Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Milk of Human Kindness

If not love, a human being’s greatest character trait is kindness.

Our potential for it is practically unlimited. It changes lives. Its residual warmth outlasts the act itself. We never forget an unexpected display of it.

I was the recipient of such many years ago. I was seventeen, and rushing to my summer job on a bicycle along a two-lane road with a gravel shoulder. Being a little late, I stood up to pedal. The next thing I remember was losing my balance and beginning to fall.

This because the right-side pedal had sheared off where it is attached to the sprocket.

The fall knocked me out cold. I must have laid there for some time, because when I regained consciousness there was a line of ten to fifteen cars idled behind me. My bicycle lay partly in the road. I stood up, gathered my things and began to walk home.

Car after car crawled by me. I finally realized that I must look a mess. I put my hand to my face and it returned coated with red gravel. My right arm and shoulder were numb.

“Are you okay?” A young-ish woman in a VW van had pulled off on the shoulder behind me. I turned around, still a little dazed.

“Yeah.” (What seventeen year-old guy needs anyone’s help?)

“You don’t look so good. Want a lift home?”

I sheepishly wheeled my bike to her van. She helped me stow the bike and asked where I lived.

I directed her to my home, which was only a few minutes away. There, we lifted the bike out. The doorbell went unanswered, but since the garage door was open I figured mom was likely in the backyard with my little sister.

She was, talking with a neighbor over the fence. I’ll never forget my neighbor’s horrified expression when I appeared bloodied with twisted glasses and a broken bicycle.

“Oh my god!” My mother rushed to me.

The woman explained how she had come across me, and offered us a ride to the hospital.

I was fortunate. No broken noses, orbitals, or concussions. No dislocated shoulders or broken collarbones. Just some abrasions, a bloody nose, a black eye and an ugly gash across my cheek, closed with a row of stitches.

The remarkable woman stayed with us the entire time. She refused to divulge her name or where she worked, saying only that she was a mom and wanted to help. She was on her lunch hour, and joked that she would have a great excuse for being late.

I impulsively hugged her when we arrived home, as did my mother. We were deeply grateful. The woman said goodbye, climbed into her van and drove away.

A few days later, I was reading Dear Abby in the newspaper. Her column that day contained a definition of grace, something to the effect that it is a kindness offered with no expectation of repayment.

The world has changed a great deal since then. There are no accidents. Only liability and blame.

Today, my parents would sue the bike manufacturer. I’d be taken to the hospital in an ambulance summoned by a stranger with a cell phone. I never would have encountered this woman, nor been touched by her.

I think of her often, and hope the kindness she showed me has been repaid many time over. She is a role model and a hero, but doubt she has ever referred to herself as such. In a small but important way, she was a teacher that day.

Wherever and whoever you are, thank you. Thank you so very much.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Eau de Conservative

The putrid soul of conservative hypocrisy is alive and well in the person of Andy Harris, a freshman congressman recently elected to the House from the state of Maryland.

As an arch conservative running on a platform of reduced spending and the repealing of ‘Obamacare’, it's worth noting his reaction to the news that his government-sponsored healthcare wouldn’t begin until twenty-eight days after being sworn-in January 3rd.

Andy had a hissy fit.

“This is the only employer I’ve ever worked for where you don’t get coverage the first day you are employed!” cried Andy. "What am I going to do without healthcare for twenty-eight days? Why the hold up?"

Of course, as an anesthesiologist, our little Andy would have a very good idea just how quickly medical costs can go from zero to crippling.

So while Dr. Andy frets about how he’s going to survive four weeks without healthcare coverage, remember that government-sponsored healthcare is the first step on the road to socialist ruin when it’s for you, but that his can’t start soon-enough.

Remember, too, that it is liberals who are the ‘elites’, and not everyday folk like Dr. Andy, who have never had to wait out a ninety-day probation period for their healthcare coverage to begin and who enjoy a median salary of 314K.

Do the bovine herds who voted for Republicans in the recent midterms have even the most nebulous whiff of a clue just what—and who—they’ve enabled? Isn’t reinstating the party responsible for the current state of our union akin to trying to cure lung cancer with cigarettes?

Maybe literacy tests aren’t such a bad idea, after all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bootleg

Bootlegs have always occupied a unique niche in the music world. Fans craved them. Record companies despised them. Their late-sixties, underground origins appealed to fans of a music which was far outside the mainstream.

We hear rock music everywhere nowadays. But you didn’t stand a chance of hearing Cat Stevens, much less Cream, when you turned on a TV, stepped in an elevator or went to the supermarket in 1970.

And what better way to show your contempt for The Man than to buy a record that completely bypassed established business channels?

Many bootlegs became legendary. Liver Than You’ll Ever Be, an audience recording of a 1969 Rolling Stones show in Oakland, was one. The Great White Wonder, a collection of studio recordings made by Bob Dylan after his supposed motorcycle crash in 1966 was another.

It's possible Liver Than You'll Ever Be provoked the officially-released Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! in an attempt to re-direct the revenue going to Liver back into record company (and band) pockets. Conveniently, it just happened to be a pretty good live album as well.

The Great White Wonder brought a wealth of unpublished Dylan songs to the public at a time when his profile was low, and probably did more to keep his name in front of his audience than either Dylan or his record company would care to admit. 

Ironically, bootlegs became so popular record companies attempted to capitalize on the buzz, as was the case with Nils Lofgren’s live album. And record labels for Tom Petty and John Hiatt even issued promotional live albums which mimicked bootleg's cover art.

Aerosmith went them one better and named their 1978 live LP Live! Bootleg, complete with inaccurate track listing. Someone was paying attention.

And while bootlegs didn’t technically represent copyright violations, record companies viewed them as an infringement—at least when they weren’t inspiring marketing ploys.

In record company eyes, fans wanting to purchase the version of “Stairway to Heaven” they heard on the radio would confuse Live on Blueberry Hill for Led Zeppelin IV, and being disappointed at the quality of the recording, would never buy another Led Zeppelin album again.

Of course, the reality was quite different. Fans (which we need to remember is short for fanatic) who purchased Live on Blueberry Hill already owned Led Zeppelin IV.

What record companies hadn’t yet realized was that consumers of bootlegs were insatiable. They possessed every Led Zeppelin or Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones album and wanted more.

Musicians were more ambivalent. They recognized the offhand tribute bootlegs represented. On a 1978 tour stop in Los Angeles, Bruce Springsteen even began a concert broadcast with the greeting “Bootleggers! Roll your tapes!”

Being bootlegged had become a status symbol. People weren’t risking arrest to capture an Olivia Newton-John show on tape. It was Neil Young. The Who. And Pink Floyd. Big-time heavyweights who inspired intense passion in their fans.

But bootlegging wasn’t anything new. As far back as the late-nineteen-forties, jazz fans were covertly recording Charlie Parker gigs, and in perhaps the ultimate tribute ever accorded a musician, transferred only his solos to 78s and LPs.

But the profit motive always muddied the water. Fans were gouged by unscrupulous folk who didn’t always deliver on their promise. I’ll never forget the bootleg cassette I bought which presumably contained a concert of a favorite band of mine.

After discovering it contained only three poorly-recorded songs and part of a fourth, I was miffed. But what was I going to do? Call the Better Business Bureau? The Attorney General? The police?

This is where the computer comes in. If digital technology hasn’t completely legitimized the bootleg, it’s at least taken them from shadowy gas station parking lots to the bright light of the Internet.

Fans can upload a show and share it with other fans free of charge. No dodgy-type dudes selling stuff out of their trunks, or having to be privy to which stores are selling. It’s by fans for fans—which is how it should have been from the beginning. A complete delete of the profit component.

And bootlegs sound so much better, too. Concert recording has evolved from holding a hand-held mic connected to a portable cassette tape recorder to digital devices which intercept IEM signals.

Many bands actually accommodate tapers, correctly figuring it’s another avenue to get the word out. My Morning Jacket, the Drive-By Truckers and Gomez are just a few of the bands following in the Grateful Dead’s footsteps.

Concerts are special events; they place you at the point of creation, not unlike the big bang that created the universe. Hearing a special band on a hot night without the filter of commerce is a thrilling and wonderful thing.

Bootlegs are honest and genuine in a way a commercial release could never be. You’d be shocked at the amount of studio sweetening (called overdubbing) that goes into a typical live album.

Just as acidic vineyard soil produces the sweetest grape, a bootleg’s less-than-pristine sound quality can actually deepen the listening experience. You have to listen “harder”. You have to meet a bootleg halfway.

It's a medium that prizes performance, not production. All of this can make for a demanding, but rewarding, listen.

Ascoltare felice!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wedding Story

I read a blog recently that examined party invitations. Specifically, wedding and baby shower invitations, and how many are little more than attempts to extract the largest amount of cash and/or gifts possible from their guests.

I can practically see the hosts hunched over spreadsheets as they assemble profit and loss statements, comparing outlay versus intake. “Don’t forget to factor in the napkins!” cries one. “They work out to eight cents per!”

It made me recall my own wedding experiences. One in particular stood out, as it was ahead of the curve in its use-the-guests mentality.

It was November of 1990. I was happily employed as a field rep for a book publisher. I also had a part-time job working Saturdays in a record store.

It was Friday, and I hurriedly completed that day’s appointments in the far-south suburbs of Chicago, raced to my home on the northwest side, showered, shaved and dressed for that night’s rehearsal dinner.

Somehow, I also managed to pick-up my tux and the wedding gift.

I set-off, eager for a night of socializing.

The groom was a basketball buddy of mine. He had asked me to stand up, and I accepted. Jim had a nice three-point shot and was generally likable even if he had a frugal streak.

A favorite ploy of his was to order an expensive appetizer and imported beer, and when the check came, announce “I have a dollar.” After subsidizing Jim’s post-game libations two or three times, the rest of us came to appreciate the beauty of separate checks.

Looking back, that should have been a clue.

The wedding rehearsal was filled with good-natured humor and camaraderie. Afterwards, we moved on to the restaurant. After a fine dinner, I was approached by the couple to-be and asked if I would tend bar at the reception.

The only other occasion in life that found me similarly speechless was the time I was asked out by Naomi Watts and Diane Lane on the same day. (But that’s another blog for another day.)

My mind raced as the bride and groom explained they were trying to keep costs down, and that they thought I would be a “really good” bartender. Part of me thought they were kidding. I mumbled something like “Only if the wine has twist-off caps.”

When I realized they weren’t, I begged off, citing my inexperience at public bartending.

Meanwhile, the other part of me (my inner wedding guest) was screaming. “I took an unpaid day off of work! Rented a tuxedo! And bought you a freaking wedding present! And now you want me to work at your wedding?”

Of course, had I known the reception was going to be held in the event room of the bride’s apartment complex, and that bartending meant dispensing cans of soda, I might have said yes.

Which was another unusual aspect of this wedding.

Despite the bride’s father being a doctor, the groom’s a successful businessman, and the bride being a physical therapist and the groom the manager of his employer’s shipping and receiving department, the reception consisted of supermarket cold cut trays, potato chips and soda.

In an apartment complex event room.

Let me first make clear the fact that I am unequivocally opposed to obnoxious and extravagant showcase weddings. But this was at the other end of the scale.

This wasn’t a wedding hosted by impoverished folk. These were people with careers. And paychecks. And their guests didn’t even rate a can of Bud with their dried-out chicken breast and soggy vegetable medley?

Making matters worse was that the location of the reception had been kept a secret until the day of the wedding. Guests were told it was a “surprise”, and I certainly won’t argue that.

But I couldn’t escape the feeling I’d been had. Much like after those post-game get-togethers.

You might be tempted to say this story takes the cake. But with hosts like these, there was no way that was going to happen.

It was padlocked to the table.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Poised to Panic

If you’re an observer of the American landscape, you probably know that Proposition 19 failed in California. If you aren’t, Proposition 19 sought to legalize marijuana, thereby allowing its legal cultivation, distribution and sale.

But what interests me isn’t whether it passed of failed, but how it failed.

Borrowing a page from the conservative playbook, the opposition employed the panic strategy. Television ads featured stoned school bus drivers and nurses showing up to work with employers helpless to do anything about it!

Wow. That hits all the right panic buttons, doesn’t it? Children at risk, intoxicated nurses and employers rendered mute by (gasp) big government.

And people bought it. As usual, the reality is one-hundred-eighty degrees removed from these Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling scenarios.

The image of employers forced to watch helplessly as their drug-addled employees wreck havoc in the workplace belongs on Saturday Night Live, not in considered political debate.

Have any of the voters swayed by this argument ever looked at their employee handbook? The truth is that owing to ‘at will’ employment, employers can pretty much fire you for anything: Your socks don’t match. Ravioli is spelled with one ‘l’. It’s Thursday.

So. How did voters connect this argument to reality? The fact is, they didn’t. They reacted to it. With abject, unthinking, underwear-soiling fear.

We’ve seen this before. Most notably in the 2004 presidential election, in which Republicans convinced housewives that Muslim terrorists were everywhere, just waiting for an opportune moment to send aircraft plowing into cul-de-sacs from Tacoma to Tallahassee.

From weather bulletins bordering on hysteria to amber alerts, we are a society perpetually on the edge of panic. Overloaded and over-stimulated by media and communications, we are ideal targets for button pushing (and button pushers.)

I wonder what it will make us vote for next.