Saturday, June 28, 2008

Friday Night on Melrose Hill

(As I write this, the police helicopters are hovering over my neighborhood but mostly all there is out there through my windows is darkness, the observatory barely present in an odd natural mist.)

Tonight was supposed to be a transition time, between a hazy ill-structured work week and a long awaited and over-discussed trip to Las Vegas. It was to be a time for laundry and new cat litter, for cleaning the kitchen and brushing the cats. Instead, I had an existential crisis (lasting 20 minutes or so) followed by a slight awakening and now I'm sleepy and the only planned thing that actually happened was the cat litter.

Maybe if I get up real early...

It happened as I drove west on Hollywood Boulevard from Ralph's on Western, where I bought the litter and a couple of bottles of Gatorade (one G2 and accidentally, one Tiger.) I was headed toward Amoeba Records. I needed new or different music to occupy me during the four-hour drive to Vegas.

I was at a traffic light, confused because I didn't see the reassuring lights of Amoeba and the Arclight movie theater in the distance. Had I gone too far? Was I dreaming? I realized that I was driving in silence. No music, no words from the radio. I never drive in silence. I looked to my right and saw a police car, its two officers just surveying the rather peaceful Hollywood night. I looked to my left and saw a group of joyful teenagers, dressed for the club and laughing. I realized I was more than twice as old as them and that not too far in the future I would be three times as old.

The light turned green. I retreated back into my silent confusion. Where were the buildings I expected to see. When I reached the famous (and, in reality, rather mundane) intersection at Vine, I remembered that of course, I was on Hollywood, not Sunset. Amoeba is on Sunset. Confusion gone, replaced with "what the hell am I doing with my life?" Replaced with "why am I still letting the dishes pile up in the sink, the bills pile up on the kitchen table, and the voicemails that start coming when the bills are unpaid piling up in the ether?" Replaced with "this trip to Vegas will be where I come to grips with it all - the isolation, the family, the disappearing friends. The gambling." Replaced with "I better buy some good music tonight or that desert drive tomorrow will be painful."

I turned left on Cahuenga, bringing back memories of the same left turn 22 summers ago when Patrick and I were killing time on our famous trip to Hollywood. Later that night we would see Stand By Me.

Back in the present, I turned into Amoeba's underground parking lot and entered the store at 10:30, a half hour before closing. I picked up the new Bonnie "Prince" Billy album, Lie Down in the Light. I needed something else, to counteract the (presumed) country sadness of the Bonnie. When I buy two CDs, I usually try to find a contrast, to create bookends. Often this results in a old music/new music dichotomy. Like two weeks ago when I counteracted the (old) Steve Miller Band anthology (dude is a genius!) with the very good but still hard to listen to (new) Spiritualized album.

But is the new Bonnie "Prince" Billy really new? He (Will Oldham) has been around for a decade and a half. If I was 20, I'd think he was old. And really, if I'm going for a dichotomy, wouldn't anything work? Wouldn't any artist - other than say, Eitzel - be enough of a contrast from the dark royalty of Oldham?

(Yes, if you've noticed that I'm spending much more time discussing my musical purchases than I am talking about the reasons for my existential dilemma, you've got my essential shortcoming figured out.)

Then I saw it! Though I knew it was coming I had forgotten about its existence. The remastered reissue of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. I always listen to Liz on long drives and my CD of Guyville had mysteriously disappeared sometime in 2007. Yes, I was paying 16 bucks for something I'd listened to countless times before. But it has three bonus tracks and a Phair-produced documentary DVD so yeah I bought it and I drove home with two CDs containing 30 or so songs by two geniuses who have accompanied me musically through most of my adulthood.

Now, nearing 1:00AM, I'm looking forward to the drive tomorrow. Judging from the first few songs, Lie Down in the Light may just be the surprisingly jaunty and inspirational kick I need. And Exile in Guyville is one of the five greatest records of all time. And Car Talk comes on at 10:00. In no time, I'll be in Las Vegas, cheering on Karen as she represents "The Group" at the World Series of Poker and hanging out with a group of pretty cool people who I've never socialized with "in public" before, our only shared common space being various poker tables in various apartments and houses. Then, on Sunday, my mother (coincidentally) arrives and that'll probably just lead to angst but maybe there's hope.

When I'm driving home on Monday, I'll either be a changed man or I'll still miss out on seeing whatever that thing is fronr of my eyes that I need to see. Either way, I hope you keep reading.

(Such a long post but no mention yet of the NBA draft - my team drafting the best player my employer ever produced and then trading him for a guy from the dreaded rival school, the school that didn't give me a job back in '04- where will my loyalties lie? Am I filled with regret or does any of it really matter? Probably doesn't matter. Go Wolves.)

Monday, June 23, 2008


I've been told that I rarely smile in photographs. With much effort and many fruitless attempts, a picture of me (sincerely, effortlessly) smiling has been carefully fashioned. It will now grace the front page of this blog until I decide that the awkward collar situation of the shirt I'm wearing in the picture is too much to bear.

Smiles are overrated anyway. The true smile is an invisible one. One need not show teeth to impart joy and frivolity.

This is that lull. Late June. After the NBA playoffs, before the draft. After the preliminaries, before the trip to Vegas. After the planning and the promises, before the annual summer trip to the Midwest. After the season finales, before the premieres of Monk and Mad Men. After the news that the new Hold Steady album will be coming, before it arrives in my ears. The lull.

But it's been said: "Time keeps on slipping slipping slipping. Into the future." What seems like a lull is the life itself.

The good of my weekend: Skipping through South Coast Metro, sleeping with the shades drawn, Pico, knowing about wild mountain honey, plans, and Commerce chicken.

The bad, the ugly: All the hot heat in between.

I'm in the very middle of the book Beautiful Children by Charles Bock. It's pretty amazing and harrowing. Whether Bock has an astounding imagination or possesses the most spot-on observational skills (of family/strangers/city) doesn't matter. I rewrote that last sentence six times and I can't make it any better than that. Tired. Cold (the office air conditioning - it's relentless.)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The 19th of June, Again

It's hot in L.A. The groans of the construction crane outside mask the quiet music in my office. Oh wait there is no music. Just silence. Songs in my head. Songs in the attic, the basement, the living room, the office.

Chills alternate with too-hot spasms. Sleep moments interrupt the flow of thoughts. No beginning, no end. Just an eternal current.

On the poetry blog, there's a bonus - an actual short story! Here it is. The story was rejected for publication elsewhere. It seems to fit better in my own little universe. It's my favorite story of 2008. Might be my only one. I need to finish the stories I start. I need to start the ones I live.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sad Songs Say So Much: The Seven Saddest Songs of All-Time, In Order of How Much They Say, Numbers 7 and 6

I've been accused of liking sad maudlin music. My taste has been labeled "sadcore." I find this ridiculous. Have you heard my mix CDs? Sure, back in the early 90s, my mixes (then on cassette) would be rather depressing. I would (mostly) include songs that reflected what I wanted to say to the recipient of the mix but couldn't say myself. Being that many of my feelings toward these recipients were unrequited, the mope factor was increased exponentially. Ironically, many of these tapes were never given to their recipient and have only been listened to by me (e.g., the famed late 1994 mix for someone with the initials D.D., filled with the saddest songs I could find by The Judybats, The Go-Betweens, Tori Amos, and the guy who sings the #7 song below). But if you look, for example, at the mix CD I made just last year for someone in Orange County, you'd notice lots of joyous bouncy songs. This list, however, is about the sad ones, so let's begin.

7. Call Me In Wisconsin (Before the War) - Sigmund Snopek III Most of the songs on Snopek's Wisconsinsane album could be described as sad. Back in '87 when it came out, I was way too sentimental and nostalgic for a carefree college student. I was hooked by Snopek's pining for a (relatively recent) time that had passed from him permanently. This song, the last on the album, is full of tear-soaked longing for a lost love. He just wants her to call him. Preferably, before the war. And just in case she doesn't have the number, he tells her to "call information in Wisconsin." All of that would be sad enough. But Sigmund (who shook my hand in '06) isn't done. As the song closes with an instrumental coda, there's a faint barely perceptible voice reciting a series of numbers. Yep, it's Sigmund whispering his phone number, just in case his lost love is listening with high-quality headphones. Actually, all I could really make out was the 414 area code and a few other digits. But still... he's listed.

6. Gulf Shores - Palace Music

Palace Music was one of Will Oldham's early incarnations. He seems to have settled in with the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker for a few years now. Anyway, back in '97, his voice had even more youthful quiver than it does now. His lyrics had even more desperate fatalism. So yes, it's a slow quiet song. Most sad songs are. Let's get to the words, helpfully laid out in simple ABCB verse:
It was hard enough to climb upon
It was slow-going at first
Sister, you have laid long in the sun
Aren't you dying of thirst?
The "sister" isn't an affectation. I'm pretty sure he's singing to his sister. She pops up in some of his other songs. Anyway, this isn't so sad. She's in the sun. Then, a little bit later:

Have you thought that you could waste away?
You don't care much for yourself
There are circles deep beneath your eyes
Why do you do this to yourself?

Sadder. A bit judgmental. But he cares about her. Unless the circles beneath eyes belong to him and the sister is just a vehicle. Soon, hope emerges:

If you like we two could take a ride
I would love to take you down
We could watch a blue heron in flight
We could see the sights in town

They're on a family vacation. A long one. When I was young, family vacations were the most exciting and memorable times, yet they were also the most languid times. He wants her to stop laying on the sand, exposed to the sun. He wants her to put on a hat and get in the car. To town, where the blue herons fly.

(Come to think of it, when I was a teenager, most of our family vacations involved going somewhere sunny and warm. My sister and mother would spend seemingly all their time lying in the sun. My father would make fun of them for being so lazy. I would be off somewhere reading basketball books or swimming in water. This dynamic would lead to one of the funniest moments of my life, involving something my father said to my sister. It's a story I cannot retell here.)

I need to get to my point. Is anyone even reading this far? Next couplet:

You have laid here by the waterside
You have let the family down

Until I Googled the lyrics to this song today, I always thought Oldham was singing "Yeah, I've let the family down." I thought he was turning the sad judgments inward. In fact, I just listened to that line again and I can't say for sure either way. But the "you have" makes more sense in the song's greater context. No matter what, the concept of someone letting the family down is what gets to me here. It's a common theme among my immediate and extended families (and everyone's family, likely).

I'll close with the song's final two verses, the afternoon (and soon, the vacation) over and the ugly things and the loneliness closing in:

Soon the restaurants will open up Soon the bars will light their lights You have aged, you must start looking up Ugly things will come tonight

We could drive down to another beach
Even tanned your skin seems white
All our friends have gone away from here
So let's disappear from sight

(series to be continues next week... or next month... or next year)

Monday, June 09, 2008

The three times I have run out of gas in my life

1. 1985. Richfield, MN. I can't remember exactly why I was driving on the Lyndale Avenue service road that stretched out lonesomely in that area where the Crosstown highway and 35W clumsily intersected. I can't remember why i was driving my sister's VW Rabbit and not my own beloved 1977 AMC Hornet. But, in the middle of a weekday afternoon, perhaps unfamiliar with the Rabbit's gas gauge and the amount of time one could live on 'E', I ran out. I was a long way (on a cold day) away from the nearest gas station. A passerby offered me a ride. I accepted, not fearing that the man was a serial killer or religious zealot. He was just a nice guy. He waited for me as I filled up the gas can my sister had so responsibly kept in her car and then he drove me back. All in all, a life affirming experience.

2. 2002. La Verne. CA. On my way to the family compound one Sunday evening, I run out of gas on Golden Hills Road, my uphill climb on Wheeler likely having spent my fuel. I was in a rental car, on one of my pre-move job-hunting visits from Minnesota. Again, in an unfamiliar car, I was unaware of just how far I could last on E. Brother-in-law Paul rode down the hill and gave me enough gas to get back down the hill and fill up at the overpriced Shell station on Baseline.

3. This morning. L.A. I was in my own car so I had no real excuse for running out of gas. I thought I could make it all the way to the campus gas station, the one that overcharges by 15 cents a gallon but allows you to charge the gas to your staff ID card, thus making it seem like you're not paying for gas at all, even if it's coming out of your next paycheck. Anyway, I sputtered down Jefferson and was able to force a turn on Normandie, thinking (incorrectly) that there was a gas station nearby. A car wash? Yes. A burger joint? Yes. A dairy? Yes, even a an old-fashioned drive-up-and-get-your-Altadena-milk dairy in the heart of south L.A. But no gas station. So I parked myself on the corner of 37th and Normandie and waited for the Auto Club because it was far easier than walking a mile to the Arco on Vermont. As I managed to finish nearly half of the NY Times Sunday acrostic puzzle, the AAA guy arrived. I gave him 7 bucks (plus tip) for a single gallon of gas and I drove to work, arriving exactly one hour late.

The lesson? Just buy gas when you're almost empty. Buy more than you need. Fill it up. The prices aren't coming down any time soon.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Not a Milkshake Post: Lakers in 7

Why so much hate for the Celtics some of you have asked via text message? Isn't your beloved KG on the Celtics? Do you not have love for Paul and Ray and Rajan? Doc? Well, you see the hate has nothing to do with the people. The hate has nothing to do with the city (though my one visit to Boston in '96 was kind of lame and forced me to move back to the Midwest). The hate has to do with the uniform. The disgusting green that tortured my youth. The sex-crime-faced leprechaun that stole my dreams. That ugly ugly ugly green that forced me to change my favorite color to blue in '81. That horrible little man who graced the uniform that graced such detestable distasteful players as Larry Bird (overrated), Kevin McHale (underrated but responsible for my favorite team not winning five of the last 10 championships, as they should have), Danny F'ing Ainge, Cedric Whatever Maxwell, and, yes, even Greg Kite. For it was on that May Friday night in 1981 that I cried real Philadelphia tears and forever cursed the team that exacted those tears.

Plus, there was NO explanation other than institutional racism for the Celtics' preponderance of white players during the 80s and 90s. None.

The irony of course is that the Celtics have no white players on their active roster in 2008. Their head coach is not white. Still, my racial worldview was imprinted in 1986 when I was watching the 67% Caucasian Celtics beat the lovable Lakers, when I was listening to Run DMC, when I was proclaiming Spike Lee as the greatest director the world will ever see, when I was preparing for the Public Enemy revolution that would drop two years hence. My stubbornness will not break. Celtics = establishment. Lakers (current racial makeup notwithstanding) = revolution.

But still, why the love for the Lakers? Isn't Kobe detestable and distasteful? No not really. Plus, he's the greatest player in the history of the NBA, the greatest athlete in the history of athletics. Didn't he rape someone in Colorado? Maybe, maybe not. Never went to trial so even "alleged" is an overstatement at this point. Didn't they unfairly steal Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies. No, Memphis got back a HUGE expiring contract with which they can sign two or three serviceable free agents this summer. Aren't those Laker flags you see on the L.A. freeways lame and annoying? No. I'd rather be overrun and suffocated with fabric made out of purple and gold than have my life saved by a makeshift rope made of Celtic green if I were ever to be drowning in an ocean below a pier.

My passions run deep. Either that or I really don't care who wins these sure-to-be-memorable NBA Finals and the above melodrama was a complete put-on. You never know with me. I will say this: Kobe missed nearly two-thirds of his shots and the Lakers were in it until about 30 seconds left. That might happen twice in a seven-game series. It won't happen more than twice. And look for Trevor Ariza to show up in game 2 to give them a slightly tougher defensive presence up front. And finally, NO TEAM that plays Sam Cassell will ever win a post-1995 NBA title. Doc, if you want to win the series, you might want to play Eddie House instead. Lakers in 7.

And I was right about Spike Lee.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


The NBA Finals begin tonight. Basketball is my favorite sport. I live in Los Angeles. Thus, I am excited by the prospect of the Lakers playing the Boston Celtics. Besides, Kevin Garnett used to play for the glorious Timberwolves and I once met Phil Jackson's son on the back deck of a Silver Lake house party back in the mid-'00s. So yeah this is an exciting time.

The local and national media has made a big deal about the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. They played against each other three times in the 1980s and another eight times between '59 and '69. So yes there's a rivalry. But I've always felt that another rivalry of my childhood has been unjustly overlooked.

The Lakers played in the finals an amazing eight times in the 80s. Yes, this was a more difficult feat than what the Celtics did two decades earlier. There were over twice as many teams to compete with and the talent level was definitely higher during those Reagan/BTTF/Thriller years. And three of those eight finals involved the Lakers and the favorite team of my youth, the Philadelphia 76ers. And that was a rivalry! Superstars (Kareem, Magic, Dr. J, Moses, Toney). Classic games (Game 7, 1980, most of the '82 finals). Classic shots (Erving's layup over Landsberger, still the best shot ever, can't find a link for the video for some reason but it shows up on those NBA commercials). And the most joyous sports-related moment of my life. May 31, 1983. The Sixers complete the sweep of the Lakers. It was a weeknight. I grabbed my basketball and went outside and celebrated by playing in the driveway by myself - my patented run-amok layups, my holding-the-ball-high-behind-my-head- before-shooting outside shots, my blind hooks, my missed free throws. I played into the late night, with the light on above the garage. I was overjoyed but strangely restrained.

Enough basketball memories. Lakers in 4. Yes, 4. Really. 4. That's it. 4 games. All they need. The Celtics sure are a likable bunch - KG, PP, Doc, etc. But they are the Celtics. The Celtics will always be hated in my hateless heart. Can't start changing my system now. 4. Kobe - yeah he's that good. And Pau? Better than anyone - including me - thinks.

And more importantly, on draft night, the Timberwolves draft Mayo or Love at number 3, trade half the team, resign only one free agent (Gomes), and start over. Can we get a new coach too?