Tag Archives: #WPLongform

“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!)


“We’ve been together since way back when …” – Orleans



If you saw The Mona Lisa tomorrow, for the first time ever, and it was hanging on the wall of your uncle’s fishing cabin’s screened-in porch, between one of those paintings of dogs playing poker and a Bob Ross mountainscape, and if nobody told you it was the most famous painting ever, would you recognize it as a masterpiece?

Okay, in that context maybe you would. But if she wasn’t “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world,” would you look at her and immediately decide, “this is so good, it HAS TO be the most famous painting in the world!”?

I thought of The Mona Lisa Fishing Cabin Conundrum (as it will now be known) because I’ve been having trouble coming up with the proper means to describe my impressions of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours album, which I recently listened to in the car. Now, I’m sure many of you just cringed at my comparison of a 70s soft-rock album to a work of art by Leonardo DaVinci, but in terms of familiarity, I think the comparison is reasonable. Various websites list Rumours as having sold over 40 million copies worldwide, and it is the 5th highest best-selling non-greatest-hits rock record in the US. So clearly many people are aware of its existence. Ask a few friends to name 5 famous paintings and 5 famous rock records, and I think there’s a good chance The Mona Lisa and Rumours would both make most lists.

As would be the case in reviewing The Mona Lisa today, it is hard to appraise Rumours solely on its artistic merits without having your mind tell you “Hey, this is Rumours!” Unfortunately, the Men In Black mind eraser technology is not available to folks drawing a music-blogger-with-a-couple-of-readers salary.
men in black

When I was a kid, one of my favorite desserts that my mom would make was something called “No Bake Cheesecake,” by Jell-o. Now, I don’t want to give the impression that my mom wasn’t a great baker. She was, and remains, an excellent baker of cookies, cakes and those twin Pennsylvania Dutch delicacies Shoo-Fly Pie


and Whoopie Pies.

whoopie pie

But she has never been the kind of baker to go much beyond the types of desserts that a mediocre sports announcer might describe as being “in her wheelhouse.” So back in the 70s, to add some variety to the dessert menu (which she also allowed us kids to eat for breakfast … [which reminds me of the old TV ad for the cereal Cookie Crisp, in which a boy sharing breakfast with a friend in the backyard (?) asks, “Cookies for breakfast?” to which the cartoon cereal spokes-magician Cookie Jarvis replies, “Heavens No!!” – CJ’s admonition confused me because cookies were standard breakfast fare at our house]) my mom would “mix things up” by mixing up things like No-Bake cheesecake.

I loved it. Then again, I loved all of the pre-packaged, imitation foods of the day: Tang, Space Food Sticks, Spaghettios (with Franks!) and perhaps my favorite of all non-desserts: Mug O Lunch. (Weird fact about me to make your stomach turn: I’ve always kind of enjoyed institutional foods, like school cafeteria or hospital lunches. Maybe it’s because I ate so much of this stuff in the 70s.)

I never thought of “no-bake” cheesecake as anything other than simply cheesecake. It was the only cheesecake I knew. The texture of the filling was creamy, a little stiffer than pudding, but not as firm as, say, imitation butter in a tub, and this very sweet, yet slightly tangy mass was plopped and spread into the loving embrace of a margarine/graham cracker crust. “Cheesecake” was officially my favorite dessert.

When I got to college I started dating a woman, M., who, by probably any standard available, would have been described as “out of my league.” This was the mid-80s, and I was somehow able to accomplish it without the information that is readily available today to hip, young males on the prowl. [Although 70s TV
had provided me with lots of advice on a variety of topics.]) In addition to being more popular and more attractive than me, she was also far more worldly and came from a much wealthier family than me. We didn’t have much in common, but somehow we stayed together for about a year and a half. (If pressed, I’d attribute the tenacity of our relationship to mental illness, alcoholism, self-loathing, lack of communication skills, and an appreciation of a well-told joke; each distributed between us in relatively equal, though constantly varying, proportions.)

I went out to dinner with her and her family sometimes, typically near her parents home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and often at very nice restaurants. This fact alone attests to the differences between M. and myself, as “going out to dinner” in my family had always meant subs or pizza, McDonald’s or The Red Barn. We just weren’t a family that spent much money going out to restaurants.

At one of my first fancy restaurant dinners with M. and her family (and with my dining history, anything “All-Nite Diner” and up was considered fancy) I was excited to see listed on the dessert menu “New York Cheesecake.” I loved cheesecake, and even though it seemed pretty pricey (one slice probably cost as much as three of the No-Bake boxes of mix from which I guess I figured it was prepared), I knew her family was the type that wouldn’t object to me ordering a slice.

When it arrived, I tried to act nonchalant about the fact that I didn’t know what the fuck this tannish golden giant wedge of not-quite-set Quikrete was that had been placed in front of my face. But my hosts saw my look of distress, clearly, because someone asked, “Isn’t that what you wanted?” Although I hadn’t been completely domesticated by this time in my life, I did have enough couth to understand I needed to be tactful and polite. Thinking quickly, I remarked “No, it’s fine. I just haven’t had the New York style before.”

I ate the cheesecake and pretended to enjoy it, my mouth yearning for the sugary, creamy pudding of the Jell-o brand while it tried to work its way through the lightly-sweetened density of what I now know to be a well-made, tasty cheesecake. I told everyone I liked it (one of many of a variety of lies that M. and I shared) but I vowed to never order cheesecake in a restaurant again. It wasn’t what I remembered it to be, and even if that old, boxed No-Bake dessert wasn’t authentic cheesecake, that’s the version that was familiar and delicious to me.

(I’m happy to report that I now enjoy many kinds of cheesecakes. And if I were to eat a No-Bake Cheesecake, I believe I would still enjoy it, as well.)

I recently listened to Rumours, and it was hard for me to discern if the album was good cheesecake or No-Bake. There are so many songs on it that have played so frequently throughout the years since its 1977 release that the album has almost become part of the ambient world: the birds chirp, cars drive by, “You Make Loving Fun” plays, someone coughs, the sprinklers turn on …

The songs are so familiar that when I find myself singing along I don’t know whether it’s because I actually like the music or because, well … it’s just what you do when “Go Your Own Way” comes on.

Try this test: I will name a song and then give you a line and see if you can sing, or hum, at least 75% of the entire song in your head. (Bonus points if one or more of the songs plays in your head the rest of the day!)

“Dreams” – Thunder only happens when it’s raining.
“The Chain” – And if you don’t love me now/ you will never love me again.
“Go Your Own Way” – Loving you/Isn’t the right thing to do.
“Don’t Stop” – Don’t stop/Thinkin’ about tomorrow.
“You Make Loving Fun” – Sweet, wonderful you/ You make me happy with the things you do.
“Second Hand News” – Won’t you lay me down in the tall grass/ And let me do my stuff.
“Never Going Back Again” – Been down one time/ Been down two times.
“Gold Dust Woman” – Well did she make you cry/ Make you break down/ And shatter your illusions of love.

These are songs of my life. Some of which (“You Make Loving Fun,” “Don’t Stop,” “Dreams”) even WLBR, AM-1270, played in the 70s – songs that my sisters and I now refer to as “pool songs,” because when we’d go to the town pool each day in the summers, these were the songs blaring from the loudspeakers. When my musical tastes “graduated” from 70s pop to Album-Oriented Rock
in the 80s, these pool songs remained part of the playlist, and others from the album (“The Chain,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Second Hand News”) were added. And within the past decade, when I found out – to my horror – that the “cool radio station” I found was not cool at all, but just a gussied up oldies station described by a format called “Adult Alternative,” some other songs (“Never Going Back Again,” “Gold Dust Woman”) made their way into the radio mix as well.

Even though the songs are so familiar, I do enjoy many of them. And there are other songs on the album (“Songbird,” “I Don’t Want To Know”) that I think are good as well. The remaining song, “Oh Daddy,” is rubbish.

A part of me would like to be hip enough to say, truthfully, that I don’t really like Rumours, that it’s too sappy, too overproduced, not rockin’ enough, too voyeuristic into the love lives of the group’s members… But the truth is that I do like it. Just like I like No-Bake Cheesecake. It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of “New York Style” cheesecake, like Elvis Costello or R.E.M.

One of the reasons I like the album is that I enjoy Lindsay Buckingham’s guitar playing immensely. Even in soft rock, over-produced songs like “You Make Loving Fun,” he has some great guitar work going on in the background. True, he probably didn’t need to put 12 tracks-worth of guitar on it, but hey – it was the 70s. Anything unnecessary was IN! For example, onesies for men:

mens onesies

[Side note – one of the reasons I like Lindsay Buckingham is because of his two major contributions to American Comedy – 1) the theme song to the classic film National Lampoon’s Vacation,

and 2) the cover to his 1981 album Law and Order.
lindsay buckingham

Then again, he always seemed to have a penchant for sultry, shirtless album covers
buck nicsk

which fortunately has not been maintained now that he’s 63.]

buck now 2
Anyway, I enjoyed the album. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s been so ubiquitous in my life, or if it’s because I think the songs are good.
And I don’t know if the No-Bake Cheesecake analogy really holds. It may be that Rumours is more like toothpaste – it’s hard to tell whether it’s good or it’s bad, it’s just … toothpaste. Sure, I like the taste of it, and I’m glad I have it, but I don’t really think about it much. It’s just part of my life, and I like it. As Stevie Nicks sang on the album, “I don’t want to know the reasons why …”


“Just Gonna Have to Be a Different Man. Time May Change Me …” – David Bowie


Several years ago, while my family was living in a condo without much storage space, I was searching for some item in the hallway closet. I don’t remember what I was looking for, but my kids were very small – younger than 5, I’m sure – so it very well may have been a gift I had put away for them; or a potentially dangerous object I had hidden to keep them safe; or maybe a very large bottle whose contents I felt helped improve my parenting skills.


In my search, I came across a box with a stickynote label – “LETTERS” – printed in a fashion I recognized as my handwriting from the college-age me.

I had been an avid letter-writer in my college days, and all the way through the beginnings of the email era.

I mostly wrote to friends Dan, Dave and Josh. All three of these guys are some of the funniest people I’ve known, and they each had a distinct, clever way of communicating on paper and I always looked forward to their next letter. For some reason, I hadn’t thrown away most of their letters. (I say “for some reason,” as if I don’t know for sure, but I’m quite certain the reason I kept them is because I expected, as a twenty-year old, to lead the kind of life that would culminate with millions (billions?) of people seeking out tidbits from my existence to get an idea of what I was “really” like. I thought people wouldn’t have gotten enough of me in all the novels, music, comedy, and movies I would make – or in all the articles written about me, and TV segments about my life – and that this box of letters would be something for my estate to review, edit and release posthumously; both to help sate my hungry fans’ undiminished appetite for new ERMabilia, but also to maybe provide my heirs with a little more money to purchase that second boat for their extra (but still nice in its own way) vacation home. [Many people share this self-image.] I can only hope Dan and Dave and Josh each have a similar shoebox in their closets.)

letters 2

Anyway, I dug in for a letter from Josh, because – not meaning to diminish other letter-writers over the years – his letters always had a little something special about them, a turn of a phrase or an interesting way of telling a story – that I thought would have held up well over the years. I opened the letter, imagining myself as a future curator of a museum of the arts that had won the rights to display my memorabilia, excited to find out “what made ERM tick?” and maybe anticipating the book I would write about him, and the interviews I would grant on the topic.

I pulled out a letter from either 1985 or 1986. I know this because I distinctly remember opening the letter and thinking, “I wonder if this will provide insight into why I wore a mullet?”

I tingled with excitement.

Then I read with horror the first sentence from my friend:

“E –

I have to say I was very disturbed to read that you called that guy a kike.”

I folded the letter up, put it back in the envelope, and have never opened that box again. (I didn’t throw the box away, though – I still have my Estate to consider, and that second boat …) It was just too disturbing, for several reasons.

The biggest, most obvious reason is that this was evidence that I was, apparently, a bigoted asshole. I mean, that’s what I’d think if I was the curator/biographer in my dreams – “Geez, despite the Oscars, Pulitzers and scores of humanitarian awards, ERM was actually a bigoted asshole.” And that’s disturbing to think about one’s self.

But nearly as disturbing is the fact that I don’t ever remember using the word “kike.” It’s not a word I even think about using. I was a standup comic for years, and I could imagine, in the service of a joke, a situation in which I might want to use a derogatory term for effect (ironically, to make a point … I’ve done it before), and if I was going to use a derogatory term for Jews in such a case, I think “kike” would probably be the fourth or fifth word I’d consider. (I won’t bore you with a list.)

In addition to being confronted with these upsetting thoughts, I also felt confused because not only was I, apparently, a bigoted asshole, but I was the type of bigoted asshole who not only 1) used the word “kike,” and 2) directed it at another person, but also 3) felt the urge to put the incident in a letter to a friend! Like I was really super-proud!! I was the kind of person you know tangentially in real life, and so accept as a Friend on Facebook, then read a couple of his posts about “nailing chicks” and “the goddam illegals” and so you quietly Unfriend him.

I was a person I didn’t like, and I didn’t remember being him.

Reading that sentence was weird. I don’t remember being anti-Semitic. I don’t remember the feeling of wanting to call someone such a name, or believing there was a reason to distinguish someone with such a term. I know I grew up in a place and time where I was definitely instilled with bigotry and intolerance. And I’m not proud to say it, but I do remember having feelings of superiority over and prejudices toward women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos … pretty much the whole spectrum of non-straight-white-males out there. But the strange thing is that I don’t remember harboring these same feelings toward Jewish people. There were so few Jews where I grew up that I just didn’t “get” the stereotypes.

I knew the Jewish stereotypes because I was a fan of comedy, and many of my favorite comedians – Woody Allen, Garry Shandling, and especially Don Rickles, – were Jewish, and would mention them. I also devoured Mad Magazine, and many of their writers were Jewish and used Yiddish words for a funny effect, and the magazine often tackled the subject of racism in a humorous way, and so touched on all stereotypes. But none of these Jewish stereotypes meant much to me, other than as a punch line for Rickles. Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that the first time I even remember hearing the word “kike” out loud was as a high-schooler, in a theater, watching the “classic” film Porky’s II.

(The fact that I saw that film in the theater when it was released is only SLIGHTLY less embarrassing than the fact that I used to be such a bigot.)

So reading that first sentence of that old letter was strange, embarrassing, disorienting and quite shameful: kind of like the first after-gym-class shower in 6th grade.

So, WHAT (you may ask) would make me reveal such a distasteful, humiliating part of my past, and place it out here in the internets, where it will be preserved forever, causing folks who don’t know me to think I am a racist, self-delusional asshole, and those who do know me to question themselves about just how well they really do? Where it could cause harm to myself and my loved ones, professionally, personally and just about any other way possible? And HOW ON EARTH could it EVER relate to music??!!??

I have three words for you: Asia, by Asia.

I bought this CD specifically for this list-making project. I remember loving this album back in high school. My sister had it on vinyl, and I listened to it a lot. At some point, I transferred it to cassette (the old-school form of piracy, which was musically promoted by Bow Wow Wow back in the day …) and it remained in heavy rotation in my walkman,


car stereo and bedroom stereo. At some point, I stopped listening to it, and I hadn’t thought much about it in the intervening years, except to remember, “Man, I used to LOVE that tape!” Even when I heard some (both?) of the hits on 80s radio, I never felt compelled to go out and get a new copy of the record. The bootleg tape version is gone, as my collection of cassettes – which numbered hundreds back in the day – has dwindled over the years to a couple collections of TV theme songs, some mix-tapes from my wedding party, and one or two recordings of various high school concert bands in which I played trombone.

So, I thought – for completeness’ sake – I should re-experience Asia all over again. I found it cheap on the internet (cost twice as much to ship as the CD itself, 3 dollars total) and when it arrived, I put it in the rotation of CDs.

I soon found myself asking the same question I pondered upon reading about my younger, bigoted, angry self:

“Who the fuck WAS I???”

I felt no connection to, had no interest in, and could barely listen to this CD. Steve Howe was in the band, and I always did – and still do – like him. And listening to the CD again, I could pick out bits of his playing that were really cool. But they were buried beneath an avalanche of Geoff Downes’ synthesizer woodles (yes woodles) and John Wetton’s voice, which I believe is the least-soulful voice that’s ever been recorded and put to music, apart from that of Radiohead’s “fitter, happier.”

Carl Palmer played drums on the album, and I always did – and still do – like him, but even a great drummer can’t save this crap. As each song began, I found myself thinking, “Wait, this must be the song I loved … right? It must be coming up … I know there must be a song I loved on this thing …” And as I pressed the “NEXT” button on my car’s CD player in the middle of each song, I thought “Nope. I don’t remember this song at all, and there’s NO WAY I ever loved this thing …”

I could find nothing redeeming about this CD, and I can’t recall how I ever loved it so much. Whatever did I hear in this music, and why – today – does it not even conjure a tiny speck of affinity within me? What the hell happened? Who was I?

And for that matter, how did I ever go from being an Asia fan to being a New York Dolls fan? At what point did a musical ablution rid me of the grime of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and leave behind a gleaming finish of The Beatles, Prince and Maria McKee? And maybe more weirdly, how did I retain my love for Yes and Rush, but still become a fanatic for The Replacements and The Hold Steady? How is all of this possible?

I’ve often felt like I haven’t changed much at all since I was fourteen or so. I still find Caddyshack hilarious, Columbo awesome, and pretty women intimidating (including my wife!) I still like the Phillies, can’t wait to play my next game of pickup hoops, and still await the Hollywood Stardom that is just around the corner for me. But in some ways, I’ve changed immeasurably.

I’m proud to say that I was appalled to read about who I was on that day in 1986 that I wrote to Josh about. And I’m happy to divulge that I took a peek at the second sentence in that letter, in which Josh wrote, “That really doesn’t sound like something you would do,” meaning that whatever it was that happened, my best friend at the time found it out-of-character as well.

Really, all I can imagine is that the incident involved someone I knew fairly well, who was Jewish, and who I was trying to piss off because I was pissed off at him – probably during a pickup basketball game. Of course, this doesn’t make the actions more defensible, but it at least provides a context that I can understand. But who knows? If I was such a fan of something that now, 30 years later, sounds to me like music from a different species’ CD collection, maybe I was parading around at the time wearing a white hood and robe …

It’s shocking to say, but Asia sounded so bad to me that it has the power to make me wonder if I was ever part of a white supremacist group.

Maybe I’m overthinking this whole CD thing.


“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???