Down That Road: Neil Innes (1944-2019)

I was saddened to hear this morning of the sudden passing of Neil Innes, a brilliant English composer and musician. He is probably best known in non-musical U.S circles for his work with Monty Python (Innes played the lead minstrel in the “Brave Sir Robin” sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and also wrote the theme song about that feckless hero), but there was so much more to his career, which I commend to you, dear readers, with my deepest enthusiasm.

Innes received his first significant public acclaim as a key member of The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band. The Bonzos were regulars on the popular BBC show Do Not Adjust Your Set, and appeared in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, performing “Death Cab for Cutie,” a name later adopted by a band that was, frankly, not worthy of it. The Bonzos’ biggest chart hit was “I’m The Urban Spaceman,” penned and sung by Innes, and produced by Paul McCartney under the pseudonym Apollo C. Vermouth. You know you’ve got something going for you when a Beatle works on your behalf.

I consider the Bonzos’ first four albums to be essential listening, with Innes and the (also) late Vivian Stanshall composing the lion’s share of their original songs. The group fizzled out acrimoniously in the early ’70s, and Innes moved on to front the short-lived The World, and then on to an art-poetry-music ensemble called GRIMMS, (which featured Stanshall and Paul McCartney’s younger brother, Mike McGear, among many others in a large, rotating cast). As GRIMMS fell apart, Innes began working with the Pythons, while also maintaining a critically rich, if commercially wan, solo career. If you know your Python, many of their best musical bits were composed by Innes, and he toured with them as “the seventh Python,” performing as a troupe member, and offering solo musical interludes. Good stuff, essential to the series, the films and the live shows.

With Eric Idle of the Pythons, he created The Rutles, who satirized The Beatles, but did so with Innes-penned songs that were brilliant in their own rights, e.g. “Cheese and Onions” and “Piggy In The Middle.” The Rutles’ mockumentary All You Need Is Cash is a superb television film, blessed and partially funded by George Harrison, who made a cameo within it. Innes plays the John Lennon character, known as Ron Nasty, in the film. The music was performed and recorded by Innes, drummer John Halsey (Barry Wom in the film) and ex-Beach Boy Rikki Fataar (Stig O’Hara), along with Ollie Halsall, who sang and played the parts credited to Idle, playing the role of Dirk McQuickly.

Innes went on to a successful career in British children’s television during the ’80s. There have been various Bonzo reunions in the past quarter century, along with more Rutles albums (without Idle) and solo projects from Innes, but his legacy is most likely to be defined by his first decade in the public domain. That’s okay, I think. Many inferior talents are better known for less.

That said, I do feel a wee sense of melancholy and justice-not-served with Neil Innes’ passing, as I think he is a once-in-a-lifetime caliber artist who never quite got the credit he was due. Vivian Stanshall (also a brilliant unique) over-shadowed him in the Bonzos. Eric Idle seems to have pilfered his contributions to a savage degree with Spamalot and other post-Python products. The Beatles/Apple empire even went after him for his utterly magnificent Rutles songs, litigiously culling half of the royalties for a large batch of his original tracks, mistaking parody for plagiarism to these ears. In the final indignity, I read in his obituaries today that Innes spent the last two years of his life fighting the Bonzos’ ex-manager for the rights to the Bonzo Dog Band name. Fortunately, he won that one. Here’s hoping the surviving core Bonzos (Legs Larry Smith, Roger Ruskin Spear, Rodney Slater and Vernon Dudley Bohay-Nowell) are able to take advantage of that victory.

At bottom line, Neil Innes made everything he touched a bit better than it would have been without him, whether he got the credit for it or not. I love his work, and I rue his early departure from this our mortal world, as I suspect he still had some brilliance within him to share. I close with a classic Neil Innes moment, his famed “worst guitar solo ever” in the Bonzos’ “Canyons Of Your Mind.” Stanshall wrote and sang it, but it’s one of the best video examples extant of all of the Bonzos’ brilliance, Neil most especially. You have to be really good to play something this bad, bless his hilariously talented heart.

2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year. After completing the latter article, I acquired the new self-titled album by The Who, which would have made the list had it been released on its originally announced date, so that I could have given it enough spins to properly evaluate it. But it slipped, so it didn’t. That said, I do think it’s the best thing Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend have done since, oh, I guess I’ll say Quadrophenia (1973), so I heartily recommend it. These old dogs may not have many new tricks, but they’re really, really good at doing the ones they know, even without their classic era rhythm section, RIP.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I would like to check out: Pain & Glory,  The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, and Hagazussa. I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. I thought Little Women was unwatchably bad, so I’m flying in the face of critical consensus on that. In theory, I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch, though once the Academy Awards show rolls around, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?

Credidero #12: Possibility

When I was framing this long form Credidero writing project late last year, I was living in a high-rise condo just off the Loop in Chicago, with plans to move back to Des Moines in the spring, where my wife’s work was based, where our daughter lived, and where we’d kept a second apartment for three years at that point, splitting our family life in professionally expedient, but personally unpleasant ways, for both of us. Despite the planned change of residency, my Board of Trustees asked me to stay on in my job as a nonprofit CEO, working remotely, with a monthly visit to the Chicago-area office, supplemented by my usual national travel schedule. Seemed like a good and stable “new normal” to me at the time, and I would have expected and predicted that when I was writing the final Credidero article (this one) twelve months later, that still would have been my current personal paradigm.

But that’s not the case, not at all. My wife and I are still in our Des Moines apartment, yes, but I retired from my nonprofit CEO job in November, and my wife shifted from her in-house corporate general counsel position to a freelance/contract situation that same month, allowing her to work from home. Our daughter and her partner are in the final phases of evaluating their next steps after she finishes her dual masters degree program next May, and they hope to be moving by next summer to an area that will allow them to pursue their outdoorsy activities more regularly, and for more months each year than frigid Iowa allows. My wife and I are using our newfound ability to travel when and where we want to both for international pleasure trips, and also to do our own sussing out of potential domestic markets for our own next steps.

If I had to guess, none of us will be in Des Moines by Christmas of 2020. New Mexico seems like the likeliest destination for my wife and I, with Arizona in second place (we’re both ready to own a house and some land again after five years of apartment/condo living), while Nevada looks to be the leading contender for our daughter and her partner. On the professional and personal improvement fronts, I’ve registered for two writers’ workshops in the year ahead, and may do others as time and resources permit, working toward a goal of getting back into paid freelance and/or contract work, and taking on some larger projects than have been possible for me while working full time. Once again, it seems like there’s an appealing “new normal” out there for 2020 and beyond, if I was asked to predict one.

But I could (and probably would) be just as wrong about that prediction twelve months from now as I was in the ones that I would have made a year ago. And therein lies the beauty and mystery of “Possibility,” this month’s Credidero topic. There are a lot of futures out there with our names on them. While it’s a obviously hyperbolic to claim “anything’s possible,” there certainly are a lot of branching decision points ahead of us, some within our control, some driven by external forces, with myriad variant outcomes shaped by ever-shifting combinations emerging from each of those nodes. We have a frequent family saying (and belief) in our household that “options make everything better.” I truly believe in that more and more as I get older and (maybe) wiser, given that the more options one has, the more possibilities that may spring from them. I find that to be deeply exciting, if only occasionally a little nerve-racking.

I referenced an old song of mine called “Anathematics” in an earlier Credidero article, and it contains the line “The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be” within its chorus. Indeed. Possibility can conceptually only be forward/future-looking, as what’s happened in the past is set, 100% possible by definition, at least outside of quantum or multiverse realms beyond what human beings can actually experience. That said, I do know that our tree of possibilities is heavily shaped by the decisions we’ve made in the past, e.g. what resources we’ve accrued, what types of work we’ve done, what we’ve valued and prioritized in how/where we live, how we’ve managed professional and personal relationships, etc. We’re always positioned at an inexorably forward-moving crux point, where all we are is all we’ve been, and all we can be is cantilevered out in front of us, hinged precipitously off of this slippery now. But as our collective past gets longer, and heavier, it provides an ever-more robust inertial ballast to what may yet be. No paths forward exist independent of the paths that carried us to this point, right here, right now. That’s why I don’t believe in regret. We can’t change the past, and wishing to do so devalues our now, and cramps our then.

If words can carry emotional heft beyond their dictionary definitions, then “possibility” certainly seems to bear a positive energy in most Western Cultures, most akin to and aligned with “hope” in its most common usage. People generally want to and choose to consider that tomorrow, and its tomorrows, will be brighter and lighter and better than today, even if today is pretty darn good, and we all hope that from all the possible futures before us, we may be graced with benign and gentle and prosperous ones. Just a quick surf through any online quotation bank for famous aphorisms including the word “possibility” affirms this sense:

“Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” (Thomas Merton)

“All the possibilities of your human destiny are asleep in your soul. You are here to realize and honor these possibilities. When love comes in to your life, unrecognized dimensions of your destiny awaken and blossom and grow. Possibility is the secret heart of time.” (John O’Donohue)

And those are just the first three of 489 quotes returned from my single search, with most of the ones following them carrying similar optimism, joy and wonder about that which is not, but yet may be. Of course, it’s also possible that nuclear war will scorch the planet into a cinder tomorrow too, or that one of countless possible natural apocalyptic events (super-volcanoes, asteroid strikes, solar eruptions, etc.) could render 2020 a year much like the one at the heart of the K-T Boundary. Some folks spend much of their time considering such possibilities, either for professional, or personal, or poor metal health reasons, but for the vast majority of us in prosperous developed cities and nations, when we ponder possibilities, we’re generally seeing them as paths to future health, wealth, and goodness, or at least improvements on the now, whether subtle and personal or transformational and global.

When we want to consider the less fuzzy and warm facets of possibility, we generally turn to its more mathematically robust cousin: probability. While every child in America may cheerfully be told, under our “land of opportunity” rubric, that it’s possible for him or her to become President some day, we know that with ~325 million people in our country right now, only ~0.0000005% of them actually achieve that goal in a typical eligible lifetime. And as we assess those few human beings who are in reasonably serious consideration for that leadership role at this point in our never-ending political cycles, we’re bombarded by polling that attempts to cull the probable from the possible in next year’s elections. (You’d think we’d be better at picking Presidents, given their statistical oddity and uniqueness, yeesh!).

Natural global catastrophes are assessed in similar probabilistic terms: they’re pretty much all possible over the remaining existence of our planet, but when they happen, how much they destroy, and how likely each one might be at any given time are subjects for whole schools of research, scholarship, and (sadly) crank science and pop culture or religious fear-mongering. Climate change certainly has emerged as the most possible existential threat to our species in the short term (geologically speaking), but even there, credible experts and specious profiteers still differ wildly in their views on the when, what, how and how much of this evolving global process. Bringing things closer to home, in the era of big data, similar probabilistic and statistical analyses are constantly helping our governments, our doctors, and our businesses to make macro decisions that ideally reduce micro individual uncertainty and move us toward desirable (to them) possible futures. We can only hope that what we might actually desire doesn’t deviate too far from those calculations and the policies built upon them.

I found an utterly fascinating article by futurist Ruud van der Helm written in 2006, wherein he adds a third element to evaluating what may yet be: he considers the possible, the probable, and the plausible, and hopes that semantic clarification between those terms may improve both science and practice in the domains of future studies and foresight. I could easily spend the full text of this month’s Credidero piece summarizing his report, since it rings most true and clear to me, but I’ll settle for quoting the definitions that he uses in his summary for those three key terms:

Probability refers to concepts of chance and likeliness. A probable future is a future that is more likely than some other future. Likeliness should mainly lead to the ordinal ranking of alternative futures between more likely and less likely. Whether we select likely futures or less likely futures is a matter of study objectives. Any future, whether probable or improbable, is by default a possible future.

Possibility refers to a claim of reality, whether some future either can be or cannot be (and nothing in between). A possible future is considered by default potentially realizable (either passively or actively). Possibility can be challenged for absolute reasons (violation of established laws) or for contingent reasons (lack of realism with respect to the proposed time frame or available means). The latter consideration is the most relevant for futures studies and may yield important input for futures analysis.

Plausibility refers to the structure of the argument, where truth-value is based on the convincingness, the credibility, of the discourse describing the future. A plausible future is a convincing description of a future, which we can hold true, even though this future itself can be factually fallacious. A future can be plausible without being possible (excluding Bloch’s primary level of the formally possible). As a consequence, plausibility cannot be established beyond a personal or social process of negotiation.

When I personalize those concepts as I look forward (actuarial science would suggest I’ve got another 22 years or so before I’m beating the longevity odds), I see great possibilities in terms of my core personal goals, beyond just being a good husband and father, and a decent participant in the communities in which I reside. It’s entirely possible that the great American novel that I believe has been percolating within me for most of my adult life can finally be brought to fruition, for example, with the gift of time that retirement and smart management of family resources has bestowed upon me. It’s possible that novel could be successfully published. It could be a best-seller, even. And it could spawn some sequels, or a movie, or a television show. The sky’s the limit, hooray! But, then, yes, the probabilities of those high-achieving successes are lower, even though I think that their plausibility is actually quite reasonable, since I have been paid to write already, I am often told that I am good at it, and writing seems to be one of the few professional skills where practitioners can get better with age.

I do tend to see the arc of my professional plausibility with a bit more of an optimistic edge than others might, in large part because my career to date has been, by most objective standards, fairly to extremely implausible. If I pitched a story to a publisher about a Marine Corps brat Naval Academy graduate who went from working as a contracting officer for a highly classified military organization involving nuclear reactors to jobs as a music critic and museum development professional, in one step, and then went on to head organizations devoted to tree research, managing a historical house museum, and University food service, after stops in Catholic campus chaplaincy, independent K-12 education, and HIV/AIDS community service, do you think the average editor would buy it, or deem it an unbelievable narrative? I’m voting for the latter choice.

But whether or not it tracks as a viable fictional narrative, it is my personal reality, and I can only model my own possibilities, probabilities, and plausibilities upon it. Which is good, I think. I’ve played things in ways that most people wouldn’t have tried with the cards that I’ve been dealt, and I’ve been able to invent and adapt myself to wildly changing circumstances, with reasonable success, as judged objectively by outside observers of my work and its outcomes. And if I had to pick a single word to describe the best and most important facets of my professional work over the past 40+ years, that word would unquestionably be writer. I had my first paid freelance writing gig when I was 13 years old, hired to be the teen editor of a military base newspaper. Two years later, I won a state-wide poetry contest, competing mainly against writers far older than me. And I’ve never stopped scribbling since then, writing for more organizations, customers, clients and colleagues that I can begin to remember, crafting and sharing millions of words, covering a dizzying array of topics and writing types.

This Credidero writing project itself was designed to help bend some arcs of possibility over the course of a year, to hone some writing chops in different disciplines and styles that I felt were missing from my portfolio, as I look to a future where writing will be even more of an anchor for me than it has been over my working and student lives to date. The project was also designed to bend other arcs of possibility by forcing me to consider some topics of relevance and interest to an aging creative type, in ways that I’ve not often done in the past, looking at personal beliefs, rather than just reporting on or reacting to something placed before me, and seeing if that focus might produce some changed or changing behaviors as an outcome. I’ve now produced about 45,000 words in the project, which is a credibly hefty manuscript in its own right. It may just stand now as a completed personal exercise, or it may be something that takes life in some other form. We’ll see. The possibilities certainly aren’t endless, but they’re there, adjacent to or supporting other possibilities. And, again, I find that exciting.

As I usually do in these articles, I looked up the etymological background on my subject word for the month. “Possibility” came into use as a noun in the late Middle English period, derived from Old French possibilite, which in turn came from late Latin possibilis (“able to be done”), which followed from Latin posse (“be able”), which is posited to have evolved from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root poti-, which means “power.” It’s pleasing to me to perceive possibility as a source of power, be it political, or financial, or psychological, or spiritual. Once again, options make everything better, and there’s motive energy to be gleaned from the worlds and experiences ahead of us, with that energy being directly correlated in my mind to the number of nodes of opportunity we face. Open doors are far more exciting than blank walls, and if one door leads to a room with two more doors beyond it, then the excitement grows.

This Credidero project has opened some doors of interest for me, and the courses of my family and professional lives over the past year have opened others. I’m eagerly peeking into each of them, treading through portals as confidently as I’m able (with a beloved buddy by my side, which also makes everything better), hopeful to explore as many rooms of possibility as I’m able with the years left before me. I do feel powerful in this exploration, and I do believe that I have opportunities to use that power in meaningful ways, though I may not know what that meaning will be until I can assess it as fact, not potential, from the other side of the experience.

Not everything’s possible, but more than enough things are plausible, and probable, to keep my sense of wonder and expectation high, and I believe that’s a rubric worth living in, and living through, and living for. And as I wind down this writing project, I find it apt and fitting that the final randomly-selected topic was “possibility,” as that’s on some plane exactly what I wanted to create when I embarked upon the project. It’s not the one word I likely would have selected had I planned out the course of the twelve articles in advance, but sometimes chance, and choice, and options, are smarter than we are, if we open ourselves to them and let them be. And let them Be.

So many doors, so many rooms, so many paths . . .

Note: This article is the final monthly installment of a 12-part, year-long writing project. I plan to spend a month or so reflecting on the series as a whole, and will prepare one final epilogue piece before January 2020 ends to capture any general themes or take-outs that I glean from it all. Watch this space . . .

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

What’s A Caucus?

We live in Iowa, where our state political caucuses play a crucial role in the selection and election of our next Presidents. (Why is this the case? Here’s my take. Should this be the case? No. Here’s why.) The year before we moved out here from New York (2011), I was managing a group blog called Indie Albany. In anticipation of the then-upcoming Presidential campaign season, I had registered a new blog portal called “Cerberus Caucus,” the underlying premise of which was that it would serve as a three-headed place where a liberal, a conservative, and an independent/centrist could argue political points of merit. I was prepared to play the leftist, and I had a hardcore (e.g. scary) rightist lined up, but was never able to secure a legitimate centrist voice, so that project was shelved in favor of others.

I still own the rights to the Cerberus Caucus domain, and a couple of weeks ago, I received a renewal notification for it. Before re-registering it, I did a Google search to make sure that I wasn’t holding something that had become toxic or noxious. I did not find anything problematic or offensive during that search, but I did stumble across an arcane document from 1844 that tickled me to pieces, given (a) how much I enjoy etymology, and (b) how we throw the word “caucus” around here in Iowa as thought it’s something that everybody in the country understands implicitly.

The document was from a book called Nugæ by Nugator, (which is Latin for Trifles by Jester, or Joker). The version of the document I found bore a stamp saying “Harvard College Library, Sheldon Fund, July 10, 1940.” Searches for the two names appearing on the attribution pages (“St. Leger L. Carter” and “Edward St. O. Carter”) mostly reveal a variety of documents from the Journal of the House of Delegates of the Commonwealth of Virginia. If I had to guess based on what I’ve found, the two Carters are the same person, notwithstanding one source related to the recording of copyright where “Edward” states “I am not the author, but proprietor.” I imagine Mister Carter was a prominent citizen of a somewhat self-indulgent creative bent with sufficient community clout to be worthy of respectful deference by Virginia’s House of Delegates, hence the acceptance of Nugæ into the official record of the Commonwealth’s business. (If someone knows or finds otherwise, I’ll be happy to update this assessment).

I reproduce the cover/credit page of Nugæ, and the particular article that piqued my  interest, below. The piece is framed as an unattributed letter to the editor, but I suspect it’s just the work of Mister Carter being cute, since its tone and language read very much like the rest of  Nugæ to these eyes. Note that the piece (which references ex-President Martin Van Buren, a fave of mine, as a longtime Upstate New Yorker) was written during the 1844 Presidential election, which ended with Democrat James K. Polk defeating Henry Clay of the Whigs. I find the text both entertaining and topical, and it made me do a little research to discover that “caucus” isn’t an ancient Roman or Greek word (as I would have supposed), but is a relatively recent addition to our American English dictionaries, most likely derived from an Algonquian word. Huh!

I hope you enjoy this little nugget of bygone times as much as I did. And in closing, here’s hoping we Iowans use our own upcoming caucus wisely (as the Democrats did in 1844 when they selected Polk at the national convention), whether we really know what the word means or not.

 

 

Best Books of 2019

When I did my 2018 Year in Review post last December, I noted that I was deeply embarrassed by how few new books I had read over the prior year. That was a primary driving reason behind me saying “Ugh! Enough!” when it came to social media soul-sucking time: tons and tons of words passed through my eyes and into my brain in 2018, yes, but very few of them added wisdom or produced pleasure. Goddamn you, Twitter!! Curse you to hell, Russian Trolls!!

In response to that sense of literary embarrassment, I closed out most of my social media accounts last January and made an active commitment to read more books, and less drivel, in 2019. As I look back over the past 12 months, I’m pleased to see that I did indeed devour many more books than I have in most recent years. When picking my reading material, I made a conscious choice to focus on new 2019 books, rather than just defaulting back to reading old books by known favorite authors, and I think I had a better reading year for having done so. The contemporary literary scene seems fertile and pleasing to me.

Over a decade ago, I posited an Eric’s Book of the Every-So-Often Club, noting that my typical reading broke down as follows:

10% Fiction: Usually I will read new books by the the dozen or so authors I know I already really like. Breaking in new authors is so risky and hard. Why bother, neh?

40% Natural History: Ideally books about bugs, trilobites, fish, or birds, or parasites that live(d) on bugs, trilobites, fish and birds, or things that eat/ate bugs, trilobites, fish or birds, or interesting theories about the ways that bugs, trilobites, fish and birds interact with or influence people. I’m a bugs, trilobites, fish and birds kinda guy, y’know?

40% Music Biography: I have read at least half a dozen full-length books about Genesis, to cite but one example of my vast contemporary rock biography collection. And if someone comes out with a credible new book about Genesis next year, I will read that one too. Because someone has to, right? And it might as well be me.

10% Tales of Human Suffering: People falling off of Mount Kanchenjunga, going insane in the Arctic because of the toxins in their tinned food, or trying to walk across the Sahara Desert alone will always be welcome in my book collection. Masochism World, baby! Yeah!

Interestingly enough (to me), I pretty much bailed on “Tales of Human Suffering” and “Natural History” in 2019, with “Fiction” playing a far greater role in my pleasure reading than has likely ever been the case in any year of my adult life. There were still several great examples of “Music Biography” in 2019, supplemented by nonfiction works of other stripes. I guess I need to find some good Bug Books in 2020 to make up for this shift in focus. Bug Books make everything better.

I provide my list of the best new release books of 2019 below, divided into three categories: Nonfiction, Novels, and Story Collections. I present each category in alphabetical order by author, with links for further exploration. The ten very best books are shown in orange typeface, if you want to consider a shorter list for your own reading, based on my recommendations.

Here’s hoping I can continue to read this many great books in the year ahead. And, now that I am a gentleman (writer) of leisure, here’s also hoping that I might write something that could join a list of this variety at some point down the line. That’s the goal. Check back in December 2020 to see how I do.

2019 NONFICTION (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. The Ballad of Jethro Tull by Ian Anderson and Mark Blake
  2. Have A Bleedin’ Guess: The Story of Hex Enduction Hour by Paul Hanley
  3. What We Did Instead of Holidays: A History of Fairport Convention and its Extended Folk-Rock Family by Clinton Heylin
  4. How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Daniel Immerwahr
  5. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974 by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
  6. The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English by Lynne Murphy
  7. Henry Cow: The World Is A Problem by Benjamin Piekut
  8. Jimmy Page: The Definitive Biography by Chris Salewicz
  9. Baptized Into the Buzz by David Thomas
  10. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells

2019 NOVELS (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. Interference by Sue Burke
  2. The Silk Road by Kathryn Davis
  3. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht
  4. Will Haunt You by Brian Kirk
  5. Rabbits for Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum
  6. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner
  7. The Invited by Jennifer McMahon
  8. The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
  9. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  10. The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada
  11. Lanny by Max Porter
  12. The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling
  13. Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer
  14. Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

2019 STORY COLLECTIONS (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR):

  1. Salt Slow by Julia Armfield
  2. Someone Who Will Love You In All Of Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg
  3. Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  4. Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
  5. Song for the Unraveling of the World by Brian Evenson
  6. A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs
  7. Raised in Captivity by Chuck Klosterman

My Tree Peeps should check out “Semiosis” and “Interference” by Sue Burke. Trust me on this one.

Most Played Songs of 2019

Last night I reset the play counts on all of  our family iPods, as I’ve been doing every twelve months or so since we got our first iPod in 2007. I used to wait until the very end of the year to reset the counts, but now I generally reprogram everything soon after I complete my Best Albums report, and then push the magic button that zeroes out play information for all 15,000+ songs stored on my hard drive. Boom! New music year!

We still have seven iPods in use in various locations (car, living room, bedroom, gym, etc.), and I’ve been scavenging online to build  a little trove of models I like (old Shuffles and Nanos, mainly) to keep my current listening paradigm going as long as it can. But, as has been a recurring theme for me over a lifetime of listening, I do recognize that I’m once again fighting a rear guard battle as playback technology makes another of its seismic shifts from a purchased media file model to streaming services, delivered over our phones or other smart devices, and designed so that we never actually own anything musical anymore, but just rent it. That said, Marcia needed to get a Spotify account for her yoga instructor class this fall, and we used that and a BlueTooth speaker exclusively while we were in Spain, and that worked out fine. So I suspect this may be the last year that I base this report solely on iPod usage. Grumble.

Since we synch all of our many fiddly widgets to one computer and one master iTunes account, the “Most Played Songs” list on that account represents the aggregated play counts from all of our iPods. This means that the “Most Played Songs” of the year are often unexpected, since they represent the heart of a musical Venn Diagram where our family’s tastes most closely overlap, even though each of us individually may like and listen to very different things. I spin a lot of Napalm Death every year, for example, but they very, very rarely show up on these lists, since they’re never played when Marcia and Katelin are around. The grind is for me time only.

With those usual preambles aside, here are the Smith Family Top 40 Most Played Songs for the past twelve months. Maybe the list will inspire you to check some of the songs and artists out. They’re all great, guaranteed, and you can even play them in polite company. Mostly.

1. “Time Is The Killer” by Rain Phoenix (Featuring Michael Stipe)

2. “Jeannie Becomes A Mom” by Caroline Rose

3. “Winona Minnesota” by The Weasels

4. “Embryonic Journey” by Jefferson Airplane

5. “Happy With You” by Paul McCartney

6. “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane

7. “Jack-A-Lynn” by Jethro Tull

8. “The Second Shift” by Virginia Wing

9. “The Creator Has A Master Plan” by Leon Thomas

10. “The Oak” by The Albion Band

11. “I’ll Be All Right” by Jorma Kaukonen

12. “Another Song About The Moon” by Buggy Jive

13. “Marrow” by Jealous of the Birds

14. “Song For The North Star” by Jorma Kaukonen

15. “Names of the Stars” by Weyes Blood

16. “Clementina” by Jealous of the Birds

17. “Long Island Ice Tea, Neat” by The Coup (Featuring Japanther)

18. “After the Gold Rush” by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

19. “We Took the Wrong Step Years Ago (Acoustic)” by Hawkwind

20. “No Man’s Land” by Imperial Wax

21. “God Bless the Child” by Ernest Dawkins

22. “Sleep Song” by Hot Tuna

23. “Genesis” by Jorma Kaukonen

24. “Get Me Out Of This Town” by Andy Prieboy (Featuring Tony Kinman)

25. “There’ll Always Be Music” by Dolly Parton

26. “I’ll Let You Know Before I Leave” by Jorma Kaukonen

27. “Colour of Water” by Rose Elinor Dougall

28. “Blues for Mr. Mu” by Acoustic Alchemy

29. “Inkulu Into Ezakwenzeka” by Nontwintwi

30. “Easy to Slip” by Little Feat

31. “Finnegans Wake” by The Weasels

32. “Larf and Sing” by Family

33. “Confidante” by Paul McCartney

34. “Fall on Me” by R.E.M.

35. “Heaven and Hell” by William Onyeabor

36. “Love Theme from Spartacus” by Yusef Lateef

37. “Everybody’s Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson

38. “Water Boy” by Don Shirley

39. “Genesis Hall” by Fairport Convention

40. “I Believe You” by The Monkees

Michael Stipe and Rain Phoenix nab most played kudos for 2019. Click the image to hear their glorious duet.