I’m at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire tonight, hanging out here whilst the young’un does a college visit at the University of New Hampshire in nearby Durham. The hotel labels itself “Harborview,” and when I checked in, I was glad to hear that I would have a room with a view on the third floor.

The lobby of the hotel was wonderfully clean, the staff at reception was friendly and efficient, and I was quite impressed when I walked into a large, well-decorated, clean hotel room. I set my bags down and went to open the curtains to admire my view of the harbor.

It wasn’t quite what I expected: between me and the water was a large industrial lot with a mountain of salt and sand that’s at least as tall as my third-story room. Two rumbling Caterpillar 988F’s were scooping the sandy-salt mixture out of the mountain, and then dropping it into a shaker that broke it up into smaller pieces, so that trucks could pull up to the shaker and drive away with easily-spreadable material for roadwork. Beyond the construction lot was the harbor, so it was contained in my view,┬ásorta.

I felt a bit defrauded for a couple of moments, until I realized that I actually like watching giant trucks rumbling around more than I like watching water. My grandfather was a Cat mechanic, so the big yellow machines have always interested me. I pulled up a chair and sat in front of my window and watched the big Cats work for about half an hour. The view was like a real-world version of a pair of Tonkas in a sandbox. Only much louder.

I think the Sheraton has missed a marketing opportunity here. If they’d told me I could have the Tonkaview Room instead of the Harborview Room, I’d have paid more for it.

Before it got too frigid, I walked around the downtown area for a spell and was quite impressed at how nice it’s gotten since the last time I was up here a couple of decades ago. While it does have the obligatory annoying Banana Republic store that all east coast seaport towns are apparently required by statute to offer, there were loads and loads of neat, unique shops and galleries, and the best record store I’ve been in since the dawn of the download era, easily (except for The Music Box in Newport), called Bull Moose Records.

I picked up a copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Future Games, probably my favorite of their albums, and one which I’d never seen in digital format before. Danny Kirwan was a genius guitar player and songwriter who got lost in the historical mix between the Peter Green/Jeremy Spencer and Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks eras. Future Games has what I consider to be his two finest songs: “Sands of Time” and “Woman of 1000 Years.” ┬áThe album also marks Bob Welch’s debut with the band, and he purports himself well on the lovely and uplifting title track and the ripsnorting “Lay It All Down.” Christine McVie adds all the class that she normally does, especially on “Show Me A Smile,” which really should have been a bigger hit than (yuck) “Rhiannon.”

For the record: I will not go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until they admit Welch as a member of Fleetwood Mac. It’s a travesty that they excluded him, since he’s the one who kept things going after Kirwan flamed out and before Buckingham-Nicks arrived. Stupid, unjust and arbitrary. I want no part of that.

My Thoughts, for Penny

Wow, one week since my last post, and that one was just a place-holder. I’ve become a bad blogger, haven’t I? Time for a quick brain dump . . .

I downloaded Japanther’s latest album, Tut Tut Now Shake Ya Butt, a week or so ago, expecting the Brooklyn duo’s usual snarky electo-punk, and got some of that . . . but also got something mind-blowing and unexpected as well. I don’t know how or why they managed it, but a solid 20 minutes of the album is devoted to long, spoken-word pieces featuring rudimentary Japanther instrumentation behind a pair of epic poems written and read by former Crass drummer/anarchist/cultural provocateur/artist Penny Rimbaud.

Now, I love writing poetry, and I love reading poetry, but a general rule I detest hearing poetry read, especially when it’s done competitive slam-style. The magic of the word works for me on the page, but rarely does it take flight for me when it’s performed, and I am forced to perceive it in the author’s voice and cadence, rather than creating my own internal sonic soundscapes for it.

But these two long pieces, “Africa Seems So Far Away” and “I, Thee Indigene” just riveted me, despite my normal loathing of the form being offered. I loved what Penny wrote, I loved the language he used to write it, and I loved the way he read his words, in a voice that was equal parts Jhonn Balance (Coil) and Arthur Brown (“Fire”). “I, Thee Indigene,” in particular, moved me, because it is built with traditional structure, form, and rhyme, and evokes spiritual and emotional archetypes and motifs which seem to have become passe and looked-down-upon in contemporary poetry circles, but which are hallmarks of my own writing, antiquated though it may be (see links at lower right for proof).

I’ve tried to find the texts of these poems online, and have yet to be able to. They were published in a small, limited-edition chapbook version, with second edition to be issued in “early 2009,” so I’ll nab me one of those as soon as it’s available. For a taste, though, here’s a little snippet called “Outro,” which ends the Japanther album. I have no idea if this is how Penny’s line structure or punctuation appear on the page, but it seems correct to the eye and ear, and I like it very much (lyrics presumably copyright 2008, Penny Rimbaud):

What are we but the soul looking for itself?
What are we but the cast of divinity’s shadow?
What are we but the shapeless form of arrival,
A silent voice in the wilderness of reason,
Dancers beneath the face of death?
Tell me then . . .
What kindly faeries enchant this place?
What madness is it that we do not see the beauty of love
or feel the touch of grace?

On Pete Seeger

I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to have Garth Brooks deliver a ham-fisted butchering of “American Pie” as part of a misguided medley at the concert for Barack Obama at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, but the event’s planners more than made up for that incredible bit of idiocy by including Pete Seeger in the day’s proceedings.

There’s something about the way Pete Seeger speaks and sings, and about what he says, that always makes me perk up and pay attention. His is a voice of authority, but in the good and decent sense of that word, not the bad political one. Pete Seeger deserved to be on that stage. It wouldn’t have been the same without him. (I’d have prefered he not have to share it with Springsteen, but, hey, why quibble?)

When I was in junior high school, I went to a Methodist Church camp on Shelter Island in Long Island’s Peconic Bay, and one evening our counselors rounded us all up to walk and ferry over to Greenport, where the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater had moored for the evening. Seeger performed in a waterfront park that night, and it was magical.

I found this clip from YouTube to be a good example of Seeger taking something relatively simple and straightforward and making it profound. The video quality is crap, like most things on YouTube, but just listen to his voice: speaking and singing. How can you not listen to him? I also love his weird approach to the guitar: playing his strange 12-string with the triangular sound hole and the capo halfway up the neck, sounding distinctive and clarion clear. A true original. Admirable. Awe-inspiring.

I believe this clip was from The Smothers Brothers Show. though it’s not actively identified as such. (As an aside, both my father and I were told at certain points in our lives that we bore an uncanny resemblance to Tommy Smothers. Fact of the matter is: we did).

Pete Seeger is a hero to me. Right up there with Muhammad Ali and Robert Wyatt. Folks who I never knew personally, but who I celebrate while they live, and will mourn when they depart. They taught me things I needed to know, at a time when no one else seemed to be teaching them. Good folks. My life is better for having listened to them.

An Open Letter to Our New Friends at the Gym

Dear New Friends at the Gym,

Hooray for you! You have made a New Year’s Resolution to get into shape after spending two months eating sausage stuffing and the like! What a great life choice! Again I say: hooray!

But, gosh, there sure are a lot of you, which means that those of us who were members of the gym before New Year’s Day are finding that our regular established workout routines are being disrupted by the sheer volume of bodies attempting to share what suddenly seems like a woefully inadequate quantity of equipment and space.

That’s okay, though, most of the time, since there is a communal element to the workout process, and folks here and at most other gyms are generally pretty willing to share and work with other folks to make sure that we all get to achieve what we came in to do.

Except, of course, when you’re a jerk.

How do you know if this applies to you? Here are some tips to help you decide:

1. If you sit on the benchpress bench texting people on your iToy, then you are a jerk.

2. If you frantically high-step in place next to someone using a piece of equipment, because your workout is so riveting that you can’t possibly let your heart-rate drop, even for 30 seconds, then you are a jerk.

3. Likewise if you sprint between pieces of equipment in a crowded gym, or lay down in the middle of the floor in the main traffic aisle for an impromptu emergency set of crunches, because you are so intense that you just can’t stop the burn. Well guess what? These things make you a jerk.

4. If you feel compelled to loudly fling your free weight bar down after you complete a clean and jerk move, the way they do it on the Olympics, then you are a jerk. Unless you’re going to the Olympics, and having watched your clean and jerk technique, I’m betting a years’ paycheck that you’re not.

5. Sure, babysitting is expensive. But that’s why they have that indoor track, right? So your little ones can play tag and do cheerleading routines and generally run themselves out so you can get them right to bed when you get home? Survey says: Wrong, you jerk.

6. Phew, you sure do get sweaty after a long workout! You’d better lay down on one of the benches for awhile, and then not wipe it off, just so everybody can see what kind of glisten you’ve got going. The next person will love it when they sit down in your puddle! That doesn’t make you a jerk, does it? (Answer: yes it does).

7. Don’t homestead with your homeboys: sure, you may have joined all together, and sure, it may be fun to see how much each of you can do on the leg press, but that doesn’t mean you collectively get to turn that piece of equipment into your private Clubhouse, glaring at folks who might want to do some reps, rather than just straining to press 250 pounds once, and then leaping up to high five your posse. That makes you jerk, jerk, jerk, jerk and jerk. Jerks, for short.

There’s plenty of other things that folks do at the gym that are annoying, even folks who have been there for a long time (please feel free to share your observations of similar egregious behavior in the comments section below). But at least now I’ve given you some tips and pointers of things to avoid, and if you adopt a good neighbor, good steward approach to your gym experience, you’ll look like a regular in no time, and you’ll find your workouts are far better because you’ll be a part of a community of folks who like and respect you, not folks who find you bothersome and gauche.

Who knows? You might even last longer than the usual three weeks if you make an effort to play well in the proverbial sandbox with others.

Thank you for your consideration and attention to this matter.



Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend

I know precisely when my childhood ended, not with a whimper, nor with a bang, but rather with the popping of a stereo turntable needle hitting a slab of vinyl.

I had lived a life of innocence up until that point, unjaded, unscarred, uncynical, embracing the wonders and pleasures of the world around me, satisfied with my lot, and free from worry or fear about what tomorrow might bring.

Until that day. That terrible, terrible day. When I pulled open the center drawer of my parents’ wooden stereo cabinet and figured out which buttons to push to make the platter on the turntable make music for me.

I had a record player of my own already, mind you. It was a little portable job, with red and white checkered paperboard casing and a white plastic handle, perfect for playing 45s like “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsman, over, and over, and over again.

My parents’ stereo was a bit more complicated, and I wasn’t sure why the discs on their platter were bigger than mine were, with smaller holes in the middle. But I persevered, and eventually the needle arm swung over and dropped onto the record, and my life was altered, forever, irrepairably, my innocence stomped into a bloody pulp in the subway walls, and tenement halls.

For I had discovered Simon and Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence, perhaps the most nihilistic, depressing, despairing record in popular music history. And I say this as a guy who grew up to listen to death metal.

Oh sure, the harmonies are great, and the songs are pretty on the surface, and it would probably seem like a safe record to play for kids, since it doesn’t have any bad language or overt sexual imagery. But let me tell you: Mamas, don’t let your babies listen to Simon and Garfunkel, unless you want to produce some seriously warped grownups some day.

Let’s review the tracks that to my wondering ears did appear that day, and the thoughts that accompanied them:

“The Sound of Silence:” From hello darkness my old friend to the people bowing and praying to the neon god they made, with intermediate stops in the silent cancer ward and those thousands of people talking without speaking. Nightmares!

“Leaves That Are Green:” Wait, we’re all going to die, like the leaves on the trees?!? No way! NO WAY!!!!

“Blessed:” The Lord blesses the penny rookers, cheap hooker and groovy lookers, but my words trickle down like a wound that I have no intention to heal. Why? Why don’t I want to heal it? And what does forsaken mean?

“Kathy’s Song:” Oh good, maybe this will be a nice love song, because it has a girl’s name in it, and girls only appear in love songs, right? But wait, now I have come to doubt all that I had known, and I am like the rain, gone but for the grace of you? Girls are scary! Help!

“Somewhere They Can’t Find Me:” I robbed a liquor store! And now the cops are chasing me down the alleyways and the highways, but more frightening, there’s a girl with her hair like a fine mist floating on my pillow! Is she an alien? How does she float?!!?

“Anji:” Oh phew, it’s an instrumental. Now I’m just bored. Time to turn over the record, if I dare . . .

“Richard Cory:” Okay, so Richard Cory is this rich guy, and I work in his factory, and I curse the life I’m living, so things must really be bad for me, so I really wish I could be that Cory guy. What?!?!? He went home last night and put a bullet through his head?? Are people allowed to do that? Why would he do that? He was rich? Was he cursing his life too? I’m confused! Help!

“A Most Peculiar Man:” The music is pretty happy, and maybe the most peculiar man will want to fight the Red Baron or something. No, no, wait . . . he wants to turn on the gas, with the windows closed, so he’ll never wake up, to his silent world, and his tiny room. What?!?!?! Are people allowed to do that? What would he do that? He was peculiar! Auggghghhhh!!!!

“April, Come She Will:” Oh great, it’s like “Leaves That Are Green, Part 2.” What once was fresh grows old and dies. I’m starting to get it now. I’m going to die. We’re all going to die. My dog is going to die. My cat is going to die. All is vanity. All in vain. All in vain.

“We’ve Got a Groovy Thing Going:” Sounded promising, until the first line: bad news, bad news, I heard you’re packing to leave! This should have been called “We Had A Groovy Thing Going.”

“I Am A Rock:” Well, gosh, I guess I have to be now, since Simon and Garfunkel have introduced me to a world of suffering and pain. I’ll get some books, and maybe some poetry, to protect me, and hide in my room, safe in my room, until me and every thing I know dies, like the leaves that are green, and turn to brown. And wither in the wind, and crumble in my hand.

Like my childhood innocence. Thanks Paul and Artie. Thanks very much indeed.