Inexplicable Scarcity

If you’ve read my piffle and tripe here for any period of time, it probably does not come as a surprise that I actively enjoy a lot of music that most folks would judge to be “weird,” or worse. One of the side effects over the years of possessing such off-the-beaten-path tastes is that many of the things I like are hard-to-find or harder-to-replace, being released by small labels, or in limited quantities, or under otherwise sub-optimal commercial circumstances. Such is the lot of the quirky and difficult to please.

Admittedly, the Internet Digital Media Era has reduced many of the difficulties associated with securing my most extreme or obscure audio fixes, since artists can now essentially release their own materials directly to their own specialized audiences in whatever quantities the market will bear. But that has not always been the case, so throughout a lifetime of listening, one of the prime factors fueling my resistance to embracing new music-playing technologies is the fact that under new paradigms, the volume of artists issuing music under the emergent formats is much smaller than the volume available under the old formats, until such time as the consumer transfer achieves a critical mass that places the former paradigm into a state of obsolescence. (Not to mention the costs associated with re-acquiring all those personal favorites). The easy, popular stuff makes the transition first, so if something is hard to find in a current, common format, it typically gets really hard to find in the earlier days of the next generation’s music-reproduction models.

At this stage in my life (i.e. old, cranky, set-in-ways), I like it when it’s relatively easy to find stuff, although I do occasionally rue having long lost the thrill of the hunt associated with trawling record bins way back when. I can think of several specific cases over the years when particular items of interest seemed impossible to procure. (Note that I do still and always have purchased my music, and do not steal it via any of the quasi-legal or illicit sharing services). Human Sexual Response’s masterpiece In A Roman Mood (1981) only became available in legal digital formats a few years ago, to cite one example I’d previously written about, many years ago. The Tubes’ Love Bomb (1985) is another one that was conspicuously absent from their digital catalog until recent years. Granted, most Tubes fans consider it to be their worst record, by far, but for reasons (probably) inexplicable, I have been very fond of it since acquiring it on cassette while at the Naval Academy, and spinning it regularly during summer training cruise season. I can also remember a long search to acquire Wire’s 154 (1979) after the group broke up for the first time, finally nabbing a copy in London, Ontario, years after its initial release. Most of the Tragic Mulatto catalog has never been formally released in digital format, as best I can ascertain, though I continue to poke around for it.

These and most other related examples of musical product scarcity in my listening world are generally understandable due to the small audiences for the records in question, or the demise of record labels which originally released their work, or band dissolution or other such market-relevant forces. But not everything I listen to is weird (or worse), and I can truly appreciate and enjoy spinning tunes from any number of genres across the musical spectrum, including its most popular ends, as long as it is music is well crafted and performed with conviction. So sometimes I get in the mood for something on the platinum-level pop front that seems like it should be easily, obviously available in current listening formats, and am deeply surprised to discover that’s not the case.

Here’s an example.

A couple of months ago, I was listening to the Bee Gees outstanding Main Course (1975) album, which features the song “Come On Over.” Hearing it reminded me of Olivia Newton-John’s better-known cover version, which was a moderate radio hit in 1976, just a couple of years before the film version of Grease catapulted Newton-John into the highest levels of the pop culture stratosphere. Before she charted with “Come On Over,” Newton-John had already achieved a high level of commercial success with her more country-tinged early works, scoring such U.S. chart hits as “If Not For You,” “Let Me Be There,” “If You Love Me (Let Me Know),” “I Honestly Love You,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Please Mister Please,” among others.

Two of the albums most spun around the Smith Family Household circa 1975 were Olivia’s If You Love Me, Let Me Know (a U.S.-only disc that combined various album tracks and singles from her international catalog, including several of the hit songs cited above) and Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like A Wheel. If I recall correctly, we got the Olivia one from my grandmother, and the Linda Ronstadt one my parents won at some Officers Club social event, which likely involved heavy drinking. Those two records had a lot of stylistic similarities, with sweet-voiced female singers reinventing a collection of other songwriters’ songs, atop well-arranged countrified musical beds. We lived in Kansas at the time, and those two hit albums (along with my Dad’s then recent-ish faves: Neil Diamond’s His Twelve Greatest Hits and John Denver’s Back Home Again) sort of frame my mental soundtrack to remembered family time and meals from that particular place and period in my life, when I wasn’t otherwise busy obsessing about Wings.

Ronstadt’s 1974 hit record has maintained a high level of critical credibility and commercial resonance since its release, standing as a peak example of the now-legendary smooth country-rock Laurel Canyon scene. I doubt that it has ever gone out of print, and I’m sure that it still generates good money for everyone centrally involved in its production. Olivia Newton-John’s contemporaneous American release, on the other hand, seems to have mostly disappeared from the narrative of her career, eclipsed by the commercial cheese of her Grease, Xanadu and Physical-era mega-media hits from the late ’70s and early ’80s. But under the rubric of comfort music that I laid out a few months back, here, that If You Love Me, Let Me Know album is certainly one that has satisfying family connotations and emotional vibrations for me, so I decided to score a copy of it and dig into the nostalgia jukebox for awhile.

First stop was iTunes. Hmmm. Not there. Then a couple of other digital outlets. Huh. Not there either. So I trundled over to Amazon to get a CD copy that I could upload into my computer for easy electronic spins on the many music-making machines that soundtrack all of the spaces I occupy. Imagine my surprise when my search request returned this:

$180 for a ten-song CD version of an album that nabbed the Number 1 spots on both the Billboard Top 200 Pop and Top Country Albums charts in 1974?!?! Holy Moly, there’s a supply-demand curve case study for someone to parse and deconstruct, where something once so popular is now rare enough to warrant such pricing. (Yes, I know, there are beat-up old post-garage sale vinyl copies available for sale at reasonable prices, but I’m too old to play hipster kid and nonsensically insist that I really dig all of those pops and scratches and fuzzy wobbles for the analog warmth they provide). I explored around online a bit more to see if some of Olivia’s other earlier albums experienced the same digital scarcity conditions, and it does indeed seem to be the case that most of her career successes pre-Grease have been wiped from the commercial record and market, even though I would strongly argue the case that those early records include much of her finest work.

Once upon a time, lots of people around the world apparently would have agreed with me on that topic, if we presume that people voted with their record-purchasing dollars. This one has bemused and befuddled me a bit over the past couple of months, and I’ve not found any clearly-elucidated explanations of the situation online. I guess it just seems that one older man’s comfort music is the rest of the world’s forgotten dreck. Pity. I was most especially looking forward to having Olivia’s version of “Mary Skeffington,” a brilliant take on an equally-brilliant song by the great Gerry Rafferty. Yeah, I can find it on Youtube, and that’s okay, I guess, but I’d prefer to have it in my catalog for portable spins and mixes and such-like, along with the other nine fondly-remembered, but now inexplicably inaccessible songs on this lovely album.

Do you have similar “can’t get it from here” stories about the music in your life? Share them in the comments below if you do. We can have a pity party, with an inadequate soundtrack.

Thoughts on Thoughts

I’ve raved here for years about my favorite contemporary writer, the deeply anonymous, Florida-based creative genius behind Thoughts On The Dead. He’s been cranking out the words and pictures since 2012, hewing (on a macro basis) to an initial premise he framed thusly: “My thesis is that the Grateful Dead were the Silliest Band in the World. I will attempt to prove this through misquotes, malicious lies, and just plumb crazy talk; everything in these pages is, of course, satire.”

Good satire is really, really hard to write, a point made screamingly clear by subjecting yourself to any of the piss-poor popular examples of the form that the web has belched forth indiscriminately since its inception. But Mr TotD is a true master of the genre, building a complex and complete creative universe around the core essence of the Grateful Dead’s members and their various fellow travelers, spinning and pivoting in exciting directions while (mostly) keeping one foot anchored in the real stories, personalities, experiences and foibles of the protagonists. He dubs the resultant product “semi-fictionality,” which in meta-meta-meta fashion has become an ongoing topic of conversation between various characters within the semi-fictional story arcs, most typically involving those new players confused by their unexpected first entries into the brilliantly perverse TotD universe.

Mr Thoughts is also blindingly prolific, putting my own obsessive writing impulses and productivity levels to shame, and then some. I’ve quite literally started almost every day for many years reading his work and words with my morning coffee, routinely marveling at the quality and quantity of entertainment that he offers me (and many others) with righteous, rigorous regularity. In my various year-end reports of the best things life has set before me in the prior twelve months (e.g. 2019: Year in Review), it’s just a given that he’s going to be featured there, because I have a hard time imagining finding many, if any, things online than I enjoy more than his website.

While the Grateful Dead provide the hub around which the whole semi-fictional thing spins, the hairy daddies (and Mrs Donna Jean) don’t necessarily feature directly in some of the best work done on the TotD site. There have been a pair of brilliant novels serialized there (with a third in progress), for starters, and I’d still claim TotD’s A Book With No Title as one of the finest reads I’ve experienced in the 21st Century. The novels and related stories are set in the fictional west coast city of Little Aleppo, and the histories, characters, and happenings documented within their (virtual) pages are hilarious, heart-breaking, and hair-raising in equal measure. I’ve had to pinch myself at times to remember that some of the people I’m reading about there aren’t real, because I feel like I know and understand them as well as, if not better than, I do some folks in my real life, famous or otherwise.

TotD also occasionally offers deep dives into the careers of other influential creative types, and I’d cite his long-form pieces on Queen and Van Halen as among the very best of many articles and books I’ve read about those fascinating artists. His political work is top notch too, with his tales of late-night calls from various GOP creeps to Maggie Haberman, and his tone-perfect Cadet Bonespurs Tinyhands monologues eliciting both giggles and groans in their willingness to take situations that are already painfully absurd and escalating their essences into the satirical stratosphere.  He’s the complete package as a writer, at bottom line, and he continues to carry my strongest, most heart-felt endorsement as the owner and operator of a site that will reward regular reads like few others, anywhere, by anybody.

All of that being said (again) here, I’m actually thinking Thoughts On Thoughts today for a different reason, related to a typically creative and reaction-inducing recent post of his which, alas, is set in the very real world in which we live, and not the semi-fictional one Mr TotD normally documents with alacrity: Thoughts On Cancer. Oof. Ouch. And no no no no NO. Mr Thoughts reported this morning that he’s beginning his first chemo sessions today, so I hope you’ll join me in pointing whatever good juju, karma, prayers or magick you’ve got in your quiver straight at him through the tough times he’ll be facing in the days and months ahead. You could even hit the Donate Button in the right sidebar of his site and send some dosh his way to buy ice cream, edibles and panaceas to ease the process and smooth the path before him. I’m sure he’d appreciate that.

Mr Thoughts is a creative treasure, and I selfishly want to keep him that way, since he freely and readily provides so much enjoyment to so many people, me among them, with bells on. From a less selfish perspective, he’s just a good dude who I have come to count as a good friend in virtual space, and I don’t want him to suffer or hurt any more than he absolutely must to kick this thing to the curb quickly and get on with the getting on. Keep an eye on his site, please, and offer the encouragement you’re able, in your heart or in public, as is your wont. Thanks.

Don’t call him WALLY . . .

Out of the West

Marcia and I made it back to Des Moines tonight, after a long slog 10-hour final day of driving, which began in Laramie, Wyoming. We racked up 4,083 total miles on the trip, which was 18 days long. An average of ~265 per day, every day, oof!! More importantly, I made a playlist of 1,500 songs for the trip, and we spun 1,228 of them in the car along the way. I kind of feel bad for the 272 songs that the iTunes randomizer didn’t queue up for us, sitting in the machine all those days and all those miles, but never getting their moment in the singalong sun. (I don’t feel bad enough for them to keep driving, though). While our 2020 travel map does not look as robust as we planned and expected it to be, given all of the trips we had to cancel due to the plague season, we’ve still covered a good bit of ground (and air, back when that was safe) since we welcomed in the year in Albuquerque, as per below:

We quite enjoyed the couple of days we spent in Laramie. We’d picked it primarily as a reasonable mid-point between Logan and Des Moines, but found it to be an attractive and interesting small city, with good parks and trails (urban and rural), an interesting downtown with good (carry-out) dining options, and a truly lovely campus for the University of Wyoming students and faculty. A pleasant surprise. I’d be happy to stop there again. Definitely the nicest bit of Wyoming that we visited this trip, though we are also fond of the Northwestern corner where the Tetons and Jackson and Yellowstone snuggle up against our former Idaho home, even if we didn’t get up that far this time around.

Fun Fact: Interstate 80 features more road miles in Nebraska than in any other state on its coast-to-coast course, and we drove every single one of them today. Next time we head west, we’re going to drop down to the I-70 corridor across Kansas instead. It’ll still be a slog, but psychologically it’s easier to do a drive where you don’t have to watch the mile markers go from 0 to 455 on the same highway in the same state. Somewhere around the middle of our Nebraska endurance event this afternoon, we also crossed from the refreshing dry mountain climate region into the disgustingly humid Midwestern miasma. There was a stiff wind out of the south most of the drive, bringing up the heat and the dank, and making it hard to relax much while trucks were wobbling all over the highway at 80+ miles per hour.

We then did our obligatory daily walk after we got home tonight, and I swear I sweated more over that one hour than I had on any full day while we were out west, even though we walked longer and steeper tracks there than we ever can here at home. Among numerous other factors, that climate difference makes us feel good about our plan to move Westward later this year. I’m past the point in my life where I want to have a gentle glow or glossy sheen on my skin. I’m ready to be a scaly reptile, all the time. It also feels odd and off to return home to Des Moines and not see Katelin and John here soon after our arrival. The neighborhood feels emptier without them nearby. It will be nice to be closer to them in 2021, if not as close as we’ve been for the past 18 months, e.g. right across the street!

I shared some snaps of this trip along the way in prior blog posts, here, here, and here. I have now uploaded those samples and others like them to my usual Flickr Gallery summarizing the images of our trip. You can see them all by clicking the image of the lovely bog-front quaking aspens below, taken in the Happy Jack Recreational Area, just east of Laramie, right near I-80’s highest point. It was essentially a nine-hour roll downhill from there to home. We can’t wait to climb back up those slopes sometime sooner rather than later!

Then Logan Again

Marcia and I moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho in the summer of 1991, a few months after Katelin was born. We lived there for two years in fairly lean economic circumstances, meaning that most of our recreational and entertainment opportunities were of a low-cost regional nature, usually involving hiking, cross-country skiing and/or camping.

That mostly simple lifestyle led us to explore a lot of beautiful outdoor destinations in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Utah, all within three or four hours of home. I have lots of fond memories and keen mental images of shlepping up various mountains with the baby on my back, or of skiing down forest trails with Katelin towed behind me in a human harness sledge I made myself, or of the three of us huddled up in a tent for warmth in freezing high-altitude temperatures. In July.

Come summer of 1993, my work took us on to Upstate New York, where we lived for nearly two decades. Katelin grew up and headed off to college from there, not really remembering anything about her time in Idaho except for stories related to various photos we had in the family album. The three of us finally decided to go revisit and recreate some of those memorable images in 2012, flying back into Idaho Falls, and then traveling over to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It was a great trip, covering a lot of ground, though we weren’t quite able to squeeze in an outlying area that I considered, way back when, to be among the most beautiful I had ever experienced: The Logan Canyon and Bear Lake region in northeastern Utah, close to Idaho’s southern border.

As it turned out on our current trip, getting from our Lake Tahoe stop back home to Des Moines via I-80 meant that Marcia and I would pass within 90 miles or so of the City of Logan, at the southwestern mouth of that memorable Canyon region. So we decided to get off the highway and spend a four-day block up that way to re-explore and see if my memories of the region’s beauty were accurate.

As we get ready to roll onward out of Logan tomorrow morning at the end of this worthy detour, I’m pleased to report that the area is every bit as lovely as I had remembered it. We’ll be passing by Bear Lake on our way to Laramie, Wyoming tomorrow, with high expectations there as well, so still something to be re-excited about on tomorrow’s eastward drive.

Marcia and I have done great hikes out in the very nearby mountains every day (much easier without a baby on my back!), along with pleasant evening walks around Logan’s outstanding urban trail system, with many pocket parks that have been perfect for socially distant carry-out dining. The city is just exquisite, possessing an exceptional urban forest and varied vistas of mountains and valleys and farms and even a vast marshland. Something to grab your eyeballs in pretty much every direction you look, no matter how often you spin about, gawping. Exceptionally pleasant. Highly recommended. Glad we returned, even if it took 30 years to do so.

I post a few snaps of these recent adventures below, as usual, including one from Bonneville Salt Flats, which we rolled through on our way from Elko. We also made a stop at Great Salt Lake State Park, and both of those destinations actually tie geographically to Logan: on our first day here, we walked the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, along what was once a Pleistocene beachfront when the vast Paleo-Lake Bonneville sprawled all the way across what’s now Northern Utah, including the modern Salt Lake and Flats. Huh! A little history makes everything more interesting!

We had originally intended to go south from Logan to Moab, Utah to spend a few days there, but we realized that (a) it’s really hot down there right now, and (b) if we went to Moab, our entire trip back to Des Moines would be on exactly the same roads we took out to Las Vegas. That’s a bit dull to ponder, so we’re opting to keep eastward on I-80 through Wyoming instead, saving Moab for some time after our planned relocation to the Southwest in late 2020. (Of course, we still have to pass through two-thirds of Nebraska and half of Iowa on the same roads we took a couple of weeks ago, but that’s not quite so bad as adding a re-run of the entirety of Colorado’s width to the mix).

This will likely be my last update from the road, as we’ll home by the weekend. I’ll set up a full photo album of these and other snaps after I get home for those who enjoy such things. Lots of beauty in this part of the country. We’re grateful to have the opportunity, health and time available to us to visit so many of these wonderful destinations, seeing them in awe for the first time in some cases, and with nostalgia through older eyes in others.

Tahoe Elko Ho!

I’m writing this afternoon from Elko, Nevada, deep in the heart of the sparsely populated northeastern corner of the Silver State. Though this is actually gold country here, as Elko County is the source of more mined gold than any other region in the United States, and most other nations to boot. We didn’t pick it as a stop to go panning or digging or blowing up mountain sides for riches, but rather because it was a convenient mid-point between South Lake Tahoe, California (where we spent the past two days) and Logan, Utah, where we’re heading tomorrow for a four-day stop.

After my last check-in from Lee Vining, California, we rolled northward to Tahoe, with a very cool stop along the way at Bodie State Historic Park, an epic for-reals gold-mining ghost town. (We didn’t intend to have a gold theme to this leg of the trip, that was just happy happenstance). Bodie was once a thriving and prosperous town with a population pushing 10,000 (living) souls, though it went through a long, slow decline until the closure of its final mine in 1942. The remaining buildings (a lot of them!) are maintained in a state of “arrested decay,” and there are some truly creepy peeks in windows to be seen, with shredded wallpaper, rusting tin ceilings, and a variety of personal and professional detritus left in place in perpetuity, thick with dust and faded with time. I don’t know how many ghosts it houses these days, but I suspect the park rangers who live in a few of the old buildings have got some tales to tell. It’s a rugged road to get up to Bodie, much of it wash-boarded gravel, but worth a visit should you find yourself nearby, for sure.

Lake Tahoe was beautiful as expected, though we arrived just in time to hunker down for an unusual (for the town) strong thunderstorm. The next day, skies clear, we did a stupendous hike from town up to the Tahoe Ridge Trail and back, exactly the sort of ramble we used to love so much when we lived in Idaho all those years ago, with shady pine and fir groves, well-trod and firmly-packed paths, lots and lots of rocks, and vistas to make the heart go pitty-pat. It was about 7.5 miles out and back with about 1,800 feet of elevation change, so the calves and quads are aware today that we used them well yesterday.

We also had another great lodging experience at a small independent hotel called 7 Seas Inn. A comfy room, staffed by a pleasant and helpful team, with a nice (and safely spaced) communal garden to sit and read and eat, all centrally located with easy walks to a private beach (which we enjoyed) and the main commercial drag (not quite so enjoyable during a pandemic, as way too many people on the street were acting as though all was well and normal, masks and social distancing be damned). 7 Seas was also literally right across the street from the Nevada state line, meaning that the obligatory casinos are handy, if that’s your thing. We didn’t visit. They also had a super approach for COVID-time meals, offering a picnic basket breakfast with all the trimmings, to be picked up and carried where the spirit moved you. Evenings featured socially distanced wine and snacks in the garden to boot. As a birder, I enjoyed the raucous Steller’s Jays that came to ogle our various tasty treats, though I know not everyone would share my enthusiasm for their company. At bottom line, another highly recommended home away from home, should your travels bring you Tahoe-ward.

Some shots of our past few days provided below. We’re still enjoying the adventure.

California Roll

Marcia and I finished our parental duties associated with Katelin and John’s move to Las Vegas a few days ago, and hit the road for our own adventures. Our first stop has been a great one, in Lee Vining, California. We’ve spent three nights in this cool small town (population ~300), staying in a roadside lodge called Murphey’s Motel, which we highly recommend if you find yourself in this part of the country. It’s clean, comfortable, quiet and pleasant, and it sits right across the street from an ice cream stand that has fabulous soft serve and hot dogs, so how can you improve on that, right?

We picked Lee Vining as our first stop on our post-Vegas trip because it’s the closest town to the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park, but we also discovered that it’s even closer to another amazing natural destination of which we were unaware: Mono Lake. It’s a striking and weird endorheic lake at the very western edge of the Great Basin, with beautiful, blue, salty waters, loads of birds, and cool natural stone formations called tufa, which are formed above hot spring outlets. There are no fish in Mono Lake, so the huge migratory bird populations that pass through here dine on the brine shrimp and insect larvae/pupae that define the local aquatic ecosystem instead. Everybody likes to om nom nom the shrimpies!

We spent all day yesterday in Yosemite (the park is so vast that it takes about two hours of driving to get from the eastern gate at Tioga Pass to the core valley area), doing four hikes in various parts of the park, plus a nice picnic lunch sitting on shaded rocks, with ravens visiting to make sure we didn’t drop anything important. Like food. Or food. As a tree nerd, I was very pleased to see my first Giant Sequoias, after a nice walk down to the Tuolumne Grove. They are impressive! Sort of hurts the soul to know how few of them are left, and how many were harvested or otherwise killed by human activity.

And speaking of human activity, I will note that it has felt good to spend time in states (Nevada and California) that are mandating basic common sense virus protections like indoor mask wearing and limits on crowd sizes in enclosed spaces. Things are getting done here. People are going about their business. Nobody seems to be having their freedoms and liberties impinged upon in any meaningful, non-selfish ways. Nobody glares at us for wearing our own masks, nor have we generally had anybody aggressively getting into our personal spaces. (Well, with a few exceptions while in Yosemite, where the oblivious blithering factor was turned up a bit in some of the photo-op type spaces). I am happy to do my own small part to support public health, wherever I am. If only our neighbors at home in Iowa, and the people elected to represent them, felt the same way. Sigh.

Anyway! We are getting on the road again today, headed up to Lake Tahoe. I post a few visuals below from this great stop in Lee Vining. We had high hopes for this visit, and they were exceeded. Always a great way for things to go when out on the road. And finally, about the title of this post: I do not refer to the nasty so-called “sushi” abominations that are peddled under that name (why would anybody do that to a tasty crab stick, or any other tasty bit of raw fish??), but rather to (1) the fact that we’re rollin’ on the road through the Golden State, and (2) because just as I started to write this post, our in-room wireless stereo cued up this song, featuring Snoop and Stevie and Pharrell. That’s a good way to roll. We approve. Ride on.