Humor and music shape both my personal and professional life. I've spent a lifetime seeking flagrant relevance filtered through the prism of existential absurdity and reason, if you catch my drift. I grew up in a small Chicago suburb playing baseball and basketball. Elvis then the early Rolling Stones changed my life, as did a thorough study of the country blues and the writing of David Ogilvy and Ernie Hemmingway. Some form of advertising or songwriting has been my main focus for the past several decades. A sense of humor is at least as necessary as the other important senses.
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 addressing the 2nd grade class at Wakarusa Valley Elementary school.
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.
Randy Mason and Rusty Laushman on the job with me in the silver suit.
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.
Much of what I create has a Limey sensibility—at least it amuses my English cousins.She Stoops To Conquer is a farcical British play of manners written in the 18th century by Oliver Goldsmith. After attending a performance of the play at London’s National Theater, I was inspired to write a song using the same catchy title. Literature and history are great sources for songwriting.
Disclaimer: I did not attempt to mimic the plot of the play but instead made an attempt at capturing a feminine archetype. This song has not been previewed by any members of the National Theater Company but they are welcome to do so.
No doubt the song could have used a lute but because there was not a lute in his house, Geoff DeMuth provided mandolin accompaniment. He also engineered.
The flue season of early 2013 has been big news but will be soon forgotten. For now, there are endless warnings of how to avoid germs. The only solution seems to be to avoid people. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman tells us that we should all stay at least 6 feet apart from each other until April.
“Get away from me!” warns Dr. Nancy Snyderman.
Fact Alert: Microbiology pioneer, Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, is generally credited with being the first human to see germs using his 17th century microscope. (He reportedly became romantically involved with several germs.)
Antoine van Leeuwenhoek
But what about germs? They have lives too. And they enjoy a good frolic. And once you get to know them, they’re a lot like we are. They just want a good piece of cheese.
One of the more annoying personalities on the planet is the yes man.
illustration by Plastic Crimewave
This creature lacks imagination and self-respect. Riddled with the fear of what others might think of his ideas—especially the boss—he cowers behind a torrent of “yes-es.” He doesn’t want to rock the boat. And he definitely doesn’t wish to steer the boat. He just wants to remain in the good graces of the captain.
(A creature who is more annoying—even despicable—is the leader who surrounds him or her self with yes-spouting sycophants.)
In the workplace and the marketplace of ideas, a balance must be achieved between the notion that you are always right and the notion that your opinion is not worthy. Many unworthy opinions reach fruition. And many brilliant ideas remain caged within the minds of the timid.
Play this tune for your boss or co-workers. If you are the boss, share it with the board. Make a Powerpoint. If you’re simply bored, play it for thyself.
That’s the line that gets to me in Nelson Algren’s “The Man With The Golden Arm.”
You could start a religion based upon this sentence. Or a political movement. You could sum up life with this sentence.
Golden Arm is one of those books I’d been meaning to read for years and I finally marched to the library and checked it out. Not an easy book. Surreal. You’re not sure exactly what’s going on but when you stand back you can see it take shape. (Like when you open your eyes inches from an expressionist painting and then slowly step back. Same effect.)
Compassion—but not glorification—of the addict is another theme. The addict is not evil, not heroic. A common man, lost.
Art Shay photo of Algren playing cards.
Frankie Machine is the ex-soldier, addict who is also a card dealer in the neighborhood game—Chicago’s gritty, post-war Division Street. 1946 or so. The precinct Captain Bednar is the one whose interior monologue espresses that we all are within each other.
I felt no color while reading. The book is written in black and white and gray. Brought tears.
“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
The Leopard (Sicilian Novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa)
Political systems can become rigged to accommodate those already in power. The wealthy become wealthier. Those at the lower end of the scale tend to remain there. Organized society, no matter which economic system, creates opportunity for privilege, cronyism, nepotism and undue process, mechanisms that often seek to keep things as they are—the status quo.
Fairness and justice is not the concern of the status quo. Nor is change. Those at the top wish to maintain or solidify their position. They mock change and may use tactics of fear and obfuscation to make their point.
Social mobility is not a concern of the status quo. Only a continuation of the current order. The re-imagined past is golden.
“Too much regard for the good old days caused the downfall of Rome,” pronounced Harlow Gaylord, one of my history teachers at Hinsdale High School. This is not an easy concept to grasp at 14 years old but it remained with me until I was able to grasp it.
Those fearful of change or pleased with their status tend to back political candidates who pledge to maintain it. Or strengthen it. Any attempt at tinkering with the order is scorned as dangerous.
Those not at the top of the system may become disgruntled. They too would like some of the man made rules to bend their way.
Sooner or later, The Status Quo has got to go.
I wrote this song about three years ago. It’s my attempt to be straightforward about this universal, ongoing battle.
UTK performs Status Quo at Fat Tone Guitars in January 0f 2012.
Wealth is aspirational. For every 1,000,000 who dream of becoming wealthy (hitting the lottery), only a tiny fraction can succeed. After all, how much room can there be at the top? The aspirants tend to overlook this statistic.
I penned “I’d Love To Be Rich” as a spoof from the viewpoint of a regular sap with daydreams of dough. Recorded in Lawrence, Ks. in 1981 or 82. The Geckettes provide the oooh wahh ooohs.
The Dancing Dairy Products at Sunflower Cablevision
The Dancing Dairy Products stepped their way into the hearts of many Eastern Kansans’ during the early 80s. They performed as part of the Barking Gecko entourage. Full disclosure: I married the cheese. (These photos by Jim Jewel.)
In performance, three dietary perspectives were presented by the Dairy MC. (No footage exists.) Here is the complete “rap” from memory:
The Meat Eater
I like to fry
Big hunks of meat
Pop ‘em in my mouth and chew
If I can’t find a sow I’ll settle for a cow
Or maybe a sheep or two
Such sweet release
I love to eat ribs till I’m blue
Love to eat ribs till I’m blue
I chew grapes
And drink pomegranate juice
I eat sprouts, lentils and mung
I’ll finish my kelp
Without any help
Wheat germ and oats keep me young
Vitamin D, so good for the knee
The heart the eyes and the lung
The soul the snout and the tongue
The Voice of Reason
But wait a minute!
Along with your meat
You just have to eat
Vegetables each day
Zucchini and steak
And bread that you bake
And don’t forget your dairy products
Don’t forget your dairy products…
Please please don’t forget your cheese
Hey that’s what I said
Smooth as silk they call it milk
a little bit of razzamatazz
After the show
The act broke up when the cheese took a teaching job. The DDP may have curdled into the sunset but this should not spoil it for true believers.