Category Archives: music

Un visiteur grincheux dans le grand pas si facile, or A grumpy visitor in the big not-so-easy

My wife and I just returned from a jazz education conference in the city where jazz was born, the one that greets the suckers tourists with the slogan “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” or “let the good times roll.” However, after a few days in the conference hotel, les bon temps became le mauvais moment* instead. Here’s the scoop.

  1. After driving for two days, we unpack a little, lie down to rest — and find that our bed is like cement. The front desk offers us another room, but we have to trek around to find a decent bed, then repack and schlepp our stuff. When we try to take a shower in room number two, we have…
  2. No hot water! The desk claims, “the engineers are working on the boiler,” which was probably built when Louis Armstrong was a baby and definitely should’ve been patched up before.
  3. There’s no place to hang hand towels, and we can’t reach them without bending down and riling up our backs. Worse, the shower lacks a grab bar for anyone who’s a little unsteady. Note to hotel: not all guests are young and physically flawless.
  4. We grab some chips and get slapped with an outrageous markup, even by New Orleans standards: jacked up from $4.69 to $8.99. Did I mention that the people at the conference are jazz musicians, educators, and students, none of whom have extra cash?
  5. We lie down for the night and have – wait for it – No heat either! Which we need, because despite the sweltering summers, NOLA gets chilly in winter. We pile on some blankets and try to sleep, but…
  6. In the room right above ours, two young sax players are blowing, in both senses of the word. It takes two calls to the desk before security can quiet them down.
  7. Still no hot water or air next morning. Desk says “noon” for a fix. Guess what?
  8. The lobby and common areas are drenched in some noxious freshener / scent / perfume. Just because it’s New Orleans doesn’t mean it should smell like a cheap cathouse, though of course that’s the best kind. (NOT that I have any firsthand knowledge of such a place. Truly. Really! Just a bit of literary license here. Okay??)

In the end, the hotel owned up to the problems and gave us a free night, which we greatly appreciated. Also, the buffet had world-class bread pudding and grits. (And we found the best king cake in town right up the street.)

I’m not as touchy as I sound. I just don’t like having to struggle with the details of life, especially when it puts the damper on something I love, like music. Forget the bon temps: from now on, my personal slogan is, “Go Ahead and Complain. It Might Be Good for You.”

*A bad time (which you probably figured out).

My Woodstock memories

They finally pulled the plug on Woodstock 50 and I for one am not sorry. Anniversaries aren’t created equal and re-creating this one made no sense to me, despite being part of the generation it supposedly defined. I’ve never liked being branded by others—especially now, when I’m one of those selfish old coots who are systematically destroying the millennials’ future even though we can’t figure out our smartphones. But I digress.

In August 1969 I was fourteen, living with my mother in Michigan, a few weeks away from my first year of high school. Naturally, I was worried about meeting a raft of new kids, keeping up in class, and not being a complete bozo around girls. As if this didn’t stir up enough anxiety, my father had died during the winter, and I was still struggling. A music festival in some far-away place was the farthest thing from my mind.

At that point, I’d never even gone to a concert. And because Kalamazoo didn’t have an FM rock radio station, I was clueless about many of the performers. I’d heard some on Top 40, like Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane, but that didn’t make me a member of the Woodstock nation. Those three days of peace and music were part of another world. Today that spirit seems like a firefly, glowing for an instant before flickering out, never to reboot.

The Woodstock 50 crew cites lost venues, a dispute with a partner, and various other reasons for cancelling the show, yet claim, “A lot of people clearly wanted it to happen.” They did not. Woodstock came together and made history in spite of financial disaster, hostile local citizens, food shortages, and nasty weather because 400,000 people believed in it. After half a century, nobody cared about getting “back to the garden,” as Joni Mitchell wrote in her haunting song about the original event. Woodstock 50 turned into such a mess that Country Joe McDonald could’ve updated his famous anti-war lyric to, “And it’s one, two, three, what are we paying for?”

That year at school wasn’t fun but I survived and gradually got back on an even keel. The Woodstock film and soundtrack album came out in 1970, and like everybody else I dug Jimi Hendrix, Ten Years After, and especially Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.” I still cue them up sometimes, but by the time I graduated I’d started listening to jazz too. In a few weeks I’m heading to the Detroit Jazz Festival, which is celebrating its 40th year and will surely have a 41st. Peace.

Original Woodstock poster, "3 Days of Peace and Music."

Shrinkage: the other kind

I’m not the man I used to be. No matter how hard I try to live a proper life in all ways physical, intellectual, and emotional, I am a lesser person.

How lesser am I? About an inch. Relax: this has nothing to do with the “Seinfeld” that so eloquently portrayed the shrinkatory effect of cold water on the male, uh, exclamation point. The missing inch came out of my height.

This became clear when I was going through old papers and found a medical report from my college years, which listed my height as six feet plus half an inch (6’ 0.5”). At my last visit to the doctor a few months back, I checked in at 5’ 11”. Even if that means 5’ 11” and a quarter, a half, or two-thirds, I’m going through a slow but undeniable vertical fail. This isn’t fake news! I can’t argue with cold, hard science and real-time medical technology (like a measuring stick).

Why do we self-condense? Over time, the discs between the vertebrae dehydrate and compress, or maybe collapse from osteoporosis. The spine can get curved, or muscle loss in the torso can give you a stoop. Even the gradual flattening of your arches can leave you shorter.

The loss can start as early as age 30, which is about when my hair started vanishing. I’m used to that, but this plunges me into the tar pit of male insecurity. All my life, I’ve considered myself a Tall Guy. Can I honestly think of myself that way if I no longer top the six-foot baseline? Will I get busted by the vanity police?

My wife often asks me to “come here and be a tall person for a minute” when she needs something off a high shelf. Can I still fulfill her desires? (Not THOSE desires. I already told ya this ain’t about the meat and the motion.)

The worst kind of shrinkage is the kind that’s going on in my personal hard drive, also known as my brain. After 60+ years, it’s critically overstuffed with useless facts, and seems to be sending some of them down to the minors, for recall only when needed.

Just now, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the name of a Cajun band I saw at a joint called Tornado Alley in suburban Washington DC about 22 years ago. I remembered other Cajun musicians: the Balfa Brothers, D. L. Menard, Bruce Daigrepont, Terrence Simien and the Mallet Playboys, etc., before finally hitting the holy grail of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.  This is what’s known as a “senior moment.”

I try to limit my cranial clutter by weeding out nonessential info, like the name of the person I’ve just met, but it’s a losing battle. Now if you’ll excuse me, whoever you are, I’ve got to go put on some high heels.

New Yorker nostalgia

This morning while channeling my inner klutz, I spilled a full cup of coffee right next to my chair, with the splash zone covering the end table, the rug, and a stack of books and magazines. Dryness was soon restored, and most of the mags were old Sports Illustrateds I’d been planning to get rid of anyway. But the casualties also included my last remaining paper copies of the New Yorker. And this touched the heartstrings a bit, because such copies have been in my home or my parents’ home for about 75 years.

My folks subscribed soon after they married in 1939. Though founder Harold Ross famously said The New Yorker wasn’t written for “the little old lady in Dubuque,” it was just fine for a young couple in Springfield, Illinois, not that far away. My mother saved some of the covers, like this one from 1942, for years afterward, and the magazine was always around the house when I was growing up. I remember reading parts of “In Cold Blood” when the New Yorker carried a serialized version in the 60s. I also picked up my dad’s love of New Yorker legends like A. J. Liebling and James Thurber, who I wrote about in a 10th-grade English paper (and got an A).

My mother later gave me a gift subscription that she renewed every Christmas (along with other ritual, much-loved presents like socks and chocolate). I stuck with it through the erratic years just before Tina Brown took over, when one week there’d be some interesting, well-written pieces and the next there’d be a 90-page treatise on goat cheese, Balinese wood carvings, or something equally esoteric.

Last year I finally switched to a digital, Kindle subscription, which does have its advantages. They include timely delivery every Monday morning, which the Post Office could never manage, and of course the end to a paper backlog. No more back issues like the ones I spilled coffee on, maybe a couple years’ worth, scattered around various rooms. No more having to scan every one before deciding whether to toss it or keep it in hopes of one day reading that one interesting piece I hadn’t gotten to yet.

Do I sound like I’m trying to convince myself this change is a good thing?

I know all the great writing is still out there. In fact, the magazine has an online archive of every issue going back to the first one in 1925. I can look up the one from ’42 with the Hitler cover anytime. But a small part of everyday life that seemed permanent, forever, is still gone.

Billy Bragg, one of my musical heroes, hit on something similar when he wrote “The Tears of My Tracks” about selling his vinyl albums: “I opened the window / I let in the sun / My record collection has ended / For someone else’s just begun. I’m down, but I’m not out / Lord I’m hurting / I’m down, but I’m not out / But I feel blue.”

Gone Blue

Even if you’re not a college football fan or a resident of Michigan, you’ve probably caught a whiff of the circus parade that began when a quarterback who’d been blasted by a defender and was obviously wobbly was allowed to stay on the field. I don’t have the space or the stomach to recap the details. In fact, I’m so sick of the whole thing that I’m retiring from Michigan football fandom, at least for the rest of this season and maybe for good.

How can I do this? Not easily. I’ve been following Michigan’s fortunes since my freshman year back in ’72, and I paid a little visit to the Big House even before that. But from now on, the remote will not point toward ESPN or the Big Ten Network at game time. The t-shirts will stay in the drawer. The blogs and Michigan newspaper sites will go unread. A modest volume of beer will go undrunk.

Call me crazy, disloyal, old and cranky, or anything you like. But friends, we are not given unlimited time in this world and I’m just not going to waste any more of mine on this clown car of a football team. It’s over. Done. Finished. Kaput. I’ve crossed the Rubicon, bought my last round and hopped in the cab. I couldn’t possibly say it any better than Jo Dee Messina did:

Well you filled up my head with so many lies
You’ve twisted my heart ’til something snapped inside
I’d like to give it one more try
But, my give a damn’s busted

You can crawl back home, say you were wrong
Stand out in the yard and cry all night long
Go ahead and water the lawn
My give a damn’s busted

Radio daze

newspaper ad for Dave Swan on FM 96It’s amazing what you can find bouncing around your PC. Just open My Pictures, and something you forgot you ever saved is right there with a year’s worth of memories. The memories brought back by this 1980 newspaper ad are fogged by disorientation and lack of sleep, because those were the days when I was the overnight announcer on a “beautiful music” radio station.

How, just a couple of years after spinning the Sex Pistols and Sun Ra on my college station, did I wind up in the graveyard (almost literally), treating the world to The 101 Strings and Ray Conniff? Well, I moved from Michigan to Massachusetts, took a job as a one-man news team at a brand-new station in the town of Webster, and figured I was on the road to great things. Instead, within weeks the station was about out of money and I was definitely out of a job.

Before long, WSRS came calling. The gig? Six nights a week, fifty-one weeks a year. Eleven p.m. to seven a.m. Monday through Friday and midnight to eight on Saturday night-Sunday morning, all alone in the studio, on a hill just outside Worcester.

While the format was similar to what you oldsters remember as Muzak or elevator music, we didn’t use pre-programmed tapes. I played actual vinyl records by Bert Kaempfert, Percy Faith, Bent Fabric (real name), Mantovani, and tons of others in the same ilk: the greatest songs ever written, redone with sappy string arrangements that bleached out every trace of real meaning and feeling. Now imagine hearing this at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, 3:00, 4:00, and 5:00 a.m. Every night of your life.

Everything I said was tightly scripted. At 15 and 45 minutes past each hour, I was supposed to say, “FM 96, WSRS. It’s (insert time),” nothing more, nothing less. A few times a night, I got to read news off the UPI wire. Every hour of every shift, I fought to stay awake.

My body simply never adjusted. I’d get home around 7:30 a.m., be dead to the world in minutes, wake up in late afternoon, and trudge back in at 11. I guzzled strong instant coffee and did my level best to stave off boredom, stay alert, and keep my job. Despite my best efforts, there were a few times when I dozed off, then woke in a panic at the silence coming from the monitors. Luckily, the station manager, who was known to check in on his announcers at all hours, must not have been listening, because I never heard a word about the “dead air.”

That might make you wonder if anyone at all was listening. They were, and used to request songs often, which I welcomed because their calls were my only contact with the outside world.  The all-night nurses at a local hospital dug Engelbert Humperdinck. A lot of requests came from older folks afflicted with insomnia or loneliness, like the guy who always asked for Tony Bennett’s “I’ll Pick Up the Pieces After You’ve Gone.”

Another sad man called at about 3:00 a.m., sounding depressed and beaten down, wanting to hear “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” by Pete Fountain. Was that part of our format? Definitely not. Did I play it? Of course. I also stretched the format a few more times with some quiet but non-schlocky songs from my own collection.  Ours was probably the only “beautiful music” station in history to feature Bill Evans, Oliver Nelson, or Johnny Hartman with John Coltrane.

As trying as it was, this job made me better at radio. With so few chances to open the mike and actually talk to the listeners, I learned to make the most of every one. Putting together and delivering a coherent newscast under those conditions made it a breeze when I advanced to a daytime news job, which was what I wanted all along. Eventually, I left the place, but not before playing one final song, which was – what else? – Floyd Cramer’s “Last Date.”

The blues and the truth by degrees

As much as I love a good old-fashioned Sunday paper in print, the online version of today’s New York Times has a leg up on the hard copy: a multimedia version of the cover story of the Times Magazine, “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie.” It’s a fascinating account of the search for information about two long-dead blueswomen who recorded a half-dozen historic, very rare songs around 1930, then vanished.

I’ve been a serious blues fan since the ’70s and had never heard this tale or the recordings until now, and am grateful that the Times dug out the story. Unfortunately, the piece veers into myth-making about the man who’s already the most mythologized blues artist of all time, Robert Johnson. His deal with the devil at the crossroads and the uncertainty surrounding his death by poison have obsessed fans and scholars for decades.

Now, the Times quotes one of these types (the author of an unpublished book) as saying the man in the pictures of Robert Johnson might not even be the same one who made the records. More than one person who met Johnson or was present at his recording sessions allegedly looked at the photos and said, “That’s not the guy.” There’s talk of pictures that no one has seen, safely locked away in Mexico.

If the writer had done some heavy investigative reporting in the Times’ own archives, he might’ve noticed that Johnson’s son Claud has lately been fighting for control of the rights to the two known photos. Why would he do that if the image isn’t his father?

Even if the son’s memories are hazy, there’s another source who wasn’t: Johnny Shines, who traveled and played with Johnson in the 1930s, and not incidentally was a great blues musician himself. In a 1989 interview with Living Blues magazine, reproduced here by another blogger, he was given one of the known photos:

      I brought you a gift. [I hand Johnny a framed 5×7 print of the Robert Johnson photo that had been published in Rolling Stone issue  #467.]

      Thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. [Stares intently at it for about 20 seconds.] Yes, sir.

      Did you have a copy of that?

      No, I didn’t. I’m really glad to get this.

      Is that the guy?

      That’s him. That’s him. [Long pause.] Yes, it’s him.

For those tempted to read things into [Long pause], there’s more. My wife, who knew Johnny Shines in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the early 70s, tells me he never would have kept silent if the pictures of his friend and partner then circulating hadn’t been authentic. She also says, “We didn’t ask him questions about Robert Johnson. Johnny had such an interesting life that we wanted to know all about HIM.”

There are a lot of interesting lives, and a hell of a lot of good music, that’s not all bound up in old 78s and endless infighting between people who really don’t even know much. Just dig the music. Get that hellhound on your trail and let that black spider be your man, the sweetest man in town.

By virtue of knowing my wife and her having known Johnny, I am three degrees away from Robert Johnson. But I’m sure happier about being one degree away from her.