Sunday, May 31, 2015

Telephone Mosquitos

Few things in life are able to penetrate the hardened shell of my cynicism. Robocalls are one.

They are a technological wonder. What do you suppose Alexander Graham Bell would have made of them?

Imagine being able to place a call from anywhere in the world and mask your phone number with any sequence of ten digits you can imagine. And of making untold numbers of unseen telephones ring, announcing your pointless and invasive messages.

Perhaps these people are amused by the imagined efforts other people make at locating or getting to their phones before they stop ringing.

We were in middle school once too, weren't we?

My favorites are the calls which offer me the opportunity to lower my credit card interest rate. A very animated female voice urgently informs me of the glorious life that awaits if I will just push the button marked 'one' on my keypad now.

The fact that the call has been answered by my antiquated answering machine is lost on the originators of these calls and their number-masking wizardry.

In a gesture meant to burnish the entire affair with the sheen of legitimacy, the target is advised he or she can push the button marked 'three' if he or she no longer wishes to receive these calls in the future.

Of course, this is like assuming that because you vote, you will have elected representation. One does not necessarily follow the other.

In moments of unfettered pique, I have actually answered these calls.

On one occasion, I asked to be placed on their do not call list. I was informed by a smug, vaguely Asian-sounding female voice that it didn't have a do not call list.

In other, more lighthearted moments, I have pretended to be interested. I ask you: does wasting a telemarketer's time not seem entirely fair? 

I inquired how my interest rate could be lowered beyond zero, since I (fortunately) do not carry any credit card debt.

The operator asked for my credit card number. I told her I was in the middle of making love to my wife, and being naked, didn't have it handy just then. Couldn't she just give me a brief rundown of the program?

This was followed by a dial tone. I smiled at the irony of having a telemarketer hang-up on me.

It was clear that despite her mastery of telephony, she had no sense of humor. Or any appreciation of my ardent desire to lower credit card interest rates.

But in all honesty, the worst part of these calls is the reckless and wanton use of psychological warfare. They use the most-savage psychological weapon in the human arsenal to break-down their targets—hope.

Yes, it is critical that you understand these calls contain the following words: This is your final notice.

At least they are consistent.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Something Different on Memorial Day

In 1991 I went to Memphis. It was a stop on a larger trip whose eventual destination was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the city famed for Elvis and barbeque, I was struck by a high-contrast example of the disparity between black and white in the United States of America.

On one side of town, there was no detail of Elvis Presley's life too trivial to memorialize. I could have bought a laminated reproduction of his driver's license from one of the half-dozen gift shops across the street from Graceland.

On another side of town, the spot where Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd had recorded some of the most resonant and indelible soul music ever conceived was an overgrown vacant lot, with only a U.S. historical marker near the curb.

The converted movie theater that had served as the recording studio for Stax Records was long gone; the undeniable truth being it had been torn down to make way for a vacant lot. There were no opportunities to purchase a reproduction of Otis Redding's driver's license, much less see the building where he and the M.G.s had recorded Otis Blue.

It hit me. Hard.

Let me be clear: the intent isn't to slam Memphis. My mate and I enjoyed an otherwise wonderful visit, topped-off by the elderly gentleman who escorted us from a McLemore Avenue convenience store to the nearby Interstate entrance I had somehow been unable to locate.

But with the exception of Detroit and its Motown museum, this is a story repeated in any city that once served as mecca for black music. My hometown of Chicago has its own woeful record of neglect.

To wit, 2120 S. Michigan Ave. is a parking lot. Record Row, the home to Vee-Jay and Brunswick Records (among others) was reduced by the mid-nineties to a handful of faded, hand-painted company logos in second story windows.

With the wholesale gentrification of the South Loop, I doubt even those exist today.

These locales were the purveyors of what was essentially under the counter music for an under the counter culture. If the pop music consumed by white teenagers was considered disposable, you can imagine the status accorded the latest J.B. Lenoir forty-five.

It is ironic then, that this music could end up aiding and abetting the entity known as the City of Chicago.

As it seeks desperately to avoid being flushed down the toilet with the remainder of Illinois, Chicago is in dire need of revenue. And what better way to lure tourists from points all over the globe than by recognizing its musical heritage?

Sam Cooke, Benny Goodman and Herbie Hancock are just three of the luminous talents birthed by the city. Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley recorded the music that set an entire generation of English youth aflame here.

And yet their connections to Chicago are virtually invisible.

Cities as far-flung as Vienna, Austria and Kansas City, Missouri have acknowledged their musical heritage and acted not only to preserve it, but use it as a lure which simultaneously educates and builds revenue streams.

Even beyond these practical applications, this serves—in many cases—to pay homage to the profound contribution African-American culture has made to the broader culture of the United States, and on a good day might even encourage a rethink of our racial stereotypes.

Given the junk status of its bonds and the tautness of its racial tensions, it is high time Chicago did the same.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Tribute to a King

It started with a $2.99 LP from the Columbia Record Club. It wasn't very good. It was called Bobby Bland and B.B. King Together Again...Live, and I'm sure the pairing looked great on paper.

But the famed blues vocalist had become a bit lazy by this time, and too often resorted to phlegm-y exclamations as a substitute for actual singing. And half of B.B. King's appeal lay in his voice, and reduced to the role of back-up singer, his guitar playing seemed to suffer as well.

I put the LP away and didn't reach for it again until one of my periodic vinyl purges. But B.B. King's name continued to pop up in the rock star interviews I spent way too much of my adolescence perusing.

In a survey of the all-time great live albums, I found the B.B. King album I was looking for: a live LP recorded in my hometown of Chicago featuring perhaps the most scalding performances this side of James Brown's Live at the Apollo.

Live at the Regal had entered my life.

The stinging guitar, roaring vocals and an audience for whom 'engaged' seems woefully inadequate made my first listen one of those indelible events that shape our youth. Live at the Regal swung, swaggered and forcibly insinuated itself into my existence.

Was the band sharp? Let me put it this way: you could shave with some of the performances he put down on that Saturday night in November of 1964.

B.B. King went on to enjoy a long career and a longer life. He was loved. He was admired. He succeeded without the semi-literate menace and unvarnished veneer of his peers. King regularly appeared onstage in tuxes and suits, yet was rarely accused of selling-out or compromising his music for the sake of a larger audience.

With an openness that mirrored his personality, King played and recorded with just about everyone. Fellow blues stalwarts, rock stars, jazz bands—King was always eager to explore, recombine and experiment.

Forty-six years after the fact, it's hard to appreciate just how radical it was to feature strings on a blues song, but that's just what King did on “The Thrill Is Gone”. Naturally, it became his signature song.

B.B. King amassed over ten-thousand gigs before falling ill at one last autumn in the same city that birthed his landmark album. He outlived all of his contemporaries, becoming—fittingly enough—the last of the first-generation of amplified bluesmen left standing.

It's not an overstatement to say that King's death is more than the passing of a single man—it's practically the expiration of a genre. A genre that electrified not only the blues, but so many of us.

In the deaths of those who informed our lives, our own mortality is made painfully clear. With another leaf fallen from the tree of my musical loves, the barren branches of winter move one step nearer.

Bless you, B.B. And thank you.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

These Bulls. My Bulls.

In a perfect world, hope is indomitable. Robust, like a seaside boulder that has resisted eons of crashing waves. 

In the real world, hope is battered and brittle; held together by a patchwork of duct tape, baling wire and chewing gum.

Such is the state of mine as the 2014/15 Chicago Bulls take on the Cleveland Cavaliers tonight in game 6 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

With the Dallas Cowboys reduced to Jerry Jones' personal ATM, only the Chicago Cubs can compete with the Bulls for my sports-based affections. This is the reason I am on the verge of a sports-related hernia. 

I am pulling for them. Hard.

But since Derrick Rose's cataclysmic knee injury three years ago, the Bulls have been a franchise on pause. A franchise with one foot on the gas and another planted firmly on the brake. The protracted is-he-or-isn't-he drama and the accumulated weight of unfulfilled potential has strained the organization. 

Deeply.

There are persistent rumors of a front office rift between GM Gar Forman and coach Tom Thibodeau. An unending succession of critical injuries. And that suffocating mantle of Great Expectations. Not only must Derrick Rose get healthy and regain his MVP form, but the Bulls must win when he returns, and win big. 

Waiting for Derrick wasn't a game anyone wanted to play, but it's the hand these Bulls were dealt.

After an up-and-down season rife with signs the Bulls might be tuning-out Thibodeau, it's do-or-die tonight after losing the pivotal game five. And teams falling behind three games to two go on to lose those series eighty percent of the time.

The weary Bulls may win one more tonight, a going away present for what is likely their coach's final game in Chicago. But like an airplane that has seen too many takeoffs and landings, the Bulls are a craft suffering from metal fatigue.

The future is more uncertain than bright.

It may very well be time to retool, leaving these Bulls to join the Lenny Wilkins-era Cavaliers of Mark Price, Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty and the Don Nelson-era Bucks of Sidney Moncrief as one of the best to never get the rest. 

But first, I need to make an appointment with my hernia guy.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Caving

Jesus. How do columnists do it?

A column a day. Five a week. Twenty a month. Two-hundred a year. Where do they get the inspiration? The ideas? The angles?

After sloughing off here at the Square Peg the last several years, I was bound and determined to resume my previous output in 2015, a rate which saw me posting five times a month—easy. 

But here it is May 7th, and I have nothing.

What to write about? Baltimore? Bernie Sanders? Nepal? The execrable Heather Mack?

Let me say this about Mack.

Mack is the daughter who offed her mother in Tahiti while the two of them were on vacation attempting to mend their battered relationship. Heather's boyfriend showed up, having arrived unannounced and uninvited on mom's dime. 

After confirming his girlfriend's pregnancy, he bashed in mom's head when the first words out of mom's mouth weren't “When can I host the baby shower?” Then he stuffed her in a suitcase.

In a judgment that scales the Mount Everest of irony, Mack received a light sentence from the Indonesian court because she is, um, well, now a mom herself. I wonder how she'll explain what happened to grandma?

Ah, but that seems so poorly-suited to the sunny and mild weather I've been waiting since November for.

Maybe I'll just go outside, pour a beer and grill a couple of brats. After all, I've already exceeded last year's total.

Right?