The Small Axe Interviews (2000 and 2002)


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 (, 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.



1. I accepted a new job in the Chicago metro area today. I need to let public announcements be made through proper channels, but suffice to say at this point that it’s a grant-making organization with an international reach, it had an excellent board and staff, the mission is deeply resonant to me, and the board has recently completed an exciting transformational strategic vision for the next five years. It feels good to have that piece in place. I’ll be starting the new job on August 24. I’ll be thinking about this when I do it. Watch this space for news when I can say more. And then send me money.

2. Once upon a time, I had two closets full of vinyl albums. Then some years later, that arrangement was replaced with two book shelves filled with compact discs. Today, my entire music collection fits on a one terabyte hard drive that’s about eight inches by six inches by two inches. I suppose this is progress, since now I have more room in my car for stuff like clothing when I move from place to place.

3. As part of my final CD unburdening this month, I found a box of compact discs from a lot of Albany artists who I have not listened to much in recent years. I have very much been enjoying having Beef, The Wasted, The Wait, Small Axe and others in the iTunes mix again. I was dismayed, however, to discover that I was missing a crucial piece of the Small Axe canon: their first CD release, A Shot to the Body, which was released in 1997 on their own Shithouse Rat label. It’s a fantastic record. I reviewed it when it first came out, noting “it won’t sell many copies in its initial pressing, but will be hailed as a great lost masterpiece two decades from now when some 21st century music critic rediscovers it at a garage sale and slaps its choicer cuts on the Nuggets, Volume LXXIII compilation.” Apparently, it might be own copy of the album that’s going to trigger that response someday, since I can’t find it anywhere. If anybody has a spare copy of A Shot to the Body, let me know, and I’ll be happy to work with you to figure out a way to get its contents onto my hard drive.

4. We are one week from Pluto and Charon! I watched New Horizons’ launch nine years ago while sitting at my desk at the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer. Then I spent a good portion of the next year or so posting as the character “Pluto Rocket” on the late, lamented Upstate Wasted and Upstate Ether boards, long before people did such things on Twitter as a matter of course. After a brief loss of communications scare last week, New Horizons is sending ever-more astonishing images of the Pluto system, and I can’t wait to see what the next few weeks bring as it zips past its primary target and heads deeper into the Kuiper Belt. As I’ve said many times in this blog: we are living in a glorious era for planetary exploration. Relish it!

5. I’ve written before about my reluctant decline into twittering, and in recent weeks, I’ve found myself once again questioning whether I’m a point where I just need to decide that the social media era of my life is over, completely. Since I tend to follow specific areas of interest (politics, music, space), what I find is that I’ll have these long periods where it seems that everything that crosses my screen is about the same thing — and much of the time, it’s something I don’t care about, or that actively annoys me. Case in point: the recent Twitter coverage of some new documentary about Amy Winehouse. I did not care about her or her music when she was alive, and I do not care about her or her music now that she has died a junkie’s death, either. But the hyperbolic word salad spewed about her on Twitter is filled with nonsense about how we’re somehow all culpable for her death, and how we’re somehow all responsible for her “harrowing” upbringing, and how watching this documentary is going to change us all forever, somehow. But we aren’t, and it won’t. And I don’t want to see or hear anything else about it. Or about Donald Trump. If you tweet about either of them, I’m likely to stop following you. Just so you know.

Thoughts on Thoughts on the Dead

I’ve spent a lot of time online since 1993, so I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen the acronym “LOL” (or variations thereof) appear before mine skeptical eyes — though the number of times that I’ve actually “laughed out loud” at something I’ve found on the web is fairly small. Because I’m grumpy and hard to please.

On precious rare and wonderful occasions, however, I unexpectedly stumble across a brilliantly funny site that turns me into a cackling ball of snot and floor-rolling apoplexy, with Bad News Hughes and Hyperbole and a Half (both, alas, long since inactive) standing high on the list of my atomic self-control decimating humor bombs. (The Onion is amusing, but it’s more of a smug smirk kind of place).

I am delighted this week to add another site to my short list of funnier than funny online resources: Thoughts on the Dead. The premise is simple: Mr. TotD posits that the Grateful Dead are the silliest rock band that has ever existed, and he proves his point by posting pictures and telling lies about them, creating brilliant (fake) character studies about the dozen or so musicians and various strap-hangers who have passed through the Dead’s ranks over the years.

The results are (to me) pee-the-pants funny, though I am not quite sure why. I mean, I start giggling as soon as a photo of Keith and Donna scrolls up the screen now, before I even see any words explaining it, and stories about Billy punching everybody in the privates, or Bobby “handsoming,” or Mickey desperately wanting to be a part of things (in between murderous knife play jags), or forgotten roadie Precarious Lee’s amazing stage set-ups are always good for a belly-jiggling wheeze at this point. And that’s all before we even get to Garcia, Lesh and Pigpen, who were all essentially cartoon characters already, or the tragic collection of short-lived keyboardists. Comedy gold! Seriously!

Mr. TotD is incredibly prolific, so there’s reams and reams of amusements to be had on his site, and they’ve being (brilliantly) updated in real time as the “Core Four” living Dead men play their five 50th anniversary shows this year. After spending more hours than I should admit romping and stomping through the Thoughts on the Dead back catalog, I tripped over this quote that probably explains why this creative product feels so real and impressive to me:

In the recent post about Europe ’72, I reported on Bobby’s disappointment and confusion over the fact that there were no Arthur Treacher’s in Denmark; it is the definition of a minor jape. However, it slayed me. No exaggeration: it’s, like, the favorite thing I’ve written in weeks and I keep coming back to it in my head and decrying the fact that there really isn’t much more juice to get out of that berry. Seriously: I had a conversation with myself enumerating why that joke was funny (1: A fast food place based on haddock? C’mon, now.) in the shower and I ran out hot water before I ran our of reasons.

At bottom line: I think Mr. TotD finds this stuff hilarious when he reads it himself, and that’s all that really matters. I can so much relate to that, having spent (again) way more time than I should admit pseudonymously or anonymously creating completely fictional online worlds, often involving real people and stuff, for my own amusements. If others read and enjoy it, too, well, hey, that’s just gravy.

If you know where to look (the archives here, but beyond that, no hints, sorry), there’s a lot of my funny-to-me stuff on the web still, and I routinely return to it and laugh and laugh and laugh, much as Mr. TotD now undoubtedly giggles with pleased self-satisfaction every time he passes an Arthur Treacher’s. (Do they still exist?)

So let’s hear it for someone who so clearly and happily amuses himself this much, since that’s the real secret to amusing others, I think. Or maybe this is just a case of self-indulgent birds of a feather recognizing each other as they flock alone. I’m not sure. Does it matter?

Click the photo for shrewd analysis at Thoughts on the Dead.

Click the photo for shrewd analysis at Thoughts on the Dead.

Best Albums of 2015 (First Half)

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s only a couple of weeks until the mid-point of 2015, and that a mere six months from now, I’ll compile and publish my 24th annual Albums of the Year list. Yeesh, where does the time go?!? As has been my June practice in recent years, I offer the following interim list of twelve new records that have most rocked my world since the preceding January. Several of these discs will likely be contenders for “Album of the Year” honors come December. The list is in alphabetical order by artist, and album titles link to sample songs to help you explore. Happy listening!

Bop English — Constant Bop

Death Grips — The Powers That B: Jenny Death

Eternal Summers — Gold and Stone

The Fall — Sub-Lingual Tablet

Girlpool Before the World Was Big

Lightning Bolt — Fantasy Empire

Napalm Death — Apex Predator — Easy Meat

Panda Bear — Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper

Kate Pierson — Guitars and Microphones

Public Service Broadcasting — The Race for Space

Shriekback — Without Real String or Fish

Wire — Wire

Five by Five Books #8: “Smallcreep’s Day” (1965) by Peter Currell Brown

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences).

What’s it about? Pinquean Smallcreep is a machine worker who cuts slots into pulleys on an assembly line inside a vast factory. After many years at his task, he begins to grow curious about how his slotted pulleys are ultimately used, and once this curiosity reaches obsessive levels, he sets aside his assigned task and walks up the assembly line, hoping to find its end. The labyrinthine nature of the factory and its attendant offices and support spaces quickly render his quest more complicated than Smallcreep had anticipated, and he is forced to rely on the kindness (or, more often, lack thereof) of his fellow factory workers to find his way forward, or backward, or simply out. Smallcreep meets a veritable menagerie of machinists, laborers, managers, directors and other characters, who often seem evolutionarily designed to their tasks, and are almost always shocked by the audacity — and ever-increasing futility — of his odyssey. The book’s resolution is shocking on a variety of fronts, but at the risk of spoiling it, I won’t describe why.

Who wrote it? There’s not much information available in the public domain about Peter Currell Brown, and Smallcreep’s Day stands as his only published novel to date. I know that he is English, and that he was an anti-nuclear activist in the early 1960s, serving a six month prison sentence as a result of his actions. He worked in a factory as a young man, and his experiences there inspired and shaped the narrative of Smallcreep’s Day. In the late 1960s, he founded and worked at a small craft pottery factory, and seems to have abandoned professional literary pursuits. If he figured that he got novel-writing right the first time he tried it and didn’t need to do it again, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

When and where did I read it?  I first became aware of Smallcreep’s Day while living in Newport, Rhode Island during my junior year of high school, when Genesis bassist-guitarist Mike Rutherford titled his first solo album (1980) after the book, and included a side-long suite of songs loosely related to its story. Brown’s novel was long out of print at the time, and the album wasn’t a strong enough recommendation to make me go hunting it down. Fast forward to early 2015, when I read Rutherford’s excellent autobiography, The Living Years, which briefly touched on the musician’s experiences with reading the novel and composing songs around its key themes. I have always been a fan of Rutherford as a musician, but I found myself really liking him as a human being after reading his book, and that made me more interested in understanding what, exactly, had so moved him when he first read Smallcreep’s Day. Through the never-ceasing wonders of modern technology, I then discovered that a Kindle edition of Brown’s novel was available, so I clicked a couple of buttons, and, voila, let’s read this thing, finally.

Why do I like it? I had always assumed — from its seemingly playful title, from the nominally happy ending of Rutherford’s song cycle, and from the cover art I’d seen — that Smallcreep’s Day would be a family-friendly, light read that whimsically used a “journey of personal exploration and growth” narrative structure to casually explore some topical themes related to how people work, and what they get out of it. Once I got a couple of chapters into the book, however, I realized that I couldn’t have been wrong in this presumption: Smallcreep’s Day is a dark, hallucinatory, surrealist parable that injects a small, tragic figure into a sequence of large, very adult situations that grind like machinery toward an inexorable and unforgettable climax. While few characters are ever named (we only learn the protagonist’s full moniker toward the end of the book), the novel is filled with memorable Dickensian grotesques, their features and characters described in lurid, often horrible detail. The exploration of the relationships between labor and management are also surprisingly deep and insightful (a contract negotiation scene between the two parties is a satirical masterpiece), with the interesting twist that both are viewed as being victims of their situations, though one tends to live and work in much nicer surroundings. I thought about this novel and its message quite a bit after I finished it, and when all is said and done, that’s about the best recommendation I can offer for reading a particular book.

A five sentence sample text: “First thing of all I’m always conscious of a wheel — or perhaps before that I’m conscious of spinning, in the abstract as it were, but then there is always this huge wheel all shimmering with lights and divided into segments of light, and a loud singing or humming noise. The wheel is not turning fast, but not slowly either, and it doesn’t turn in one particular direction but both ways at once. After a time of spinning and shimmering and singing a kind of feeling of unease comes in. I can recollect all these things quite plainly, it’s always the same. The wheel get clearer, and there’s more uneasiness, until there’s suddenly fear, and a feeling of being stuck, or paralysed and pinned in, like waking up to find you’re inside a concrete block and you can’t breathe or move or see or shout or anything.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

Click on this 1973 edition's cover to order your own digital or print edition.

Click on this 1973 edition’s cover to order your own digital or print copy.

Chicago, Now!

Well, not exactly now . . . but soon.

Marcia and I will be relocating to the Windy City this summer. She is taking a new position with her current employer, and will be joining the legal team at Mercy Chicago and Loyola University Hospitals. It’s a good professional move, with lots of interesting new opportunities.

I’ll be on the open job market again as of July 2, so here’s how to hire me and here’s what some people who did so in the past think about me. Until I land a full time position, I’ll be freelancing as Marcia’s Transportation Director and Executive Entertainment Consultant (a.k.a. chauffeur and arm candy). That’s a great gig.

We’re very excited about the move, and look forward to new adventures in a great city that we’ve visited often since moving to the Midwest. Our goal is to downsize our living footprint significantly, ideally becoming a one-car family in a nice downtown apartment. Katelin will continue to live and work in Des Moines, where she is thriving, so we will be back to Central Iowa regularly.

It’s hard to believe that it was four years ago that we set in motion the process that resulted in us moving to Iowa, and over three years since I began working at Salisbury House. The only thing constant is change, I guess! Watch this space in the months ahead as this next phase unfolds . . . but for now, take it away, Make E. Smith and The Fall:


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