These songs—about chili dogs, Chevrolets, Utopia, wishing for wealth and cultural/idealogical squabbling—reflect the American experience.
I Meet The Champ
The summer of 1965, my 16th year, a friend of my parents had snared me the exotic job of car hiker for Z Frank Chevrolet in Chicago. Every workday Mr. Burr picked me up on Blodgett Street in Clarendon Hills and drove me to a six-story garage on Federal Street on the south edge of the loop where Z Frank Chevrolet had leased some space. My singular duty was to shuttle (hike) rental cars from one Z Frank rental spot to the next.
One morning while shooting the breeze with some fellow hikers (I was the only white kid), a white convertible Cadillac with red leather upholstery pulled into our garage on South Federal Street. Moments before we had been tipped that The Champ was coming and here he was. Hardy, a short, light skinned black dude with a limp, the head car hiker, instructed all of us to not call him Cassius Clay. His name is now Ali. With great controversy, Cassius Clay had recently changed his “slave name” to Muhammad Ali, a Black Muslim name. Didn’t bother me. He had just beaten badass Sonny Listen for the second time a couple months prior, this time by a knockout in the first round, another controversy. I thought he was impossibly cool. As the big white Caddy convertible whooshed into the garage, the five or six of us car hikers gathered around. Ali sat alone in the middle of the back seat with both arms spread out on the red leather seat backs. A driver and a bodyguard—sure looked like Black Muslims to me—sat in the front seat. Ali looked extremely relaxed when he got out of the Cadillac. He was all business but gracious and rather soft-spoken, quite different than his public persona. We all briefly crammed into the tiny garage office and he shook everybody’s hand. Not a crushing handshake. Just a regular shake.
For a second I looked into the eyes of the most famous person on earth.
And that was it. I have no idea where he was going or why he parked his car at our garage but I had met the Champ. It never occurred to me to get his autograph. Who had a camera handy in 1965?
They say that attitude is everything. By societal standards, I have a bad attitude.
I am not a big fan of anything with a pop prefix: Pop music, pop radio, pop culture. (I do like “Pop Goes the Weasel.”) Also not a fan of homogenized corporatization, mindless nationalism, dogmatic ideology, most reality and talent shows, most food products advertised on national television and let’s throw in much of social media behavior.
I am a skeptical optimist, walking the fine line that separates humanism, curmudgeonhood and flagrant relevance.
In the 60s, I liked the Stones more than the Beatles. I liked Elvis only before he went into the army. I revered Mad Magazine, Monty Python, Captain Beefheart, Paul Bowles and Lester Bangs.
Now that we have that out of the way, I invite you to listen to this quirky lament that I wrote and recorded last summer.
In 1969 I was captivated by Captain Beefheart’s release, Trout Mask Replica. It was distinctly un-pop, to put it mildly. It borrowed mainly from the blues and modern art but because the Captain’s ensemble, the Magic Band, was composed of long-haired, white-ish, hippie types, the album was categorized as rock. The Captain was doing for rock what Eric Satie had done for classical music—thumbing his nose at convention.
About a year later I would get my first guitar and begin to use it as my primary instrument in the lifelong pursuit of art, observation and catharsis. After I had mastered some chords, I graduated to a study of the early country blues practitioners—Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Blind Blake—and their singular picking techniques and sometimes obscure lyrical explorations. This led me to create my own guitar and songwriting style. Because we are all the sum of that which has made an impression upon us, I also had Dr. Seuss, first read to me by my mother, lurking in my thought waves. Kids are often exposed to radical thinking and I hope that never changes.
So about 1974 I combined all of the above and created the song, Slumped Over. Upon reflection, it is a nursery rhyme for psychedelic adults. It is a 4-act play for existential absurdists. I played Slumped Over several times with an early manifestation of the Barking Geckos, including a performance at the National Surrealist Party’s 1976 convention at Off The Wall Hall in Lawrence, Kansas.
I collaborated with Mitch Rosenow on a now lost recording of the tune in the living room of Mitch’s flat on Vermont Street in Lawrence. I recall that the recording featured slammed doors, thrown boxes of junk and lots of reverb.
Then, in 1982, I directed opera tenor John G. Andrews in a Slumped Over music video, shot mainly in the dingy basement bar of the Lawrence Opera House. John sang the song to the live accompaniment of my off-camera guitar and Dana Elniff’s saxophone while Gerry Cullen’s clunky video camera recorded the grainy shenanigans.
Finally, last August (or September?) I again recorded the song in my basement—what’s this thing with basements?—but this time with engineer, Chuck Kawal, placing the mics and twiddling the dials. Steve Eisen contributed a sax part and Chuck, after overcoming his exasperation at the melodic structure of the tune, played a guitar solo in the break. I played my guitar arrangement on both acoustic and electric and added some quite necessary kazoo parts. The song was finally getting a worthy sonic treatment. Chuck completed the mix just last week and it is now available for your listening pleasure. 40 Years in the making:
Here are songs about three disparate personalities from the 1950s. Sports, politics and rock & roll.
1n 1953, Ernie Banks left the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League and joined the Chicago Cubs as a free agent, where he would spend his entire 19 year career, winning back-to-back National League MVP awards in 1958/59 and hitting 512 career homers, all to left field. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977. Thanks Mister Banks!
A few months prior to 1950, Mao Tse-tung routed Chiang Kai-shek—America’s preferred despot— and became Chairman of the People’s Republic of China for the entire decade (1949-59). Mao dictated his people with little thought to their own welfare. He was bent on consolidating his own power and leading China to world prominence. 50 million Chinese died when he traded the country’s rice crop for weaponry. How many people did you kill today, Chairman Mao?
In 1956 Elvis Presley jumped onto the national stage from his humble, blue collar, blues and gospel inspired life in Tupelo, Mississippi. As he swiveled his hips, American culture entered the Rock & Roll era. Elvis was anointed the King of Rock ‘n Roll. When he died for the sins of rock & roll in 1977, his body rose and went to R & R Heaven, where he still gives the occasional concert. Performance by Under The Kitchen.
Where previously our gaze may have been out the window or across the alley or at a newspaper or book or scroll, it is now fixed upon a screen. Not all of the time, of course, but very frequently. I hope this turns out to be a good thing.
Television has been a gateway to our new path. It entranced us.
Then along came communication satellites….
…which opened the door for cable TV.
In the year I was born, few citizens could have envisioned computers, the web, smartphones or twitter. But those born during the past 30 years could not imagine life without these little screens.
Imagination has changed. The pathway to personal identity has changed. The way we interact with life has changed. The use of the word “friend” has changed.
I hope this is a good thing, don’t you?
The nature of screens will change.
What now requires a screen may one day require no screen, but this ever expanding connection to all humans, all information, is irreversible.
In the third grade I combed my hair like Elvis. Is it still my duty to keep up? Do I have a societal obligation, as well as a personal one, to remain current?
It can be a lot of work but I think that the answer is yes.
Now let’s go out there and provoke each other.
For a war to have any chance of succeeding, the citizenry must be sold on its efficacy. But should wars that need to be sold ever be started? As Superpower Team USA—which is what we have become since WWII—we rarely fight wars of necessity but instead fight wars based upon theory. These theories must be sold. Example theories:
• Communism is monolithic. (Viet Nam)
• Getting rid of the evil dictator will solve the problem. (Iraq)
• Democracy (voting) is a cure all. (Entire Middle East)
• Everybody wants our system.
One of the main selling points for many of our wars is their purported brevity. Because of our overwhelming force, this will be over in no time, says the leader. The reality seems to be that you don’t really get over war. Our own civil war, which ended 150 years ago, still seems to be chugging along. The rebel flag still flies in many parts of the South.
Wars are not short. But they are lucrative. According to a 2012 study by Deloitte, the U.S. aerospace and defense industries employ over a million workers and pay about double the average national salary. They generated $324 billion in revenue in 2010. According to the Council on Foreign Relations study, our U.S. military spending hovers around $700 billion annually. Our country spends close to 40% of the world’s total military expenditure. With numbers like these, an endless series of short little wars seems inevitable.
I learned to play guitar so that I could write songs about whatever I fancied.
The first televised moon landing impressed me as it did millions.
This event inspired my first song, Truck Drivin’ Astronaut. It’s written from the viewpoint of an astronaut who drives a truck and drinks beer back on earth.
A few years after I wrote the tune, my friend Jim Vaughn came through town. He was working for a fire retardant company and had a wonderful protective suit. Looked like something an astronaut might wear.
Jim graciously gave me the suit before he left town for his next adventure.
Sometime in the early 1980s, both the suit and the song were covered by Randy Mason for his hit TV show, Bringin’ It All Back Home, on Sunflower Cablevision in Lawrence, Kansas.
The Barking Geckos performed the tune a few times in Lawrence, Kansas between 1975-1982.
I finally recorded the song in my office, about 25 years after I wrote it. Here ’tis:
During the European middle ages, science, religion and alchemy all seemed to exist on about the same plane. A pervasive intellectual funk settled upon the land. A Dark Ages world filled with crazy notions, superstitious beliefs and cruelty.
(In our present age, there are still demonstrations of medieval behavior and thought—even in the U.S. Congress—but that is a different subject.)
When I read a review of William Manchester’s “World Lit Only By Fire” I knew that it was a must-read for me: Civilization snatched from the brink of collapse by poets, thinkers, explorers and enlightened souls. And great description of what took place during the darkest centuries.
Two songs of mine are especially pertinent for this era.
The first, “World Lit Only By Fire” was inspired by Manchester’s book of the same title.
The second song, “Waiting for the Renaissance,” was written prior to the book’s publication and may have evolved from my own frustration with a society that is yet too filled with narrow minds.
All day at the office he dreamed about getting home, changing clothes and mowing the lawn. The smell of fresh cut grass. The feeling of accomplishment that you could see with your own eyes.
His co-worker, Larry, asked him what he was going to do this evening after work.
“I’m going to mow, Larry,” he offered, with a gaze toward middle distance. “And what are you going to do, Larry?” Like he gave a shit.
““My Norway Maple tree is dropping helicopter seeds like crazy,” said Larry. “I’m going to clean the helicopters from my gutters.”
Our hero goes home and finds that he needs to go to the hardware store to pick up some village lawn stickers for tomorrow’s pickup.
“Hi, honey. What’s for dinner? I’m going to Ace then I’m going to mow.”
“I’m leaving the house for a pack of smokes and never coming back,” she joked.
But she was serious.
The next night he went to his kid’s game and spilled the beans to some other suburban dads about his wife not returning home. They went out to a sports bar for a beer and watched the game out of one eye while our hero told his story in more detail.
“I never even got to mow the grass.”
They ordered another round of Miller Lites. He would mow tomorrow. And get out the leaf blower afterward. Then water everything real good.
(song from a live performance by Under The Kitchen. 4-14-07)