-efficient cars that will help tide us over until we can bring the other stuff on-line.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only time anything gets done around here is when someone is taking a hit in the wallet, or is in danger of doing so. We can talk about how proud we were to put a man on the moon with nothing more than a good rah-rah speech by JFK, but once the government put the guy there and the bill showed up in the mail, we put the kibosh on such nonsense.

So we need high gas prices as an incentive to make that other stuff happen. I know. I don’t like it either. But the alternative is to party blindly until we paint ourselves into a corner, and I care too much about this stupid country to want to see that happen.

What about you?

Imus’ firing really not a big deal

Lately it seems that you can’t swing a dead radio career around here without hitting something labeled “Don Imus.” As much as I’m loathe to jump on the bandwagon on any particular issue (I shouldn’t have to jump, as I consider the bandwagon to be my more-or-less permanent home—comfortably furnished and stocked with Cheez Whiz and Saltines), I feel the need to toss out my thoughts on some moaning that a couple of nationally syndicated radio pinheads were engaged in the other day.

It seems that the pinheads, whose names rhyme with Dopey and Shmanthony, were making a great Wringing of the Hands over the idea that a chilling effect would soon cast a blight on radio hosts across this great land of ours. Freedom of speech was their rallying point, and the general consensus seemed to be that, although Imus might have been misguided, shutting him down due to a few spiteful malcontents like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would eventually lead to the demise of democracy, candlelight bowling, and the American Way.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard talk like this—it seems to arise any time a high profile figure gets fired from a broadcast job for allowing the thoughts in his brain to exit his mouth without being filtered through his pay stub. Certainly the thought isn’t original to the radio duo mentioned above, and it won’t end with them either.

Let’s all say this together so we remember it in the morning: Don Imus’ firing had nothing to do with freedom of speech, nor will it. The First Amendment is still in place, and it’s just as strong as it was a few weeks ago, minus the damage done to it over the last several years by the brain trust that insists on protecting us from terrorists by making us take our shoes off to get on a plane.

The firing of Don Imus will neither produce a chilling effect, nor a “corseting of society,” as one radio guest put it. Well, it might make a few radio-types watch their words for the next couple of months, but by the time the All-Star Game rolls around, most will have forgotten about it.

No, Imus’ firing has everything to do with the fact that he proved himself to be an incompetent on nationwide radio.

Some may wonder how I can call the man incompetent. After all, he’s had plenty of success. He’s had a long career and national recognition. He can afford to wear fancy cowboy hats while hanging out on his ranch where he does admittedly nice things for children with cancer.

It’s simple. He had a job. His job was to entertain people. He opened his mouth a bit too wide and let the fact that he is a misogynistic racist fall out. Lots of listeners didn’t find that entertaining. Many of his advertisers didn’t find that entertaining. Most importantly, his bosses at CBS and MSNBC didn’t find it entertaining, and they fired him. That’s the whole story.

We all have bosses, well…most of us do, anyway, and when we do something at work that bothers those bosses, there is a strong likelihood that we’ll be fired. This applies to the kid pushing the mail cart, the up-and-coming executive, and Don Imus. Fortunately, most of us are faced with a fairly simple set of rules that even we can understand; rules that allow us to keep our jobs as long as we conduct ourselves within broad guidelines. One particular rule that tends to hold true across many career paths is that, while your employer may not fire you for being a misogynistic racist on your own time, talking that way at work is almost certain to get you canned.

So Imus spouted off at work and found himself on the street, same as would happen to almost anyone reading this if they acted the way he did. He was stupid and incompetent, and he paid the price. After all those years in broadcasting, he should have known better.

Freedom of speech? I’m all for it, and I’ll even defend Imus’ right to spout his asinine viewpoints on any street corner in the U.S. Of course, I can think of a few intersections where he might not get away uninjured if he talked that way, and if he’s interested I’ll send him a list of suggestions, but that has nothing to do with the First Amendment.

But he won’t be spilling his swill on CBS’s airwaves anymore, and that is as it should be. If national radio hosts ever make a habit of spouting racism and there’s no public outcry, we should probably take a good look at ourselves. Again.

In the meantime, if Don Imus feels that his artistic freedom has been unfairly stifled by his former employers, I have another suggestion for him: get a blog. Sure, the pay sucks, but you can say anything you want.

The President should find a way to thank Congress

I have to admit—my position on the Iraq war has been taking a waffling lately. It wasn’t always that way. In the beginning, I was steadfast in my belief that not having an Iraq war was absolutely the right course of action, yet lately, I’ve been watching as everyone from Howard Dean to Steve Earle has demanded that we pull the troops out of Iraq and get them home where they belong.

That’s a sentiment I could embrace pretty easily, but there’s an annoying, contrarian thought that keeps crawling around in the back of my head and I just can’t get rid of it, no matter how much bug spray I use. The idea is this: if we pull out of Iraq early, not only will we have done irreparable damage to the people of that country, but we’ll be sticking them with our mess.

A fine mess it is, and one that, by the way, ends with Iraq either nurturing its infant democracy, breaking into several unstable warring parts, or turning into yet another repressive Islamic theocracy that I like to call Iran, Jr. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of those is most likely. And which is least.

So, I’ve found myself in the unlikely position of defending “the surge,” even though it’s probably a silly idea (too little, too late) with a seriously silly name, brought to us by the gang who started all the trouble in the first place. I’ve defended sending over even more troops and seeing this thing through, even as I’ve had friends fighting for their lives in the Middle East. My lack of military service makes me feel like one of those war hawks who served very little or not at all, yet sends others to fight at the drop of a hat. What do we call those guys again? Oh, yeah…presidents.

Then I read about American soldiers who have written home and told their loved ones that the Iraqis have basically hung them out to dry. The Iraqi forces, it is said, don’t support the U.S. troops, they fight amongst themselves, they form secret or not-so-secret alliances with local warlords. That makes me believe that maybe enough is enough. Solving the problem with the help of the Iraqis seems difficult, but solving it with them working against us seems impossible. Maybe we really should bring our forces home.

Then there’s the “spilled grape juice” analogy that I discussed with a friend of mine recently. It seems to me, that if you spill grape juice all over someone’s sofa, the least you can do is pay to have it cleaned. Make no mistake, we spilled the grape juice. We may have meant well at the time, but the alternative Iraq sans U.S. invasion looks very different than the Iraq we’re stuck with now. If nothing else, common decency would put us in the position of trying to stabilize the country before we all go back to watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

Thus the waffling.

The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that the U.S. is in a genuine no-win scenario. That doesn’t mean the terrorists have won, because I don’t think they have. What that means is that there is no good, clean end to the Iraq situation, no matter what course of action we choose. To paraphrase a line from the old movie “War Games,” the only way to win would have been not to play.

Do you think George W. Bush lays awake at night, musing that, like Waldo, the cure for Iraq is right there in front of him if only he can spot it? Me neither, but I’d like to think he loses a bit of sleep every once in a while.

Fortunately for him, the Democrats have parachuted into the Capitol bearing the perfect solution for the Republicans. Unfortunately for the Iraqis, the Democrats’ answer has nothing to do with fixing that country—they’re no smarter than anyone else when it comes to that, and the same no-win situation holds just as true no matter who’s in charge.

No, the Christmas present the Democrats hold in their hands is the face-saving that they are handing Bush and the Republicans, if only they’re smart enough to accept it. Sometime in the near future, Congress will send the President a bill with a date on it. That date will be the target for bringing American troops home. The President will veto that bill. Congress will be unable to override the veto, but will work with the President’s people on a new compromise bill that gets the troops out by a later date.

If they play their cards right, the core Republicans will rail against that new bill, telling us what a big mistake it is to set an artificial date for the end of a war. The president will sign the bill, all the while expressing reservations about the concept. In so doing, he can simultaneously unify his party, end the war, and dump responsibility for Iraq’s disastrous future squarely in the laps of the Democrats. “We didn’t wanna do it,” he’ll say. “They forced my hand. I said all along that pulling out was a bad idea, and they proved me correct.”

When your political enemies give you that nice of a gift, the least you can do is thank them with a nice steak dinner. At a bare minimum, Bush should send over a couple kegs of the good stuff.

Sign of the times

[Original post had a photo of a truck, with a sign that said “Must sell, medical bills.”]

I don’t know why this bothers me so much. Maybe it’s because I spend a lot of time at my day job researching the health insurance/Medicare/Medicaid situation. I have a lot of sympathy for the doctors, many of whom are decent, hardworking people who not only deal with the pressure of being responsible for the lives of others, but have hundreds of constantly shifting government regulations to sort through…or else. I also have a lot of sympathy for the patients, many of whom are decent, hardworking people who deserve something better than having to sell their trucks to stay healthy. I’m not claiming to have any of the answers, but maybe someday the right to health without going bankrupt will join life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as something fundamental to our societal belief system. Until then, good luck, whoever you are. I hope you find the $6k you need.

Welcome back my friends, to the site that never ends

The site owner can’t make up his mind. I used WordPress as the software here for a long time, and I had a nice little customization going. Then WordPress demanded to update itself. I allowed it to do so and promptly lost all of my customizations. That was discouraging, so I decided to trade WordPress for Joomla!, which is what I use on my other site, whistleinthewind.com.

I never really did anything with the Joomla! version of the site, until one day, today, when I loaded it in my browser to find that some major catastrophe had occurred and the site was no more. So here I am, full-circle, back in the land of WordPress. I don’t plan on playing the customization game any more, so maybe I’ll find myself toying with the back end less and posting to the site more. We’ll see…

Music: The Hidden Gem of MySpace

Chicago once had a pretty high-quality collection of commercial radio stations. This may come as a bit of a surprise to anyone reared during the current state of affairs, but it’s true. There were news stations, classical stations, mainstream rock stations that did everything short of mud wrestling to win listeners, a varied supply of “urban” stations, and that once-shining light of rock radio, WXRT. Uncovering good new music was once as simple as turning on the radio and waiting for a few minutes.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 destroyed almost everything, resulting in a wave of consolidation across the broadcast industry. Many cities, Chicago included, now have radio markets dominated by just a few major corporations. What was once a vibrant and enthusiastic group of independent players has become a graveyard of ugly sameness. We’re down to one news, one classical, a couple of news/talks that delight in annoying the left side of the political spectrum, and a collection of popular music stations that play either the latest mindless pap pushed by what remains of the record labels, or classic rock. Yawn.

The effect on music (and I’m speaking predominantly of rock music, although I suspect it’s true of other styles as well) has been disappointing at best, catastrophic at worst. We can now choose between stations playing “piss off your parents” attitude rock, all-Led-Zepplin-all-the-time classic rock, and oldies. WXRT still exists, but only as a shadow of its free-form, pre-CBS former self. Trying to find decent songs that you haven’t heard hundreds of times is an exercise in frustration.

There are those who argue that this is no big deal: to hell with corporate radio, good new music is still out there on the Internet. In fact, new technologies were one of the arguments advanced in favor of adopting the Telecommunications Act a decade ago. However, even if we overlook the fact that I have yet to find a satisfactory way to surf the ‘Net while driving, the problem of tracking down good music remains. Sure it’s out there, but so is every warble recorded by Pantera wannabes banging out chords in the garage. Separating the wheat from the chaff becomes a significant obstacle when the field turns out to be 98% chaff. For better or worse, commercial radio in its heyday provided a vetting process that culled some of the more heinous sonic mistakes before they ever accosted the public.

Which brings me to MySpace. A few weeks ago, I was talked into signing up on that web site, upon which folks can post important information about themselves (like the fact that they like Camaros or have eight cats) for all the world to see. Theoretically, this allows Camaro fans and cat lovers to make contact with each other, resulting in whatever kinds of ecstasy such beings experience when they at long last unite.

MySpace also has the ability to host pages devoted specifically to musicians. These pages allow the musicians to upload their own music as kind of a promotional tool. MySpace users can not only listen to this music, but add it to their own profile. A song added in such a manner begins playing automatically when a profile is viewed, meaning that the truly lazy among us don’t even have to click the mouse to hear the song.

This then, provides some of the vetting process that is missing from much of the Internet. Since many people delight in finding offbeat, quality tunes and playing them for friends, skipping from profile to profile results in a pretty efficient musical education. I’ve already uncovered a number of acts that I am likely to track down again later. There is certainly some junk to be found, and there’s always the chance that tastes won’t align, but it’s a simple matter to just jump to another profile when something truly dastardly bursts from the speakers. I’ve even joined the other side of the game, and regularly update the song on my own profile in the hope that someone else may stumble across something they like.

Against all odds, I find myself excited about finding new music again.