Odds and Ends . . .

The Simpsons Sky: I was driving west down Central Avenue in Albany yesterday, and I looked up . . . and the color of the sky, and the piles of puffy cumulus clouds looked uncannily like the clouds that roll across the opening credits to “The Simpsons.” It’s odd when real life looks like cartoons, innit?

Crow vs. Grackle: I love watching birds in our yard, but where most folks favor the finches and cardinals and blue jays and other pretty birds, my personal favorites are crows and grackles. They both have serious attitude: they know they’re in charge, they’re clever, they’re loud and proud, the thugs and punks of the bird world. I was eating breakfast yesterday, and heard a lot of screeching and croaking from the front yard, and looking out the window, I saw a big, bad-ass crow stomping around the yard (the way crows stomp when they’re on the ground), while two grackles kamikaze dived it from above whenever it drifted too close to their nest. This went on for a good 15 minutes, and the crow never took to the air: it was his ground, he was gonna stomp around on it, and no shiny, angry grackles were gonna make him leave. So they’d scream and dive bomb him, he’d flap his wings in annoyance and yell back at them, and then he’d stomp around some more. Forget “Freddy vs. Jason” or “Alien vs. Predator:” this battle pitted the scourges of bird lovers against each other in submortal combat, and it was dang good entertainment. Crows and grackles rock.

Music: I’ve gotten three great albums in the past couple of weeks, Ministry’s Houses of the Mole, Einsturzende Neubaten’s Perpetuum Mobile, and the Fall’s The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Clink). All three mark excellent returns to form after some period of less engaging work by three great bands. Back in ’96, I wrote a review of Ministry’s Filth Pig that linked their best records to presidential election years. They sat out the 2000 campaign (in the midst of label difficulties), but they’re back with a vengeance on Houses of the Mole, easily their best record since Psalm 69. Longtime bassist-producer Paul Barker is gone, so this one is Alien Jourgensen’s beast all the way, but it rocks like nobody’s business, so I think my ’96 review is proven pretty danged prescient. Neubaten’s last disc, Silence is Sexy, was the first one they recorded after longtime members F.M. Einheit and Mark Chung were replaced by Rudolph Moser and Jochen Arbeit. It felt tentative to me, but with Perpetuum Mobile, the new quintet is fully integrated and making superb, bracing music again. While some of Silence‘s ambient and atmospheric touches remain, they are well balanced with the sorts of rhythmic fire that has been Neubaten’s hallmark over the years. Blixa Bargeld is in fine voice throughout, balancing the banshee screems with a lovely baritone croon (not unlike that of his part-time boss, Nick Cave), and as much as I liked bassist Mark Chung, switching guitarist Alexander Hacke to the bass spot was an inspired move, and he rumbles majestically and with great technical expertise. I also bought the 2002 Brussels live set, and this five-piece lineup does a great job in concert, too. Very encouraging and enjoyable, and the sound of the live album is about as pristine as any concert recording I’ve ever heard. The Fall’s latest marks their first full-length American release of new material in something like six or seven years; the title stems from the fact that some of the tracks were evidently leaked online. Despite a pretty complete turnover from the classic Fall days, Mark E. Smith manages to keep things punchy and potent with his new supporting cast, making this probably my favorite Fall album since the Brix Smith era. Lotsa good listening this week.

Phew . . .

Long week. Long day. Tonight . . . I rest. It’s good to be ahead of schedule on my writing on days like today. I had the annual Executive Committee meeting for my Board of Trustees today. Went very well, and at the end they informed me that they were giving me a rather nice bonus for a rather nice year of work (our fiscal year ends next week). That was very unexpected, but very considerate of them. Much appreciated! As soon as that meeting ended, we shifted gears to (sadly) a funeral for an RPI alum who passed away earlier this week. He was a couple of years younger than me. Very sad. I went in early today to design and lay out the funeral program and work with the students to get the building ready for the wake and mass. It’s an interesting side element of my job: I was hired for my connections and insights and management skills in the arts, but since we’re a multi-service facility at the C+CC, with full-service church functions involved, I also get involved in lots of weddings and funerals. I had only ever attended maybe two funerals before my dad’s a couple of years ago. I attend that many in an average month at work now, and I’ve reached that odd point where I’ll walk and work around an open casket, working with the priest and/or funeral director to get the chapel ready for services or whatever, without having an “Oh, wow . . . that’s a dead body lying there” reaction anymore. I’ve seen enough open caskets now to actually know what people mean when they say that a mortician “did a good job:” you can truly recognize a good job only when you’ve seen a bad job or two. It’s an oddly challenging, yet rewarding, element to my work, helping people process their grief in a very public, difficult setting, making sure that all the seemingly insignificant little things are tended to so that they feel that the funeral experience is a good one, free of annoyances or bothers. But now, for me . . . rest. Phew.

Vroom Vroom . . . .

My trusty old ’98 Saturn SL has been great for the past six years, but after Marcia got her BMW last year, I was finding it harder and harder to want to drive the Saturn with its no cruise control, no power steering, no power brakes, no power windows, no CD player, no frills at all ambience. Plus, for the first time since we’ve been together, we didn’t have a car that was capable of being a hauling car . . . . which has been a problem when I’ve needed to move a ladder or a rototiller or other large object from point A to point B. So we fixed that problem today, and got a new car: an ’04 Honda C-RV LX, 5-speed, 4-wheel drive. Very comfy car, plenty of room in front and back for tall people, and good storage space in the back. We pick it up on Tuesday. It’s silver with charcoal grey interior. Pretty spiffy. I just hope it fits in the garage with Marcia’s car, ’cause if it doesn’t, I know whose car is gonna live in the driveway . . .

In addition to car test driving and shopping, I finally finished repairing and painting the giant wall where the mirror used to be. I don’t think anybody’s gonna look at it and want to hire me to paint their house, but I also don’t think anybody’s gonna look at it and “sheesh . . . what happened to that wall?” And that’s good enough for me . . . it looks okay, and it no longer has a giant piece of glass glued to it that could fall down and kill us. Safety first (which also was a factor in the car we got: 5-star collision rating in both head on and side impact scenarios) . . .

We’re gonna watch “City of God” tonight . . . which means I’m out of time for writing today. I’m still ahead of schedule (seven more poems and I hit the halfway mark, with 11 days to do it in), so feel no guilt. I am particularly pleased with yesterday’s “Jefferson Water,” if I may say so myself . . . so I wanna bask it that little success for a day before disappointing myself with its follow-up.

Vocalists

I hate it when a good band with an annoying vocalist has a chance to fix their problem . . . but blows it.

Let’s talk about Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave, for example. I really liked Rage in the beginning, loved their first two albums, and consider Tom Morello to be one of the alltime greats when it comes to guitar. But by ’99, when I reviewed Rage’s The Battle of Los Angeles, I’d begun to have a different view:

Of course, Los Angeles also features frontman Zack de la Rocha–and therein begins to lie a rub that’s getting increasingly hard to ignore. The problem? De la Rocha is cut from the same limited vocal cloth as Henry Rollins: both artists have single note ranges, but compensate for their short-coming by changing volume where most singers change pitch. This loud-quiet-loud approach creates a completely monochrome vocal field, which forces listeners to focus on lyrical content in lieu of melody as a mechanism for distinguishing one song from the next. And here Rollins and de la Rocha diverge. For every didactic “Scream” or “My War” or “Damaged” that Rollins once roared, he would counter with a lighter “Slip It In” or “TV Party” or “Annihilate This Week” that actually allowed listeners to comprehend him as an at least moderately well-rounded human being. De la Rocha, on the other hand, never, ever, ever lightens up, slinging one politically-charged lyric after another, until his issues begin to bleed together and become indistinguishable one from the other, until his humanity is lost beneath a sea of sloganeering. Maybe someday de la Rocha will learn that his righteous rage can rise faster and higher if it’s leavened with just a pinch of love and laughter.

So when Zack left, I was thinkin’ that could and should be a good thing: Morello, Wilk and Commerford would find some good, compatible singer, and things would be cool. But they picked ex-Soundgarden shrieker Chris Cornell . . . and that really wasn’t an improvement, I don’t think. I actually felt the same way about Soundgarden that I did about Rage: great band, shame about the singer. But I was willing to give them a chance, and the first Audioslave single I heard on the air (“Cochise,” I think) was promising. The next one, “Show Me How to Live,” was less so . . . and was almost made laughable by the little hiccuping vocal delay/phase shift thing tacked on at the end, a really, really bad and pointless studio edit. But the next song I heard by group, and the one that’s getting nearly constant radio play on modern rock stations hereabouts, “I Am The Highway,” was a totally different ball of crap: this song is such a middle-of-the-road mediocrity as to almost boggle the imagination, a 21st century remake/remodel of Bob Seger’s pitiful “On the Road Again.” It saddens me, somehow, every time I hear this song on the radio to think that it’s Tom Morello playing the guitar on such a lame-o number. I take it back, Zack. Please come back and yell at us some more, thanks. I didn’t know what I was asking for.

Or here’s another lame-o second choice for a great instrumental band: the core of Guns n’ Roses have formed Velvet Revolver with Stone Temple Pilots frontman/addict Scott Weiland. Boy, he’s sure a dependable replacemenent for Axl, huh? Feh.

And, of course, there’s always Van Halen . . . back on the road again in their bleh Van Hagar mode. I’d love it if the Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony would just put out an instrumental album . . . they’re the reason I listen to Van Halen (when I do, which isn’t often), not David Lee Roth and certainly not Sammy Hagar.

Why don’t people check with me before they do these things? Sheesh.

R.I.P Ronnie

While it’s generally not considered cool or acceptable for those of us on the left-hand side of the political fence to wax nostalgic about Republican presidents when they pass, I did feel a twinge of sadness when I saw that President Reagan died earlier today.

He was my first Commander in Chief, the top of the military totem pole when I took the oath of office and joined the military in 1982. One of the first things I had to learn during plebe summer at the Naval Academy was my chain of command . . . me, squad leader, platoon commander, company commander, battalion commander, regimental commander, brigade commander, Commandant of Midshipmen, Superintendant of the Naval Academy, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of Defense, Commander in Chief. I don’t remember the names of most of the folks who held all those other positions at the time, but I remember that President Reagan was in charge of us all.

I can also say as the son of a career military officer that President Reagan did more for military personnel’s quality and standards of living than probably any other president since World War II: by the late ’70s, serving in the military was not much of a way to make a living, economically speaking, and as inflation spiked during the Carter era, it got harder and harder for soldiers and sailors and aviators to support their families while serving their country. President Reagan dramatically increased the annual cost of living increases given to the armed services during his administration, getting the pay scale at least closer to civilian parity, and allowed military personnel a lot of new and improved options when it came to where and how they were gonna live, and how much money they could set aside for their post-military days. So I give him due credit for that.

He also spoke at commencement at the Naval Academy when I was there, I think our junior year, so I got to hear his “Great Communicator” skills in person and, hey, they were indeed pretty good, even if he did sound a little bit winded by the time he was all done. I remember thinking “yeah, I guess that’s reasonable,” when they named a nuclear powered aircraft carrier after him, an unusual honor for a living statesman. But he was, after all, the President who pushed for the 600-ship Navy, which played a key role in the fall of the Soviet Union as the Russian Navy bankrupted itself trying to keep up with our shipbuilding programs. (Intersting [to me] side note: my room-mate at the Naval Academy is serving on the USS Ronald Reagan now as I type, the last of my immediate parcel of close friends there to still wear the uniform).

So, yeah, I know there are historical blights on the record . . . Iran-Contra (featuring another personality to whom I have a personal, family connection: Oliver North) . . . running up the deficit . . . Nancy and the fortune tellers . . . letting the reins of state get a little bit too slack in the his second term, etc. . . . but, still, I gotta tip my hat and lift my glass and say “I’m glad your struggles are over, President Reagan.” If nothing else, he certainly loved his country and served it with zeal.

Belmont

Even though I had absolutely no interest in horses as a kid, my dad had me come watch the Belmont Stakes with him in 1977 and 1978 when Seattle Slew and Affirmed won . . . it didn’t mean a lot to me then, but I’m glad, now, to be able to say that I watched them. (Watched Miami complete its perfect NFL season and Hank Aaron hit homer number 715, also because my dad said I’d appreciate it later . . . which I do!). So I had Katelin sit down to watch Belmont with us tonight, and it looked like Smarty Jones was gonna complete the deal . . . until he was scooped by Birdstone, the worst possible horse to win the race from my perspective. Why? Because he’s owned by Marylou Whitney, grand dame of the Saratoga money crowd, the most over-covered, over-exposed, over-indulged human being in New York’s Capital Region, which means we’re going to be subjected to endless reporting on how Marylou felt, what Marylou thought, how Marylou looked, what Marylou’s gonna do next, where Marylou’s gonna do it, what fabulous celebrities Marylou’s gonna do it with, etc. She’s our own local media monster, and this is gonna make newspapers and television around here cringeworthy for at least a month. And I made Katelin watch it. Sheesh.