Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sunday Music: Save the Children

While looking for videos of Marvin Gaye's live performances, I stumbled across this beauty. The nine minute clip of Gaye performing "What's Goin' On" and "What's Happening Brother," is interspersed with footage shot mostly on the south side of Chicago. The contributor's caption states that it was an excerpt from an out-of-release documentary, Save the Children, from 1973. I went to Internet Movie Database for more information about the film. It was directed by an African American, Stan Lathan, a pioneer in the desegregation of television from behind the camera. He's still around, most recently producing the Def Comedy Jam series on HBO. The talent on Save the Children is amazing: Cannonball Adderly, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, The Jackson Five, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett. Unfortunately, the original contributor was right; the film is completely out of print. Additional excerpts of the concert, including performers not listed on the movie credits, have surfaced on the internet.

More from Save the Children [Link]

Save the Children was the unifying theme for the Chicago Black Exposition of 1972. In 1970, the first Black Expo was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership conference's Operation Breadbasket, directed by a young, charismatic Rev. Jesse Jackson. A photo from a Chicago Tribune article about the exposition plans shows Jackson, exchanging a "soul handshake" with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

The entertainment part of the expo was especially well-attended. Since proceeds from the expo were intended to fund the mission of the SCLC, the royalty of Motown were more than honored to perform. In 1971, the SCLC suspended Jackson, pending an investigation into financial irregularities and the incorporation of the Black Expo as its own foundation. Jackson broke with the SCLC, and started his own organization, Operation P.U.S.H. (People United to Save Humanity), and continued to sponsor the expo through it. The entire staff and board of directors of Operation Breadbasket went with him, leaving the SCLC effectively with no fund-raising unit. It was a humiliating blow for SCLC president Ralph Abernathy, who eventually resigned. The Operation P.U.S.H. sponsored Black Expo continued until 1976, when exhibitors became sparse in part due to the economic recession.

In 1973, Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church honored Dr. Abernathy for his 18 years of service to the civil rights movement. Still devastated by Jackson's betrayal and the defections from SCLC, he took the pulpit and lashed out at the black community, accusing it of "giv(ing) only lip service to the dream of Rev. Martin Luther King Junior," adding that "(we) spend our money on marijuana, dope, liquor and booze, big fine cars, and walk around in fancy cloths[sic] to make us think we are free." In contrast, Jesse Jackson appeared on Sesame Street, reading his inspirational poem, "I am Somebody." It was a supremely media-savvy appearance, signifying that the movement had moved on.

"Daley's Soul Handshake Opens 3d Black Expo at Amphitheatre." Chicago Tribune. Sep 30, 1971. (photo) [Link]

"Black Expo in Chicago" Time. Oct 11, 1971. [Link]

"Abernathy blasts blacks for rights movement woes." Chicago Tribune. Jul 26, 1973.

Profile and Interview with Jesse Jackson. The New Internationalist. August 1973. [Link]

"How PUSH came to shove in Expo fund hassle." Chicago Tribune. Apr 22, 1975.

"I Am Somebody" (Wikipedia entry) [Link]

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Amusing Searches

was louie armstrong gay?

ladie feeding her [censored] to dogs

nude photos of telly savalas

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Feliz Navi Nada

from the Merry MeX-mas album

El Vez! website [Link]

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sunday Music: Merry Christmas

Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, 1988. I hope it's not a fruitcake.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Music: German Soul

That's right, German soul. I don't think the modifier "blue eyed" is required. The above is Hildegard Knef performing "Von nun an gings bergab" (From here on, it gets rough), in 1970. I've been waiting months for someone to post this Tom Jones-ish turn by Howard Carpendale, "Du hast mich," also from 1970:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday Music: Vashti Bunyan

Vashti Bunyan dropped out of the music business twice. The first time was in 1967, after releasing just three singles. In 1970, she was persuaded returned to the studio to record the album Just Another Diamond Day. The album sold less than a thousand copies. Bunyan moved to the Isle of Skye, and spent the next 30 years homesteading and raising a family. In the meantime, Just Another Diamond Day developed a cult following; original copies were selling on eBay for over $1,000. She recently returned to performing, and recorded a new album,Lookaftering, in 2005. The clip above is Vashti--she didn't use "Bunyan" early in her career--looking a little awkward while lip-synching to "Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind." The catchy, Dylanesque tune was written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.

Vashti Bunyan Interview. Perfect Sound Forever [Link]
Vashti Bunyan. FatCat Records [Link]

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Music: Merle Haggard

When singer/songwriter Merle Haggard told his idol, Johnny Cash, that he had seen one of his early concerts at San Quentin, Cash was puzzled. He didn't remember Haggard being among the performers visiting the prison. "I was in the audience," he explained. Haggard was serving a sentence for armed robbery. After his release in 1960, Haggard channeled his outlaw tendencies into a genre of country music named after his hometown of Bakersfield, California. A reaction against the sometimes over-produced Nashville recordings of the 1960s, the Bakersfield sound was relatively lean and unembellished.

I went to Bakersfield a few years ago to visit relatives. We stayed in a motel just down the road from Buck Owen's Crystal Palace. After check-in, I headed out alone to look at the Palace. It was early evening, and the parking lot was radiating heat like a griddle. At an older, seedier motel next to ours, a shirtless man lounged in a plastic lawn chair, drinking straight from a bottle of whiskey. I pretended to not see him. He saw me, however. "HeLLO!" he said. "Excuse me..Miss?...HeLLO!" He stood up and headed unsteadily in my direction. I was about to break into a run when the cowboy appeared. He rode a fine palomino across what was left of the seedy motel's lawn, and clopped into the parking lot. "Howdy!" he said, looking handsome in his cream-colored stetson. He rode across the parking lot and disappeared around the corner of my motel. The creepy guy beat a hasty retreat. I returned to my room--never did get to see the Crystal Palace.

The clip above is Haggard singing "Swinging Doors," from about 1965.

Bakersfield Sound [Link]

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sunday Music: Robyn Hitchcock

Last night, I saw my best concert of the year...or perhaps of the last decade--Robyn Hitchcock, at the Old Town School of Folk Music. He and his band had already done an early show, but they gave us an excellent two-hour long set. He never appeared to tire, pausing after the encore only to enjoy a nice cuppa tea. Afterwards, he sat in the front lobby and signed CDs, conversing most charmingly with fans. I'm kicking myself for never seeing him in concert before this.

The selection this week is "The Yip Song," from the 1998 Jonathan Demme concert film, Storefront Hitchcock.

More excerpts from Storefront Hitchcock [Link]

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dan Lacey, Painter of Pancakes

Hillary Clinton With a Pancake on Her Head

Just think of a political figure. Now think of him or her with a pancake on their head. Doesn't the world feel like a safer place?

Muppet Barack Obama

Dan Lacey, Painter of Pancakes [Link]

Monday, November 10, 2008

CTA stories: Just some stuff

An acquaintance recently asked if I had any new CTA stories. I wish. Riding on the train in the 2000s is just another quotidian event. The Blue Line is packed like a cattle car, and my fellow commuters are mostly dull young professionals. I can tick off the mildly interesting experiences of the last year on one hand and still have some fingers left over.

On a steaming hot Saturday afternoon, I am trapped on a train stalled between Division and Damen. The air conditioning is out. Across the aisle from me are two Hasidic men wearing hats and heavy wool coats. They have luggage with them, and are probably riding all the way to O'Hare. Watching them melt distracts me from my own misery. There are tiny drops of moisture gathering on their beards. Finally, one of them asks, with a surprising Yiddish accent "So, are trains in Chicago usually not air-conditioned?"

I walk into the Logan Square station to commute to work. The ticket agent is standing in the middle of the entry, shouting "No Trains Today!" over and over. Why? I ask. She shrugs and continues her message loop. I go above ground and cross the street to wait for the Milwaukee bus with...oh about 50 other people. One man says that he heard that there's been a fire in the tunnel. (As we later discover, a train derailed and a major evacuation fiasco ensued. On the Chicago Tribune website I see a photo of my friend Annie clambering out of some grungy Capone-era emergency hatch.)

A Milwaukee bus arrives, subtly rocking back and forth with the enormous weight of too many people. For some insane reason, I fight my way on. At each stop, more people irrationally squeeze on to the bus. I can't breath. Someone's armpit is close to knocking my glasses off. I realize that I am going to throw up/faint/scream. I begin the lengthy process of fighting my way off the bus. My fellow commuters are not going down easy. Usually, people step off to allow others to leave. Riders on the Bus of the Damned are glassy-eyed, refusing to budge. "Let me out!" I shout. "I'm gonna be sick!" I am nearly ejected on to the sidewalk.

On the evening of November 4, I enter the subway station, on my way to watch the election results at a friend's house. Four men are clustered together talking excitedly: two Puerto Rican guys wearing athletic jerseys with enormous portraits of Obama printed on the front and lots of bling, an older white guy with a ponytail (they don't call it the People's Republic of Logan Square for nothing), and a young white hipster. The boys are all pumped about Obama's chances. The hipster and I discuss Nate Silver's very encouraging electoral projections on He tells me, "He (Silver) lives right here in Chicago, in Wicker Park." We both marvel at being in Chicago right now, witnesses to History. When I get off at my stop, the guys wave and wish me a good night.

That's all the recent news from Chicago, the Mild, Mild West. Next time I promise to go back 15 years or so.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sunday Music: Daniel Johnston

I "discovered" Daniel Johnston about fifteen years after everyone else had. It's often that way with me. I have excellent taste, retroactively.

Johnston, a prolific visual artist and songwriter, has struggled with schizophrenia for most of his adult life. Many of his songs touch on the heartbreak of love; or in his case, of not being able to love. In the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the singer is reunited with a long-lost unrequited love from his youth, a woman who became sort of an imaginary muse. It's one of many very moving scenes in the film. One cannot help but wonder what kind of life he might have had if not for his illness.

The album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered, Covered is a beautiful introduction to his work. The two-disc set includes ten of his songs, first performed by him and then covered by various artists. I've included "Go" by Sparklehorse and "King Kong" by Tom Waits. The third track is Johnston himself, singing "True Love Will Find You In The End."

This is a promise with a catch
Only if you're looking can it find you

‘Cause true love is searching too,
But how can it recognize you
Unless you step out into the light?

Hi How Are You? The Official Daniel Johnston Site [Link]

Rejected Unknown. The Daniel Johnston Fan Site [Link]

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Dear McCain supporters:

I'm proud to be an American, again.

President-elect Obama gave a graceful victory speech, but I don't have to be nearly as sanguine. Conservatives have had eight years to run this country into the ground. God help us and our new President.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


One of my neighbors, talking on her cell phone:


Monday, November 3, 2008

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Sunday Music: Le Tigre

Get off the internet, and GOTV. We're making history.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sunday Music: The Gothic Archies

Happy Halloween! As most newsaholics know, the mother of all current events costumes just got dropped in our laps last week. So, how many of you are going out with fake shiners and a backwards "B" drawn on your faces with lip pencil? You gotta admit, it's a lot easier than pulling together the Caribou Barbie thing.

On some NPR show this weekend, they asked listeners to submit things from movies that terrified them as children. The flying monkeys from Wizard of Oz pretty much swept the competition away. Wow, they were frightening. Monkeys are unnerving to begin with, since they look like ugly, hairy little men, hopped up on speed. The host reminded listeners of the moment they swarmed Dorothy and her friends, and pulled all the straw out of the Scarecrow. Horrible!

In addition to flying monkeys (and clowns), what really scared me were dolls--especially those creepy baby dolls with clear, soulless eyes that snapped open suddenly when upright. One Christmas, my elderly great-aunts gave me baby doll in a bridal gown--an interesting sartorial choice, considering the fact that one had never married, and the other was a cheerful widow of an alcoholic. I could barely suppress my loathing. The only doll I played with on a regular basis was a cheap injection-molded Ken, an amputee due to his right foot collapsing into his leg cavity. The neighbor boy Craig and I pretended that Ken was one of the teenage cast members on Flipper, a television show starring Lloyd Bridges and an incredibly talented dolphin. Flipper himself was portrayed by my Grandpa's fishing-tackle measuring tape, which was in a metal case shaped and painted to look like a trout.

Mom insisted that we put the bride doll in a place of honor. There she sat on one of the Dutch Colonial chairs at the far end of the living room, blankly staring ahead as the family watched Gunsmoke. She was waiting until our guard was down. Perhaps this explains why, when I saw the Twilight Zone episode where a doll torments mean step-dad Telly Savalas, I was rooting for Telly.

"Living Doll" The Twilight Zone

Our song this week is "This Abyss," by The Gothic Archies, wonderfully described by founder Stephin Merritt as a "goth-rock bubblegum" band. Dan Handler, otherwise known as children's author Lemony Snicket, played accordion with the Gothic Archies while on tour.

The House of Tomorrow. The Gothic Archies. [Link]

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sunday Music: Brazilian B-Sides

Miss Fifty Foot took a break last Sunday. To those who contacted me to ask what was wrong, thanks for checking in! Truth is, I was dog-tired, and for some reason hadn't listened to music the previous week. I work at a university, so some of this can be attributed to the regular Fall quarter overload. And, as winter approaches, every day is shorter and darker than the last. It's been a struggle to awaken at a normal time. My doctor recommended I buy a therapeutic light for seasonal affective disorder. The use of therapeutic light to stabilize circadian rhythms, and thus stabilize mood, is backed up with good research.

My 10,000 lux Apollo BriteLite arrived on Wednesday. To give you an idea of what we miss during winter: overcast daylight is about 10,000 lux, while bright sunlight ranges between 32,000 to 130,000 lux. Despite being only as bright as a cloudy day, the fixture produces one of the most blazing white lights I've ever experienced from an artificial source. To get the best results, I sit next to it for 30 minutes in the morning. Although it's too early to deliver a final verdict, I do feel more alert after awakening.

On Friday, I went to a concert featuring Brazilian musical legend Milton Nascimento, and the Jobim Trio. Nascimento, whose recent work seems to veer toward jazz/bossa nova fusion, is not one of my top picks from his era. I favor his early stuff from the late 60s and early 70s, as did the audience, which appeared to be nearly every Brazilian living in the tri-state area. Later, I waited in the inevitable post-concert restroom line, the only gringa, it seemed. Amid the flock of stunning birds-of-paradise, I felt like a common house sparrow. Wearing a hoodie and track shoes was definitely a mistake. A couple women continued singing choruses from their favorite songs. "Al-la-la, Al-la-la,la la la..."echoed from a stall as one lady did her business.

I have little familiarity with recent Brazilian pop music, with the exception of Cansei de Ser Sexy ("tired of being sexy"), an electropop band with a handful of international hits. That's why this playlist from the Brazil Travel Blog is much appreciated.*

Folkloric rabeca (fiddle) from Antonio Nóbrega.

"Instinto Coletivo" by O Rappa, with animated capoeira.

Real, live capoeira. Unbelievable! [Link]

Top Ten: Brazilian Music (B-sides) [Link]

*It's a little dated..just up to 2001. Still, new territory for me.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Sunday Music: Pharcyde

Hip-hop, or rap, or whatever you want to call it, has been around for some 30-plus years. It started as a DJ's spoken-word accompaniment to funk records: sort of a black, urban version of a square-dancing call.

For the most part, I'm not a fan. Part of this is due to my musical Achilles heel: lyric-deafness. I do not seem to be able to understand very many song lyrics, either when they are sung or spoken over music. Since the rhymes are the primary focus of hip-hop, there's not a lot left for me to enjoy. Throw in a blizzard of post-1980 b-boy slang and it might as well be in a foreign language.

Despite my dis-hip-hopability, I have some affection for Pharcyde, a group of South LA long-haired freaks who started out as dancers. (LA, again!) The video of the single "Drop" (which is old news to anyone who watches MTV), was shot with all the action in reverse. The performers even had to learn their lyrics in reverse, which puts them light years ahead of my feeble abilities. A libretto follows.

Bootie Brown:

Let me freak the funk,
obsolete is the punk that talk more junk than Sanford sells
I jet propel at a rate that complicate their mental state
as I invade their masquerade
they couldn't fade with a clipper blade
10 years in the trade is not enough, you can't cut it
I let you take a swing, and you bunt it
for an easy out, I leave mc's with doubt
of exceeding, my name is Bottie Brown and I'm proceeding, leading,
they try to follow but they're shallow and hollow
I can see right through them like an empty 40 bottle, of O.E.
they have no key, or no clue
to the game at all, now they washed up
hung out to dry
standing looking stupid, wondering why
(why man?)
it was the fame, that they tried to get
now they walking around talkin about represent
and keep it real, but I got to appeal
cause they existing in a fantasy when holding the steel

Slim Kid 3:

rock a bye baby,
listen to my heart pumping to a fine ravine
of all things it's a vain of a shrine
all missions impossible are possible, cause I'm
heading for a new sector 365 days from now, I'll
wipe the sweat from my eye
and each and every true will stick, or fall from the sky of my cloud nine
from homies all the way to chics, no matter how fine
controlling is a swollen way to wreck a proud mind
you hold it in your hands and watch a man start crying
tear after tear in the puppet man's hands
every time you take a stance you do the puppet man's dance
and the worlds at a stand-still
deep in broken mansville, trapped in the moat with an anvil, still
killing yourself, and dogging ya health
you ain't amphibious, so grab a hold of yourself

Knumbskull #1:

shit is-shit is ill, my flow still will spill
toxic slick to shock you sick like electrocute
when I execute, acutely over the rhythm
on those that pollute, extra dosages is what I gotta give em
got em mad and tremblin
cause I been up in my lab assemblin
missiles, to bomb the enemy
because they envy me, and the making of my mad currency
currently I think we're in a state of an emergency
cause niggas done sold their souls, and now their souls is hollow
and I think they can't follow
they can't swallow the truth because it hurts
this is how I put it down, this is my earth, my turf
the worth of my birth is a billion, and you know what time it is
I'm going to make a million

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Music: Louis Armstrong

"Satchmo"(short for "Satchelmouth," because of the damage his forceful technique caused to his lips) was born in New Orleans in August of 1901, although he proudly claimed July 4, 1900 as his birthdate for the rest of his life. Armstrong's childhood was fractured by abandonment, poverty and a stint in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, a reform school. His salvation was Storeyville, the red-light district of New Orleans and the birthplace of jazz. Armstrong said, "Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine—I look right in the heart of good old New Orleans...It has given me something to live for.”

Most people are familiar with Louis Armstrong as a jazz legend, and I don't need to gloss over that legacy here. As I learned more about him, I found the breadth of his talent even more astounding. Satchmo seems to have had a drive to create--all the time, in any medium. He authored two autobiographies, the first when he was only 35 years old, and was a prolific correspondent. Then, there's the collages. When Armstrong was on tour, he carried a steamer trunk of reel-to-reel music tapes with him, since they were lighter and less fragile than records. In addition to music, he recorded his own reminiscences, and sometimes just left the deck on to pick up ambient noise. Queens College houses the Louis Armstrong Collection archives, which includes 650 of his tape boxes. Nearly all are decorated with Armstrong's collages, and scrapbooks are bursting with even more. When not touring, he made at least one a day, the kind of discipline most artists would envy. A book of his artwork is due in early 2009.

It's hard to choose songs from such a vast catalog, so I just went with my sentimental favorites. "Saint James Infirmary" was recorded in 1929, and "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?" in 1947.

Reel to Reel Louis Armstrong(Paris Review, 2008) [Link]

Monday, September 22, 2008

Woulda Coulda Shoulda

Shoulda brought a real camera with me to the Hideout Block Party, which happens to be the best outdoor musical event in Chicago, evah. The people-watching alone is worth the price of the ticket. When attending Pitchfork, one can get the low-down on the single outfit that everyone between the age of 18-25 seems to be wearing this summer. At the Block Party, every rocker getup of the last 40 years is on display: purple hair, engineer boots, full tat sleeves, torn fishnet stockings, ragged straw cowboy hats--sometimes a combination of the above on a single person. The lineup was equally eclectic--Americana, hip-hop, electronica, African blues, and even some regular old indie rock.

One of my favorite moments was last night, when Robbie Fulks and his crew did a set of Michael Jackson songs, culminating with "Thriller." Staff from the Hideout (which must be a great place to work) got on stage and did the zombie dance routine. Hilarious!

nicked from someone with a good camera

One of my resolutions post-cancer is to try doing a few things different. Like pushing right up to the stage during shows, for example. Never used to do that. I was up front for the hip-hop act Rhymefest, who had just given a shout-out for Obama, when a guy three or four people away from me started shouting insults at the performer. A McCain supporter, apparently. Rhymefest was launching into a free-form rap about being a black man in the city when McCain2008 screamed "That's bullshit!" and some comments I couldn't catch. Rhymefest, belying his tough ghetto persona, huffed off the stage and refused to come back. Several of us scolded the guy, a tall dork wearing a smirk. He got up in my face. "Who the fuck are YOU?" he asked. I pointed out to him his good fortune in that the audience was 99.9 percent white and relatively timid, and that perhaps under different circumstances he would get a serious ass-kicking. I may have raised my voice and said a few bad words while making this point of argument. I glanced to my side, and realized two men with press badges were up close, filming us. Oh god. Wonder where that will appear? A few furious young women surrounded us--no hipster "men" in sight--and McCain2008 apparently realized he was outnumbered and left the area. I treated myself to a gin and tonic after that.

I bellied up to the barriers again for the Brooklyn electronic rockers Ratatat. I was surrounded by young men, many of them over 6 feet. I chatted with a few as we waited, mostly to make my appearance known and prevent elbows from hitting me in the teeth. The boys conducted themselves very well; all seemed tenderly aware of the fact that a woman the age of their moms was amongst them and that violent moshing would be inappropriate. Ratatat was great, and eventually my hearing will return.

Appropos of nothing, the big hit "Wildcat," from their last album.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Music: Down with Genres

I have little tolerance for genre-based taste in music. Honestly, if you only listen to industrial metal, or rockabilly, or indie freakfolk, you can hardly call yourself a "music lover." Every genre and every type of music has produced an artist or a handful of songs that are worthy of a listen. Even [wince] modern bluegrass.

With that in mind, I once again bring you the immortal CloClo, and his adaption of the Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)," accompanied by the hot-pants-wearing Les Clodettes. I don't know why--I just love this guy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Infinite Jest

Melancolia Albrecht Dürer

I have to admit that I haven't read any of David Foster Wallace's fiction. I have a pretty short attention span, and his masterwork Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages long, and extensively footnoted. Some of the footnotes have footnotes. I have enjoyed his essays though, like this one, about the McCain campaign press bus during the 2000 elections: The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub

As most of you know, Wallace took his own life last week. He suffered from chronic depression for years, and it grew resistant to medication. His father told the New York Times, "Everything had been tried, and he just couldn’t stand it anymore."

Hundreds of literary sites and blogs have posted tributes. The heartbreak of his friends, colleagues and readers is palpable. One bewildered question keeps bubbling to the surface, and I'll paraphrase here: He was so funny/humorous/witty. How could someone with such a great sense of humor commit suicide?

In A Treatise of Melancholie (1586), Timothy Bright described the paradox of a depressive personality. Aside from the Aristotlean physiology, it's good enough for the DSM-IV.

The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian [sardonic], and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities. Those which are sad and pensive, rise of that melancholick humour, which is the grossest part of the blood, whether it be iuice or excrement, not passing the naturall temper in heat whereof it partaketh, and is called cold in comparison onely. This for the most part is setled in the spleane, and with his vapours anoyeth the harte and passing vp to the brayne, counterfetteth terrible obiectes to the fantasie, and polluting both the substance, and spirits of the brayne, causeth it without externall occasion, to forge monstrous fictions, and terrible to the conceite, which the iudgement taking as they are presented by the disordered instrument, deliuer ouer to the hart, which hath no iudgement of discretion in it self, but giuing credite to the mistaken report of the braine, breaketh out into that inordinate passion, against reason.

For the depressive, humor (sometimes of the sardonic variety) bridges the gap between the shadows of his reality, and the sunshine of everyone else's. Cassandra predicted a future that nobody wanted to hear; a depressive experiences a present that most can't comprehend.* I don't think David Foster Wallace's sense of humor was inconsistent with his depression. And, it probably kept him alive for much longer than if he had been without. Rest in peace, DFW.

*I speak from personal experience, although I hasten to add, mostly to reassure my family, that in no way have I ever been as ill as Wallace. He was hospitalized more than once, and received electroconvulsive therapy when nothing else worked.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Music: Cl**de Franç**s

Take that, you folkies! Here's how how a Frenchman does "If I Had a Hammer." Cl**de Franç**s is barely known here, but he was a huge, huge, HUGE star in France. "CloClo," as he was known to his fans, was beloved for his frenetic dancing, sequined suits and shameless kitsch. (See "Le Telephone Pleure--Tears on the phone" on YouTube) Franç**s made his contribution to American culture with his 1968 hit "Comme d'habitude," which Paul Anka reworked into "My Way," a signature tune for Frank Sinatra. Franç**s lived a charmed, or perhaps cursed, life. He was seriously injured in a car accident, then narrowly escaped death during an IRA bombing in London, and then a crazed fan took a shot at him. In 1978, he tried to remove a broken light bulb while standing in his bath, and was electrocuted.

I found a timeline of Cl**de's life, written in Frenglish. Here's a couple of the entries:

"September 1975: Cl**de goes down from his helicopter and by taking again its take-off, this one is crushed"

"June 25, 1977: Cl**de is taken in hunting by criminals when it drives car to go has Dannemois"

More near-misses...I think.


Update: Isn't a shame how the flying copyright monkeys waste their time taking good stuff down? Never mind that it might turn a few people on to some artists they've never heard of before...Anyway, I hope the aster*sks may prevent the monkeys' search engines from hitting this one.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Music: Kris Kristofferson

Today we feature everyone's favorite helicopter pilot/Rhodes scholar/actor/singer/songwriter Kris Kristofferson.

At one point, Kristofferson was sweeping floors at Columbia Studios in Nashville, while Bob Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde. Much of his bio is similarly picaresque. Johnny Cash was one early admirer; Kristofferson delivered a tape of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down" via helicopter, landing in Cash's yard.

Although he personally recorded the songs in this playlist, Kristofferson sings like...well, a songwriter. His voice is better than Burt Bacharach's, but not as pleasant as Randy Newman's. Kristofferson's songs are best enjoyed when covered, and boy have they been covered. "Help Me Make It Through The Night," sung by Sammi Smith, shocked some country fans with when it was released in 1971. Women weren't supposed to pursue one-night stands, especially in the Bible Belt. Johnny Cash's version of "Sunday Mornin'" wasn't the first, but it's my favorite. The classic Janis Joplin cover of "Me and Bobby McGee" has just the right mixture of bitter and sweet. However, I couldn't resist including this knee-slappin' Loretta Lynn cover. The arrangement is pure Nashville Baroque. Just when you think they're done adding tracks, they pile on a change of key!

"Kris Kristofferson talks booze, hellraising and landing a chopper on Johnny Cash's lawn." in The Guardian [Link]

"The Kris Kristofferson Story" at the Country Music Hall of Fame [Link]

Friday, September 5, 2008

More vacay: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

I finally edited and uploaded the pictures from my trip to the Bay area. Among my favorites are photos from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which just celebrated it's 100th birthday. It's a wonderful living museum of amusement; the indoor arcade seems to have every game produced in the last century. I lost four bucks in tokens on Asteroids (c. 1979), proving that my lack of skill has remained intact throughout the decades. Also worth seeing/riding: the Giant Dipper roller-coaster, which has been making 'em scream since 1924, and the Looff Carousel, fully restored to it's 1911 splendor.

More in Flickr set [Link]

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Music: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

I've been meaning to feature some older gospel music for quite some time. I just couldn't decide who, exactly. While searching in YouTube, I started with the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, which led to the Mighty Clouds of Joy, which linked to the Dixie Hummingbirds, and then on to the Pilgrim Jubilee Singers... The music was so joyful and infectious that I just couldn't stop. At 1 AM, I stumbled upon Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Sister Rosetta was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to an evangelist mother, who took her along to perform at tent revivals throughout the south. A genre-defying artist, her lively guitar style influenced countless other gospel and soul performers, as well as early rock-and-roll musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. In the chords and tempo of this gospel shout, "Up Above My Head," are the unmistakable roots of rock.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Wikipedia) [Link]

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Caution: Dad may be hazardous to your health

Here's another risk factor for breast cancer: having a middle-aged father. Chromosomal abnormalities in older maternal eggs can increase the incidence of birth defects; this connection is well-established. Now it seems that sperm also has a "Best Used By" date, despite the fact that men can sire children well into their senior years.

Recent research has linked advanced paternal age to increased incidence of dwarfism, schizophrenia, autism, and both prostate and breast cancers in offspring. These conditions may be caused by chromosome duplication errors which occur after decades of sperm cell creation. Since men don't experience a defined end to their reproductive years like menopause, how old is too old? In the case of the breast cancer data, pre-menopausal women with fathers who were over 40 at time of conception had nearly twice the chance of developing breast cancer as women with fathers less than 30 years of age.

My dad was 47 when I was born. Since there's no history of breast cancer in my family, I've been reduced to trying to identify environmental or behavioral causes. Not enough exercise? Too many glasses of wine? Maybe standing in front of the microwave was not such a good idea. In an odd way, it would be a comfort to know that I got it because some of my genes are all hinky.

"Association of paternal age at birth and the risk of breast cancer in offspring: a case control study." BMC Cancer [Link]

"Older fathers appear to raise risks of genetic disorders." International Herald Tribune [Link]

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Music: Gil Scott-Heron

The first time I heard Gil Scott-Heron was on the No Nukes album from 1980. It included a live performance of "We Almost Lost Detroit," about a nearly disastrous nuclear accident at the Fermi 1 Nuclear Generating Station, just 30 miles south of Detroit. A progressive activist for many causes, Scott-Heron was foremost a poet who gave voice to the Black Power movement of the late 1960's and early 1970's. A recording of his brilliant proto-rap "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" can also be found on YouTube--highly recommended.

The piece included here, "The Bottle," was one of Scott-Heron's biggest hits. Sadly, in recent years, Scott-Heron himself succumbed to other lures of the street, and has been imprisoned twice for felony cocaine possession.

Gil Scott-Heron (Wikipedia) [Link]

"The Weary Blues: Hip-hop godfather Gil Scott-Heron’s out on parole, trying to stay clean, and ready for Carnegie Hall." New York Magazine. June 22, 2008. [Link]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


I spent my 50th birthday in San Francisco. My best friend since sixth grade lives in nearby Mountain View, and she's crossing the half-century line a couple weeks after me. It was good to spend the day with someone who has known me for so long. We went to the Marin Headlands, an area just north of the Golden Gate, the strait which is better known by the bridge spanning it. I'm not sure why this beautiful area escaped development, but it probably has to do with the number of military fortifications and weapons sites located there at one time. We parked at Rodeo Beach, and then walked along the edge of the surf. It was perfect weather, at least for San Francisco: mostly clear on low ground, with fog skimming the hills. After our walk on the beach, we drove higher into the hills. Every turn seemed to unfold a new breath-taking view across the bay. Finally, there was San Francisco, framed by the bridge, glowing gold in the last rays of the setting sun.

That evening, we dined at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. The venerable establishment lived up to expectations. I had California white sea bass sauteed with eggplant, and finished with a pear tart and chilled Moscato d'Asti. Two men who worked in the food or restaurant business sat next to us. I caught bits of their conversation: "I'm trying to work with this organic California-grown wheat, and use it for pizza dough. But, the gluten is all wrong..." and "He's a know, the James Dean of gastronomie," and my favorite, "What you want is a big, fat, French guy running your kitchen."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Birthday Music: Duane Eddy

I made my debut 50 years ago today, albeit without go-go dancers. Here's Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser," which was near the top of the charts in August, 1958. Judging from the hair and attire of the dancers, I was about six or seven when this performance was filmed.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Gone Fishin' again

I've been in the Bay area since Wednesday, but will try to check in later today or tomorrow. Here I am grimacing, for some reason, while I photograph my reflection in front of Timothy Horn's "Diadem", a 300 lb. sugar-encrusted chandelier. It's part of the exhibit Bitter Suite, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

No, YOU move beyond cancer

Nota bene: a brief article in the New York Times Science section, "Having Cancer, and Finding a Personality," by Ruth Pennebaker. Her description of post-cancer malaise is right on.

"The last time I visited my oncologist after my treatments were over, I felt lost. The image that kept recurring in my mind was that someone with a gigantic pair of tweezers had picked me up, shaken me and tossed me back down. Now what?"


I had my own rimshot moments during treatment. Satire can be used to divert aggression; in my case, joking was more productive than punching a hole in the wall. During my last radiation appointment, the nurse gave me a going-away present: a videotape titled "Moving Beyond Cancer." I told her I'd really prefer it if she gave Cancer a videotape called "Moving Beyond Elisa."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Amusing Searches: Gaydar edition

"pete shelley gay"

Pete Shelley gay?

is jackie ferry gay?

Lou Reed gay bisexual

Honorable Mention:

Gone fishing crossdressing photos

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Music: Grieg

Last night, I relaxed under the open sky, drinking vinho verde and listening to a spectacular live performance of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor. It was one of the last Grant Park Music Festival events of the summer, another bittersweet reminder that fall is almost here. The pianist on Saturday was Valentina Lisitsa. I wish I could have embedded a clip of her performing the piece, but she seems to exercise tight control of her brand, especially when it comes to content on YouTube. Instead, I've included the best performance of (part of) Part 3 that I could find there, by Norwegian Steffen Horn, accompanied by an unidentified orchestra. Many pianists play the "dance" part too quickly; I like Horn's more nuanced interpretation.

There are two concerts remaining in the season. They are free, and you can bring a picnic, wine included.

Grant Park Music Festival [Link]

Friday, August 8, 2008

Breast Cancer Comics

The New York Times recently reviewed the graphic novel "The Bottomless Belly Button," by Dash Shaw. An astonishing 720 pages, the story follows an extended family as they react to the news that the grandparents are getting a divorce. There's a lot of buzz around "The Bottomless Belly Button;" New York magazine called it the "graphic novel of the year." And, there's just as much interest in the author and artist, 25 year-old Dash Shaw. For such youth, he's prolific, having already inked critically acclaimed "The Mother's Mouth," and several shorter works.

When I Googled him, I was surprised to see his name attached to a search result for "Breast Cancer Comics," from the web site Readers submit their stories, and Shaw (who looks about fourteen in his profile photo) interprets them in graphic form. Perhaps it was a good gig for a starving artist. I somehow have the feeling he's about to become too famous for this kind of work.

"A Week at the Beach, With a Divorce Imminent" Book of the Times. [Link]

Breast Cancer Comics [Link]

Dash Shaw's website [Link]

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lady Doctors vs. Baby Doctors

I'm guest-blogging for the next two weeks at Cancer Bitch, while she concentrates on moving into a new place. I'll cross-post everything here, but do check out her blog if you haven't before. The University of Iowa press will publish her book Cancer Bitch some time next year.

Last week, I had my first gynecological exam since I started cancer treatment. TMI, you say? None of you complained when I wrote about breasts.

I haven't had the best of luck with gynecologists. There was Dr. Shifty, at my old HMO, who constantly glanced around the room while I asked questions, as if seeking an escape route. Then, Dr. Gorgeous, who lectured me about birth control while he was down there. Uncomfortable. The last one, Dr. Soccermom, hurt me during the examination, and blamed me, saying I was "too tense." Pain does make me tense.

So, my expectations were low when I walked into yet another waiting room of an OB/GYN practice; this time recommended by my internist. After filling out the new patient forms, I started to browse the magazine selection. They had a couple of obligatory copies of Parenting, but also a number of news magazines and, to my delight, the latest issue of ReadyMade. If you're not familiar with ReadyMade, it's the bible of hipster Do-It-Yourself-ers; sort of a combination Popular Mechanics/Good Housekeeping for Generation Y. It's a pretty unusual magazine to find in a doctor's office.

One of the big problems I've had with OB/GYNs in the past is the feeling that they're really OBs, and the GYN part is an afterthought. This was first time I didn't automatically feel like a second-class citizen for not being pregnant. Dr. Soccermom's waiting room was full of baby magazines, brochures about breast-feeding, and mini photo albums of infants she caught on their way out. I have nothing against babies; I actually was one, at one time. But how about a little photo album of women you've successfully guided through menopause--hmmm? We're probably not cute enough.

The new gynecologist, who I will now think of as Dr. ReadyMade, was wonderful! First, we met in his office to discuss any concerns, a pleasant alternative to having to ask questions while half-naked and on an exam table. During the examination, he told me what he was doing and took care to cause minimal discomfort. I don't say this about a lot of docs, but he's a keeper.

ReadyMade [Link]

"Gynecologists say the darndest things" Radar [Link]

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday Music: Black Lips

It's been a good week for music. On Monday, I finally got to see Bill Callahan live. Like a big dork, I lurked near the stage door after the concert. I never do that kind of thing. A friendly-looking senior couple waited next to me. His parents? A roadie came out and escorted them backstage. I resigned myself to the fact that he was probably not going to come out, and started to leave. The bass player, who had stepped out for a smoke, was walking toward me. "Excuse me," I said, startling him. "I had a ticket to see you guys in getting chemo and got too sick to go." I was getting more embarrassed by the moment. "I just wanted to say...uh...that this was nice." God, then I started choking up. He smiled and thanked me.

On Friday, I saw Atlanta's Black Lips at the Empty Bottle. The band, which has been around for about eight years, plays driving punk/country/blues anthems guaranteed to get the audience both moshing and singing along. It was a great show. "O Katrina!," a bluesy tune from the 2007 album GOOD BAD NOT EVIL, is one of the best songs about the destruction of New Orleans that I've heard. Who needs lofty poetry to describe the disaster? It was a betrayal, plain and simple.

Black Lips (Wikipedia) [Link]

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Balloon Dogs and Astronauts

Show a lot of art with mirrored surfaces, and you're just asking for people to photograph their own reflections. I was scolded for taking this one of me and my friend Linda becoming one with Jeff Koon's "Easyfun...Sheep." The show, "Everything's Here: Jeff Koons and his experience of Chicago" runs through October. It's smallish, but augmented on the fourth floor by an exhibit of Chicago artists who have influenced Koons. I left feeling a little giddy, which is exactly how a 10 foot-high stainless steel balloon dog should make you feel. Huge photos of Koons and his ex-wife, porn star Ilona Staller (or, perhaps more accurately, their body parts), are installed in a concealed area in one of the main rooms. If you have any qualms about viewing a billboard-sized pornographic image, avoid this section.

A recent New Yorker had a good article about the show, and Koon's controversial life and career:
Funhouse: A Jeff Koon's Retrospective. [Link]

The MCA gift store is my personal crackhouse; I rarely get out of there without dropping at least $50 on a book and/or some arty thingamabob. This time, it was a tiny stuffed kitten toy by Marie Maison de Mieux [Link], and a book of Japanese pictograms/icons. I haven't done graphic design in years, but I still appreciate a good icon or symbol. I loved the disco ball and the astronaut, combined below.

Some of the icons depict typical Japanese situations or anxieties. The tiny, perspiring man was in a section titled "Trouble." He hangs his head in abject shame as he's being berated, probably by his boss, something you'll not see in western clip art. And then there's the subway groper. In Chicago, we would need an additional pictogram of him getting a beatdown.

Then, there's the "huh?" pictograms. This one was in a section called "Bussiness"(sic). To me, it looks like someone tossing a baby out of a building. At least I think that's an arm, although other interpretations are understandable. I'll post more in the future.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Music: The Leaves

I'm listening to a lot of new music this week, thanks to some generous pals and my very BFF, The Internet. Like other forms of pop culture, current music seems to be all over the place; there's a genre and group for every lifestyle segment. He likes Wolf Parade, Pepsi and drives a Jetta. She likes The Mouldy Peaches, Izze's and rides a fixed-gear. It's just another consumer choice.

What's lacking--and I'm a middle-aged fart, so I may very well not know what I'm talking about--is the sense that there's a scene, a place and time where people who make music all know each other, play together, and feed off each other's genius. Maybe that's why I'm continually enthralled by the garage, folk and psychedelic rock that seemed to pour out of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1960's.

The Los Angeles-based band The Leaves started out as surf-rockers. As noted in Wikipedia, their first gig was in a high-school gym, sharing the bill with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.* The Leaves' 1966 single "Hey Joe" was later covered by Jimi Hendrix. It's difficult to un-think the iconic Hendrix version, but I like this one quite a bit.

As a published work,"Hey Joe" has a murky history, and is often cited as having traditional folk origins. It certainly is consistent with a long history of American folk and blues ballads devoted to homicide; e.g. "Tom Dooley," "Frankie and Johnny," and "Stagger Lee." Whatever it's origin, singer/songwriter Billy Roberts registered it for copyright in 1962. Since then, "Hey Joe" has been covered by dozens of artists. You must take a minute and listen to the version by a Japanese psychedelic-era band, The Golden Cups. [Link]

Murder Ballad (Wikipedia) [Link]

*An older acquaintance of mine remembers seeing Screamin' Jay Hawkins at a school assembly in Oak Park, Illinois in the late 50s. My high school managed to get the regional touring group of Up With People.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sunday Music: Pitchfork Festival

A dinosaur wearing a "Dinosaur Jr." t-shirt

I intended writing a post when I returned home last night, but the urge to lie down was too overwhelming. I spent much of the last two days at the Pitchfork Music Festival, in Chicago's Union Park. Against all odds, I did not get heat stroke or food poisoning. However, the dogs are killing me.

The woman distributing wristbands in the beer ticket line chuckled when she saw my ID. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm older than you." We were definitely not in the main demographic, but I saw a few fellow gray-hairs in the crowd. Even more seemed to be up on stage, especially during the performances of now-vintage bands like Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. Sheesh. Where did the 90s go, again?

Earlier this year, the New York Times printed a series of charts created by artist Andrew Kuo, tracking his waxing and waning enjoyment of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.[Link] Kuo remembered that at one point during his first music festival, the 1992 Lollapalooza, that he "didn't want to be there any more." That sentiment swept over me fully only once, on Sunday, while M. Ward performed on the main stage. The sun came out in full force over the rain-soaked grounds, making it feel like a steam bath. When I couldn't take it any more, I fled to the leafy shade near stage C, and lay flat on my back on a makeshift tarp. Half a dozen people rested around me. I nearly drifted off, despite the simulated gunfire from Ghostface Killah. Later, as the sun dropped behind buildings to the west, I met up with a friend. We listened to Spiritualized, and ate handfuls of cherries.

Pitchfork Music Festival Playlist (streaming audio & downloads) [Link].

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sunday Music: The Seeds

The 1968 hippiesploitation movie Psych-Out has, judging from the trailer, much to recommend it. It stars a young Jack Nicholson as uber-cool rock guitarist "Stoney,"with a supporting cast that includes Dean Stockwell, Bruce Dern, and indie film maker Henry Jaglom. The plot appears to be a little Easy Rider with a dash of Reefer Madness. Beautiful deaf-mute runaway girl? Check. Rapacious hippie-hating thugs? Check. Bad acid trip where guy tries to cut off his own hand? Check. In contrast, The Trip, made in 1967, has Peter Fonda running wildly through the woods wearing a peasant blouse while the Death character from "The Seventh Seal" chases him. That's a very bad trip.

Psych-Out was supposed to take place in San Francisco, but it featured two well-known Los Angeles bands: The Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds. The Strawberry Alarm Clock are best known for "Incense and Peppermints," which reached number one on the Billboard charts in 1967. The Seeds, with only one national hit, "Pushin' Too Hard," held close to their garage rock roots. Widely admired by other musicians, their blues-inflected sound was not embraced by the general public, at least outside of Southern California.

In 1970, lead singer Sky Saxon joined the Yahowha cult, and released several records as The Yahowha 13. The community disbanded after their leader, Father Yod, died in a hang-gliding mishap. Saxon, who is now called "Sunlight" Sky Saxon, always seems to have several projects going, judging from his Google search results. The most recent seems to be the group King Arthur's Court.

If you were suffering from a far-out deficiency, the preceding paragraph should have set you right. Here's a couple of lesser-known selections:

Trailer for Psych-Out [Link]

Psych-Out at [Link]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Technical difficulties

Apologies for the late music posting. I've been away from high-speed internet for the long weekend, and am too tired to dig up some tunes, tonight.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lame museum post

I'm officially tired of editing photos, and museum posts are lame, anyway. I'll make this short. After Japanese noodles, Mike and I headed to downtown LA, to the Museum of Neon Art. Michael used to be on the museum board, and had a hand in refurbishing several of the older examples of neon in the collection. There were some extraordinary contemporary pieces; unfortunately the best, pieces using plasma, completely eluded my level of photographic skill. I did find an image of one of them on the artist's website.

Mitch LaPlante "Plasma Cherry" [Link]

As we drove to our next destination, Michael pointed out the Crapi Apartments, mentioning that he helped make the sign. He has an eccentric (and wealthy) patron who commissions signs based on puns and double entendres. This man actually owns the Crapi Apartments, as well as the neighboring Cheezee Apartments. I hope the tenants get a break with the rent.

Before dinner, we stopped at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Culver City. A cabinet of curiosities, an art installation, a museum about museums, an elaborate could be said that MJT is all of these things. In an interview, museum founder David Wilson said "confusion can be a very creative state of mind." A visit to the MJT is much like a dream: enthralling and haunting, yet difficult to describe to others without becoming tedious. So I won't try; just go and see it.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology (in Wikipedia) [Link]

Monday, July 7, 2008

Strawberry Underpants Skater

This is a few blocks from my house. Is it a Rebus? An underground religion? A heraldic crest? Suggestions welcome.

Photo by: eschlabach

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Music: Pete Shelley

Belated Happy Gay Pride Day!

"Homosapien," which was released as a single by the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley, was banned by the BBC in 1981 for "explicit reference to gay sex." Huh? I need to look at those lyrics, because I missed the explicit sex parts.

And I just hope and pray that the
day of our love is at hand.
You and I, me and you, we will be
one from two, understand?

And the world is so wrong that I
hope that we'll be strong enough,
For we are on our own and the only
thing known is our love.

I don't wanna classify you like
an animal in the zoo,
But it seems good to me to know
that you're Homosapien too

Aside from that controversy, the video includes a wonderful little Commodore PET home computer; state-of-the-art in 1981.

Buzzcocks Official Site [Link]

Commodore PET [Link]

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Neon Dreams

On Thursday morning, I cruised around Los Angeles, sightseeing as much as I dared in the heavy traffic. One of the problems with this city is that when you see something interesting, like this Thai restaurant with a giant hot dog on its roof, it's usually too late to stop and take a proper photo.

Thanks to the internet, I found better pictures, as well as a little background. The hot dog, which first decorated an ordinary fast-food shack, is a beloved landmark at the corner of Western and Hollywood. The Thai restaurant (which continued to offer hot dogs on the menu, along with Gai Pad Prik) moved out, and developers are moved in. Sadly, bland condos are taking over central LA, much as they are in Chicago, erasing local eccentricity and charm.

Curbed LA: Thai Hot Dog/Insurance Stand Shuttered [Link]

After noon, I headed toward the Valley to visit Michael, my former classmate from art school. We were meeting at his studio, where he was going to give a demo of how to make neon forms. Aside from a cute electric plug sculpture (plugs being a theme for this trip), the first thing I noticed was the scooter.

Michael still had the old scooter I remember him riding back in Columbus. The hard hat with a rocket embedded in it? I forgot all about the thing until I laid eyes on it. I asked Mike about his circa 1979 Walkman, the first I had ever seen. Of course he still had it. He even bought a couple on Ebay and refurbished them. Mike told me that back in the 70s, the Walkman (which was all metal and beautifully engineered) retailed for about $400.

"Neon" is a generic name for bent glass tubing which is filled with one of the so-called "nobel gases," such as neon or argon. The gas is sealed in at low pressure, and a high charge of electricity causes it to glow. Neon glows bright red, and most early neon signs (c. 1920-1930) were that color, by default. The introduction of different gases, glass colors, and metals such as mercury, permitted glass benders to expand the color range to nearly the full spectrum.

The small swirled pieces above were created by an artist training with Michael. She bent each component as part of a larger work commissioned by another artist. The big red circle is Michael's. I asked him how he made circles: did he use a mold or form? No, it's all eyeballed, much as it has been done for decades.

Michael started his demo by taking a glass tube and heating it in a special double-headed welding torch. Using a plug with a thin tube attached, he blew through it to prevent the glass from collapsing. While trying to photograph this close-up, I backed into his other torch (on the left, above). Fortunately, I felt the heat and jumped away before I also became a torch. "Did you set yourself on fire?" he asked, nonchalantly. Apparently he had gone up in flames himself more than once, and it was no longer a big deal. He also mentioned that the laws of physics dictated that you would tend to put your hand on the hottest part of the glass when trying to turn it. Kind of like toast always falling buttered side down, I guess.

Once the glass tube was a little floppy, Michael put it on an asbestos pad on his work table, and started to bend it. He cut another piece of tubing, this time cobalt-blue, imported from Italy. He then demonstrated fusing two pieces together, and twirled the two cut ends together in the flame, still blowing into the tube to prevent collapse. How anyone ever figured out how to do this to begin with...

After the glass had cooled, it was time to insert electrodes and remove oxygen from the tube, so that gas (in this case, neon) could be pumped in at low pressure. I'll admit to being a bit unclear when describing what happened next. It involved a lot of electricity, that's for sure. Mike has a transformer under his workbench, and built his own regulator box, which looks like something out of a horror movie. He said "Don't get near this or point at it." Reason: the charge (1800 volts) might jump and use me as a conduit. You don't have to tell me twice.

Using a hypodermic needle, Michael inserted a tiny drop of mercury into the tube as he completed the seal. "You've probably seen too many of these in the last year." Yes, but it was nice to see one without my own blood in it, for a change.

As the mercury fumes gradually filled the tube, the natural bright red of electrified neon changed to an icy blue. Totally cool.

Then, we went out for Japanese noodles. What a perfect day!

Next: The Museum of Neon Art

The history of neon signs [Link]