The Ladies Return from the Rainforest

Marcia and Katelin are back from their Costa Rican adventure. They got a bonus night in Charlotte on the way back when weather caused them to miss their connection to Albany. Click here or on the big photo above for some more snaps of their trip, including a picture of one of their sloth spottings (though you have to look closely to see it). I’m glad they had a great time, and I’m glad they’re home. Next trip: Marcia and I are going to Bermuda for our 20th Anniversary in June. As much as I love Albany, I’m ready to be elsewhere for a spell.

This and That

Bruford, the Book: I’m reading Bill Bruford: The Autobiography and enjoying it tremendously. If you are a prog nerd like me, then I don’t need to explain to you who Bill Bruford is. For those unfamiliar with the man, he’s a truly brilliant drummer, and the only person to have played with three of the major progressive rock bands of the 70s (Yes, King Crimson and Genesis). He writes like he drums: pushing the narrative along, with interesting diversions into places you don’t expect him to go. Rather than crafting the usual linear rock narrative, his book is structured around a chapter for each of the 18 questions that he has gotten most bored of answering over the years, including such gems as “How Do You Get That Fantastic Sound?”, “Do You Still See Any Of The Old Guys?” and “What’s It Like to Work With Robert Fripp?” (Fripp’s my alltime favorite musician, so I probably would have embarrassed myself by asking Bruford that question had I interviewed him during my music critic days). Surprisingly, some of the best chapters in the book don’t provide biographical information about Bruford’s dealings with famous folk on famous albums, but rather on his post-prog career in jazz and on the business of music. The chapter called “Is It Difficult With a Family?” is a little masterpiece in and of itself, and his ability to balance a single marriage and child-rearing with his brilliant musical career fills me with admiration and awe. He’s a great drummer, a great writer, and a great man. Worth a read, for sure.

Meanwhile, Down in the Rain Forest: Marcia and Katelin are in Costa Rica this week having a jolly good time being warm and doing girly girl stuff. I’d love to be with them, of course, but thought it impolitic to take such a trip a mere three months into a new job, so let them go handle Central America on their own. They’ve been sending me daily e-mail updates on their adventures, which included a zip-line tour in the rainforest canopy, and a hiking tour through Manuel Antonio National Park, where they saw (and I quote their list verbatim):

– 4 three-toed sloths
– 1 two-toed sloth
– 2 scarlet macaws
– 1 white-tailed dear
– 3 red-eyed frogs (with white spots)
– 2 agouti
– 1 toucan
– 2 green parrots
– 1 wax-tailed tree hopper
– 2 iguanas
– 1 Jesus Christ lizard
– a troupe of howler monkeys
– a couple of white-faced monkeys

Katelin’s favorite animal is the three-toed (or fingered) sloth, so basically the whole purpose of this trip was to allow her to see one (or more) of them in their natural habitat, so mission accomplished, apparently, in that regard. I’m glad they’ve had a lovely trip thus far.

Go Saints: Well, it was a noble effort by Siena, but Louisville prevailed in the end. The parallels from that game and the UAlbany-UConn game of four years ago were uncanny: the serious underdog takes a second-half lead, but then just can’t quite hang with the Big East titan it was trying to take down. Bravo to the Saints, though, for really cementing themselves on the list of alpha mid-major programs by knocking off a Big 10 team in the first round to validate their first-round defeat of an SEC team last year.

In Other Hoops News: I didn’t have a great first couple of rounds in my NCAA tournament pick ’em, but I’ve still got six of my final eight in play, and all of my final four: Louisville, Memphis, Villanova and Gonzaga. I’ve got Memphis beating Villanova for the national championship, so we’ll see how that plays out. While most bracket junkies are applauding the selection committee for their acuity this year as the final 16 feature all four 1, 2 and 3 seeds (along with two 4’s, a 5 and a 12), I read it a different way: this year there were only four at-large mid-major teams, the lowest number in years, so the teams that all those top seeds were beating were often middling Big Six conference teams, not regular season champs or at-large teams from mid-major conferences. I think the results would have been different if instead of giving (say) the always-over-rated Big 10 conference an absurd seven bids, they put in some powerhouse mid majors who stumbled in their conference tourneys and didn’t get automatic bids (St. Mary’s and San Diego State, for instance) in their place instead. Had they done so, I suspect the tops of the brackets might not be so tidy.

Loudonville vs. Louisville

In preparation for tomorrow’s Louisville-Siena basketball game, I thought it might be helpful to provide a few comparative bits of information about the school’s respective hometowns, just to put this hopefully-epic joust in perspective. Please feel free to add other important comparisons in the comments section. If the Saints manage to upset the Cardinals tomorrow, then these should help to amplify the great community gloat that we’ll all be able to share in the weeks, months and years to come. You know, the way that we still own Stanford.

POPULATION

Louisville: 557,789 in the city itself, and 1,233,735 in the greater Louisville-Jefferson County Metropolitan Statistical area.

Loudonville: It’s hard to say. Hamlets within the Town of Colonie don’t have precisely defined borders, so there’s no firm consensus as to where one ends and another begins, which makes it hard to count heads. Loudonville’s ZIP Code, 12211, has a population of 11,404 according to the U.S. Postal Service, although I would consider that number suspect for two reasons. First, it includes parts of Colonie and Albany that aren’t generally considered to be within the hamlet, and second, there are probably thousands of folks with Latham, Watervliet, Colonie or Menands mailing addresses who will claim to live in Loudonville, since it has more cache hereabouts. All told, it’s probably as amorphous as the borders.

NUMBER OF COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES

Louisville: There are 22 schools in Louisville offering Bachelors, Graduate or Associate degrees. The University at Louisville is the largest, with about 20,000 graduate and undergraduate students.

Loudonville: It’s hard to say. While Siena College has a Loudonville address, odds are that most, if not all, of the campus actually sits in the Hamlet of Newtonville, which, according to U.S. Postal Service data, has a population of 0, unless you count Post Office Boxes. So there are between zero and one colleges in Loudonville. Probably.

NAME

Louisville: Founded in 1778 and named after King Louis XVI of France. He’s the one who was beheaded during the French Revolution.

Loudonville: Named after John Campbell, Fourth Earl of Loudon, one-time Commander in Chief of British Forces in North America. In 1757, he planned an expedition to seize the Fortress of Louisbourg (now in Nova Scotia) from the French, but while dithering on the way, let the French capture Fort William Henry on Lake George, and was subsequently shipped back home to Britain.

TALLEST STRUCTURE

Louisville: The AEGON Center, at 538 feet, is the tallest building in Kentucky.

Loudonville: It’s hard to say. I’m thinking it’s probably one of the water towers of of Osbourne Road, though I suspect they may actually be located outside of the hamlet. If not them, then it’s probably the high tension towers that run along the ravine between Loudon Road and Van Rensselaer Boulevard.

Old Time Gospel

I adore Old Time Gospel music, and have been pleasantly surprised over the past few years at how many of my old gospel cassette tapes, 8-tracks or albums I’ve been able to find in digital format online. It’s somehow both incongruous and uplifting to sit at a computer listening to tracks first recorded on acetates in 1927, but the quality, warmth, passion and spirit of the music seems to have wholly survived the transition in media.

My all-time favorite gospel performer is probably Reverend James Cleveland. (I’m listening to his “God Can Do Anything But Fail” as I type this post). Back in the mid-’80s I found a bulk box of his cassettes on the Savoy Records label at a record warehouse and bought something like 12 hours of his music for less than five dollars. It was a good deal, for sure, and I played those cassettes to death over the years.

It’s been wonderful to find some of my favorites of his songs online, alongside works by such venerable gospel performers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elder Anderson Johnson, Brother Joe May, The Spirit of Memphis Quartet, The Roberta Martin Singers, The Swan Silvertones, Shirley Caesar and The Soul Stirrers (featuring Sam Cooke, early in his singing career).

I’ve also especially enjoyed finding relatively clean digital copies of all of Washington Phillips‘ 78-rpm recordings. He was a zither-playing circuit preacher who recorded a small but amazingly profound, moving and influential body of work in the late 1920s. Phillips sang entire sermons in some of his songs, and his work still sounds mystical, moving, and meaningful, and I highly recommend tracking his music down. When he sang “I am born to sing the gospel, and I sure love do love my job,” you know he meant it, and that he wasn’t being arrogant when he sang it.

I suspect that if there wasn’t a cultural bias against spiritual music among most members of the contemporary musical cognoscenti and critical circles, then Washington Phillips would be regarded today as every bit the equal of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, because, children, he was.

Can I get a witness?

Amen!

The Newspaper Junkie Speaks

Hi, my name is Eric, and I’m a newspaper junkie.

(Hi, Eric!)

I generally read three newspapers (preferably local ones) each and every day, in a private, solitary series of rituals. As an early-bird type, I start off with The Daily Gazette to accompany my morning coffee in the quiet time before anyone else arrives in the office. At lunch, if I can find a copy, I grab The Record, since its convenient tabloid configuration is perfect for reading while eating by one’s self on a diner two-top. (Something I quite enjoy doing, actually, so don’t insult me by saying “Oh, just one,” in withering terms when I show up at your greasy spoon seeking grilled cheese). Absent a handy Record, copies of which are becoming harder to come by around here lately, I’ll settle for USA Today and its magnificent sports section.

At home, I subscribe to The Times Union, so I read that every night before Marcia gets home and we head off to the gym or dinner or my scheduled ass-whipping at the Scrabble table. (She beat me 425 to 275 last night, with two bingos. Ouch!)

With all the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments lately about the decline and fall of various venerable daily newspapers, I suppose I should be worried about whether I’ll be able to satisfy my tactile news-gathering needs, since handling paper and ink clearly satisfies me in ways that clattering away at a computer can’t. Which isn’t to say that I’m any sort of Luddite or technophobe: I’ve had an internet presence longer than probably 98% of the folks reading this, so certainly appreciate the power of the post-print paradigm. I just like newspapers too, and not only because they go so much better with bacon or biscuits.

Given the amount of money that I’ve pumped into my newspaper addiction over the years, I figure I’m the guy (in a universal sense) that the newspapers really want to keep happy on some plane. They wouldn’t have to run around scared, trying to court and capture new customers who require a lot more grooming with a lot less promise of steady-state return over the long run, if they were guaranteed to keep me and my ilk, and our spawn, engaged and paying for their products. I mean, just look at the per-paper price increases that I’ve absorbed without blink or pause over the past few years, simply because newspapers in their current configurations are essentially perfectly inelastic commodities to me: I’ll keep paying for papers whatever they cost as long as they meet my needs.

But the flipside of that inelasticity is true as well: once newspapers stop meeting my needs, then I’ll stop reading them, even if they cut their prices back to keep me. So with all of that as rambling preamble, and at the risk of biting the generous hand that hosts me here, I’d like to offer some observations about what the newspapers need to do to continue meeting my needs, thereby keeping me, a self-admitted ink addict, from entering into a newsprint detox program and moving on with my life, finally smudge-free and with one less recycling bin to manage.

I’m reminded of the wonderful and insightful song “Ted Key Beefs” by Killdozer, in which my all-time favorite lyricist, Michael Gerald (seriously) dolefully intones the following passage:

“It amuses me to see businesses spending so much money every year to get me back, when I was there in the first place. All they needed to do was give me some service, and show a little courtesy. In fact, I was the most important person in the world to them: I was a customer.
But now . . . I’m the fellow who never comes back.”‘

That’s a wise and cautionary lesson for businesses of all stripes that Mr. Gerald offers: don’t chase the customers you don’t yet have to the detriment or neglect of the customers that you already do have.

So what do my newspapers need to do to prevent me from becoming the fellow who never goes back? As Mr. Gerald noted, first and foremost, the newspapers need to give me some service and show me a little courtesy. Above all else, this means: don’t insult my intelligence by trying to spin fairytales out of the tough times you’re having of late. You know times are hard. I know times are hard. Belts need to be tightened. Be straight with me. I can take it.

But if instead you tell me that you are eliminating five sections a week in order to give me more of what I want, then you’ve insulted my intelligence. As would trying to convince me that front-page advertisements were a quaint throwback to Victorian design ethics or establishing a story-swapping service with other papers within your corporate family, then trying to assure me that the model is the same one underpinning the Associated Press, and isn’t going to result in some reporter, somewhere, losing his or her job. I’m not that stupid, and I suspect that other newspaper readers aren’t either. So don’t talk down to me that way, please and thanks.

Once my newspapers resume treating me, their current customer, with a basic modicum of courtesy and respect, what else do I want from them?

First and foremost, I want news. That’s why I buy a newspaper. If I wanted style, dating, or parenting tips, then I’d buy a style-paper, a dating-paper or a parenting-paper. This isn’t to say that there can’t be news stories about style, dating or parenting, of course, but if you are running an “any old time” puff piece on those or related soft topics with no currency or immediacy, then why waste precious page space on that? News, to me, implies change. Stories that never change aren’t stories.

There’s certainly no shortage of things changing around here in the political, social, athletic, artistic, creative, dramatic, educational and medical worlds, on top of the various earth-shattering events unfolding planet-wide around us. Cover them as a priority, please, in the space you might instead use for, say, full-page photo spreads of people at parties, cruel observations about folks in the community who don’t meet certain cliques’ fashion standards, or reprints of the absolute worst columns from the otherwise choice Wall Street Journal.

After you’ve laid the news out on me, then I want some analysis. This is why I can read three local papers covering many of the same events, since each paper offers me some unique perspective on what happened and what it means. The differences in tone and content of coverage between the Gazette and the Times Union on the problems within the Schenectady police department (to cite but one recent example) are marked and fascinating, and you get a much richer sense of the story reading both newspapers. I expect my newspapers to find, hire and keep journalists, editors and reporters who can provide such unique, independent analysis in stimulating and responsible ways, unlike the unwashed rabble online (me included) who are held to no standards, and whose voices, while legion, are often shrill and uncouth. I can get that for free. If I’m paying for your newspaper, I want something better.

One of the related real beauties of the daily newspapers to me is that while stories may be breaking, at some point they have to be put to bed and processed, and given beginnings, middles and ends, at least for a day. Facts, analysis and commentary are preserved as they were perceived at the time, rather than being subsumed in an unending, ever-morphing wave of blog posts and comments. The bottom line is, I don’t need instantaneous updates for 99% of the news stories that impact me on a daily basis. I’m fine with them being captured in amber, and then getting another piece of amber the next day, perhaps with the same insect preserved within, but now in a different posture.

It’s still beautiful, even if I have to wait a little bit for it to be delivered to me.

And speaking of blogs and websites, don’t send me to them. Seriously.

You have me in your newspaper, so figure out how to keep me there, rather than sending me elsewhere. I like to surf, sure, but if you force me to go to your website to get something related to an article I’ve read in print, then odds are I’m going to find it, and then quickly move onto something that’s entirely web-based, rather than oscillating back and forth in an uncomfortable netherworld between print and digital like some Lovecraftian half-dead thing that requires both a laptop and newspaper to share the table with its fish and chips. That’s just too complicated and crowded. And when you boil it all down, it’s ultimately all just words and pictures in either place, so why not work to make your words and pictures so rapturous that only a fool would deign to seek the shallow, vapid imitations that blight Cyberia?

You know, like this blog you’re reading right now, where an ex-journalist who used to get paid to write and edit now rambles on for free about journalists who are still getting paid to write and edit, and who are hoping that you who read this will please pretty please click on some of the advertising banners that flash and burble around it, so that they can continue to get paid to produce the paper product that this website and others like it are helping to destroy.

It’s a pretty weird business model, isn’t it? I think so, and I don’t believe that it’s a sustainable one. I believe that the few print dailies that are going to survive in the long run are going to be those that recognize that fact, and get off the web, and devote all of their time and talent to producing unique, local, exceptional written product that makes the price you pay for it seem like a bargain. Like television and radio, the daily newspaper market has long been defined by rapacious holding corporations devouring choice local properties as soon as it seems like they might be profitable. The sooner those corporations go under and homegrown (or re-rooted) locals move in to take their places, the better the product that survives will be. Yes, it’s going to be a convulsion. Yes, lots of papers aren’t going to make it. Yes, lots of writers, editors and photographers are going to have to seek new careers. But that’s going to happen no matter what.

Of course, in the aftermath of that convulsion, unit prices of the surviving products will be higher and circulation will be lower, meaning that the print newspapers are not ever going to reach the market share they once did. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Most people may buy CD’s or MP3’s these days, but there are still tough, efficient little companies out there pressing vinyl records for folks who love the heft and quality of them, and who appreciate having something tangible to hold in their hands in exchange for their hard-earned money. So here’s hoping that newspapers will find a similar niche, where reasonable profits can be made for high-quality product with a devoted, dedicated audience who are willing to pay for it, along with businesses that are willing to advertise in front of such devoted consumers for related products which may appeal to them.

But in the same way that record companies are not likely to impress vinyl audiophiles by pushing MP3s on them, newspapers are not likely to impress their most fervent readers by pushing websites and podcasts at us. We can find those on our own if we want them, thanks. We’re here with our faces buried in your newspapers because we want you to offer us something better than that.

Why do you seem so determined to make us all go away?

Clutch: Pure Rock Fury (Live)

Ask me who the greatest live rock band in history was (or is) and I can answer definitively, authoritatively and absolutely: The Who, in their classic Daltrey-Townshend-Entwistle-Moon days. Watch The Kids Are Alright sometime if you don’t believe me. They were just unarguably great on stage. The greatest, in fact. End of discussion.

Ask me who’s number two and it gets a little fuzzier. (Don’t suggest Led Zeppelin to me, though. Watch The Song Remains The Same sometime if you don’t believe me, and see if you stay awake as the songs do, indeed, remain the same. Zzzz.) I think the greatest single concert I ever saw was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in a creepy gothic worship space on the campus of Georgetown University in late 1990 or early 1991, when Marcia was pregnant with Katelin. The grandeur of the music and the space and the company conspired to make it magical, memorable evening.

Probably the greatest ongoing concert spectacle I ever watched was the Butthole Surfers through the mid-to-late ’80s at the height of their powers, when dancers, fire, film and music merged into an overwhelming audio-visual experience guaranteed to blow your mind everytime you got to see it.

I also experienced some awe-inspiring local shows here in Albany during the roughly ten years that I was reviewing music for Metroland and hosting Sounding Board on Time Warner Cable. The Hanslick Rebellion are, I think, the best live act ever to emerge from these parts, as documented on the absolutely essential The Rebellion is Here CD recorded at the much-lamented QE2. Small Axe also moved me powerfully from the stage, as did Beef and the Kamikaze Hearts. I feel fortunate to have experienced from the pit what I think was a particularly magic moment in the metal-to-hardcore world hereabouts, when the likes of Section 8, One King Down, The Clay People and Withstand were at the heights of their powers. They were all awesome live presences, and bore true testimony to the transformative power of homegrown, hometown music.

But if you had to pin me down to naming the second greatest live rock band in history, I’d probably pick the Pride of Maryland: Clutch. They offer pure rock fury that swings, along with some of the most inspired, insane lyrics ever produced from within the rock n’ roll idiom. (Right before the first time I saw them, circa 1994 or ’95 at the QE2, then-fellow Metroland scribe Tom Flynn recommended them to me by saying: “The craziest shit comes out of that guy’s mouth.” And he was right.) I think I’ve seen them eight or so times since then, and every show has been bigger and better than the one before it.

Last weekend, Marcia was out of town, so I was out looking for a movie to watch and picked up Clutch’s brand-spanking new live DVD, Full Fathom Five: Field Recordings, 2007-2008. Like The Kids Are Alright, it’s filled with just mind-blowingly powerful performances. Marcia’s also a Clutch fan, so when she got home, I watched the DVD again with her, and she noted she’d like to see them in concert sometime, having never done so. I went online to see if, perchance, they might be touring anytime soon, and lo and behold, we were delighted to see that they were playing at The Chance in Poughkeepsie Friday night.

So we made a quick post-work run down to the Mid-Hudson to watch Neil Fallon, Tim Sult, Dan Maines and Jean-Paul Gaster work their magic, first as their alter-ego instrumental jam-band, The Bakerton Group, then under the Clutch brand. The group has stripped back to the basics after a few years of touring with a keyboardist and occasional supplemental guitarist. For most of the show, Sult, Maines and Gaster handled all the instrumental fire, with Fallon picking up his guitar for some numbers later in the set.

The instrumental trio, as always, were all about getting down to the business of the groove: while Gaster got occassionally animated behind his drums, Sult and Maines were heads down over their guitar and bass, flexing their prodigious musical muscles. Frontman Fallon offered the riveting stage presence that made things explosive and electric. He’s got a physical, declamatory Old School Preaching style that makes you want to shout “Amen” and throw your hands in their air everytime he pauses for a breath.

It was an awesome show by a great, great, live rock n’ roll band, and I’m glad Marcia finally got a chance to see them whip an audience into a frenzy up close and personal. Don’t miss ’em if you have a chance to catch ’em. They’re something special.