More harm than good

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A very random line from a post over at Indie Moines set me off on something that has been weighing on my mind for some time now: who is the recording artist who has gone from doing the most good to doing the most harm? I mean good and harm not just to his or her own reputation, but to the culture as whole. There are singers and bands who are great, and who are mediocre, and who are terrible, but there are very few well-known artists who occupy both ends of the spectrum.

Early on, one of my prime candidates for this distinction was The Standells. Best remembered for “Dirty Water” and “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear Black,” their debut album was almost proto-punk, raw garage music that was lucky enough to catch the public fancy while so many others would have to wait for “Nuggets” and “Back From The Grave” to receive any recognition. It was a great debut. And their second album was more of the same, except for the songs that took a weird left turn into the very pabulum that it seemed like their sound was rejecting, including some very Dean Martinesque crooning. And then there was their execrable live album, which made them appear to be the worst frathouse-ready Searchers tribute band ever. Even discovering their music years after its release, I found their arc phenomenally disappointing. How could you go from the crazy rave-up of “Rari” to “Peppermint Beatle” (you don’t want to know). But they did, and it was awful. However, the damage was limited, because other than their one hit single and a bizarre appearance on “The Munsters,” who had ever heard of The Standells?

So instead let’s talk about the Jefferson Airplane, from ground zero of the ’60s San Francisco psychedelic jam band movement. A string of incredible hits, running the gamut from angry to soulful, and tremendous live performances from a band that could really rock. A few changes and they became Jefferson Starship, with a much more middle-of-the-road approach that of course their hardcore fans had to resent, but which still wasn’t quite bad music. More changes, and they were just Starship, and they committed one of the greatest cultural crimes of our time: “We Built This City.” On rock ‘n’ roll, if you didn’t know. We can’t lay all the blame at Starship’s feet, as Elton John’s lyricist Bernie Taupin had a hand in writing this monstrosity.  How could any of the same people who made “It’s No Secret” and “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” even learn to play a song like this? It’s unfathomable, and I’d argue that if the output of the early Jefferson Airplane weren’t so phenomenal, it would have been swamped by the wave of awful that was the output of Starship.

But at the absolute top of the “more harm than good” category: Rod Stewart. If you have any love for ’70s rock at all, then Faces have got to hold a special place in your heart. The digital age has gifted us with songs and performances we never got here in the States, reinforcing early impressions that here was a truly great rock ‘n’ roll band. Songs like “Cindy Incidentally,” “Stay with Me,” and “Ooh La La” deliver everything that brand of rock had to offer, without dipping into the self-indulgence that would soon weigh it all down. Rough, energetic, inventive, and with those awesome raggedy vocals of Rod Stewart out front – he knew when to growl, where to howl, and he pulled off glam with cheeky panache. Rod’s solo career (with many of the same backers) started off with brilliance like “You Wear It Well” and “Maggie May.”  But then came “Hot Legs.” And then came “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” And then came stuff that, worse than awful, was forgotten as soon as the record stopped playing. Somehow Rod stayed around anyway, and remade himself as a singer of standards. And now Christmas music. Perhaps he’ll venture into klezmer next, or Britney Spears covers. It really doesn’t matter. It’s enough that I’ve had to take him off my Sirius alerts, because nine times out of ten it will be a song I seriously do not want to hear.

There is a difference between reinventing yourself over time and just bouncing from pole to pole.

Okay, enough about your rights

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My disappointment over the tremendously self-serving reactions to Newtown and the rash of other shootings in the past few months has started to fade enough that I can think about it rationally. Almost. I’ve dropped Facebook friends, stopped Twitter feeds, and just generally shut off the nonsense that has surrounded this supposed debate about guns and mental health. Drafts one through six of this were incoherent ramblings. Let me just hit the points that are weighing on me these days:

  • Your rights are not absolute. Also, you’re not a constitutional scholar, and neither is that TV commentator you quote and retweet. With rights come responsibilities to society. All I hear about are rights — rights to guns, rights to the road, rights to not be taxed. I don’t hear anything about responsibilities to make society better.
  • We have obligations as members of society. One of those is to raise our children. Another is to keep them safe. In fact, we have an obligation to make society safe in general. That obligation outweighs your right to own military weapons. I can’t have dynamite or plastic explosives; I can’t have rocket launchers. Fuck, I can’t even buy Sudafed without showing identification, and I didn’t hear any outcry when that happened. So, no, you can’t have military weapons for your fantasy uprising league, or to defend against burglars. My father and the founding fathers got by one shot at a time, I’m sure you’ll survive.
  • Yes, something has to be done to improve mental health services. Asking for help is hard enough; actually getting it can take weeks, or months. For those who ask where the parents (well, the mothers) of our most recent batch of psychos were, the answer is they were on the phone, trying desperately to get help. Trying to find a provider who deals with actual problems (because honestly, most of the therapy out there is new-age touchy feely nonsense not aimed at the truly troubled), fighting with their insurance provider if they have one to get any coverage at all. When someone is suffering a mental crisis, the current answer is: hold on a few weeks, I’ll get you in with someone who may or may not be of any use to you, and if it doesn’t work we can get more help a month or two after that. Best healthcare system in the world! Any thoughts to the contrary are anti-American!
  • For those who think the new federal healthcare program is the end of the world as we know it, two things. One, your side had since the Clinton administration to come up with a better plan. You came up with nothing except excuses why we can’t afford to fix the system, while insurance became less and less affordable and more out of reach for individuals. Two, if you think the current system works well, you’re actually out of your mind. Have you paid the full cost of your insurance? It’s crippling. It costs more than housing and utilities every month. Does that make sense? Does it make sense that we have to make career choices based on insurance coverage? Is that freedom? Even with good insurance, the system is awful. You don’t want government bureaucrats making treatment decisions, but somehow having insurance bureaucrats make them is just fine. Well, it’s not.
  • Speaking of responsibilities to society — if you’re a father, you have a responsibility to your children. This crazy experiment of raising children without fathers isn’t working. Take a look at the family structure of nearly every one of these troubled psychotics, not to mention nearly every street criminal, and what you won’t find is a father. Let’s stop pretending this is the right way to go, and that the kids will be just fine. They’re not fine.

Faded art

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Troy Williams Street Alley faded signage DSC_0538.jpgOnce, every sign was a handpainted sign. For a while in the ’80s, I worked in an office next to one of the last of the old signpainters, a gentleman artist who could make a “Please turn off the lights” sign look lovely. Technology had already taken over by then, and with the advent of desktop publishing more and more signage became computer-based. I’m afraid that the grand old signs that used to grace the sides of city buildings, making life a little more colorful and interesting, are things of the past, slowly disappearing.

At least some of them are being documented, such as in my Flickr group Faded Signage. Take a look through if you love these old relics.

2012: Please leave. Now.

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Carl & Tarri

Carl & Tarri (Photo credit: carljohnson)

I recently had a phenomenally trivial family trivia question
enter my head: I suddenly had to work out where my great aunt’s pet parakeet
went in the summer, because I had no memory of it ever being at her summer
house. There was only one person left on the planet to ask, my mother, and then
it occurred to me that someday there won’t be anyone at all to ask. It’s not
the question that’s important, it’s having someone else who was there, and as I
get older, there are fewer and fewer people still alive who were there.

I never want to wish my life away, and any year I’m upright
is, ultimately, a good year, but I have to admit that 2012 is a year I won’t be
sorry to see the door hit on the way out. Too much upheaval, tension and
change. Within the family, there was cancer, beaten for now, and suicide, a horrifying shock. At home, there was a major timesuck of a project that,
while rewarding in a lot of ways, took me away from other things I love to do.  At work, there was a change in a comfortable
routine, a change of location, unfamiliar roles, and, now, massive uncertainty
about whether the entity has a future.

There was much that was good. My girls continue to amaze and
delight. I found myself up to some new tasks. My home repair and carpentry skills are
vastly improved, if my cycling skills are not. There has been art and paddling
and jaunts and a real vacation for the first time in years. We went places we
hadn’t been before, and enjoyed the company of old friends we don’t see nearly

There’s also this weight that I’ve felt around the holidays
for as long as I can remember. Not a bad thing, or at least it didn’t  used to be, but as I get older it feels
heavier  and heavier, this memory of all
those who used to be with us at holiday time, and who aren’t any more. All those boisterous people who gathered over lasagna and creampuffs every Christmas eve, talking about not much at all. Having a
recent death in the family, a heartbreaking loss, just presses down with that reminder that so many,
many people have passed on, and that nearly everyone I shared the earliest years of my life with is gone. Some of them have been gone a shockingly long time now, and yet
it seems like just yesterday that I was young and they were there.

Nothing to do but press on and greet 2013 with a fresh coat
of spackle.

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Not up for discussion

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Please, for the sake of my sanity, and perhaps for your very survival, PLEASE: I need not to hear about any of these things again this week. Or ever, if that’d be okay. Because, seriously, the endless repetition of these words is making me insane.

  1. Powerball.
  2. Fiscal cliff.
  3. _____ Kardashian.
  4. Elf on a Shelf.
  5. ______ Wars.

The Nutcracker, 13th edition

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MiceI have it on good authority (or at least a blog entry from seven years ago) that this will be our 13th year of Nutcracker performances. It’s hard to understand how a simple little ballet that previously meant just about nothing to me has come to take over our lives (or at least our weekends) for year after year, as the girls graduated from reindeer to mini-mice to clowns to soldiers and mice. This year Rebekah gets to be Ninth Mouse, a stage dream somewhere along the lines of playing Hamlet, I’m given to understand. Or at least better than being any of the other eight mice. Ninth mouse is part of our company’s choreography, not a universal role. In fact, hardly any of the roles are universal; there seem to be as many ways to stage, cast and choreograph The Nutcracker as you can possibly imagine. Next year, our 14th, is likely to be the last, and I can’t imagine that that will be anything but a sad thing. I won’t miss the time it takes up, I won’t miss the sometimes dangerous drives to venues in the winter, and I often don’t even watch an entire performance (listen, how many times can a person possibly watch the same thing? It’s not “The Blues Brothers”) — and yet, it’s become part of our autumn rhythm, and it will be very strange when it’s gone.

By the way, the Albany Berkshire Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” will be at The Egg on Sunday, December 16,
2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. tickets available at The Egg box office.