Tag Archives: San Francisco

86th Favorite: Made in USA, by Pizzicato Five


Made in USA. Pizzicato Five.
1994, Matador. Producers: Maki Nomiya, Yasuharu Konishi, K-taro Takanami
Purchased 1995.


nutIN A NUTSHELL – 90s Japanese dance pop that sounds like the soundtrack to an Austin Powers movie if it starred Hello Kitty instead of Mike Myers. But I mean in a really, really good way! It’s fun and energetic and full of happiness. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I can’t imagine a scenario in which it would be higher than 86, but I do love it!
“Hold on to sixteen as long as you can/ changes come around real soon make us women and men.” – John Cougar (nee Mellencamp)

“Bullshit.” – Me.

At a certain point in life, you have to grow up. That point will be different for everyone. kids adult Some folks – the FBLA types, who attend high school wearing business attire – are ready to move to grown-up-hood by the time they’re 14. Others find themselves in their twenties beginning to tire of their mom continually putting their good sweaters in the dryer, and realize that maybe the problem isn’t really with their mother.


But regardless of the actual age it happens, eventually, your best bet is going to be to embrace the reality that a) you’re going to have bills due each month; b) you’re going to have to work a job(s) that pays you enough to cover those expenses; and c) you’re going to enjoy (a) and (b) more if you find a close friend or friends to spend your time with.[ref]As with everything, this isn’t true for everyone. Some people do well without (a), (b) and (c), or with only certain parts of them. Others will find themselves just happy to know how to use the new footnoting tool they’ve discovered in their blogging software.[/ref]

As a forty-seven year old, I am aware of several people around my age who are still desperately clinging to some winnowing thread of adolescence. In men, this usually manifests as a compulsory need to find someone/anyone to go out drinking with, who also has a connection to a coke dealer, loserand who especially won’t mind if you crash on his TV room floor a couple nights a week. This “adult-escent” is the guy who stopped hanging out with you and your friends twenty years ago – right around the time you all got real jobs and steady partners – but who you still see around town occasionally, when you’re out for a drink with friends, and who invariably wobbles up to you and says “it’s been too long, man!” and asks, “how’s your kid?” – followed by, “oh, you have two now? I just never had time for a wife and kids – too busy,” and then introduces “my buddy, Chase,” who is 20 to 25 years younger than you, and who has been standing there touching his goatee repeatedly, twitchier than a nervous squirrel.

Obviously, such a guy has more issues than simple Peter Pan Syndrome. peter panBut any urge to grow up has been blunted, whether by drugs and alcohol, or over-parenting, or simply genetics, and the end result is a character who conjures more of the bad memories of adolescence than the good ones.

In popular American culture, growing up is often seen as a negative. Pop songs have long advised listeners to stay young and die before you get old. To relish one’s youth. Movies, television, advertising, books … all have celebrated the creativity, humor, beauty and innate wisdom of childhood.


Many of these celebrations of youth are an expression that the childlike characteristics of wonder, joy, honesty and friendship should be held onto in one’s adult heart. This idea can be the germ of a really good movie (or a really bad one.) And we all could probably use a little childlike grace in our adult lives.

But such pop culture endeavors miss a huge, important fact about children. You see, children aren’t simply beatific, golden vessels of kindhearted love and altruistic intent. Children are actually selfish, irrational, shortsighted assholes, too.mean kid

They are just like every awful boss you’ve ever had – demanding, inflexible, prone to obnoxious outbursts, and masters of manipulation and emotional blackmail.

These negative traits aren’t a result of poor parenting, no. They are wired into every normal human that is born, and the purpose of parenting is to rid the little person of them as thoroughly as possible so that he or she can reasonably function in a society with others who may or may not continue to exhibit these traits as adults. Parents wring these negatives out, they gently wipe the negatives off, they trick them into going away, they hassle them out so they’re not inclined to return. selfish prickThey frighten the negatives into hidden corners and shame them into dark, locked closets. They embrace the negatives until the negatives are no longer fun, they facilitate open dialogues about the negatives until they are too bored to stay. In short, they do everything they can to remove the childish from the child. This is what parents do. They have to do it because if they didn’t, the world would have even more selfish pricks than it already does – truly a shocking thought.

What I’m saying is that children are overrated. Childhood is overrated. Don’t get me wrong, there are some positive things to be said about both, but the Cult of Children sometimes obscures the reality that being a grown up is pretty fuckin’ kickass, too.

Ask any child. Go ahead, ask them what they want to be. They want to be GROWN UPS. They pretend to be grown ups. They try to act like grown ups. They make their Barbies and Lego guys be grown ups. Has anyone ever heard 7 year olds playing with Legos say, lego guys“Okay, this green guy is Tommy, and he and Danny are going to have their moms call Dylan’s mom to see about a play-date.” NO! Tommy and Danny and Dylan are always full-grown MEN, working together as full-grown men, doing full-grown manly stuff, like building space stations and surviving slow-motion 1000 mph crashes as their winged motorcycles smash into dinosaurs and Patrick Star, causing a debris field of small animals, bent Yu-Gi-Oh cards and a Spiderman leg.

Maybe people tend to discount the joys of adulthood because childhood dreams – barbie vetlike crashing winged bikes into dinosaurs, or running a clothing shop/veterinary clinic for pop stars and their pet bunnies – rarely come true. This may cause a young adult to feel lied to. But when you get past the fact that most kids have an impractical (to say the least) comprehension of what adult life is like (which, by the way, is another negative about kids – a warped view of life), and really think about life as an adult, you realize that it’s actually usually a pretty fun time.

Pizzicato Five’s Made in USA is on my list of Favorite 100 albums because – as goofy and lighthearted and carefree as the music may sound – it reminds me of being an adult. More precisely, it reminds me of coming to the realization that I AM an adult. I listened to this record a lot at a time in my life when it struck me: “This Is It. I am a grown up. This right here is my dinosaur wing-bike crash.”

In January 1995, a few weeks before the 49ers beat the Chargers in Superbowl XXIX my girlfriend, Julia, and I moved in together in a cool 2 bedroom apartment in a house in the Bernal Heights section of San Francisco.

sf map

I had been living on my own for several years, in various places, with roommates and without roommates, so it wasn’t simply being away from my parents that caused the Grown Up feelings. I think it was a sense of permanence, that I had met a person with whom I’d probably spend many years, and that together we’d decided to merge our lives.

There was a large kitchen/dining room area in the very center of the apartment, and it was the perfect place to put our stereo and collection of vinyl albums and CDs. Anything playing on the stereo was easily heard throughout our home.

Now, Julia likes music and knows what she does and doesn’t like, however she’s not what one would call a “music enthusiast.” She likes funky soul fishboneand punky rock, and though she isn’t one to go out and buy herself music or follow bands, if she was, the act that I think would best describe the type of artist she’d follow would be Fishbone. Fun, melodic, energetic music. That’s what she likes. She’s a big fan of most anything by Prince, whose music usually falls into this category.

Some of the music that I liked to play wasn’t especially appealing to Julia, dont likeso I started widening my sphere of record-buying to include music I though she’d like to hear, too. Our good friend Ximena, who somehow always knew about new music first (and was particularly savvy about cool female Japanese acts, for some reason) told me about Pizzicato Five, and I went and bought Made in USA on her recommendation. I liked it a lot, and Julia did too. That CD spent a lot of time in our player while we went about the ordinary tasks, and spent extraordinary times, being grown-ups together.PF 3

It turns out that Made in USA breaks one of the rules I established for my Favorite Albums list: it is a compilation album. However, I didn’t know that until I started writing this post and reading up on the album! pf 6According to the extensive research I did, Pizzicato Five was a popular Japanese band who were part of a new wave of Japanese music called Shibuya-kei, which ”is known for eclectic and energetic compositions that often pay homage to late 1960s English-language Pop Music.” The American label, Matador, took some songs from each of their earlier Japanese records, put them together and called it Made in USA, a reference to the Japanese town of Usa, which was rumored in the 1960s to have been renamed so that cheap items for export to America could carry the meant-to-confuse label of “Made in USA Japan.”

Because I didn’t know the album was a compilation album until earlier this month, I have asked the judges to allow it into the list despite it being against the rules. After careful consideration they have agreed by a vote of 1 to 0. I’m glad they did, although this is the type of record that demonstrates perfectly why I would make a lousy music critic (and, in fact, why I think music critics – maybe all criticism? – is 99% horse shit). I can’t listen to the record “objectively,” whatever that means, as it is so wrapped up in so many memories from my life. I think it’s a great record – but if you’re not me, you won’t like it for the same reasons I do.

web bubbleSan Francisco in the 1990s was very exciting, and the neighborhood Julia and I lived in was particularly so. We were there as the World Wide Web grew from a opalescent puddle in Silicon Valley into a gigantic bubble surrounding the globe, and many of our neighbors were the people doing the huffing and puffing to keep the thing inflated and growing. We left just before it burst, kicking ourselves over not buying that $165,000 modest home near 22nd St. in 1994 (which didn’t have parking!), the one that would have been worth about $1,000,000 by 2000, when we left.

But while we were there, we had a blast together, and with our friends. That’s what Made in USA reminds me of – having a blast with Julia and our friends, and it made the list because of the great memories it conjures.

The first song on the album is “I”.

This swingin’ accordion-driven pf 7number (and you’ll hear that “swingin” and “accordion-driven” turn out NOT to be mutually exclusive) sets the tone for the record. If you, the listener, can get into the charm of Maki Nomiya’s sweet voice, and ignore the fact that the words are in a foreign language; if you can appreciate the light jazz-combo, 60’s bounce of the song, and don’t find it too cutesy; if you can appreciate an accordion, and not immediately discount it … if you can do all these things you’ll likely appreciate the record. If you can’t, there might not be much for you here.

This song reminds me of going out to amazing restaurants in San Francisco, like Farallon, The Liberty Cafe libertyand Cafe Jacqueline.

The feeling of dressing up, going out and enjoying a meal with someone you love is definitely a grown-up feeling. Contrast that with the nasty food kids enjoy, like Kraft mac n cheese, frozen pizzas and a squirt of ketchup on warmed, breaded nuggets of “chicken.” One point for adult-hood.

Next up on the album is a number that continues to make its way onto any playlist I create that requires an invitation to dancing: “Sweet Soul Revue.”

It’s got a funky Motown-sounding bass line, and nifty TSOP-sounding horns and violins, and a backbeat that doesn’t quit. The melody is catchy, but – as with most of the songs on the album – it’s difficult for me to sing along to. But Nomiya does throw a hearty “Bay-bee!!” into the chorus a few times, allowing non-Japanese speakers such as myself to shout along a little bit.
PF 1
This song reminds me of throwing parties at our house, and trying out recipes for cocktails, main dishes, desserts, at a time when we still had time and money to subscribe to – AND READ – Bon Appetit, Saveur and Cook’s Illustrated.

We’d have friends to the house and talk and laugh and eat and drink, then clean it all up and plan the next one. Parties like that are a reminder that kids have to go to bed way too early, and whineyif they don’t they turn into insufferable whiners. Staying up til 3 am, and remaining well-mannered and fun (except for the occasional over-indulgence, which in itself is an adult thing) is very grown-up.

Another great dance song on the album the oddly-yet-perfectly named, “Twiggy Twiggy/Twiggy vs. James Bond.” Listen, and you’ll see what I mean:

It’s the sound of 60s supermodel sensation Twiggy leaving a Carnaby St. boutique to meet Sean Connery’s tuxedoed 007 at a Soho club for drinks. twiggy jbRight? But if they spoke Japanese? And did the Watusi to sample-filled 90s dance music? Well, anyway, that’s how it sounds to me. It has violin samples and rolling tympanis – a lively dance song that’s fun and adventurous. It’s a movie song, and Julia and I saw a lot of movies back in the day.

Artsy-fartsy movies, like Jeffrey, Suture and Secrets and Lies. Funny movies, like Flirting With Disaster Grosse Pointe Blank and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Or dramas, like Elizabeth, Boogie Nights or Shine.

Basically, the kinds of movies children don’t like. And that’s another thing about kids – all the lousy movies. For each gem, like The Lego Movie, there are fifteen turds, like Planes. (Actually, that’s probably a better ratio than you get with grown-up movies, but most grown ups are smart enough to know that NOT EVERY movie will be good. Kids think they’ll all be awesome.)

Pizzicato Five doesn’t just do catchy, funky dance numbers, it can also throw in a slow love song, as well. Take, for example, “Baby Love Child.”

Even a slow groove is made interesting by this group. They include samples of horns and voices, some turntable scratches, and keep the drums and bass as funky as ever. And as always, Nomiya’s vocals and interesting vocal style draw the listener in. She may be too cutesy for some, but I find the cutesiness fits with the style of the songs. The lyrics on this song (in English!) are unusual. Instead of the typical love song pronouncements of “I love you, I want you,” the subject and object are reversed, becoming “You love me, you want me.” It’s either an interesting lyrical device, or a result of poor translation. (Probably the former.)

The song conjures memories of just spending time with J. bernal slidesOur neighborhood, Bernal Heights, had a beautiful path up the side of the hill, with stairs built in, and also slides, to make the trip back down faster! We would hike up to the top of the hill and walk around the top – a bit of open space in the middle of the city (or, “The City,” as SF is known by locals.) This was a favorite activity of ours. We would also go to farmers’ markets on weekends, or spend a morning reading the paper at one of The City’s seemingly thousands of pre-Starbucks independent cafes. (Muddy’s, Muddy Waters, Common Ground, Java Source, Martha and Bros. …) We would visit cool SF places, like the Musee Mecanique, and Camera Obscura or go to Fort Funston to watch the hang gliders or to The Golden Gate Bridge golden gateto walk and enjoy the sunshine (although it is MUCH LONGER than I ever imagined, so I never walked across the entire span. Plus the cars go really fast and are really close to the walkers. And on the opposite side of the speeding traffic is a 220 foot drop.)

the wiggleOr we’d ride our bikes across The City to Golden Gate Park, and then on to Ocean Beach, on a circuitous path called “The Wiggle,”designed to miss the 43 or so hills in San Francisco. Or we’d just go to Noe Valley or Hayes Valley or Market St. or North Beach or The Haight or The Mission, or any other neighborhood in The City, shopping, planning, spending time.

Another mellow song is the swirling, vaguely Middle Eastern sounding “Magic Carpet Ride.”

Despite the mishmash of sounds on Made in USA, the band definitely has a way with a dance beat and song structure. gg parksThe build into the “Magic Carpet Ride” chorus swells in a satisfying way. This song is one of the few sung in English, and the lyrics have a typical “we’re in love, life’s a magic ride, let’s take it together” sensibility. But honestly, you don’t listen to Japanese pop music for the lyrics. You listen for the spirit of the music, because it’s joyful and fun, and it might remind you of all the time you spent with a loved one in the great outdoors, visiting exciting areas around the Bay Area. Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, Mt. Tamalpais, Big Sur, Lake Tahoe, the Pacific Coast Highway, Half Moon Bay, the Berkeley Hills, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, the Sierra Nevada … San Francisco is a place where you could wake up and go to the beach, then drive an hour for a hike in the woods, then drive two more hours and go downhill skiing. Opportunities for outdoor activities abound, and Julia and I enjoyed spending it outdoors as much as we could.no cal

We had time to spend, if not much money to spend, and it was wonderful to spend it together. It was the kind of time that kids HATE. Which is one more thing that The Cult of Children forgets: kids are always BORED. “I’m bored! This is boring!” Few kids appreciate the value of time well-spent with a friend, or friends. And NONE appreciate spending it with someone of the opposite gender! Kids are so weird. Who wants to return to that lifestyle?

San Francisco had an exciting nightlife, as well, and we’d spend evenings out on the town. The Mission District alone had so many fun, cool bars that we didn’t even have to drive to spend a fun night out. Blondie’s, The Lone Palm, Bruno’s, Dalva, the Albion, Casanova Lounge, Radio Valencia, the Latin American Club, the 500 Club, the 3300 Club, the Elbo Room, the Make Out Room, and the bar where Julia and I first hung out together, the El Rio. It’s the kind of nightlife that one might be reminded of when hearing a song like “Go Go Dancer,” a raucous, goofy mix of sounds with a heavy dance beat.

It’s worth pointing out here that kids can’t legally drink alcohol – another strike against them. How “wonderful” could childhood really be if no booze is allowed? Ever been invited to a friend’s wedding, then find out the reception will be dry? boringThat quickly waning smile on your face – corners of your mouth receding to form a tight little line between your lips – as you consider the prospect of three people on the dance floor doing the Electric Slide, while everyone else shovels food as quickly as they can so they can leave and hit a bar somewhere – it’s the same fading smile you get when you stop to consider whether childhood was really as great as everyone makes it out to be.PF 4

Of course, adulthood isn’t all wonderful. There is the drudgery of going to work every day, the anxiety of having to get something repaired but not being able to just have your parents do it, the pressure of having to prepare food EVERY SINGLE DAY. Similarly, Made in USA isn’t entirely wonderful. Pizzicato Five seems to have a childish streak of their own that keeps them from knowing when enough is enough. The songs “This Year’s Girl #2” and “Catchy” start fun, but both seem interminable by the end – repetitive silliness reminiscent of some kid telling you the “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana?” knock-knock joke over and over. It’s cute at first, but wears thin real damn quick.

But the record closes with a joyous song that ties up everything nicely. In the same way “I” set the table for the album, “Peace Music” provides the perfect close:

It’s a catchy, happy 60s pop song with 90s samples that makes me wish I knew Japanese so I could sing along. There’s also a slight wistfulness in the melody – the sound of something good coming to an end.pF 5

Obviously, I find myself doing some heavy cataloging of memories when I listen to Made in USA. And the memories are all golden, perfect. The music sounds like nothing had ever gone wrong. But of course, that’s just a trick of memory – one of the downsides of adulthood. So I’ll say one final good thing about kids and childhood: at least kids are too young to have any memories older than, say, four years. So they can’t look back at the past and distort it in their minds. They are capable only of living in the present – the place we should all try to stay. Listening to Made in USA makes living in the moment difficult for me. But that’s what makes it so great.

Track Listing
Sweet Soul Revue
Magic Carpet Ride
Readymade FM
Baby Love Child
Twiggy Twiggy / Twiggy vs. James Bond
This Year’s Girl #2
I Wanna Be Like You
Go Go Dancer
Peace Music


“Who Are You? Who? Who? Who? Who?” – The Who


I haven’t updated my blog in several weeks. I know both of you out there are disappointed about this, but I have been extremely busy the past few weeks. This GIF presents a fairly accurate view of the activities in my life whenever I’m not sleeping or working.

Endless baseball. Not that I’m complaining – the games are good, and my kid is happy (well, one kid is happy … the other one can be happy, unless forced to attend said endless games …) so it hasn’t been a chore. But it has kept me away from some of the other things I like doing. And some of the housework has lagged a bit …

messy house

But one aspect of my life that has remained steady is that I have continued listening to my CD collection in my ongoing effort to identify my 100 favorite albums. I have listened to 245 as of this writing, and I think I have about 75 remaining, but it is hard to tell because I find that I am continually ADDING CDs to those under consideration! This is extending the process tremendously. I am experiencing the equivalent of “cost overruns,” a dreaded consequence of people trying to do just a little bit more to make things perfect.

You see, I started out with a list of about 150 CDs from my collection of 400 (ish) that I figured would all be vying for a place in the top 100. But as I flipped through my CD collection, I came across some that I hadn’t originally listed, but that I thought might have a place, so I added them into the mix. Then I realized I had some albums as MP3-only, and thought some of these had Hot Hundred potential, so I burned them and added them to the mix. Also, I realized there were albums NO LONGER IN my collection that I had loved when I owned them on cassette or vinyl, and these were added in as well. Plus, as I listened to CDs by particular artists, I realized that I had other albums by them – albums NOT on the original list – and thought it would be wise to give some of these a listen-to as well.


So my list grew. As a result, I have now been listening to my CD collection since mid-September, 2012, and I’m still only about 2/3 of the way through. (Please don’t check my math. To quote Barbie, “Math … is tough.”)

I’m glad I’ve been adding CDs to my list, for completeness’ sake, but I don’t know if it’s been worthwhile. I think my top CDs will mostly be part of the original 150. This is because they are familiar to me. I’m not trying to make an objective list of Great Albums, I’m trying to list my favorites, so familiarity is a factor in the process. It might seem unfair that the tremendous, new CD by AwesomeNewArtist won’t be ranked as highly as its musical merits would imply, but that’s just how life is: it’s all who you know.

I lived in San Francisco for about 8 years in the 90s, and in January, 1994, I made good on a Resolution by finally trying to perform stand-up comedy. For as long as I remember, doing stand-up had been a dream of mine. I had honed my act in various classrooms since kindergarten. Here’s one of my first publicity photos:

publicity photo

In third grade I entered a school talent show and performed a stand up routine about dog food, featuring a battery-powered yapping dog, “The Frisky Dachshund.”

frisky dachsund

(I named him “Pup,” and he was a state-of-the-art remote control toy in 1975).

frisky dachsund 2

I came in second place to a girl who tap danced.

[Not that I’m bitter, and I must say that the girl, Christy W., danced very well, but I KNOW I had the crowd on my side, particularly when my dog unexpectedly fell over, and I ad-libbed a bit about the dog food killing it. But who cares, I guess. That was almost 40 years ago, and I was just a kid …]


[But still, judges … Ms. Schworer, Mrs. Horst, Mrs. Ellsworth … what were you SEEING up there???!! Let’s get serious!]

Over the years I used any classroom speaking assignment to perform a comedy routine, and I had several successes. I read a poem from Mad Magazine in 8th grade English. I juggled tennis balls, soccer balls and ping-pong balls (even spitting them out of my mouth!!) in a demonstration speech in 11th grade. My masterpiece was when I impersonated my Geometry teacher, “Pinhead” Firestone, in a 10th grade extemporaneous speaking assignment. That performance KILLED!

The thought of doing it in front of strangers terrified me, but by 1994 in San Francisco, I decided to put the fears aside and just DO IT. My first time was at an advertised “Open Mic Night” at a comedy club called The Punchline. I had no idea how the “comedy scene” worked, or – more importantly – how an Open Mic Night worked.

open mic

How an Open Mic Night worked at a big comedy club (like The Punchline) was this: just like any other show at a Comedy Club, you respectfully watched professional comedians – even if the night was billed as an “Open Mic Night.” See, the big clubs advertised “Open Mic Night,” but it wasn’t as if the emcee asked for volunteers and selected folks out of the audience to come onstage and tell jokes. It was way more organized than that, and 99% of the performers were professional/near-professional comedians. Very few of the comics at comedy clubs’ Open Mic Nights would be first-timers. It happened occasionally, but it wasn’t typical.

You, the novice comedian, got your start at whatever failing cafes, bars, bookstores and other sad, lonely, empty venues hosted Open Mics. Someone hooked a cheap microphone to an old guitar amplifier, and placed it to the side of the room to create an unusual “stage.” I say unusual because most stages are placed in a room so as to engage as many people as possible. However, most Open Mics placed the stage so as to disturb as few patrons as possible. Here is a typical “view from the stage” at one of these comedy shows:

empty cafe

Usually these shows were initiated in a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the venue-owner to stay afloat before the business finally went under, the expectation being that business would increase because a bunch of alcoholic comedians would bring people in to watch the show. This theory had two flaws (at least): 1) while many (most?) comics are alcoholics, many (most?) are too poor/cheap to buy more than one drink at a bar; and 2) back then, even in those early, early days of email, very few Subject lines generated a quicker “Delete” from a recipient than those of the “Come to my Open Mic!!!” variety. Most of these sad Open Mics were organized by truly heroic (and I DO NOT say that in jest) men and women who realized that live comedy needs places for new performers to start, and who also recognized a need in their own career to learn how to host and emcee a show, which is required to get offers for actual paying gigs.

(Believe me, I don’t mean to shit on Open Mic shows at all – these shows are where the meiosis, embryogenesis and morphogenesis of live comedy occur. In comedy, these processes are just like they are in life: magical, inscrutable and disturbing all at the same time, giving rise to both perfect living machines,


miscarriages, and everything in between.)

So, anyway, you, the newbie, go to the sad Open Mics, and after your soul had been thoroughly and persistently trampled flat by the regular indifference of strangers and other comics in the “audience;” and after the notion of getting booked on Letterman in another month or two (or even Year Or Two!) had been excised like the metastasizing, malignant tumor of self-defeating mythology that it truly is; and after your self-esteem had calloused-over to such a thickness that you believe that Carrie was a total wimp for getting so freaked out by a little pig’s blood …

… and after you’ve been hanging around the Big Club for a few weeks/months (not just the Open Mic Night, but most every night), and after the club comics there begin to recognize you as more than just a dreaded “hobbyist,” … maybe – JUST MAYBE – then you’ll get asked to perform 5 minutes at one of the Big Clubs’ Open Mic Nights.

(According to this great article, not much has changed on The Path To Comedy in 19 years.)

But in January, 1994, I had no idea how this all worked. So I strolled into The Punchline on a Monday Night (a typical night for “Open Mic”), was directed to the guy in charge (a nice fellow with a mustache, named Hutch [the fellow’s name, not the mustache’s name, smart-ass]) and told him I wanted to go onstage and tell jokes.

He didn’t have much to say to me. I bought a drink or two and kept asking him when I could go up and tell my jokes. He kept telling me he didn’t think he’d have time for me. I kept telling him I was ready. Finally, near the end of the night, he said, “Look, if you really want to get up there, we have one more bit you could be part of. It’s the Siskel & Ebert part of the show.” He explained to me that this was a somewhat regular feature of The Punchline’s Open Mic in which two professional comics would sit on stage with microphones and provide commentary on and criticism of another comedian’s set.

I think he expected I’d be intimidated by the thought of being heckled by professional comics, but I wasn’t. Not because I was so confident or ballsy, but because a) I was rather drunk by this point and b) I had NO IDEA WHAT I WAS DOING! I was too ignorant to understand!

I took him up on the opportunity, and soon enough the host (and “Siskel”), Chris Hobbs, was introducing me to the crowd, while “Ebert,” (a woman whose name I don’t remember) applauded enthusiastically.

Now, it would be a great story if I told you I either bombed horribly and learned my lesson about how difficult stand-up is, or that I triumphed grandly and recognized that I had “what it takes” to succeed in comedy. But neither of those happened.

I went on stage and basically made fun of Siskel and Ebert before they could make fun of me. I started to tell the jokes I had prepared (some really awful religious puns and a long story I made up about my childhood imaginary friend pretending he didn’t recognize me at my tenth high school reunion) but then I segued into tearing apart the hosts’ looks, jokes, clothes, whatever. I don’t remember the details, but I remember the audience laughed, and the hosts laughed, and they made fun of everything about me, as well, and everyone had a good time.

I left the stage thinking that I had “killed,” but what really had happened was that the audience was somewhat charmed by a likeably drunken “civilian” on stage with professional comics, and grateful for the break in the rather monotonous 2 hour run of comics at 5 – 10 minutes a pop.

A couple new comics congratulated me for busting on Siskel and Ebert, but no comics approached me or spoke with me. After the show I spoke with Chris Hobbs, and he was really nice and gave me tips on where Open Mic shows were, and who to speak to, and he told me about The Road, but he didn’t say “You were hilarious!” or “Man, you are FUNNY!” or anything that made me think I was as special as I thought I had demonstrated. I was a little perplexed. I expected adulation from all the comedians.

“Oh well,” I thought, “they must be jealous. But I’ll show up next week and kill once again, and THEN they’ll see how spectacular I am!”

So, I showed up next week. Hutch didn’t put me up. I showed up the following week. Hutch didn’t put me up. Again, the next week. And the next. Week after week, he just ignored me. I didn’t go out and perform at any of the sad cafes or bars; I thought I had shown everyone that I was above those types of places. I didn’t really talk to a lot of the comedians; I figured they might hold me back, or negatively influence my comedy. I just kept returning to The Punchline, badgering Hutch, and waiting for him to realize he was impeding genius. And he never put me up again. After a couple months I stopped going, figuring “Harumph! Comedy is all just who you know!”


And you know what?

I was right! Comedy IS who you know! Just like EVERYTHING ELSE IN LIFE!!! There seems to be an idea held among people (my 1994 self included) that “fairness” will only occur when everything is evaluated objectively. But objective evaluation simply doesn’t happen very much at all. It can’t! Maybe it does in science (it’s happened in a few of the labs I’ve worked in … a few …) but outside of that, everything is subjective.

Plus, Hutch wasn’t in a position to evaluate my comedy “objectively,” he was in a position to put comedians on stage who had a chance of making people laugh. I hadn’t shown any indication that I could be one of those comedians. He had seen me drunkenly banter with a couple people on stage. That’s it. None of the other comedians who went to The Punchline had seen me tell jokes anywhere else. Nobody had talked to me about my comedy background or goals. Nobody was familiar with me. I was UNKNOWN!

(But not The Unknown Comic.)

After a few years of doing some theater and improv, I decided to give stand-up another try. By this time my experience in performing had led me to realize that yes, it IS who you know, so I decided to get out there and GET KNOWN BY some people! I found myself loving stand-up a whole lot better the second time around.


And this is how I feel about making a list of “best” records. The ones I know are the ones I’m going to rate highest. There are a lot of newer bands who I really like, such as The Hold Steady, Deer Tick, and Surfer Blood, but I don’t know if many/any of their CDs will make my list. It might seem ridiculous that Give the People What They Want gets placed higher than Astro Coast – critics may say the latter is the far superior album – but I’ve heard the former a million times, and the songs are burned (lovingly) into my brain! Give me twenty years of listening to Separation Sunday, and it might end up higher than Let Me Come Over on my list.

But my list is like life … it’s all who you know!

(By the way, when I went back to stand-up, Hutch eventually put me up on stage a few times!)


“I see you standin’ there. You think you’re so cool.” Guns N Roses


In 1992 the band I was in broke up and I wasn’t sure what I should do with myself. I lived in a strange place, but not strange in a good way. It was strange in a way that made me feel like I didn’t fit in, and so I decided to move to somewhere that seemed even stranger:

San Francisco!

san fran

(I miss you, San Francisco …)

san fran 2

Feeling like an outsider, and headed toward a place that seemed like it would accept almost anything, I couldn’t wait to get there and start feeling like I fit in somewhere.

(Luckily, I got a good video of the night before my move west, including my final family meal:)

I met lots of great people and had loads of fun and found a place where I really felt at home. After years of feeling like an outsider, I had found somewhere everyone could be part of the “in” crowd just by being themselves.

It was nerd heaven. There wasn’t a “cool” crowd, there wasn’t a group that took pleasure in excluding others, or a group that misfits like me readily recognized: the group around whom we felt the disorienting duality of a) not wanting to be part of, and b) desperately wanting to be part of…

Except not really. Because there was a group like this, but it was hidden. It dressed like everyone else, went the same places as everyone else, had the same habits as everyone else … and that was what made them so devious.

I began to notice, in bars and at concerts … especially at concerts and most especially in record stores (particularly the snooty ones) (believe it or not, kids, there used to be entire stores that just sold records!) … I noticed there was a group in San Francisco who seemed to be the typical outsider like me and everyone else who had moved there (it seemed like NO ONE you ever met in SF had actually grown up there), but who took great pleasure in asserting they WERE NOT typical! (Except, of course, amongst their friends). These people felt they were the coolest of the uncool. They were a group that reveled in the fact that their style was unstylish and their tastes were distasteful.

They were the Hipsters. The Hipster Bullies. And no matter how dorky and awkward you felt, you’d feel even more so when you realized these folks were even dorkier and more awkward than you … and that they sneered at you for not being dorky and awkward enough.

Oh, you think you’re goofy because you still collect baseball cards as a 25 year old? Meet Ray, in the goatee, Buddy Holly glasses and (authentic) Atari t-shirt – he collects King Kong Kards

king kong kards

from the 70s and calls your hobby “jejune” … just like that jock thought (apparently), the jock who made fun of the baseball cards in your back pocket in the lunch line in 10th grade, right in front of J., the girl who you thought maybe considered you cute a minute ago, before she burst out laughing when this Muscled Moose informed you that his 9 year old brother doesn’t play with his cards anymore, and he could bring them in for you tomorrow, if you wanted …

You think you’re a little too into Bugs Bunny cartoons? Meet Stella – she collects Warner Brothers animation cels, but only the ones from before WWII and NEVER Bugs, who’s humor, she insists, is “too obvious … you can’t seriously like that shit, can you?”

These folks had been mocked and assaulted – verbally and physically – for their other-ness for as long and as hard as I had, but whereas I tried to suppress my dorkocity, and tried to camouflage myself as “normal” wherever I could, these folks responded by stockpiling their geekness and molding it into a heavy club, making weapons of their Pez Dispenser collections, graphic novels and ironically-worn small-town-diner t-shirts.

And they clubbed first and asked questions later, assuming every new person they met was the lunch-line jock – even a guy like me, in sky blue Chuck Taylorschucks and a Dinosaur Jr. t-shirt. And music appreciation was the arena in which the Hipster Bullies really flexed their nerd muscles. Bring up any band to any of these guys (and gals) and you were sure to get one of three responses:

1) (Dismissive snort). They suck.
2) (Dismissive snort). They USED TO BE good
3) (Dismissive snort). They’re okay, but they’re really just a rip-off of (insert obscure band from Japan/Finland/Ann Arbor).

I had been “bullied” often in my life, but usually it was for things I couldn’t control (or at least not very well): my hair (which wouldn’t comb right), my clothes (which were cheap), my body (which was chubby). But these hipsters were the first people to bully me solely on my taste in the arts – something that I maybe could control.

Now I should point out here that 1) I was never so seriously bullied in school that I hated myself or felt threatened (regularly) or suicidal – I had friends and pretty much got along okay with everyone; and B) when I moved to SF I was an adult, and so I found the Hipster Bullies more amusing than threatening. But speaking with them about music made me feel like I was an utter dilettante. (Me: “The best new band I’ve heard lately is Guided by Voices.” Hip Bully: ((Dismissive snort). “New? They’ve been around for years, but their new stuff sucks.”) [This was when Bee Thousand was released, which was their first release distributed by Matador, which was/is a tiny label. Prior to this, the band had released a total of MAYBE 5,000 copies of records/tapes/cds. The band’s leader, Robert Pollard, still held his job as an elementary school teacher!!]

These conversations sometimes made me think that I was wasting my time with the music I liked that most other people didn’t like when I could be listening to music that most other people have NEVER HEARD OF and would ACTIVELY HATE if they gave it a listen.

The good consequence of these Hipster Bullies was that they helped me consider listening to music I otherwise wouldn’t have heard, and that I ended up loving. And I have tried to keep an open mind about new artists and make it a point to try to buy music from obscure acts I like, like The Shazam, All Day Sucker and The Detroit Cobras.

The bad part about these folks is that they made me wonder if my musical tastes were out of whack. Is there something wrong with me that I like this band here, but I don’t like that band there? I became a little ashamed sometimes to say which acts I liked and which I didn’t.

But I got over that. Now I’m comfortable with my own tastes. Even when fancy, well-respected rock critics disagree.

This post about a fancy rock critic pretty much sums up my attitude toward rock critics. They often seem to me to be more interested in making sure they appear cool than in simply telling us what it is they like/don’t like about a record. They seem like Hipster Bullies.

In my last post, I confessed to enjoying a record that many people dislike: 90125, by Yes. I’ll close this post by confessing a few other tastes that I may have been ashamed of back in 1993, but that I freely admit nowadays.

Musical Stuff I Should Like But Don’t, and Some I Do That I Shouldn’t

1) I don’t get Bob Dylan. He can’t sing. His lyrics can be great, but they can also be just bizarre. He has a few good songs, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe I’m from the wrong era. I guess he writes good songs, but you know who else did? Marvin Hamlisch, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and John Phillip Sousa. But they knew enough not to sing them.

2) I like Seals & Crofts. They make me think of happy, carefree summer days in my youth, going to the pool. They have good melodies and nice harmonies.

3) I think Patti Smith is just plain awful. Although, I do have an admiration for artists who pull the wool over everyone’s eyes and cause critics to pretend they appreciate their genius. Plus she seemed to inspire a song by Candy Slice better than any I ever heard from her.

4) One of the first songs I ever bought when digital music came about was “Cherish,” by Madonna.

5) I think Springsteen is okay. That’s it, okay. As with Dylan, what’s all the fuss?

6) I like 70s prog rock. There, I said it. I don’t listen to it much anymore (I mean, who has time to listen to 26-minute mock-baroque soundscapes about the Middle Ages these days?) but I still have a place in my musical heart for Yes, ELP, old Genesis, Jethro Tull … all the music hated by most everyone.

Okay, these are my musical confessions. It’s all out in the open now. I feel like a weight has been lifted …

By the way, the band I was in that broke up, The April Skies, instigating my move West, re-formed shortly after the break up, and it’s still making awesome music today. Hey, maybe they broke up just to get me out of the band due to my shitty taste in music???