Friday, December 30, 2011

An Appreciation of the X-Files

TV is an easy target for a social critic like me. Too easy, which is why I usually refrain from writing about it here.

But every once in a while, something goes wrong. The lowest common denominator formulas that usually guard against this sort of thing fail, and we the people end up with something fresh and different.

For four seasons and most of a fifth, The X-Files provided some of the most-compelling television of the twentieth century. Episodes stuffed with government conspiracies and unspeakable monsters terrorized our imaginations when its wry, left-of-center humor wasn't provoking double takes.

It was new and unique and reliably disturbing.

Not so unique were the problems that eventually plagued it; the spiraling demands of newly-famous actors, writers, producers and directors and a dearth of fresh storylines.

Tired of the weekly commute between his home in Los Angeles and the show’s set in Vancouver, David Duchovny successfully lobbied for filming to be moved to L.A.

While not always sufficiently camouflaged to resemble Iowa or New Jersey, British Columbia nevertheless provided X-Files with just the backdrop its scripts demanded. The moody, dank clime was ideal for spawning Fluke Man or the crazed victim of one too many alien abductions.

The shadowy light acted as a metaphor, underscoring the morally-ambivalent world Scully and Mulder inhabited. Sunny SoCal just wasn’t the same.

And it was probably inevitable that one day the show would begin to run out of ideas. If producing a quality script for a movie is difficult, imagine what cranking out two-dozen per season for a TV series is like.

Season five revealed the first signs of full-blown fatigue, where a reliance on soap opera-styled plot conventions reared its ugly head.

Scully is abducted. Scully has cancer. Scully can’t have babies. While the first two of these developments actually came to light near the end of the fourth season, they are taken to their melodramatic extremes in season five.

One has only to watch the insufferable two-parter Christmas Carol and Emily to see the depths to which X-Files could fall.

But I come to praise X-Files, not bury it.

The X-Files was Moonlighting and Night Gallery and CSI all rolled into one. No other series had ever fused such disparate genres so successfully.

Sure, some of the conspiracy plots were more labyrinthine than The Big Sleep. And Scully's skepticism was occasionally a little nonsensical and a little too reflexive. But it scared us and challenged us and made us laugh.

It was habit-forming.

And if that moment in Unruhe when Scully realizes she is face-to-face with the perpetrator of several gruesome murders while alone in a gutted building undergoing rehab isn’t the most chilling in television history, I don’t know what is.

These days, X-Files would air on a premium cable channel, and not network TV. Only those with hundreds of dollars to spend on TV each month would be privileged-enough to enjoy its addictive scripts, distinctive look and appealing cast. I am forever grateful it was not.

What follows is a highly-subjective list of my favorite episodes. They appear in order of broadcast because attempting to order them any other way would make my hair fall out.

Not surprisingly, they skew heavily to the first four seasons, since those had first crack at my imagination.

Comments welcome.

Top Ten:

Beyond the Sea
Dod Calm
Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
Small Potatoes

Honorable Mentions:

Miracle Man
Duane Barry/Ascension
Excelsis Dei
Die Hand Die Verletzt
War of the Coprophages
Hell Money
Bad Blood

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Giving It Away

Silly me. I thought my employer paid me because I enhanced their profitability. By providing a skill, I enabled them to bring a product or service to market better or faster or more-efficiently.

Now I find that business is actually performing a public service by employing me. Who knew employment was a charitable act, done to protect America's labor force from the horrors of daytime TV?

What else to think after seeing so many of Illinois’ corporate citizens approach our bankrupt state government and request tax relief and deferments and subsidies? To hear them tell it, the employment they offer is a radiant act of selflessness equal to anything Mother Teresa ever did in India.

Employees aren’t the drop of oil or bit of grease that expedites the profit-making machinery. No. Employees are the ungrateful beneficiaries of really nice guys just trying to do the right thing.

According to our newly emboldened business class, they should be subsidized because they employ people. And pay them. And because they pay people, they themselves should be paid—even though they already are.

Confused? Me, too. But not to worry. This makes perfect sense in executive suites and in the GOP national headquarters.

If gigantic multi-national corporations aren’t our biggest parasites, who is? Is there anyone who finds something even a little objectionable about billion-dollar corporations extorting bankrupt state governments for whatever spare change might be lying around?

Do the words entitlement or leech spring to mind? Rape? How about necrophilia?

They should.

Struggling telecommunications giant Motorola got $100 million from the state of Illinois for not leaving. Struggling retail giant Sears yesterday received $150 million in tax credits and will receive another $125 million in property tax relief for, again, not leaving.

The CME Group, which owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Board of Trade has also received welfare, the exact nature of which is unknown. CME also threatened to leave.


And those are just the most-recent cases. My manners would be showing if I neglected to mention Navistar, Chrysler, Continental Tire and U.S. Cellular.

As consumers, our options are limited. The governor is also in a spot. Call the guilty parties out in public and you risk ruffling their feathers and having these Vito Corleone wanna-bes make good on their threats.

Pay the scumbags and you outrage the public, especially when cuts to public transit, health care and education are deep and widespread. And don't forget, the public still votes.

The best response is a public boycott. Let consumer-dependent companies like Motorola and Sears know how the tax-paying public feels about extortion. Especially for entities that have received the bounty of government largesse these corporations have.

While we’re sensitive to the fact it costs a lot of money to make a lot of money, it’s not all gravy, all the time. In other words, the one-hundred percent profit margin will remain a fantasy—at least until the next Republican president signs the slave labor mandate.

Besides, whatever happened to the small government ideal, anyway? Oh that’s right—that’s unless it can shovel a mountain of public cash into your sweaty, clutching hands. Got it.

It’s Christmas, folks. Companies like Motorola and Sears are never more vulnerable than now. We should strenuously and obstreperously not be okay with this.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ron Santo

I’m sorry, but I can’t see the belated election of Ron Santo to baseball’s Hall of Fame as anything but borderline cruel. Perhaps I’m afflicted with an undiagnosed case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe it’s the crass capitalism of Christmas.

Or maybe it’s the smug and exclusionary politics that kept an earnest, deserving ballplayer from the Hall for decades as he battled the diabetes that would eventually kill him.

None other than baseball-obsessive Bill James named Santo as one of the ten-best third basemen ever. Not of the 60s. Not of the modern era. Ever. How is it that someone so good remained excluded for so long?

There are a dearth of third basemen in the Hall. According to Baseball Almanac, just eleven. Only the position of catcher (thirteen) even comes close. Yet Ron Santo, nine-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, breaker of a sixty-year-old league assist record at the position somehow wasn’t good enough.

Third base is an extraordinarily difficult position to play. It is physically demanding, and as such, makes long-term success as a hitter (the primary criteria for entrance to the Hall of Fame) unlikely. Despite their often powerful builds, only two third basemen have ever surpassed 400 home runs. None have 3,000 hits.

Third base is a meat grinder. It devours baseball players.

There are only a few obvious choices at the position. Mike Schmidt. Brooks Robinson. Eddie Mathews. Pie Traynor.

While admittedly a shade below their stature, Santo was nevertheless the premier National League third basemen of his era, second only to Robinson in all of Major League Baseball. He was clearly and obviously a rare talent.

And coupled with his private struggle with diabetes, his success at one of sport’s most-difficult positions was remarkable. Ron Santo was given a life expectancy of twenty-five years. Think diabetes is a tough battle now? What do you think it was in 1964?

More than any of his quantifiable athletic gifts, Santo’s greatest asset was his heart. It was a relentless and powerful one.

Admittance to any type of club is invariably political. It is often no more than a popularity contest. And for inexplicable and unfathomable reasons, it was one Santo had to die to win.

Having spent fourteen of his fifteen years in baseball as a Chicago Cub, it is an irony Ron Santo no doubt appreciates.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Quit Happens

Good evening, Square Peggers.

And how are you? I hope this finds you in the very best of spirits. Fine of fettle and robust of mettle.

Yes, I am positively overflowing with good wishes this fine eve. And it is my wish to distribute this newfound treasure—my joy—to each and every one of you!

For when joy finds us, is it not our solemn duty to break off a piece and let everyone have a sip?

Perhaps I have mixed my metaphors. But let us not allow mere semantics to stand in the way of this joyous tsunami! Tarry not! For the moment must be flavored!

The source of this great (but by no means uncharacteristic) joy is the recent announcement that Herman Cain is dismantling his campaign and will not seek the office of president.

Oh great, good fortune! To whom, to what do I owe this wondrous occurrence of divine intervention? Hallelujah! Huzzah!

Strawberry-scented hand sanitizer and Sans-A-Belt slacks for everyone!

Let us take a look back. The Hermanator once spoke thusly:

"Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!"

La Piazza Gancio now speaks thisly:

“Don’t blame the media, don’t blame the other candidates. If you don’t have a campaign and you’re not the president, blame yourself!”

Of course, Herman has not done this. Nor is he ever likely to.

But by all means I should blame myself for the gutting of our economy by unimaginably wealthy Americans who have yet to face a single consequence for their indefensible actions.

Hypocrisy and the royal 'we' are alive and well. In fact, they have never been more alive or more well. I want to thank Herman for being the arrogant embodiment of entitlement that he is. I'll always remember him as the 'hands on' candidate.

And finally, a tip of the hat to Ms. Potts, curator of the Angry Historian, who correctly predicted on October 14th that Herman Cain wasn’t going anywhere near the presidency. She was right.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Many Roads to 'No'

No one will ever confuse me with Leif Erickson or Juan Pizzaro. Not Vasco da Gama, Hernan Cortes or Christopher Columbus. And yet I too have discovered something. A place only rumored to exist. I have discovered hell.

How else to feel with days that begin like this?

La Piazza Gancio,

Thank you for your interest in ____'s Department Stores. We appreciate the time you took to consider us for employment at our store locations.

We have given your background and qualifications careful consideration in relation to the opportunity for which you've expressed interest and have determined that we are unable to match your qualifications to a position at this time. We would encourage you to continue to check for future opportunities.

Thank you again for your interest in ____'s and please accept our best wishes for success in your future career endeavors.

Best Regards,

Human Resources

At least it didn’t open with ‘Dear’.

It is unclear exactly what aspect of my background renders me ineligible for even seasonal, part-time employment. Yet knowing the Van Halen-like heights (remember no brown M&Ms?) corporate fickleness has reached, I am likely better off in the darkness of my ignorance.

But as an occasionally-sentient human being, questions persist.

I smile. I make eye contact. I speak in concise, direct sentences that answer the interviewer’s questions. I am nicely dressed. I am enthusiastic. I sit up straight, don’t fidget and even made everyone at a recent group interview belly laugh—twice. I am sober.

You read this blog—do I not ooze personality? Does charisma not spill from me like filling from a buttery, cinnamon-laced apple pie?

What’s not to like? Isn’t my pixie dust sparkly-enough?

How can prospective employers fail to see how I could lighten a customer’s mood, especially when said customer discovers half the items they’re shopping for are either out of stock, the wrong size, style or color? At 11:30 PM on a weeknight with just three shopping days left until Christmas?

I would be a two-legged Mai Tai. A warm mug of spiced cider. A pungent glass of Pinot Noir. No tipping required.

Perhaps I've been branded a flight risk. Since the majority of my employment has (thankfully) been for wages higher than what seasonal positions offer, this means I will vacate the position at first opportunity—as if there were any.

Then there is my college degree, which conveniently confirms to any would-be employer that I will be bored. This somehow differentiates me from the sullen, texting palm zombies already hired.

Bail is set at extended unemployment

Could it be that I fail to sufficiently impress the young women I am invariably interviewed by?

When asked why I want to work at the ________ store, perhaps I don’t become starry-eyed enough as I relate how working from midnight to eight AM the day after Thanksgiving for what can’t even be described as a living wage has been a dream of mine since I was a little boy.

Which presents yet-another another problem: I have a penis.

This provokes in me the unsettling feeling that to these women, drunk on some vague notion of girl-power, that I am their enemy. Middle-aged white guys stand in the way of everything they want to be, and always have. Isn't this their chance for payback?

Just for a change, I’d like to receive a wan smile, a limp handshake and the complete avoidance of eye contact from a middle-aged white guy after an interview.

But the hideousness doesn’t end there.

That would be when friends, acquaintances and overheard conversations confirm that many of those deemed fit for seasonal slavery don’t even show up for their first day on the job, nor possess the integrity to even call employer number-one and inform them that they have accepted employment with employer number-two.

Were circumstances not so bleak, I would laugh and spit that these corporate shitheads get exactly what they deserve.

But money is oxygen, and I am suffocating.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

God Damn Emerson Bolen

Like my previous post, this letter also appeared in a Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune. It is in response to Rachel Unterman’s letter, which appeared the previous Sunday.

As conservative Stepford Wives do, Bolen either reduces complex issues to simplistic, black-and-white conclusions, applies stereotypes without a shred of evidence or just plain gets it wrong.

Nowhere in Ms. Unterman’s letter does she indicate she is opposed to the military, capitalism, the government, or say society owes her anything. And where does she state she is too good to take a temporary job?

In the edition of the Tribune I received, Ms. Unterman said she has frequently worked two or three part-time jobs simultaneously to make ends meet. It's probably just me, but that seems very different from feeling you're too good to take a temporary job.

But why let facts get in the way of a blind, inaccurate, anti-democracy, elitist hissy fit?

Remarkably, Bolen did get a few things right. Rachel Unterman lives at home, is a liberal and is frustrated.

Only someone as willfully and spectacularly ignorant as Emerson Bolen wouldn’t be.

“This is in response to “Why I occupy” (Voice of the People, Oct. 30), by letter writer Rachel Unterman, which took up many paragraphs.

I can sum it up in one paragraph:

You occupy because you are anti-military, anti-capitalism, anti-government, feel that society owes you something, are well-educated and unemployed but too good to take a temporary job, still living at home, frustrated, bored and yep, liberal.”

Emerson Bolen
River Forest, Illinois

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

God Bless Rachel Unterman

This letter appeared in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune.

For those of you slumped in front of yet-another episode of 'Keeping Up With the Kardashians', it crystalizes why the Occupy Wall Street protests are so vital.

This movement represents ninety-nine percent of us, yet I have never heard such widespread criticism. Such petty whining. So many sideline editorialists opining about what the movement should be doing.

These protests are years overdue. We absolutely need to clog the streets of every city in the United States. We absolutely need to kick and scream and fight and yell until the vermin entrusted to represent us actually begins to do so.

And they won't without a hard shove from the electorate, which is us. You and me.

Rachel says it far-better than I.

"I occupy because corporations are not people, and money is not the same thing as free speech.

I occupy because I believe in united citizens, not Citizens United.

I occupy because our military is spending billions of dollars to occupy foreign countries while jobs, infrastructure and the economy suffer at home.

I occupy because my generation should have opposed these wars in greater numbers and with greater outrage to start with.

I occupy because I am tired of going to the polls and trying to decide which politician is least likely to attempt to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder.

I occupy because I am tired of seeing executives of failed companies receiving bonuses while their employees are laid off without severance.

I occupy because I believe in the First Amendment and the civil liberties it grants us.

I occupy because the system is not broken but relies on this kind of active participation to remain strong.

I occupy because it is exciting to see democracy working.

I occupy because after seven years combined of undergraduate and graduate studies, I have student loan debt but not the gainful employment necessary to pay it down.

I occupy because I have been underemployed since finishing school, often working two or three part-time jobs to try to make ends meet.

I occupy because I have spent half of this year unemployed altogether, through no fault of my own. I occupy because the unemployed cannot afford to be invisible statistics any longer.

I occupy because the alternative is sitting in my parents' basement writing cover letters that won't even be rejected, just ignored.

I occupy because if it weren't for the safety net my parents have provided, I would be sitting on a street corner all day asking for a different kind of change.

I occupy because my dreams have been deferred, and it was only a matter of time before they would explode."

Rachel Unterman
Chicago, Illinois

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Cain Is Able?

Herman Cain is a black Republican, and at last glance a presidential hopeful. If there’s a more bankrupt example of humanity than the black Republican (credo: if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it.

I will, however, extend him credit for knowing which side his (white) bread is buttered on.

In Mr. Cain’s most-recent attack of oral flatulence, he advised America’s unemployed (specifically, the Occupy Wall Street protesters) not to blame Wall Street for their joblessness.

Here are Mr. Cain’s words, verbatim:

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself. It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded; it is someone’s fault if they failed.

You're a very wealthy man, aren't you Mr. Cain? But the wealthy don't spend their own money, do they? They spend other people's. Which is likely why you need to protect Wall Street. You need their money.

It's quite amusing (and not a little bit ironic) that despite all the Horatio Alger and rugged individualism, you need help.

I suppose that is my fault as well?

It's also abundantly clear that you have no problem embracing those who have systematically attempted to deny your people opportunity and equality every step of the way for decades.

Make no mistake, Mr. Cain. I know who my enemies are. And the scent of a dollar bill isn't going to make me forget.

I know why I am unemployed. I know why I believe that my life as a self-supporting American is over. It is you. And the unconscionable, whorish greed you represent.

God damn you.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

More Campaign Slogans

I feel awful. While devising acidic campaign slogans for the underwhelming egotists who will soon be vying for the privilege of living in the White House, I left out the newest Republican challenger, Texas governor Rick Perry.

I have thought long and hard about one, since my aim is to provide equally assaultive and insulting slogans for all Presidential hopefuls.

So. For your amusement, I suggest this:

I'm that big Rick from Texas.

I would remind all campaign managers that yes, these are copyrighted.

: )

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Positively Presidential

Underwhelmed by the prospective candidates for the 2012 presidential election, I set about creating slogans for their campaigns.

For Barack Obama it would be this: Republicans are people, too.

For Michele Bachmann, I have two. Number one: What have you got to lose? Number two: The President we deserve.

As always, comments are welcome.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

I Almost Have a Job!

If the paucity of posts weren’t clue-enough, you should know: I found a job.

Not a full-time-with-benefits one mind you, for I am clearly unworthy of such extravagance. But I have found temporary work--with benefits (the exact nature of which escapes me at the moment).

Oh yeah. I’m being paid.

What I do was once the province of college graduates. I am a human resources benefits administrator. Yes, the finer points of health insurance, 401(k)s, pensions, payroll, COBRA, vacation and FMLA administration are being stuffed into me as rapidly as I can clear space on my internal hard drive.

Week five was completed Friday.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I am. To have a forty hour paycheck for the first time in two years is the proverbial rain in the desert. But I am troubled.

Troubled by the degreed HR staffers who no longer have a job because their jobs have been outsourced to temporary workers like me. Troubled by a company that either doesn’t realize its raging hypocrisy as it speaks of the importance of commitment from its temporary workers or doesn’t care.

I am troubled by the ongoing conditions in a supposed first-world country in which highly-educated people make fifty and one-hundred mile commutes for a temporary paycheck while chasing a vague and nebulous chance at permanent employment.

As I suspect is true in many American offices circa 2011, the mood is grim.

Weary, stressed-out workers swallow hard and multi-task while working for stagnant wages as executive compensation rockets upward in an unbroken trajectory independent of company performance or economic conditions.

In the hour and a half it takes to negotiate the twenty-five mile trip to work, I realize I am uncomfortably close to a conundrum where I work merely to perpetuate my ability to get to work.

But then there is my resume. The official record of my contributions to corporate America.

If nothing else, this position will allow me to show recent experience. Which, if you haven’t looked for a job lately, is the mantra of our business class: only the employed (or recently-employed) need apply.

And would all of you ninety-niners please just go away? Or something?

But the days aren’t without mirth. The monumental tedium that results from eight hours of ‘What are the restrictions on withdrawals of after-tax contributions made to the DC plan after December 1, 1986?’ is an extraordinarily fertile breeding ground for humor.

I long to quote Dr. “Bones” McCoy from the original Star Trek and say “Dammit Jim! I’m a doctor—not a retirement specialist!” I struggle to resist publicly identifying the three types 401(k) distributions as hardship, regular and regular with cheese.

Or to inquire of our off-site facilitator “Does a 401(k) participant get a treat when they roll over?”

But these aren’t even my biggest temptations. Let me explain.

In our classrooms, we sit in individual, high-walled cubicles. As mentioned earlier, we take our instruction from an off-site source as we are monitored by on-site instruct—I mean facilitators. The off-site facilitator speaks to us from Texas via speaker phone.

When questions are asked over the speaker phone, they produce a stadium-like echo, which creates in me an irresistible urge to say things like “Upon further review, it has been determined that the offensive player had both feet down at the time of the catch. The call stands. Touchdown Chicago.”

Alas, I have not. Corporate America takes itself very seriously.

But as any temporary can tell you, dreams die hard.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Twenty Year Rule

I am the newly-appointed Minister of Cultural Affairs for the State. I have decreed that no pop band or artist may record for more than twenty years.

Because of the power accorded me, this means there is no Bob Dylan after 1982. No Rolling Stones after 1984. No Bruce Springsteen after 1993. No U2 after 2000.

This also means Green Day has bid us farewell. That Pearl Jam is in the process. And that the Dave Matthews Band has just two years left.

This raises questions. Who would lose the greatest portion of their legacy? Does a band or artist even contribute to its legacy after twenty years? And whose career would end on the highest note?

What I’ve done below is list five artists each from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and placed their careers in the context of the twenty-year rule.

I list the artist, what would be their final album, some significant albums that never would have been as a result and the number of studio releases which followed their twentieth anniversary:

Bob Dylan
Shot of Love (1981)
Infidels, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft

The Rolling Stones
Undercover (1983)
Bridges to Babylon

The Kinks
Word of Mouth (1984)

The Moody Blues
The Present (1983)

Neil Young
This Note’s for You (1988)
Freedom, Ragged Glory, Living With War, Chrome Dreams II

Get a Grip (1993)

Bruce Springsteen
Human Touch, Lucky Town (1992)

Tom Petty
She’s the One (1996)

Crystal Ball (1998)

The Cure
Wild Mood Swings (1996)

All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000)

Reveal (2001)
Around the Sun

St. Anger (2003)

The Red Hot Chili Peppers
By the Way (2002)

Green Day
21st Century Breakdown (2009)

Granted, the third category (significant albums made after a band’s twentieth anniversary) is highly-subjective. But it’s my blog and I can do whatever I want. You are free to quibble with Around the Sun and Mojo until the recession is over for all I care.

Next, a couple of things become clear. One, very few bands or artists have released a career-defining album after their twentieth anniversary. Or even many good ones. And two, solo artists fare better than bands.

What does it say that Bridges to Babylon is the best Stones album of the past twenty-seven years? This from a band that once released Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street in a space of less than four years.

Or that U2 haven’t released a powerful album in over a decade? You could argue it’s been twice that for the Cure and Metallica. It might be more for Bruce. Prince has released one.

There’s a pattern here.

It’s interesting that soloists age better than bands. Fewer people equal fewer agendas. And fewer agendas mean less time wasted, which streamlines the creative process. However hard it may for a solo artist to find artistic inspiration twenty years down the road, it’s far-more difficult to get four or five people to even look for it at that point.

A band is marriage times five. Think about that.

Another thing. Even given the better odds for solo performers, the output of Dylan and Neil Young in their third and fourth decades is astonishing. They are rock and roll’s George Blanda. They are (if you’ll pardon the expression) musical freaks. Let’s face it. No one has a right to be making albums like Love and Theft two years away from being eligible for social security benefits.

It’s just not fair.

So you see, while my proposal may at first seem severe and even undemocratic, in the end it should be obvious that it couldn’t be more egalitarian.

Or is it?

Comments welcome.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Concealed Carry

In last Friday's print editions of the Chicago Tribune, columnist John Kass expressed his humiliation at residing in the only state in the union that has yet to pass concealed carry legislation. Read here how arming Americans will make us more--not less--civilized.

No one asked, but allow me to share my (unprinted) opinion:

Dear Editor,

I was dismayed to read John Kass’ column Friday the 24th citing his embarrassment over Illinois’ failure (his words, not mine) to pass concealed carry legislation.

To the Dirty Harry fetishists aching for such legislation, I pose this question: why is this a good idea?

When confronted with an E. coli outbreak, is more E. coli the answer? When segments of the population are beset by heroin addiction, is the answer more heroin? And when a certain brand of blinds are found to be potentially lethal to children, is it best to ramp-up production of those blinds?

Of course not.

But according to the addled logic employed by cowboy wanna-bes like Kass, the answer to our endemic gun violence is still-more guns.

You’ll have to explain to me how this is wise, especially in a country where we can’t decide how far back an airplane seat can be reasonably reclined without coming to blows and forcing an airplane flight to return to its point of departure.

Is this really a population that should be armed?


La Piazza Gancio
Chicago, Illinois

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

An Appreciation of Clarence Clemons

It had been, at the time, a while since I listened to Bruce Springsteen. When I did, the giant piece of my young adulthood that was tied up in those songs came pouring out of me in a torrent.

It was impossible to listen to a song like Badlands without remembering the certainty and the resolve I once felt, and without realizing how drastically life had changed.

No wonder it produced a giant lump in my throat.

Lights out tonight
trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire
that I don't understand
But there's one thing I know for sure girl
I don't give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don't give a damn
For just the in betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now
talk about a dream
Try to make it real
you wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
for a moment that just don't come
Well, don't waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it everyday
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
and these badlands start treating us good

Workin' in the fields
till you get your back burned
Workin' 'neath the wheel
till you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
learned real good right now
You better get it straight darling
Poor man wanna be rich,
rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
till he rules everything
I wanna go out tonight,
I wanna find out what I got
Well I believe in the love that you gave me

I believe in the love that you gave me
I believe in the faith that could save me
I believe in the hope
and I pray that some day
It may raise me above these


mmmmmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmmm

For the ones who had a notion,
a notion deep inside
That it ain't no sin
to be glad you're alive
I wanna find one face
that ain't looking through me
I wanna find one place,
I wanna spit in the face of these badlands


No small part of Springsteen’s appeal was the saxophonist that accompanied him. In the E Street Band, the saxophone frequently assumed the role of lead guitar, underscoring the majesty, the salvation, or the sadness in many a Bruce Springsteen song.

It was like punctuation; an italics or bold-faced font. I can’t imagine Born to Run, Backstreets or Jungleland without Clarence Clemons. If ever one musician belonged with another, it was Bruce and Clarence.

In twenty-first century America, we often use the word legacy. Probably too much. We want to be remembered for something. For having influenced someone somehow. Clarence Clemons has no such concerns. He left an indelible stamp on some of the most singular music of his era.

I hope you were happy, Clarence. I hope you realized how the nameless, faceless throngs that filled those arenas thrilled to your playing. I hope you know what it meant to them. And to me.

I hope it meant something to you.

Rest in peace. And thank you.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Brand Names and Championships

I know it’s considered bad form to celebrate the failure of others, but I can’t help it. I am happy the Miami Heat lost the 2011 NBA Finals.

There. I’ve said it. Light the fires of hell.

I’m happy because I am a sports purist; one who holds on to the quaint notion that great teams are made, not purchased. One who believes a wily general manager scours the draft for cohesive and complementary talent, pulls off a savvy trade or two and voila! A champion is born.

This as opposed to writing checks.

George Steinbrenner forever corrupted professional sports, and for reasons that are far beyond me is roundly celebrated for it. Thanks to him, the commonly-held belief, the aspired-to business model, is he with the most all-stars wins.

And the Miami Heat are merely the NBA’s Steinbrenner knock-off. They’re the Yankees of South Beach. A collection of high-profile players that, on paper, make for a can’t-miss team.

If this were a proven formula, the Yankees (with a payroll that is typically twice that of any other MLB team) would win the World Series every year. Daniel Snyder (Washington Redskins) and Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys) would have split the last decade’s Super Bowls.

The Detroit Red Wings would have more Stanley Cups than President’s Trophies. And the 2003/04 Lakers—the team that Gary Payton and Karl Malone joined to form a supposed 82-0 juggernaut with Shaq N’ Kobe—would have won the title going away.

But they didn’t. These chemistry-free undertakings have by and large gone title-less.

In a celebrity-obsessed, brand-name culture such as ours, I suppose this was inevitable. Which only serves to make it more refreshing to see that titles and trophies are still based on chemistry, and not Q indexes.

Enjoy your summer, guys.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Hamster Wheel

“Please make sure you arrive at least ten minutes early” said the voice on the phone. “We’ll send a confirmation e-mail that’ll list all the stuff you need to bring.”

I hung-up. When it comes to mounting productions that ooze ego and self-importance, only Broadway can compete with corporate America. There are screenings and pre-screenings and online tests and personality profiles, and you still aren’t anywhere near an interview.

As directed, I arrived ten minutes early for the 9:30 screening, bringing a sheaf of papers that contained the vital information requested by my would-be employer. Copies of my high school and college diplomas. My W2s. Lists of previous addresses, employers, schools, and references. My driver’s license and of course, my social security card.

I brazenly left last week’s grocery store receipt at home.

Upon entering the lobby of the hotel hosting the job fair, I saw a sign mounted on an easel. It read ‘Peapod’, with a big, green arrow underneath. Things were going swimmingly.

As directed by the big, green arrow, I turned right. I found myself in a corridor lined with hotel rooms. Ahead lay only an emergency exit and a vending machine room. It was difficult to imagine how either was connected to the job fair.

I turned back, and found myself being followed by half a dozen people, also attired in business casual.

“The arrow is wrong” I said. “There’s nothing down here.”

This was met by the tepid smiles of those reluctant to socialize. We trudged back to the lobby.

Only it wasn’t really a lobby—it was a hallway with pretensions. Architectural criticisms notwithstanding, I approached the teenager behind the desk. He politely looked up from his cell phone as I approached.

“Can I help you, Sir?”

“Yes” I said. “Where is the job fair being held? And while you’re at it, where are they hiding the Ferris wheel and cotton candy?”

A look of concern clouded his young face. He did not know. His eyes darted left, then right. His head extended just a bit beyond the confines of the desk as he scanned the hallway, er lobby.

“Just a minute.”

At least I wasn’t the only one to whom the location of the job fair was a mystery. I listened for the sound of calliope music. Nothing.

“Sir?” The clerk had reappeared.

“Um, Peapod isn’t ready yet. But when they are, it will be in there.”

He gestured to an area beyond the sign with the big, green arrow. Behind frosted glass windows, figures could be glimpsed.

“I see” I said. “Thank you.”

The clock read 9:35. I faced the others and shrugged. As the de facto head of the job fair search committee, it was my job to communicate.

“They can be late. They already have jobs.” one of my committee members noted bitterly. I didn’t argue.

I found an empty stretch of wall and attempted to lean against it inconspicuously. I took great care not to appear shiftless or lazy. First impressions, you know.

About 9:45 a joyless young woman emerged from behind the frosted glass and made an announcement. Her voice cleaved the silence like a hatchet.

“People—if you’re here for the job fair you need to cross your name off the list and come in the conference room and fill out an application.”

By now there were over a dozen of us waiting, and we moved en masse to a clipboard on a small table and scanned the list for our names. Free pens were available for those who did not have them.

I noticed a woman dressed in dark green pants with a light green top. I wanted to ask her if this was on purpose or just a happy accident. I refrained.

In the conference room, a large screen TV had been turned on, presumably for the entertainment of the woman who had barked at us in the lobby. I was relieved that my selfish search for financial sustenance wouldn’t interfere with her need for noisy, mindless entertainment.

“Hello and welcome to You Choose, the game show where you’re the boss! And how is everybody doing? Great! I’m your host Darrell Woodson, and today we’re going to be looking for two special contestants to compete for cash and fabulous prizes! Is everybody ready?”

I thought of asking her to turn it down, but realized my future lay in her hands. And if prolonged unemployment teaches you anything, it’s to be fearful. It would not be a good idea to provoke her.

If she wanted to watch a game show while I listed my previous employers and the extent of my education for the 1,422,309th time, so be it.

“Is there anyone here from Connecticut? I’ll give two-hundred dollars and a chance at today’s grand prize to anyone who can prove they’re from Connecticut! Who’s from Connecticut? Oh come on! There must be someone in our wonderful audience from the great state of Connecticut!”

I began to supply the names and locations of my elementary, junior high and high school, and of the two colleges I attended and the degrees received from each, and the names, addresses, phone numbers and descriptions of employment at the previous decade’s employers.

When I was done I reviewed my application. I wanted to ensure that my ‘t’s were crossed, my ‘i’s dotted and that my p’s and q’s were minded. I stood up and approached the table where Barking Woman sat.

“Hi!” I said, attempting to simultaneously convey warmth and enthusiasm.

“Have a seat” she said, without looking up.

She took the sheaf of papers and looked them over wordlessly. She pulled out the fresh copy of my resume I had been instructed to bring and inspected it.

“Why did you leave New Mexico?” she asked.

I told her it was a tough place to earn a living.

“What is Rio Grande?”

“A jewelry supplier”.

She fell silent. The game show seemed incapable of doing so.

“That’s right Gloria! You have your choice of a year’s supply of Captain Bob’s barbecued shrimp and an all-expense-paid trip for two to Las Vegas or whatever’s behind the curtain Monique is standing in front of! What do you choose?”

Satisfied she had extracted whatever was worth extracting, Barking Woman dismissed me.

“If the hiring manager feels your experience is a good match with the opening they’ll call and schedule an interview. Otherwise, you’ll get an e-mail. Okay?” She turned the papers over and placed them on the left edge of the table.

“I’d love the opportunity to meet with Peapod again” I said. “Thank you for your time.”

Barking Woman leaned to her right to make eye contact with the applicant behind me. “All set?”

I got up to leave.

On the big screen TV, Gloria chose the curtain. Behind it was a box of dog treats.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Four-and-gone Conclusions

Ouch. This one really hurt.

Just like the ’69, ’84, ’03 and ’08 Cubs. Or the ’71 Blackhawks. Or just about any Big Ten football team that has played in the Rose Bowl since 1970.

It hurt like the Ditka-era Bears teams perennially without the services of quarterback Jim McMahon come playoff time—except for the golden year of 1985.

The 2010/11 Chicago Bulls had the league’s best record. Home court advantage throughout the playoffs. They were mature and seasoned beyond their years; a team that intrinsically knew the value of playing defense and moving the ball.

This was going to be fun.

Then there were the convincing, series-closing victories in games five and six over the Atlanta Hawks, and the twenty-one point win over the Miami Heat in game one. Yes, after a rocky stretch in the playoffs, the Bulls had rediscovered their groove. The Bulls were ready to roar.

But then the wheels came off. The Bulls went missing. They became the first basketball team in sixteen years to drop a playoff series after such a resounding, opening-game victory. Could they have picked a worse time for their first four-game losing streak?

The team that spent the season playing as one forgot everything it learned.

They forced shots. Made more turnovers than Sara Lee. Thought focus was the exclusive property of movie theatre projectionists and that defense was something that happened in a court room. They were unglued by NBA officiating.

Worst of all, they repeatedly relied on a single player down the stretch, which is probably why so many games resembled the economic collapse of ‘08, right down to the fourth-quarter cave-ins.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Bulls are young. Young-enough to learn from the hideous wreckage of this series and apply it before their bodies hit athletic middle age.

Same goes for rookie head coach Thibodeau, who seemed unable (or unwilling) to respond to his counterpart’s adjustments, or even to create some of his own. Or to play veteran Kurt Thomas, who might have been able to settle the distracted Bulls.

Or to vary his play calling enough to keep even the there-to-be-seen neophytes from knowing where the ball was headed in critical, late-game possessions.

Yes, Derrick Rose is wonderful. Great, even.

But there is no way he should be taking twenty-nine shots in an elimination game which takes place during a series in which he’s shooting like the bastard offspring of Jason Kidd and Allen Iverson, and being guarded (in the fourth quarter, anyway) by a man half-a-foot taller.

It’s called passing. Point guards all over the world do it. And when one is making just one-third of their shots, it would behoove one to try it.

You could say this is just a lot of day-after whining, made even more-obnoxious by the fact it’s through the rose-colored glasses of hindsight. But there are grains of truth here. Ones that need to be taken to heart before next season starts.

That and that alone will tell us if this is 1975 and Thibodeau is Dick Motta, or if this is 1990 and the reigning coach of the year is a nascent Phil Jackson.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lakers Get Swept! (and grabbing the Bulls by the horns)

Pleasures are both quick and fleeting. They should be enjoyed whenever they present themselves. So when the Los Angeles Lakers succumbed to perennial playoff underachievers the Dallas Mavericks yesterday, I rejoiced. I loved. I laughed.

A sweep? How sweet!

The fabled and privileged Lakers repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the four-game series; blowing leads, orchestrating fourth-quarter collapses and finally, not even bothering.

Like the Bad Boy-era Pistons (who showed their true colors by petulantly stalking off the court when it became apparent the Chicago Bulls would sweep them in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals), these Lakers revealed their true selves by administering late-game cheap shots to the Mavericks—a team that had been wholly respectful of the fabled Laker legacy.

The game was also an ironic send-off for coach Phil Jackson, he of the eleven championships.

I’ll admit to feeling a bit betrayed when Jackson signed on with the Lakers, abandoning the dynasty he helped build in Chicago for the glamour of L.A. It reminded me a bit of Nicolas Cage, who chose the big paychecks of rote action flicks over the quirky dramas that brought him fame in the first place.

Jackson’s career has yet to be viewed through the corrective lens of time. But for now, I feel he was never really challenged as a coach. Sure, he deftly managed delicate superstar egos, and had the good sense to incorporate Tex Winter’s triangle offense.

But he assumed control of the pre-fabricated Jordan-era Bulls just as they were ready to soar, and did likewise with the Lakers in L.A. I have to think that even a modestly-talented coach could have stumbled into the NBA Finals with either team.

Lastly, the suddenly championship-caliber 2010/11 Chicago Bulls have encountered substantial difficulty in the post-season. First was the surprisingly taut series with the 37-win Indiana Pacers. Now the 2-2 draw with the Atlanta Hawks.

Like so much else, winning must be learned. Defense, consistency and focus are the keys—especially in the post-season. The Bulls had all three in spades during the regular season, which is how they won 62 games. But suddenly, the Bulls don’t seem to possess any of them.

Defense has been employed selectively. They appear unable to focus. They seem tentative, playing not to lose. The young Bulls are also afflicted with Jordan-itis, a malady which makes them succumb to the temptation of “Let Michael Do It.”

Or in this case, Derrick.

Granted, Derrick Rose is a gifted player. But whether it is his decision or by design, Rose is taking too many shots and attempting to shoulder too much of the load.

Rose is surrounded by complementary players who also happen to be quite talented. Rose is made even more-lethal when those around him touch the ball. Let them participate. When they move the ball and keep defenses honest, the Bulls win. Convincingly.

When Rose insists (or is forced) to be Michael Jordan at his pre-championship-era worst, they don’t.

Basketball is a simple game: get the ball to the guy with the best shot. Then stop the other guys from doing it. Do that for forty-eight minutes and you’ll win more games than you lose.

Maybe even a championship.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Insights from a Record Collection

We are very much the product of our times. Or so my record collection told me after I exhaustively cataloged it. Coming of age in the late-sixties and seventies as I did, it is not very surprising that my largest collections are from the likes of the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

What is surprising is that despite my continued interest in pop music, I have but one artist who released a debut after 1990 whose collection numbers in double figures—PJ Harvey.

In the twenty-one years since the beginning of that decade, history would suggest that I would find at least a couple of bands whose career I would follow into a double-digit CD collection. Yet it hasn’t happened.

Why? Do bands have shorter careers now? Less-frenetic recording schedules? Am I too old? This question gnaws at me because I am as enthusiastic about the New Pornographers or TV On the Radio as I am about Led Zeppelin and the Temptations.

First off, it’s an ADD world. Both fans and musicians become bored more quickly than was the case in my youth. Another reason is that record companies are not as likely to shepherd an artist through a sales or creative slump as they once were. Bands must arrive at a label fully-formed and produce immediately, which means that for bands not named U2 or REM, they must do their growing and experimenting (ahem) off-the-record, which also means fewer releases.

Number two, taking years between releases is the norm, not the exception, these days. This is especially true of established artists. To put things in perspective, consider that the Beatles dropped thirteen LPs in a little over six years. Kind of puts the three-albums-a-decade megastar aesthetic into perspective, doesn’t it?

Finally, I am old. After forty-some years of listening to pop music, it gets harder to find something that doesn’t sound derivative. Just as one generation heard diluted impressions of Elvis or Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley in everything that followed, I am likely to hear echoes of the Stooges or Nick Drake or the Velvet Underground in much of what has come since.

But harder doesn’t mean impossible.

There are fresh recombinations of elements that make for new and exciting music, and unique and original visions. And the inspired refining of existing formulas is happening every day. You’re just not likely to hear them on the radio (which for all intent and purposes is dead as an outlet for rock music).

Finally, I/we have changed. Fifty-somethings aren’t very likely to get together and talk about the new Strokes album, are they? Which sadly eliminates the biggest source of the music we enjoyed in our youth—our friends and word of mouth.

Whatever the reason, these are the post-1990 bands and artists I have collected the most releases from:

PJ Harvey

Pearl Jam

The New Pornographers

Guided By Voices
Nine Inch Nails*
TV On the Radio

Foo Fighters
Mercury Rev
St. Etienne
Lisa Stansfield
The 3Ds
The Verve

Built To Spill
Cat Power
The Chainsaw Kittens
Massive Attack
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
You Am I

* released debut album/EP in 1989

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Pet Peeves

Like most people, I have pet peeves. Unlike most people, I keep mine in a zoo. A petting zoo, to be exact. The kind where rabies shots are highly-encouraged prior to admission.

My pet peeves range from justifiable homicide (well, almost) to the merely annoying. That said, allow me to present the seventy-five fascinating and multitudinous things that piss me off:

1. Right-wing conservatives
2. Big Business
3. The impunity of Wall Street
4. Corporate welfare
5. The NRA
6. Executive compensation
7. Stoplights
8. Insurance companies
9. Looking for work
10. Our refusal to address the cause of skyrocketing health care costs—only the symptoms.
11. Credit card companies
12. Oil companies
13. Hyperbole
14. Cable TV providers
15. Corporate banks
16. Pharmaceutical manufacturers
17. The clean coal lobby
18. Saggy jeans
19. Pick-up trucks/sport utility vehicles
20. Congress
21. The Los Angeles Lakers
22. Pro-lifers
23. Bird shit on my car
24. Control freaks
25. Defense contractors
26. Terrorism
27. Impatience
28. Parents who, evidence to the contrary, think their children are incapable of failure and bad behavior (up to and including premeditated murder) merely because said children sprang from their loins.
29. Habitat destruction
30. Bullies
31. Selfishness
32. One-issue voters
33. The New York Yankees
34. Cheapskates
35. The popularly accepted re-imagining of Ronald Reagan as great president and visionary.
36. Reality TV
37. Violent computer games
38. People who use their cell phones a.) while driving b.) while shopping c.) while going to the bathroom d.) in movie theaters e.) in restaurants.
39. This persistent idea that fowl is food.
40. People who say they’d continue working even after winning the lottery.
41. Barry Bonds
42. Liars
43. Climate change deniers
44. Psychology-as-fashion (namely, positive thinking)
45. The owners of professional sports franchises who hold cities hostage for publicly-funded stadiums for what are privately-owned businesses, and the municipal governments who let them.
46. Being labeled a racist because I oppose illegal immigration.
47. Fake boobs
48. Golf
49. Weak drinks
50. People who belch in public
51. The price of concert tickets
52. Drama queens
53. Professional wrestling
54. Arrogance
55. Budweiser
56. The weather in the Midwest
57. The San Francisco 49ers
58. Carrie Prejean
59. Gangster hip-hop
60. Women who complain about guys in Speedos
61. Early-release programs
62. Being interrupted
63. Sour cream on Mexican food
64. Reggaeton
65. Monster truck shows
66. The New York Mets
67. Sale items that don’t ring up at the advertised price.
68. Jerry Jones
69. People who insist on dragging two-foot wide shopping carts down three-foot wide aisles.
70. Competitive eating contests
71. Fart jokes
72. The words devastated, extreme, legacy and iconic.
73. Music videos
74. The names real estate developers give their developments.
75. Smooth jazz

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Behold the Power of Chocolate

For those of you who know me from MySpace, sorry for the re-run.

For those of you who don’t, this is one of four blogs I salvaged from the two-hundred and something I posted on MySpace before they went down. Er, reinvented themselves.

It was plainly the sweetest moment I’ve ever enjoyed at work. It was my last day at J.C. Penney’s catalog desk, a job I had taken to put some much-needed legal tender in my wallet following a move to New Mexico.

It was a deceptively tough job, owing to the variety of services we offered. Each had its own highly-detailed set of procedures and processes that needed to be followed—and learned on the fly.

The department manager was a woman named Helga. She was in her late-fifties and clearly exhausted by the continual turnover in the department. Even the most earnest questions were answered in a weary and resigned monotone.

A few moments stand out.

The night a customer anxiously watched me wrap her wedding gift, distress written all over her face as she frantically searched for the politically correct words to get me to stop and let a woman take over. In a fiendish mood, I continued. I even suggested pairing a tartan plaid ribbon with the pink, satiny wrapping paper she had requested.

(I'll admit to being a bit put-off as I've been wrapping gifts since I was old-enough to give them and do a pretty fair job of it.)

Then there was the middle-aged Native American woman who wanted to return a comforter. In accordance with store policy, I removed the comforter from its heavy plastic storage bag for a quick inspection.

After unfolding it, I needed a moment to digest what I was looking at. The comforter looked as if she had given birth on it. Or murdered someone. It was covered with red stains and others the cast of CSI: Miami would have trouble identifying.

I looked at her in disbelief. “I can’t take this back, Ma’am.” Expressionless and unblinking, she asked why. “It’s used” I said. “No it’s not.” I wasn’t in the mood for a Monty Python skit just then and summoned the assistant manager.

She took one look at the comforter, then the woman and went blank. It was the only time I saw this wise-cracking New Jersey transplant speechless.

She went to the phone and called the store manager, who—unbelievably—gave the woman her money back. No questions asked. I don’t remember if the comforter went to the CDC in Atlanta or the Navajo police in Shiprock.

But I digress. This is about sweet moments, not comforters.

After a month at Penney’s, I had found a “real” job and given notice. My last day would be a Saturday. That morning, a new marketing promotion (miniature chocolate bars wrapped in coupons) was to be introduced.

I was chosen to hand them out, and positioned myself near an entrance. It didn’t take long for the mostly-female shoppers to figure out that chocolate, no free chocolate, was being handed out

Within minutes I was surrounded by women. Women with broad, beautiful smiles. Women who looked at me with something approaching adoration. If I wasn’t the fountain of youth guaranteeing eternally moist and youthful skin, I was at least handing out chocolate.

The circle surrounding me grew three and four deep. As best I could, I attempted to get a bar to each of them.

The eye contact was deep and lingering. And full of unspoken surrender.

God I loved this. Was this what it was like to be a rock star? Or Brad Pitt? Or George Clooney?

I didn’t want it to end.

“How’s it going, Randy?”

Then peals of laughter. The assistant manager had approached with another box of chocolate, and was taking in the success of Penney’s new marketing promotion.

But all too soon, the second box was empty as well.

The women? Gone. My fifteen-minutes were over. I was a has-been.

The truth emerged late one night, in one of those long, soul-baring internal conversations we sometimes have. And it was this: it could have been Charles Manson handing out the chocolate, and the results would have been the same.

I sighed and resigned myself to the fact that I had been a mere delivery system for a woman’s true love—chocolate.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tainted Love

Business loves me
This I know
For the advertising
Tells me so

(with apologies to Anna Warner)

I’m so happy. I woke up today and realized I am loved. I stretched my limbs languorously and reveled in the warmth of it. Okay, so it’s not the torrid stuff of tabloid magazines. It’s different than that. It’s subtle and understated—more resonant.

It’s the kind that makes you clutch your pillow and close your eyes in quiet contentment. It’s forever. Or as long as I possess a functioning credit card. Whichever comes first.

Kidding aside, ever heard the expression actions speak louder than words?

You might have heard it was inspired by Confucius. Or St. Francis of Assisi. Wrong. It was inspired by the business gap—the gulf that exists between a businesses marketing and its standard operating procedure.

Take the supermarket chain I work for. It has a big business gap. It spouts its love of customers like a lovesick fourteen-year-old girl writing in her diary. The only thing missing are the hearts drawn in strawberry-scented ink.

Too bad it isn’t true.

Grocery shopping is work. It’s repeated motions, done and undone many times. Put the food in the cart, take the food out of the cart. Put the food on the check-out counter, take the food off the check-out counter. Put the food in the car, take the food out of the car. And so on.

This doesn’t even take into account reading between the lines on coupons, discerning which flavor of frozen entrée is—and isn’t—on sale, hoping you’re in possession of the keychain with the rewards card on it and the reusable grocery bags and remembering the debit card's PIN.

Look! Your five-year-old just tore open a pack of Skittles and spilled them all over the floor.

The chain I work for began as a no-frills market, with the gimmick being that along with the warehouse-like environment were the lowest-possible prices. Along with the prices, grocery baggers were cut. Marketing experts determined that bagging your own groceries was just part of the fun.

But by 2011, any appeal that idea held has been thoroughly and irretrievably exhausted. In a world in which most women work (in addition to their traditional responsibilities), grocery shopping is just one more chore. Adding insult to injury, it is also one that must be paid for.

And my employer has adapted. We now have baggers. Technically.

We have baggers as long as they’re not cleaning bathrooms or retrieving shopping carts. Or returning unwanted items to store shelves. Or emptying garbage cans in far-flung corners of the building.

Because my employer is so stupendously and astonishingly efficient, when a bagger is idled for a minute or two because a credit card has been declined or a coupon is being disputed or because of the dreaded price check, they are whisked away.

Honesty compels me to admit that while it does lend an entertaining now-you-see-‘em, now-you-don’t aspect to the tedium of supermarket cashiering, customers with three-hundred dollars of groceries who chose your lane because there was a bagger at the end of it rarely see it this way.

So in addition to bearing the glowering rage of an upset customer, a cashier not only has to scan a massive order, but bag it as well. Which easily doubles the time it would take otherwise, and occurs roughly half the time a cashier is behind a register.

Even with glasses, I can’t find the customer service in this. Never mind the love.

It demands that the modest request of having your groceries bagged be the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket. Your groceries will be bagged if the bathrooms have been cleaned and shopping carts brought in and garbage emptied and unwanted items placed back on shelves and if the customer ahead of you doesn’t encounter or present a problem.

In other words, your groceries will be bagged only if the sun, moon and stars have aligned in just the right way. Business may love us, but it loves a big, fat profit margin more.

And my employer isn’t the only example. There’s the jewelry supplier who cut call center agents to improve its bottom line—even if it means the customers it says it cherishes will have to wait longer.

And the telecommunications giant who punishes service consultants for poor sales—but not for hanging up on customers. And the retailer who leaves calls unanswered and customers unapproached because staffing must be kept to an absolute, bare-bones minimum.

With profit margins shrinking like a wool sweater in a dryer and middle and lower-class wages skyrocketing the way they are, well, gosh, what’s a poor business to do? Something’s got to give.

And that something would be you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vicki Johnson

Two blogs in one day after one in all of February. Imagine. So it goes when the fire of outrage burns brightly.

It was confirmed today that Republicans in the Wisconsin state legislature unearthed an obscure parliamentary procedure Wednesday night, allowing them to ratify a bill stripping public-sector unions of their right to collective bargaining despite the continued absence of Democrats.

This is just the first domino to fall in what will likely be a very long chain.

I hope those who voted for Scott Walker last November recall their reasoning and their faith when they find themselves at the mercy of their employer in ways they absolutely cannot imagine today.


Vicki Johnson is a woman in her mid-forties. She is the manager of a feed mill in central Wisconsin, and is someone I have never met. For all I know, she is a wonderful woman. A caring mother. A devoted daughter. A best friend.

But she is also dangerously naïve. Amazingly short-sighted. And just a little misinformed. And she (presumably) votes.

Her thoughts fascinate me because they are a glimpse into the middle-class Republican mind; the mind responsible for installing people like Scott Walker, Rick Snyder, Mitch Daniels, John Kasich and Chris Christie into public office.

If you’re not fortunate-enough to live in the United States circa 2011, Walker, Snyder, Daniels, Kasich and Christie are governors waging war on those with the temerity to belong to public-sector unions, with the eventual goal of establishing a Republican (i.e. corporate) monopoly on governance in the United States.

Not that small government adherents like Johnson see the contradiction.

She likens the behavior of the fourteen Wisconsin state representatives who left the state capitol to prevent passage of Walker’s kill-collective-bargaining-or-else bill to “little children throwing a tantrum, and they should be spanked.”

(I can't imagine what she makes of the Boston Tea Party.)

I have a persistent and nagging suspicion that were the Wisconsin Fourteen Republican, she’d be calling them “wile” and “savvy”, saying “they’re just freedom-loving people standing up for what they believe in.”

When asked about unions, Johnson paused her Shirley Temple DVD and answered thusly:

“Up here, if you’re an honest, hard-working person, you take your lumps. I don’t believe in unions. They were good when they started. But now, the union protects the lazy man. I really think these days an honest, hard-working man doesn’t need protection.”

I can't help but feel like the deli customer in When Harry Met Sally, who after watching Meg Ryan seemingly experience an orgasm after biting into a sandwich, tells the waitress "I'll have what she's having."

For those of us who don't live in a Norman Rockwell painting, being honest and hard-working means that with a dollar, we can buy a weekday edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (which incidentally, costs one-dollar).

It would undoubtedly come as a shock to Ms. Johnson, but there are millions of honest and hard-working people who are fending off financial ruin and persistent unemployment because our elected representation (which, incidentally, is non-union) allowed Wall Street (which is also non-union) to gamble with our economy and our futures without fear of retribution or punishment or accountability.

Being ‘good’ employees or ‘bad’ employees had nothing to do with it. Being not rich and not powerful did.

Johnson’s is the conservative mind at work. It’s this or it’s that. It is or it isn’t. It’s up or it’s down. In the words of the execrable George W. Bush, “You’re either with us or you’re against us.” There are no shades of grey.

It’s easy, quick, black and white thinking. Which incidentally, is characteristic of the adolescent brain.

Draw your own conclusions.

She is the triumph of conservative marketing; intoxicated by the nostalgia of traditional values even as those around her are sacrificed at the altar of executive compensation and insatiable corporate and conservative greed.

Ignorance is clearly bliss.

Our Serfin' Safari

From Morocco to Bahrain, citizens are demanding democracies in which everyone has an equal voice, and are overthrowing the authoritarian dictators who stand in their way.

In the United States, we are electing them.

One example comes from Wisconsin, where angry voters engorged by Republican fear-mongering elected Scott Walker as governor last fall.

Walker is a Reagan-worshipping conservative determined to enact the small government his corporate sponsors demand by doing things like “balancing the budget”. But balancing the budget is a Trojan Horse.

Balancing the budget is code for slashing programs that assist the poor and the elderly.

Balancing the budget is code for unplugging the middle class.

Balancing the budget is code for big, giant business unfettered by regulation or oversight.

Balancing the budget is code for fuck you.

But there are obstacles. Namely, Democrats and the people who fund them. Oh, and that irksome concept of democracy.

Democrats receive a majority of their campaign financing from unions. And it is clear to conservatives that in order to silence Democrats, unions must be crushed.

Big business has sought—and mostly succeeded—in eroding private sector union membership, either by relocating jobs to areas of the country where unions hold no sway or by exporting them.

But government doesn’t have that option.

Public sector unions must be snuffed out via big, ugly confrontations. It’s a risk conservatives are willing to take, because when coupled with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the elimination of unions paves the way for Republicans to run—for all intent and purposes— unopposed.

Eliminate a Democrat’s funding and you effectively eliminate the Democrat. And who doesn’t think that’s a great idea?

If you believe that history began with the Kennedy presidency or the civil rights movement, you need to know there was a time when the middle class didn’t exist. A time when workers didn’t have eight-hour days and weekends off, much less paid vacations, health insurance and maternity leave.

The world was a handful of rich folk, with nearly everyone else an indentured servant to a feudal lord. People (or serfs) were purposely kept ignorant and in fear of an angry, judgmental god lest they saw things for what they really were.

The world somehow managed to progress to the point where even people not considered royalty could read or own land. And to conservatives, this is where it all went to hell. This is where the idea of democracy flowered.

People with absolute power didn’t give it up without a fight. Installing democracy demanded fierce, bloody and prolonged fighting where people died. With extraordinarily rare exceptions, kings and queens didn’t just give it to us. We took it.

This was also the cost of providing workers with their current quality of life.

In the formation of unions, lives were lost. More were ruined. Businessmen didn’t recognize them because it was the right thing to do. They recognized them when they had no other choice. It was the unions, or sometimes the mere threat of them, that drove business owners to relent and give workers a fair share of the pie.

But as the U.S. curdles into a society consisting of either somnambulant, ossified sheep or snarling, amoral jackals, this is changing. The entitlement conservatives love to whine about when addressing social programs and unions has crept into their vocabulary as well.

In short, they feel that you have too much of everything. That you’re stealing from them. And that must stop. And we, by voting for Republicans like Scott Walker, inexplicably agree.

While not lemmings hurtling ourselves off the cliff in a literal sense, we absolutely, positively are in the figurative one. Is there a more pathetic sight in America than a teacher and a department manager screaming at each other while the wealthiest of us get tax breaks and enjoy actual congressional representation?

Like the party that supposedly represents us, the middle class are dupes for the oldest political ploy in the book: divide and conquer.

The enemy isn’t the sheet metal worker across the street, or the teacher across town. The enemy are those who run Wall Street, oil companies, corporate banks and big pharma, and the naked, bankrupt shills who spread their ass cheeks for them in exchange for campaign funding.

Do we know the difference?

I don’t hate the wealthy. Or the powerful. Hell, I believe some of them should even be allowed to live.

Where I become anti-social is with the idea of absolute rule. That the United States become a corporate oligarchy, serving only the interests of its richest and most-powerful clients. A country by, for and of the wealthy.

It is said a people have the government they deserve. And as a distracted, cynical citizenry who are too busy to pay attention to politics, we certainly have that.

Now that we know the conservative agenda, and their ruthlessness and their relentlessness, are we still too busy to pay attention?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Please Dispose of Responsibly

Unemployment really fucks with your head.

You hear 'no' long enough and you begin to believe you’re the piece of shit corporate America says you are. Things like self-confidence and self-esteem erode imperceptibly, like paper yellowing or paint fading.

You haven’t won the lottery, but still manage to defy the odds. You’re told the unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degrees is just four-percent. Yet you have come to the inescapable and bitter conclusion after two years of searching that not looking for work is the same as looking.

You learn what it’s like at the very bottom of America’s social strata. It doesn’t matter what you did, how long you did it or for whom you did it. What matters is that you are long-term unemployed, and for this single reason must not be employed.

The effects on American business could be catastrophic.

You listen to Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) say “The unemployed just don’t want to work” while you perform two highly undesirable part-time jobs only the desperate would even consider, much less take.

You attempt to forget she is the daughter of a millionaire former senator and has roughly the same relationship with struggle that you do with menstruation.

You witness the let’s-heap-dirt-on-the-victims antics of Orrin Hatch (R-UT) as he freely questions the continued existence of unemployment benefits since “They’d just use the money for drugs.”

Or watch as newspapers publish cartoons in which a tree labeled ‘unemployment benefits’ bears fruit labeled ‘unemployment’.

You fail in an effort not to take this staggering misinterpretation of cause and effect personally, even though you yourself don’t qualify for any type of assistance. You search job listings for a position which requires falling through the cracks and to your utter lack of surprise, find none.

Yes, you are employment-proof.

As you prepare for a second downsizing (this time into your parent’s home), you wonder if there will be a third. And if so, if it will involve cement and the outdoors. You ponder your options, which sadly fall into two categories: slim and none.

Of course, you could always go back to school, take out a fifteen-thousand dollar loan and hope that in a year or two someone will want to hire a fifty-something pharmacy tech. By the time you are sixty, the loan might even be paid off. Which leaves you free to begin saving for retirement.

You could also continue looking for work.

After all, in the past decade you have witnessed the New Orleans Saints win a Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals compete in one. Seen the New Jersey Nets visit the NBA Finals—twice. And the Tampa Bay Rays make it to the World Series.

So it could happen.

And let’s not forget it was just last week that you picked up two-bucks in the MegaMillions game.

Yes, things are looking up.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My Favorite Concerts

You are at the point of creation. The audience can't wait for the next song to begin. The air is charged. It’s one of those nights.

I’ve been lucky-enough to experience over seventy of those nights; the kind of where the band is on fire and notes hang in the air, making music so tangible you can practically reach out and touch it.

It’s better than sex or great food or the best movie you ever saw. You drive home with the radio off because you don’t want to disturb the afterglow.

The concerts that follow represent about one-fifth of the three-hundred forty-nine concerts I’ve attended. Shows are listed in chronological order. Support acts are listed when they contributed to the vibe.

And if you’re wondering about the deficit of post-1995 shows, let’s just say I moved to a state that was enchantment-rich but concert-poor.

The Outlaws/The Doobie Brothers 9/19/75 The Chicago Stadium
Natural Gas/Gary Wright/Lynyrd Skynyrd/Peter Frampton/Yes 8/15/76 Hawthorne Racetrack
Jeff Beck 2/19/77 The Auditorium Theater
The Michael Stanley Band/Nazareth/REO Speedwagon 4/22/77 The Auditorium Theater
The Climax Blues Band/The J. Geils Band/Foghat/Emerson, Lake & Palmer 6/4/77 Soldier Field
Pink Floyd 6/19/77 Soldier Field
UFO 10/13/78 The International Amphitheater
Louisiana Leroux/REO Speedwagon 11/4/78 The University of Illinois Assembly Hall
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band 11/20/78 The University of Illinois Assembly Hall
The Rockets/Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band 12/1/78 The Chicago Stadium
Graham Parker & the Rumour/Cheap Trick 6/16/79 The International Amphitheater
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 6/18/80 Poplar Creek Music Theater
The Rockets/REO Speedwagon 8/24/80 Poplar Creek Music Theater
Moon Martin & the Ravens/Rockpile 11/15/80 The Riviera Theater
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band 11/20/80 The Rosemont Horizon
The Kind/Ian Hunter 10/9/81 Cahn Auditorium
The Neville Brothers/The Rolling Stones 11/23/81 The Rosemont Horizon
Red Rider/The J. Geils Band 12/19/81 The Uptown Theater
Defunkt/The Clash 8/13/82 The Aragon Ballroom
Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul 2/13/83 Park West
The Talking Heads 8/14/83 Poplar Creek Music Theater
Los Lobos/The Blasters 7/5/84 SummerFest
The Dream Syndicate/REM 7/7/84 The Aragon Ballroom
The Fleshtones/Billy Bragg/Echo & the Bunnymen 8/25/84 The Bismarck Theater
The Kinks 12/2/84 The University of Illinois Chicago Pavilion
Lone Justice/U2 3/22/85 The University of Illinois Chicago Pavilion
The Blasters 4/13/85 Park West
Til Tuesday/Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers 6/22/85 Poplar Creek Music Theater
Dire Straits 8/3/85 Poplar Creek Music Theater
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 9/2/85 Cabaret Metro
Eleventh Dream Day/Green on Red 9/20/85 The West End
The Cure 10/18/85 The Aragon Ballroom
EIEIO/The Del Fuegos 4/21/86 Park West
Big Audio Dynamite 11/28/86 The Riviera Theater
Peter Gabriel 12/5/86 The Rosemont Horizon
Dave Edmunds 2/14/87 Park West
Shriekback 4/23/87 Park West
Cameo 5/2/87 The Holiday Star Theater
Paul Kelly & the Messengers/Crowded House 9/12/87 The Riviera Theater
Barrence Whitfield & the Savages/Dave Alvin & the All-Nighters/Los Lobos 10/16/87 The Riviera Theater
Richard Lloyd/The Replacements 11/14/87 The Riviera Theater
The Silencers/Squeeze 11/27/87 The Riviera Theater
Public Image Limited/INXS 3/11/88 The University of Illinois Chicago Pavilion
Rosie Flores/Joe Ely 11/13/88 Fitzgerald’s
The Ben Vaughn Combo/John Hiatt 11/26/88 Park West
The Primitives 12/2/88 Cabaret Metro
NRBQ 1/28/89 Fitzgerald’s
Cherrelle/Alexander O’Neal 4/30/89 The Regal Theater
The Jayhawks/The Vulgar Boatmen/The Silos 5/18/90 Cabaret Metro
Lisa Stansfield 5/21/90 Park West
Social Distortion/Sonic Youth/Neil Young & Crazy Horse 1/29/91 The Rosemont Horizon
The Picadors/Trip Shakespeare 7/13/91 The Cubby Bear
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark 9/22/91 Cabaret Metro
Superchunk/The Mekons 11/8/91 Cabaret Metro
The Ocean Blue/The Psychedelic Furs 11/13/91 Cabaret Metro
My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult/Siouxsie & the Banshees 12/8/91 The Central Park Ballroom
The Wallflowers/Cracker 5/9/92 Cabaret Metro
Big Audio Dynamite/Public Enemy/U2 9/18/92 The World Music Theater
Ike Reilly & Community #9/The Mekons 11/14/92 Cabaret Metro
David J/PJ Harvey 11/26/92 Cabaret Metro
The Mekons 11/24/93 Cabaret Metro
Seam/Fig Dish/The Flaming Lips 12/10/93 Cabaret Metro
Throneberry/Tina & the B-Sides/Tommy Keene 2/11/94 The Cubby Bear
Cynthia Plastercaster/The Mekons 7/22/94 Lounge Ax
The Vulgar Boatmen/The Silos 4/13/95 Cabaret Metro
Susan Voelz 5/17/95 Schuba's
Kitchens of Distinction 5/22/95 The Double Door
Bjork 8/4/95 Cabaret Metro
PJ Harvey 10/7/95 The Riviera Theater
Marcia Ball/Aaron Neville/John Fogerty 9/1/00 The World Music Theater
Gavin DeGraw/Maroon 5 11/16/03 The Sunshine Theater
Lavender Diamond/The New Pornographers 9/22/07 The Sunshine Theater

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Revenge of the Tailgated

At first, I thought it was the second coming. That I was being bathed in the light of redemption. Either that or I was being abducted by aliens. Such was the flood of bright white light that engulfed my car.

But there was a stop light at the intersection up ahead. And however limited my experience with second comings and alien abductions, I am positively resolute that traffic signals don’t play a role in either.

A little background.

You see, I was headed south along a two-lane street renown for being a speed trap. With the understanding that driving is a social activity, I motored along at what I assumed to be a cooperative five miles over the speed limit.

I reasoned this would both appease the overscheduled folk who are so frequently behind me, yet at the same time shield me from unwelcome attention by law enforcement.

And that's when The Light appeared.

I flipped the rear view mirror to nighttime. But my puny efforts were overwhelmed by a glare that made it feel as if I were driving on the surface of the Sun.

Perhaps this was the second coming. My brain was suffused with questions. Had I comported myself in a manner consistent with redemption? Had I sinned in the last twenty-four hours?

Without answering either question, I made a desperate attempt to adjust the exterior mirrors. But The Light would not be denied. I gamely continued towards the strip mall, where it had been my intention to purchase a bag of road salt and some washer fluid.

Unfortunately, this also seemed to be The Light’s destination.

As residential neighborhoods gave way to commercial ones, the ambient light helped lessen the intensity of The Light. It was at that point I discerned the visage of a vehicle—a pick-up truck to be exact.

While relieved that final judgment had been delayed until I could at least procure some windshield washer solvent, I was also highly agitated. What did The Light want? Why was it following me? Was it too much to hope for a break in the solid yellow line that would indicate a passing zone?

It was New Year’s Day evening. It was unlikely The Light was rushing to work. Or picking up its kid from soccer practice. I cursed the construction budget shortfalls that consigned me to this two-lane, halogen hell.

Just as The Light seemed poised to attempt some form of vehicular sodomy, the mall came into view. I turned in and hoped The Light would bypass it and continue on its merry way.


The Light slash pick-up turned in also. It was look-at-me obnoxious, standing about three-feet off the ground with several dozen lights mounted on the front bumper and above the cab. The tires appeared to have been borrowed from a river rapids outfitter in Grand Canyon National Park.

It parked across several spaces, and I watched as the driver climbed down. A baseball cap gathered in a headful of wiry, longish hair. He was slender. Stood about 5’8”. He was wearing a Blackhawks jacket and dark sweatpants.

I remembered an expression I had heard in New Mexico: The bigger the truck, the smaller the man. I smiled. He probably needed a stepladder just to wash the hood.

I got out of my car and followed him in.

The store’s white tile floor was crisscrossed with muddy footprints and shopping cart tracks. A voice on the PA was excitedly informing shoppers of the values to be had in the seasonal close-out section. The fluorescent lights glared.

I caught up with the truck driver at the display of rock salt. I parked my cart and stood very near him as I pretended to inspect the various bags. Within seconds I detected a face turned briefly in my direction. A sigh. And then the sound of a cart being suddenly and forcibly moved.

I loitered near the rock salt for a moment, selected the five-pound bag I needed and continued on.

The truck driver was now in aisle 1—canned fruits and vegetables. I followed, suddenly fascinated by the array of canned goods. A smiling woman holding a wicker basket full of ripe, red tomatoes beckoned from a can of Contadina.

While reaching for her, I brushed the truck driver. I pretended not to notice, but could feel him looking at me. I nonchalantly replaced the can and continued down the aisle.

After locating a bottle of windshield solvent, I encountered the truck driver again, this time by the deli.

I stood directly behind him as he ordered a quarter-pound each of olive and pimento loaf. Upon receiving his packages, he turned to put them in his cart and ran into me. There was another exasperated sigh. He was irritated.

“Excuse me” I said brightly and stepped up to the counter. I could feel him attempting to stare a hole into me.

I debated whether to continue. If I didn’t tell him I was the driver of the car he had been tailgating, the entire exercise would be for naught. A decision needed to be made. Our last encounter would be at the cash registers.

Unbelievably, the old Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway duet “The Closer I Get to You” was playing as I joined the line. I wanted to laugh.

I again stood within inches of him as he stooped to retrieve the jug of milk from beneath the cart. We bumped. His eyes betrayed an anger his face struggled to contain.

I looked at him. “It’s not very nice, is it?”

“Huh?” The truck driver stood there, staring. His body was cocked in a pose of expectation.

I studied his pale face. The watery blue eyes and the half-formed pimples near his chin. He was young.

“Being tailgated.”

“What are you talking about, dude?” It didn’t quite come off as a question.

“I’m just sorry I don’t have a bunch of spots to blind you with. Let’s see. By your rules, I should just shove you out of the way and check out first because I'm bigger than you. What do you think of that?”

“You’re trippin’, man.” He turned to face the cashier. His denial provoked a torrent of self-righteous rage.

“You mean you’re not the guy who followed me down McHenry Road? Really? You’re not the guy who tried to blind me because I wasn’t going fast enough? Because I watched you get out of your fucking truck. You are the asshole who was tailgating me. And you know what? I should beat your scrawny ass to a pulp.”

The truck driver anxiously waited for his change. His outstretched hand was a dictionary entry for the word urgent.

In contrast to the portrayal my kindergarten teacher had offered my parents that I wasn’t an oral child, I now found myself in the position of not being able to keep my mouth shut.

“You’re not so tough outside your truck, are you? Tell me something—how should we handle this? What do you think is fair?”

He quietly collected his bags and hurried from the store. I set the rock salt and washer fluid on the counter.

I felt good.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Favorite CDs of 2010

Musically speaking, it was a good year for old guys. It was the year of re. As in resurgent. Reinvigorated. Renewed.

Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Robert Plant (Band of Joy), Jimmie Vaughan, Los Lobos, Ron Wood, Neil Young and the late Solomon Burke all released their strongest work in years in 2010.

Which followed on the heels of last year’s compelling live album from Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and 2008’s Robin Trower collaboration with Jack Bruce.

I’m tempted to say an impending sense of mortality has these guys digging down deep. That the realization that life isn’t an endless stream of twenty-something days has brought their priorities—like the face of death itself—into sharp focus.

On the other hand, it could be mere coincidence.

Of course, the young-uns were active, too. Best Coast, Plants and Animals, Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice (Jenny and Johnny), the New Pornographers and Robyn all released albums that require the warning Caution: may become habit-forming.

Lest you feel an eyeroll coming on at having to slog through yet-another year-end review, know that mine is the only one which doesn’t list Kanye West at number one or mention Nicki Minaj, pop-hop’s hook girl of the year.

Oh wait—I just did. Shit. So much for originality.

Several highly-anticipated disappointments (you know who you are) nonwithstanding, here are my ten favorite CDs of 2010.

1. Robyn Body Talk

I’m tempted to say this is the guiltiest pleasure I’ve ever installed at number-one. But that would be damning Robyn’s tough, brainy dance pop with faint praise.

The irresistible beats lure you to the dance floor while Klas Ahlund’s brilliant production colors Body Talk with bits of electronica, hip-hop and sound effects that elevate the hook-laden songs into the realm of pop-art.

Translated, that means it’s dance music you can stand to listen to even when you’re not dancing. Besides, when was the last time you heard Snoop Dogg drop a memorable cameo? Sexy, smart and the year’s best.

Check "Fembot" and the single, "Indestructible", which features the hottest, most reckless lyric of 2010. (I’m guessing you won’t need that Snuggie any longer.)

2. Robert Plant Band of Joy

Say what you want about the Led Zep-era posturing of Robert Plant, the dude takes his music very seriously. Instead of settling for a huge paycheck by endlessly recycling Zeppelin, Plant has spent the better part of the last fifteen years exploring the folk and Middle Eastern music that first inspired him.

With the stellar support of Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller, Band of Joy recasts songs by Low, Los Lobos and Richard Thompson into something that sounds like they’re wafting from a high plains jukebox, circa 1952.

Check "House of Cards" and the haunting "Silver Rider".

3. The New Pornographers Together

All this Canadian indie all-star band did was turn out another album filled with tuneful songs, inventive arrangements and sparkling harmonies with the same regularity that Robert DeNiro makes crappy script choices.

Were they anything but Canadian, egomania would have split them long ago. But like the joke says, all you need to do to clear a hundred Canadians from the pool is say please. And thank god for that.

Check "My Shepherd" and the epic album-closer "We End Up Together", which contains the faint trace of Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles that runs through much of Together.

4. Los Lobos Tin Can Trust

Back in the mid-eighties, I tried to hip everyone I knew to Los Lobos by dragging friends to their rollicking live shows and making listening to …And a Time to Dance and Will the Wolf Survive? mandatory in exchange for the pleasure of my company.

I never figured I’d still be forking over cash for their latest and greatest a quarter-century later.

Tin Can Trust continues the twenty-first century revival begun by Good Morning Aztlan, and as the smoldering "Burn It Down" and the sober title track make clear, the 2000 box set was just a bit premature.

Los Lobos’ seasoned melding of rock, folk, blues and norteno is multi-cultural soul music. Check both of the aforementioned tracks.

5. Ron Wood I Feel Like Playing

Ron Wood solo albums happen like weird planetary alignments every decade or so. And when they do, they’re usually worth noting.

Recharged after a recovery from alcoholism, Wood brings his well-worn Dylanesque croak to this set of twelve songs that display the same rough-edged sense of groove that propelled his first (and best) effort, 1974’s I’ve Got My Own Album to Do.

Check "100%" and "Tell Me Something", which are the sort of mid-tempo crotch grinders the Stones don’t make enough of anymore.

6. Jenny and Johnny I’m Having Fun Now

This low-key gem, a collaboration between the Rilo Kiley lead singer and her longtime boyfriend Jonathan Rice often finds itself exploring the relationship dynamic with tart (but never bitter) results.

It doesn’t hurt that their voices go together like peaches and cream, or that the album is rife with sublime production touches applied with restraint and intelligence.

But like last season’s surprise playoff team, Jenny and Johnny won’t sneak up on anyone next time around. Which might take some of the fun out of the sequel—assuming there is one. So enjoy this while it lasts.

Check "Switchblade" and "Big Wave".

7. John Mellencamp No Better Than This

Like the former Led Zeppelin frontman, the former Johnny Cougar knows a bit about aging gracefully. Substituting intimacy for arena-sized bluster, Mellencamp proves a whisper is just as powerful as a scream. And that multi-tracking and overdubbing don’t necessarily give an album depth.

It’s stark, spare beauty is recorded in monaural, giving No Better Than This an emotional heft that falls somewhere between a nineteen-fifties Hank Williams EP and Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads LP.

Do yourself a favor and check the title track and "Save Some Time to Dream".

8. Plants and Animals La La Land

Montreal’s other band, Plants and Animals describe their music as post-classic rock. Imagining a less-bombastic Muse is probably a good place to begin.

As a result, La La Land is a bit like seeing an old girlfriend with a new haircut—the same, but different. Their melodic, textural pleasures are a treat, and mark Plants and Animals as a band to watch.

Check "American Idol" and "Game Shows".

9. Neil Young Le Noise

I’d love to see the look on people’s faces the first time they hear Le Noise. Yes, it's a Neil Young solo album. But no, the guitar that accompanies him isn’t a softly-strummed acoustic.

The combination of voice and electric guitar may seem off-putting, but it provides stark relief. The quiver in Young’s voice has never sounded more ghostly.

You’ll be so absorbed by Le Noise you won’t even care that "Sign of Love" nicks the riff from 1975's "Drive Back". Or that it’s technically not a solo album. (Producer Daniel Lanois added some post-production electronics.)

Check "Angry World" and "Love and War".

10. Best Coast Crazy for You

This L.A. trio isn’t doing anything revolutionary here; just executing classic forms like girl group pop and surf to sunny, lo-fi perfection. But it’s enough of a wrinkle that Crazy for You frequently finds its way into my CD player.

Check the title track and "Honey".

Honorable Mentions:

Solomon Burke Nothing’s Impossible

If there’s a silver lining in the cloud of Mr. Burke’s passing, it’s that he ended on the upswing of the good-album-bad-album cycle that marked his twenty-first century resurgence.

Tom Petty Mojo

I haven’t liked a Tom Petty album this much since the eighties, which is totally like all you need to know about Mojo.