Monday, September 28, 2009

Return of the native

Ghosts out on the highway
Voices on the wind
Telling me we may never pass this way again
Voices on the highway, angels beckoning
Like a long lost friend

MILWAUKEE -- I said goodbye to Bradenton Friday but was too conflicted to mention it at the time. The Florida Suncoast was my home for more than 10 years and I'm sure I'll miss it more than I realize today.

If you've been following this blog you noticed I was headed somewhere. Up through the Panhandle, cutting north through Alabama ... must be making another journey back to Wisconsin?

Right you are. Those of you who know me were either aware of this move or could have predicted my destination. What nobody could have known -- even me, as it turns out --is what a lonely drive it has been.

It's never easy leaving behind friends and familiar surroundings. The longer you live in a place, if it's a good place, the harder it can be to leave. And that's certainly true about Bradenton. But you know something? It's been in my rear view mirrow for almost four days now, and the objects are no longer larger than they appear. That's a good sign.

Fare-thee-well, I'm bound to roam
This ain't never been my home

I have a hunch Steve Earle misses Nashville more than he lets on in "Goodbye Guitar Town.'' Maybe not. He certainly has transitioned nicely into NYC. A town does tend to have its way with you over time, and that can rub you either right or wrong. But Nashville, even with its warts, is a terrific place.

So is Milwaukee. My old tromping grounds, and now my new home. The only traffic jam of my three-day, 1,500-mile trip came yesterday afternoon, on my way through the city, and it was a beautiful thing. It was the crowd leaving Miller Park after a Brewers game. Damn it's good to be home.

I had this John Prine song in my head the whole trip up:

I'm gonna get on that old turnpike and I'm gonna ride
I'm gonna leave this town 'til you decide
Which one you want the most those Opry stars or me
Milwaukee here I come from Nashville, Tennessee

It wasn't easy to blow through Nashville without stopping, but I was a man on a mission. And now that I'm here in Milwaukee, who knows? The rain has stopped and the winds have subsided. There's got to be a break in the clouds somewhere, a place where a ray of light shines through and points the way to Indian summer.

I think I just saw it, and a good thing. I start my new job tomorrow.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hank Williams lived here for a spell

 GEORGIANA, Ala. --Nothin' ever happened 'round my hometown
And I ain't the kind to just hang around
But I heard someone callin' my name one day
And I followed that voice down the lost highway

Earlier today I found myself on the Lost Highway, a designated 50-mile stretch of I-65 that cuts through the pine country of central Alabama. Hank Williams grew up in Georgiana, and signs pointed me to his childhood home at 127 Rose Street. The white woodframe house, just a block from the railroad tracks, now serves as a modest museum to the father of contemporary country music.

They sell T-shirts, caps, books, magnets, photos -- even copies of Hank's death certificate. They also sell belt buckles, but someone had obsconded with the last three earlier in the day. I've never purchased a belt buckle before, but now I wanted one in the worst way.

Hank's mother bought him his first guitar for $3.50 when he was 8 years old, and Rufus "Tee-Tot'' Payne, a local street musician, taught him how to play it. A few years later the family moved to Greenville, and then later to Montgomery.

If you ever find yourself going down the Lost Highway it would be worth taking a detour to Hank's old home. A good spirit resides there today.

The night the Shiz hit the fan

PENSACOLA BEACH -- Zach and I were polishing off our second beers and considering our options, which are numerous on Friday nights on the boardwalk at the beach.

We were sitting at the horseshoe bar in Bamboo Willie's, too far from the stage to be paying much attention to the band. Except: The guitar player from a distance bore a queasy resemblance to David Caruso. At least he wasn't wearing sunglasses.

We were ready to leave when Joceyln stepped up to the mic and stopped us in our tracks with a steamy version of "Smooth Operator.'' We ordered another round and found a table close to the stage.

Jocelyn followed with the best -- only? -- female cover I've ever heard of Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On'', followed by Edie Brickell's quirky "What I am.'' You need versatile pipes to pull off songs like that, and she has 'em.

And then the Shiz hit the fan. There are cover bands, and there are bands that play covers. The first group, they're a dime a dozen. You can find 'em at any club or lounge on any night of the week. They're a hybird of karaoke and Guitar Hero. There's no harm, really, as long as long as they don't dial up the sound.

The Shiz, we soon discovered, are a band that plays covers. Which is to say, they play 'em like they own 'em. They're so good and tight you don't care if they have original material. We thought Steve Miller was on stage, and then Steely Dan. Who has the nerve to windmill a bass, ala Pete Townshend of the Who? Jonathan Grooms of the Shiz does, while busting up the place with "Baba O'Riley.''

Add the seamless Strat guitar of Jerry Dawson, the apocalyptic drums of Doug Stiers and you have a power rock trio that sounded like they'd been playing together since they were babies.

And be very happy if Joceyln shows up.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

He's still got game

How cool is this? You can go to Bruce Springsteen's website and check out the set lists from his current tour -- presumably scrawled by the Boss himself.

This set list is from the Sept. 12 concert at Ford Ampitheatre in Tampa. He opened his 20-song set with "Bandlands'' and closed with "Born to Run'', then returned for a six-song encore, finally ending the sweat-drenched night with "Thunder Road'' -- one more than planned.

I didn't make that concert and probably will miss this tour altogether, with regrets. The ageless rocker -- he turned 60 yesterday -- is currently resting up for five shows at Giants Stadium and four in Philly spaced over three weeks, which might well provide the concert highlights of the year.

I saw my first Springsteen concert at the Lakeland Civic Center in the late Seventies, and most recently caught him at the Times Forum in Tampa. We might have bitten off more than we could chew that Sunday, attending a Packers-Bucs game at Raymond James Stadium and then grabbing a cab downtown to see the Boss.

On paper that may sound like a dream entertainment package. But we questioned the wisdom of doing both after watching the Packers wilt in the fourth quarter under the torrid Florida sun, then showing up shellshocked for our nosebleed seats at the Forum.

There's no such thing as a bad Springsteen concert -- the Boss always delivers. So, upon reflection we can only blame ourselves. And Brett Favre.

There is a brothel in Crescent City...

It's one of those traditional songs that just about everybody has covered. Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan -- even Nina Simone and Dolly Parton have recorded it. And, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can listen to practically every version.

But when you think of "House of the Rising Sun'' you probably think of the Animals. Click here and hear for yourself. This version rocketed to the top of the Billboard chart in September of 1964.

It was the first song by a British Invasion band NOT written by Lennon-McCartney to reach No. 1. The Beatles, truly impressed by a song they must have known but hadn't covered, even sent a telegram of congratulations to Eric Burdon and Company.

The intro guitar hook may be one of the most recognized in rock history. Add Burdon's angry vocals and the distinctive Vox organ work of Alan Price and you have the ingredients for a classic.

Picker alert: If you're just tinkering around with a guitar this is a perfect song to learn. It's a simple chord progression of Am, C, D, F, Am, C, E. Then Am, C, D, F, Am, E, Am, E. To pick it, just pluck the base string of each chord and go up and down the ladder.(For Am and C, it's A-D-G-B-G-D, for D and F it's D-G-B-E-B-G, and for E it's E-A-D-G-D-A). You're sure to impress your friends with this one!!!

The Animals' neat trick was to change the lyrics and make it a song about gambling instead of whoreing, which probably helped them avoid hassles with the FCC. (Kids, I know this is hard to believe, but you just couldn't publish anything you wanted to back in 1964. There were actually censors standing by waiting to flag your naughty messages.)

The song had been on the Animals' touring playlist long before they decided to record it, which may explain how they nailed it in one studio take. It's another splendid example -- and there are many -- of a UK band doing a brilliant yet respectful interpretation of American blues.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Give it up to Dickey Lee

Dickey Lee, my man. You made it to 73!

When you were producing those "death discs'' back in the early Sixties we figured you must have had, well, a death wish.

Two of your biggest hits were "Patches'' and "Laurie (Strange Things Happen).'' Some radio stations even banned them because of their dark messages. "Patches'' was about a poor girl your parents wouldn't let you marry, a sweet girl who tragically drowned, and you ended the song with:

Patches oh what can I do
I swear I'll always love you
It may not be right But I'll join you tonight
Patches I'm coming to you

And "Laurie'', well, that was really spooky. You met her at a dance, kissed her goodnight and gave her your sweater because she was cold. Then you found out from her father that she had been dead for a year!

We loved those tragic songs you wrote and performed. We even liked "I Saw Linda Yesterday'' although that may have had something to do with the girl down the street who made our hearts go "up down like a merry-go-round.''

But we were so enthralled with your tunes of teen angst that we didn't realize you wrote one of greatest country songs of all time. In fact, we can't remember a song that was No. 1 for three different artists.

"She Thinks I Still Care'' is the song, and nobody did it better than George Jones. But Anne Murray made it her first chart-topper (although she changed it to "He''), and Elvis also scored a No. 1 with it, even though it was a flip side to "Moody Blue.''

If you count all three -- and why not? -- you've had eight No. 1 songs. Pretty impressive for a guy who chilled us with:

A strange force drew me to the graveyard
I stood in the cold
I saw the shadows gleam
And then I saw my sweater
Lying there upon her grave

Strange things really do happen in this world.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

One that slipped between the cracks

I read somewhere that Jim Carroll was such a good schoolboy basketball player that he could hold his own against the likes of New York City phenom Dean "the Dream'' Meminger. That good?

Maybe I should have watched "The Basketball Diaries.'' My problem is that when the movie came out in 1995 I quickly learned that Leonardo DiCaprio didn't have the game to play the role of Carroll. And there's nothing worse than watching a movie referencing sports that can't provide some semblance of realism on the court or playing field.

The movie, of course, was about more than a young white basketball player with game. It was about the kid's frightening descent into heroin addiction and the ugly, toxic world he finds himself in before finally escaping. In other words, it's the story of Jim Carroll, who beat the long street odds of the big city and became an acclaimed poet and writer, punk rock star and NYC cult figure.

When Carroll died last week of a heart attack at age 60, Patti Smith was among those sharing memories and eulogies of her longtime friend. Which prompted me to track down the movie soundtrack (now how hard is that these days?) There are some excellent cuts, including "Catholic Boy'' and "People Who Died'' by Carroll's band, and "Riders on the Storm'' by the Doors. Still...

Have you seen "The Basketball Diaries''? Reviews generally pan the film while applauding DiCaprio's performance. He was only 20 at the time, and already an Academy Award nominee for his first role in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?'' Given what he's done since, do you think maybe he is our best actor today?

It seems like the perfect time to go back and watch it. Or maybe I'll just close my eyes, turn on the soundtrack and imagine Jim Carroll, the flashy white kid with game, blowing past the great Dean Meminger for an easy basket.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The incredible short life of Jimi Hendrix

Have you ever heard anybody ask: "What were you doing when you heard Jimi Hendrix died?''

I was just wondering. It seems appropriate to ask on this day, the 39th anniversary of his death. A death in London still shrouded in mystery, a death that made Hendrix a founding member in the morbid Club 27, to be joined by Janis Joplin (just two weeks later), and Jim Morrison.

They all died too young, in their 27th year, like Brian Jones of the Stones, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan of the Grateful Dead, and even the great bluesman Robert Johnson back in 1938.

Considered by many, including Rolling Stone magazine, to be the greatest guitarist who ever lived, it seems the news of Hendrix's death would have sent shock waves around the planet. I'm sure it did in many places -- especially the U.K., where he was a most beloved performer. But I don't remember seeing the big headlines or hearing the chatter at the time. Maybe it was the time change back here in the States. It couldn't have been my studies at Wisconsin-La Crosse.

If not for three concerts that put his extraordinary playing and stage antics in the world view Hendrix, the Seattle native, might have remained mostly a U.K. treasure. The 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and his blazing Stratocaster changed that, thanks to the D.A. Pennebaker documentary. Then came his memorable early-morning appearance at Woodstock -- also captured on film for the masses -- and, finally, the Isle of Wight in 1970.

And then he was gone. Just four years earlier he appeared as John Hammond's backing band, the Blue Flame, at Cafe au Go Go in Greenwich Village. His final appearance, the night of his death, was an informal jam at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in SoHo.

So much in between. Has there ever been a bigger flame that burned so quickly?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The essence of three-part harmony

We bid farewell to Mary Travers Wednesday. She died of leukemia at age 72, and she will be remembered as more than the striking blonde who sang with two goateed balladeers in the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary.

Travers was a singer alright, her rich soprano a key component of the group's distinctive vocal blend. But she was also a social activist, a defender of the defenseless and a guiding spirit in the folk renaissance of the Sixties, when protest songs carried real weight as they soared with the winds of change.

Yet it was an innocent children's song, "Puff'', that many of us growing up at the time learned to sing first, a simple song that taught us the meaning of three-part harmony and the absolute necessity of including a voice like Travers' in the mix. Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, "Puff'' was not a song about drugs. It was just a beautiful song.

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain
Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane
Without his life-long friend, Puff could not be brave
So puff that mighty dragon sadly slipped into his cave

"Puff,'' a No. 2 hit for the group in 1963, was sandwiched between two Bob Dylan covers that also charted well: "Blowin' in the Wind'' and "Don't Think Twice.'' Imagine, a folk trio that for a shining moment was actually bigger than the emerging Dylan himself.

That was the Greenwich Village scene in the early Sixties. Singers who believed what they sang, and sang what they believed. And nobody was more admired at the time than Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers. Their debut album in 1962, featuring the simplistic "Lemon Tree'' and Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer, stayed on the charts for more than three years.

Simon was just spendid without Garfunkel, and CS&N were absolutely fine before (and after) Y. But it's impossible to imagine Peter & Paul without Mary. Some things are just meant to be.

Pssst: Here's one for the gypsy in you

Eric Clapton has only had one No. 1 song, and it hit the top spot on this day in 1974.

Hard to believe? Hard to believe that, given his talent and tenure in the business, Clapton's only No. 1 song was a Bob Marley cover. In fact, "I Shot the Sheriff'' probably was responsible for helping usher Marley's music into the mainstream -- where it surely deserved to be.

Clapton had been battling heroin addiction before setting out to record "461 Ocean Boulevard.'' It is a beautiful, lazy, wistful album full of bluesy covers, opening with the traditional "Motherless Children'' and including Elmore James' "I Can't Hold Out'' and Robert Johnson's "Steady Rollin' Man.'' South Florida session guitarist George Terry helps set the tone with "Mainline Florida'' -- the album's closing song.

Not to diminish Clapton's contributions, which are significant. "Please Be With Me'' is the loneliest love song you'll ever need to hear:

I sit here lying in my bed
Wondering what it was I said
That made me think I'd lost my head
When I knew I'd lost my heart instead

So won't you please read my signs, be a gypsy
Tell me what I hope to find deep within me
Because you can find my mind, please be with me

Anybody who's had a tour of life duty in Florida -- especially along the Miami coastline where Clapton was holed up at the time -- will find room for this in the collection. Other than Jimmy Buffett's adventures in Key West, nothing speaks to the Florida inside us like "461 Ocean Boulevard.''

It's a muted sunrise through patchy clouds and light ocean waves lapping at the shoreline. It's music that leaves us unsure exactly why we wound up here, but profoundly grateful for the experience.

It's Personal Six String Sanctuary Tout (PSSST) No. 13.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Maybe Jay should have apologized

The first mistake I made was missing the MTV awards Sunday night. Next, I conveniently ignored the news shows on Monday. So by the time Leno kicked off in his new time slot last night I might have been the only person in the world who hadn't seen or heard about the Kanye West-Taylor Swift event. And that made it even harder to laugh at Jay's jokes, or to understand what was really going on.

But I'm not here to review Leno. (I will, however, share this commentary by Mary McNamara of the L.A. Times.) You can click here for the full review:

It's not a good sign when the Bud Light commercial is funnier than the comedy show it interrupts.

Sixteen minutes into the new "The Jay Leno Show," it was difficult not to panic. This is the future of television? This wasn't even a good rendition of television past...

Which is why this strange, shallow puddle of comedy is so difficult to accept. With all eyes on Leno, this is the best he, and his writers, and the struggling network could come up with? A "Cheaters" parody in which the joke is that he and bandleader Kevin Eubanks are having an affair? Edgy stuff for Jay, perhaps, and brave of any middle-aged man to appear on TV in argyle, but honestly, NBC. Has it come to this?

As for the music: At least Jay was hip enough to have Rihanna, Jay-Z and Kanye as the featured entertainment. Springsteen or the Stones would've been so, you know, old school...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The music of football: sizzling brats

Slow start this morning. We have to pace ourselves for tonight's Bears-Packers game, which is certain to bring out hostilities on both sides of the Illinois-Wisconsin border.

I was reading some online posts today to psyche myself up for the game and there's absolutely no doubt about it: these fans don't like each other. You can't call this a friendly rivalry, no sir. It's downright nasty what they're saying.

You can even feel it down here in Florida. No doubt many fans will be checking in this afternoon on ol' what's his name -- Brent Favre? -- but the Vikings-Browns pales in comparison to tonight's prime time matchup. Wish they could play it right now and get it over with.

My Packer Backer bratwurst from the Falls Meat Market in Pigeon Falls, Wis., are ready to grill. Sometimes I'll let brats stew in beer and onions, but these are so good I'll just put them over a fire before kickoff and be set. I'll leave a couple whole for the buns, then cut up the rest with onions and green and yellow bell peppers and have some tasty kabobs with mustard dipping sauce.

The garlic cheese curds will tide me over until then...

You think it's easy being a cheesehead? No way. Never has been, never will be. Tons of fun, though. And oh, so yummy.

Go Pack go.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Happy birthday, Possum

George Jones appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon last night and performed one of the greatest tear-jerkers in country music history. Click below and enjoy.

The Possum turns 78 today, and from all appearances he's still going strong. He has a new album "A Collection of My Best Recollection'' offered exclusively at Cracker Barrel and featuring two standards he hadn't previously recorded: "Long Gone Daddy'' and "I Don't Want To Know.''

He's even Twittering! Check it out here.

And word is the legendary hell-raiser has been sober for years. So this morning, in his honor, make mine a virgin bloody mary. Here's to you, George...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Just an American songwriter

The events of 9/11 were barely a year behind us when Steve Earle released "Jerusalem'', unleashing a torrent of negative publicity.

I don't make a big deal about it, but I'm as patriotic as my next-door neighbor. And I admit flinching upon hearing the controversial ballad "John Walker's Blues'' for the first time. I remember a friend at work saying "Your boy really stepped in it this time.'' Maybe. But I wasn't naive enough to believe that Earle had written a song in support of Walker and the Taliban.

Many people, including critics who review music, thought otherwise. And the lyrics to the song, with its eerie Eastern sound and mullah chants, seemed to support their conclusion.

I'm just an American boy raised on MTV
And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of 'em looked like me
So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him

The Arabic prayer in the chorus sounded downright spooky:

A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God

It certainly was a different point of view, which is what we come to expect from our best songwriters. But the timing might have been too close to the deep wounds opened on 9/11. We were still looking to round up all the evil-doers, and it was jolting to hear early news reports about an American kid taking up with the Taliban.

It turned out John Walker, while a troubled and conflicted young man, wasn't quite the jihadist he was made out to be. Nine of the most serious charges against him were dropped.

Nor did Earle's song deserve the wrath it received, including this New York Post headline: "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat"

David Carithers, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, offers a fascinating view of the songwriter in his paper ''Steve Earle and the Possibilities of Pragmatism.'' It originally appeared in the Fall 2005 issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, but you can read it by clicking here.

Earle once called himself a Marxist, which didn't win him many fans. Pragmatist fits him much better. Whatever label you choose, ''un-American'' shouldn't be one of them.

As Earle explained at the time: "I'm not trying to get myself deported or something. In a big way this is the most pro-American record I've ever made. I feel urgently American."

Don't we all?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Still lighting a fire at 64

A lot was made of Bob Dylan when he "plugged in'' at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, but has anybody been paying attention to Jose Feliciano?

Apparently he has been appearing on stage for years with an electric guitar, which is quite a departure from his early classical days covering the likes of "Light My Fire'', which won him a Grammy in 1969.

I hadn't seen el tremendo guitarrista with a solid body in his hands until stumbling across a clip from a 2007 concert in Belgium. He plays a blazing electrified version of Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door'', power tuning as he digs into the song.

Enjoy this today on Feliciano's 64th birthday.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

He gave the world a thrill

Elvis Presley made his memorable first appearance on Ed Sullivan's television show on this day in 1956 and the rest, they always insist on saying, is history.

(The photo posted here is from a 1960 show called the Frank Sinatra Timex Special. I couldn't resist sharing it now. I'm just sorry I don't have video of this dynamic duo singing "Love Me Tender'' and "Witchcraft'' together at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami.)

Reportedly one in three Americans tuned in to the Sullivan show, or about the same percentage that views this blog each day. Seriously, who could draw numbers like that today? Certainly not the President.

But it wasn't Elvis' first appearance on TV. That came earlier in the year, on January 28, when he sang "Heartbreak Hotel'' on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey's Stage Show. Elvis would also appear on Milton Berle and Steve Allen's shows, setting the stage for his delirious debut on Sullivan.

There's a bit of misinformation flying around about the Sullivan appearance. It's true that some factions in ultra-conservative Fifties America found Elvis' onstage antics and gyrating offensive, but "the Pelvis'' was not censured by either Sullivan or CBS. It wasn't until Elvis' third appearance on Sullivan in 1957 that he was shown from the waist up, and that was more likely a publicity stunt hatched by his manager, Colonel Parker.

Whatever the reason, no songwriter has referenced the occasion better than Fred Eaglesmith:

Elvis Presley, he came up from Jackson
With a brand new way of singing, Lord, and a brand new way of dancing
And even from the waist up, Lord, he gave the world a thrill
He ended up on alcohol and pills.

"Alcohol and Pills'' is a cautionary lament about the hazards of fame and includes as evidence mentions of Hank Williams, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Gram Parsons. But you have to give Eaglesmith credit for slipping in the line "even from the waist up.''

Lord, he did give the world a thrill.

Reconsidering Donovan

He was hip with his denim cap, unruly locks, acoustic guitar and a harmonica strapped around his neck. And he wrote songs that reverberated with the masses. Wait, wasn't that Bob Dylan?

Comparisions to Dylan were inevitable, but Donovan was simply too good to be dismissed as a copycat folk singer with a cool first name. He emerged on the Sixties music scene with a distinctive Scottish-English voice that sang catchy lyrics, a finger-picking style that other guitarists would emulate, and songs that hinted of the psychedelic days ahead. He was the first flower child from across the pond.

Sunshine came softly through my window today
Could've tripped out easy but I've changed my ways
It'll take time, I know it, but in a while
You're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style
'Cause I've made my mind up, you're going to be mine

"Sunshine Superman'' topped the Billboard chart on this day in 1966. It would be Donovan's only No. 1 hit, but there were many other worthy songs from his catalog, including "Catch the Wind,'' ''Hurdy Gurdy Man,'' "Season of the Witch'' and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven'' -- which might be best remembered in the commercial for Heaven Scent perfume.

Probably nothing matched "Sunshine Superman'' with its conga beat, sitar accents and the studio guitar work of Jimmy Page.

I'll tell you right now
Any trick in the book now, baby, all that I can find
Everybody's hustlin' just to have a little scene
When I say we'll be cool, I think that you know what I mean
We stood on a beach at sunset, do you remember when?
I know a beach where, baby, it never ends
When you've made your mind up forever to be mine

There went the Hurdy Gurdy man, singing songs of love...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Brain and muscle, heart and soul

I don't know the melody to "Labor Day'' by John McCutcheon, but the lyrics pretty much sing a song all by themselves. Read this, and enjoy your day:

In school we learn the well-known names
The ones whose money was their fame
Who ran the railroads, bought the West
Today we mention all the rest
Who blazed the trail that brought us here
Whose family names we'll never hear
Who laid the track and dug the coal
The brain and muscle, heart and soul

Labor Day, Labor Day
September or the first of May
To all who work this world we say
Happy Labor Day

The ones who work behind the plow
The ones who stand and will not bow
The ones who care for home and child
The ones who labor meek and mild
The ones who work a thousand ways
That we might celebrate this day
The ones who raise our cities tall
For those who labor, one and all


In history books I often find
That children worked in mill and mine
No time to play, to learn, or grow
Just send 'em in or down below
Today too many have forgot
The goals for which our parents fought
When I grow up I hope to be
As strong as those who fought for me

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What are the rich folks doing today?

I saw an El Dorado the other day that looked as long as a city block. I swear. It seemed waaaaay longer than any Cadillac I'd ever seen before.

It was a red convertible with chrome all over the place and it just went on forever. I'd like to see somebody try to parallel park that baby.

And, of course, it reminded me of a song. It wasn't "Cadillac Red'' by the Judds, or even "Cadillac Ranch'' by Bruce Springsteen. There have been plenty of tunes written about Caddies, but none capture the unparalleled bliss that Roger Miller sings about in his chorus to "Do Wacka Do'':

I see you’re goin’ down the street in your big Cadillac
You got girls in the front, you got girls in the back
Yeah, way in back, you got money in a sack
Both hands on the wheel and your shoulders rared back
Root-doot-doot-doot-doot do-wah

I've never owned a Cadillac, and probably never will. Luxury cars were never a big priority in my blue-collar family. We'd be more likely to kick the tires of a reconditioned VW bus -- there were at least two of those in the family -- than consider a status symbol like a Caddy, which was really unattainable anyway. Why dream about them?

But sing about them? You bet. It doesn't cost a dime, and you don't have to try put a coat of wax on 'em.

I remember, years ago, sitting on a sandbar on the upper Mississippi River with my cousin Bob. Uncle Gabe had just secured the lines to his houseboat and we were hanging out on one those rare picture-perfect summer days in Wisconsin. The beer was cold, we had caught a few fish and the warm rays of the sun felt as good as they can feel on your face. And my cousin turned to me and said: "I wonder what the rich folks are doing today.''

I wonder, indeed.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Walkin' in the Sun shine

How hot was Sun Records in 1956? Smoking hot.

On Labor Day weekend that year Johnny Cash was enjoying his first No. 1 record, "I Walk the Line,'' which had replaced Elvis Presley's "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You'' atop the charts. And a week later Elvis would be back on top with "Don't Be Cruel.''

Earlier that year Sun stablemate Carl Perkins scored his first chart-topper with "Blue Suede Shoes.''

You could say there was a whole lot of shakin' going on at Sun. A look back at the country charts shows that eight of the 11 songs that made it to No. 1 in '56 were produced by the upstart studio in Memphis.

Why Baby Why
, Red Sovine & Webb Pierce, Decca
I Forgot to Remember to Forget, Elvis Presley, Sun
Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley, Sun
I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby, Louvin Brothers, Capitol
Blue Suede Shoes, Carl Perkins, Sun
Crazy Arms, Ray Price, Columbia
I Want You, I Need You, I Love You, Elvis Presley, Sun
I Walk the Line, Johnny Cash, Sun
Don't Be Cruel, Elvis Presley, Sun
Hound Dog, Elvis Presley, Sun
Singing the Blues, Marty Robbins, Columbia

The following year Jerry Lee Lewis would bust through with, yes, "Whole Lot of Shakin' '' and Sun would become home of the "Million Dollar Quartet.'' But this day in 1956 belonged to 24-year-old Johnny Cash and his first boom-chicka-boom classic.

Lucky for us, there would be plenty more like it.

Friday, September 4, 2009

When in doubt, hang a left

Spontaneity is a beautiful thing. This afternoon Jess and I took a left where we generally take a right, so instead of winding up in Ybor City we found ourselves in beach chairs on Anna Maria Island. And from there, well, who woulda thunk...

Parasailing 500 feet over the Gulf of Mexico!

Neither of us is fond of heights, so the very idea of going up in a parachute attached by a rope to a boat manned by a couple of young brothers from Roseville, Minn., well if you know me you wouldn't think that could happen.

Did happen. And it was beautiful, exhilarating, and really not all that scary. Floating above the water with the best view of Florida's gorgeous west coast. Dolphins, rays and pristine beaches below. And those boys from Roseville? Good kids, and Jess happens to know their cousin -- she went to high school with him in Richfield.

Big adventure, small world, incredible day to be alive.

Maybe we'll just watch them roll cigars

Jessi Layne has been in town visiting and we've decided on a visit to Ybor City tonight. You'll never hear us complain about the night scene here in Bradenton, but occasionally you've got to step up to the plate for something on a grander scale than karaoke at In-Cahoots. (But we do give props to the warbling host, who did an amazing Jim Morrison last night.)

A visit to the old Cuban neighborhood in Tampa allows an opportunity to catch up on what's REALLY happening on the music scene. Oops: A look at the online listings suggests it's going to be a heavy rapper night. Pitbull is the headliner at Ritz Ybor, and Big Cheese is holding court at the Big Skye with Buffie the Body, Kit Muzik and Jim Jones.

Jim Jones? How you gonna rap with a handle like dat?

Obviously I'm not prepared for this. Maybe Jess will show me the ropes...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Taking one for the team

I'm happy to report that my family turned the anniversary of Dad's death into a celebration yesterday. That meant including a ceremonial 12-pack of Blatz in the proceedings.

My Dad and Blatz had a special relationship for many years, until "Milwaukee's Finest'' was sold and the brewing process was moved to La Crosse. Even then Dad showed loyalty to his favorite brand while many of the Whitehall locals -- certain that the taste had been compromised -- protested by switching to Pabst Blue Ribbon or some other previously inferior brew.

This allowed him to continue the time-honored ritual of having kids and grandkids sit in his lap for their first sip of beer -- a Blatz! (To which most of them made a face that said Yuck!!!) Eventually Dad, a renowned penny-pincher, would succumb to the "value beers'' so he could save a buck.

(Many of us didn't even realize Blatz was still being sold until we went hunting for it last year. We finally found it at a tavern in Independence, which provided a nice taste of irony: Independence, with its impressive strip of bars on the main drag, was a big PBR town back in the day.)

The picture of Mom included here is priceless. Rarely have we seen her hold a can of beer, much less put one to her lips. She tolerates light drinking only because she learned to tolerate her husband's affection for beer -- and that took years of practice by both of them. So talk about taking one for the team!

Now here's my humble and belated contribution: the Blatz jingle, at least the words as I remember them. No doubt Dad would have been singing this with the rest of us:

I'm from Milwaukee and I ought to know
It's draft-brewed Blatz beer wherever you go,
Smoother, refreshing, less filling that's clear
Blatz is Milwaukee's finest beer!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

There is a tree

Today marks the first anniversary of my father's passing. Time passes quickly, yet wounds of loss heal so slowly...

We're probably no more emotionally prepared for this than we were a year ago when he suddenly left this world. But there is a plan: to plant a tree for him, a maple, on my sister's property off OK Lane just outside of Whitehall. (I added this picture Thursday.)

This is appropriate for reasons that go beyond the metaphor of life replacing death. Sue and Vitus' home has served as our unofficial family compound over the years. Every Christmas Eve I can remember as an adult has been hosted there, and you can add most other holidays, birthdays and special occasions. So memories of Dad are especially strong, and you don't need to turn the pages of a photo album to recall images of him teasing a grandkid, nibbling on a Norwegian pastry or taking a nap on a comfortable chair away from the hubub.

Then there is the tree thing. I planted a lot of trees with my father, who approached the task like any other he performed around the house or yard. Deliberately, and with great purpose. The hole had to be just right, the soil and bone meal put down carefully in layers, and there could be no air bubbles in the water we fed into the hole.

Afterward, often for years to come, we would fret and fidget if a tree struggled to take root and show hearty growth in its new environment. There was never a shortage of water, tree food or old fashioned wishing and praying as we awaited the verdict.

Despite much love, care and effort, not every single tree made it to maturity. But there are some beautiful mature trees in Whitehall, and others on our property outside town known as the "tree land'' that we can pridefully point to as towering success stories for our father.

I was trying to think of a song this morning that might be appropriate for the occasion, and I settled on "There is a Tree' by Carrie Newcomer:

Last night I dreamt you very near
Though the night was dark beyond the glass
I knew you'd left before I woke
But you'd fogged the window when you passed
The air was still and smelled like rain
Though I'd never known so dry a spell
And what I heard there in the dark
Are the secrets I will never tell?

There is a tree beyond the world
In its ancient roots a song is curled
I'm the fool whose life's been spent
Between what's said and what is meant...

Here's a link to a performance of the song. Carrie Newcomer could just as well have been singing from Sue and Vitus' front deck, which Dad built himself more than 20 years ago and which only this summer was replaced.

Now a new tree will stand nearby to remind us each fall, with its blazing color, the spiritual beauty of our father.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Thirty days hath September

Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game

What's your favorite version of "September Song''? It's a sweet way to introduce our ninth month of the year, and there is no shortage of artists from which to choose. Everybody from Jimmy Durante to James Brown has covered the Kurt Weill standard. Even Lou Reed, though I haven't heard that version.

As much as I enjoy the trumpet of Chet Baker, I'm noodling between Willie Nelson and Frank Sinatra on this. Sinatra is Sinatra -- he won't disappoint. Meanwhile, Willie's turn helped make his splendid "Stardust'' album one of the gems of 1978 (though my favorite song is "Moonlight in Vermont'').

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November ...
And these few precious days I'll spend with you
These precious days I'll s pend with you

The important thing is we made to September. Baseball's pennant races are heating up, football's about to kick off, and the weather will soon begin to turn. There's bound to be a chili cook-off in your neighborhood before long.

September is a beautiful month, no matter where you are. I can't believe we only give it 30 days each year to prove itself.