Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bureaucracy and Musicians: Oil and Vinegar


I committed the cardinal sin of submitting paperwork for 2012 in (gasp) 2013. 

The papers in question were copies of contracts, part of the paper trail for Musicians' pension contributions -- yes, I am now old enough to worry about pension.  Because I was so egregiously and embarrassingly late in passing along our money to someone else, possibly someone named Guido, our vaunted Vancouver Musicians' Association told me I had to include a letter of explanation for the delay. I duly sent a letter of explanation to our beloved Association. 

But, given their curt admonition to be more prompt with my filings and paperwork, I have to conclude that they don't often associate with musicians.  Surely they know very little about our behavior and habits, and their name is probably a misnomer that just stuck, hearkening back to when promptness-conscious, personal hygiene-astute, tux & tails sporting members of the Vancouver Symphony were its only members, in the 20th century. Now,  'Vancouver Agglomeration of the Malodorous Unemployed' might be a better name.  As group of seals is a 'pod', and a bunch of crows a 'murder' maybe 'Vancouver 'Annoyance' of Musicians' should be coined.  'West Coast Irksome Impediments to Administrative Order' is a mouthful but hits the mark. 'Hide Your Fucking Beer 'Cause Here Come the Wankers' is spot-on; 'What's a Union For If You Never Get Paid?' is redolent with youthful veracity, and then there is 'Lower Mainland Appalling Facial Hair Cultivation Society' - not necessarily universal but resonant with oh so many members, many of them men. 

I am not sure how we are expected to stay on top of all the reams of paperwork -- most of us don't even know what form our own funerals will take.  My Spirit of the West band-mate, John Mann, wisely wrote a song describing his Final Wishes -- It's not morbid, merely practical, and unlike everything else in a songwriter's life, impossible to misplace.  And at any rate there is no way in hell anyone would be able to track down the napkin he wrote it on, likely while drunk on an airplane, as he contemplated a nosedive into the nearest tall building (probably only the Delta Regina Hotel but the impact could scratch you up for weeks); so a lovely, hummable, memorable song seemed like a helluva robust idea.  Not clerical, but very clever! 

It's my belief that musicians have traditionally been able to lean on a short-list of excuses for anything along the lines of absent or tardy paperwork, as they have specifically gotten into music to avoid things like honest work, lifting heavy shit without a beer payoff, and filling out stinking papers, like an underpaid, walleyed school secretary.   I give you a tiny excerpt of my list, so you can compare notes: 

Excuses

1) I got baked and watched Hawaii Five-O for 37 straight nights...Book 'em Danno...
2) I was hung over.  (This can be a totally valid multipurpose excuse until your mid-30s.  Longer, if you hold off marriage.)
3) You never told me.  Are you sure you texted me? (Furtively search for cellphone in mock concern).
4) I don't have a watch -- I use my iPhone clock...
5) Uhh, my iPhone is totally screwed, man...
6) I saw something shiny on the lawn

Admittedly, this list of pre-fab excuses doesn't cut the mustard in certain circumstances.  For example, if you have somehow propagated the fiction that you are a functional adult, worthy of holding an opinion, and thought generally capable to babysit (where diaper changes are NOT required), you have to up the ante.  We are wise to take a melodramatic page out of the operating manual of our artistic cousins, ACTORS.  They can, through mastery of social skills and a generous application of ‘charisma’ (a form of charm used in lieu of talent), make the simplest task seem crushingly complex, a minefield, really; it will possess an unforeseen, wracking, emotional aspect and will be fraught with pathos in its telling. The story will go on sooooooo long, too, that eventually you let them off the hook due to sheer exhaustion and admiration at their nerve, tenacity, and full-on balls.  With this in mind I composed a note to the Vancouver Musicians' Association.    The letter read: 
 
Dear Pension Gods,

I write this letter to explain why I have let two Spirit of the West contracts from 2012 languish rather than promptly sending them in along with pension contributions. 

Early in 2013, shortly after our New Year’s Eve gig in London, Ontario I witnessed a large, hovering disc above the road to my house.  It flashed green, blue & red and shone a spotlight down upon the ground in front of me.  I stopped the old Volvo, dumbfounded, and stared upwards at this strange sight visited upon me. 

The next thing I knew I was being lifted bodily into the craft (a UFO, clearly).  I was medically examined, probed invasively and taken on a journey to the star Zeta Reticuli.  Although the trip seemed to take a couple of hours it seems that over 3 months had passed on Earth when I was deposited back into my Volvo, now in the Parksville impound lot with a sticker on its windshield. 

Additional to this is that my teenaged son moved out on his own on the 1st of the month, ostensibly saving us effort and money.  Unfortunately, it has cost us so much to set up his housekeeping that I couldn’t afford the stamp to send the cheque. 

I hope you forgive these unforeseen but totally understandable extenuating circumstances.  

Live Long & Prosper,

Vince R. Ditrich (proud member of Local 145 and looking to start up a satellite office on another planet). 

 
 My wife did not report me missing.  Weird....
 
 

 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Garbage in - Garbage Out



iSoleThe next 'step'?  
Because of my age (late forties), I am comfortable with being an owner and end user of technology.  But because of my age (yes, still late forties) I am also all-too-aware how amazing this modern technology actually is.  I do not take it for granted.  Those of my age group can easily hearken back to staring goggle eyed at their first colour TV and remember their indescribable delight at something revolutionary called ‘Cablevision’, where you could see programs ‘from the States’.  Those who grew up on farms will nostalgically describe the sense of luxury they experienced when their first dedicated phone line was installed, replacing the now archaic and baffling ‘party line’.  For young readers, a party line broadcast everyone’s conversations through a multi-home circuit – but you only picked up when you heard your unique ring, for example two short rings followed by one long one.  If you wished to place a call but your neighbour was already on the blower you would hear his conversation, and have to wait your turn to make a call.  Is it any wonder that phone calls were short, made only if absolutely necessary, performed with caution and discretion -- and anyone under the age of 14 had to ask permission to make one?  If your Grandparents show impatience with your incessant texting please take this information into account before rolling your eyes at them.

There also was a time when a youngster who professed an interest in or knowledge of so-called ‘computers’ was considered very bright.  Automatically.  Most parents shook their heads in wonder and most peers whispered things like, ‘Wow….Kevin is very smart…’  Computers had that kind of cachet in the 60s & 70s.  As far as most adults were concerned computers were a mystical implement, towering and awesome, simultaneously dehumanizing and utopian, possessing of unknown powers, with unlimited potential for both good and evil.  They often spoke darkly of its evil aspects, or at least its most frustrating ones.   

I recall the absurdly over-optimistic predictions that ‘by 1984 every home will have a robot.’  I also remember my Dad’s snort when I reported this little nugget.  He would have been happy simply to have a kid who got his nerdy nose out of a book to mow the damn lawn once & a while. 

Ron Evans with DSKY - Apollo 17 -- 1972
But this nerd, not interested in the programming nuts & bolts of ‘Nouns & Verbs on the DSKY’, was nevertheless highly impressed with the idea that the aforementioned DSKY could master the complexities of rocket launch, orbital insertion & mechanics, celestial navigation, lunar landing and a safe return home.  These amazing feats of science and technology were accomplished through use of the first integrated circuits (ICs), without which Apollo’s moon landings, beginning in July 1969, would not have been possible.  These ICs were, by 1976, commercially available as the brain that powered the amazing Texas Instruments TI-30 scientific calculator -- a cheap but very effective plastic gadget that single-handedly put the slide rule out to pasture.  Though it could do remarkable things like square roots and trigonometry it was most often employed at my Junior High School to generate words like ‘SHELLOIL’ if you punched in ‘71077345’ and turned the display upside down.  We kids just saw them as great toys rather than remarkable scientific tools; we were too young and too easily amused to understand that computer programmers with Ph.Ds expended vast amounts of sweat and spent their entire careers trying to build a better, more useful gadget mostly by ferreting out useless, redundant or glitchy code.  All this so that we could, in turn, spell stupid words with their life's work. 

As we learn from ‘VentureBeat.com’, Scientist and Educator Michio Kaku writes that a singing birthday card that you buy at the drugstore has more computing power in its cheap, disposable chip than all the Allied Forces could muster in 1945.  Your teenager’s iPhone contains more computing power than everything NASA had in 1969.  This to me is utterly mind-boggling and maddening especially when we see what mundane uses our remarkable technological instruments are used for today, by ourselves and our kids…Very suddenly, I begin to feel like a crusty old curmudgeon.  Am I alone here?  I did a bit of research and found others who hold similar opinions, people like the aforementioned VentureBeat.com’s Dylan Tweney, who wrote a brilliant article on this and other tech issues and was one of the inspirations for this essay.  (http://venturebeat.com/2011/12/07/dylans-desk-supercomputing/ ) 

I quote him here:
“….Of course, the Allied forces used their computing power to decrypt Enigma and defeat the Nazis, while your greeting card is playing “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” And in 1969 NASA was using its computers to put a man on the effing moon, while your smartphone gets used primarily to post updates to Twitter..." 

Television to this day holds the potential to educate and inspire humanity yet still manages to focus mostly on subjects like the dim-witted travails of the Kardashians; in a similar way computer technology often falls short.  Yes, we have CT Scans but we also have millions of people playing Angry Birds when they could be having a constructive conversation. 
CT Scanner, not USS Enterprise
Perhaps that conversation could be about how we might make do without our gadgets should there be a flood, a power failure, an earthquake or god forbid a war.  Yes, I am guilty of spelling SHELLOIL on a TI-30 when I should have been doing Trig, but I am not so dependent on my mobile phone that I can't remember my parents' phone number without speed dial.  At the risk of sounding depressingly old fashioned, we would all do well to consider our remarkable tech gadgets not as our ‘handheld brains’ but rather as tools to augment the power of the one we were born with. 

VRD

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Juno Beach / D-Day -- 68 Years Ago Today


The mighty, terrifying, infamous iron juggernaut, the Nazi military, drew a line at the French coastline where they hoped to throw back invaders they knew with certainty must come, and come very soon. 
Queen's Own Rifles -- Toronto Boys land at Bernieres-sur-Mer
 about 8am on June 6, 1944
This monolithic Teutonic force had marched across Europe from Berlin to the gates of Moscow, southward to the wadis of North Africa, from the oil fields of Rumania to the Norman beaches, from the blistering heat of the El Alamein to the frozen fjords of Norway.   
Theirs was one of the most successful and terrifying war making machines that humankind had ever known, one that took pride in cruelty and brutality and that, even in its degraded state, was still capable of meting out a desperate, vicious thrashing to all comers. 

Facing this terrifying, fortified entrenched enemy was an alliance of young men representing the "Allied Expeditionary Forces".  More exactly, facing the Nazis were a bunch of kids, many of them farm boys who had barely even seen a big city, who were tasked with dismantling, by hand, the intimidating Nazi Wehrmacht.  They were to start, on June 6, 1944, with one toe on French soil, gain a foothold, and then march onward into the heart of Germany, where they were expected to seriously kick Gerry’s ass and then come home and pick up where they’d left off. 

Returning home, job well done, they beat their swords into plowshares, fully expected by the whole world to transition easily back to civilian life, even after ferocious, down and dirty fighting, POW camps, privation, exhaustion and survival only through killing, and killing first.  This was all accomplished, precisely as ordered.  They recalled the cameraderie and stayed mostly silent about everything else.   

We’ve seen the movies.  We've read the books.  We know this. 

1st Cdn Scottish Padre
performs last rights on battlefield
Nevertheless, have we stopped for a second to ponder that the very first Canucks on Juno beach that June morning in 1944 (yes, there were Canadians there) were from Winnipeg, Nanaimo, Regina, London, Sarnia, Bathurst?  The movies overlook this.  Actors portray cocky Texans or street savvy boys from the Bronx.  But they don’t mention that the entire humble town of Nanaimo, British Columbia in 1944 had a population of about 8000, with most of the young men in town either signed up with the 1st Canadian Scottish Regiment or having attempted to do so, and that by sundown on D-Day 87 of them had been killed or wounded. 

The Winnipeggers, so gallant and brave, hit that beach with the full knowledge that they came from a town that held Pine Street, a stretch of road home to young men so tough that three VC winners lived on it within blocks of each other.  A hundred years later, we call it ‘Valour Road’ to honour the memory of these incredible men.  Such a high bar by First War fathers must have propelled their Second War sons to their achievements on that momentous day.
Mural at Valour Road - Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Most of the survivors of D-Day would be in their mid-eighties now, and we are running out of time to shake their hands and thank them.  We should seek them out and say thanks not only for their military valour and courage under fire, but also for how they came home, quietly went back to work, raised kids, doted on Grandkids, paid their taxes, built our roads and schools and hockey rinks, and generally became the backbone of a great country. 

We remember them on this day. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

42: The Meaning of Life for Musicians, Too.

It’s been 42 years that I have been a professional musician. I started as a very young man – a tadpole really. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells us that ‘42’ is the answer to the question “what is the meaning of life?” With that in mind I offer the world 42 bits of hard won knowledge and wisdom from my decades on stage.

1) Always take the money. Never say ‘Oh I’ll get it from you next week…’

2) Never bring more luggage than you can carry in one trip.

3) Never buy a bus. Equivalent purchases: Leaky old boat, house with termites, 9 year old PC, used underwear.

4) Always make tickets easy to purchase. One click, one phone call, no monkeying around.

5) Never set up the lighting so that it makes the audience squint and turn away. The light is meant to illuminate the band’s talent. It is not the talent.

6) Always smile indulgently when the sound engineer says ‘it will sound a lot better when there are people in here’. They are just saying this, because they, just as badly as you do, want sound-check to end.

7) Show / Soundcheck: Although everyone including you believes to the contrary, they are in no way related.

8) Rehearsal: An evil ploy to get you to play for free. Show up prepared and concentrate ferchrissakes. Eliminate the need for these evil, punitive tribulations.

9) Never expect the monitor tech to be of any help at all but be genuinely grateful if he is. It is your responsibility to know what you need to hear and learn how to ask for it. Set it and leave it.

10) Never leave your beer unattended in an unlocked dressing room. Any opening band worth its salt will sniff it out and abscond before the end of your first song.

11) It is only the rarest of guitarists who can reliably set a tempo.

12) There are three kinds of soundmen:

Type 1 – The pot freak.

Type 2 – The know it all, self-appointed super-genius producer of all sound on planet Earth, who persists in using the same goddamn Steely Dan CD during sound-check for decades and presumes to tell the band how they should play in order to achieve the ‘optimal audio result’. All the same he could not, not with a gun to his head, turn up a solo in a timely fashion even though its looming imminence has been telegraphed so obviously that quadrupeds on distant farms await it expectantly. Has the same hairdo that he had as a teenager. Considers sweatpants to be a legitimate all round garment for every imaginable purpose including the funerals of his other ‘sound guy’ buddies who spoke with disdainful officiousness once-too-often and then died of loneliness as a result. (May have played Bass in high school.)

Type 3 – The capable, efficient, self-reliant, resourceful professional who doesn’t gratingly steer every conversation towards delusions of his own grandeur. Generally he thinks ahead, pays attention, listens more than he talks, is dependable and organized, has engineering skills, owns a timepiece, and is actually, imagine this, musical.

(You want to hire Type 3.)

13) If you must share the drumkit make sure you’ve asked if the other drummer is a southpaw.

14) The keyboardist will nearly always be the neurotic one. If the neurotic one is not a keyboardist, then he missed his calling.

15) Never presume you are a qualified background vocalist just because you are willing to sing background vocals.

16) Don’t think that adding background vocals will make something sound BETTER. Sometimes you’re just compounding the misery…

17) The bassist will either be scary or a peacemaker. There is no middle ground for some inexplicable reason.

18) You cannot be taken seriously as a performer, artist or musician if you wear Birkenstocks or Crocs onstage. There are no exceptions. Don’t even try to offer one.

19) At no time should anyone other than a trained percussionist of the highest calibre be allowed to physically touch a tambourine for any reason.

20) While touring: Never scream on a train platform unless you’re on fire or are being cut in half by a locomotive. All other panicky shrieking is strictly prohibited. (Yes, there is a story that goes with this….)

21) When it sounds like the drummer is slowing down be sure you’ve double checked to see if it’s actually the piano player speeding up before you make an accusation.

22) Being late for lobby call, sound-check, gig, departure, flights -- is very bad. Being consistently late for these is clear grounds for summary dismissal. Don’t even argue it. Get your act together, or go find a real job and see how that goes…

23) The beautiful, delicate, sexy female lead vocalist can almost always out-drink her male band mates. She is often also highly talented at swearing. There is no scientific explanation for this.

24) Be exciting but not excited: If you are tense, nervous or unprepared your equipment will fail; there will be train-wrecks, screw-ups and other performance disasters. You may not be aware of it but you are totally in control of this phenomenon.

25) Beware the ‘artist’ who treats you like a band-member when there are sacrifices to be made but like a side-man when there are rewards to be shared.

26) The drummer will probably do you the favour of playing more quietly if you extend the courtesy of playing in time.

27) Don’t noodle between songs. Practice at home, you wanker.

28) “Nose picking”: Don’t be that guitarist….The one who says something into the mic, and then nervously strums his muted strings (“chunk-chunk”), and then says another phrase, and then nervously strums his muted strings (“chunk-chunk”), and then says the rest of the sentence and then nervously strums his muted strings (“chunk-chunk”)….You’d be aggravated by someone who picked his nose after every verbal phrase, wouldn’t you? How is this different? It may be common but it’s still Nose Picking.

29) In your career you want to interact with people who communicate in sentences and paragraphs. They are the ones who can visualize a year, a decade, a career. A dozen thumb-typed, acronym filled text messages do not a life depict. Industry types who try to describe to you their fave new band principally through vague hand motions and cutesy eye rolling are not to be taken seriously.

30) Contrary to what the bandleader protests, if you’re performing in a furniture store you are indeed no better than a jukebox.

31) Never, ever, ever trust anyone who stiffs you for the bar tab. This is one of the only permanently unforgivable, indelible and loutish missteps in the business.

32) If you have made a serious error, admit it, apologize without reservation, and cough up for pizza & beer.

33) If you change who you are, alter what you’re saying, or dilute what you stand for simply because someone might object, you are not a valid artist. To be an artist is to be a leader. Think deeply before you commit to a course, but then stay the course.

34) Don’t even fantasize that you’ll be able to maintain your vegetarianism if you are touring northern Saskatchewan in a van.

35) Your vegetarianism will not be taken seriously if you smoke.

36) You cannot, in fairness, make your band-mates suffer because you are a cigarette smoking, dietarily unfulfilled vegetarian on tour in northern Saskatchewan in a van.

37) How you play is how you fuck. Changing one changes the other.

38) Honour the music. There is a corner of beauty in every song -- even ‘Achy-Breaky Pancreas’. Find it and set up camp there.

39) Honour the audience. In nearly every crowd there is one fan who will never forget your honesty and commitment

40) You are either in-tune and in-time, or you are not. Opinions don’t count. No player is bigger than the rules of harmony or rhythm. Don’t misunderstand: You can be out-of-tune and out-of-time to excellent artistic effect. But we can only discern musical expression by measuring against common, predictable, agreed-upon parameters.

41) Don’t blame the equipment. Yes, you sound that bad. Let’s be honest…There is good equipment and bad equipment. Ultimately, though, the music is in your hands, your touch, your mind & heart – not in the gear you use.

42) Most important of all: What we do is sometimes misconstrued as merely a component of ‘entertainment product’ for ‘consumers’. Never, ever forget that it is always supposed to be, first and foremost, Music, by people, for people.






Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Tunes of 2311

by Vince R Ditrich
The sheer volume of musical ‘recording artists’ past and present represents an impressive catalogue of accomplishment by human society. The artistic achievements of the 20th century might well go down as the zenith of western musical culture, should the 21st century continue to merely re-hash and repackage as it currently is doing.
What will be the legacy of 20th century music to people living 300 years hence – in the year 2311? Who will be remembered by future generations?

We might get a perspective on the future by looking back to the past, listing all the great composers that we love so dearly from the 1700s. Go ahead – list ‘em off. I’ll just pause here while you reel off the names.

You’ll instantly see my point….It’s the rare person indeed who can come up with more than two names and probably only a musician or an aficionado can dredge up the names of 4. Classically trained symphonic players will hopefully do a better job still, but there aren’t very many of them, comparatively, in a world of multiple billions of music listeners.

I bring to mind Mozart, first and foremost. Handel, Bach, Vivaldi, and at the end of the century, Beethoven. There are others of course, but only if I cheat and check their bios to make sure that they lived in the 1700s.

Most will be acquainted with Mozart and Bach, surely two of the most famous and important musical minds in human history. Handel and Vivaldi, both completely delightful, are not as widely known to the average listener, and are likely not as much on the radar. Although practically everyone on Earth has heard of Beethoven most will think he was born much earlier than was actually the case. (He was born in 1770 and died in 1826). Even though every royal court and every aristocrat supported the musical landscape of the era very little of it remains resonant to us today.

I think 20th century music will be remembered in the distant future as principally American or powerfully influenced by American culture. It also seems fair to me that there’ll be several categories of historical figures to remember, not merely ‘famous composers’.


Recorded music will probably allow the performers or ‘artists’ to take top status as iconic historical figures, with crossover ‘entertainment’ figures (read: singers who became film stars) to retain second tier status – and though their faces might be more recognizable their musical performances will likely be reduced to a more limited selection of sound bites).

A distant third in this hierarchy, I feel, will be the actual composer or writers of the songs – songs which generally will be ‘Pop’ songs in the 2-5 minute format and less often taking the form of huge orchestral pieces with multiple movements and long durations.

If this is all correct then I suspect that the 20th century’s list, for all its vast resources, will be reduced to a very, very small number of representatives.



I start my list with Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, in addition to being one of the most revered and characterful trumpeters in history almost singlehandedly propelled the early popularization of Jazz and turned it into a signal achievement for the thousands who followed in his footsteps and the millions of fans who listened. His lighthearted, almost throwaway singing style remains one of the most recognizable, influential and era-symbolic in music.

After Satchmo there is an historic lull. Jazz exploded like a bomb and was one of the most impressive artistic movements of all time but it seems clear that the next great peak did not arrive until the early 1960s when The Beatles collected the diaspora of Rock and Roll and redistributed it to everyone. Jazz was still kicking – Brubeck was establishing brilliant new frontiers when the Fab Four were just beginning to build upon earlier seminal American Rock and Roll, Country and Blues; but before the advent of The Beatles, the world had never seen anything like their powerful combination of high-achieving technical production mated to massive world-wide PR, built on the bedrock of solid talent and honest workmanship, quirky character and boyish accessibility.

In my second category of ‘entertainment’ crossover figures I can think of only two that fit the bill for all the ages – first and foremost being Sinatra, second being Elvis. Sinatra’s body of work and remarkable duration of career will stand out, and the margins will always contain notes about his live concerts, his legendarily tempestuous lifestyle, his success as an actor and his occasional second-rate sallies into dancing and ‘comedy’. He may well be highlighted as the quintessence of the century’s conception of a ‘star’ – the embodiment of celebrity as it was then known. His notoriety will be of greater importance than his musicality.

Presley, on the other hand, will be a light hearted footnote, focusing probably on banned hip swiveling footage, outrageous superman-like costumes, and a body of silly films consistently and sufficiently formulaic to be considered their own unique genre. It seems fair to guess that he will mostly represent the famous ironies and absurd excesses of his times. Imagine if you will a 24th century remake of ‘Hound Dog’ by a Chinese, Indian or Indonesian vocalist, and you’ll be able to conjure up the time distorted, department store Santa Claus caricature that I envision for The King.

As far as composers are concerned there are a small handful that should be included to give us the sweep of the century. Speaking chronologically I will begin with Irving Berlin, who started his long career with ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ in 1911 and kept contributing massively to the American songbook for decades afterward. He wrote ‘God Bless America’ and ‘White Christmas’ among hundreds of others – those two songs alone practically guarantee his hallowed enshrinement in the annals of musical history.

George Gershwin was a contemporary of Berlin (as well as one of his admirers) and although at one point a song-plugger for Tin Pan Alley, he was also capable of composing some of the most interesting, representative and socially resonant orchestral works of his time. Gershwin’s first hit was the populist ‘Swanee’, but he is also responsible for the complex, passionate and sublime ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, so rich and musically metaphorical that one can almost see the environment in which it was composed.

Lennon & McCartney, as well as being among the most noted artists of all time, are responsible for the composition of many of the most popular songs to this point in history – They surely must be on this list. Theirs is a body of work that acts as the soundtrack to an entire generation of baby boomers, and is beloved by the children & grandchildren of these same boomers. The unifying effect of their global popularity and resulting paradigm shift attributed to them and their fellow Beatles was so profound that music is, in some ways, still stuck in the ruts of their deep pioneering tracks. This is an irony that they themselves may have sensed developing as their social and cultural influence peaked in the late 1960s, but which has yet to completely play itself out. Offhand I can think of no composer of more current vintage whose writing does not directly trace back to what Lennon & McCartney synthesized. They represent a major crossroads, where musical influences of ‘the past’ joined with the science, tech & business of ‘the future’. It was potent and has powerfully affected all who come afterward. Every big new Pop hit is like a re-imagined Beatles song. Every Country offering is like a watered down Beatles song. Every modern Pop songwriter understands, courtesy of John & Paul’s time tested template, the point of focus on the hook, the short and logical rising journey to the chorus, its payoff, and then, they hope a swimming pool and a limo at the end of it all. Lennon & McCartney compositions will certainly be loved as long as we value music, but awareness of their identities, personal contributions and social opinions may fade drastically when compared to timelessness of their melodies and lyrics.

I wanted to include Burt Bacharach in this list, but I don’t think his name will be on the tips of tongues in the 24th century. He remains to my mind one of the cleverest of all writers but I am not positive that his work will stand the test of time, though it really ought to. I fear that the rhythmic shapes and harmonic themes that he employed were a victim of their own success. This is to say they were vastly and instantly popular, eagerly performed, greedily covered by all manner of artists, completely related to and emblematic of the times in which they were created, and so he will be, for these purposes at least, shipwrecked in the 1960s. But if there has ever been a writer who can more cohesively marry a melody to chord structure inside a perfectly shaped arrangement I have yet to discover him.


I think Michael Jackson will not do well in music’s memory – I hope at least he will be remembered as one of history’s great dancers, and a spectacular showman. But, as far as music crafted by the likes of diligent tunesmiths, performed by expressive instrumentalists, his contribution, when looked at honestly, actually harmed the art form as it had grown to be. With Jackson came a complete shift in focus away from the craftsmanship of songwriting and the synergy of group musical performance towards a more selfish obsession with the solo vocalist. His dance routines were generally far more important than the compositions themselves, and a new video-driven culture underscored a requirement for ‘tele-genics’. Jackson’s breadth of appeal was remarkable, no doubt aided by the fact that it his performances appeared self-contained: to sing and dance one requires nothing other than one’s own body. This cuts across all class and wealth strata. Combined with this was a corporate mass-marketing machine of unprecedented reach and vigour, pitching a carefully constructed culture of glitzy, dramatic, heroic iconography, designed for easy dissemination via the new conception of MTV. There is a direct line between Michael Jackson and children who type with their thumbs while staring at iPhone screens -- when they might rather be interacting with others. I don’t expect my children to long for a bumpy ride in a flivver while singing ‘In My Merry Oldsmobile’ any more than I expect kids in 2311 to sing and dance ‘Thriller’. But I know they’ll have their own Buck Rogers version of an iPhone... MJ’s effect was powerful to be sure, but I think ultimately it will prove to be not so much ‘artistic’ achievement as a triumph in the optimization of marketing.

The super-keener musicologists of the year 2311 will no doubt toss about the names of many brilliant and influential 20th century artists – cutting edge types like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis or broadly popular stalwarts like Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, but I strongly suspect that they will not be known by the person in the street. Bird and Miles will be looked at through a lens of kitschy curiosity, having played musical instruments considered archaic, obsolete, about as relevant in that distant future as are Lute or Harpsichord today.

The list will contain no trombonists.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Hodge-Podge

by Vince R. Ditrich


Hodge-Podge:

Pronunciation: 'häj-"päj
Function: noun
4) Birdie Schmidt ------------d) Then he should take a bath
5) Lou Reeks ---------------- e) I swear to God her name was Birdie Schmidt!

Hodge-Podge #2: Most annoying mispronunciations I’ve heard used more than once in the last fortnight:

1)‘Fer-tog-er-fer’ -- instead of ‘photographer’
2)‘Farm-il-yer’ -- instead of ‘Familiar’
3)‘Irregardless’ -- instead of ‘Regardless’
4)‘New-kew-lar’ instead of -- ‘I’m the president of the United States nearing the end of my second term, and after having been briefed by aides thousands and thousands of times over the period of a decade about New-kew-lar power, New-kew-lar weaponry, New-kew-lar research, New-kew-lar submarines, New-kew-lar deterrents, New-kew-lar attacks, New-kew-lar test bans, New-kew-lar rogue states, New-kew-lar reactors, and New-kew-lar families, I still can’t pronounce the word like a bright 3rd grade student.

Hodge-Podge #3: Sign at a sandwich shop reading: “Now Hiring Great People”. Pierre Trudeau, the Sandwich Artist, with a rose pinned to his apron. Joan of Arc, at the gas grille, of course. Winston Churchill, resplendent in a purple visor, could take your order with a verbal flourish. “...We shall prepare your salad whatever the cost may be. We shall bite on the peaches, we shan’t bite on the coffee grounds, we shall bite on the meals and on the sweets. We shall bite to our fills. We shall never surrender…”

While we’re hodge-podging…Can anyone out there explain the rationale behind expensive toilet paper?

VRD

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Village

by Vince R. Ditrich

(If you laugh it's a humour piece...If you don't it's a scathing indictment).

It appears that people actually follow blogs, because I get a lot of flak about not updating my own often enough. Although it shouldn’t, this surprises me; reading on the web is not like sitting down with a good book, and I refuse to believe anyone would put the two in the same category for satisfaction and fulfillment. I find that faithfully visiting a blog again and again requires more commitment than I can reasonably give; though I should be flattered, I'm actually taken aback at anyone spending their valuable time worrying about the lack of new material on mine. There are thousands, maybe millions of other blogs out there!

And precisely because of this fact, I find that I get overloaded quickly by the utter barrage of material available (and the pain-in-the-ass way it is often presented). The sillier the topic, it seems, the more crap there is to stagger through, too. You could spend a lifetime reading-up on 'Bigfoot' alone. I get impatient with stultifying repetition, I get depressed by clumsy attempts to analyze or critique things mundane & arcane, which no doubt start with good intentions but end up all to often looking like drunken transcriptions of Coles notes by a juvenile delinquent; bad spelling, no caps or punctuation, egregious factual inaccuracies (gotta keep those details straight when regurgitating preposterous Roswell Saucer Crash anecdotes), embarrassing misuses of homonyms, childlike, heart-woundingly pathetic attempts at summation…Very little ability to communicate through the written word.

But then I guess I’m a cranky old bastard. I couldn’t give a rat’s arse about, online ‘live votes’, those grating message boards, or even ‘man on the street’ interviews on TV, for that matter (if I tune in at all, it is for expert analysis). I don’t wish to be subjected to the faulty reasoning of near-illiterates.

Sound harsh? Maybe it is, but it seems clear to me that we need to rattle the cage. And I mean rattle it big-time, run our tin cups across the bars, shake the door, make some noisy protests -- before it's too late. Recently, in an attempt to be informative, the vaunted internet, the great hive-mind & hope of humanity, home to all news, websites, message boards, online votes and blogs, reported that the state of Kansas has finally, belatedly, it’s-about-bloody-time-ish-ly voted to repeal a Stone Age law which made it illegal to teach as conclusive based on all the evidence available today the basic tenets of Darwinian evolution in that state’s schools. But two years from now, in the next voting cycle, they might change their minds back.

A majority of voting Kansans, apparently unaware of what Darwin’s elegant theory actually says and equally in the dark about how science works had collectively convulsed in a hot-button intransigent theocratic spasm. They decided that they could dream up a more palatable homily for the development of Life on Earth, a 'truth' rather than facts, that three-year-olds could grasp immediately and uncritical Grandparents could repeat with gimlet-eyed, old-testament zeal, their fiery ardour diverting the questions that hovered into view as a result of lapses in their logic (which, at any rate, they had never been introduced to in their own childhood…God forgive them!) They then backed-up their fairy tale with a state law. The law basically says that ALL parents must allow, and ALL kids must respect the notion that Sunday School stories have just as great a likelihood of being scientifically valid as does science itself. In a new take on the American Constitution, Kansans had inched legislatively towards a joining of Church & State. Ouch. Clearly the democratic, universal, free self-education aspect of the internet is requiring an unusually long time to take hold in Kansas.


But of course science is not a fable, an opinion or political bullying; it is a method, and everyone can examine scientific theories for flaws, should examine theories for flaws, are requested to examine the whole schmeer, to test it, to challenge it, to try to find a mistake. Though it might not go down well in Kansas, I submit that even a NASCAR engine obeys the laws of physics (note to Kansans: Physics is the name given to one of the scientific disciplines). What I would love to read is that Kansas had passed a law insisting that everyone in their social-throwback, cave-hunkering, vacantly credulous superstition repository of a state be required to prove a capacity to think critically before their votes could be allowed to negatively affect other citizens. (They should also be required to learn the Heimlich Manoeuvre to assist victims, fellow Kansans, who were choking on the outlandish fantasies being shoved down their throats.) Does my 'fighting fire with fire' rant smack of Orwellian '1984' totalitarianism? Is that worse than 984 Dark-Ages-ism? Are next year's crop failures going to be blamed on Kansas City witches? Will blights and curses be tracked on government web sites?

In the next mouse-click I’m informed with a pretty damn large headline about the Earth-shattering discovery that ‘afternoon naps’ appear to be ‘good for the health’. Although this has been common knowledge for millennia, even to quadrupeds and the Great Apes --before the advent of speech never mind written language, the internet’s voracious appetite for ‘content’ allows the story to be posted as if it were NEWS, a claim that even the most vapid, drone-like member of society wouldn’t buy. Hey!!! Stop the presses….Turns out salt might be bad for the health!! I would not at all be surprised to see a story posted warning that death is the biggest cause of funerals – except in Kansas where they’re currently attempting to enact ‘Mandatory Resurrection’ into law.

Oh, that Worldwide Web! Viruses abound out there in cyberspace. They are usually designed by meat-headed social menaces with the specific intent of wreaking some sort of havoc, as unchecked havoc is the most creative concept their addled noodles can output. The greater the havoc, the more proud these social morons feel. Back in ancient times (25 or more years ago) the malcontents who now inflict their viruses upon the world were the shiftless, slack-jawed vandals who busted shop windows and defaced bus stops with graffiti. In small towns and villages most folks had a pretty good idea who the shit-disturbers were, kept book on the worst of them, and occasionally a solid citizen or two, in righteous wrath, would rise up and unleash a can of whoop-ass on the truculent little bastards. In the big cities, sadly, the job was left to the police & the courts – and of course it seldom got done.

The internet is the biggest city of them all, and the vandals are getting away Scott free.

The internet is one great, huge, massive concatenation of potentialities. To use an artistic metaphor it’s a blank canvas. It’s pregnant with promise. Just think of the possibilities! But as it currently stands, it is like the main street of what could have been a beautiful town, but isn’t. The planning board let the forested boulevard be zoned for ramshackle used car lots, fast food joints, gas stations, tattoo parlours, and muddy lots gone to seed. Every now & then there squats an obese, joyless Wal-Mart. We could have a Mona Lisa on our hands, but instead we have a brick wall spray painted with bad depictions of genitalia.

McLuhan appears to have been correct. The medium and its sheer ubiquity have reduced us to wading through a tremendous amount of noise before we can dredge up the music. But the solution is so simple. Demand more --of yourself, and of others, on the internet. Think of if not as an amusement but as a new environment for improving not just your lot, but everyone’s lot in life. Let’s let the obvious state itself, let’s not assume that our right to hold an opinion is an imperative to constantly say it and re-say it again and again at high volume. Let’s think twice before we assert once. Let’s not conclude that quantity is quality. Let’s act on the internet like we would in our own village.

VRD

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Pigs of War

The Pigs of War

Essay

By Vince R. Ditrich

There can be no grey areas when you wish to gird a nation for war. Affairs must be black and white, crystal clear, with the virtuous guardians of absolute Good facing the gluttonous gangsters of pure Evil, capitalized for metaphor’s sake, starkly defined, and copiously illustrated with anecdotes, attributions and historical analogues, whether or not they are apropos, accurate, graceful or even believable.

Interestingly, a politician’s lifeblood is his capacity to subtly shade and manipulate connotations and meanings of words and catch phrases; his sophistication comes from an ability to introduce new grey areas, where before we saw none, in order to re-brand flaccid old pissing contests and make them shiny, new, and winnable again. The politician splits hairs and makes a big scene dog-fighting over the tiniest detail. He usually chooses the battles that are tilted in his favour, no matter how picayune, but he generally publicizes his victories as if they were hard won and rooted in the very bedrock of his principles. In peacetime he makes much ado about nothing.

But it is the singular politician who can make the case for war.

The wartime politician has no grey-scale, and he thinks much the same no matter where he hails from, whether he is an MP, a Senator, an Ayatollah, a King or a General. When the time for war comes he looks only to information that supports the grand purpose of steering his nation towards it. He intones in flag-draped, patriotic generalities. He speaks of ‘family values’ as if his land alone values its families. He lumps together nations, concepts, events, causes and effects indiscriminately and throws them all into the same sack, like a huge garbage bag boldly emblazoned with the label “Evil”. Disparate events become linked in new-found conspiracies. Long-standing enmities can be turned on their head, spun around and re-named ‘secret alliances’, ‘cabals’, ‘encirclement’, ‘the work of provocateurs’, ‘covert groups’, perhaps even ‘Axis of -- Add Your Demonizing Abstract Noun Here --’. Nations, corporations, conglomerates, and opposition leaders capitalizing on geopolitical instability get labelled as part of a monolithic enemy hegemony and are thrown into the sack. After all, capitalization on a situation is only fair if the GOOD GUYS do it. Dictators, be they the tinpot variety or cagey old experts too savvy to any longer be kept onside get chucked into the sack, too. Suspicious connections are trumpeted loudly or manufactured quietly if necessary, co-incidence is dismissed as impossible, self-defence as a provocation. The sack bulges with all manner of things, taken from every quarter, that might be interpreted as resistance to the wartime politician’s cause, an impediment to his country’s progress, an insult to his national honour, a blasphemy upon what he holds holy, a threat to his safety. He ties the bag shut and tosses it at your feet. Task complete! Here is your proof. Believe or be suspected of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Sadly, these ratcheted-up, aggressively unbalanced methods, in former times let slip only in times of chaos & true crisis, are now nothing more than a technique; garden variety, business-as-usual politics. Practically everyone partakes in knee-jerk demonization. The bar is now set so low that those who are the most hysterical, shrill or combative in how they present their case are -- like a camera-ready Pop singer who sells a million CDs is suddenly a ‘superstar’-- blithely dubbed ‘Statesmen’.

There was a time when ‘Statesman’ was an honorific ascribed to only the most experienced, skilled, and subtle diplomatists and parliamentarians. Statesmen were the brightest, most able and best connected politicians of their times. Their word was an iron-clad bond by or for their countries, and they sometimes did not require elected office to make their influence felt. Though war has perennially been on the horizon, the real Statesman could often manoeuvre around it and still let his country’s interests still be served. He did not greedily grab for authority; it was his and he wielded it comfortably. His confidence buttressed well chosen words which illuminated his intellect, and gave continuity to the traditions that propelled his thinking. His statements were truly his, conceived by him, penned by him, and endorsed by the highest authority; he coined phrases that crystallized, encapsulated, or perhaps inspired: “Blood & Iron”, “Their Finest Hour”, "Walk Softly & Carry a Big Stick". He authored Plans, Doctrines, Agreements, Treaties, Policies. His words had weight and he delivered them knowing this. He had a breadth of vision and experience unknown by all but a few of his contemporaries. A true Statesman couldn’t get away with rudderless windbaggery like that of John Kerry or provocative, rash button pushing like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The British had Disraeli, Lloyd George, the mighty Churchill; the French had “The Tiger” Clemenceau -- even the intractable De Gaulle acted statesmanlike when it suited him. The German Empire had the very shrewd and careful von Bismarck. The USA has put forth wise, capable and sometimes even idealistic men such as Franklin, Wilson, Hopkins, Acheson, Marshall, men more of substance and intellect than botox and focus groups; even the highly controversial Henry Kissinger couldn’t be accused of lacking depth.

But something has shifted.

Nowadays Americans must look to people like Newt Gingrich for Statesman-like leadership. Gingrich, a retired conservative politician, former Speaker of the House (who by the US Constitution was once third in line to the Presidency) and Harvard Professor, would very much like to run an elegant thematic thread through any number of recent hostile acts; he tries mightily to do so. He is busy these day, on-camera, touring the e-hustings so to speak, trying to employ his verbal and intellectual skills to force an entire county towards the epiphany that, Wow!... It’s suddenly World War Three! Honest! – based purely on his word alone. More like a small town District Attorney trying a case filled with circumstantial evidence than a famous figure with national influence & geopolitical foresight, he reads-off his desultory list of accusations, links events, and sounds not ‘visionary’, ‘presidential’ or ‘statesmanlike’ but partisan and preachy, chucking rocks sullenly from the sideline. At least he doesn’t ululate and whack things with his sandal. His Harvard students will do well to jump to his dire conclusions, but the rest of us can look before we leap. Unfortunately most of the world’s leaders get their education at Harvard. But no matter what he claims, his all-inclusive survey of current events leaves him filling his metaphorical sack with oddments, like a JFK conspiracy nut run amok, dramatically proclaiming this bill of goods ‘the beginning of World War III’, thereby linking every bomb in every country with every ‘terrorist cell’, making them all a part of a huge, presumably organized Islamic umbrella group that is on its way to reaching critical mass. But the only critical mass that could possibly be achieved is the point where the American public is finally beaten down by endless scary prognostications and becomes willing to lash out and quiet all the disparate, anarchic voices at once.

During the Kennedy era “SIOP-62” (Single Integrated Operational Plan) for nuclear force retaliation was for a massive strike of USA’s ICBMs to be launched toward pre-selected targets throughout the Communist world. These targets were in the Soviet Union, Red China, North Korea, elsewhere…Regardless of who the aggressor was, or where the real enemy lay, no matter what the grievance or assault; the policy of the US government was to retaliate by wiping the entire Communist bloc off the face of the Earth. For obvious reasons John Kennedy changed this policy.

Given that World Wars I & II were huge, consciousness-altering conflagrations it’s hard to see how sporadic terrorist bombings, however shocking and infuriating, or yet another sortie by the Israeli Air Force could qualify to be ‘the beginning of WWIII’. We face serious trials ahead, but let's be realistic about what is actually going on. Cassandra-like warnings ring false and should beg the question why does Newt want all of us to think this is the beginning of the end?

I suppose WWIII would be a great television event if scripted properly, and heaven knows most of the western world receives its geopolitical education from CNN or the like. Mainstream TV’s watered down, absurdly over-simplified analysis, maudlin tone, colourful graphics and dramatic theme stingers, combined with the very nature of television – a medium gawked at endlessly by detached, disengaged and hypnotised viewers -- practically ensures big ratings and pseudo-intellectual parroting of Wolf Blitzer at the water cooler. That there wasn’t an outright, instant and total boycott of all frontline televised war news by the entire American nation when reporters were ‘embedded’ with US troops during the invasion of Iraq says it all. How could the coverage possibly have been anything other than sis-boom-bah? But the propagandized generally don’t realize they’re being had. The average far-removed & unthreatened citizen has to make a strenuous effort to break out of his or her daily pattern to give a shit about distant military adventures, and frankly, the isolated childlike news reports they are spoon-fed are meant mostly for morale; heartening shots of dusty, camouflaged homeboys sitting on a tank and waving at the camera or huge, impressive explosions from a safe distance, after which a reporter with an exotic accent and a fishing vest interprets the days events. The anchor tuts & clucks editorially and then throws to commercial. At any rate, balanced, researched and nuanced reportage would be completely meaningless to a viewer vague on historical background & context. But TV is not the culprit.

Critical thinking is what is missing. We need only look around to see that, as human beings, our inner world and much we base our lives upon is open to wide interpretation and is for all intents & purposes, fabricated by us, for our own comfort. Why, then, shouldn’t they simply bill terrorism as WWIII, give the people focus, motivate them, and make them believe? Many of them hold fast less believable and less tangible things. There are thousands (perhaps millions) who truly believe they’ve been abducted by UFOs. There are many more who can’t function without having their horoscope analyzed by ‘skilled professionals’; some of these very people have led great nations through trying times. Most of the world’s people believe in magical religious tenets that can never be proven, that go against all logic, common-sense, and the laws of science & nature; often-times these people admit as much, live with the conundrum, and still believe; and yet other people hold their beliefs so dear that they will murder and slaughter over slight interpretive differences in one or another holy scripture. And that brings us back to WWIII.

It’d certainly be a way to sell things, be they the boogieman, products, services, heretofore unacceptably parochial social policies, reactionary theocratic political philosophies, or a new generation of holier than thou fire & brimstone ‘Statesmen’. One of the greatest economic booms in history happened to the U.S.A. during, and as a result of World War Two. Re-branding the 'product' to be an apocalyptic battle between religious systems could really be a marketing home run, with Newt and company there to rise like the elect to the Executive Pulpit. Bully for them. WWIII, especially if it were that in name only, might turn out to be the most useful of them all.

When you really think about it…If you can sell them ‘Restless Leg Syndrome’, surely you can put lipstick on the pig of war.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Whipping Boy


by Vince R. Ditrich

Part One

$2.85 an hour. That was the going wage when I was a 14 year-old working at the music store. Not just any music store, mind, but the best established and most reputable Mom & Pop shop in the whole region, the only one my Dad would ever give his patronage, the only one that, in his words, didn’t just sell “goddamn amplifiers for amateurs to make noise with their Rotten-Roll Hippie crap and smoke goddamn manure-a-hoona.” My Dad, you see, was a purist. If you couldn’t read it, you shouldn’t be allowed to play it. If you were a young guitarist, for example, and you couldn’t find B flat, or play a diminished chord, or finger A flat 7 add 9, (which you wouldn’t if you only knew 5 songs, all of them by Buck Owens) you were instantly exiled to his personal Siberia, labeled ‘an AMATEUR’ – the worst possible verdict that he could pass. No term in his lexicon was more pejorative. “Well yes, he’s an ax murderer, but at least he’s not an AMATEUR…” By the age of four I knew that if someone had been pronounced an ‘Amateur’ his days were done, at least as far approval from my Dad was concerned; his judgment was irrevocable. He was a man of unambiguous opinions. Oh, the hell he raised when the march of time and his pre-teen aged son (me) required he add ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’ and ‘Knock Three Times’ to the set list. I recall he even did “My Sweet Lord”, but his face was always screwed up into a rictus of revulsion as he miserably honked through it on the Tenor sax. In retrospect I suppose he did try, at one point gamely plodding through a Tijuana Brass phase, even though he thought Herb Alpert was an abomination to man and beast alike. “Jaysus Kee-rist…He sucks on that goddamn horn like a schoolgirl…” As the time passed, he got more and more crotchety and his gun-shy sidemen fled to gigs where they could play current songs, sometimes even in the key of E, and not live in terror all night long. Work dried up and eventually Dad just hung it up for good.

I, his drummer, was left unemployed and with few prospects. Granted I was only 14, but when you’re a musician the child labour laws don’t apply. So I worked up the gumption to drop into a local music store to suggest that they keep me in mind should they ever need some help. To my surprise they called one Saturday morning.

I jumped on the city bus, fairly bursting with excitement, rode it downtown and presented myself for duty. Clearly my extensive musical background convinced them to call me. Wise of them! They’d be damn glad they’d hired me, I mused. Oh yes, I’d have the place running like a top in days! When I arrived the Boss looked me up and down over his reading glasses, said nothing intelligible but clucked and tutted with what I hoped was some form of approval and spun quickly on his heel, leaving me to be tasked by his wife. She bade me downstairs, to the deepest, darkest depths of the ‘stock room’. No ordinary storage area, this ancient, dank warren seemed to have been scraped out of the prairie hardpan as a refuge in case there were marauding Visigoths reported in the area.

It was McGee’s Closet, filled with hundreds, thousands – perhaps even millions of copies of sheet music. Books and pads and scribblers and texts and tablature and manuscript; it was piled as far as they eye could see in that dim light, looking as if it had been cargo abandoned by smugglers dumping and running, appearing for all the world like a heap of forbidden books ready for a Nazi bonfire.

“Organize this.” The Boss’s wife said, waving her hand vaguely at the squalor before me. “It’s really quite a mess.” She added, overstating obvious with pathos. Leaving me alone with my thoughts she climbed the steep, squeaky steps and went back to join the lucky above-ground elite. For a few moments I just stood there like a dunce as the realization sunk in that I was not to be the new manager of the drum department, nor a mighty sales representative. I would take out the trash, sweep floors, and categorize rubbish as either a) junk or, b) crap. I was a ‘gofer’. A ‘stock-boy’. And at $2.85 an hour I almost qualified to be a slave.

It was near the end of my very first day of work that my legend began to form. While vacuuming, I ineffectually pushed a peanut of packing foam around the rack of Al Martino records; I didn’t know I was being watched. My new co-workers were amusing themselves by wagering how long it’d be before I’d actually bend over and pick up the offending piece I appeared to be playing deck shuffleboard with. Finally the Boss’s daughter suggested that I really get aggressive with that cheap Hoover, throw it around a bit, persuade it to do its job. Throw it around I did, dutifully adhering to her injunction -- but of course I couldn’t know that this vacuum, utterly worn out and cheap in the first place, had been jury rigged countless times since its manufacture during the early part of the Protestant Reformation. The last repair had been done with scissors and scotch tape. The Hoover balked at my rough treatment and sent a few jolly shocking volts down the pipe directly into my arm. I danced a right pretty jig, sang a few Mexicano sounding ‘Aiaiaiaiaiai’ lyrics and then dropped it like a boiling spud. The high mirth exhibited at my expense by co-workers was galling, but being fourteen I mostly just got embarrassed and mumbled.

Luckily it was a family oriented kind of place where parents rented trumpets for school band or bought metronomes for their arrhythmic piano student children and not the kind of place the long-hairs frequented to buy a guitar just like Eric Clapton’s. A lady I knew worked at one of THOSE places, across town, mostly serving John Lennon hairstyle stunt-doubles back in the day when that kind of coiffure was a shocking thing to see. Her feet were firmly planted on the near side of the Generation Gap; she was well out of her depth. At one point while minding the shop alone a young man sidled up to the counter and said to her casually, “Hey lady…Can I take a peek at your fuzz box?” Her eyes widened in horror and she nearly fainted. Oh the depravity! What was the world coming to? Damn these Hippies and their loose morals! After a few moments she realized that the young man was pointing not at her unmentionables but at an electronic gadget inside the glass display case.

I was a very attentive young man, responsible, respectful, efficient, quick to learn and eager to please. Unfortunately I was also perilously ungainly, with Andre the Giant’s feet, a child’s body, and a teenager’s loins. The puberty that was underway cursed me with uncontrolled vocal yodeling, an uneven spackling of acne and a totally preposterous attempt at a moustache. I dropped things, I tripped over things, I broke things. I was St. Vitus at Dance Party USA. The Boss would just shake his head as I’d stumble by, wincing as I dumped coffee on someone’s brand new copy of Toccata and Fugue. I was an object, not of ridicule, but of fascination, a crash-to-be, erratically circling the airfield.

The store was long, narrow and high. The ceilings must have been 25 feet, leaving all sorts of room for displays on the office roofs. The Boss, in addition to bookkeeping, musical instrument repair, ordering, banking, sales, and schmoozing had also taken on the job of fitting and repairing hearing aids. He had a special office set up specifically to test the hearing of his customers, presumably the now deaf, washed-up electric guitarists that my Dad had sent packing. It was a room within a room, built in such a way that the roof was only timber cross-pieces. They always featured a drumkit up there, setting it gingerly on scrap pieces of wood that lay over the supports. It was eye-catching but out of the way.

I took it upon myself to clean up that display, the shiny drums having collected a thick coating of dust from sitting forlornly for several years. Ever so carefully I climbed up the ladder and tiptoed to the kit, moving it painstakingly from place to place, cautiously adjusting the wood ‘floor’ that I and the drums rested on. Like a cat I balanced on the beams, moving the cymbal here, the floor tom there. Confident now, not to mention out of space I brazenly balanced a cymbal stand on two of the joists. I turned back to my task but caught from the corner of my eye that it was tipping over. This cymbal on its stand, a twenty pound contraption with a razor sharp bronze edge, was headed to the floor twenty feet below, toward the head of a customer. Urgently I lunged for the falling object lest it decapitate the lady browsing the Beverly Sills LPs. And decapitate her it would have, in a split second. In the nick of time I nabbed it, preventing a messy tragedy, but my desperate lunge threw me off balance and I lost my footing.

I and the cymbal plunged through the ceiling below, my crotch bearing the full weight of the fall onto the 2 x 10 rafter. My legs dangled down into the hearing aid office and the floor below was littered with shattered acoustic tile. I was in agony, still clinging piteously to the cymbal, and balanced excruciatingly on what I was sure was an exploded scrotum. I peered down into the disaster I had caused and saw the BOSS. His bald head was sprinkled with dust. He gazed upward quizzically at the odd vision suddenly visited upon him, reading glasses as usual at the end of his nose. His eyebrows shot up for a second but all he said was, “Oh, Hi Vince.”

Banished to the basement again, I was assigned the horrible task of sorting through box after box of used screws, nuts and bolts and separating them by size. The Boss wanted it done; it’d been on his to do list for years, apparently. I was positive he just wanted to gain a measure of control over the halo of destruction surrounding me. It was said that completion of the task would be highly regarded, but the drudgery was unspeakable. I was sick with boredom. Presently I felt nature’s urge and excused myself for a few moments. I attended to my task, did up my trousers and flushed the bog. Abject horror washed over me as the toilet and its contents --formerly MY contents, backed up onto the floor and flooded everywhere. I mean everywhere. This was no garden variety malfunction of the john; it was a torrent, a cataract, a high pressure inundation. It sloshed out the door and spread inexorably. I came rushing out of the loo, waving my arms in the air in a terrible panic, frightening the customers, yelping incoherently, white as a ghost. I gesticulated wildly like a terror-stricken caveman. The ruinous stream forked in two directions, one rivulet languidly draining toward the sheet music, briefly pooling near the Puccini, and then flowing onward, perhaps drawn to Blood, Sweat & Tears by a sense of comradeship, eventually trickling all the way to the front door. The other cascaded down the stairs and through the floorboards, raining urine and huge gobs of turd on a stack of fancy, expensive clarinets. It dribbled down the wall and soaked a pegboard wall display which held thousands of spare parts in plastic bags, all of which were now filling with toilet contents: Bassoon springs, violin bow frogs, trumpet mouthpieces, flute keys, sax pads, microphones, ligatures, bass violin bridges, you name it. All were ruined. The shite came flowing down the stairs with menacing drama, in gratuitously graphic Peckinpah slo-mo, and oozed calamitously to the floor below. There was even a clump of excrement plopped malevolently on the Boss’s soldering iron. It was a fucking disaster.

Somebody awoke to the emergency and took us to panic stations; by some miracle we managed to mop it up – but the loathsome job of picking up the errant solid bits was left to me, the perpetrator, and a pair of pink rubber gloves. The clarinets at the top of the stack took the brunt of it and I cringe to this day at the thought of some poor bastard buying one and obliviously gumming on it for all these years; what a black irony that their brand name was “Buffet”…Ugh. But there was nothing we could do about the lazy, clinging pong of ancient musty broadloom mixed with wretched, nasty sewage save leave all the doors open and freeze our arses. They were all hoping that MY arse would actually freeze right off and fall into the gutter at that point. But when the Boss got back from lunch and got the awful, damning report he blinked once or twice, clucked a bit and then began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I could hear him laughing alone in his little office all day long. He laughed when he went for coffee. He laughed when he came back. He was laughing hours later when he locked up for the night. He may still be laughing today, wherever he may be, years after his passing.
It was hard to overcome that one. The plumber got me off the hook to some degree, discreetly explaining that the source of the blockage in the toilet was caused by an object that ‘couldn’t have been flushed by a man’ (it took me a bit to decipher that statement), but it didn’t really matter. I was the one whose crap had soiled the broadloom and imperiled the woodwinds. It was epic stuff.

End of Part One

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