Monday, June 28, 2010

Johnny Rojo's One-Hit Wonders: Stone Poneys, "Different Drum"

The song Different Drum, by the Stone Poneys, was released in September of 1967. It reached the top 20, topping out at #13 on the singles charts.

The Stone Poneys were a folk rock trio that formed in Los Angeles in 1964. Their singer, Linda Ronstadt, went on to huge success in the 1970's. Guitarist Kenny Edwards would continue to work with Ms. Ronstadt.

The guy who penned the tune in 1966 would also go on to fame and fortune. Mike Nesmith, who was the sole son (and heir) of Betty Nesmith, who invented White-Out, would go on to be one of the Monkees, and later become a movie producer ("Repo Man").

The song is one of the few pop songs I can think of that has a harpsichord (Richard Harris' "Macarthur Park" comes to mind.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The "Big Hair and Plastic Grass" Friday Five

After dinner tonight, my son and I walked over to a book-signing at the wonderful neighborhood bookstore/cafe/bar The Book Cellar. The book is an account of the weird and wacky seventies era of baseball.

We thoroughly enjoyed it. The author, Dan Epstein, did a reading, mostly from the chapter on the hideous uniforms of the era. As you can see, Mr. Epstein dressed the part (they were also playing '70's funk hits before the reading). He was funny and charming, and we had a ball. I bought Adam a copy and bought a copy for my old friend Jamie, who just had another, unexpected, surgery on his leg (he had a knee replacement a few weeks ago). He once met Cubs player Jose Cardenal, who had some of the biggest hair in the majors, when he was a kid. Afterward, we went up to get Mr. Epstein to sign the books. I told him that I was supposed to go to the biggest seventies baseball event ever, the Disco Demolition at Comiskey Park. Epstein signed Jamie's book "May the power and glory of Jose Cardenal's 'Fro be with you always...Dan Epstein."

We came home and my stepdaughter returned from a trip with a friend of hers with a Scattegories game she'd picked up for a buck at a garage sale. We played several games of this. Now my daughter's watching outtakes from "Rent" and Adam and I are watching "The Great Escape." All in all, a delightful evening.

1. Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys- Willie Nelson
2. Rock and Roll All Night- KISS
3. Happy Xmas (The War Is Over)- John Lennon
4. Shot By Both Sides- Magazine
5. Arc Of A Diver- Steve Winwood

1. I love to karaoke this one.
2. I'm not a huge KISS fan, but love this one.
3. One of my favorite Christmas songs from one of my favorite athiests
4. A seventies punk classic
5. A big comeback song for Winwood, in 1981.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Father's Day

About a week and a half ago, I was re-watching a scene from an overlooked movie I love, "King of the Corner." The movie was written and produced by Peter Reigert, the actor who played Boone in "Animal House," and has had wonderful roles in movies like "Local Color" and "Crossing Delancey" over the years.

There's a great scene in the movie, toward the end, where Reigert's character, Leo, gives a spontaneous eulogy for his father, whom he was never close to. In the course of a few minutes, he suddenly understands his father-- his failures and successes, and consequently his own failures and successes. It's hard not to cry while watching the scene.

Later, in the final scene, it's clear that Leo has taken his lessons to heart. It's hard not to smile at the last scene. Leo realizes, before it's too late, what the important things are in his life.

About 9 years ago or so, I was still married to second wife Cynthia. We went together, with my son, who was then about seven years old, to a party my brother's in-laws were throwing for his son's first birthday. It was, in general, a very joyous occasion; it was doubtful, when he was born, that my nephew would see his first birthday; he'd been born with a serious heart defect, which was, happily, surgically repaired.

At some point in the party, my father asked if I'd leave the party to go to a nearby electronics store with him-- he needed my help in selecting an electronic component.

Later, I realized that he had no need of help; he'd worked with computers for years and knows way more than I do about them. He just wanted to talk to me alone.

We picked up the electronic component and, since we were near it, we ran by the house we lived in in Western Springs, a western suburb of Chicago.

We drove through the cul-de-sac it was on and stopped to look at the house. I did not, in general, have good memories there. The people in that town were snotty, hypocritical and mean. It was one of the places we'd move to when my father was feeling his vague sense of dissatisfaction. He continued this pattern even after my brothers and I went off to college.

The family that lived there now was out on the front lawn. When we stopped to look at the place, the father, who was out playing with his kids, came out to say hello. We told him why we'd stopped by and talked to him about the things that were the same and the things that had been changed.

We drove a short distance, then my father pulled the car over. He started tearfully apologizing for how he had been as a father. He had, in his own words, "terrorized" my brothers and I (he had). He asked me to forgive him. I did.

The thing is that at that point, only a few years into being a parent, I'd realized that no matter how well you did as a parent, there were going to be things that you could have done better if you'd only known. He'd come from a very rough background, as I'd discovered, unbeknowest to him over the years. I'd known about the death of his own father when he was less than 2 years old. I knew about his mother remarrying to a violent drunk, and her own death in an automobile accident when he was a teenager. What I found out over the years were some other facts. His mother had not been an angel. There'd been a steady succession of men in her life-- and bed-- before and after her remarriage. I'd also discovered just how violent a guy his stepfather had been; he'd spent time in prison in Louisiana after shooting a man to death with a shotgun after he'd lost a barfight to him.

I came to understand my father much better-- the mercurial mood changes, the screaming, the battering, the sobbing apologies afterward. His unrelenting worry over what people thought about his house, his life. He has spent his life battling, like most people who were battered as children, a crippling depression. He's 72 and still struggling with it.

Today, he and I get along very well. It was good for him and cathartic to me to forgive him for his past. And it released me to let go of all the anger I had as a younger guy and to put my energy into what to me is the most important job I'll ever have: raising a couple of kids.

This July 4th will mark the 17th anniversary of the phone call I got from a then-recent ex-girlfriend informing that she was pregnant-- and keeping the baby.

I was just staggered; I didn't feel like I was father material. I was a hot-headed, hard-drinking guy. I'd been juggling a couple of relationships. My life was books, work-- two full-time jobs-- and boozy conversations every night. Looking back, I don't even know how I found the time or energy to carry on the relationships.

But the first time I held my son, at Columbus Hospital in Chicago, I knew this had to change. I'd never seen anything so helpless in my life and I was blown away by the fact that I was responsible for this guy for at least the next 18 years.

Over the next couple of years, I tried to make it work with his mother. I had originally broken up with her, before she discovered she was pregnant, because she was passive to the point that I didn't feel like I could carry on a relationship; I couldn't even carry on a conversation with her.

But when we moved in together, she turned into a bullying, screaming hellion. It puzzled me. Later, I discovered that this was the way her father, a father she hated, and who had died before she had a chance to make peace with him, was.

After two years, I moved out. Things were pretty friendly, as long as she had hope that we'd reconcile. When it became clear that we weren't, we had a knock-down drag-out custody fight that left both of us broke and my son upset.

Around the same time, I finished my teaching certification and spent most of the next ten years working as a teacher.

I had had a brief marriage in the late nineties. I ended it when it was clear that she was not willing to be a step-parent. A couple of years later, I reconciled with an old girlfriend and married her. I thought things were going to be good, but it became apparent that she resented my son. Worse, she wanted her own kids. My gut told me that this was a bad idea.

Flash forward to my nephew's birthday party. My father told me that that day, my wife had cornered him and cried and told me how hard it was to be there with all those kids when she was probably never going to have her own children. My father told me later about this conversation and his feeling about it: that if she and I had children, she would try to get me to marginalize my son. He confirmed exactly what I had been thinking. A few months later, she and I separated and then ended the marriage.

She has since remarried and had a child.

When I decided to start dating again a couple of years later, I decided that I'd only consider people who had their own kids; they were the only ones who would understand that your kids come first. I remarried, and acquired an eight-year-old stepdaughter in the process.

My wife's ex-husband, who is a writer of some note, remarried even before I met Kim. The woman he married is openly resentful of my stepdaughter, and he seems to have had less and less interest in parenting.

In the meantime, over the years, my ex-girlfriend seems to have been hell-bent on making sure my son hates her. According to my son, she's continued her tradition of screaming at and belittling the person she lives with. She's thrown him out of the house twice, the first time when he was eight. The second time, I was at work. I could hear him wailing in the background as she said, and I quote, "Come pick this piece of sh*t up." I'm not making that up or exaggerating. She has frequently criticized him telling him that "You're just like your father."

I don't think he takes this as an insult.

A few years back, I discovered that several of the parents on my block were strongly encouraging their kids to play with my son when he was at my home. They liked the fact that he was polite and well-mannered. I shook my head, thinking of my ex- telling him he was worthless.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife got home from work exhausted and conked out. My stepdaughter asked if I'd go for a walk with her. I was happy to.

We talked about school, her friends and then she brought up her father and his wife. It was no secret that his wife was awful to her. My stepdaughter complained that back before the stepmother was in the picture, her dad and her would always do stuff together-- go to the park, go to movies, etc. Over time, this stuff has dwindled to nothing.

This father's day, I didn't see either of my kids, not for long, at least. My son asked me to put off hanging out together-- he had an oppurtunity to hang out with my ex-'s family, a close-knit Chinese-American clan, who are, unlike my ex, lovely people. He told me that we'd hang out an extra day the next weekend he was over. I told him that was okay. And my stepdaughter's father asked to hang out with her on Father's Day. It was all fine with me-- I had an opportunity to work a lucrative double that day, and right now money's a big consideration; my wife was unemployed a lot of the last year, and I will start having to make payments on next semester's tuition soon. Finishing a nursing school is a priority; it will allow me to pay for my kids' college.

Because I have a different philosophy on college than my wife's ex, who who said "I paid for my own college, why can't she pay for her own?," my feeling is "Gee, I really want my kids to study whatever they want, without having the worry of having a crippling debt afterward." Because you see, that's what a parent does-- we make sure, to the best of our ability, that our kids have a better life than we had.

If I were to sit down with my ex and Kim's ex, I'd explain, at the risk of sounding smug, what parenting is all about, and why my kids still like hanging around me.

It's not, like both of you like to think, that I'm lenient. You see, not being arbitrary about discipline, about having set rules, not rules you pull out of your ass randomly-- that's important. I don't think that makes me lenient. It makes me fair.

I'd explain to them some things about parenting. It's the hardest, most satisfying thing I've ever done. It's been alternately excruciating boring and mind-blowingly thrilling. Yes, it's meant a million games of Candyland, checkers and Monopoly. It's meant sitting watching baseball games in weather so cold that I coudn't feel my hands at the end, or watching a lacrosse game in the heat. But it's also meant seeing my son pitch in a championship series, and seeing my daughter hit her first base-hit ever in softball. It's meant taking shifts at my second job as a waiter when I was a teacher so that I could take care of my kids, and working that waitering job, a job I'm really too old for, so that I can provide for them while I'm in nursing school.

I'd show them this picture:

To them, it may look like an alley. To me, it's the place where I taught two children how to ride bicycles. This was important to me; my old man didn't teach me to ride. I taught myself, and then taught my two brothers how to in an alley about a mile from here.

I'd show them these pictures:

What is that? It's a three-bedroom house in a two-flat on the north side of Chicago. Yes, it's a beautiful place-- not too big, but full of wood and books and laughter and love. It's a place that two kids consider home, despite the fact that one of them spends more time at the other house. It's a place that the parties tend to land because everyone knows they're welcome here-- including my kids. If I were to talk to the two of you about it, my ex and my wife's ex, I'd thank you. Because even if I put aside the fact that I love parenting, I suspect I'd still look better by comparison. You've made, in a weird way, parenting easier for me. Your failings probably would have made me look better anyway.

So in the end, it didn't bother me that this one Father's Day that I didn't get to hang out with my kids. Tomorrow, I'll pick my son up at my ex-girlfriend's house, bring him home and I'll have dinner with he and my daughter. Probably barbecue, because I know they love it. My son and I will probably go to a book reading at a nearby bookstore, and then we'll come back home and we'll all hang out, eat popcorn, watch a movie or play Rock Band.

Because you see, being a parent isn't just providing financially for them, like the two of you seem to think. To be sure, that's part of it, and I have no problem sacrificing to do that. But it's so much more than that. It's listening to them rather than scolding and criticizing them. It's them knowing that they can come talk to me about anything. It's them knowing I'd never be with someone who tried to make them anything less than the most important two people in my life. It's them knowing that I think that a hit they got in baseball or softball is the greatest achievement known to humanity. It's knowing, when they ride their bikes to a friend's house, that they could do that thanks to the fact that taking the time to teach them was more important to me than watching tv. It's late night conversations and schlepping them off to games and events. It's them knowing that this is their home. It's knowing that they won't have to spend the beginning of their adulthoods unravelling just why I was so angry and difficult all the time, because I took the time to unravel that myself and not lay it on them. Unlike Leo in "King of the Corner," they won't have to wait until my funeral some day decades from now to understand me, because I'm close to them now and always will be. Because, you see, to me, every day is Father's Day-- a day to enjoy with my kids.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Johnny Rojo's Fave Raves: Lovin' Spoonful, "Summer In The City"

Not only did I pick up an extra shift for tonight, my boss asked me to come in a few hours and bartend so that he can get out early. Consequently, this will be a short post.

I ran my daughter up to a friend's home this morning and this song, the Lovin' Spoonful's 1966 hit "Summer In The City," one of my very favorite summer songs, came up on my Ipod shuffle.

Looking up the song, I discovered that, much to my surprise, John Sebastian didn't write the song-- his younger brother Mark wrote it, along with Steve Boone, another member of the group. I love the sound effects-- the car horn is a Volkswagon. I remember reading that the group went out on the prowl to get the jackhammer, and were satisfied with the one they had as sounding "particularly flatulent." I love the wordplay in the song and the fact that it's one of the few pop hits to feature a zither.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Perfect Day Friday Five

Here's a shot of my current setting. The backyard has blossomed into perfection for the summer. After I finish this post I'm going to do something I'd had little time to do in the last year-- actually read something I don't have to read. In this case, I'm reading Alvin Toffler's "The Third Wave," a book I started nearly 30 years ago and never finished. Fascinating book-- amazingly prescient.

1. Mojo Pin- Jeff Buckley
2. Six Pack To Go- Hank Thompson
3. Hotel California- The Gypsy Kings
4. Baby, It's You- The Shirelles
5. Mothers of the Disappeared- U2

1. From "Grace," of of my favorite albums from the nineties.
2. Back in the day, this one was on the jukebox at the Hopleaf (back when they had a jukebox), and I admit to playing it more than a few times. I will even cop to the fact that it could have been written about me at that point in my life.
3. A great cover of the Eagles, used to great effect in "The Big Lebowski." An old friend's ex-wife has a good story about coming upon the Gypsy Kings engaged a brawl in a hotel lobby in Madrid.
4. One of many great tunes written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. There was an amped up version of it that was a hit in the late sixties by a group called Smith.
5. From "The Joshua Tree," which I finally purchased on CD recently.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Cinematic Chicago

The Chicago Tribune recently had an article about the filming of Blues Brothers here in Chicago 30 years ago and how it broke the ice on a long period of reluctance of Chicago officials to allow movie-making in a very photogenic city.

There was a Straight Dope article last year that discussed this. Mayor Daley, the first one, was reluctant to allow the movie industry in because he hated the way they played up Chicago's gangster past. And it certainly didn't help that Haskell Wexler's 1968 movie "Medium Cool" used the police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention as a backdrop to the movie, filming it as it happened. It wasn't the best portrayal of Chicago.

After the "Blues Brothers" shoot, many movies were filmed in and around Chicago, including "The Untouchables," "Midnight Run," "Adventures In Babysitting," "Trains, Planes and Automobiles," "Ferris Buehler's Day Off" and many others. There was a time, though, that many of the industry's movies were filmed here in Chicago.

About three blocks from my home, at Irving and Western, the Selig Polyscope Movie Company once produced many of America's movies. It was founded in 1896 when magician and minstrel show operator William Selig began filming movies using his own photographic equipment (in order to avoid infringing on patents that Thomas Edison held for movie cameras).

In 1909, Selig pulled up stakes and became the first moviemaker to move to the Edendale district of Los Angeles, establishing that area as a moviemaking mecca. A car lot replaced the movie lot afterward-- but the lot was not done with cinema yet. More on that later.

There is one building left from Selig Polyscope. This building, now in what is now called the "St. Ben's" neighborhood, echoing a time when Chicago neighborhoods were named after the Parish they were in. It would have been at the southeast corner of the movie lot. It was renovated a few years ago and is now a residential building.

A closer look, at the doorway of the building reveals its old identity as part of the Selig Polyscope Company; if you look above the doorway, you can see the "S" for Selig.

Around the same time, George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson formed Essanay Studios in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood in 1907. The old buildings are still there, just a few blocks from where I go to nursing school, themselves in use now by a St. Augustine's College, on the 1300 block of West Argyle.

The handsome brick building next door was used as housing for movie casts and crew. I've been in the building many times; my best friend Jim lived there for nearly ten years.

In 1914, Essanay succeeded in luring Charlie Chaplin away from Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios, and Chaplin produced 14 comedies at both the Argyle Street studio and a facility had in suburban Niles, Illinois, including Chaplin's classic "The Tramp." Many of the "Bronco Billy" Westerns were filmed at Essanay (in addition to being filmed on location in actual Western locales.)

Reportedly, Chaplin did not like Essanay Studios, and left after only a short time. Essanay survived in various incarnations for about another decade, until being absorbed by Warner Brothers in 1925. The building was used by producer Norman Wilding to produce industrial films until St. Augustine College purchased the building.

In the meantime, the old Selig Polyscope Company lot was not done with having its cinematic day in the sun. It appeared in two movies in its car lot incarnation.

In Chicago native Michael Mann's 1981 movie "Thief," the main character, "Frank," played by James Caan, is a jewel thief who owns a tavern (potrayed by the Green Mill, which is still there, and was once the hangout of Al Capone) and a car lot-- portrayed by the car lot at 3939 North Western; the picture near the top of the post, which I took a couple of years ago, is the sign from that lot. It's since been removed in order to make room for the condos that have been built on the location.

The sign did make it into one more movie before its demise: the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene at the beginning of Penelope Spheeris' 1992 movie Wayne's World. Here's that clip-- look for it right after Phil, the "puking" guy gets in the car.

I wonder if Mr. Mann and Ms. Speeris knew the history of that particular location when they chose to include it in their movies.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Elephant In The Room

A couple of nights ago, I had a long phone discussion with my old friend Jamie, who I'd gone to "Atwood Fest" with a week and a half ago. He and his wife, he told me, had had a fight over his emotional reaction to the Black Hawks Stanley Cup victory. She screamed at him that he was emotional about this, but not over the fact that their marriage was on the rocks.

He responded with a five page letter, which he left in her car to find when she left for work the next morning. It's rough, but at least one thing has happened: they've finally acknowledged the "elephant in the room," which both of them have been avoiding for a few years now; the fact that their marriage is close to failing. They have three kids, ranging in age from 10 to 17, so there's a lot to consider. At least the dialogue has started, whatever the end of it.

This seems to be happening on a national level lately. I felt a little sick when I heard on the radio this morning that estimates of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were wildly underreported-- that it may have been spilling upwards of 60,000 barrels a day.

Doing a little quick math, that comes out to more than 140 million gallons of crude oil despoiling the Gulf of Mexico since the start of this fiasco.

This is unspeakably tragic on a lot of levels-- environmentally, economically. But maybe something good will come out of this: we'll acknowledge the elephant in the room.

The West's addiction to petroleum has, like any addiction, had awful consequences. Global Warming, acknowledged as a problem by every reputable scientist who has weighed in on it (a few cranks notwithstanding) is the biggest elephant in the room. Our petroleum addiction has caused us to sidle up to horrible regimes, like the one in Saudi Arabia, and allowed onerous regimes like those of Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria to survive.

Predictably, some have tried to pin this on President Obama. Some pointed out that he does not have a degree in engineering-- and the magical ability to swim a mile down into an ocean and plug up a giant hole. British Petroleum was responsible for first avoiding this disaster or mitigating it if it happened. When people pointed out that he should have tightened up the safety regulations that the Bush administration had let loosen, Obama pointed out, quite correctly, that "certain people" would have jumped on him for increasing the power of government and interfering with free enterprise.

The big elephant in the room, in the end, is this: there is a finite amount of petroleum and other fossil fuels on this planet, and extracting them will become increasingly difficult, dangerous and expensive. If more countries industrialize and don't develop sustainable sources of energy, competition for these finite resources will become fierce, perhaps resulting in wars. That is, if the global warming doesn't get us first.

I've mentioned that my renovation/rebirth of my blog will have some changes. One of the things I intend to do is to explore some of the options we have for the future. As I've mentioned before, I've been interested in these things, and reading up on them, ever since the first "energy crisis" in the 1970's. I plan on sharing what I've learned here in this blog. And hopefully now that our society has acknowledged the fossil fuel "elephant in the room," that knowledge will be put to use in my lifetime.

Friday, June 11, 2010

BBQ Friday Five

We've got a rare night where everybody is going to be home. I'm making dinner-- bbq beef ribs and chicken, potato salad, broccoli/tomato salad, coleslaw and of course, for my son, rice. Later, we'll probably play "Settlers of Cataan" and maybe some Rock Band.

1. Oh Boy- Buddy Holly
2. Wanted Man- Johnny Cash
3. Turd On The Run- The Rolling Stones
4. Thrasher- Neil Young
5. Guess Things Happen That Way- Johnny Cash

1. Buddy Holly has grown on me over the years.
2. The Man In Black covering Bob Dylan
3. From the greatest rock and roll album ever, "Exile On Main Street."
4. Some science fiction from Neil.
5. I was watching a documentary on Johnny Cash a week or so ago and learned that the the mariachi horns on "Ring of Fire" came to Mr. Cash in a dream.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


This Saturday, we had the fourth annual "Atwood Fest;" a party remembering the remarkable life of my friend Mark "Atwood" Evans, who was shot to death in a robbery four years ago.

We pointedly make it about the way he lived, not the way he died. The guy who killed him was locked up last summer for a long, long time-- 70 years without the possibility of parole. He's 24 years old.

I wrote about Mark more in my old blog, which I started partially as therapy in dealing with my beloved friend's death. Sometime in the near future, I'll write more about what made him such an interesting and unique guy, to the point that a bunch of people have a party every year celebrating his life, which ended when he was 42.

It was, funnily enough, a very happy night, in part because there was a reunion for me and for a bunch of other people. We had lost touch with Jamie, a college friend of ours (here he's pictured the night of my college graduation party with Mark nearly 25 years ago. The picture at the top of the post is Jamie and I taken on Saturday night.

We shared tales of Mark-- times Mark bailed our asses out of a jam (I stayed with him twice during periods of problems with both Tammy and Cynthia, wives #1 and #2). I recounted the tale of our friend Chico getting a phone call from the police after our friend Jimmy drunkenly stepped out of a moving cab on the way home from one of Mark's birthday parties. Jimmy lived, happily. And no longer drinks.

We also got some gossip. I had managed to track Chico down and he showed up to Atwood Fest 1-- with his religious fundamentalist wife. He'd stopped years ago in a small town in Arizona on the way to California, when his car broke down, and stayed, building up a successful car customizing business, and taking on a wife. We all talked the night away with Chico-- it had been over 20 years since most of had seen him-- not realizing that his wife was a holy roller, We laughed about the night he accidentally put his hand through a window and sewed his own arm up with needle and thread, and other hijinks.

I think that it occurred to her that night that she really didn't know him. She left him at the party, and he had to walk ten miles to the motel they were staying. Apparently this was the beginning of the end. I found out Saturday that they've since divorced.

Mostly, though, it was good news; Mike is back to work after nearly a year of unemployment. Davo and Deanna are still a happy couple. Eric is still semi-employed and still living with his mother. Here are some shots of the night; there was a lot of joy there, the kind of joy that people who still love seeing one another after 25 years of friendship have. And people were particularly thrilled to see Jamie.

In the four years since we lost Mark, my life has changed a bunch-- I've trained for a new career, raised a couple of kids (a few more years on that one), established a scholarship in Mark's name and processed a lot of grief. There was a time, right after Mark was killed, that I really wondered if I would ever feel good again. Over time, I've come to realize that he would have insisted that I and we, the rest of us, move forward. He would be the first to tell us: Living well is the best revenge.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Meeting The Songwriter

A few weeks ago, I discovered that a song that I've loved since I was a kid, "Rock Salt and Nails," was written by the late singer/songwriter/labor activist Utah Phillips. What's notable about this is that I had the privelege to meet Mr. Phillips about ten years ago.

I grew up listening to my dad's copy of Joan Baez' "David's Album." Ms. Baez had done the album as a tribute to her husband David Harris, who had submitted to imprisonment by the federal government rather than be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. The country-tinged album is a beauty, recorded with many of the best country session musicians of the time (Mr. Harris loved country music), with covers of Graham Parsons' "Hickory Wind," some bluegrass standards like "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," and of course Utah Phillips' song, which is a melancholy tale of a jilted lover.

About ten years ago, my now-ex-wife Cynthia (who is in the picture at the top of the post along with Mr. Phillips and I) hosted a benefit concert at the Flamenco dance studio that we owned and operated. I alluded to it in this post on my old blog. Mr. Phillips had graciously agreed to play a benefit to help provide a gravestone for a Lincoln Brigade volunteer.

I wish I'd known Mr. Phillips had written the song. I would have probably requested the song.

Here's Ms. Baez' lovely version of the song.

Around the same time, I discovered I knew the writer of another of my most beloved songs, "The Dutchman." I'd first heard Steve Goodman's version of it as a teenager and just fell in love with it. It's a tale of an old Dutch couple living in Amsterdam. The man has long gone mad, but his wife remembers his better days and cares for him. It was one of the first songs I ever figured out on guitar. One of my favorite memories of my marriage with Cynthia was her crying when I sang and played the song on guitar for her.

Here's a live version with bluegrass legend Jethro Burns:

I couldn't find a vid with the studio version, but it's one of my favorite songs.

I had assumed that Goodman, who wrote many fine tunes, including "The City of New Orleans," which was a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972, had written "The Dutchman." I discovered I was wrong-- that another singer-songwriter, Michael Smith had written it. I also discovered that Michael was a friend of ours; it was the same Michael Smith who was a musical partner with my and Cynthia's friend Jamie O'Reilly, who we had met through an organization that centered on Chicago-area Lincoln Brigade veterans. It was really cool for us to be able to tell Michael how much we loved the song and how it held great sentimental value to us as a couple.

In the summer of 1982, I was supposed to live with the woman I'd been dating in college, in Champaign, Illinois, subletting an apartment from a couple of high school friends who were attending the University of Illinois (I was at Eastern Illinois University). She backed out at the last minute and left me in a really bad situation-- bearing the whole rent and scrambling to find a summer job. Fortunately, I was able to find a job-- detassling corn-- and got a little financial help from my mother. The girlfriend and I broke up and I had the most lonely (and hungry-- I had very little money for food) summer of my life.

One of the things that cheered me up was the University of Illinois' excellent radio station. I'd call occasionally to request two songs that I'd heard before on the station-- George Thorogood's cover of John Lee Hooker's "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer," and a song from the new dB's record ("Repercussion")-- "Amplifier."

Amplifier was a serio-comic song about a rock musician who kills himself after his girlfriend leaves him, taking with her everything-- what she didn't take she "found a way to wreck"-- but leaves behind his amplifier.

Here's the video for the song.

A couple of years later, the dB's rerecorded "Amplifier" and included it on their great "Like This" album, one of my favorite records of the eighties.

Over the years, I came to believe that "Amplifier" saved my life during that miserable, depressing summer.

Some time in the late eighties, the dB's toured, and so my friend "Rex the Scumbag" and I went to see them at the fabled Cabaret Metro here in Chicago. The concert was great. Not only did they play "Amplifier," but they included it in a medley with a cover of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds," a song that had a sentimental significance for Rex and I; it was a the theme song for our 1985 pilgrimage to Graceland. After the show, we headed next door to our favorite tavern, the Gingerman.

A little while later, Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple from the dB's, who had written "Amplifier," strolled into the bar and ordered drinks. After a few more of my own drinks, I mustered up the courage to walk up to one of them-- I cannot for the life of me figure out if it was Stamey or Holsapple-- and tell him my "Amplifier" tale.

I was pretty drunk, but I could see that he was a little put off by me-- maybe even a little scared. I backed off, but felt like I'd accomplished one of my life's missions-- thanking him for writing and performing one of my favorite-ever songs. I'm sure that with a few years of therapy, he recovered from his encounter with me.

First Friday Random Five

I've been making changes in format from my old blog. One of the changes I'm making is to streamline my Friday Random Ten to the Friday Five.

Tomorrow, I'll be going to "Atwoodfest," an annual party old friends and I have in order to honor and remember our friend Mark "Atwood" Evans, who was murdered four years ago today. We have it around his birthday every year; he was killed a week before his 42nd birthday. He was one of the most interesting and unique people I've ever met in my life, and will miss him the rest of my life.

A few weeks ago, I found this picture, which I was afraid was lost forever. The picture was taken the night of a graduation party my roommates threw me when I finished my Master's Degree in Political Science in July of 1985. The guy on the right is Mark. The guy on the left is one of those roommates, Jamie, who was also one of Mark's closest friends.

I lost touch with Jamie about ten years ago, and when Mark was murdered, I tried to contact Jamie. I was finally able to get in touch with him and inform him what had happened.

This year, Jamie will be going with me tomorrow to Atwoodfest, at the Tencat Tavern in Chicago. This year we will have one more thing to celebrate-- that the guy who killed Mark was convicted in August of last year of the killing of one of his accomplices in Mark's killing, whom he was afraid would rat him out. He was sentenced to 70 years without the possibility of parole. The state's attorney decided not to pursue Mark's case because of the length of the sentence. We're satisfied knowing that this guy will live in fear of predators like himself for the rest of his life.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing Jamie for the first time in ten years tomorrow, and to seeing the rest of my old college friends.

1. The E Street Shuffle- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
2. This Land Is Your Land- Pete Seeger and Sweet Honey In the Rock
3. Too Hot To Handle- UFO
4. Within You Without You
5. She'd Rather Be With Me- The Turtles

1. From Springsteen's great second album, "The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle."
2. Another song from the "Vision Shared" album, a collection of covers of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs.
3. An old heavy-metal self indulgence
4. From "Sgt. Pepper," which was released 43 years ago this week.
5. One of many hit singles the Turtles had