Pudi-Padi

1. In Des Moines, I generally got up at about 6am, made coffee, did my morning reading on the computer, cleaned up, dressed, and got to work a little before 8am. In Chicago, I get up at 6am, walk or bus to the train station, read my paper and have my coffee in transit, and get to work a little before 8am. Beyond distance traveled, the morning is not radically different, time wise. Evenings in Chicago, I’ve been getting home around 6:15pm at the end of the reverse commute (with about 35 minutes of book reading time on the train), which is about an hour later than I did in Iowa. But by that time, I’ve generally walked some 10,000 steps per my FitBit as part of my commute, which eliminates the need to spend 45 minutes or so on an elliptical at the gym at night. So my time at the office, and my free time at home with Marcia are working out about the same — though with orders of magnitude more things to do within a mile of where we live, Chicago is currently ahead on the scorecard in terms of weekly life routines. I will be traveling a lot more in the new job (trips already on the calendar to Pittsburgh, Waco, Orlando, Knoxville, Grand Cayman, Des Moines, among other locales), but one of my priorities in seeking a new job was to return to have a national (or international) reach, so this is a good thing, which I expect to enjoy.

2. With almost two weeks under my belt as President and CEO of the TREE Fund, I’m enjoying the work, the staff, the board, the opportunities, and getting to know the international community of urban and community forestry professionals that we support. Our major operating fundraiser is the STIHL Tour Des Trees, a 500+ mile cycling event that typically pulls in around a quarter-million dollars a year. Due to some pre-existing competing personal commitments, I will only be able to ride four days of the seven day Florida-based event this year, from Orlando, to Ruskin, to Sarasota, to Punta Gorda, to Ft Myers Beach, but that will still put about 350 miles of road beneath my wheels, so I am excited about that as well. We are already developing the 2016 Tour route, and I’m delighted that it will be in my native Carolina region, so more on that when we make the formal route announcement later this year. At which point, I’ll be hitting you all up for fundraising support, so be prepared.

3. A couple of artsy-fartsy-ish snaps of where we’re living these days. The views still haven’t gotten old for me:

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Our temporary apartment in Aqua tower, back lit by the setting sun.

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Night view from outside 340 on the Park, where will we be moving in two weeks.

4. Great book alert: I’m about three-quarters of the way through Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and am loving it. I suspect it could result in a Five By Five Books article soon. Unless she blows the ending. (Please don’t! Please!) Standby.

5. Marcia and I have been to two wonderful free concerts put on by the Jazz Institute of Chicago in recent weeks (review of one here), and are very much looking forward to the Chicago Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, and to attending their Annual Fundraising Gala in October.

6. On a slightly less posh note, we’re also going to Riot Fest this month. Only for one day, but it will include Iggy Pop, System Of A Down (!), The Damned, Bootsy Collins, GWAR, Rancid and a few dozen others, so plenty of opportunities to get our funk, mosh, and skank on, as appropriate.

7. After nearly four years without reading a daily newspaper regularly, I’m happy to have The Chicago Tribune with me each morning on the train. While I don’t necessarily embrace their political/editorial views, I do like the feel of newsprint and am acquiring a better sense of the people, places, politics and things that make my new home community tick. I’ve particularly been enjoying columnist Rex Huppke, especially this piece about McDonalds’ effort to undermine traditional breakfast values. That’s some sharp writing, there. Nice!

8. I remain a board member for the Association of Midwest Museums, so I’ve also been doing my part to take in our region’s amazing museum culture. As a vintage plane nerd, I was flabbergasted to learn that the Museum of Science and Industry has one of only two surviving Stuka dive-bombers in the world, along with a complete German unterseeboot. Marcia and I also enjoyed a jazz night out at the Shedd Aquarium, and we’ve taken advantage of the wonderful Art Institute of Chicago membership that my staff at Salisbury House gave me as a parting gift. So much art! The brain can’t process it all! So we just keep going back and going back, happily.

9. Tuesday Morning Quarterbacks, my long-time fantasy football league (of which I am reigning champion, thank you very much) held its live draft last night, and I think I’ve got a very good team together. The league has had mostly-stable membership for a long time, but occasionally we have to recruit a new player. This year, The Pretzel Hammers joined the league, filling a gap created by a stalwart player moving out of the country. Their manager? Marcia! She finished second by a hair in her own league last year, so she knows how to get it done, competitively. This should make for some lively Smith Family football watching time in the upcoming months, especially during the two weeks when we go head-to-head. Huttah!

Press Release: TREE Fund names J. Eric Smith as its new President and CEO

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

TREE Fund names J. Eric Smith as its new President/CEO

 Naperville, IL, August 21, 2015 – The TREE Fund is pleased to welcome its new President/CEO, J. Eric Smith, who will take the reins at the Naperville, IL foundation August 24.

A South Carolina native, Smith is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy. He served for ten years with the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and the Department of Energy. Since leaving Federal service, he has spent 20 years in the public sector working in fundraising, communications, public relations, operations and executive management, most recently as the Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa.

17741079020_307d1ddb3a_z“As an avid outdoorsman, hiker and lover of green spaces I am a life-long beneficiary of the arboriculture industry’s contributions to the health and beauty of our planet,” Smith said. “I am excited by the opportunity to help the industry address the challenges to the urban forest posed by climate change, urbanization and other ongoing social and scientific changes. There are few things more powerful than knowledge, and I believe that the types of primary research and education programs that the TREE Fund makes possible can and should be widely communicated and leveraged to benefit as many communities, businesses, citizens and industries as possible.”

Randall H. Miller, TREE Fund Board Chairman, expressed confidence in the foundation’s new leadership. “Eric’s unique skill set includes the intelligence of a nuclear physicist, the dedication and discipline of a naval officer and the fundraising and interpersonal skills of an experienced public sector executive. He is eminently qualified to lead the TREE Fund into the future, and we’re looking forward to working with him.”

About TREE Fund

The TREE Fund is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of new knowledge in urban forestry and arboriculture (the science of caring for trees in a landscape). Since 2002 the TREE Fund has distributed nearly $2.6 million in research grants, scholarships and funding for environmental education to advance the science, practice and safety of tree care and engage the next generation of tree stewards.

With support from individual and corporate donors and major sponsors STIHL Inc., Bartlett Tree Experts, The Davey Tree Expert Company, Arborjet, Asplundh, ISA, KASK, TCIA and Florida Chapter ISA, TREE Fund research has contributed to:

  • Better understanding of air pollution reduction and carbon sequestration by trees
  • Quantification of the benefits trees provide to urban settings
  • Improved survival rates for trees in difficult sites
  • Improved strategies for vegetation management by utilities
  • More effective disease and pest management strategies for urban trees

For more information, visit www.treefund.org.

Speak for the trees with a gift to the TREE Fund!

Low Cackalacky

I spent most of this week in Savannah, Georgia with my mother, doing a little exploratory house-hunting work for places that might be good for vacations, retirement, or getaway destinations for various members of our tribe. Of course, while we were there, we had to make the pilgrimage across the Savannah River into the Low Country of South Carolina from whence our people spring. As good Southerners, this means we spent most of our time in cemeteries, because that’s how we roll. Here are some highlights.

We visited my Dad, first, at Beaufort National Cemetery, and left him some sunflowers, Spanish moss, Oyster shells and chiggers to help him ward off the ground moles that were his bane in any Low Country yard for which he was responsible.

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Dad always appreciated the importance of “location, location, location” when it came to real estate, so he got a nice corner lot in Beaufort National Cemetery to make sure that no undesirable neighbors moved in around him.

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Dad’s immediate neighbor is “Harris,” who served and died in the Civil War as a member of the United States Colored Troops — freed slaves who fought for the Union in South Carolina. We do not know Harris’ first name (or if he had one), as noted in an article I wrote some years ago about my research to identify him. But he’s good company, and we pay our respects when we visit.

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We stopped in Lobeco for some boiled peanuts on our way out to our family cemetery at Stoney Creek. They’re always better when you buy them from roadside stands like this one.

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Stoney Creek Cemetery is a bit off the beaten path, tucked back in the woods behind a former rice paddy.

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You have to walk slow and be careful in the cemetery, lest you step on fire ants or snakes. Or fire ants and snakes. They’re pretty much ubiquitous.

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My grandparents got a nice corner lot, too, though one of their shade trees has seen better days.

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William Ferguson Colcock was a member of the United States Congress, among many other notable accomplishments. He was my great great great grandfather, and married to Emmeline Huguenin, for whom my niece is named.

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The oldest clearly legible tombstone at Stoney Creek belongs to Thomas Heyward Sr. His nephew, Thomas Heyward Jr., was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

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From Stoney Creek, we headed up to Yemassee, home of the region’s sole Amtrak train station — and (more importantly) Hughes’ Grocery, which hangs on and hangs on and hangs on, though I doubt that anybody has actually purchased anything there in a decade or so.

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This is the road between Pocotaligo and McPhersonville. When my sister and I were young, we found it inexplicably terrifying, and spent most trips on it cowering in the back seat with eyes closed. It’s still a bit spooky, all these years on.

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Stoney Creek Presbyterian Church in McPhersonville. Our family’s land and home were just beyond the woods behind it.

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Next stop, Ridgeland, where my Mom spent her middle and high school years, and where I spent my early years when my Dad was abroad in the Marine Corps. My grandmother, aunt and mother worked at the Plantation Restaurant in Ridgeland at various times over the years. It has seen better days, alas.

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The KB seemed like a space-aged grocery store when it was built in the 1960s, the fantastic future of produce shopping. Not so much in 2015.

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This link shows a photo of my grandfather and great uncle building the house in Ridgeland where my Mom’s side of the family lived from 1955 until around 1980. Sixty years after its construction, shall we also say that it has seen better days? I provide three photos below to give you the full panoramic experience of what it was like for us to drive by it this week, jaws agape. I have to say that these shots are really worth clicking and enlarging to properly explore the majesty of the compound these folks have established in our former home. In addition to the obvious hot tub, Bunny truck, flatbed trailer and scooter in the sandy front yard, I can find two grills, a treadmill, two dogs, three tires, seven bikes, and all sorts of other wonders. Plus, I love the way that the window air conditioning unit has been installed through the living room wall by knocking out a few cinder blocks. And the dolls, teddy bears and gifts hanging from eaves and trees? Priceless! This is Low Country living at its finest, for sure!

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On a slightly less weird note, we also drove by the little bungalow nearby where my Mom and I lived for a bit. We called it “The Green House,” and it seemed to have aged a bit more gracefully. Even if it’s not green anymore.

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The next day, we drove inland a bit for a nice visit to Aiken, South Carolina, then stopped by the historic hamlet of Gillisonville on our way back to Savannah. We went to visit my step-grandfather Joe where he rests at Gillisonville Baptist Church, but he was not home.

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The Gillisonville cemetery has a lot of historic graves, like Stoney Creek, but as we walked around it, we also noted that its newer residents seemed to have a more whimsical approach to marking their remains than their staid counterparts down the coast. Here’s but one example of the types of unusual things we saw engraved on stones in Gillisonville Baptist; I think it is supposed to be a dog, though it could also be the Demon Azmahobeth. Hard to tell.

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After a couple of nice days in the Low Country, Mom and I flew back to our homes in Chicago and Charlotte. It’s always good to check in on the spaces that define us, and where we feel our strongest senses of place. Even if they look like outtakes from a documentary on hoarding, or include spectral chihuahuas.

DSM to ORD

Assuming all goes well with final house sale closing tomorrow morning, tonight will be our last night as full-time residents of Des Moines, Iowa. We will be in temporary housing in Chicago until September 15, when we will move into our fabulous new apartment in 340 on the Park in Chicago. Marcia started her new job a couple of weeks ago, and I will be starting mine in late August after a trip to Savannah, Georgia to visit my mother and scout some wintertime properties. (I’m waiting to announce my new gig here until its been officially and formally announced in public by my new employer — but that should be soon, if you’re curious).

I’ve spent about as long in Des Moines as I spent at the Naval Academy, and about twice as long as I spent in Idaho, and I view those three life experiences in the same light: none of them were final destinations, and they weren’t necessarily where I wanted to be at the time, but they were important steps forward toward bigger and better things. Annapolis led to an amazing career at Naval Reactors and to meeting Marcia. Idaho led to Albany, where we happily lived for nearly two decades and raised our only child, and I learned how to be a strong nonprofit executive. Des Moines gave Katelin a great start to her own nascent career and is now leading Marcia and I to Chicago, and we are both very excited about the personal and professional opportunities and experiences ahead of us there.

As I relax and reflect on my last full day as an Iowa resident, I would like to share the following lists of some things I will miss when I leave, and some things I will not miss when I leave. Maybe these will be illustrative and helpful for future transplants to Des Moines. I certainly would have liked to have known about some of them four years ago.

Some Things I Won’t Miss When I Leave Iowa:

  1. The Iowa Caucuses: I’ve recently written at length about this here. At bottom line: I think Iowa’s “First in Nation” status is bad for America, and I do not like watching political candidates behaving badly in my backyard for media attention. Related: State Governor should not be a “for life” position. Enough on both fronts.
  2. Restaurants Being Closed on Sunday: While there are a (very) few eateries that buck this trend, dining out options on Sunday in Des Moines are generally limited to brunches patronized by hungover twenty-somethings. Related: The state of dining in Des Moines is pretty haphazard, even on days other than Sunday. Caveat Emptor.
  3. Big Agriculture: The romantic myth of the family farm is a core part of the cultural narrative in Iowa, but the reality is that most of the State’s big farms are just as much corporate conglomerates as anything else traded on Wall Street. I like to eat, but I don’t like having my electoral interests dominated by agricultural concerns, and I don’t like living in a State that slops hard at the trough of Federal farm subsidies, while begrudging its own more vulnerable citizens the safety net and healthcare support to which they’re entitled. Also, having driven through all 99 of Iowa’s counties, I’ll be okay never seeing a corn field again. Or smelling another industrial hog confinement.
  4. Fascination With Shiny New Things: There are some amazing cultural and historic treasures in Iowa, and it has been dismaying to watch them struggle for resources while half-baked, non-charitable enterprises masquerading as nonprofits hoover up funding because they’re new, shiny, and targetted toward the young professional demographic that local media love and/or managed by the otherwise inexperienced scions of a few privileged Iowa families. Even in the short four years that I’ve been here, I’ve watched several of these shiny new things develop rust and fall apart, wasting funds that could have been better deployed elsewhere. A little more discretion, discipline and taking the long view from funders and the media alike would make a big difference here.
  5. Living in the Wrong American Nation: Marcia grew up in Minnesota, and we quite like it there, so it seemed that Iowa — its immediate neighbor to the South — would be culturally similar enough that it would be an easy transition to live here. But it wasn’t, in more ways than I can cite in a short list like this. A couple of years ago, our sense that Iowa was somehow fundamentally different from Minnesota and Upstate New York (our home for the prior twenty years) was made more clear for us when we read an article on the Eleven Cultural Nations in America today. Iowa is culturally part of The Midlands, and Minnesota and New York are part of Yankeedom. And there’s a much bigger difference there than you might think, trust me. Fortunately, Chicago is also part of Yankeedom. Welcome home.

Some Things I Will Miss When I Leave Iowa:

  1. Katelin: Our daughter has found a great job, a great apartment, and a great boyfriend in Des Moines, and she really has proven the rubric that Iowa’s Capital City is a great place for young professionals to begin their careers. So she’ll be staying here for now as we move on. Fortunately, it’s a short flight or easy drive between our two cities, but we won’t be able to take our lunchtime walks together as frequently as we have for the past couple of years. She is keeping Rosie and The Bumble for us, and I think she considers this a fair trade.
  2. The Salisbury House Library: I have enjoyed my job at Salisbury House, though I have been frustrated by the lack of robust, long-term community support it receives, in large part because of the “Shiny New Things” phenomena noted above. I’m proud that I balanced the long-broken operating budget and helped preserve the House’s future, but it deserves more than just hanging on by the skin of the staff’s collective teeth. While I appreciate all of the House’s elements (architecture, gardens and forests, furnishings, fine art, etc.), I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the Weeks Family’s library and rare documents collections for the past three and half years. I’m not sure that I will ever again have the chance to be so close to so many important cultural treasures, most especially the James Joyce collections that I love so much. What a gift to have held his papers in my own two hands.
  3. Des Moines Farmers Market: I’m sure we will find a farmers market that we like in Chicago, but the May to October market in downtown Des Moines is really something special, one of the places where the real remnants of the small family farms still hold court and offer their wares. Even when we didn’t really need anything, it was always nice to put on our Naval Academy, UAlbany or Minnesota team colors (to combat the overwhelming number of Cyclone and Hawkeye shirts on display) and go walk slowly around the market, having something fresh for breakfast, people watching, and picking up a couple of jars of Juan O’Sullivan’s exceptionally delicious salsa, which I often incorporated into a variety of tasty home-cooked dishes, along with tasty seasonings from Allspice.
  4. 4300 Ashby Avenue: We had a great house on a great street in a great neighborhood in Des Moines. Easy access to both of our offices, a couple of restaurants we liked within walking distance (one of them even open on Sundays!), and a very nice sense of community among a group of neighbors who take great pride in living on “America’s Prettiest Christmas Block.” While my own Christmas decorations would be rated “adequate to credible” at best, it was nice to be part of something that the community valued and celebrated. Plus, our house was built like a freakin’ brick bomb shelter, so it felt solid, rooted, and substantial. I hope the new owners enjoy it as much as we did.

The Small Axe Interviews

Introduction

Small Axe may well be the greatest rock band you’ve never heard nor heard of, unless you lived in or near New York’s Capital Region around the turn of the century. A couple of posts ago, I mentioned rediscovering some of their early CDs while going through boxes in preparation for our move. Through the power of online shopping, I have since been able to score the one Small Axe disc I was missing, their awesome digital debut, A Shot to the Body. While I was poking around, I also found two interviews with the band that I conducted for Metroland in 2000 and 2002 that I had not added to this online archive for some reason. So I’m rectifying that oversight now by re-publishing them below. Soon after the second interview earned a Metroland cover feature, founding bassist Jimbo Burton left the band to launch his solo project, Blackloud. After one album (Public Thief) with bassist-cellist-luthier Orien MacDonald standing in for Burton, drummer Thom Hall’s wife Kelly Murphy (also of Empire State Troopers, The Wasted, and others) joined on bass and vocals, and as best I can ascertain, the band still occasionally plays out when their geographically dispersed members are able to make it work. Founding singer-guitarist D.J. Miller and the prodigal Jimbo Burton also apparently played an acoustic set together in Albany a few years back, and I wish I’d been there for that reunion. They were great together, always. The group’s website hasn’t been updated since 2007, but you can still listen to samples of their songs there, and most of their records seem to be available online if you’re willing to poke around a bit. It’ll be worth your time to do, I promise. They were truly a fantastic band.

First Interview: 2000

Forget the Batcave: the reality of Small Axe’s mysterious Black Cloud Studio is far more evocative than any pop culture metaphor.

To find the forward-looking retro-acid trio’s command center, you leave the Northway at a certain rural exit, pass the obligatory Stewart’s Shop and Mobil Station that hug the highway ramps and head west into the woods. You then look for twin willow trees swaying in the breeze above a packed dirt driveway filled to capacity with vehicles, beyond which stands a nondescript farm house. Enter the house through the porch, pass the tailless black and white cat on its perch, stop in the kitchen to warm your hands over the oven’s gas burners and head into a crowded mud room with an industrial yellow bucket partially obscuring the way into a bathroom beyond.

Axe_shotPass through the bathroom and open the half-sized door on the left, which reveals a nearly vertical stairway into a root cellar. Watch your head as you descend into the darkness, carefully negotiating your way around the weight bench and turning back under the stairs, again ducking to avoid getting conked by the exposed ductwork and pipes that run along the narrow passageway. And then, just about the time that visions of the sex torture dungeon in Pulp Fiction begin to permeate your consciousness, you’re there — in an incredible, technically sophisticated studio-cum-rehearsal space the likes of which any number of commercial recording mavens hereabouts regularly dream. In vain.

Which makes sense, if you’ve heard either of Small Axe’s CDs — A Shot to the Body (1998) and A Blow to the Head, recently released under Small Axe associate Adam Lawrence’s Hoex Records imprint — both of which deftly exhibit the band’s keen collective sense of sonic space and detailed appreciation for the wonders of studio technology. And while the band’s three pathologically laconic and publicly uncommunicative members (singer-guitarist D.J. Miller, bassist Jim Burton and Thom Hall, who replaced Burton’s brother Dave on drums a couple of years ago) have been wowing live audiences with their hyper-amped and experimental deconstructions of traditional rock and blues forms since 1989, first in Buffalo, then in Portland, Ore., then here for the past seven years, you get the sense that they truly make their psychic homes deep in their Black Cloud Studio bunker.

“This really is a great work space for us,” offers the soft-spoken Miller, as he and the more garrulous Burton lead me into their nerve center with its unfinished pressboard walls, black PVC ceiling and band memorabilia tacked to most exposed flat surfaces. “Jim and Thom live here, so they’ve been working on it for a long time to get it the way we want it to be . . .”

“And we can just play here anytime, all we want, without bothering anybody,” seconds Burton, finishing Miller’s sentence, piped in on the same longtime-bandmate telepathic trunk line, happy to let Miller pick up the story again later at his own leisure and pleasure. “Y’know, there’s some other houses around us and everything, but they’re just far enough away so that nobody ever complains about the noise . . .” Axe_blow cover

“Although we’ve had some pretty loud, pretty amazing Fourth of July parties out back that probably could’ve bothered some people, since we had these other underground bands we knew from Buffalo and we set up a big stage out there and played. And there was some irresponsible use of fireworks too . . .”

“Yeh, we had this big bonfire set up, all doused in gasoline, and I was gonna light it at the end of a song by shooting it with Roman candles attached to my bass . . .”

“But there were all these people between the stage and the bonfire, so Jim shot this guy from one of the Buffalo bands in the chest, and he got pretty pissed off . . .”

“Although, y’know, he’s like this big underground music dude, and he’s gonna get pissed about something like that at a party? I mean, what’s that all about?”

“Well, you did shoot him with a Roman candle, man . . .”

And so on through the story, which concludes when some evil nerd chemists from Buffalo create a deep-fat turkey frying pit in the backyard, starting a massive grease fire in the process that burns for three days straight. But everyone really enjoys the fried turkeys, so it’s worth it, right?

Thom Hall enters the dungeon, err, studio, passing through the room wordlessly and immediately taking a seat behind his massive drum kit as Burton and Miller strap on their hard-worn axes. Small Axe then play an impromptu studio gig, offering four “new old songs” (as Miller dubs them), keeping true to their typical concert approach by never uttering a word between tunes. Set complete, we discuss the Butthole Surfers (for whom the group offer both affinity and respect) while Miller putters in the control room, patching this to that, connecting that to the other, finally filling the room with the sounds of a new, unreleased Axe tune called “Insect.” It’s brilliantly crafted, yet ookier and spookier than usual, which is really saying something given the band’s already deeply cryptic creative persuasions.

Axe_speaker cover“This has got some Prophet V synth on it, and some old church organ that Thom got somewhere,” notes Miller. I look around for the drummer, but he’s vanished again. “Thom’s got the coolest day-job in the world: he repairs Hammond Organs for a living.”

“He works for this old Christian dude who leaves the best messages on our answering machine,” adds Burton. “It’s like ‘We’ve got a B-3 Emergency, Thom!’ and Thom’s got to hop in the van and go to New York City or wherever to operate on the organ . . .”

“Plus he’s good with other tech stuff too. Like he fixed the DAT machine in there, which would have cost us huge money if we’ve had to pay for it . . .”

“He knows what he’s doing. He was a signalman in the Army,” concludes Burton.

Turns out Burton was in the Army too, serving as an infantryman in Berlin before the Wall fell, after which he and his brother Dave headed to Buffalo to found Small Axe with their childhood friend Miller, who’d gone west to get his degree in the City of Brotherly Bills. Burton drives a truck now, when he’s not playing out or recording with Small Axe, while Miller works for a government acquisitions outfit as a computer operator and bid analyst.

“Insect” behind us now, we all walk upstairs together to warm our hands on the stove and smoke some more. The tailless cat joins us in the kitchen. “He had an accident,” Burton notes, drifting out of the room after the cat, both never to return. Adam Lawrence and Dave Burton (now the band’s webmaster) hover over a laptop computer in the next room over, intent, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. Miller watches me thoughtfully as I jot notes in my pocket pad.

“I hope you can come see us play at King’s Tavern sometime,” he offers. “We do our best shows there, it seems. I like the people there.”

He lights a cigarette. The house falls silent. The interview is over. It’s time to return to society, to normalcy, to safety — but yet with a little shred of Black Cloud inside me that’s gonna color the way I see the world for a longtime yet to come. Hopefully.

Second Interview (2002)

Most rock musicians talk way too much for their own good.

As a music journalist, I’ve interviewed sneaker-gazers who have just barely made it out of the garage, but as soon as I shove a microphone into their faces, they turn into Bono. They’ve got theories, they’ve got manifestos, they’ve got explanations, and when all’s said and everything’s done, they’ve got hopes that I’ll validate their positions in print — because once it’s been written, it’s real, somehow, it seems.

But it ain’t, and the self-important yammer boxes have long since ceased doing it for me. It’s the silent types, I’ve learned, who are almost invariably causing the most heat and friction in the places where it really matters. They’re the ones who let their art talk for them in ways that words can never capture. They’re the ones you want to talk to, even if they don’t talk back. And if you judge forward-looking retro rockers Small Axe by that silence-equals-allure metric, then the Saratoga County-bred trio is definitely the most fascinating band in town. Axe_ride cover

But don’t expect them to tell you all about it.

“We probably should do try to do better about self promotion, get out of our own shells a little bit, but I dunno . . . we’re just not any good at stuff like that,” admits laconic singer-guitarist D.J. Miller during a recent visit to the band’s Ballston Lake headquarters, where he, bassist Jimbo Burton, drummer Thom Hall and I sit out the summer heat on a dark front porch, sippin’, smokin’, sweatin’.

That porch is a necessary summer adjunct to the simple, weather-beaten frame farmhouse that serves as the group’s home base. There’s usually a friendly dog or cat there to greet you when you arrive, and the whole compound exudes the true old blue-collar essence of Saratoga County in ways that most money-horsey summer people and Velveetavillians rarely encounter, and never grasp.

Hall lives there full-time, and Burton lived there until very recently, when he moved to West Sand Lake with his girlfriend, following the lead of Miller, who lives with his wife up in Moreau. But the house has a sanctum that draws the full band back several times each week: downstairs lies Black Cloud Studio, where the group’s four albums (one of which has yet to be released) were created, and where the band rehearses its live shows to an almost unbearable intensity.

When the band’s in the house, they’re rarely there on their own, and we always had other company the nights that I’ve visited there. In addition to the friendly cats and dogs, and the expected girlfriends and roommates and wives, Jimbo’s brother, Dave Burton, was there, as was Adam Lawrence, owner/operator of Hoex Records, on which Small Axe’s last two records, Speaker Eater and A Blow to the Head, were released. It always feels like a family operation there in the Small Axe house, which makes sense as you grow to understand how its principles have been not only making music, but living their lives together, for many, many years.

Childhood friends D.J. Miller and Jimbo Burton graduated from Saratoga High School together in 1985, with Dave Burton following them out of secondary education’s clutches a year later. Miller headed west on his own after high school, ultimately graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1990 with a degree in history. But for the purposes of this story, something more important happened while he studied history there in Buffalo: while in college, Miller found his instrument.

Photograph by Timothy Reidy.

Photograph by Timothy Reidy.

“I didn’t start playing guitar until I was out in Buffalo,” the now-deft SG wizard recalls. “I kinda came to music late. I mean, I didn’t discover Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? until I was in college, and that made me totally look at music differently than I ever had before. Bob Marley’s Catch A Fire, too, and the older stuff he did with Lee Perry. Some of my heaviest experiences ever came from listening to that music.”

While Miller was discovering his muse, Jimbo Burton was putting in time in the service of his country. “I was in the Army from ’87 to ’89, ended up Germany when the wall came down,” he explains. “When I got out, I went to HVCC for a while, then I got accepted to the Buffalo Art School, but instead of doing that, we all decided to move out to Buffalo and start a band instead.”

That exodus westward included both of the brothers Burton and Adam Lawrence, who was originally envisioned as the as-yet-untitled group’s vocalist. He didn’t end up singing — but he did name the band (after an allegorical Bob Marley number, wherein the small axe takes down the big tree) and has since worked for over a decade to take Small Axe’s music beyond the Buffalo basements that birthed it.

“Our early stuff in Buffalo was a lot more minimalist,” says Miller. “We had a second guitarist for a while. I’d never been in a band before, and I’d only been singing for a very short time. So the stuff was experimental . . . but it was pretty simple, too. I hate listening to my voice on the old stuff, though, but I’d like to take some of those old ideas and record them the way we can now.”

“Problem is, though, that we’ve got so many ideas to work with and there’s just not enough time for all of the songs,” Burton adds. “D.J.’s got this incredible stuff that records acoustic and brings to the studio. We’ve got so much material that we just can’t do it all justice.”

Small Axe’s first concert appearance in Buffalo was on the undercard for the then-equally-unknown moe. (“Al Schnier really liked us,” Miller notes.) Three years and not a lot of progress after that first gig, though, Small Axe decided they needed a change of scenery — and lit out for Portland, Oregon, with friend and percussionist (and later volunteer publicist) Chris O’Connor in tow. “We just wanted to go and do music full time in a new place,” notes Jim Burton. “But it wasn’t as big a music scene as we though it was, not as exciting as it could have been. There was one club where we could play, but it closed and we sorta realized that if we committed to being there, it was going to be a pretty major commitment. So we came back home to Saratoga instead.”

Photograph by Leif Zurmuhlen

Photograph by Leif Zurmuhlen

Throughout those early years, the band honed its skills and built its repertoire through a nearly obsessive dedication to home recordings, many of which are preserved on an early, eponymous cassette-only release, which has come to carry a legendary cache among the band’s devotees. “Four track recordings really made this band in the early years,” Miller explains. “We could play and do overdubs, experiment, figure out how to do things right, then take them out on stage. That’s how I learned to play leads. That’s how we learned to write songs.”

Small Axe made their formal recording debut in 1994 when “Holy Ways” appeared on a regional multi-band EP issued by Shithouse Rat Records, who also then released Small Axe’s full-length CD debut, A Shot to the Body. Two years later, as Small Axe began preparing to record their second album, Dave Burton decided that his days behind the drum kit were done.

“I followed that dream until it wasn’t a dream anymore,” he explains. “I knew there was more to myself than what I was offering, so with the help of my sister Debbie, I built a strong enough customer base to support my own construction business. Later on, I started building the first web page for Small Axe (www.smallaxemusic.com), and that extended into graphic design, video production and advertising, so I was happy to still have Small Axe as a point of reference for my creativity. And pooling all of those assets together, I eventually formed my new business, called Sleight of Hand Productions.”

While Dave Burton laid the foundations for his creative and construction empires, Jim Burton and Miller wrote songs for a year, then recruited Thom Hall to fill Small Axe’s drum stool. The Central New York native had played in a Buffalo band called Squid, and had been in New Orleans for several years before answering the Axe’s call. Since relocating to the Capital Region, Hall’s kept himself in drumsticks by working as a Hammond Organ repairman, and serving on the staff of Cancer Conspiracy publishing house Elsmere Press — as does his wife Kelly Murphy, the other full-time resident at the Small Axe house and bassist for Hall’s other band, Kate Mosstika.

Photo by Kirsten Ferguson

Photo by Kirsten Ferguson

Hall made his recording debut with Small Axe on 1998’s A Blow to the Head (which also featured a few classic four-track numbers with Dave Burton on drums, as did 2000’s Speaker Eater), after which the group returned to the concert stage with a vengeance — although not necessarily for the same product-supporting reasons that most bands offer.

“Our live sound is really different from our records,” says Miller. “Maybe someday we’d like to get a good live recording done, but we’d have to have someone else do it for us, since we do all of our studio stuff ourselves, and we’re pretty particular about how our stuff sounds.”

“We’ve already got another ten songs or so that are ready to be played live right now since we recorded the last album — which hasn’t even been released yet,” Jim Burton adds. “So the records just represent a point in time.”

“That’s why we don’t really think about our live shows supporting our records, since they just represent the best stuff we’re doing at that stage in our development,” Miller concludes. “And I think the band is better live than it’s ever been right now. We win people over in hard places. And we’ve been doing that for a while now.”

Which is due, of course, to the band’s prowess, and also to the yeoman efforts of Dave Burton and Adam Lawrence, who work hard to fill the public relations gaps that the band members are loath to attack themselves. But there’s also a national network of devoted Small Axe fans that functions as an unofficial street team in ways that most record label-sanctioned community marketing groups would envy. How many artists, for instance, can lay claim to an army of Silly Pink Bunnies working on their behalf?

“Silly Pink Bunnies is a tag on a renegade group of skateboarders all over the country: San Francisco, Denver, the East Coast,” explains Bunny kingpin and Small Axe uberfan Grier Mirling. “We first got involved with Small Axe at one of their Fourth of July parties at the house: there were fireworks and people jumping fires, keg throwing contests, Jimbo had Roman candles strapped to his bass, shooting them over the crowd, bands from Buffalo and North Carolina and Small Axe playing outside, thirty people sleeping on the lawn in the morning. It was such an intense community scene, so the Bunnies really got on the wagon with that.

Photo by Bryan Thomas

Photo by Bryan Thomas

“Small Axe’s live shows offer such an amazing experience: the ebb and flow and building of what they create is epic, and it provides a good parallel to skating from a standpoint of cutting loose. So now I’m the guy who calls up everyone to come to every one of their shows; at first it was hard work, now I just make one call into the network and everyone’s there,” Mirling continues. “I know that self promotion is not who Small Axe are . . . but it’s who I am, so that’s what I do. And as much as I know they’d like to be big, their focus is just on the music. How many bands do you know who have been around as long as they have who practice all the time? They love to play. They love the music. They’ve done nothing less than captivate any crowd that I’ve seen them play for. I saw them play at this family fun day up in Hague in the Adirondacks, for instance, and there were grandparents and children all over the place, and when it was over, every kid in the place was begging his mom or his dad to buy him a guitar.”

That child-like enthusiasm is infectious, which is why Dave Burton, Lawrence and Mirling aren’t the only devoted enthusiasts willing to work hard on Small Axe’s behalf. There’s poet Eric Smiarowski, too, who pens and performs works about the band, among other topics. There’s NoiseLab sound guru Dave Reynolds, who’s considering a move from New Orleans to Saratoga to facilitate his work with the band. Valentine’s manager and head Coal Palace King Howard Glassman, too, has long been a dedicated supporter — and when an influential A&R type from a major label called this summer to figure out what was what up here music-wise, Glassman pointed him in Small Axe’s direction. The label rep (whose identity Small Axe is loathe to divulge while negotiations continue) liked what he saw and heard, and is working with the band to plan a showcase show in New York City this fall.

So is this the moment? Is this the big break? Are the band’s members finally rushing toward their date with destiny? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’ve got to get wound up tight about this, anymore than they ever get wound up tight about anything else.

“I think we all just need to be patient right now,” says Dave Burton (who is serving as primary band spokesperson during the corporate courting session). “It’s like it was with those trapped miners in Pennsylvania a little while ago, when the rescue crew slowed down drilling just 20 feet above the cavern. That confused a lot of people: ‘Why are they slowing down? They have to get them out as soon as possible!’ But there were too many variables involved, and if they rushed at the last minute all of their efforts could have been fatal. Small Axe has been playing their timeless music for a long time now. And I think their patience is a discipline that will be rewarded in the end.”

As the negotiations continue, the band themselves remain . . . well, themselves. “I dunno, maybe we ought to get a manager or something,” Miller muses. “Know anyone who might be interested?”

Looks Like America? Fixing the Broken Primary System

Let me introduce this post by stating one strongly held belief, loud and clear: I think Iowa’s “First in Nation” caucus is very bad for our country, and the state’s stranglehold on this position of political power should be ended, soon.

I’ve lived for at least a year in eleven different states, and I worked full-time for two years in a twelfth. I’ve traveled extensively through another twenty-some states, so I have a good sense of “what America looks like” at a fairly granular level. After four years of living in Iowa, I can tell you that this is not that. In fact, in many important ways, Iowa feels far more different and unusual than any other state where I’ve spent a lot of time: it’s whiter, it’s older, it’s less military, it’s less tolerant, it’s more paternalistic, it’s more agricultural, and its culture is quirky, to say the least.

kingBut Iowa doesn’t seem to know this. After decades of having local, national and international media outlets spinning the narrative that Iowans are somehow better qualified than other states’ citizens to vet Presidential candidates, and more responsible than their peers at taking this important civic duty to heart, the natives have actually come to believe this, and there’s a layer of smug superiority at play over which other states should take umbrage.

The state’s latent conservatism hurts the GOP more than it hurts the Democratic party, because it forces Republicans to spout hard right ideology to win over the locals, while liberals are required to shift their positions rightward toward the center. Viable moderate Republicans are quashed or smeared early on as a result, and the things they say to the Iowans generally come back to haunt them later on, if they survive past the first caucus. Democrats who play moderate in Iowa are then accused of flip-flopping when they return to leftward form after escaping the cornfields. It’s a bad first wicket, either way.

And here’s the bottom line: the ability to serve as Commander in Chief of a global super-power has absolutely nothing to do with the ability to make small talk while eating a pork tenderloin sandwich in a rural Iowa diner. And that’s the quaint cornerstone of the Iowa caucus experience, along with pledged devotion to the “Full Grassley” tour of all 99 counties. (I’ve done that tour myself; it’s time consuming and over-rated). There’s also the huge economic boom that the caucuses deliver to Iowa, which makes local politicians shrill in their defense of these politically quaint and culturally out-dated electoral notions. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep it here, whether its good for America or not.

While I don’t have the personal experience in New Hampshire that I have in Iowa, I would suspect that the same narrative holds true: locals think they’re somehow better than the rest of the country at eye-balling political candidates, though their tests and rituals are no more effective than those that any other state would deploy under similar circumstances.monsanto

So what would I do about it? If I were Emperor of the American States, I’d mandate a nation-wide primary day, where all fifty states and the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands would cast primary ballots at the same time, thereby drastically shortening the obscenely long process our political parties undertake to select their nominees. This would also dramatically undercut the power of money in the process, which can only be viewed as a good thing.

If I were only Majordomo of the American States, without full imperial powers to command all to do my bidding, then my second choice would be to have the parties go to a rotating process, where a different 10 states — selected to represent ~20% of the electoral college each cycle, ideally with some regional variety — would get “First in Nation” privileges each cycle, so everyone would get a shot every fifth election. It’s not ideal, obviously, but at least it would break the unfair and unhealthy Iowa and New Hampshire stranglehold.

If I were just a humble party chairman, I’d go with a lesser approach of allowing a small number of states, maybe still only two to four, to maintain a position of primacy — but I’d try to figure out which states would actually make sense if the goal was to produce a state primary outcome that might in some way more realistically and rationally reflect the national will. Unlike, say, Iowa Republicans voting for Rick Santorum four years ago. But only after miscounting the vote, and initially reporting that they’d voted for Mitt Romney. Yeesh.

eyesI don’t have the power or authority to do that — but with 30 years in the public sector and two political science/public policy degrees, I do have the ability to try the answer the core question in a quantitative fashion: if one state was to receive a permanent (or at least long term) appointment as “First in Nation” in the Presidential election process, which state should it be?

Toward this end, I made a spreadsheet, as I so often do when confronted with otherwise unanswerable questions. Spreadsheets make everything better.

In the spreadsheet, I identified a set of metrics on a state by state basis, normalized them on a logarithmic scale, then scored states on their variance from national norms. For each metric, I used the most current, defensible data sets available; the oldest data deployed are from 2010, with most being more current. The closer a state falls to the national norm in each metric, the higher its awarded score is in that particular category. The further a state falls (high or low) from the national norm, the lower its score in that category.iowawine

If a single state was smack in the middle of each and every category, then that state could legitimately make a claim that it “looked like America.” I would then support that state’s right to the special role as Evaluator General for Presidential Elections, since its people were truly as representative of the nation as a whole as any state could be. Even if that State was Iowa.

I tried to use metrics that capture the way regular Americans think about themselves and their communities. What color are we? What language do we speak? How old are we? How educated? How rich? Where do we worship? Are we military? Are we healthy?

Here are the categories I evaluated for each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia. I did not include Guam, Northern Marianas, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in my database, since they do hold primaries, but their citizens are not allowed to vote in the actual Presidential elections. (I’d change that, too, if I were Emperor of the American States, but that’s a different article).

  • Black Population Percentage
  • Hispanic Population Percentage
  • Median Age
  • College Degree Percentage
  • Percent Self-Declared Christians
  • Urban Population Percentage
  • Household Income
  • Jobless Rate
  • Life Expectancy
  • Per Capita Healthcare Spending
  • Per Capita Military Spending
  • Per Capita Federal Revenue
  • Correlation with Actual Presidential Results (1916-2012)

I loaded all of these data sets into the spreadsheet, set up the normalizing and summarizing formulas, and pushed the big calculator button. And got a result that feels right and good.

By my estimation, if one state in the nation should be given the right to represent all of us in a “First in Nation” primary, then that state should be Wisconsin. If we needed to have a pairing of the Iowa vs New Hampshire variety, then the two states most qualified to represent us all would be Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Here’s the entire list, from most to least qualified to serve as proxy for the nation as a whole. The scores are normalized to a 100 point scale, with the highest ranking state receiving 100 points, and the lowest ranking state (Maine) receiving 0 points, to allow all 51 states (and District) to be compared in relative terms.

LooksLikeAmericaThe four highlighted lines represent the four states that are currently accorded special privileges when it comes to early primaries. None of them deserve the right to represent us, if we want our bellwether to “Look Like America.”

So why do they continue to do so? Well, here’s a list I developed of reasons why Iowa might claim the right, and I’d love to hear from somebody who could develop a similar list for New Hampshire.

If those tongue-in-cheek reasons don’t resonate with you, then I guess we just have to sigh and say “Well, it’s always been that way” (even though it hasn’t) or “Well, nobody else could do any better” (even though they could) or “Because that’s where the money bags want it to be” (which is probably right).

But I don’t like any of those answers, and I long for change. So let’s give Wisconsin and Pennsylvania a crack in 2020 and see how they do, shall we?

Make it so, Number Two. The Emperor of the Americas has other spreadsheets to create.

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