Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Would you like cheese on your iTunes?

The best thing about the iTunes Music Store is not that you can buy the one song worth having off an otherwise suckey album. It’s also not that you can buy only the fabled “one hit” from that horrific “wonder” band. Nor is its best attribute the fact that you can buy just, say, “West Virginia” and not the other 49 states from John Linnell’s State Songs album.

These are nice benefits to be sure, but they are tertiary at best.

No dear reader, what trumps them all is the ability to buy the cheesiest, most horrendous and sappiest songs ever recorded without blemishing the artificially cool aesthetic you’ve so painstakingly crafted with the CDs you strategically display in your home.

And you know you’ve done it…just bought a CD because of what you want it to say about you: “Look how hip I am!” and “Don’t you wish you’d heard of these guys first!” and “Aren’t I artistically advanced?!” And while cheesy is sometimes cool, sometimes it’s not…so why risk it? Bury it on the computer if you’re not sure, because you know the second you go to the kitchen to get more dip, people run the culture scan on your décor, your artwork, your books and your CDs—you will be judged!

Since I’m already embracing my charlatanism here, you should know that my dPodLists are just front to make me look more sophisticated and cosmopolitan. In reality I’m all about Kelly Clarkson, but I digress.

My point here is that I recently went down that road and bought a few songs I wouldn’t want you to find while I was in the kitchen. A friend gave me an iTunes online gift coupon thingy (and yes, that is the technical term) for my birthday and here are the first four songs I bought with it:

- “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” – The Gap Band
- “Let it Whip” – The Dazz Band
- “Get Down on It” – Kool and the Gang
- “She’s a Brick House” – Rick James

If that were the end of the story, I’d probably delete this whole thing. But there's more to it than that, so bear with me.

One of the greatest things about music is how it can take you to forgotten places and times. These songs had been in and out of my head for years, but it wasn’t until I downloaded them that things came clear for me.

I realized these first four picks were inspired by the repair guys at my surrogate grandmother’s1 TV shop on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1980’s. Havill’s TV & Radio was located on East 53rd Street in the Hyde Park neighborhood near the University of Chicago. It’s probably the most eclectic and racially integrated part of the city, and where I was first exposed to black people and black music.

My mom worked at the TV shop and during the summer I would go along, ostensibly to work myself, but mostly to mess things up and get in people’s way before hoofing it to the Museum of Science and Industry2 for an afternoon of exploration.

The repair guys suffered the brunt of me. The two regulars, Aaron and Louis, along with Jessie, who came in only on Saturdays, were all African-American and would listen to the same black radio station—WGCI—while doing repairs in the shop and making deliveries in the neighborhood. I’m sure they were hoping ‘GCI would drown out the barrage of inane questions from me, but they weren’t so lucky.

It’s funny how these songs bring back sensecerebral3 memories. Even now I can almost feel the way the back of my legs would stick to the vinyl seats of the delivery van and I swear I can smell the greasy barbecue residue wafting from Harold’s Chicken Shack across the street .

I don't think my feathered friends would appreciate Harold's neon sign.

I’ll never forget the first time I heard a rap song, though I didn’t know it was rap at the time. It was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and it came on while Jessie and I rode in the delivery van. I was struck by the strange vocals, the candid poetry and the song’s description of life in the ghetto. Despite growing up in Chicago, there were no ghettos on the working-class Northwest Side where we lived and Hyde Park, where the TV store was, is actually a little tony in that elite upper-crusty collegiate way. “Ghetto” was just a word I had an abstract definition for. After hearing “The Message," I wanted to know more, and I baited Jessie.

“Wow that guy kinda talks instead of singing,” I keenly observed out loud for Jessie to hear. “And he’s talking about a girl who got her arm cut off by a subway train and somebody dealing drugs.” [I’m paraphrasing here, but trust me when I say that I’ve captured the essence of my very starchy white bread delivery].

The reason Jessie only worked on Saturdays is that he was a Chicago cop during the week. He told me gangs and drugs were a big problem in the South Side neighborhoods where he worked and offered to show me. First he drove me by some housing projects and then to the headquarters of the infamous El Rukn street gang, a colorfully decorated building with their leader’s name—“Fort,” for Jeff Fort4—painted over the door. I remember feeling incrementally more scared with each bit of graft, vice and poverty he pointed out.

The El Rukns outside their headquarters on Drexel Avenue in Chicago.

This little field trip permanently cemented in my mind both that song and what Jessie had shown me. WGCI’s incessant repetition of the four songs listed at the beginning of this rant earned them an indelible spot in my memory as well, though they don’t rate for the visceral or artistic qualities I came to appreciate in “The Message.”

Ultimately though, I’ve justified my fluffy downloads by taking them in context with other music I had forgotten came from the same period. You see, WGCI also played a full compliment of so-called “dusties,” or black oldies that included the likes of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler—all of whom I think are considered cool, and all of whom I have full or even multiple albums from. These hundred or so songs make my four-song transgression forgivable—an ‘acceptable cheese ratio,’ if you will.

The truth is, I'm a Midwesterner, so it's OK if I like cheese. I actually have a lot more than I'm admiiting to. You just won't find any in my CD collection.

– I say “surrogate” grandmother, but I doubt this is correct usage. My mother lived with Clara Havill and her family when she first moved to Chicago. My actual grandmother on my mom’s side had worked for the Havill’s prior to this and knew the family well. How this all came to be is a bit foggy to me too, but suffice it to say that Clara—Grandma Havill­—is the most amazing person I’ve ever met. Though we are not related by blood, I’ve always felt she and her kin were as much my family as my actual family.

2The Museum of Science and Industry is the coolest museum EVER. And it was free back then.

3 – The word sensecerebral was coined by Erika Green, a girl I briefly dated eons ago. I was kind of scared of her if you must know. She suggested it when I was looking for a word that meant the way you could almost feel a feeling when you recall a place or situation with your mind's eye. You know, like when you think of a basement and you can almost smell the mustiness of it.

4 - A few years later, Fort was arrested in a terrorism-for-hire plot to carry out attacks against the U.S. on behalf of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

+ In Memory of Bill

Out of respect to the departed, this post has been moved here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

An Open Letter to Jaimé the Burrito Guy

Dear Jaimé-

I guess I wasn’t really formal about things but when I called you my burrito guy, I thought we had an understanding. A contract of sorts. I’d come in every Wednesday morning and we’d banter about soccer and baseball and work and familia. You’d make my #1 Breakfast Slam burrito just the way I like it—eggs cooked but not overdone…easy on the hash browns and maybe a little extra turkey. I’d tip you as well as I could and promise to cut you in on my (yet unfulfilled) Lotto winnings. I mean we never spoke it, but clearly this arrangement was to continue until we were retired and old enough to play bunco together.

But you seem to have disappeared and I’m worried.

Are you OK? Did you get a new job or just have to move on? Was it because I was extremely flatulent that one day? (I really didn’t think you could tell, being that close to the grill and all).

Whatever. My point being that if you are gone, I wanted to thank you and wish you well. And tell you what a great chef you are…and a great person too.

I always liked sitting at the bar and watching you work the grill. It reminds me of that movie The Big Night where the one brother cooks like he’s the culinary Chosen One. When you cook there’s this almost unconscious flow of motion—eggs are cracking, tortillas are steaming and hash is browning. It seems as natural for you to cook as it is for me to breathe and I find it amazing. And you do this all while correcting my pitiful attempts at Spanish and filling me in on Club América’s fortunes in Mexico’s Groupo Uno.

I liked hearing about your family too and your other job at the Shadowbrook. I bet some executive chef gets all the credit (and higher pay) for your work there. Damn gringos.

Anyway, I also wanted to thank you for those A’s tickets you gave me. I couldn’t use them, but a co-worker of mine did and she really liked the first baseman’s butt.

Well, I hope everything is cool with you…and if we meet again, the cerveza fría is on me.

Warm regards mi amigo,


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Grocery Store Blues

Sometimes Safeway is just depressing.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Aural Fixation #1

Loveless on St. Patrick’s Day
Some would say U2 or Van Morrison or Makem & Clancy. And you could surely get your face rearranged for not going with the Pogues. But for my St. Patrick’s Day money, the most amazing musical export from the Emerald Isle would have to be the Dublin sound shapers My Bloody Valentine.

Fronted by enigmatic vocalist/guitarist Kevin Shields and vocalist Bilinda Butcher, MBV’s 1991 magnum opus Loveless is one of those albums with too many critical superlatives attached to it for its own good. But unlike, say, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Loveless actually lives up to and exceeds the “best-of-the-90’s” hype. It’s that good.

Maybe too good.

The story goes that Shields, ever the perfectionist, nearly bankrupted Creation Records in the more than two years it took to make Loveless. Shortly thereafter MBV signed to Island Records and spent a half million dollars recording…nothing. Having set the bar so high, MBV was paralyzed at the prospect of topping Loveless. The band splintered away with most members moving on to other projects while Shields became a recluse.

Listening to Loveless, you can kind of understand why. How can you top it? I can think of no other album that is so cohesive in sound, yet so distinct song-to-song. All this despite an ethereal instrumental density that could easily become a repetitive mess, or worse, cop out into an audio “art project.” And while it certainly qualifies as art, to me Loveless is more an adjunct emotion than a record. It wraps around you...engages and envelops you...becomes of you. Lying on the floor in the dark locationless phase between stereo speakers, you and the album become one empathetic entity [OK, I say you, but maybe I mean me].

Shields resurfaced a couple years ago touring with a number of bands, most notably Air and Primal Scream. He also collaborated with Sofia Coppola on the soundtrack of Lost in Translation, offering up MBV’s “Sometimes” from Loveless as well as recording new solo tracks that impeccably complimented the mood of the film. There are rumors of an MBV box set and even a reunion. Only time and the expiration of contracts will tell.

In any case, on my way to and fro work this St. Patrick’s Day, I will be awash in Irish music and happily Loveless.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I Love Cocks

A salaciously titled post about chickens

Having lived all of my life in highly urbanized parts of the country, my interaction with chickens has been on a limited spectrum that starts in the poultry aisle and finishes on the grill…augmented by a mastication and digestion sequence that I’ll do no more than mention.

The last two weeks, however, this abstraction—the chicken—has become a little more real to me. Not many things seem out-of-place in Santa Cruz, but when I noticed these birds strutting and pecking and squawking on the little bike path near where I work, well that was something different.

They’re a carefree little peep (the official term for a group of chickens) of three birds—two brown and one a kind of dirty white—all slight-of-build and red-headed. I’d wondered if they were boy chickens or girl chickens (or both), but a quick search of the ‘net told me that gender sorting chickens was a difficult thing and I’m not sure I have the capacity for the two most common methods. The first being feathering, a tedious method that required breed charts and feather measurements. The other is something called manual vent inspection, which is similarly tedious and, not surprisingly, “very upsetting to the bird.”

It then occurred to me then, that as with people, it’s not about the color of the feather or what kind of vent you have but rather what’s inside—the inner chicken, if you will.

After some initial reservations, we warmed to each other and found some common ground. They seemed intrigued by my bike and its funny click-click-click. I liked the practicality and stylishness of their webbed feet. They seemed impressed with the compactness of my camera. I told them I type in a manner very much like they eat. They nodded their heads in agreement.

They actually seem to be very agreeable little fowl, nodding in affirmation to just about everything I said, from the mundane…
“Live around here?” Nod, nod. “Crazy weather, huh?” Nod, nod.

…to the philosophical…
“So you agree that anxiety is existential in that it belongs to existence as such and not to abnormal state of mind?” Nod. Nod.

…to the practical…
“So yeah I think you can stretch it to 5,000 miles before you get another oil change, no problem.” Nod, nod.

The got a little testy when I admitted to having a chicken Caesar salad for lunch—I believe the word they used was “Bok!”—but all was forgotten when I promised to bring them some corn.

Yeah, I like those chickens.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Dreaming of Stella

I know what you're thinking: "Oh no, not another dream." Worry not, dear reader, it's just one of those figurative kinda dreams that I dissed and denied in my last post. I'm inconsistent, so sue me.

To the point...I may be in love with a girl named Stella. An animated inanimate beauty of steel and chrome and rubber with a caustic variety of fluids coursing her veins...what can I say, I like 'em spicy.

Her allure is not just her shapely form or the thought of how she might feel betwixt my legs, but also in the intangebles that bring two of my favorite places--Chicago and Italy--together with my penchants for two wheels, things that are European in nature and, oh yes, my inner geek...this advert doesn't hurt either:

So the background is that Chicago-based Genuine Scooters struck a deal with legendary Italian scooter company Piaggio to use the form of the classic Vespa P-series scooter and have it reproduced at a factory in India. Genuine is a sister company of Scooterworks, a Chicago scooter dealer with a reputation for excellent repair and restoration of classic scooters. Drawing on Scooterworks' expertise, Genuine built in some modern touches to make the new scoots safer and more reliable. The result is a scooter that, as one of their slogans reads, is "Designed in Italy, assembled in India...and perfected in America."

Unfortunately, Stella is currently unavailble in California due to environmental regulations--two strokes are stinky and they pollute like a mo-fo. The good news is that Genuine is determined to crack the California market and has upgraded Stella's engine to pass emissions testing and is currently in the process of having it certified. By the end of 2006 Stella should be ready, willing and able in the Golden State.

Will I be getting one? Well, I dunno. Doesn't make much sense really. I can't make it over the Hill on her to work and I'm hardly home enough to warrant using her around town...and I like to ride my cruiser bike there anyway. The bottom line: it doesn't make much sense.

But I can dream.

My Airplane Dream

I’ve always thought it funny how people say you should “dream big.” Maybe it’s because I’m kind of generally unmotivated by traditional measures of success or whatever, but I have no influence over what I dream let alone how big or small it is. Perhaps the people who say such things have more control over things than I do, but my dreams just kind of randomly happen and the only adjective I can attach to them with any consistency is “strange.” I also usually only remember fragments of my dreams—I think I tend to remember more if I wake up during one. Which was the case a couple nights ago…I was dreaming and you, of all people, were there with me. I hope you don’t mind, but again I have no control over these things. Worry not, for it was generally pleasant and quite innocent…

So we were on this airplane and next to us was a very old woman, who seemed very peaceful and kind. The plane took off like normal, but every now and then we would just land on a regular street and drive around like a bus with wings, then take off again for a while. You and I didn’t speak that I remember, but we shared worried glances at the oddity of these landings. I thought the plane’s wings would be chopping down street poles and the like, but couldn’t see the wing (which was behind us) because all the blinds were closed except for yours. Maybe we were in business class, because the leg room seemed ample, but we were three wide--you on the window, the old lady on the aisle and me in the middle. The old woman seemed to sense our perplexity and tried to be comforting. The flight attendant came around several times and offered me (and only me) coffee, which I declined.

I’m not sure if I’m forgetting some part in between, but the next thing I remember is that you and I had arrived somewhere and went swimming in this amazing swimming pool…actually a series of pools. They were multi-leveled and seemed to be almost organically carved out of red rock and terra cotta. We were splashing and smiling and just swimming around doing breaststroke and elementary backstroke and spouting water. It was sunny and beautiful and nobody else was there…and the sky was cloudless and blue. You laughed at the funny tan lines I have from riding my bike. There were chutes between the pools that we’d swim through and the pools seemed to go on and on…some were quite large and others tiny by comparison. Organic as they appeared, it struck me that each pool had the depth painted on the edge and if part of that number was a 9 or a 6 in the depth there was a line underneath the number so you wouldn’t confuse the two…like billiards balls. And that was the last thing I remember about the dream.