Saturday, September 3, 2022

The Unified Theory of Double Nickels



So I just turned 55, mere days after leaving my son at college on the East Coast. Naturally, this led me to reflect on my trip East 37 years earlier, the sights, the sounds, the sensations. And as the OnceWereBachelor journey turned a new corner (OnceAgainABachelor, maybe?) this transition caused me to take stock of where I am and what it all means. 

 If you were to take a map of the United States, and were you equipped with my and my son's geo-locations, you would know that we are at opposite corners from each other, as if he had mused "how far away can I get from mom and dad?" That's where he is, some elite liberal arts, New England school, with beautiful, remote grounds, that will very soon be exploding with bonfires of yellow and orange leaves dissolving into the Autumn sky. Until it all gives way to a World War I winter landscape of grey.
I made the same trip, to a different school that was nevertheless much the same, in 1985. For both of us, it is our first East Coast fall, and later our first bonafide winter. Like me, he will become very familiar with the scent of smoke from chimneys and Blistex on the lips, the feel of gloves, the utilitarian importance of warm footwear. 

As for sounds, my freshman soundtrack was informed by the fact that immediately upon arrival, I sought out the college radio station, and obtained a Friday night slot as a DJ, spinning the latest indy music. My roommate was a mid-day jazz DJ, so we pretty much defined ourselves by that radio station. I was betrothed to REM there, the Replacements, the Hoodoo Gurus, Guadalcanal Diary, Mojo Nixon & Skid Roper. But the song that most reminds me of that freshman fall, more than the Violent Femmes' "Add It Up" or the Replacements' "Bastards of Young", is this song, "Life in a Northern Town", by the Dream Academy.

 

 Now, the plan was to spend a few days in the area, to assemble all the gear that a Hawaii kid would need for his first extended stay in the Polar North. That meant driving to Target. Driving to Bed/Bath/Beyond. L.L. Bean (my thoughts on Bean here). While driving all over New England, I found myself listening to a band from the late Nineties and the new millenium, that I had mostly ignored until now. Fountains of Wayne were mostly an East Coast band anyway, unfortunately known for a hit song that was misrepresentative of their work. I had recently downloaded their album Welcome Interstate Managers, generally considered their best work, and which I had come to appreciate as power pop meets singer songwriter. 

 Fountains of Wayne co-founders Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger met back in 1986 as freshmen at another New England school, Williams College, where they bonded over learning REM songs on acoustic guitar in their dorm hallway. Thereafter, they became songwriting partners.  Interstate Managers was self-financed and independently recorded in response to being dropped by their major record label. In sweet revenge, it became their most successful release thanks to the aforementioned hit song. The album is particularly resonant to me because it seems to comprise the magnificent highs, the gutter lows, and the general absurdities of Generation X adulthood that I had experienced these past 37 years. And it even contains a perfect New England winter song, just like "Life in a Northern Town" was, back when I was a freshman. I found myself hitting repeat on this song all week as we drove all over Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, a song to a New England girl I could pretend I knew.  Here is "Valley Winter Song".

 

Another song on Interstate Managers is a crunchy uptempo number that wouldn't have been out of place on my college radio show on WRUC 89.7, which was flush with tuneful smartassery from bands like the Replacements, Mojo Nixon, or the Violent Femmes.  Here is "Bright Future in Sales".



Now,  Adam Schlesinger* had already carved a small niche for himself as a songwriter for movies and TV.  My interest in Schlesinger was piqued because I had learned that he had penned the title song for Tom Hanks' directorial debut film, a love letter to not-the-Beatles early Sixties rock n roll.


That Thing You Do had been on repeat in my living room for the past couple months.  It is a perfect film that just captures a sweet and innocent creative moment, when fame doesn't really matter, and neither does musicianship or even songcraft.  What matters is friendship and love and youth.  Just consider the clip above, the pure exuberant joy, the sheer Hard Day's Night of it all, friends cheering each other on.  It is the film I turned to when I realized that my son was in fact going to leave me very soon, and there was no turning back.  It made me feel better about what was going to happen next.  Or at least help me forget it was happening.

*I hate to write this footnote, but, despite his youth and health, Adam Schlesinger died of Covid-19 very early in the pandemic, in April of 2020.  Rest in Peace, Adam.  Thanks for the tunes.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

My Unified Theory of the Ramones



Johnny Ramone would most definitely have been a Trump supporter.  Although he and I both were Reagan fans in the 80s, the Donald is where he and I would certainly have parted company vehemently.  But for a variety of reasons, this has been a summer of Ramones for me.  In fact, I had the opportunity to consider Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, Tommy, and Marky as individuals, and ultimately I arrived at a thought that I subconsciously knew to be true.  The Ramones are my all time favorite band.

SUMMER SOUNDTRACK, SUMMER READING

As longtime readers of OnceWereBachelors know, I like to choose a soundtrack for the summer.  Like all summer soundtrack bands, I initially selected a few that I could blast in my pick up truck on drives to and from the beach, and which would raise my spirits when I spun them on my Hi-Fi turntable.  I had chosen some good ones meeting those criteria.

But for whatever reason, independent of the soundtrack I was listening to, my summer reading started with the memoir I Slept With Joey Ramone, by Mickey Leigh, Joey's younger and much more hapless brother.  Then as I neared the halfway point of that book, I acquired a copy of Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, by drummer Marky Ramone, which I would quickly turn to next.  By then, the other bands had disappeared from my iTunes rotation, and a steady stream of Ramones vinyl replaced it.  Most popular on my playlist was the double live album It's Alive, a document of their December 31, 1977 show at the Rainbow Theater in London, a show which Johnny himself considered their zenith performance.  Personal faves Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Pleasant Dreams also got lots of airplay in my pick up.  Finally, after finishing these two books, I read Johnny Ramone's unusual little autobiography, Commando.

Nota bene, I never felt the urge to read Dee Dee Ramone's own memoir, Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones, because of his reputation as a notorious exaggerator, totally bereft of any serious credibility.  I guess his mastery of punk rock metaphor, as the Ramones' prolific songwriter, went hand in hand with his daffy and loose relationship with the truth.

RAMONES DIVIDED

After first blasting out of the gate in 1976 and establishing the blue print for all post-Beatles modern rock, the Ramones quickly became its own Nation Divided.  Joey occupied one coast, a Blue Stater in everything but name, steeped in the Sixties counterculture ethos of individuality, inclusivity, beauty, poetry, and a good time.  Despite punk rock's disdain for filthy, smelly hippies, Joey for all intents and purposes, was one.  On the other coast was Red Stater, Johnny, who, upon induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, famously accepted his award by saying "God Bless President George (W) Bush."*  The two became opposite ends of the compass, who were so estranged that they all but ceased to communicate.

MICKEY'S TAKEDOWN

Mickey Leigh did the best he could to posthumously deflate Johnny's legend.  Aside from providing much appreciated insider detail about being in the pull of the Ramones' gravity, Leigh found many opportunities to portray Johnny as a bully, greedy and venal, and willing to beat women, and utterly callous about Joey's untreated mental illness, especially his OCD.  I'm sure some of it was true, even the wife-beating, but I think Leigh's portrayal was a transparent attempt at giving his bitterness a target, a bitterness that was not really about Joey's treatment, but rather a bitterness that Leigh himself did not reap the meager benefits that his brother and the other Ramones enjoyed.  Leigh is responsible for much of the Johnny-directed hate within Ramones Nation.

And it was this abiding repulsion that Leigh's book left me with that made me regret the reaction I had years ago, on the morning I learned that Johnny Ramone had died at the age of 54.  I cried.  Unabashedly and immediately, for probably a good five minutes, I cried.  A full grown man, a father, and a professional, I cried.  It just hit me hard.  By the day of his death on September 15, 2004, Johnny was my favorite Ramone.  He was a punk rock stalwart, a stoic warrior of the ethos who gave in to no one, even in his devotion to the Reagan Revolution, a hard worker who suffered no fools, pulled no punches, and --  his often cartoonish music notwithstanding --  kept the Mickey Mouse to a bare minimum.  In that way, to me, Johnny was more a guitar-wielding Mercury astronaut than a musician.  By 2004, I knew that it was Johnny who kept the Ramones train rolling all those years, in spite of Dee Dee's severe drug addiction, Marky's alcoholism, and Joey's erratic mental health, all with virtually ZERO support from the radio or MTV or the industry of cool that is popular music.** Even in the inclusive and supposedly free-wheeling world of rock and roll, the Ramones were misunderstood, uncool outsiders, who survived largely thanks to Johnny's sheer strength of will.  Leigh's book made me question all that.

THE VIEW FROM THE DRUMMER'S SEAT

Then I read Marky Ramone's book.  Marky rode the Ramones' drum throne the longest, and although he wasn't the architect of their relentless 16th note attack (Tommy pioneered that), he laid down the beat on many of their most iconic and enduring songs.  I Wanna Be Sedated.  Do You Remember Rock n' Roll Radio.  Rock n' Roll High School.  Pet Sematery.

A word about drummers:  drummers are wired to be peace makers, conflict resolvers.  Guitarists and lead singers may think they are the leaders, and ostensibly they are, but drummers lead from behind.  I am a drummer, and I believe this.  It is our beat that moves the whole room.  The explosions of our cylinders propel the music.  And instinctively, we want harmony and rhythm in our band, our tribe.  Which explains, first why Marky's book was the way it was, and second, why I find it to be the most believable and honest.

Drummers also know that the rest of the band think the drummer is the most replaceable of its components.  True or not (mostly not), it is what keeps drummers humble.  It also makes them grounded, realistic, and clear eyed.  Keith Moon and Ginger Baker are exceptions, not the rule, and Marky was not like them. As evidence of this, I learn, Marky rehabilitated himself by becoming an A.A. disciple.  For the band.

And so Marky's memoir restored just a little bit of luster to Johnny's persona.  Per Marky, Johnny is still conservative and reactionary and jingoistic, and he is still a bully and a manhandler of "his" women.  But Marky affirms that he was also driven and, while demanding, also fair and just in his treatment of all the personnel that made the Ramones machine function.  Joey is still an untreated mental casualty with paralyzing OCD and awful hygiene habits, but it's clearer in Marky's book that Johnny is doing his best to deal with Joey's faults -- and Dee Dee's chronic drug abuse and kleptomania -- in order to knit the band together enough, so they could climb onstage every night, 200 nights a year for 22 years.

REQUIEM FOR HIMSELF

Before he reinvented himself as a Ramone, John Cummings was a prototypical juvenile delinquent, attended military school by his own choice, and held down a job as an ironworker for years.  He, Tommy Erdelyi, Jeff Hyman, and later Douglas Colvin, came from the same Queens neighborhood.  They talked themselves into forming a band (John and Tommy's second after the Tangerine Puppets), renaming themselves and developing an aesthetic in the process, and changing the face of popular music entirely by inventing punk rock.

His autobiography is the most remarkable of its type I've ever read.  I can only assume it was his own decision to name it after one of the Ramones' many great, loopy chest-beater songs, Commando.  It's title says a lot about what Johnny thought of himself.

In the book, Johnny confirms almost all of the accusations leveled against him in some of the most matter of fact prose this side of Hemingway.  Some of my favorite quotes:

     "We started 1978 on tour with the Runaways, a band of dykes"

     "I wrote the book on punk.  I decide what's punk.  If I'm driving a Cadillac it's punk."

     "In my head it was never officially over until Joey died in April 2001.  There was no Ramones without Joey.  He was irreplaceable, no matter what a pain he was.  I wouldn't have wanted to play without him no matter how I felt about him; we were in it together.  He never quit.  We broke up and he died ... I thought I wouldn't care and I did, so it was weird.  I guess all of a sudden, I did miss him. But he made an impact through his life, so he's still among us."

His book also reveals that he meticulously kept track of the details in his Ramones life, in a collection of cheap vinyl-covered day planners available at drug stores.  These were filled with terse notes:

     -June 23, 1975: played for Sire (Records) - received offer.  

     -June 7, 1976: Album: 113 on Billboard.  

     -Dec. 31, 1977:  Played London Rainbow Theater w/Rezillos, Generation X Att(endance): 2962 sold out.

This continued through the years until the end.  

      -March 16, 1996: Played Buenos Aries att: 43,000 Eddie (Vedder) at show.

In the end, I believe Johnny was less the selfish and heartless misanthrope that Mickey and Dee Dee would have him be.  He was less the false friend who stole Joey's girl.  Then again, he was also less the heroic figure climbing aboard the rocket to venture into space that I thought he was when I wept for him on the day he died.  He was more like the asylum orderly supervising the crazies who all harbored misperceptions of him.

If Johnny were alive today, I'm sure he would gleefully be cheering our current president on without remorse.  I'd give him that, even though I gravely despise that perspective.  After all, this is America, and America is where punk rock was invented.




*The Joey-Johnny dichotomy may have its origins in the fact that Johnny ultimately stole Joey's girlfriend out from under him in 1980, and eventually married her.  Johnny and Linda were together until the day Johnny died.  But that is of little consequence to my summer.

**Sire Records, the Ramones own label, and particularly its owner and his wife, Seymour and Linda Stein, are excused from this criticism.  They always stood by the Ramones with what little power and capital they had, even from the beginning when they first encountered the Ramones' unpolished act on the dingy CBGBs stage in 1976.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Police, Live on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert



When I was twelve, I was not seeking out live rock n' roll, on television or otherwise.  I much preferred a good episode of Magnum P.I.  I don't even know whether we got Don Kirshner's Rock Concert (or its cousin, The Midnight Special) here in Honolulu.  My only exposure to live rock  at the time was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, which more often than not I would use as the opportunity to go brush my teeth.

Pity then that I never saw this performance from February 1980 by the fledgling lads from the U.K. then diminutively known as the Police.  It would be a few more years before they were known world wide as The Police, and decades before they would triumphantly return in the new millennium as THE POLICE (without question, I could make the same grammatical point about the bass player, then curiously calling himself Sting).

But check this 34 minute concert out, 10 months before they release their third album, Zenyatta Mondata.  Here in America, they only really have Roxanne to hang their hat on, and maybe Message in a Bottle.  It is remarkable for how undeniably determined these three young musicians are to show to the world how brilliant their music is.  This is Sting before he became too big for the Police, too big for the world.  This is Andy Summers before his own unique guitar style became a cage he would eventually want to escape.  And this is Stewart Copeland demonstrating that he was beyond great well before anyone else ever realized it.

It's all there.  The "Ee yo yo, ee yay yo" and "jah! jah!" refrains.  The reverb triggers on the snare.  The Mickey Mouse scoop-neck t-shirt and green nut-huggers.  The glassy leads from that iconic tobacco Telecaster.  Whether for someone like me, who never watched Kirshner or much paid attention to the Police until after the hype disappeared, or for longtime fans, these are not the familiar arrangements of their hits.  Heck, the improvisational vamp alone in the middle of Can't Stand Losing You is memorable in that it's not what they did in their reunion tours in the 21st century, much less when they were doing it fresh in the Eighties the number of times I saw them live.

This is something entirely different than what Police fans are used to.  This is them before they took over the world.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Good Sh*t From Hawaii: How I Invented the Poke Bowl



I am really pleased that Mainland folks with very little if any connection to Hawaii have embraced the poke bowl.  Like the Spirit of Aloha, surfing, and hula, all Hawaii residents should be proud to add the savory raw fish dish to the list of Hawaiian exports.  I for one can take personal pride in the feat, because, you see:  I.  Invented.  The poke bowl.

The first time I encountered poke was at my first ever luau, which I attended in the 1970s.  I forget the occasion, but it was a classic Hawaiian luau in a large field, where beneath large tarpaulin tents, hundreds of ohana and guests gathered.  There was hula and a steel guitar band.  As a nine year old at the time, this is the extent of detail I recall, save one other.  I remember the poke.  My 11 year old friend gave me a paper cup and grinned, "here, try this."  I put the purple, slimy morsel in my mouth and immediately gagged.  It was cold, clammy, and salty.  In retrospect, I'm surprised I didn't bother to ask or hesitate before popping it past my lips.  I thought I was being fed boogers.  It was my first ever experience with raw fish.  Luckily, in the ensuing years I quickly took to sashimi and sushi and ceviche and poisson cru and all things seafood, and my first ever encounter with the Hawaiian version of raw fish was but a footnote.

Fast forward to the Nineties, after seven years of college and law school, and I returned to Hawaii,  fully immersing myself in the outrigger paddling lifestyle.  Such a life involved canoe paddling on the beautiful blue-green water surrounding our islands almost every day from February to October, punctuated by almost weekly races.  My canoe club was a notorious party club.  We often found ourselves after these races reveling well into the night.  We enjoyed sharing coolers of beer, meats grilled on hibachis set up on the grass or sand, and plastic containers of poke, which we purchased from any number of supermarkets selling it as an item as unremarkable as apples or hot dogs.  The variety was endless, consisting of ahi tuna, octopus, marlin, even raw white crab.  Drizzle these with sesame oil, green onions, shoyu (soy sauce), and chili pepper flakes, and you have a basic poke.  But you might also find minced garlic, chopped kukui or macadamia nut, shredded ginger, even a Sriracha-mayonaise dressing to make it spicy.  All of this would be passed around amongst my paddling teammates and shared with endless beer after beer.  Mostly, we would pick the hunks of fish out of the containers with our fingers, or maybe chopsticks if we refused to be uncouth.  This was my Nineties.

Then one Sunday, I thought to myself, "this poke would be good with some hot rice."  I was thinking of the Japanese chirashi dishes that many sushi restaurants offered.  Rather than serving sashimi nigiri style, on bullets of rolled rice one at a time, chirashi was a large shallow bowl of warm sushi rice, upon which a layer of sashimi - ahi, hamachi, salmon, chutoro and otoro - was decoratively arranged for one to heartily dig into with chopsticks.  This is what I wanted for my poke, and no one had ever seen it served that way before.

Before my Hawaiian chirashi idea, poke was more an appetizer, to be served as I had experienced it 2 decades before; in a paper cup served on the side of a luau plate, little better than an afterthought to the entree of kalua pig, shoyu chicken, and rice.

By the end of that particular canoe season, my teammates were bringing portable rice cookers to the races, to enjoy with the poke that would inevitably be passed around.  I even introduced my new wife to it by instituting a Monday Night Football picnic, wherein I came home with poke from the store and cooked up a pot of rice, which we would enjoy sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the football game, eating from the Japanese bowls we got in our wedding.

Still, this particular style of serving poke was not seen in local eateries, much less in fancy Pacific Rim Fusion cuisine places like Roy's or Sam Choy's until a few years after our wedding.  The first "poke bowl" I noticed on a menu was at a small "plate lunch" restaurant.  Historians are convinced (OK, I, I am convinced) that that poke bowl can be traced backwards from paddler to paddler all the way back to my canoe club's tarp tent. 

In the ensuing years, I noticed poke bowls at Zippy's, the humble and ubiquitous Hawaiian diner franchise, and at Sam Choy's Breakfast Lunch & Crab on the high end.   To me, it reached local saturation when groceries offered a poke bowl option at their fresh fish counter.  I recognized it as a popular explosion when a friend of a friend, both of whom lived in the Mid-West, sheepishly asked me about poke bowls on Facebook, when she learned I was from Honolulu.

And to that, you can bet my first reply to her was "You know.  I. Invented. The poke bowl."

Friday, March 17, 2017

STIFF LITTLE FINGERS ON ST. PATRICK'S DAY



On March 17, 1991, I was a little over halfway through with my year abroad in London as a 2nd year law student.  I was fully acclimated to this most familiar of foreign lands.  With troubles in Northern Ireland still a fresh wound for everyone in the UK, before coming, Notre Dame advised us to please refrain from wearing any "Fighting Irish" attire.

A fresh wound perhaps, but at least the yobs in London still felt it was appropriate to invite Belfast's own Stiff Little Fingers to play on St. Patrick's Day that year at the legendary Brixton Academy.  And the wee admonishment from Notre Dame about political sensitivity wasn't going to stop me from seeing them, one of my favorite punk bands.  I wouldn't even be deterred by the fact that I was in the midst of second term finals in this my most critical year of law school.

I set aside the books I had furiously been committing to memory and ventured off to Brixton alone.  No one else was stupid enough to endanger their grades for an incendiary Northern Irish band from 1977.  And so I found myself amongst like minded strangers in a boiling, ever-crashing slam dance with my heroes not twenty feet away playing music that taught me more about defiance and integrity and loyalty and passion than ten Sunday sermons.



One of their last songs was a searing reworking of Bob Marley's Johnny Was, about a boy killed in Belfast by an occupying army, a true favorite of mine in my personal top ten.  It was during that song, and in that pit of youth, that I lost my glasses after a particularly large surge of punks rolled my way.

I was blind without them on the tube ride back to school, where I was planning to immediately return to studies.  I had an exam in a few hours.  No matter.  To Jake, Ali, Henry, and Phin:  HANX!