It was thirty years ago, yesterday . . .

. . . when Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, and when “Rope a Dope” replaced “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee” as Ali’s secret to success. There was a great interview with Foreman on ESPN last night, where he said that he knew he was hurting Ali bad as he was beating him on the ropes, and Ali leaned in a whispered “Is that all you got, George?” And Foreman smiled (in the interview) and said “Yep, that was about it.” Two great champions. Two great men. What a great moment in sports history.

The Shared Experience of Hair Removal

That old pizza parlor down on the corner of Brunning and North Fifth Street is finally being torn down. I asked my barber, Christoph — whose shop is just down the road at Fifth and Main — if he knew what was going on. His reply was “All I know is that The Armenians bought that property, and that’s great, because they run a tight ship when it comes to business. I’m glad to have them as neighbors.”

See, that just goes to show you: barbers always have their fingers on the pulse of local business. And they really appreciate the value of having The Armenians in town, the way I do. That makes them swell in my book. I love going to see Christoph.

Let me tell you one thing, son: a real man should have his own barber, who knows him, and takes care of him, the way that Christoph takes care of me.

I know that most fellas either cut their own hair willy-nilly in the shower, or just drive over to the shopping mall and take what they can get from those sassy gum-snapping girls who work at that unisex beauty salon there. But I don’t think of my haircuts as a chore. I think about them as something I look forward to, and so when I get them, I want them to be an experience.

And, boy, does my barber deliver that. Christoph has been cutting hair at the same chair for 43 years, knows how to tell a tale or two, and is completely on top of all the latest news hereabouts. Would I have been all excited to know, or even be aware, that The Armenians were buying the old pizza parlor lot if I hadn’t been in to see Christoph? No sir, not a chance of it.

So you get a solid half hour of good man talk, the latest business news, a real shave, and an eyebrow or nose hair or ear hair trim as needed, all for less than the price of a ticket to a Saturday movie matinee, without popcorn. It’s a bargain. Plus, did I mention that they always have coffee and donuts there for while you’re waiting? They do. It’s great. Though you have to careful about closing the donut box real quick before any hair gets in it, and it’s best to put a lid on your little coffee cup while you’re sipping it.

Nothing ever seems to change in there, but just think about what my friend Christoph has seen looking out the window of his shop over the past 43 years. All the kids and dogs and moms and dads walking by. And, boy, I’m guessing just about every kind of car that’s ever been, in every color, has driven by there at least once. He’s seen all the seasons passing, all the trees growing up from nothing, all the styles changing, businesses coming, businesses going, all the potholes filled, all the police cars and ambulances going to all those crimes and accidents, some of them involving folks who might have sat in Christoph’s chair just the day before, then never did again.

The world just rolls on by, every day, even in a small town like this, and Christoph stays where he is, watching it all, listening to whatever news people bring to him, passing it on when it’s proper and respectful for him to do so. Like with The Armenians.  Oh, and get this: Christoph calls Arnold, the other barber in his shop, “the new kid” because Arnold has only been there for 18 years. That’s just amazing in these days when nobody’s loyal to anything, and no one has any darned stick-to-it anymore. And I’m guessing that Arnold’s at least 50 years old, by the way, and he’s probably been cutting hair since he really was a kid himself. But it’s all in jest between them, and they’re like some old comedy act now poking fun at each other, and each of them has their own regular customers, and sometimes they get into the act, too. I laugh a lot when I’m there. It’s a good time.

I went to a barbershop like this when I was just a kid myself. My daddy sent me there every two weeks, like clockwork. It wasn’t quite as much fun as Christoph’s shop can be, though, especially for a little fellow. It was a serious business, see. There were these two old German barber brothers who owned the shop, right in the village square next to my dad’s general store, and everybody in town called them Herr Hans and Herr Jens. They didn’t talk quite so much, but they had cornered the market on haircuts in the county, and their place was just legendary.

There were these old regulars in there all the time, with tobacco spit dripping down their chins, and there was a real brass spittoon for them. And there was an old radio with Woody Herman or Harry James or Kay Kyser or something similar playing through a blown speaker with bad reception. Photos of race car drivers and 15-year old calendars with pictures of pretty women on the walls. All that real man stuff.

Herr Hans and Herr Jens didn’t even ask you how you wanted your hair done, they just cut it the way they thought was best, threw some smelly toilet water on you, and charged you a quarter or so. They’d look at anyone new a bit suspicious at first, but they’d still give everyone one heck of a cut and shave, no questions asked, just so long as you were respectful and said your “pleases” and “thank you, sirs.” Though if you lipped off to them, they weren’t above giving your ear a little nip with the scissors, or cutting your sideburns a  little crooked, just to make sure that you minded your P’s and Q’s the next time you stopped by. That’s a good lesson for a young fellow to learn, since if I came home with a bad haircut, my daddy knew it was my own fault, and dealt with me accordingly.

So I always recommend a visit to a good old barber shop like Christoph’s, for sure, even if you want nothing fancier than “Shave it all off with a number one clipper.” Because at a real barber, instead of having little plastic doohickeys on the clippers that change the length of the hair that remains, they have actual different size metal blades that they put on. My barber Christoph has been cutting hair with the same clipper since he opened the shop, 43 years ago. It’s American made, son! It’s all metal, it weighs a ton, and it cuts the heck out of your hair! I know all this because it takes a solid half hour for him to shave my head and neck, and he talks the whole time about whatever’s on his mind, including the tools of this trade. Which he’s proud of. As he should be.

I always leave a tip when he’s done, because Christoph earns it, just like Herr Hans and Herr Jens earned it when I was a little fellow, learning what it meant to be a man. The thrill and fear of having some old guy running a bare, six inch-long straight razor blade around your ears and throat is something every real man should experience regularly.

That’s what real manhood is all about, if you ask me: the shared experience of hair removal.

Phil Ochs Song Night

We are hosting Phil Ochs Song Night at the C+CC tonight, a fundraiser for WPRI. It’s a fairly complex event for our small and simple venue, so the day has been spent setting up and worrying. The nice thing about fundraisers like these is that the beneficiaries (WRPI) tend to send a good number of volunteers to help out, which lightens the load. For instance, I don’t have to do live sound tonight . . . so instead of hanging out behind the board, I can hang out in my office and listen from afar. And type. Nice.

There’s a great set of contemporary folk performers here tonight, including Magpie, Kim and Reggie Harris, Greg Greenway, Sonia (who’s singing as I type), Sharon Katz, the Landfill Mountain Boys (who don’t appear to have a website), Annie and the Hedonists and John Flynn. I always feel better once the concert gets rolling and things proceed on their own momentum. Of course . . . the back end cleanup and breakdown will be a bear when it’s done, but we’ll deal with that in due time.

Sick Sundries

While home sick yesterday, I watched three movies: The Secret Window (disappointing; Johnny Depp and John Turturro are always fun to watch, but the script was just kinda . . . ehhhh), Live Forever (pretty good documentary about BritPop in the ’90s, a musical movement that does virtually nothing for me, but was actually made kind of engaging when put in local context via this film) and When We Were Kings, which I’ve watched before.

It’s one of my all-time fave documentaries, about “The Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. It’s always amazing to me to be reminded and remember that a professional fight could have seemed (and been) so important to so many people once upon a time. And it’s always amazing to me that a professional fighter could have once been a leader and a philosopher and an entertainer, as Ali was. I can actively remember most of the heavy weight title fights of the ’70s . . . I’m sure lots of those guys were thugs, sure, but somehow the sport still seemed a bit more noble than it does today, when sociopathic killing machines of the Mike Tyson model are unleashed on each other, fighting for one of half-a-dozen belts that don’t mean anything to the general public anymore.

When We Were Kings also had some concert footage by (among others) James Brown, Miriam Makeba and the Spinners. I hadn’t heard the Spinners in ages, and they sounded darn good . . . so I had to do some online shopping to pick up some of their best tunes, and that got me going on all sorts of other classic vocal soul pieces, so I’ve been having a sweet day listening to a mix CD filled with the likes of the Spinners and the Temptations and the Four Tops and the Manhattans and Al Green and Marvin Gaye and the O’Jays and lots of others from the days of my youth. Nostalgia’s nice, sometimes.

While the melodies of all those songs are imminently familiar, I was struck as I listened to them at how rich so many of their arrangements were. That’s probably a lost art in the era of ProTools and loops and sampling, the ability to figure out which of 30 some odd orchestral instruments would add just the right flavor to the little gem you were crafting. It’s interesting to listen to differences between Motown and Philly production styles, between things that Marvin Gaye meticulously arranged and performed himself and things that you know were banged out in an afternoon, along with a dozen other similar pieces, no one knowing at the time that one of them was gonna bit a big, big hit that “everyone” would remember decades later.

Wasted

I guess while I’m writing a lot on a day that I said I wasn’t gonna write (well, at least not any poetry), I should note that I’ve had one disc stuck on my stereo for the better part of four or five weeks, literally: We Are Already in Hell by The Wasted. I’ll put something else in every couple of days or so, but I usually take it out after a song or two, because no matter what it is, it’s nowhere near as compelling as that current CD player champeen is to me right now.

The Wasted are a local-bred trio featuring Dave Reynolds (drums), Kelly Murphy (bass/vocals) and Stephen Gaylord (guitar/vocals). I’ve written fondly a few times about Gaylord’s prior/other projects, Beef and Gay Tastee, for Metroland over the years. The Wasted have played at the C+CC a couple of times, and they’re great live. But this record is, so far, my fave thing Gaylord and associates have done, ever. It’s just plain brilliant . . . the songs are punchy, production is sweet, the Murphy/Reynolds rhythm section rocks, and the Murphy/Gaylord microphone interplay is sublime and riveting. They’re perfect vocal foils for each other.

Gaylord’s lyrics are as complex and compelling as ever; he does a better job of capturing rural darkness than anyone else I know. For me, this record is now the quintessential sound of Fall in Upstate New York. And the sound of the fall of Upstate New York. Both of which are somehow connected, I guess, as the days get shorter and the weather gets nastier and life gets harder and people think and do ugly things with bittersweet fatalism, knowing tomorrow’s probably not gonna be any better, but plugging along anyway. What I try to capture in my writing about the South Carolina Low Country, Steve nails time and time again about Upstate New York. Hats off to him for that.

If I had to pick an album of the year at this point, it’d be this one or the Fall’s latest. And that’s not a local pander or pity pick either: this record is brilliant compared to anything from anywhere.

Yesterday’s News

Spent 16 hours at the C+CC office yesterday (7:15 AM to 11:15 PM), and am not feeling well on top of that, so the poetry inspiration font was dry and dusty yesterday. I’ll catch up over the weekend, I guess.

Had a great, great show at the C+CC yesterday. Some back story . . . I’d established an online relationship with musician Earl Patrick a while back, through mutual musical friend Bryan Thomas. I’ve copped some lines and ideas from Earl’s webpage for the poetry project (“Expensive Smelling Feet,” which is the seemingly faraway and distantly remembered second poem of the yearly project, “Green and Brown,” “Attention Was Turned to Closure,” etc.), and he was doing daily writing for a while this year too, which was cool, since I’ve enjoyed seeing what others do on similar production cycles.

Earl played several times up in Albany, but I was never able to get to any of his shows due to conflicting events, so last March or so, I scheduled a “back to school singer-songwriter night” at the C+CC for August with Earl, Bryan, Amy Hills (who Earl recommended to me) and Sean Rowe on the bill.

After we had that one on the books, Earl pitched a band he knew from Boston called FLUTTR, an amazing drum-guitar-marimba-cello-voice ensemble. I was sold, and booked them, and booked Earl for a second gig at the C+CC to open for FLUTTR. All looked good.

Except that then Earl broke his neck in a swimming accident in Oregon four months ago. He’s written about it on his website if you want to read the details of both the injury and his slow recovery. We continued our habit of not meeting each other when the August songwriter forum came and went without him, since he was still on the west coast working on his recovery. A few weeks ago, he returned to New York, and let me know that he was planning to come to the show, but didn’t think he’d have enough manual dexterity to play again, so Bryan agreed to step in and handle the opening slot of the gig before FLUTTR’s show. Earl came up yesterday afternoon with FLUTTR, and it was lovely to finally meet someone in the flesh who I’ve been corresponding with and listening to for quite some time. Very nice.

Bryan has played several shows at the C+CC since I’ve been there, and they’ve all been wonderful, but this one was made particularly engaging and special when he introduced his new-ish song “Spy,” which is about his little girl, Zoe . . . who was in the audience, and got up, went up front to be with her daddy, and danced some great dances, clapped, and generally charmed the room completely. When we say we’re a family friendly venue at the C+CC, we really mean it.

After Bryan (and Zoe) finished their set . . . Earl took the stage to play the first three songs publicly that he’s played since his accident. He’d arranged them for a more finger-friendly power-chord-on-electric-guitar approach than their original nimble arrangements possessed . . . but his voice was strong, and it was a sublime, powerful moment to see him take that next step on his way to a full physical and emotional recovery. Really special and moving, especially “All Signs Point to Providence.” Misty eyes abounded. Mine included.

FLUTTR then worked the house hard, playing music the likes of which I’ve not heard before and don’t expect to hear again, until I have them back to the C+CC the next time. This is a really powerful, interesting and technically amazing band who come with my highest recommendation. Their own material was fabulous, but they really clinched a place in my heart when they closed their set with covers of two of my all time favorite songs by two of my all time favorite performers: “Frame by Frame” by King Crimson and “The Fat Lady of Limbourg” by Brian Eno. Jaws dropped.

Anyway . . . that was a long and eventful day, and when I finally got home, I just wanted to go to bed. So I did. I’ll do the September poetry wrap-up later today, I think, and then plan to kick off October with three pieces tomorrow. My brain is tired. I’m 75% through the poetry project now, and I can feel it weighing on me. I need to tell myself that I only have to do one-third of what I’ve done already. Thrice as far behind as yet to go. I’m ready for a day off.